The man with the binoculars is still standing in the hangar entryway, waiting. He won't have to wait much longer. The dust storm is growing bigger every second, a vast, billowing, choking auburn cloud of sand and grit swept up from the northern wastes. But right now he's focused on the Palace, waiting for the signal, tension riding his spine. And then – a flicker, another, and the lights go out, and he grins ferociously.
“All right, lads and lasses! Let's move!”
And thirty seconds later the crawler pulls out of the hangar, towards the Urban Palace.
- - - - - - - -
This is it. Mara is standing just outside the door to MuniPrin Lee's rooms. The hall is dark, lit only by a handful of emergency lights. She and Fir have taken the pistols out of their bags, all pretense of disguise discarded. They're ninety seconds behind schedule, and she realizes, to her own surprise, that she is terrified. It has been six years since the MuniDef raided the Observatory, six long years since she saw the man who inspired her to become what she has become, to do what she has done, and inchoate fears rise within her as she raises her hand to the door, and knocks.
Silence, and Mara spends a desperate second wondering if he's not even here, he's been moved, and this has all been wasted-
And then: “Hello?” And the door opens.
MuniPrin Lee looks older then she remembered. His fur has grayed, his back is slightly stooped, in ways that six short years should not be able to explain. But his expression is still as clear and calm and hard as she remembered. He sees her and Fir, and the pistols in their hands, and his eyes widen. He doesn't recognize her, she realizes.
“MuniPrin?” she says softly. “It's me, Mara.” And then he does know her, and smiles, and she knows at the core of her being that it's all been worth it.
“It's been a long time, Mara,” he says softly. “A very long time. I take it this is a rescue? I suppose we had better get moving then, hadn't we?”
- - - - - - - -
Fifty meters away, the backup reactor's turbine is still smoking, molten metal pooling on the floor next to the casing. The reactor is designed to shut down immediately in the event of fire, and so far it has behaved as it is supposed to. But there are limits to the foresight of engineers, and one of them has been reached now. Heat from the fire is leaking into the turbine's lubricant reservoir through a manufacturing defect in its fire-proof casing – and as it heats up, the pressure in the reservoir grows, until it bursts, spraying lubricating oil through the generator room, hot oil bursting into flame as it touches air. The fire detectors in the ceiling register the new outbreak – but the suppressors had activated when the thermite detonated, and there's no more left in the tanks.
Some of the burning oil lands on top of a backup battery stack. A stack whose casing has already been breached by the force of the first explosion. A stack filled with highly explosive lithium. It takes thirty seconds for the oil to reach the interior of the batteries.
The second explosion guts the room, scatters flaming lithium powder into the adjacent corridors, and breaches the remaining battery stacks. More explosions follow quickly, as the halls of the Urban Palace fill with smoke.
- - - - - - - -
Iskander Iskandrus has killed before. He has killed before, and killing again should not bother him. There is absolutely no reason he should be troubled by having bludgeoned a woman to death against a stone wall. No reason whatsoever. He is trying his best to remember this, as his shaking hands pour the acid into the hole in the safe's case.
Fumes rise from the safe, and the air fills with an acrid stink. He pulls the latch on the safe's cover, and it swings open. The inside is empty, except for a single book, bound in anonymous black leather, and immensely old. He picks it up gently, almost lovingly. Yes. Yes, this was worth a woman's life. Cheap at the price.
Iskander Iskandrus is leaving the study, the last remaining copy of the Necronomicon of Abd Al-Azrad tucked under his arms, as the sirens begin to wail.