Mylo and the Summoned Hero
Did Mylo Bract have to go to work tonight? The answer usually wasn’t uncertain. He had to bow out of the Adventuring Bureau while they were still sweeping up all the stuff the lemming left as it departed this world. The Bureau and the bank had an arrangement, so it’d all end up in his savings and a safety deposit box, the key to which burned in his pocket. But how much was it? Enough for Mylo to just walk home, fall onto his pillow, and not worry about being fired tomorrow? Never been involved in slaying a boss monster before, so he didn’t know the payout. Mylo decided to go to work.
He and Kasumi made a quick stop at a noodle cart in the Founder’s Square. Here, she complained about the local architecture while Mylo considered the glowing sign of the magic carpet charging hub. He hoped he now had the funds to go south, quit this town tonight. Not by carpet, of course. Mylo shuddered at the thought of falling asleep while flying hundreds of feet up with no guardrails. He’d take the slower, terrestrial coach. Maybe he had the money now, but how far could he stretch one windfall while traveling?
Mylo Bract chided himself for being childish, paid for his food, bid Kasumi good night, and walked to work. After all, tomorrow he could check his account balance and know just how irresponsible he could afford to be.
Could it hurt to stay one more night?
Edule’s mana pumping station had no pump. The back of the facility stood empty, aside from the well cap and a few folding tables, which the day crew apparently found time to use. The working floor baked under glowering orange nergalstone, suspended slabs giving more heat than light—a blessing in Edule’s long winters, but now a curse. Only in the offices upstairs could insulation be found and necessary equipment be delayed another month.
Dominating the center, the splitter crouched, huge and low and dark, lozenge shaped, with pipes radiating out its front. Ungainly though it was, the splitter ensured stable flow of mana to the town—its wide tank received mana easily from whoever was pushing, and its delicate reynolds valves smoothed out even the roughest flow. The manager, Mr. Morin, could have made it still more useful by bringing someone in to calibrate each valve to the needs of its corresponding pipe, but he never would.
Atop the splitter, directing the arriving night crew to their positions, stood Ezre. Or should Mylo still be calling her ‘boss’? The spilt envelopes fluttered around in Mylo’s head, scrawled initials begging to know if they belonged to him, or to someone else.
Mylo looked up at her with held breath. He’d admired her from the start. Ezre commanded the room even when she wasn’t saying anything, and as a strobilus she didn’t just have talent—rumor told she had a daily training regimen. Mylo had held back on seeing her in any other light, lest he develop more impossible hopes.
Emerald eyes flashed his way.
"Bract, you’re balancing 12 and 13. Downstream of Isolde."
All hard business in her voice and glance. Without a hint of friendliness, she put him where the load changed the fastest. But at least Isolde was upstream, Mylo could count on her to get the coarse balance right, so he could focus on the fluctuations.
Settling in, they got to work on what seemed an easy night. The nergalstone lights overhead popped and clinked, expanding under their own heat since their tops hadn’t been dusted in a while. That staccato background noise sometimes seemed to find a rhythm that almost matched the swings in pipe 12’s consumption, but they soon lost their sync. Mylo’s head felt felted and fuzzy from lack of sleep.
Mylo tried pushing back on the exhaustion without impelling mana, at first. Bleeding mana capacity to stay awake made a fine deal on a quiet night. But tonight something felt…off. The loads in each pipe were about normal. The resistance wasn’t. It was too high. For some reason, mana was slowing down once the pipes left the building and dove underground. Maybe there was turbulence somewhere further down the line? But that shouldn’t affect both pipes.
Mylo’s eyelids drooped. Too much running around, not enough sleep. Oh it’d been quite the time. Fighting monsters, admiring the ruins, trying to convince Kasumi that, no, Edule did not need a monorail—all good fun. But he’d reached the end of his reserves. It was impel or pass out.
No sooner had Mylo straightened up and refocused than Ezre Lafferty appeared next to him.
"Bract, you don’t look so good."
She grabbed Mylo’s shoulder and pulled him aside. Isolde scrambled to adjust, suddenly having both pipes to herself.
Mylo tried not to flinch away from Ezre’s searching stare. The look carried no warmth behind the concern. Okay, maybe a little warmth. Or perhaps a lot? Mylo lacked experience with people getting up in his face. But disappointment read clearly. He failed, somehow.
"Not been my best today," Mylo admitted, but pride made him add, "I can handle it. I’m okay."
"You’re clearly not. I’m pulling you off the array." Ezre’s hand slipped from his shoulder to his upper arm and there lingered.
"Oh, are you now?" Mr. Morin rarely made appearances on the working floor, but when he did, his timing was always impeccable. Flanked by two men in exquisite suits, whom Mylo had never before seen, he raised a hawkish eyebrow at Ezre.
"What ever for?"
Ezre released Mylo and faced the manager. "This man is exhausted. He isn’t in condition to finish his shift. I’ll send for one of the day crew to come in early to compensate."
"Oh no no no." Mr. Morin clucked his tongue. "We can’t waste Callawea’s funds on overtime. Besides, this young fellow looks fine to me."
Something in Mr. Morin’s glance unnerved Mylo. No one had looked at him like that in a while. It was an knowing unseeing, acknowledging the space he stood in rather than Mylo himself.
"Now, gentlemen, if you’ll convene with me upstairs, there’s a very good vintage I’d like to introduce you to." Mr. Morin turned back for a moment to glare at Ezre. "He stays on the array. No call-ins."
With that, the manager and his executive guests disappeared upstairs.
Ezre wound up her face and kicked the floor. "Damn him. Half of us could pass out cold and he wouldn’t do a thing about it if the mana kept flowing."
She looked angry, and conflicted. Mylo’s instincts told him that he’d best get back to his spot, that it would all be okay. But he had to acknowledge that Ezre was the far better strobilus—more experienced and not self-taught as he was. She certainly knew things he’d not yet discovered. Mylo wanted to learn them.
Mylo also hoped to learn the deal with the letters he’d borrowed. Drifting away silently, to disconnect, didn’t seem a way toward finding out.
Not knowing what to say, Mylo sought refuge in commiseration. "To him, we just occupy spaces that need filling."
They went back to their respective places. Mylo glanced over his shoulder at Ezre now and then, but she didn’t seem to pay him any particular mind. He stopped impelling and coasted for a while, hoping that would get him to the end of his shift.
It would have.
Three in the morning. Mana usage in Edule dropped towards its usual low, but the pipes still resisted as if they were full. Mylo shook his head and tried to will himself more awake. As he settled back in, he felt it.
Pipe 13 reversed flow.
It lasted a just a second, overwhelmed by the volume heading the correct direction. Shouldn’t happen at all, least of all so late at night when usage was more or less constant.
Mylo thought he might have imagined it. Safer to report and be wrong.
"Hey, boss," he called back to Ezre. "13 just flipped."
In the warm aragonite under his hand, he felt another kick, stronger this time. "Did it again."
Ezre kicked up from her squat. "Anyone else got a misbehaving line?"
At first everyone shook their heads. Then Brendan wavered in, "Uh, 6 flipped, I think?" Other voices soon chimed in.
Mylo craned his neck to send a questioning look to Isolde. She nodded.
The floor beneath lurched. Metal anchors holding the nergalstone lights screamed, and squeezed their cargo till it shattered. Glowing rhombohedral chunks showered everyone, so they stood in a sea of orange stars with the gloom above.
Now pipe 12 was fighting too.
"Listen up!" Ezre cupped her hands around her mouth for maximum volume. "We’re reconfiguring to ride this out. Go where I tell you, soon as I tell you. Whatever the pipe throws at you, push it back! We lose the splitter to backwash, Edule goes dark for days, and fire and rescue lose mana. Got it?"
A chorus of cheers arose. Ezre ordered everyone to new positions, stacking more people to a single pipe. That left two deficits at the two triples.
Almost all the pipes in the station were paired, one atop the other. But two sets of three broke the pattern. They usually required four people to operate at the best of times. Now at the worst of times, Ezre put herself on one.
"Mylo, you’re on the trip-6-8."
He was stunned. Either she really believes in me, or the boss is trying to get me killed.
Mylo levered himself up and mirrored Ezre’s stance, with a foot on 6 and 8, and his hands on the bottom of pipe 7. That freed up four people to defend on other pipes. As they fled, Mylo got a taste of what he was in for.
Each pipe beat to its own rhythm at the moment. That was good, he didn’t have to fight them all at once. Silent mana sloshed in the pipes. It hit him, then went out, then came back and hit him again with the energy he’d used to push the previous wave away.
The feedback loop was worrying, but not hopeless. A little more pressure should trigger safety release valves where the pipes ended, far outside town. They had to ride it out.
Outside, Mylo couldn’t see the town's bones trying to jump free. Some sectors of Edule lay untouched, but wherever a pipe ran the ground heaved and ripped. A mana plume from far below had found its way up and was erupting into the foundations. Where it found aragonite, mana swirled inside, and then searched for an exit—hopefully the safety valve.
Mylo and the others had two ways to fight the growing waves. Uncap their gyres and let that steady source in their chest do the pushing. That was the safe way. But not everyone had a strong gyre, hence Ezre’s uneven grouping of staff on the pipes. Pipe 6 seemed to be rising to match his. Already way past the cut in pressure for the safety, which he assumed rusted shut.
The ground lurched again. Wood beams groaned and steel rivets squeaked.
Mylo hoped Kasumi had found somewhere safe to sleep, or was at least awake and running.
He heard the rumble before he felt it. He’d never known raw mana could make noise. Pipe 7 was about to smack him with even more than 6 was throwing.
Mylo had no choice. The unsafe option: to use both his gyre and his reservoir. He’d be able to push much harder, but if the wave overtopped him anyways it would go into him first, then the splitter.
Outside, sirens rang in the streets.
I should have got on a damn coach.
Mylo opened his reservoir as well and pushed. His hands tingled, unused to such fast transfers.
Around him, cheers and shouts rose. "Number 3’s losing pressure! Safeties are kicking in!"
But Mylo still had to fight the wave in 7. It kept coming for minutes. He felt drained, less like he was fighting than clinging to a tree for dear life with flood waters pushing at every inch of his body.
At last the pressure in 7 topped off, then receded. Mylo shivered.
Mylo didn’t hear the cheering. He turned to look at Ezre. She was looking his way, a weary smile on her face. They started to laugh.
The floor split.
"Pipe 3, repressurizing!"
The wave in each pipe had finally synchronized, and rushed the station.
He didn’t have time to stop laughing before the wave arrived. Had it been in an ocean, it would have towered. This was the breaking wave. It surged into Mylo’s reservoir, hitting him many times harder than he had hit Couzinet hours earlier.
Darkness engulfed Mylo before he fell.