“Tell them another Key is prepared for extraction, Wisp.” Legra’s ancient voice had faded to a near whisper, but the young trainee by his shoulder turned and repeated his words in a clear shout.
Behind him, the waiting Score hurried to their places as the quick steps of the messenger indicated she had run to alert the backup Score of an active Call. The entire process had become a smooth system after far too much practice for anyone’s peace of mind. Yet each successful rescue offered the potential reward of another set of hands to train for the next attempt.
“Any new clues, Gramps?” Wisp was the most recent arrival, yet had been quick to absorb as much Cage history as possible from more experienced Keys. They seemed convinced that the known links might suddenly offer new information after all this time.
Chuckling at the eagerness of youth, Legra reached to pat the child’s hand where it rested on his shoulder. “Determined to learn the meaning of it all, eh?”
Wisp jumped a little and hurried to respond, stumbling over their words in obvious embarrassment. “I know it’s like to never be, but there’s open chance we might finally figure the cause. Who’s to say I won’t be near to latch on the ride through?”
It must have been slang, one of the limitations of the Cage’s mind-link translator. Legra gave up on trying to parse through the child’s meaning and returned his focus to the anchor pod once again, ignoring the faint sting of the tendrils piercing the implant around his eye to seal a full connection.
“Anchor countdown on hold. Waiting for confirmation,” he whispered.
Immediately dropping their chatter, Wisp clearly repeated his words to the room, causing the rush of activity to still for a moment as everyone found a comfortable position and linked into their stations. At least this one didn’t have a negative attitude about helping with the rescue process.
Many new Keys resented their arrival and blamed their rescuers, as if anyone had control over who would be chosen. Some came around and joined the rescue efforts once they learned more about the situation. The rest tended to resort to exploring less understood sections of Cage, hoping to find a way to return home or at least locate an exit.
After living through hundreds of years of dreamers discovering little of use, Legra no longer hoped to understand the reason behind the Cage. It wasn’t worth his time to do more than watch for each new chance to rescue Keys who might otherwise have been destroyed by the Call. He had witnessed far too many deaths before the survivors managed to scrape together a viable rescue plan. Now they only lost one in twenty. Still too many deaths. Would this one survive?
“Latch on, imminent!” Jezeara’s firm voice echoed through the room even though she was almost invisible, entangled within the communications wall in order to fully link to the system. Her rare bond with the temporal scanner allowed them to pinpoint the narrow window for the best chance of initiating rescue without losing a volunteer to convulsions and severe headaches followed by an entire week of recovery while fully isolated in their chamber. “Anchor opening in ten, nine, eight,…”
Focusing into the tiny targeting spark within the pod lens, Legra steadied his hands as the room fell silent behind him. He’d only get one chance with the anchor strand. Without it, the new Key would have to pass through an unregulated adaptation cycle without the Score’s help to speed them toward the final goal and prevent them from getting trapped in the dangerous side eddies which made rescue before death less probable.
He leaned into the lens, ignoring the biting pain of the strands as he mentally forced the sparks that marked the anchor lines to encase the essence of the child waiting so nervously on their bed. They were always so very young these days. Scarcely on the verge of adulthood. Of course, he’d been the same age back when the Cage trapped him in turn. He sighed with relief when the lines latched on. “Got them!”
“Go!” At Wisp’s shout, twenty sets of hands sank deep into the frame around the retrieval portal.
Legra mentally passed control of the strands to their practiced grasp and let his view of the Key fade away as the linking tendrils retracted from his skin. Watching would be useless from this point on. The Score teams could pull the child through the cycles as smoothly as possible, but nobody had figured out how to control where each stitch of the jump-spread might land. He scanned the room to make sure the Score was fully linked before gripping Wisp’s arm and accepting the necessary help to stand.
They’d be at it for the next several days, and he’d check in on their progress tomorrow. With seven Scores on a three vase schedule they had enough people to ensure nobody would collapse from exhaustion before the end of a rescue. He could remember a time when the process had been far more painful and overwhelming.
Wisp glanced at the portal frame. “Too bad I can’t help!” they muttered.
Legra sighed as he shuffled toward the exit tunnel, leaning heavily on the child’s arm. “Everyone can link with some element of the Cage. Everyone! It only draws those with an affinity for the bond. You’ll find your place eventually, Child.” He chuckled as Wisp’s shoulders stiffened at the term before they shook their head, obviously preferring to ignore it. Ah, well. That particular joke had been fun while it lasted. The children always eventually gave up on trying to prove their maturity and resigned themselves to the reality of the age gap.
“Here is far enough, Wisp.” Legra pressed his palm against the tunnel wall, sensing that his chamber had independently decided to come retrieve him once again. Sure enough, the wall beneath his hand flexed, thinned, and rolled back to reveal the cozy space that had claimed him as its own many years before.
“How?” Face pale, Wisp shivered as they stared back down the hallway as if to reassure themself that the rescue portal was still where they had left it.
Patting the child on the shoulder, Legra stepped through the entrance and allowed himself to fall into the chair-like structure that had formed out of the smooth surface of the floor. It shaped around his torso with the soft flexibility of leather as he relaxed. “Come in. This is your chance to witness the capabilities of a fully tuned chamber. Not many need as much support as I do. If you want new discoveries, the mobility of my chamber is the most recent, for me anyway. You’ll find many of us only encounter Cage’s ability to do something once we think to ask or desperately need the help.”
Wisp cautiously stepped in and seated themself on the second chair-like protrusion that surged up from the floor the moment they entered. Their eyes widened as the chair bonded to their body while the doorway sealed itself. When the entire space began to move they choked back a scream and stared around the chamber in shock.
Since he was equally immobilized, Legra couldn’t reach over to pat the child’s hand, so he began to explain in hope of calming them. “I was just as surprised the first time my chamber came to collect me.” He hoped they could hear his voice, since he couldn’t project any louder. The children were rarely integrated enough to access direct thought links at first. “Have any of the chambers claimed you yet?”
“No.” Their voice was tense, but it was obvious they were already feeling less panicked.
“Ah. There’s nothing like it, you know?” He soaked in the comfort of his chair for a moment before continuing. “There was a time when everyone just slept in the next available chamber. We didn’t know that each one was designed to link with someone specific … or at least someone with a specific quality. There have been times when more than one person bonded with the same chamber. Some were willing to share long-term, others eventually found another chamber that claimed one or the other of the two.”
They nodded. “I heard that some chambers accept multiple Keys until they fully link to a specific person, but how did you discover the first bond?”
“I had only just arrived, myself.” Legra shook his head slightly and sighed. “I was severely injured on arrival, so they voted to put me in the most accessible chamber. They hoped it would be easier to keep an eye on my recovery. However, that decision necessitated evicting the current resident, a woman named Mara.
“She resented their decision and decided to explore every chamber to see if any of them were better than the one she’d lost. She admitted later it was mostly an excuse to get away from everyone for a while. However, by chance she encountered a chamber that customized itself to her preferences in a way that none of the others ever had. When she invited the first witness to see what it could do, they were shocked when the chamber didn’t react to them in the same way.
“Of course, once everyone knew about responsive chambers, they spent their spare time trying to find one for themselves. Eventually they worked out that a chamber that didn’t respond to one person might respond to the next. Once I was well enough to move, they carried me from chamber to chamber because it had become clear that the chambers create a beneficial symbiosis with the bodies of those linked to them.”
“Uh. I didn’t understand that part.” Wisp’s eyes had glazed over.
Legra chuckled softly. “They figured out bonding with a chamber helps us heal. The surfaces link with us both physically and emotionally and can provide our body’s needs. Without that link living in the Cage is far more difficult, and for some impossible. There are now many, like me, who are only alive because of our chambers’ assistance.
“That’s why your primary task every day is to enter empty rooms until you find one that claims you. Speaking of which.” Legra gestured toward the door. We’re back in the hall of chambers. Time for you to find your own. I need to rest.”
Wisp twitched uncomfortably as the chair peeled itself away from their body, then stood up only to fold into a brief, formal bow. “Thank you for demonstrating the purpose of my chamber search, Gramps. I hope mine will support me as well as yours does.”
Legra waved the child closer. “Not everyone can do it, but a fully attuned chamber can project any location you can visualize and it feels like you’re there. It’s not the same as going home, but it is helpful at times.”
They blinked back a brief surge of tears and nodded firmly before turning and striding out the door, which slipped closed behind them.
The children so often buried their pain. Legra sighed and allowed his eyes to droop closed, wrapping himself in the sensation of a warm cloud suspended in a vast, blue sky.
He wondered what skills young Wisp would discover due to their bond with the Cage. He always hoped each new arrival might be his replacement, but so far none had bonded with the anchor pod. Maybe this one would find something new, though. Maybe something useful. Perhaps they would be the one to finally discover the reason for this place.
Sleep pressed in, forcing him to postpone his thoughts for another time.
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