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The underworld
There was something to going through the motions for appearances' sake. Somewhere in the back of Nikolai’s mind, he was tempted to abandon the gear--the science--of exploration and forge ahead on sheer instinct, but he would not give in to temptation. Forty-five years of discipline kept his hand from sweeping the dangerous flames of temptation too freely or too often. No. Now was the time for logic and reason; the time for science. Instinct was waiting for tomorrow.

By way of plane, then helicopter, he arrived several hours earlier to this field office, an in situ center of operations for the Custody of Energy’s exploration team. It had been two years since his last visit, and while briefings, calls, and teleconferences went a long way toward facilitating the process, eventually the Ascendancy needed to come in person. He had to be here, after all. Instinct did not work unless a man was immersed in context.

Two years of field work led by a team of geoscientists, surveyors, and explorationists currently surrounded his field of view. He was in a control room of sorts, the heart of their operation, but without the gear, the room was meaningless. The focal point on which Nikolai was currently concentrating was an enormous curved wall which acted as a pressure-sensitive screen. The glasses he currently wore filled the screen with images, an operations panel, and a recording device which projected his line of sight to the scientists in an adjacent room.

He tapped a command on the tablet in his hands and 3D floor to ceiling graphs of sonar frequencies were suddenly overtaken by a topographical map. Much of the region in this part of Siberia was made up of the sharp, forested slopes of the Altai mountains, part of a range which ran east-westerly along the CCD border with China and Mongolia. The snow-capped peaks of those very mountains rimmed the horizon on screen. Set before them was an enormous plateau, a flat-table high above sea-level. Prior to CCD consolidation, this region was “protected” from development. But the endogenous peoples which once roamed this region, thousands of years long dead, were nothing today. The media would whine about it, until the Ascendancy point-blank asked those anchors if they would give up hot showers, warm food, and working hospitals to protect burial mounds and cave drawings. The absurdity of the media’s logic astounded him.

Indeed, the rugged terrain of the Altai mountains enclosed the plataeu, as defined by this virtual environment, and as Nikolai pivoted, looking for the pattern described by one of the geophysicists, the image likewise shifted as though he were there in person. This semi-desert valley was more like Mongolia than Siberia, he said to himself, pitted with rocks and tufts of hardy grass as it was. It stretched out before him now, but his thoughts were far from environmentalists, humanists, seismic activity, and computer models.

He approached and swept his fingertips across the screen to enhance the size of the region of interest, a particular rift in the topography which to the untrained eye seemed no different than any other. Then he spoke to the observation panel. “This is the reservoir with the questionable water saturation content?”

“Yes, Ascendancy.”
A man’s voice responded over the comm.

There was a very real petroleum reservoir beneath the virtual landscape. The fact was confirmed by known source rock samples, seismic activity, and the trained eye of their geoscientists, but the rock had to contain enough hydrocarbons to make drilling worth their time and money. A wet reservoir yielded more water than it did petroleum afterall, but there was only one way to know the ratios, which usually meant drilling a sample well. Usually.

“Then that is the one we visit first.”


In his father’s time, explorationists with a twenty percent success rate of identifying productive reservoirs were considered the gold-standard. Based on years of data accumulation, drilling sample wells around known reservoirs yielded the best results, hitting viable deposits with every one in five attempts. Drilling in unchartered territory was far more a gamble; and one hit in forty was considered the standard. Of course, science had made some progress since the 1980’s. A fifty percent success rate became the gold standard of the early twenty-first century. Not even a professional baseball player could boast a comparable batting average.

But Nikolai Brandon?

Every time since the first time he felt instinct’s pull, he was right, astonishingly right. It churned his blood when he felt it: that perfect combination of sludge, rock, pressure and density. It crushed his lungs. And it felt like he held the earth in the palm of his hand. God, he loved it.

He had to be on location, of course. The closer to the site, the keener the sense. If he were directly above, walking the surface over which those subterranean chambers flowed, it was like a shard of glass etched the inside of his skull, carving the words he would proclaim into the very bone:

, he ordered to the team watching his every move.

As soon as the announcement issued, they broke into action. The scientists signaled the engineers back at central command the go-ahead to begin work, communicating orders down the ladder of responsibility. A production facility could now be designed. Plans would be laid to build roads and support structures in and out of the region. Branches off current pipelines would need run. A year from now the horizon of this deserted landscape would be unrecognizable.

On the trek back to the helicopter, Nikolai swept a curious study across the team’s activities. It was a comfortable, windless day, and soundless as well except for the various conversations among the team. They were all men he trusted, competent at their jobs, and loyal to the cause. After all, every additional success on the team’s part made these men a little bit richer, grew their power a little bit wider. They were long enough in Custody employ to take the Ascendancy’s word on this matter without hesitation. All but one.

Mark was the youngest member of the field op’s team, though they were never formally introduced. He simply stared across the dry, rolling hills, and studied the mountains beyond. He was the new man assisting Dr. Elliott, a seismologist who served as liaison between the scientists and drilling contractors. A brief glance revealed Dr. Elliott tapping away at a tablet, absorbed in thought and likely already in the beginning steps of his negotiations. For Mark, however, this was his introduction to witnessing the secret to the Custody’s success first hand, and Nikolai had to give the man credit, he was withholding his reaction well.

Nikolai waved for the man to join him for the walk back while two agents fell in behind them. In the distance, crew members were readying for travel preparations; there were still other sites to visit today. While one aircraft could seat the entire group, the Ascendancy and his security team--which today was thinned to the two men in his shadow--always travelled alone.

”Mark is it?”
Nikolai asked when Mark approached.

“Yes, Ascendancy, Mark Dazernaki. I work for--”

”Dr. Elliott, yes,”
Nikolai finished for him, not one to waste time being told what he already knew. Mark took it in stride, but his sidelong glance straightened forward once more, outwardly undisturbed about the interruption, though his jaw tensed slightly as though holding back what he truly wanted to say.

As specialized a team as this was, Nikolai knew few personal details regarding those around him. These were the people upon whom his power weighed, but he had to trust to the machine of his system to ensure everyone’s character. If Mark was here, it meant he passed clearance checks with flying colors, but it didn’t mean he was worthless.

”It’s reasonable to doubt what you are witnessing, Mark.”
Nikolai continued with full sincerity. Nikolai was the one in the center of all this, but acknowledged it must seem strange to behold. A team of experts landing on some remote location, deviating from every accepted protocol since the Industrial Revolution, and going ahead with a full-scale drilling operation on the word of one man, who himself is neither a scientist nor an engineer, but simply and quietly leaves the group, isolates himself, and returns some minutes later to issue the order after having done nothing but stand in solitude, expression darkened with concentration.

“It is remarkable, Ascendancy.”
Mark replied, pursing his lips together thoughtfully.

Indeed it is, Nikolai thought. However it was clear Mark did not truly believe the words he spoke. Mark was a reasonable, logical man; and humanity could reason away the unthinkable and logically dismiss the inexplicable--even when the extraordinary manifested right before their eyes. It was upon this canon the Atharim contained chaos from erupting, the reasoning of mankind, and the bloodshed of their members. However, little did Nikolai seek the approval of one assistant. Soon enough he would come to believe in his Ascendancy’s power as had the rest. But it would make the man’s life easier to cease questioning the obvious and accept what lay before him.

They parted for their separate aircraft. The two men from the Ascendancy’s regiment within Custody Protective Services fell in step. Dr. Elliott and the others came last.

A movement caught the corner of his eye: Mark reached under his jacket, and Nikolai’s world solidified with ironclad focus. The wall was already formed by the time he turned to face Mark’s aim; already motioning that the two agents at his side stand down; but it was not upon the pistol which he focused, but onto the face of a traitor.

Mark was clearly not trained for this. Otherwise he would have fired by now, and as the innumerable seconds stretched on, the confusing lack of reaction on their part danced across his eyes.

Nikolai asked with all the weight of a tomb.

It was not the reaction Mark expected, but he finally found his mettle and fired. Nikolai cringed at the explosive sound so near, but kept himself from flinching, having gone through this exact same scenario three times before, and countless times on practice ranges with CPS. Such was how the two agents at his side were confident their assignment was safe.

The bullet struck a barrier no less than arm’s reach away, but the heat of it radiated, slamming Nikolai with memories which reached back to his childhood. It sickened him.

Mark’s eyes widened with horror, and fired until he was out of rounds and Nikolai’s ears pounded with the noise of being in such close range.

Immediately, the two agents descended on Mark, and Nikolai felt himself approach the man. He wondered what that Dreyken must have thought when it approached its two innocuous captives.

Like that Dreyken, Nikolai was not surprised to find the Atharim’s symbol on this man’s arm. Mark bore a celtic interpretation of the ouroboros: the serpent eating its tail was looped into two figure eights and surrounded by knotwork. Nikolai shook his head as Mark’s jaw dropped to the ground. He squat low, speaking quietly, wearily to the would-be assassin. ”They should really stop sending men with the tattoo.”
The members of the team were already moving on, boarding their helicopter as the pilots prepared to leave. There was a schedule to keep after all.

He looked upon young Mark a few more moments before rising to leave. ”Take care of it.”
The agents nodded and Nikolai left them behind to carry out the order on their own. He wanted no part of it.

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