Lauren woke up with a gasp. She was still slumped on her chair, but bright sunlight was shining down from the skylight directly on to her. Grimacing, she put a hand up to shade her eyes and rolled her neck, feeling the joints click and grind.
The dream was already fading in her mind, just leaving her with the uneasy impression that something terrible was going to happen and a little damp patch on her shirt where she had dribbled in the night. With a sigh, she set about making breakfast in the tiny kitchenette.
Twenty minutes later, with tea and toast in hand, Lauren stepped up to the worktable and pulled a fresh piece of paper towards herself. She quickly sketched a diagram of the experiment taking place up at Figger’s Cross, the junctions off of the main cable and the amber keeping the whole thing from exploding. Then she went over to the rug in the centre of the living area and pulled it to one side.
Underneath there was a trapdoor with a ring handle; she tugged it open and coughed as musty air blew dust into her face. Below the floorboards, within easy reach, several files of paper lay. The paper had yellowed slightly, she noticed, and the folders had seen better days. As she pulled them out, they crinkled and small flakes of something showered onto the floor. She carefully swept the debris into the hole and closed the trapdoor again.
Each one represented years of research by her father and many engineers before her. She knew that he had once been a part of amber research at the SIC, but had sworn many years ago never to touch it, long before she was born; the only reason she knew that was because she had come across these files one day while left alone.
Every page was filled with father’s meticulous handwriting, neat diagrams and the complicated algorithms required to make working amberic circuits. The knowledge was all here but she had never had the will to use it until now.
Checking often, Lauren began to add some of the figures and sums to the diagram she had drawn until the entire paper was filled with what looked like random letters and symbols. She sat back and reached for her mug of tea and took a sip; then she made a face and spat it out. The tea was cold, had been for hours by the look of it. She stretched and got up, working out the stiffness in her legs and arms.
She was half expecting the knock at the door and, when it came, she went straight over to it. Outside, wrapped up against the chill air, Vael Holston was stood with his Growth Movement mask in his hand.
“Holston,” she said. “You comin’ it? Cup of tea?”
“Please,” he replied, and took a step forward. Lauren barred his way. “What’s… you want me to come in or not?”
She pointed at the mask. “I want you to come in, Vael Holston. I don’t want anyone from the Growth Movement in here. If you ever had an ounce of friendship towards me in your bones, you’ll leave that and your ideals outside for now.”
He bit his lip and, for a long moment, she thought he might just turn around and leave. Then he carefully placed the mask on the step, facing outwards, and looked her in the eye.
“Better,” she replied, standing to one side.
They sat and drank tea in silence, Holston perched on the edge of his seat with his elbows on his knees while Lauren sat back, legs crossed, deep in thought.
Finally he set down the mug with an audible click and looked at her.
“I went to Figger’s Cross.”
“And there’s something wonderful going on there.”
Holston stared at her for a second, his eyes widening; then he shot to his feet. “How can you say that! The Movement-|”
“You left the Movement at the door, remember?” Lauren said sharply. “I didn’t invite you in to hear rhetoric. Sit down.”
His lips thinned down to almost nothing at her tone, but he sat back down.
“When I say there is something wonderful out there, I mean from an engineering standpoint. Definitely not from the SIC’s standpoint, though they’d love to get their hands on it.” She got up and moved around the chair, leaning dreamily on the back of the chair. “No, this is something that was thought impossible and yet, there it is. Running for Tree knows how many years, an almost perfect system.”
She nodded. “There’s a slight instability, but it might take years to play itself out. Whoever did it did it well.”
“And you know who it was now, right?” Holston said, standing up again. He walked over to Lauren. “Don’t you see now that you’re the only one who can undo this great wrong? It’s powers that we shouldn’t be tampering with and sacrilege to boot. Now that you’ve found the mug, you’ll-“
Lauren cut him off with a sweep of her hand. “I never said anything about a mug, Holston.”
“Erm,” he said, but it was too late. Lauren took two long steps towards Holston and grabbed the unfortunate boy by the scruff of his shirt.
“You know who really put it there, don’t you,” she snarled, advancing and taking the boy with her. “My father was an honourable man and he kept his oaths. When he joined the SIC he dabbled in amber power, sure; he even worked with some of the greatest minds in the field and developed theories for this sort of thing. But when the SIC outlawed Tree battery research, he followed their rules.” By now she had Holston up against the wall, pinned tightly. “Whoever did that out there is talented. But it wasn’t my father. Was it?” She pushed her face as close to his as possible. “WAS IT?”
“N-no! They told me to put it there! They said if I did everything they said, I’d have a place with the Tree ever after!” Halston was almost on tiptoes now; Lauren wasn’t tall, but anger leant her strength. “Put me down and I’ll explain! Please!”
She held him a moment longer, then released her grip and stepped back. “Talk fast,” she spat.
Holston looked up at her, anger in his face as well as fear. “Someone in the Growth Movement gave me the mug. They said that if I put it there and told you about what was going on, you’d dismantle it and the SIC would stop looking for it.”
“They know it’s there?”
He laughed bitterly. “They’ve known for months; they have some sort of device for detecting the energies in the amber and it’s been going crazy. We’ve kept them busy, but they’re closing in on it.”
“And the Movement can’t have the SIC getting their hands on that amber without knowing for sure what will happen to it,” Lauren finished for him. “They’re just as likely to elevate the creator to some equivalent to sainthood and use it to further their own research than they are to follow the Church’s edicts and dismantle it.”
“But you don’t owe the SIC anything, or the Church. You’re the perfect middle ground.”
“Yes. Perfect.” She walked back over the chair and leaned heavily on it. “There’s one problem, though. I’m not an SIC engineer. I was my father’s apprentice, yes; he… died while my apprenticeship was still in progress; I never formally completed entrance into the SIC.” She smiled at him. “I’ve taken no oaths. Figger’s Cross stays operational.”
Surprised even with herself, Lauren examined her feelings as Holston picked himself up. It was sacrilege, but once you looked past that - not hard for an atheist - it was an opportunity beyond all others. She could become a secret authority on amber manipulation just by the notes in her father’s folders, and studying the system set up in at Figger’s Cross would surely give up a wealth of knowledge. Little by little she could make a name for herself picked out in specks of amber and crackling energy.
“NO!” Holston shouted, suddenly leaping up and slamming into her. “Turn it off!”
Lauren flew backward and heard, more than felt, the sound of her head hitting the edge of the table. Bright light seemed to flash in from the edges of her vision and suddenly she heard a voice.
“But how does it work, daddy?”
She looked down. It was as if she floated above an impossible white stage with two actors stood on it; the first, tiny, was hugging the second and, as the child stepped back, she saw that it was her father. His grey hair seemed vibrant in the white light and every detail, every familiar wrinkle, was picked out for her to savour.
“All trees have sap in, little one,” he was saying. “You get it on you when you climb. The One Tree is no different. Over a long time, thousands of years, that sap hardens and becomes amber, complete with the energy of the tree stored within it.”
“But why don’t we use amber all the time? Why don’t we just use the Tree’s energy?”
He chuckled and shook his head. “What if it were a human being? What if we could get all the light, heat, everything we need from killing one human? Would that be ok with you?”
The child shook her head, eyes wide. “No, daddy; killing is wrong.”
“And that is why we don’t perform those experiments, little one.” He stood up. “Now then, how about a game?”
The two walked off into the light, fading away, hand in hand.
Lauren slowly felt the colour leaching back into the world in concert with a throbbing pain in her head. Carefully she got up from the floor and felt the back of her head. There was a lump the size of a pigeon egg but she’d live.
Holston had apparently fled, the coward. Lauren got a jacket and went to the door; his mask was still on the step, staring out into nothingness. Experimentally she picked it up and held it over her eyes, waiting for divine instruction. Nothing happened. With a heavy sigh, she went around to the horse and got ready to leave. Figger’s Cross was a few hours away, after all, and she wanted to be back before dark.