Before the Black Tower

Chapter 1 – Anton
 
Three Years Earlier
 
Crouched behind a massive and very dead pine, Anton Romanko shivered inside his poison-resistant gear.
 
The night-vision glasses he wore kept the playing field even. Well, somewhat even, given his opponent was a seven-foot android encased in titanium and armed with a laser cannon.
 
Anton could see as much as the automaton through the darkness, possibly more. But while his eyes searched for movement, the android’s sensors would scan the area for a heat signature.
As Anton’s body temperature plummeted toward the lowest setting on his suit, he revisited the wisdom of his plan to disable the machine. The plan’s execution required stealth and swiftness.
 
His chances of managing either were rapidly disappearing as his joints grew colder and stiffer.
He was fit and a good runner, but no longer a turbocharged teenager who could operate without a second’s warm-up. Squeezing his hands into fists, he tried to pump blood through his numb fingers.
 
What had he been thinking?
 
He was a doctor for Perun’s sake. He should have taken his body’s response to the cold into consideration.
 
The snap of branches through his helmet’s microphone — turned up high — boomed in his eardrums.
 
He froze, knowing the robot’s microphones could pick up the sound of a feather landing.
And his heat signature theory was mostly just that — a theory.
 
His heart shivered at the sound of another rotting branch being crunched. Or was it the icebox setting on his suit?
 
He’d already dealt with the android’s three attack drones. Anton never thought his childhood obsession with VR games would serve him in any way, but battling a computer program in simulation wasn’t much different from fighting one in real time.
 
Hours of practice had made him an expert at assessing speed, trajectory and the turning radius of an airborne drone, and he’d successfully tricked each one into body-slamming a tree.
 
The crunching of dead branches drew closer.
Anton was pretty sure he and the android were the only mobile objects in the rotting quagmire that was the Red Forest.
 
He focused on his breathing and wished he could silence the thud of his heart in his ears. He’d disabled the speakers on his helmet and the radio transmitters. Hopefully, the padding in his helmet was enough to blanket any sound.
 
Something snapped within feet of him, on the other side of his tree. Would the android trip over the wire? He’d seen it work in a game once.
The microphones on his headgear picked up a reverberating twang from the cord, then a ping as the wire snapped.
 
Of course, it hadn’t worked. What had he been thinking? The armed robot in the game had been running, firing at multiple targets, distracted.
This creature wasn’t any of those things.
 
Anton stared at the tree’s bark, afraid to blink, afraid to breathe, his body stiffened to statue stillness while fear flooded every receptor in his cerebral cortex.
 
He expected a titanium hand to come out of nowhere and snap his neck like a twig.
Branches crackled. Steps thumped.
 
Anton counted each footfall as they moved away.
Time passed. Ice formed on the interior of his visor while he crouched, almost frozen in place.
As fear dissipated, he reached for the temperature setting on his wrist controller. His fingers wouldn’t bend, but his biceps provided enough coordination to position and press the forefinger of his gloved hand on the small red arrow. With gross movements, he pushed the thermostat ten degrees above normal body temperature, then flopped over sideways into the forest detritus to wait for his limbs to warm up.
 
* * *
Anton cursed himself for not thinking ahead, for not thinking at all. He was lucky to be alive.
Twenty-four hours had passed, and he hadn’t seen the android since his close call. Whoever controlled the metal man must have called it home. A full day had passed when Anton finally found a way out.
 
He’d discovered the bizarre energy dome by literally running into it. The only way to get beyond it was to go down, and after hours of searching, he found the well, a two-meter wide hole that went straight down into a tunnel.
 
Exploration revealed a world beyond the hidden dome, like none he could have anticipated — a world alive.
 
After his discovery, he hadn’t wanted to step back inside the dome, but he did.
 
Others would follow, and they’d need help to find the way out. Anton scaled the vine-covered walls of the well.
 
He would leave a sign, an arrow marking the exit. A rocky outcrop with a sheer face edged the hole, so he leaned across, one foot precariously balanced on the vine-covered lip, and scratched a message into the sandstone with his utility knife.
He etched ANTON WAS HERE! and carved a foot-wide arrow pointing down, then added EXIT just to be clear.
 
Climbing to the base of the vertical tunnel, he grabbed his pack off the dirt floor, hooked it over his shoulders and hurried down the passageway to the outside world.
 
Anton stepped into a sunny afternoon and narrowed his eyes. The white clouds that greeted him when he first arrived had burned away, leaving a bright blue sky in their place. The sun shone, a glowing orb he’d never seen clearly until now.
 
“Amazing,” he muttered, then walked down a grassy hillside, away from the exit.
 
He checked the poison level on his wrist dosimeter — less than a hundred micro-gens, which was safe, even for long periods. He reached for his collar, removed his helmet and breathed in the air of the world beyond the Red Forest.
 
He tasted the flavors of earth mixed with dampness and a hint of dust and decaying plant matter. The myriad of scents overwhelmed his nasal passages, and he sneezed. Then he laughed, buoyed by the delight of finding life, and with that discovery, more hope than he’d felt in decades.
 
Before continuing his survey, Anton turned to face the hemisphere that trapped his city inside a swirling gray mist. He couldn’t believe the extent of this deception. Nor could he imagine why anyone would intentionally fool those inside the City of Reflections into believing the world outside was dead.
 
With a head shake, he turned from the mist mantle to scan the grassy hills and forest beyond them.
 
Logic dictated he follow a direct route to the abandoned city of Pryat. Glancing at the compass on his wrist controller, he set forth.
 
Anton hadn’t traveled a mile through the meadows of long grasses and under canopies of century-old oaks and alder, when he heard something, a most unexpected sound — a woman’s voice.
 
“Yoo-hoo! Over here!”
 
Anton spun on his heels and saw a long-haired figure with a cape-like robe. Her face seemed surprisingly youthful for a woman who, at first glance, had struck Anton as being ancient as the land itself.
 
He cleared his throat, and called back, “Um, hello.” He blinked several times, concerned this otherworldly vision was a hallucination brought on by the poison. He checked the level: still less than a hundred micro-gens. Perhaps the detector wasn’t working.
 
As the woman strode closer, he tapped the device, but the reading remained unchanged.
She stopped in front of him. “Finally, you’ve arrived.” Her voice was musical with a timbre that soothed and stimulated at the same time.
Anton scratched his head through its thatch of gray hair. “I, um…I’m sorry, but you’ve mistaken me for someone else.” Then he wondered why he was apologizing.
 
Her bright eyes sparkled with curiosity, reminding him of his son when he had his nose stuck in some musty old book or other.
Anton frowned. He intended to keep his reconnoiter of the kingdom short, but the appearance of this unusual person was unexpected.
 
“There is nothing to apologize for,” the ethereal lady replied, echoing his earlier thought. “It is you I’ve been waiting for.”
 
Anton’s brow lifted higher. “I see,” though he saw nothing that made much sense.
The woman held out her hands.
With hesitation, he offered a gloved one in return.
 
The crone’s pale fingers circled his. “There is work for you to do. Preparations to be made before your son arrives.”
 
“My son? He won’t be coming for a long while yet. Wait, how do you know about my son?” His frown doubled up. “How do you even know I have a son?”
 
“I know of many things, including the work that will keep you occupied until his arrival.”
 
Anton shook his head. “That’s years away, and my mission is short. Just a few da—”
“Allow me to introduce myself,” the ancient lady said. “I’m Baba.”
 
Who was this woman? A spy?
 
Taking a step backward, he crossed his arms and glowered. He hadn’t intended to ask because he really didn’t want to know, but nevertheless, he found himself inquiring: “What work would that be?”
 
Baba’s smile lifted higher. “You have a boat to build.”