Hi! Sorry this has taken so long to upload, RL happened to me. Hopefully you haven't all forgotten this story just yet! There may be some rather infrequent updates next month, too... like a fool, I've signed up for NaNoWriMo again!
All reviews appreciated, let me know what you think - I'm always looking to improve!
The day wore on as the Moon Stones continued to fall, impossible, incomprehensible. Castiel's data request went out to the Soltis network, and vanished into silence. Still, somehow, Celesia kept up with the flow of demands placed on her by her Sector, communicating, coordinating, and unobtrusively watching the engineers of Silver Source Thirteen as they went about their tasks, giving their all to their work. The Source needed little enough maintenance, but they could monitor it, study the damage's pattern as Castiel had begun to, and plan for the rolling installation of whatever safeguards they could. Another night began to fall, Soltis' internal illumination changing slightly in tone as a gentle reminder of the time outside. Off shift and off duty, Castiel leaned against a wall in one of the observation rooms, the past two days trailing each other around in his head. The power drain that had blacked out the local subgrid already seemed terrifyingly far away, normality left behind. He'd come to report to Celesia, but found her sitting against the wall, her head bent forwards slightly, and he wondered if the stress and exhaustion was taking its toll on her as he could feel it was on him.
"Mmph?" She raised her head, blinking. "Oh... Engineer Castiel. Have the Spire Engineers responded yet?"
He shook his head. "No... I guess there must be any number of requests going through, with... this." He waved his hand vaguely towards the ceiling, unable to avoid picturing the endless rain of Moon Stones, the terrible, wounded sky. "They must be as busy as we are. If everyone's requesting information at high priority, and they have the grid to worry about as well as the Dome of Light and the Spire itself... they probably haven't even had time to look at it."
"That's not good enough." She paused. "I understand that there must be an incredible demand on them, but if we suffer a further incident like that, and it interferes with our supply to the Dome of Light..."
Castiel swallowed and nodded. The consequences would be devastating. He'd seen some footage of the continent outside the city itself, the land wracked and torn, pitted beyond recognition. None of the rolling green that had once characterised the landscape had survived, and all that remained was a blasted, cratered, smoke-stained expanse. Beneath the Dome of Light, Soltis was an island of purity in an ocean of destruction, protected by a painfully thin immaterial shell. If the Dome so much as flickered, Soltis would go the same way.
"I'll ask the First Engineer to give my request his priority override authorisation. That should get it to the top of the pile." Nobody but the First Engineers could make such high-priority requests, and they very rarely did. Even in a time of crisis, they wouldn't use it unless they needed critical information. That would be bound to get some response, at the very least an acknowledgement that the request had been received and was being dealt with.
"Good," Celesia said, tiredly. "Let me know what the response is as soon as you have one. In fact..." She raised a slender finger, and Castiel noticed it wavering slightly. "You can have my authorisation as well, if you think it will help. I know the First Engineer's override should have a higher priority than mine in matters of engineering, but maybe it'll help demonstrate just how important this is."
"I'll put it through after his." He unclipped his workpad from his belt. None of them had racked their tools since checking them out, nor left the Source, regardless of whether or not they were supposed to be on duty. Flicking through options with a quick gesture, he sent a call through to First Engineer Vandin, finding it answered almost at once.
"What's the problem?" Even the indefatigable First Engineer's eyes were shadowed with held-back strain.
"No problem," Castiel responded. Nothing more had happened to the Source; it was the stress of waiting in the nightmare around them that was wearing on them all. "My request to the Spire Engineers for the main grid data hasn't been answered. I wanted to ask if you could give it your override authorisation."
"You'll have it," Vandin affirmed. "We can't risk something like that happening again. Is the Sector Prime with you?"
"Yes." Castiel turned and angled the workpad so its inbuilt camera could see Celesia as she stood.
"Sector Prime, we've made our plans for the rolling installation of safeguards. They include a main grid cutoff, and I'll need your approval for that. We've prioritised it over everything else, including non-essential repairs: the backup systems are functioning well. Once the safeguards are installed and related repairs made, power will be switched back to the main circuits and similar safeguards installed on the backups."
Celesia nodded, slowly. "Very well. I'll come and review the plans with you at once." With a wave of her hand, she signalled Castiel to cut the connection, and he complied. She kept her stride even as she walked, her head high, but he thought he could still see her weariness even from behind, though she kept it relatively well hidden. It was something indefinable, underlying her proud stance, in the set of her shoulders and the fall of her feet. Castiel knew he had to look a lot worse, and found himself trying to straighten a little more, push back the fear and exhaustion just that little bit further.
The door to the main control room opened as they approached it, recognising their authorisation without complaint. There were fewer people there than before, but the atmosphere was no less charged, though the strain of it all showed markedly in everyone's eyes.
"Ah, Sector Prime," the First Engineer greeted her tiredly. "I've brought up the plans for the installation of safeguards here, if you'd go through them with me." He gestured towards his display, which was showing a complex list on the left-hand side and a highlighted schematic of the Source on the right. Castiel followed Celesia as she stepped up to take a look.
"So this is the grid cutoff you were talking about." She tapped the list entry on the screen, which opened it up to reveal additional information, as well as spinning and zooming the schematic to show the relevant locations. "You've designed it as automatic with a manual override?"
Vandin nodded. "That power drain couldn't have been countered by any of us. By the time we'd reacted, the main feed would already have blown. The automatic system will limit our power output if the main grid demands exceed the safety level we've set here, a little below the failure threshold, and ignore all requests to increase output unless they're prefixed with a new authorisation that we'll build into the system."
"Wouldn't that just cause another failure?"
He shook his head. "It would at the moment, but we're working on new ways of routing the power, as well as installing higher-capacity links to take the strain. If we're needed to output that kind of power through the main grid again, I want us to be up to the task."
Celesia smiled. Even in this crisis, the First Engineer thought ahead to the possible demands of the future. "Very good. And the manual override?"
"We still haven't ruled out the possibility of sabotage, or even just data errors, elsewhere in Soltis. It's never happened before, but since I can't yet be confident that it won't again, I wanted to retain the option to build in a manual disconnect as a last resort, at least temporarily. At this state of alert, it's possible we would be able to react in time to use it."
"Could it be used against us by our hypothetical saboteur?"
He shrugged. "Of course, if the saboteur was one of our engineers, which I highly doubt. But the most they'd be able to do with it would be to cut us out of the main grid temporarily, and it would be easily reversible. All Sources need to disconnect from the grid occasionally in order to perform certain maintenance tasks, so unless we were all compromised, there would be others to take up the slack. Remember, too, the Dome of Light has a priority feed that's completely separate from the main grid. We've checked and rechecked, and there should be no interference between them at all. They don't even share a common data connection – if we lost the entire Soltis computer network, the Dome of Light could still be raised at a moment's notice. Not a lot else would be functional, but the Dome would. The only threat to it is the backlash from another surge."
Celesia nodded thoughtfully, quietly impressed. Both the information on the screen and that which the First Engineer was telling her made a convincing case. "You have my authorisation for this modification, then. Seren, please record my acceptance of First Engineer Vandin's submission of a main grid cutoff for Source Thirteen, as of this moment."
Seren chirped, and a complex glyph appeared at the top of the screen beside the corresponding heading, marking it with Celesia's authorisation. Bound into the owner's very life-force and further imprinted with absolute loyalty, a liqueform was all but impossible to suborn in any way, particularly one as complex as Seren. Only Celesia would ever be able to give that command and be obeyed, or retrieve the authorisation codes she had stored within it.
"Is there anything else you need my authorisation for?" she asked.
"Not as such, Sector Prime. If you'd like to look at some of our other measures, you're welcome to, of course, but I'll have my engineers get started on those cutoffs while you do it."
Celesia nodded. "Very well. Thank you."
As the First Engineer called up a separate window on his display, Celesia backed off, standing unobtrusively against the wall. Still seconded to her as far as he knew, Castiel followed.
"Seren, show me the complete list of modifications submitted for Source Thirteen."
Forming itself into a screen again, the liqueform obliged, producing the same list that Vandin had been showing her just moments before. Celesia ran through it quickly, looking closer at a couple of the subheadings, occasionally nodding to herself. Castiel doubted she knew much about engineering, but it was understandable for her to want to understand what was happening in the very location where she had set up her temporary headquarters during the crisis. After a little, she reached the bottom, and paused, thoughtful.
"Show me Fourth Engineer Castiel's recent high-priority request to the Spire Engineers for data on the main Soltis power grid."
Castiel reflexively leaned closer as his query appeared on the screen. Smiling slightly, Celesia took hold of one corner and angled it so that he could read it a little easier. His own high priority authorisation glyph, the visible representation of the codes he'd used to authenticate the request, was marked in the top right, as was the First Engineer's override, its timestamp suggesting he'd added it immediately after they'd spoken. The request was short and to the point, stating what data he wanted and why, briefly covering the sequence of events that had led to the blackout at Silver Source Thirteen. There was no signifier of any response, not even a simple note that the matter was under investigation.
"Now, Seren, add my priority override as Sector Prime."
The liqueform chirped again, and Celesia's priority override glyph appeared in the top right below the First Engineer's.
"There." She leant back slightly, resting against the wall. "Now... we wait."
Castiel nodded. There was no more they could do to speed his request now.
Celesia stood quietly for a little longer before pushing herself off the wall with a sigh, straightening once more. "I'm going to go back to the observation room. It seemed as though I was out of the way there, and I'll still be able to monitor what's happening. Unless your engineers would rather I left?"
Castiel shook his head sharply, almost surprising himself, even as Vandin spoke.
"No, you'd be welcome to remain. The Source itself may not be affected... but the people draw strength from you." He smiled, strained though the expression was. "Besides, Source Thirteen will hardly suffer from hosting its Sector Prime in a crisis."
Celesia smiled faintly back, and Castiel felt a certain degree of relief. While it was true that she could oversee her Sector as well from anywhere in Soltis, he found that, just as Vandin said, he didn't want her to leave. The First Engineer was right: they were all drawing strength from her. It made him wonder where she found her own.
"Thank you." She began to walk towards the door, and paused, looking over her shoulder. "Engineer Castiel, would you come with me?"
"Of course," Castiel said at once. He followed her back out of the control room, stepping forward to lead the way as she glanced around for a moment outside the door. Several engineers hurried past them, evening shift faces mostly less familiar to Castiel, and he realised the First Engineer must have had them awaiting Celesia's approval.
Celesia nodded in acknowledgement, and the engineer who'd spoken smiled before going on her way, seeming heartened despite the dull booming still echoing through the city. Castiel realised with a shock that he'd almost stopped noticing it himself, the sound and vibration blending into the background as the nightmare became his world. Thinking about it again, he looked up as they walked, at the white ceiling they passed beneath, its circuitry silver-blue. Somewhere above his head was that new and terrible sky, smoky black split only by the burning trails of yet more Moon Stones falling. He wasn't sure whether it frightened him more to think of it again... or that it had almost faded into the backdrop of his life.
"It feels like forever, doesn't it?" Celesia said softly. "It's only been two days, and yet it seems so much longer."
"I'd almost stopped hearing it. I can hardly believe I – I almost stopped hearing it." He turned right automatically, walking into the observation room. "It just doesn't stop."
"It can't last forever," she said, following him in and crossing to look at the Source through the tinted window, its light still pulsing slightly in time to the impacts. "There will be an end... there must be."
Castiel wanted to say that he hoped she was right, but something held him back. Her voice was wearier again, a little of her demeanour relaxing from the unbreakable Sector Prime she showed her people. He searched his mind for something else to say, found it in a chance memory. "We've got enough power to hold out for twenty years, and that's just Source Thirteen. It won't last that long."
Celesia looked over her shoulder and gave him a tired smile. "You're right."
He joined her at the window as she spoke, noticing one of her hands resting unconsciously against it. Silver Source Thirteen and its brethren were all that protected them from the horror that was the outside world. Though it blazed with light and a power Castiel could have sensed over a hundred metres away, it suddenly seemed all too frail a shield. He bowed his head. They had to be strong, not just himself and Celesia, but all the Silvites everywhere, both in Soltis and in other cities, if their shields had withstood the bombardment. If they didn't, there would be not even an echo left of their existence.
For a little while, they watched the Source, and the engineers moving around inside the chamber. One at a time, they were methodically opening up the angled support columns, making careful changes, replacing parts and laying new circuits. The modifications were going ahead.
Castiel's thoughts were interrupted by a soft chime from his datapad, one mirrored just instants later by a chirp from Seren. Celesia looked at the liqueform as it slipped from her hair once again and became a floating screen.
"The Spire Engineers?"
"I hope so." Castiel was already pulling his datapad from his belt, and had it active just moments later. He had one priority update, besides the list of modifications he knew the First Engineer had pushed out across the Source Thirteen subnet. "It is!" His query appeared on the screen in front of him, its priority glyphs bright in the top right, and a short response added at the base.
Request received and acknowledged. Main grid power flux under investigation as a matter of priority. Direct contact: Third Spire Engineer Irides.
The message had a personal communications key attached, represented by another glyph. Castiel blinked in surprise as he re-read the last line. One of the Spire Engineers had given him direct contact permission – it wasn't unheard of, but it was certainly uncommon! They'd been right that it had been something important after all.
"Look!" he told Celesia, showing her the datapad even as he realised Seren was probably displaying the exact same thing. "They even gave me a direct contact. I knew something like that on the main grid had to be important!"
"Spire Third, too." She smiled. "That's good. I feel better knowing that." Being a Spire Engineer at all was a position of rank, one that Castiel couldn't yet do more than dream of. A Spire Fourth was more or less equivalent to a Source First, and Spire ranks only went down to Fifth. If this Irides gave an order, all of Source Thirteen would be expected to get it done.
"So do I." Relieved, he clipped his datapad back to his belt. Knowing that someone else, someone likely more capable than any of them, was looking into Source Thirteen's problem made him feel more hopeful that it would soon be solved. Whatever the flaw or failure on the main grid might have been, it would be addressed before it could strike again – and potentially threaten the safety of Soltis itself.
Celesia turned back to the window, and Castiel found himself doing the same, watching the pulsing light more than the engineers who still made their way around inside. It was almost hypnotic, in its way, frightening and reassuring at once. As long as that radiance shone, Soltis was safe, but it seemed such a slender, immaterial thread to protect them all. He'd never thought of the Source as weak, never held doubts about its capacity until the Moon Stones had begun to fall. The images of the outside world, necessarily hazy and blue through smoke and the Dome of Light, that were showing on all the newsstreams had driven home to the whole of Soltis what true destruction really was. Entire islands had been ravaged by the Gigas, reported on with quiet Silvite superiority, observed from afar, reconnoitred by autonomous drones. Cities in other lands had been levelled before, craters blasted into soil and bedrock. Even Silvite islands had suffered: though Soltis itself had rarely come under attack for long, fringe islands seemed to be considered suitable for futile demonstrations of power by the other civilisations. All life had been wiped from more than one of those small and long since evacuated islands, and he'd seen the damage then, but even that was nothing, nothing at all like this.
"Sector Prime?" he asked quietly.
"Do we... do we have any contact with the other cities?"
Reluctantly but unsurprisingly, Celesia shook her head. "No. There's been no word for hours now. All the ground links have been severed, and there's a lot of interference due to the Moon Stones and the activity of the Dome. We can't lower it even for the moments it would take to send a scout drone out, even assuming one would survive long enough to make any kind of contact." She sighed. "I hope that they're still out there, but their shields aren't as strong as the Dome of Light... we have to assume that we're on our own now. From the reports I had earlier, there haven't been any detectable transmissions from anywhere since noon."
Anywhere. Castiel's eyes widened as the implications occurred to him. "The other Moons...?"
"Nothing." She paused, considering, perhaps deciding what to tell him. Castiel knew she had to have access to a lot more information than he and his fellow engineers did. Celesia's role as Sector Prime hinged on collating information from all areas of Silvite life, and directing the appropriate responses to it. Just as Castiel had to trust that the demands of the main grid made sense when his Source was asked to output power, so too did he have to trust the Sector Prime, and above her the Elders themselves, about matters that had nothing to do with his own limited sphere of influence. "We've lost all of our external monitoring systems now, but the signals we were getting early on all indicated panic. We can't be sure, but we suspect that all four Moons around us are undergoing the same... outburst. If they are, we can only assume that the Purple Moon is as well." She bowed her head. "We could be all that's left already."
A chill of horror froze its way down Castiel's spine. Nowhere was safe, the entire world brought to ruin. He wouldn't have thought of asking the other civilisations for help – they were at war, and in any case, what help could they possibly give to the Silvites? – but he had assumed they were out there, another constant of the world, watching the bombardment from relative safety and doubtless thanking fate that they had been spared the ruin even now being visited on his people. Now, forever behind the Silvites in development as they were, they were likely all dead. Even the worst horrors of the Gigas War were nothing compared to this.
"We can't be..."
But even as he said it, he knew it was all too likely that they were. That if they survived at all, then when the terrible destruction came to an end and they looked out once more on the devastated world, the only people left in it would be the Silvites of Soltis.