Firespinner Chapter Eight – The Oath

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It was the same face, but different.

The lines matched the drawing from the war, but their course over his face ran deeper and broader than in the picture. The eyes reflecting the firelight were dulled with clouds, not cold as the winter sky. Whiskers overran their proper places on lip and chin, clawing up cheeks and over ears enough to hide most of his face from casual view.

But Roy knew.

He remembered that day on Briarheart Ridge. When a single officer in the uniform of the Lakeshire militia crested the breastworks at the top of the ridge, the branches of countless maple trees waving behind him. Roy had seen the man’s face through the blood spattered telescope lens he’d take from Captain Colbert’s body. He’d watched the general start down the ridge, walking as one with the forest. And ordered his men to run like death itself chased them.

“Hezekiah Oldfathers,” Roy whispered.

The camp exploded into motion, Reeds bringing his hands together in a charm as his brother put his body and mace between Oldfathers and the rest. Grunt loomed up behind the brothers, fumbling a fresh sulfurite crystal into his sword. O’Hara pulled Nora down partway behind a large rock for cover.

Roy opened himself to the fire.

The branches and logs flash burned, leaving nothing but ash in the space of a breath, and the flames leapt upwards. Roy shaped them into a burning T shape that towered nearly to the top of the overhang, arms spread wide to react to any threat the old druid might offer.

But Oldfathers did nothing.

He just stood there, half shadowed in the night, and watched them with something between amusement and resignation. For a moment the tableau held. Finally he said, “I’m old, son, but if you think a Columbian regular can kill me with one of those shoddy swords that won’t even lock in sulfurite anymore, you’ve another thing coming. Which would be a pity, I’m not here to fight you.”

That might even be true. He didn’t stand before a massive tree line that had crept up on them in the dark. A glance up confirmed no ivy or tree roots dug through the stone overhang to strangle them, no bushes waited to topple over the edge on their heads. The druid had caught them unawares but brought none of his traditional weapons.

It would be reassuring if they weren’t camped in the middle of a forest.

Roy reminded himself that this was more than a chance encounter with a wanted man. This was a master of the craft standing on the cusp of a legend made manifest. Nothing was as it seemed. But whatever goals the general brought to the table they didn’t seem to involve fighting with Roy or his group. At least not at the moment. The fire lapsed back down to its original shape, Roy pushing the extra energy he’d forcibly extracted from the kindling into the small pile of sulfurite crystals half buried in the ash of the firepit. But he never took his eyes from the man just outside the circle of firelight.

“What brings you here, General Oldfathers?” Roy asked.

“Courtesy and compassion,” the druid answered without hesitation. “I’ve just come from Yellowstone and I heard things there you’ll want to know.”

Grunt gave Roy a look, lowered his sword when the other nodded and moved to push a few new logs into the fire with his foot. Roy let the flames take hold on the new fuel source and let them go from his mind, ignoring their lonely whispers. With the magic no longer weighing on him Roy found himself exhausted. But he refused to let Oldfathers see it. “Why should I believe anything you say?”

“Why doubt me?” Oldfathers stepped into the circle of firelight. Something shifted as he did so, as if a watchful presence had relaxed. “Are we enemies?”

Marshall stepped forward, touching the head of his club to the General’s chest. Both men paused, studying one another, and Oldfathers held his hands out, palms up, a cane dangling from the thumb of his left hand.

Roy stepped forward and moved Marshall gently to one side. Oldfathers raised one eyebrow but didn’t say anything as Roy started looking him over. The cane was a solid piece of living silver. At first Roy had thought it was just tin swift with a single sulfurite setting, handy for a little extra oomph when walking about. But on closer inspection it had the sheen of silver and the crystal set in the handle was big enough that the druid could easily reshape it into anything he wanted. There was nothing in the brim or band of his plain, brown cap. He wore a neckerchief in a hunter’s knot. His worn, green jacket was damp from the rain but, as it had slowed to a drizzle, wasn’t soaking and was otherwise unremarkable. There was a pocket watch in his vest pocket but no weapons in his belt unless you counted the three glowing fulminite crystals in the loops over his right hip.

There were four loops in the belt, Roy noticed. One was empty.

He grunted and filed that away then turned out the general’s pockets. Just a few coins there. Last he checked the boots – or, rather, boot as Oldfathers had lost his right leg at the knee at some point and now it was just a hickory peg. The boot contained a lot of leg and nothing else. There was nothing at all untoward on his person, which was almost more suspicious than the druid showing up with his pockets full of incense and a belt full of weapons.

Unsatisfied but curious, Roy moved out of the way and gestured to the fire. “Take a seat, General?”

“A man after my own heart,” Oldfathers said with a rueful grin as he straightened his clothes. “I applaud your sense of caution.”

Roy just glared at him. O’Hara cleared her throat and asked, “Why do you make it sound as if you came looking for us?”

“Because I did. Or, at least, I did if you’re the group I think you are.” Nora had returned to her previous seat and Oldfathers sat by her, saying, “You are Mrs. Blythe, aren’t you?”

“Yes.” The widow studied him with surprising innocence. “I can’t imagine what business you have with me, General.”

“Well, I’m afraid your older son has slipped out of town this afternoon.” Oldfathers took one of her hands gently in both of his. “Now I want you to stay calm. The situation is probably not what you think it is.”

If the general was trying to get Nora’s anger to override her fear then he was succeeding. She jerked her hands away from him, saying, “Calm? My sons are entrapped by ancient Sanna bedtime stories and I’m just supposed to stay calm?”

Oldfathers blinked once. “Perhaps the situation is what you think it is.” He glanced at Marshall and Reeds. “Perhaps that’s not surprising.”

Roy settled on a nearby rock that gave him a direct line to the druid. “Why is this any concern of yours?”

“Why?” His eyebrows shot up. “A child goes missing and I’m not supposed to be concerned? You clearly know about Yose and Mete and you think the stirring of such an ancient power wouldn’t worry any practitioner of the craft worth his implements?”

Roy scowled at Oldfathers over the fire, looking downright hostile in the shadows. “Why should it matter? These legends often stir the local elementals a bit and they can cause problems. But why would a druid – trained by and in line to inherit a stone circle – come all this way because of one local legend?”

Oldfathers’ gaze sild over to Reeds for a moment, then back again. “They haven’t told you, have they?”

Roy also glanced at Reeds, who was looking uncomfortable. But he also looked past Reeds to Marshall, who nodded. “What haven’t they told me? That Yose’s spirit sleeps in the lake by Yellowstone? That his brother sleeps here on the mountain, by the nawonota-“

He froze, mind jumping forward a dozen steps then backtracking to examine each step in the logic. A nawonota was a talisman that defended against evil spirits. None of the Noble Metals could effect a spirit so those kinds of defenses weren’t part of Vulcanic magic, the tradition he knew the most about, but Tetzlanii magic worried about spirits a great deal and they didn’t repel spirits, like a druid might use incense to repel trees. Instead the Tetzlanii trapped them for use in other rituals. If the Sanna used the same method the nawonota might be some kind of spiritual pit trap.

And Reeds said Yose and Mete were equals. The older brother was vulna, an avatar of the First Elements, and no longer strictly human. That implied the younger was vulna as well. That was a powerful thing to trap, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t happen. And an avatar was already part spirit so the journey all the way there was easier than normal, as Yose’s fate proved. “Mete’s spirit is trapped in the nawonota, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Reeds said. “I thought you understood.”

He really should have. All the pieces were there but he hadn’t put them together because he’d focused on Oldfathers instead. “Okay, he’s in the nawonota. I don’t know anything about how those work, so what does it mean that he’s trapped there?”

“Nawonota are not designed to destroy or cleanse,” Reeds said. “They contain until a medicine man can prepare the rites to cleanse the spirits and send them to rest.”

“Based on stories the Stone Circle collected in the early days of the Columbian settlement I have reason to believe Mete is the avatar for the Bones of Enkidu,” Oldfathers said. “That alone is enough to make him dangerous even in death. But there’s also evidence to suggest the legend of his battle with his brother has played out at least twice a century since they fought.”

“How long ago was that?” O’Hara asked.

“The Sanna don’t keep time quite like we do,” the druid said.

But Reeds interrupted him before he could continue. “The Brothers cycle has played out at least a dozen times, perhaps as many as twenty. The tribes in this part of the land have kept the stories and agree on that.”

Oldfathers nodded. “That roughly matches the Stone Circle’s count, which is either fifteen or sixteen iterations. And each time a pair of powerful brothers fights, the younger dies and his spirit is taken into the nawonota.”

“So there’s more than one iteration of the story trapped there?” Grunt asked. “Or have they all fused into one super spirit?”

“We can’t know until we see it,” Reeds said, “but whatever the outcome I doubt we will find a rational, human spirit left. The Bones of Enkidu will be all that is there.”

“Sorry,” Nora put it, “but what’s the significance of these bones?”

“Enkidu was the first wild man,” Oldfathers said. “He rejected civilization and destroyed cities wherever he found them. As an avatar of the Unshakeable Foundation he represents the earth in general and humanity’s origins in the wild state of nature in particular. My understanding was that, in the original legends, Mete was balanced by his brother who was avatar for the Spark of Creation, though it’s unclear which. But Yose hasn’t had any way to fuse with his successive iterations like Mete has. If they meet again they’re not going to be in any way equal. Yose will face generations of powerful warriors alone.”

“That is not an issue so long as the nawonota contains Mete,” Reeds said. “But nawonota are not meant to stand alone. They’re meant as part of a household’s defenses, and a household is intended as part of a tribe. Without the support of these greater patterns of power any nawonota, no matter how well made, will fail and release its prisoners on the world. Mete must be cleansed and sent on before that happens.”

Roy’s attention flicked to Marshall, who looked uncharacteristically grave, and decided it was best they leave that line of discussion for the time being. “So let me see if I follow your plan, General Oldfathers. You learned the Brothers legend was waking and came here to do something about it before Mete got out of his prison.”

“Protecting Arthur’s legacy is one of my duties, yes,” he confirmed. “Can’t do that if a wild man tears the civilization he founded apart, can I?”

“Fair enough. You clearly had some plan in place to do that. Want to share it with us?”

He hesitated for a moment but Nora leaned forward, hands clasped, and said, “Please, General.”

“Very well. I deployed various methods to slow your son’s progress up the mountain along the most likely routes Thomas could take, although with the aid of Yose there’s little chance they will endanger him. With the time that buys me I intend to confront and purify Mete and end the cycle before your sons meet in battle.” Oldfathers gestured vaguely down the ridges. “I tracked Thomas a little ways out of Yellowstone and it’s likely that he’s following the same route you did, so he’s going to run into a powerful elemental I conjured a couple of ridges down. You probably saw it overhead this morning.”

There was a moment of uncomfortable silence around the campfire. “About that,” Roy said. “We certainly saw it.”

Oldfathers studied him for a second. “And after seeing it?”

“Thunderbirds are not exactly benevolent creatures, General. We dispersed it.”

The general huffed in annoyance. “Well. I can’t blame you for that, I suppose, they are typically hostile and dangerous.”

“How did you not notice?” O’Hara demanded.

“I spent most of this afternoon collecting the measures I placed on other parts of the mountain, so they wouldn’t pose a danger to anyone else later.” Oldfathers crossed his arms and stared into the fire in a fit of pique. “I’ll have to set up something else tomorrow.”

“I think not, General,” Roy said.

When he didn’t continue, O’Hara leaned in to say something but Grunt put a hand on her arm and gently moved her back. Roy got to his feet and moved to the edge of the overhang, turning his back to the fire, and looked out at the rain, which had come back for a second showing. But he wasn’t really paying attention to it.

When he’d gotten on the Express a few days ago he’d been expecting to help an old friend take care of something simple, like chasing off squatters, rounding up some bandits or maybe hunting a griffon or two. Running down a bounty, even a big one like Hezekiah Oldfathers, was a step up from that but not a drastic one. Until that moment he’d kept hold of the hope that they could catch or kill Oldfathers and be done with the matter. Ever since he’d had his first brush with the raw power of the First Elements back in Tetzlan he’d been trying to avoid them and their avatars, with only middling success. Clearly this trip was going to go into the failure column of that reckoning.

On the one hand he could walk off the mountain the next morning and let the general try whatever he wanted, regardless of the consequences. On the other hand, Grunt and Mrs. Blythe would be right there on ground zero and Roy couldn’t see anything good coming of that regardless of whether Oldfathers succeeded or failed. No matter how he sliced it, ignoring the presence of a wanted man about to acquire a legendary spirit that equaled or surpassed him in malevolence wasn’t an option. Which left only one good alternative that Roy could think of.

He turned and moved back to his seat. Grunt handed him a cup of coffee as he got settled, which Roy took with an appreciative nod. “So,” Grunt said. “How bad is it? Clay Creek? The Wilderness? Five Ridges?”

Roy blew on the coffee for a moment, contemplating. “I’d say somewhere between Five Ridges and the Summer of Snow.”

That got a low whistle. “Not good, Harp.”

“No, it ain’t.” Roy took a gulp of coffee and turned his attention to Oldfathers. “You’ve been very upfront with me, General. I’ll do you the same courtesy. I don’t believe you.”

“On what front?” The druid didn’t seem upset, only curious.

“Oh, I trust your assessment of the magical implications of the situation on the mountain,” Roy said. “You’re easily the most accomplished arcanist on this mountain, possibly in Pyrenes County. I just don’t believe that the man who should stand within Morainhenge, who has more reason to hate Columbia than any person living, who refused to appear at the peace signing, who actually ran from Columbian law with some of the most powerful relics in the nation in hand, will just cleanse an ancient and malevolent legend because he happened to take a passing interest in it. So why should I believe that’s really why you came here, and not to add that legend to the long list of powerful magics at your disposal?”

Oldfathers studied Roy for a long moment, the dancing flames setting shadows flickering across his face and giving the momentary impression he was smiling. Then the general’s cane began to twist and writhe, the crystal in its grip glowing softly, and the silver changed from a walking tool to a long, narrow bladed sword. His left hand rested on the quillons of the crosspiece. He raised his right hand, palm out, and spoke in a deep, sonorous voice. “My name is Hezekiah Oldfathers, commander of the Knights of the Stone Circle.”

Roy felt as if the world around him was falling away as the general continued. “I serve at the pleasure of Arthur, First and Forever King of Avalon.”

In the far distance something ancient and awesome turned to regard that small and insignificant campfire. Roy felt its attention fall on him, as heavy and oppressive as the air before rain. “In storm and sunshine I walk among the stone circle and steward its legacy for the coming generations.”

The fire leapt and danced at Oldfather’s words, the wind and rain whispered wordless replies and the stone wall behind them echoed it all back for the world to hear. “And I swear on the grave of Pellinore, the Hunter, that all I have said concerning my goals and intentions are true.”

The general lowered his hand and in that moment it seemed as though some new, foundational law of the universe slammed into place. Everything returned to normal a second later, Grunt’s sharp intake of breath telling Roy he’d felt it, too.

Unphased by what had just transpired, O’Hara laughed and said, “You don’t expect any of us to believe you because of that, do you?”

“He does,” Roy whispered. “And we do.”

Firespinner Chapter Six – Thunderbird

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A lively stream cut through the ridge on the opposite side, ran down into the heart of the valley and turned, following the valley out of sight. It was a picturesque sight, except for the crackling amorphous creature flying back and forth over the stream occasionally shedding a lightning bolt from its wings. In truth only the core of the creature was protean, the rest of the body – head, beak, wings and talons – were well defined, if given to bending or distorting in odd ways when they moved as if the creature had no bones or joints. Which it didn’t.

“Ignis Fatuus, we’re lucky it didn’t see us,” Roy muttered, watching the thunderbird warily over the crest of the hill. “We might be able to get the drop on it.”

“Do we really have to fight that thing?” Nora asked, looking askance at the beast. “It looks like more trouble than it’s worth.”

“A fine question.” Roy looked to Grunt. “How long to go around?”

“If we want to keep going north east?” The big man thought about it for a moment. “‘At least six hours, maybe as long as a day. Depends on the route we take and if we run into anything there. Mountain lions are pretty common up here but they’re not as big a deal as a Sasquatch. Those’ll bury you with rock slides before you ever see ’em.”

“Are they hostile?” Roy asked.

“Just hungry,” Grunt replied. “Always hungry.”

“But also rare this far south,” Reeds added. “I don’t think we’ll see one until winter takes hold. Either way we don’t have time to go around. It’s about a day and a half from here to Mete’s Grave, we can’t afford a side trip.”

“Are we sure the thunderbird wants to fight us?” O’Hara asked. “It looks almost totally elemental. Those kinds of creatures rarely take note of humans.”

“Thunderbirds aren’t natural creatures,” Roy said. “They’re created via Tetzlanii blood rituals and given a purpose during their creation. Traditionally they’re used as guards. Add in the fact that blood rituals are almost always malevolent and yeah, I think it’s pretty likely the thing will fight us if it sees us.”

“It’s Tetzlanii?” O’Hara frowned. “What kind of wards did they use to contain them? I have most of the major ones with my tile board.”

“As I understand it the blood ties it back to the ritualist somehow, no wards, charms or geas needed to control it,” Roy said. “Besides, tile magic is earth and fire, thunderbirds are air and water. Magics without a common elemental factor tend to mix poorly.”

“And I’m afraid water can’t hold any kind of pattern for long so it’s not used in the Teutonic tradition at all,” Reeds said. “I don’t suppose any of you are hiding secret talents as a stone singer?”

Marshall puffed himself up, spread his arms theatrically and exhaled in dramatic fashion.

“That’s a no,” Grunt said. He glanced at Roy and took note of the way he was fingering his necklace. “Why don’t you just do your freezing trick to it, Roy?”

The wendingo bone beads were cool to the touch, free from the malice of their old owner but still so very, very hungry. “We’ll keep that as a court of last resort. But I do think focusing on the water half of a thunderbird is the best bet. It’s easier to disperse the vessel of a spell than counter its driving force anyways. Here’s what we’re going to do.”


Grunt and Roy scrambled down the side of the valley. In spite of Grunt’s extra hundred pounds of size and two handed weapon he made the descent far more gracefully than Roy did. He easily slid down patches of grass, leapt over stretches of loose stones and levered himself around small trees, where Roy seemed to get caught on every unseen root or hidden rock outcropping. But the army taught Roy years ago that he was a city slicker through and through so he was used to it. The goal was to make sure the thunderbird didn’t notice them and in that he succeeded.

Climbing up the other side of the gorge was more difficult.

For starters he’d removed the buckler from his belt and drawn his sword. Like many things in his life, Roy’s weapons were custom built to mesh with his powers. The buckler had a large eight stone crystal set in the center giving him a lot of raw firepower to draw from, a nice option to improve on the defensive qualities of the light shield or a midrange offense as needed. The sword was a falcata, a heavy chopping weapon for close combat and an effective platform for catapulting fireballs long distances. They gave him plenty of options for fighting at all ranges, the first concern of a firespinner at work. Terrible gear for a soldier in the bush, trying to move quietly and communicate via hand signals.

Worse, Grunt kept picking his way up using one hand to climb, the other all that he needed to balance his sword over his shoulder, blazing a path that Roy, with only half of one hand free, had a hard time following. Roy was pretty sure Grunt kept juggling his sword from one hand to the other just to rub it in. Still, for all the problems of climbing the gorge they made it almost all the way to the second ridge line without drawing the thunderbird’s attention.

Once there they settled in to watch. Roy did his best to contain his impatience. They’d already lost the better part of an hour crossing the valley and he was very aware of how little time they had overall. But as they said in the army, serenity was akin to alacrity. So they waited and watched.

After ten minutes it was clear the thunderbird was circling over the cleft in the ridge where the small river cut through on its way down the mountain. It never veered off into the valleys on either side of the ridge or went further along the rise in either direction. Reeds said they should follow the river to reach Mete’s Grave.

The thunderbird being there couldn’t be a coincidence. They needed to get rid of it.

Roy signaled Grunt to get ready then started to work his way along the ridge towards the river. After a minute or so the thunderbird took note and swept over him, circling in predatory fashion. Grunt leapt to his feet and his sword roared to life, bronze blade gleaming, flame pouring from its fuller.

The thunderbird shrieked. The earsplitting noise started higher than a train whistle and dropped down to a bone rattling boom. As the tone dropped the creature swooped down out of the air towards Grunt. He raised his sword point towards the elemental and the weapon spat a stream of fire at the thunderbird. The thunderbird jerked away from the assault but towards Roy, who was already pulling fire from the sulfurite in his shield, forming it into a wall to block the elemental from retreating. Caught between the two men’s attacks the body of the thunderbird began rippling with steam. It crackled in pain.

Roy and Grunt moved forward, pressing the creature between their fiery weapons. But the creature wasn’t stupid. It dodged and weaved with frightening speed, skirting the stream of flame from Grunt’s direction and swooping away across the valley in a flash of barely perceptible movement. It stopped in a crack of thunder right before colliding with the faint shimmer that marked O’Hara’s spell walls. Maybe it knew the wall was there, in spite of its near invisibility, maybe that was as far as it could go and maybe it just noticed the rest of the group waiting there, behind O’Hara’s wards.

Grunt turned and made to start down the slope, as if he had a chance of getting back to that side of the valley in time to do anything. “Wait here!” Roy yelled. Grunt shot him a questioning look. “Lighting falls and returns! Reeds can handle it, we’ll catch it on the return stroke!”

But Roy had made one mistake. It was a natural one, but a mistake none the less. Grunt told him one of the brothers worked magic and later Roy learned that brother was Reeds. He was also the brother who could talk. And at some point Roy had just started thinking Reeds was the active one of the pair, that when push came to shove Reeds did what needed doing and his brother was some kind of moral or spiritual support. He realized how wrong that assumption was when Marshall leapt up on top of the spellwall, meeting the thunderbird as it started to cross over the barrier.

One of the elemental’s talons lashed out at him, raking crackling gashes into the spellwall. Marshall met the blow with the obsidian head of his warclub, the simple but brutally effective weapon of Sanna braves. Man and beast strained against each other for a split second, an ominous energy building between them, then erupted into an exchange of a dozen sizzling attacks, deflections, blocks and counters, all in the space of a single breath.

It was so fast Roy only caught glimpses of the exchange in afterimages. Looking away was unthinkable. But Roy forced himself to do it anyway, swapping his sword and shield hands with practiced efficiency. Then he tossed the shield to his partner saying, “Grunt, discus!”

Grunt shifted his greatsword to his offhand and caught the buckler then turned the motion into a spinning throw that send the shield arcing across the valley. It wouldn’t quite make it to the spellwall but got close before it started to drop. When it did Roy reached out to the sulfurite set in it and asked the fire there to come out.

The fire power within burst out in a massive wave of flame and heat that washed over the thunderbird with a violent hiss. The blast almost pulled the creature apart in a cloud of steam but its wings beat the air and it gained enough altitude to get far enough away from the dissipating fireball to pull itself back together.

Sensing weakness Marshall threw his club at the struggling elemental and it flashed away again. But as Roy had told Grunt, the creature was forced to return to where it had been a moment ago, just as a lightning bolt that falls from the sky must return to the clouds.

As soon as the thunderbird vanished Roy’s iron dagger left its sheath. Once it reappeared in the air just over his head he threw it before he heard the clap heralding the creature’s return. The point of the dagger buried itself into the creatures body just below the wing. The thunderbird let out an electrical shriek then burst with an incredible sound that Roy felt more than heard. He and Grunt were thrown to the ground as water driven by the creatures sudden death lashed against them like knives.

For the second time in as many days Roy found himself staring up at the sky and getting wet with no clear notion how he got there. Apparently the thunderbird’s death had prompted the clouds to start raining. Rather than sit there and get water in his eyes he got back to his feet again. The ringing in his ears pulsed for a moment or two, eventually settling into time with the throbbing in his ribs to remind him that working as a professional violent man had steep costs associated with it.

He was gratified to see that O’Hara’s group was making their way across the valley. The brothers were currently helping Nora and O’Hara get their mounts across the river. Roy tried to get Grunt’s attention but couldn’t hear himself over the ringing and assumed it was the same for his friend. So he started searching the top of the ridge on his own.

After about five minutes of looking he heard a distant voice saying, “What are you doing? We need to keep moving.”

It was O’Hara, getting down from her bushwalker with a jar of something in one hand. Roy shook his head, trying to clear the ringing a little, then said, “First we need to bury the heart. If we don’t there are complications.”

“Heart?” She gestured Grunt over and applied some kind of salve to his ears. “What heart? Elementals don’t have hearts, Mr. Harper. They’re just blobs of power and medium.”

“It’s a human heart, O’Hara.” He tapped his chest for emphasis. “Blood ritual, remember? The only way I’ve seen to make a thunderbird involves taking a beating heart from a living person. That kind of thing was why the Esperians burned all the blood ritual records they could find.”

“What happens if we don’t bury this heart?” Reeds asked.

“Hauntings. People drown in their sleep even if they’re nowhere near water. Eventually people get struck by lightning on clear days. Nasty stuff.” Roy pulled a small flame from one cufflink and used it to illuminate the ground beneath a thick clump of bushes. “You should be able to find it by smell, they’re not exactly fresh. Even if they are still beating.”

He glanced up in time to see Marshall holding his nose and shaking his head. “He says the creature did not smell when he was near it,” Reeds clarified. “Or at least he didn’t notice it. Neither did I.”

“I didn’t notice anything either,” Grunt added, scooping the gunk back out of his ears. “You gotta try this stuff, Harp.”

“Later.” Roy smelled his clothes in a few places, searching for the telltale stench of the bloodwater that made up the bodies of thunderbirds. To his surprise he found nothing. “Right, that is strange. It’s not a mild scent, it should still be obvious even with the thing dead.”

Roy pulled his light back and tucked it away in his cufflink again. “I don’t know what happened here but I want to find out.”

“You said these things aren’t natural,” Nora said. “Could the druid you mentioned have conjured the creature? Maybe he blended the Tetzlanii ritual with some kind of druidic magic?”

“That’s exactly what worries me,” he admitted.

“In that case maybe this was part of it?” O’Hara held up an odd crystalline sliver about as thick as one of her fingers. A gold band ran around the circumference about a third of the way up its length. “We found it on the way across the valley.

The crystal was a dark, smokey gray shot through with faint sky blue streaks. Roy took it and turned it over in his hands. The hair on the back of them stood out straight. “Well, well, well, someone found a chunk of fulminite.”

“What’s fulminite?” Nora asked.

“It’s like sulfurite,” O’Hara said, “except it holds the power of the air rather than fire. And no one knows an easy way to recharge it. Or any way short of standing in a storm and hoping you get struck by lightning. I’ve never heard of anyone pulling it off.”

“If it functions like sulfurite the crystal glows brighter the more power that’s in it,” Roy said, peering into the crystal’s depths. “So it must be pretty well spent.”

“Could this take the place of the heart in the blood ritual?” Reeds asked.

“I don’t know.” Roy tucked the crystal into the inside pocket of his jacket. “But it could.”

“Sounds like a very druidic thing to do,” Grunt said. “They like messing with power sources and plugging them into new mediums. That’s how they found so many different kinds of trees they could manipulate.”

“So you think this creature was created by General Oldfathers?” Reeds asked.

“It’s not simple or easy magic to do,” Roy said. “I’m sure there’s plenty of people in the frontier counties that could do it but he’s the only one we know of nearby.”

O’Hara studied Roy for a moment. “How do you know so much about these thunderbirds anyways? Could you make one?”

“I’ve been a lot of places and done a lot of work for a lot of different people,” he said. “But I couldn’t make a thunderbird. Even if I could predict a lightning strike and had an alter carved and ready to take the blood, I don’t think I could bring myself to rip someone’s heart out just to make one of the foul tempered things.”

“And on that reassuring note,” Ben said, “let’s get out of this coalstoking rain.”

Firespinner Chapter Three: The Widow’s Gambit

Previous Chapter

The Argentum Express departed the next morning at eight. But Roy was tempted to wait until mid-morning and catch the local Highland train so he could cut across Pyrenees County to Trapperhorn Station and check on things there. But the local was more of an investment – the H&O Rail Company wouldn’t let him on for free like Argentum would. He was looking over his rail schedules at a table in The Singing Jack and picking at a passable meatloaf sandwich when Reeds asked, “Is the food not to your taste?”

Roy brought his gaze up from the railway tables to find the Sanna man and his brother standing there. “Do you two ever make any coalstoking noise?”

“Silence is a habit that is difficult to cultivate and easy to discard.” Marshall laughed his silent laugh and slapped his brother on the arm. “Marshall, of course, is better at it than I am.”

“Of course. You both prefer to cultivate this habit rather than discard it, I take it.”

“It’s something we’re used to, at least.” The two brothers helped themselves to chairs and Roy began gathering up his papers.

“At least you get to talk for him.” Roy snorted. “My sisters never did me that courtesy.”

Marshall opened his mouth wide and stuck his tongue out. Or what was left of it. The Sanna’s tongue ended in a stump of angry scar tissue, the rest cut out long ago from the looks of things. “It is not a choice on his part, you see,” Reeds said. “But neither is it a burden on mine.”

“Very considerate of you.” Roy piled his plate and sandwich on top of the papers and folded his hands in front of him. “All right, gentlemen, I can tell this isn’t a simple courtesy call. What’s it all about?”

“There is someone we would like you to meet, Mr. Harper.”

The signal was clearly prearranged as the woman at the next table over, who sat down about five minutes before the brothers appeared, stood up and moved over to join them. She was tall, fair skinned, with coils of dark hair barely contained under the black kerchief on her head. That and the black dress she wore were a good clue to her identity. “You must be the Widow Blythe.”

She sat down beside Marshall in a single smooth motion that spoke of grace and self-control. A quick study of her face revealed bags under the eyes and lines around the mouth, small sings of recent grief. But there was resolve there as well. She studied him with equal intensity. “And you’re Roy Harper. The Giant Killer.”

“Only Giant Killer I know was the First King of Avalon. But yeah, I’m Roy Harper.” He studied the woman for a moment longer but he didn’t see anything beyond the ordinary there. She was a strong woman, to be sure, and ordinary strength was more than sufficient for most purposes. It’d won the war, after all.

But the war hadn’t killed Hezekiah Oldfathers.

“I hear you’re wanting to help Grunt with his job.”

Confusion replaced quiet exhaustion. “Who?”

“He means Mr. Grunwald,” Reeds interjected.

“Oh.” The widow’s face returned to normal, or at least tired. “That’s right. I was told I had to convince you in order to come along.”

“Me?” Roy’s eyes narrowed involuntarily. This was Grunt trying to make a point to him, he was sure of that. He wasn’t sure what the point was and didn’t like Grunt using a widow to do it. “Did he mention that I’ve decided not to take this job?”

“Yes, but Mr. Grunwald also said he intended to ask you to serve as leader. And since you were still here in town he’d like your input on whether I stay or go, which I take to mean you have to say I can go before he’ll allow it.”

Roy took a large bite out of his sandwich and chewed, mulling over the situation and trying to figure out what Grunt’s agenda was. Finally he swallowed and said, “You shouldn’t go.”

She scowled. “You didn’t even listen to my story.”

“Don’t have to. Try something for me. Drink every bottle in this saloon dry. You know what you’ll have accomplished?”

“Nothing.”

“Nonsense. You’ll have made every whiskey and beer brewer from here to Hancock City a little richer, and that’s more good than you’ll do traipsing into the mountains after Hezekiah Oldfathers.” He tore another bite out of the sandwich, intending to end the conversation.

But Marshall nudged his brother and Reeds shifted in discomfort. Marshall made pushing motions. Reeds sighed. “Mr. Harper, you should understand that there is more in play here than personal feelings. There are obligations of great import that Mrs. Blythe must fulfill.”

Roy washed his sandwich down with tangy, metallic well water and a disgusted grimace. “Did the trees kill your husband, Mrs. Blythe?”

The blunt question took her aback. “Yes,” she said with a hitch in her voice. “But their real purpose at the time was kidnapping my son.”

His resolve wavered. “The trees are taking children?”

“Just Andrew,” the widow replied. “Harvey tried to stop them when they tried to leave with our boy and that was when they… they…”

“I understand, ma’am.” Soothing widows in these situations was something Roy was more than familiar with and his tone turned gentle without conscious thought. “I’m very sorry for your loss.”

A silence settled over their group for a moment. Then Reeds broke it. “This brings us to the Brothers.”

Roy kept his attention on the widow and did his best to hide his exasperation. “Mrs. Blythe, the more of your family that is involved in this situation, the less I think you should go.”

“You don’t understand,” she said, a tinge of desperation working into her voice. “Thomas is fine, he’s still here at home. The problem is that they’re twins.”

“Of course.” Roy pinched the bridge of his nose. “Why does it matter that they’re twins?”

Marshall held up a fist. Then raised one finger, a second, and a third. Reeds nodded. “If you would allow me to start at the beginning and go in order?”

A groan set the worst of his frustration free of his stomach so Roy could sit more comfortably in his seat. “Fine. Go ahead.”

“In the high past there were two Sanna Wahnumpun brothers, twins that shared a face. As we do.” Reeds gestured to his brother. “And as Thomas and Andrew Blythe do. The names of these brothers were Yose and Mete.”

“Yose?” Roy frowned. “Like the geyser in the lake outside of town?”

“We will get there,” Reeds said. “Now Yose and Mete were loving brothers, more so than normal. But one day they hunted a stag and could not decide which of them would take the antlers. So they gave them to their mother, who fashioned them into a nawonota-“

“A what?”

“A ceremonial defense against ill spirits.” As his brother answered Marshall’s hands were sketching a complicated octagonal pattern on the table top. “Alone it has no remarkable properties but as part of a household’s mystic defenses it has considerable power. And because of the beauty of the stag’s antlers, both boys desired it.”

“Sibling rivalry can appear over anything, I suppose.”

“As you say. The brothers vied for their mother’s favor but she knew that giving either brother the nawonota would poison the affections of the other.”

Roy grunted. “A wise woman.”

“And yet even wisdom has its limits.” Reeds sighed. “Mete stole the treasure. His brother became furious and hunted Mete to this very mountain. They climbed to the top and struggled there. Finally Mete seized the nawonota from his brother and, in the process, fell from the mountain top to his death. Struck by grief but still burning with rage, Yose was transformed. We would say he became Vulna.”

Roy sucked in a deep breath. “An avatar. I’ve never heard of the Primordial Fire offering its blessings in circumstances like that.”

“Perhaps Yose was already one. There are other stories of the Brothers that tell of their great hunts. In some of the tales they already bore the blessings of the Vulna.” Reeds shrugged. “It is not a thing I know much about. Regardless, after his brother’s death Yose lost some part of himself. In despair he threw himself into the lake in an attempt to quench the flames but to this day he has not succeeded.”

That explained the geyser. Unlike blessings from the Lord in Raging Skies and Lady in Burning Stone, which were tools in the hands of the faithful and functioned only when called for, the powers given to avatars of the First Elements were wild and barely under human control, often actively working towards their own ends when not carrying out the duties the avatars set for them. And where the guardian deities of Avalon were creatures dedicated to building civilization the First Elements didn’t have any understanding of the concept, which was why so many in Avalon and Columbia viewed their avatars as quasi blasphemous. Roy knew the Sanna didn’t see things quite that way so he kept that thought to himself. “So you believe that Andrew Blythe’s kidnapping and this legend are tied in some way?”

“I don’t think it, I know it,” the widow said. “I’ve been to the Hearthfire and petitioned the Lady to cast Shadows. The result was clear and the Hearth Mother agreed with me. My boys have been tied to something ancient and powerful.”

Roy massaged his temples, dreading where this was going. He’d been around too long and seen too much to discount old legends out of hand. It was rare they were the way people remembered them, it was rarer still for them to contain no truth at all. And true or false, they were always powerful. “Far be it from me to doubt the Hearth Keepers,” Roy said. “I take it you’ve confirmed this outcome by your own means, Reeds?”

He held up the divining tool he’d shown in Grunt’s office. “I have.”

“And you,” he looked back to the widow, “think you have to go on this expedition because the mother was the peacekeeper between Yose and Mete.”

She made the Sign of the Hearth, saying, “The shadows ended with a vision of the creche. Clearly Our Lady in Burning Stone has appointed a mother to end this.”

That kind of clarity was precious rare in Roy’s experience, dangerous to those who had it and those who thought they had it in equal measure. “Have you ever gone to war, Mrs. Blythe?”

“I met my husband on the Palmyra Campaign, Mr. Harper.” She had the gall to look proud of that fact. “I was a Hearth Keeper traveling with the Columbian Regular Infantry’s Third Division.”

Which explained some of it. Most of the Third Division stopped on the Mukwonago river, holding the bridges open. They hadn’t seen the Five Ridges.

“You don’t wear the Keeper’s Veil. Why is that?”

To his surprise she blushed at the question. “Well, Harvey Blythe was an army captain, not from the Storm’s Watch.”

“Ah…” Roy understood the problem at once but he could see from the confused looks on Reeds and Marshall’s faces that they did not. “The Lord and Lady each have their own clergy, or spirit talkers as I think you would call them. The Storm’s Watch takes only men and they serve the Lord in Raging Skies, the Hearth Keepers are all women and serve the Lady in Burning Stone.”

Reeds leaned forward, looking skeptical. “And they are not allowed to take a husband or a wife?”

“Only if it’s from the opposite order,” Mrs. Blythe said with a tinge of regret. “Otherwise it’s a breach of the vows and we – they – can no longer serve.”

“There are many aspects to any sacred vow,” Roy murmured. “And at times you must choose which you will keep and which you will break. That’s a given when any creature as profane as a human being touches on anything as sacred as an oath.”

“You speak from experience?” Reeds asked.

Roy thought back to his oaths of enlistment. To his election as officer. To the many promises made to friends during dark days on the battlefield. To a fearsome covenant, sworn on a frigid morning in Leondale, during the Summer of Snow. “Yes. Very much so.”

The table was quiet as each of the four turned to their own thoughts. All of Roy’s instincts told him not to take a woman on what amounted to a suicide mission, particularly a woman with little arcane prowess and a deep seated grief on top of all of it. He wasn’t much of a learned man but he could tell that the circumstances on the other side of things balanced out that reluctance. Which left him with only his own judgment to rely on.

And with magic, particularly magic on the scale of a legend, it was better to be prepared than not. “Very well, Mrs. Blythe. If all you’ve told me is true I suppose we have no choice but to take you with us.” Marshall laughed his disconcerting, silent laugh and slapped Roy on the arm, then pointed at him emphatically. “Yes, Marshall, us. All things considered I suppose I’ll have to come along, too. So long as your son remains here in town and out of danger I’ll have to do my part to make sure Oldfathers keeps living up to his reputation as Orphanfree. Your sons won’t be orphans as long as I have a say.”

“We’re glad to have you, Mr. Harper,” Mrs. Blythe said.

“Don’t be.” Roy stood up gingerly, still favoring his right side, and straightened his jacket. “If Grunt’s serious about letting me run this show you’ll find I don’t play favorites and I don’t plan on making allowances for you just because you’re a woman.”

“I was under the impression Columbians were supposed to defer to ladies,” Reeds said.

“And we do. Lady is a behavior, not a state of being, and hunting wanted men through the mountains is not ladylike.” Roy started for the saloon door, then hesitated. “Which reminds me. Do any of you know where I can find Agent O’Hara?”

Firespinner Chapter Two – Orphanfree

Previous Chapter

Roy expected to wind up in the Woodsmen’s Guildhall, or maybe the back room of a local saloon. He hadn’t expected the offices of Nolan and Grunwald, Solicitors General. “I could see you with a bearded ax,” Roy said. “But Corporal Grunwald as an officer of the Court? Now that is truly shocking.”

“Anyone can slice trees,” Grunt said. “But there’s more to the business than that. And there’s more of a future to clerking, even in a place like this, than just cutting lumber day in and day out.”

The chair in front of Ben’s desk was plush and comfortable, cradling Roy’s abused back and sides in velvety softness. “This is mighty nice, Grunt. You done good for yourself.”

Grunt sat down in his chair and fished through the drawers of the desk. “That calls for a celebration. Still a whiskey man?”

“Gave it up years ago.”

He froze, looking like a child stealing sweets. “Oh?”

“Long story. I’d rather hear about why ensorcelled trees are attacking town on the regular. Based on how fast the guild responded this isn’t an isolated incident, is it?”

“It’s not.” Ben switched drawers but kept rummaging. “Give it five minutes? The Sanna boys are supposed to join us and I figured I could fill all of you in at once.”

Roy pondered that for a moment. He’d heard feelings about the Sanna were pretty strong up north, almost as strong as people felt about the Tetzlani down by the southern border. But Grunt didn’t seem concerned about two of them butting into Guild business. Either they were well known in town… or the situation was just that bad.

Maybe both.

“You know these two?”

“Not personally but the Guild Captain seems to think they’re trustworthy.” Ben shrugged. “He’s a good judge of people and I’ve never had any problems with the Sanna personally so I’m not that worried. Plus they live in town, not across the border in the Treaty Lands, so they can’t be that close to the local tribes.”

Roy’s brow furrowed. “Really? We’re a good day’s horse ride from the border, aren’t we?”

“Closer to two,” said a voice behind him.

Roy jerked up and out of the chair, yanking a bead of fire out of his cufflink and rolling it ready between finger and thumb of his right hand. Two tall, thin Sanna men stood in the doorway of the office, dressed in the tanned leather pants common to their people but wearing the collared denim shirts favored by most frontier Columbians. Neither one carried weapons. Roy blew a breath out, waited for his side to stop spasming and slipped the fire back into its home. “Hearthfires, you two give a man the frights.”

The Sanna in the lead inclined his head to one side, studying Roy with open curiosity. “You must be the man Mr. Grunwald was expecting today. Our counterpart in this task. Allow me to introduce my brother, Marsh Reeds, and myself, River Reeds.” Marsh held his hand palm out with all fingers pointed upwards in the traditional Sanna gesture of greeting. “He prefers to be called Marshall.”

“Does he now?” Roy studied the brothers a little closer and noted that, at a glance, the beaded belts they wore were the only way to tell them apart, for otherwise they were as alike as a man and his doppelganger. Although Marshall was most likely not a magical duplicate of his brother. “Does he speak for himself?”

“No.” Marshall laughed silently and his brother continued. “Please call me Reeds.”

“Roy Harper.” Roy folded his thumb over his first and last fingers, holding the middle two up to form a chimney and making the Sign of the Hearth. “Warm hearthfires, Mr. Reeds.”

Grunt cleared this throat. “Reeds is part of his given name, Roy, not a family name. Sanna names don’t work that way.”

“My mistake.” Roy lowered himself back into the chair, barely hiding a wince in the process. “We’re all here now, Grunt. Unless you want your Guild fixer here for the speech, too.”

“Not necessary. This is just so you three know what you’re up against.” Ben drew a wrinkled, tattered sheet of paper out of his desk and handed it to Reeds. “This man came through town five weeks ago. We think he’s been binding trees and sending them against the walls for the last month or so.”

Reeds handed the paper to his brother. “The land here is disturbed. The trees may be moving on their own, in response to it. Such is the way of the forest.”

“The Guild hedge mages haven’t noted any changes in the land in the past two months but the trees are far more aggressive than in the past. Something specific is riling them up and he’s the most likely person to do it.” Grunt pulled another sheaf of papers out. “I have the surveyor’s records if you want to look.”

“Unnecessary.” Reeds pulled out an odd, heavily carved stick from a pouch on his belt. “The land has changed in the last two moons but not in the lay of rivers or stones. In the lines of the spirit, which your hedge mages do not trace.”

The carvings on the stick seemed to move and shift of their own volition. Reeds held it up for them to study. “We can cast the kennet, if you wish.”

“I don’t doubt your divinations, Reeds. It’s true there are things in these hills the Sanna understand better than us.” Marshall passed the paper to Roy. “But our guest could easily be why-“

“Dust and ashes!” Roy recognized the paper immediately. He probably still had his own copy of it, somewhere in a trunk left from his army days. The Vulcanus Militia had printed thousands of them at the start of the Lakeshire War and many Columbian Regulars like himself had gotten copies when they took a hand in the conflict. A glance at the face in the center of the page was all it took for him to remember who it was. Major General, Sir Hezekiah Oldfathers, First in Line to Lordship of the Stone Circle, Knight of the Phoenixborn, Druid Emeritus of Lakeshire County, Columbia. Commanding officer, First Lakeshire Druidic Division. Once the second most powerful druid in the nation. Wanted traitor. 2,000 silver mark reward, dead or alive.

Roy threw the paper back on Grunt’s desk. “Orphanfree is here? Really, Grunt? Any other surprises I should know about? You don’t need two or three of us, you need the whole company back if you plan to take him on. Then at least they can bury us all in one place.”

“Orphanfree?” Reeds asked.

“He’s guaranteed to bury you before your parents, so you never have to worry about being an orphan,” Grunt explained. “Old fathers, young sons. That’s the joke.”

“It’s a joke?”

“No.” Roy snorted. “What next? You got a fourth Brother Walking hidden up here, too?”

“No giants, just the druid.” Grunt’s lips formed a humorless smile. “But we have the right person here for that, too.”

Roy leveled a finger at him. “Don’t you start.”

“The two of you know this man?”

“Not personally, Reeds,” Grunt said. “Just by reputation. He made a nasty one for himself during the war.”

“And before. And after.” Roy scowled. “This isn’t some druidic initiate, Grunt. Oldfathers came up during the golden era of Columbian druidry. If Morainehenge still stood today he’d be running it. He’s probably the most powerful and skilled druid left on this continent. You think he’s trying to level this town so you propose we go after him with five men?”

“Four, actually. Guild Agent O’Hara is a woman,” Reeds pointed out. Marshall nudged his brother. “Yes, fine. My brother would also like to include Widow Blythe.”

“I’m not sure-“

“No.” Roy cut Grunt off definitively. “We are not feeding a sixth person into the carnage, it is simply not going to help.”

“Harp.” Grunt gave his old friend a patient look. “It’s been ten years. General Oldfathers doesn’t have an army anymore and he’s not getting any younger.”

“Age and magic don’t tie together like age and strength, Grunt.”

“Plus we’ve got you and O’Hara so it’s not like we’re helpless on that score.”

Reeds cleared his throat. “I have some skill in the arcane as well. And the Widow was once in the service of your Lady in Burning Stone.”

“Outside of the cants and rituals I don’t think Hearthkeepers practice a whole lot of magic.”

“We’re talking about Orphanfree, Grunt,” Roy snapped. “It doesn’t matter if we’re all master vulcanists on a mountain covered in pine trees!”

“Fine. We’ll even the odds,” Grunt said, refusing to match Roy’s intensity. “You know plenty of other firespinners for hire. Go to the semaphore tower and sent a message to a few. Call up the Strongest Man-“

Roy got out of his seat even faster the second time, the pain in his side an echo to the thud of his fist on the desk. “Don’t say it. Ignis fatuus, Grunt, I know magic isn’t your thing but you should know creatures like that hear when you name them. And they’re likely to answer. Going to one, hat in hand, never solves problems.”

“Not even a problem like Orphanfree?”

“Oldfathers is just a man, Grunt. That isn’t, no matter what it’s called.”

“I’ll take your word for it, Harp.” Grunt sighed. “Listen, I asked for your help but there’s no hard feelings if you don’t want to. We’re not soldiers anymore. No one’s going to hold it against you if you decide to sit this one out.”

Roy pushed away from the desk with a grunt and smoothed the front of his jacket. “Fine. If that’s how it is, then that’s how it is. It was good to see you, Grunt, circumstances notwithstanding.”

Ben nodded once then turned his attention to Reeds. “Tell me about these divinations of yours, and what they suggest is going on up on the mountains.”

It was a dismissal and Roy knew it. He collected his hat from the rack and showed himself out of Grunt’s office. Marshall stared at him the entire way.

Firespinner Chapter One – Malice in the Pines

The afternoon sun struck Roy’s eyes the moment he stepped off the Argentum Express.

“Dust and ashes,” he muttered, jamming his derby hat onto his head to block the light. “Mountain air will be the death of me.”

The metal monstrosity of the sky train shifted and creaked as its frame cooled. Roy did his best to ignore it. In the recesses of his mind he knew exactly how much magic had lifted the Express off the ground in Leondale, how many sulfurite crystals had exhausted their fire to push it over the mountains to the head of the Mi-Tzi river. He also knew exactly how much power now bled from the bottom of the train’s cars behind him in smoke and embers, wasted. The fire whispered in the back of his mind. Told him it would gather if he willed it, begged him for purpose, for form, swore if he only gave in to his desire, the fire would burn it into reality.

But Roy Harper’s thoughts were his own. The fire was welcome in them only when invited and he hadn’t travelled here to burn. He’d come to work.

Roy straightened his jacket and crossed the platform towards town. The station was a few hundred feet outside of Yellowstone, connected to the town by a gravel path winding alongside the shores a of wide lake that took up the northern half of the valley. From the air the water had looked like an alien eye, a ring of reddish brown oxide deposits around a bright cyan pool with unfathomable depths at the center. But from the path the lake itself was little more than a strip of bright, rippling liquid below a picturesque landscape with the town walls giving way to the rising ridges of the Yellowstone mountains. In spite of the clear day down below gathering clouds hid the upper peaks from view. For a moment Roy enjoyed the simple pleasures of the natural world.

“Hungry tree! Hungry tree!”

Roy’s head snapped around, scanning for danger. Deep in his gut he felt something was wrong, something beyond the obvious, which was a twenty foot pine tree that had lurched out of the tree line and was rapidly closing on the stream of passengers making their way to Yellowstone. The tree’s roots thumped and slithered over the ground like dozens of crazed snakes. Loose stones and uprooted grass flew behind it, kicked up by the fast moving appendages.

The crowd of passengers panicked.

Most of the crowd saw the tree and bolted for town. Yellowstone’s ten foot tall earthworks were enough to stop most trees and Leroy could see the guard patrols atop it to fend off anything the walls alone wouldn’t deter so heading for town was a sensible move. More foolhardy souls drew weapons and formed a ragged line between the tree and the rest of the crowd.

Roy saw the telltale flares of light as two spadroons and one sword cane ignited. The weapons were deadly enough, even in untrained hands, but only against human targets. Trees were another matter. They were too hard to cut or stab effectively, had no vitals to target and sap prevented their burning easily. If you really wanted to threaten them a heavy ax was the surest bet.

That, or a fire bordering on an inferno.

Roy glanced back at the train, a few dozen feet back, opened his mind and made the invitation. Every sulfurite crystal in the cars thrummed in response. Streams of fire burst from under the train, forming into a spiraling funnel until they merged into a single, serpentine torrent. Roy turned and dashed towards the tree, the fire trailing behind, eagerly responding to his thoughts of the winding river he’d flown over for the past several hours.

Ahead, the situation had gotten much worse. An arm in a gray sleeve stuck out from under a tangle of roots, a still burning cane sword lying on the ground a few feet away. One of the men with spadroons was trying to work his way around to the trapped man while the other was swinging frantically at the tree’s waving branches in an attempt to get its attention. Roy slowed and reevaluated his strategy. Flashburning the tree wasn’t an option now, in fact he’d pulled too much fire from the train to attack without hurting the trapped man.

A wave of the hand split the flames in half and Roy scattered what he didn’t need into the grass along the path. That would keep it going for a minute or two if he needed to come back for it. The man working around the side of the tree jumped away from the unexpected spray of flames. Seeing that, Roy tweaked the placement of the fires just enough to keep him separate from the tree. That gave him enough room to work. The rest of the fire got crushed down into a bead as small as Roy’s pinky joint that he wove through the flailing branches.

Touched against the trunk of the tree.

And let go.

The resulting explosion blew two of the lower branches off of the pine and sent it slowly toppling over. Through sheer force of will Roy shaped the explosion up and away from the trapped man and the effort left him winded. It wasn’t a simple matter for a downed tree to get upright again but it was possible and the pine immediately set about it, branches waving in erratic spasms that set the trunk undulating like a snake. Roy grabbed the grass fires back up, still advancing, and dumped the flame on the tree’s upper branches, spreading the pain out. Then one of the men still on their feet joined the effort, his spadroon tossing out angry gouts of fire in short, fat bursts.

But, while needles blackened and bark charred, the pine refused to burn.

Roy dashed past the downed man as the other spadroon wielder vented and sheathed his weapon, dragging the injured man out of the way. The pine’s roots dug into the ground and the massive tree nearly spasmed fully upright again. Fire wasn’t going to keep it down. For a moment Roy considered trying his bone bead necklace but decided that, given the circumstances, adding snow to the equation was counterproductive. So he finished pulling on his dueling gloves, the heavy leather supple and familiar in his hands, then drew his last card to play.

The dagger over his left hip came free with a soft rasp. Dead iron, cold wrought in the old style, forced into the shape of a weapon by naught but a hammer and human will.

Forged to kill magic in all it’s forms.

And life was the highest form of all.

Branches flailed wildly but Roy slipped past them and plunged the tip of the dagger down into the trunk of the tree with all his weight behind it. The tree bent almost double with a tortured groan, folding until up around the dagger like a book, then snapped straight, fast as a jumping spider. Its trunk smashed into Roy and sent him flying through the air. He didn’t remember landing.

As he lay staring up at the sky, feeling the waves of the lake lapping in his hair, he felt it again. Something about the tree was off. Or maybe it was just his ribs, which he felt throbbing with every heartbeat. Whatever the matter was, it would have to wait. He bolted back to his feet, viciously pushing his complaining ribs to the back of his mind, expecting to find the last two passengers at the mercy of the tree.

Instead he found the tree struggling to do anything with half its roots cut away. Two woodsmen were cleaving through its branches, their heavy bearded axes propelled in complex, lethal cutting patterns by gouts of fire blasting from the back of the ax heads. The gleaming bronze blades never stopped moving and, in the time it took Roy to stagger out of the lake and across the gravel path, the tree toppled to the ground a final time.

Twitched once.

And didn’t move again.

After a moment’s pause the woodsmen moved in and began hacking the tree to pieces, stripping the branches from the trunk with shocking speed. Roy swayed on his feet, caught his breath and wiped water out of his eyes. Turned out his hair was soaked. He took the handkerchief out of the breast pocket in his vest and ran it through his sopping locks then looked around for his hat. Found it in the grass beside the gravel pathway, dusted it off and put it back on. And went to talk to his employer.

“That you, Grunt?” He rasped out as he got close to the woodsmen.

The bigger of the two paused in hacking the tree to pieces just long enough to glance at Roy. “Up already, Harp? You need to learn to take it easy.”

Roy took a deep breath; quashed a wince as his ribs twinged extra hard. “Easy is for old men.”

A final swing of the ax cut the top third of the tree away. Ben Grunwald slung his weapon over his shoulder and grinned. “That’s what I’m trying to say, Harp.”

“Bite your tongue, kid.”

Grunt laughed and shouldered his ax. “You’re only a year older than me, Harp.”

Roy looked along the trunk and found his knife. One attempt was all it took to realize he couldn’t bend down and retrieve it.

Grunt’s companion reached down to grab it for him. “Gloves!” Grunt snapped. “That’s an iron dagger, Will. Put on gloves! Dust and ashes, man, look at the way it’s burned into the bark.”

Will hesitated, embarrassed. Roy resisted the urge to join in with Grunt. Yes, the the dagger had sapped the magic out of a two foot section of the trunk leaving it gray and lifeless but it was hard to pick the damage out of all the burns they’d left on the runaway plant.

The kid fished a pair of thick work gloves out of a pocket, yanked the implement free and handed it back to Roy with a sheepish look. He couldn’t have been more than half Roy’s age, probably somewhere around fourteen or fifteen, but even so he was big and strong, standing a full hand taller than Roy was. Most men were taller than Roy, of course, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t annoyed by it.

He snatched the dagger back from Will and put it back into its sheath then looked around for any further complications. Patches of fire still burned in the grass. A quick thought rounded all of them up into a small, angry red orb. Since it was a long walk back to the train and he couldn’t keep control of the flames over that long a distance Roy settled for channeling the remaining firepower into the sulfurite crystals in his cufflinks. They’d needed topping off after the long train ride anyways.

The three other passengers that fought with the tree looked like they were going to be okay, though the man in gray who got trapped under the pine’s roots had some nasty bruises and limped a bit. Then again, Roy was feeling much the same and he expected to make a full recovery. The rest of the passengers who’d run for it were out of sight, presumably safe inside Yellowstone’s earthworks.

“You some kind of wizard?” Will asked, watching Roy from the corner of his eyes.

Roy snorted. “Do I look like I’m coalstoking Dutch?”

Grunt laughed. “It’s the way you dress, Harp. The only people this far north who bother with those fancy suits of yours are the pompous types. ‘Course he thought you’re a wizard.” Grunt threw an arm over Roy’s shoulders and thumped him on the chest, which hurt but Roy ignored. It wasn’t as bad as the flannel of his bright red shirt scratching against Roy’s face. “But Harp’s just been touched by some druid nonsense, just like I was. Except it made me bigger and taller and it made him angry.”

“If I was as angry as all that you wouldn’t have that arm.” Roy shrugged Grunt’s arm off and straightened his suit. It was tailored but made of cotton and he didn’t think it was all that fancy.

“But what about…” Will waved his hands theatrically towards the scorch marks on the ground.

“Don’t worry about it,” Roy grumbled. “Grunt, you got some kind of druid or medicine man in town? That tree didn’t seem like it was running wild.”

Grunt glanced back towards town, where a larger party of woodsmen were coming out through the main gate to come meet them. Then he turned to his companion and gestured to the loose pile of wood that had once been a tree, still twitching but too small to move or think on its own anymore. “Will, lash up that lumber and help the boys get it back to town.”

The unspoken message came through loud and clear. Roy should ask again in private. “Am I the only one you invited to this little party?”

“The only one who said he was coming. We might see Van Der Klein or Cain, but they never said one way or another.”

“Klein ain’t coming. He just got married two months ago.”

Ben’s jaw dropped. “What?”

“Books tried to get ahold of you but you weren’t at your last three addresses.” Roy looked out at the scenic mountain peaks and the menacing forest line. “He didn’t know you put on the flannel and came up here to cut trees.”

“Ignis fatuus.” Grunt looked dejected. “Can’t believe I missed that.”

“Speaking of-” Roy began to reach into his jacket then gasped as pain shot through his side.

“Let’s get you back to town,” Grunt said. “The Woodsman’s Guild has someone to look at that for you.”

They started down the path to Yellowstone again. Roy managed to get the package out of his pocket after a moment. Thankfully it didn’t look damaged from the fight. “Books sent me your mail and asked me to bring it to you.”

Grunt took it with a grin. “He can’t stop with the sending things, can he? Natural born quartermaster. Seen him recently?”

“At the wedding.”

“Is he doing well?”

“He’s fatter than ever and still making money hand over fist.” Roy shook his head in disgust. “Who knew there was so much wealth in selling beans to the old continent.”

“Chocolate ain’t just any beans, Harp.”

“I suppose.” There was a gurgling, coughing noise then an enormous pillar of water shot up out of the lake. “Dust and ashes, what is that?”

“Yose’s Heartbeat,” Grunt said. “As the locals call it. It’s a geyser in the lake that erupts every morning, afternoon and witching hour.”

“Lovely.”

“Anyway, even if Cain doesn’t come-“

“Cain’s not coming.”

Grunt gave him an odd look. “Was he getting hitched, too?”

“There’s a price on his head. He’d be stupid to show his face around anyone from the unit.”

“A price…” Grunt sighed. “What’s he wanted for?”

“Killed a woman down in Winchester County.”

“So it finally came to that.” Grunt shook his head. “Well, you’re right, we probably won’t see him then.”

“We’d better not. If I see his worthless face I’ll cremate him myself.”

They walked in uncomfortable silence for a long moment. Then Grunt gathered himself and said, “Well, you were the only one who came but that’s all right. The Guild brought in a fixer and two of the local Sanna are pitching in. Five should be enough.”

“Let’s hope so.”

Grunt laughed. “You make it sound like you already know what the job is.”

Roy looked over his shoulder at the woodsmen gathering up the downed tree. He wasn’t an expert but he was fairly certain it was too small to be thinking and moving on its own in the first place. And even if it was big enough to move itself trees knew better than to stray too close to human habitation. There was no reason for it to get that close to Yellowstone unless it was ensorcelled. “I might have a guess or two at that…”

Martian Scriptures Chapter Twenty One – The Precipice

Previous Chapter

“I thought you said you’d done this before.”

Gemma stopped in the middle of banging the rust off one of the eight servo stations that needed replacing. “We didn’t have to do it in suits down in the Sunbottle. Not to mention the rust.” With a final bang she got the access panel on the side of the servo open and started rummaging around inside. “How did it even get out here, anyway? Didn’t think there was enough oxygen or moisture in the air outside the dome.”

“I dunno. Maybe it worked its way around from the inside. Maybe there’s a similar reaction with the atmosphere out here.” Pak handed her a cable tester when she waved for it. “Maybe we just got bad parts when these were installed.”

“That’s comforting.” She fiddled for a moment then yanked a set of cables out. “No good.”

“Will replacing those add any time to fixing the hatch?”

Another set of cables came out of the hatch with similar abruptness. “I want to say not much but I’ve never had to rerun a set of these in vacuum rated gloves. It could just be a few minutes per servo, it could turn into as much as half an hour.”

“How long did this take down below?”

Gemma glanced at him over top of the hatch. “Twenty minutes with an experienced crawl team, thirty if I was on it. We’re getting two crawl teams plus the watchers you pulled, so we only need to do two servos per team. But the real problem is how deep we need to go.”

The lip of the hatch was about four inches above the red Martian dirt underfoot. Pak gave it another once over, he’d been certain there weren’t any servos down there but he hadn’t looked closely before. He’d been under the impression they wouldn’t do much on the bottom of the frame.

“Deep into the wiring,” Gemma said with a giggle. “Not underground. Corrosion tends to spread once it gets onto something. We may need to rip out part of the wiring in the dome walls or even find a junction box and rerun an entire line in order to get power moving to these things again.”

“Great.” Pak scooped up the hammer she’d been working with a moment ago. “Well, let me know if you need a hand with anything.”

“Where are you going?”

“To get the next servo case open.” He started towards the other side of the hundred and twenty foot hatch. “The sooner we can get all these tests done and start the replacements the happier I’ll be.”


 

“…And this is the Sunbottle.”

“Impressive.” It really was. Harriet hadn’t expected to feel outdone by the Malacandrans at any point during her visit but the reactor’s main floor atrium was enough to take the breath away after a few days on the bleak surface of the Red Planet. “Was it built like this or did you remodel it?”

Nobari shrugged. “It’s not really clear what is original and what was added by the Founders but the early records suggest at least part of this was added after Bottletown was established. Most of our existing facilities started off as remains for Borealis and were expanded to accommodate more people as the population grew.”

“Why not just expand out into the old colony?” Aubrey asked. “We have a lot of old, unused buildings on Earth but we were never shy about reappropriating them if we had a need. It’s just most of the time we didn’t.”

“Most of the old places are – were – unsafe. And there’s the question of whether we can feed everyone if we expand.” Nobari made a noncommittal noise. “Or that’s what I would have told you two weeks ago. There’s a lot about the Founders that only the Eldest and his or her successor know. Normally I’d be in the process of passing most of that on to Elder Rectenwald now that I’m Eldest but, to be honest, I’m not sure how much of it is going to be relevant in the future.”

“So you think you stayed out of the rest of the colony because only these buildings were masked by the reactor?” Harriet understood that was what the Naval engineers thought.

“That’s a possibility, although I don’t have the first clue how to tell if it’s true.” Nobari led them across the atrium to a door at one end of the oval and let them in. They arrived in a bare office with a single bookshelf at one end. “Most of our knowledge of the Founders’ era tells us about how things work but not why they work that way. In the Founders’ time people were not sent into Silence as young as now and there were fewer people overall, so they had more time to delve into the whys of the hows. Now most of what they learned just sits here and gathers dust.”

“What do you think the whys are, Eldest?” Harriet asked.

That drew the first genuine smile he’d shown that day. “Me? I’m an odd person to ask, don’t you think?”

Harriet fumbled for a moment, a bit taken aback. “Well, you’re the Eldest, aren’t you?”

“That doesn’t mean as much as you might think,” he answered, laughing. “I’ve known most of the Eldest’s secrets for about twenty days and I’ll leave the position in about the same period of time, Oyarsa willing. That’s about average for an Eldest’s tenure. There’s really not a whole lot of weight to the position, or at least there wasn’t until we had you folks to deal with.”

“But you are the one dealing with us,” Harriet pointed out.  “That makes it your decision and makes your thoughts kind of important, no?”

Nobari rocked uncomfortably from one foot to the other and back again. “Perhaps.”

Long honed instincts told Harriet she wasn’t going to get any more pushing harder. Better to let the interview’s subject take some time to sort their thoughts out. “I know this is a strange time for you,” she said. “We’ll let you–“

“Eldest!” A harried looking young man burst into the room, panting.

Nobari pivoted instantly from uncomfortable contemplative to decisive actor, pivoting to look back to at the door in the same moment. “What’s wrong, Ramone?”

“The wing fields are fluctuating towards the edges of the orange zone in shorter and shorter intervals!” He paused and gasped in another breath. “We could be looking at a complete field collapse!”

Momentary confusion crossed Nobari’s face, then he nodded. “This is because of the conduit problem Elder Alyssa was working on?”

“Yes, Eldest!”

Nobari started for the door with purposeful strides. “Show me.”


 

The crates took up a full quarter of the spacelock and the last batches of parts were still trickling in from fabber labs across the ship but, based on her expression, Alyssa was already overwhelmed by what she was seeing. Craig suppressed a smile and asked, “Is anything not up to your standards?”

“I wouldn’t say that. Pretty much the opposite, in fact.” She was looking over the injector assembly in her hands with a critical eye. She indicated a small patch near the primary coupling. “I’m not even sure what some of these parts do. I presume this is the secondary regulator, because that’s where it is on the parts we use, but this is far too small to be an exact replica of them.”

“It’s not,” Deveneaux confirmed. “It’s  a modern regulator with a quarter the size and twice the redundancy as what you have now. We’re not replacing your primary regulators right now so they aren’t going to take all the burden off the injection system but they will remove some of the strain. You can keep running your reactor under its current settings for another couple of centuries before the problems start again. But let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”

Alyssa put the injector back into its spot in the crate and closed the lid. “I don’t understand why you would consider sharing technology like this immoral. You could do so much good with it.”

“It’s not the technology itself that’s the problem,” Craig said. “Human beings are influence by their environment, up to and including the technology and culture around them. We think introducing technology and culture to those who aren’t prepared to deal with it is a harmful influence to the people in question. It distorts their culture and prevents them from developing into who they would be otherwise.”

“What if who they would be otherwise is less human than the people they will become if you help them?”

“That’s hardly a new line of thought, ma’am. But it’s also a very dangerous one. Many evil things in the past were done in the name of helping other people.” Craig shrugged. “Ultimately we decided that intervention beyond certain boundaries was something we couldn’t be trusted with. Humanity is not a thing we let ourselves define.”

“If you won’t define it, why have the word?” She locked the crate closed with a little more force than necessary. “We never wanted to become a colony locked in a dome, hiding from our homeworld, ignorant of how half our technology works. It was a terrible thing, made worse because we remember just enough to know that, in many ways, we are so much less than what we should be. Even then, we may never conform to what you think humanity should be, either. But it would be nice to at least know enough to judge whether you’re lying to me about the evils of the past. We could find our own ways to avoid them, then.”

A smile tugged at the corners of Craig’s mouth. He knew when he’d lost a point. “I think we can do that, at least. Is everything to your liking?”

She glanced down at her inventory list. “I think I’ve seen everything. And yes, it all looks more than functional in our reactor.”

“Excellent, then I’ll–” A low whistle in his ear informed him of an incoming communication. “Excuse me for a moment.”

He moved a couple of paces away and flicked a finger so his AI would tell him who was calling. A bland voice told him, “Harriet Thacker.”

Craig frowned. She was supposed to be on the surface, doing journalist things. He accepted the call. “Miss Thacker?”

“Captain.” She sounded a little frantic. “You need to get Mrs. Pracht and Commander Deveneaux on a line down here ASAP. Something’s gone haywire in the Sunbottle.”

“Understood. Standby.” He cut the line and looked across the spacelock. “Chief Merryweather! Start loading it up! Alyssa, Commander, we need to make a quick visit to the comms lab…”

Martian Scriptures Chapter Twenty – The Middle Ground

Previous Chapter

Harriet watched what was quickly turning into one of the oddest arguments she’d ever witnessed take shape. On one side was an enormous two meter spacer, an experienced surveyor who’d visited more planets in the last five years than most people would see in a lifetime. The other was a kind of dumpy mother of two who’d lived her whole life under a single colony dome and first met someone from outside said dome less than a week ago. They were apparently debating the theological implications of nuclear physics.

“We know that the reactor was modified to disguise your colony, Miss Pracht,” Fyodorovich was saying. “But there are a dozen other ways we could achieve the same end with safer equipment. Part of the reason your reactor is failing is because it’s been forced to do something entirely outside its specifications.”

“It’s not a matter of the technology at work, Volk,” Alyssa replied. “We know the reactor is a nuclear fusion device. But Ransom’s notes also suggest its part of how the Oyarsa defends the colony against Thulcandra. How do we know replacing it with two different pieces of technology keeps the same effect?”

“But what if you don’t need it anymore?” Fyodorovich countered. “You’re not in any meaningful danger from Earth now.”

“Only for as long as you stay,” she countered. “And then only as long as Thulcandra is and remains as helpless as you say it is. You can’t honestly expect us to put our trust in something that flimsy, can you? Outsiders haven’t exactly done right by us in the past.”

Volk sat back in his chair, an old thing left by the basecamp’s previous occupants that had more dust for padding than cushions. It creaked ominously under the navy man’s weight. His face gave little away and, since he hadn’t given Harriet any clues on his negotiation strategy before Alyssa had arrived with the Eldest, she wasn’t sure if he’d expected this dead end or what his next move might be.

But it turned out Volk’s plans didn’t matter at this stage. Eldest Nobari leaned forward, rested his forearms on the table and said, “Commander Fyodorovich, at this point I think we’ve said all that can be said on this front. The Sunbottle is our only tested defense against the threat of Thulcandra. You could very well explain enough of your technology to Alyssa to convince us your new countermeasures could work. The spiritual protection they offer us from the Enemy might even carry over, whether or not you believe such a thing is possible. After all, the original Sunbottle came from Thulcandra itself, a planet on the other side of the spiritual battle we live in. I’m sure a reactor made by those who don’t believe in it at all could function just as well.”

“But you’re unwilling to take our word for it,” Volk said.

“Correct.”

The big man sighed. “Under the circumstances, I understand. At least to an extent. Can I ask you something, Miss Pracht?”

“Of course.”

“Does the name C.S. Lewis mean anything to you?”

Harriet glanced up at that. She’d mostly been watching the transcript her AI was building up until that point but the introduction of this new, unexpected name got her attention.

“I’ve never heard it before,” Alyssa said. An honest answer, by Harriet’s assessment. She hadn’t met the Martian woman until they visited the ship two days ago but Alyssa struck her as the type to wear most of her feelings on her sleeve. That undoubtedly made puberty hard but journalism easier. For the journalist, not Alyssa.

Nobari, on the other hand, shut down. It was less obvious, just a rapid flick of the eyes from one person to another, a twitch of the cheek and slight turn of the lips suggesting he’d heard something he hadn’t expected. Then all motion left his expression in a clear attempt to withhold any tells. A well done poker face implemented a split second too late.

Volk grunted and changed the display on the holoprojector he was using, replacing the current image of  the layout for a replacement reactor with a new image of a large landing craft. “Fine. A full replacement is the safest, fastest way to solve your problem but there is another option.”

“Retooling the Sunbottle.”

He glanced at Alyssa with an amused smile. “I suspect that’s along the lines of what your previous proposed solution was?”

“Yes.” She seemed less amused at the line of thought. “But that assumed we had the time to fabricate a whole new set of junctions and injectors, plus enough batteries to store enough power to run the dome in the meantime.”

A new set of readouts were ready and projected for them to look at. Volk began pointing out parts of the plan as he explained. “That assumes a couple of things. First, that you have to use battery power. But if we bring down a Tigris-class lander we can hook the ship’s generator into your power grid and run your buildings off of that. The reactor only needs to be offline for about a day before you can start booting it up again, in about two days you can run the full dome on that level of output and a Tigris can put out enough power to run Bottletown for about a week, so plenty of breathing room.”

“What about the rest of the dome?” Nobari asked.

“Your crops and equipment can last a couple of days without gravity or air circulating. We’ll keep the EM shielding up so you don’t catch any extra radiation from the sun. Brownouts like this used to be a regular thing on some of the space stations we have so we’ve had plenty of chances to work up measures to deal with them. Nothing we’ve experienced suggests it will pose a problem for anything you’ve got down here.”

“But we won’t have the raw materials strip and replace one full injector system until we strip some of the parts,” Alyssa objected. “That alone pushes our timeline out a day and a half, maybe two. And adds the fisher’s equipment back into the list of things that have to run.”

“No. Because that’s the second thing your plans assume.” The project switched images again, this time changing to pure text. “I’ve been talking with our engineering experts onboard the Stewart, that’s how I knew this problem was coming in the first place. We’ve put a lot of the parts into production shipside already. If you didn’t need them they could’ve always been recycled and this way we weren’t wasting any time. And not only have we already started, our fabbers work much faster than yours. A full set of replacement hardware should be ready to go within six hours.”

Nobari leaned forward and studied the readout intently. “I see why you’re so reluctant to impress yourselves on others,” he said after a moment. “You could sway a huge number of people to your side with these kind of gestures. What do you want in return?”

“Eldest,” Alyssa hissed.

“It’s fine.” Volk cleared the readout. “Personally, I’d just like your goodwill. These kinds of goodwill gifts are common in diplomacy but if you don’t like feeling indebted you can just let us take your old injector systems. Once we break them down we’ll be no worse off in terms of raw materials.”

Nobari leaned back and thought about it for a moment, then glanced at his companion. “Alyssa?”

“I’d like a closer look at the plans for your lander. And I insist on looking over your replacement parts before you send them down. But…” She hesitated a moment, then shook her head. “I can’t think of any reason not to do it this way.”

Nobari nodded, as much to himself as to anyone around him. “Very well. Let’s do it.”

Volk stood up and shook his hand. “Certainly. I presume you want to get this done as soon as possible?”

“Sooner, if we can get away with it,” Alyssa said, also standing.

“Then let’s get you spaceborn ASAP.”

Harriet stepped forward, moving around Volk as the big man led Alyssa out of basecamp, choosing instead to approach the Eldest. “Excuse me,” she said, moving her AI to her off hand so she could offer a handshake. “Mr. Nobari? Could I trouble you for a comment?”


 

Craig looked through the diagrams Deveneaux was explaining and said, “You say it has less than a year of service left?”

“That’s our most generous estimate, yes.”

“Why wasn’t I briefed on this immediately?”

“Well…” The engineer glanced over at the ship’s tactical officer just down the table. “I did intend to bring it up as soon as we reached these conclusions but there were other issues demanding your attention at the time.”

For a split second Craig wondered if his career was over. It was a Prime Directive violation and he hadn’t even been able to ask Admiral Carrington to formally order his crew to intervene for the sake of form. At the same time his heart was with Volk. He wanted to help the children Earth had abandoned to Mars. He just wasn’t sure that they were going about it the best way. Then again, the Malacandrans had been on the verge of addressing the problem before the Stewart arrived. Perhaps without the distraction of their presence on the ground in the first place they would have solved the reactor’s problems already. He rocked back in his chair and stared up at the ceiling for just a moment. “Okay, Commander, how long will it take us to finish producing the replacement parts they need?”

“Assuming Commander Fyodorovich brings their techs up immediately? We should have all the parts finished an hour after they arrive. Depending on how long the inspection takes we can get a lander loaded and back out in another two.”

“That’s awful fast,” Rand muttered, looking at the parts inventory. “How much of this did we have in inventory already?”

“None of it,” Deveneaux replied. “It’s two hundred fifty year old tech, why would we have it on hand?”

“You’re going to nanofacture all this in…” Craig did some mental estimates. Ninety to a hundred minutes to get up from Mars, plus an hour after they arrived. “Two and a half hours?”

“This is four hours of work, at least,” Rand said.

“Five, actually.” Deveneaux shrugged. “When I couldn’t discuss it with you I checked with Fyodorovich. We decided it was worth going ahead and starting on, so I cleared the cues on the fabbers and started production.”

Rand straightened in surprise. “You canceled my type two shelters?”

“You’re not going to need an outpost on Mars if the reactor melts down, Commander.”

“I agree,” Craig said, clearing the holodisplay. “Well done, Commander Deveneaux. Keep me posted if there are any developments in the situation. I’ll report to the Admiral.”

“Wait. One thing.” Rand visibly got his head back in the game. “How are we getting a lander inside the colony? Do we need to include some way to open the dome?”

Deveneaux shook his head. “I’m told that’s something they can handle on their side of things.”


 

“Okay,” Pak said, looking around at his fellow shift heads and Gemma. “Who here has ever replaced the servos on an exterior door? Or has anyone on their shifts who has? Lawrence? Tupulo?”

To his surprise, Gemma raised her hand.

“Really?”

“I used to be on one of the crawler crews.” She clasped her hands together and her fingers worried at each other. “Not many people know it but there’s a set of exterior doors at the bottom of the Sunbottle. We had to replace the servos once a year.”

Pak gave the girl a hard look. She was odd, and a little flighty, but she’d never deliberately lied as far as he knew. “What possible use for an exterior door do you have down there?

She threw her hands out in an enormous shrug. “I don’t know. Crawlers just take replace parts, we aren’t told what they’re for.”

“Fine. Go check with the crawlers on shift today, see if they have any of those servos on hand. It’ll save us time if we don’t have to make the parts from scratch.” He looked up and out the watch tower windows, towards the hatch in the dome a few hundred meters away. “We got enough on our plate as it is.”

Martian Scriptures Chapter Nineteen – Quick Fixes

Previous Chapter

Volk did not expect to walk straight in to Bottletown given the poor showing he’d made on his last visit. He really didn’t expect to do it with the ludicrous entourage he’d picked up on the way. Of the people who started out back at the Borealis basecamp only Long had remained behind to facilitate communications with the ship – a job that boiled down to making sure the comm relay didn’t short out. Everyone else grabbed such equipment as was relevant to their jobs and followed behind Pak as the excitable kid dragged the lot of them back to see whatever emergency had him so worked up. Captain Gyle understood that this was a chance to repair some of the ill will that they’d apparently built up with the Malacandrans and had settled in on the bridge to armchair quarterback the situation.

Which was great if you weren’t the head of Martian Operations. If you were, you had to listen to said quarterbacking for the whole run across Borealis, too out of breath to say anything back. “And try to figure out what they were expecting when Ransom came back,” Gyle was saying. “There’s nothing in either of the sequels that suggest Ransom ever expected to return to Mars.”

“Don’t think… they know… about sequels,” Volk huffed, marveling at how fast Pak was going. He said his primary job involved sitting in a tower, at a console. When had he had time to develop the legs of an Olympic sprinter?

“That may be the first thing we bring in to further negotiations,” Gyle mused. “New revelations may soften them up some. The last book apparently establishes Earth as a viable planet again.”

“I’m not sure upsetting their worldview that way is a good choice right now.” Dulan’s voice was distant, suggesting she was away from her pickup. “There’s a good chance they’re not running off the published text anyways.”

“What?” Volk huffed.

“That’s true,” Gyle said. “There’s nothing I’ve read in Lewis’ novel that suggests ritual suicide, for example. The early Malancadrans may have reworked the novel to reinforce some of their more unpleasant practices to help justify them to future generations.”

That made a certain degree of sense but before Volk could ask any of the dozens of questions that sprang to mind he had to skid to a stop or run over Pak.

“What?” Volk asked again.

“This is the Glass Box,” Pak replied, sounding just a touch winded. “Come on.”

It turned out the Glass Box was a hospital. 

Or more probably, an old first aid station. Really just a reception room, four beds and two of the titular Glass Boxes, containers the size of a coffin that currently contained one person each. In spite of the burns on much of their bodies, Volk guessed they were more comfortable than anyone else in the building, there were already at least a dozen people in there when he arrived with his group and from the sounds of shuffling and grunting everyone who had followed along was packing in behind him after he entered. “All right… Pak. Tell me… what happened.”

“What is he doing here?” Nobari’s voice came from behind one of the Glass Boxes. A moment later he stood up from behind it, irate. “Pak, who’s idea was this?”

“Mine,” he said. “They have a space ship, Eldest. Maybe they know more about how the Glass Box works, too. When I heard about the accident I went to get them.”

Volk refrained from comment until he managed to swim through the crowd and get up to the boxes himself. What he saw wasn’t encouraging.

One of the boxes contained a lanky kid he’d never seen before, somewhere between fourteen and twenty based on his height. The burns on his head, chest and arms kept Volk from guessing anything else about him, even his hair color. The other box contained Alyssa Pracht. Her burns were less severe and took up less real estate. Both were floating in some kind of highly viscus liquid reminiscent of a nanofacturing pool, both boxes had some kind of readouts at the end closest to the door.

Volk was no doctor but the readouts were simple enough. The boy’s were all in the red, showing no blood pressure, no heartbeat, no brain activity. Volk revised his estimate of their relative comfort levels. Alyssa was still alive but the signs were trending downward. If he was reading them right.

Volk rested his fingertips nervously on the readout panel. “Can anyone tell me what this setup is supposed to do?”

“The Glass Box is a medical device designed for repairing large scale topographical injuries.” Nobari said it with the singsong of someone reciting specifications learned by rote from a manual.

“How does it work?”

“It uses the same principles as the nanolathes and nanovats.”

Volk turned to look over the crowd. Saw the person he wanted in the back. “Miss Vance? We need your expertise.”

“Traffic control, Commander,” she said as she worked through the crowd. “I worked with AIs in traffic control, I’m not an expert on any of this.”

“But you know something about medical nanotech, which is more than the rest of us can say.” He looked back at the Glass Box. “So what can we do here?”

“Okay. Let’s see.” She rested her hands on the box. “Every traffic center has a few mobile, emergency nanotanks. Probably related to this system somehow. Our internal medical nanotech has limits based on our metabolism and available calories, dunking someone with large scale external injuries in something like this gets around those problems. But it’s the internal systems that deal with hemorrhaging and organ injuries from crashes. A mix of internal and external systems is considered best for dealing with significant injuries, which is what we have here.”

“What do you mean internal?” Nobari demanded.

Aubrey glanced up from the box, fingers drumming on it absently. “Do you have any kind of medical procedure done at the end of puberty?”

“What is puberty?”

“Never mind.” The cultural and social mess that was puberty was something Volk didn’t want to bother explaining. “She wants to know if you have some kind of medical operation everyone gets between 44 and 55 cents.”

“No.” Nobari shrugged. “But I was a healthy one. Someone might have.”

“There’s no reason not to give the tech to everyone,” Aubrey muttered. “Although plenty of reason not to keep using it after seeing everyone you knew with it go into Shutdown.”

“You think they stopped using it after Earth wiped out Borealis?” Volk asked.

“Wouldn’t you?” She countered. “I’m thinking of having mine removed, if that’s feasible. In the meantime, the only viable method of helping her I can think of is to pump her full of the stuff.”

“Great.” Volk clapped his hands in an ancient gesture to show willing. “Let’s see the manual on this thing, Eldest. I know you have them.”

That got him a peculiar look but Nobari just pulled a heavy plastic book from a slot in the Box’s primary support. “Here it is. But I’m afraid this is one of our more incomplete manuals. Several pages are missing in it.”

“In every copy?”

Nobari’s full attention ratcheted around to give Volk his full scrutiny. “How do you know how many copies we have?”

“I… don’t.” Which was true. And he wasn’t going to admit to seeing another one in the Eldest’s offices earlier.

“Well, the answer is yes, in all the copies we have certain pages are missing. There’s no mention of internal versus external treatment in any of the remaining pages.” Nobari set the book down on top of the box suddenly. “Although now that I think of it…”

When the silence got long Volk prompted him. “Think of what?”

But the eldest had just gone to the controls and started going through them with shocking speed. “There is a control screen we don’t know the full function of. Here.”

Volk peeked over one of Nobari’s shoulders, Aubrey the other. They saw a long list of options that could be toggled between two or more options. All of the options were abbreviated and he didn’t have the first clue what any of them did. Nobari pointed to one line where the toggles were labeled “E” and “I” saying, “We don’t know what any of these options do but we’ve been taught in no uncertain terms to make sure this is always set to the ‘E’ option.”

Aubrey tugged at the cuffs of her shirt absently as she studied the screen for a moment. “Maybe. Maybe not. I’m not sure that’s worth taking a risk on. What if It’s not?”

But Alyssa’s vitals had already dropped in the few moments they’d been talking. Volk sighed. “Then she’s probably going to die anyways.”

And he planted a finger on the touchpad and slid it until the E flipped to I. The glass box began humming softly. And Volk was suddenly aware that he was sweating profusely in his uniform and the air in the room was incredibly close. He turned around and started waving his hands at the crowd. “Okay, everybody, time to get back to work. To many people staring at you can ruin your recovery. I’m sure you’ll get to talk to Alyssa once she’s well again…”


 

The world came back slowly. Masamune Nobari was the first thing to come into focus – hardly what she’d call a great start – then Victor came along second. Alyssa let her husband put a hand under her back and lift her to a sitting position. Memories filtered back slowly at first, then all at once. “Where’s Doug?”

Nobari looked resigned. “There will be time for-“

“He didn’t make it, did he?” Alyssa slumped against Victor’s chest, profound disappointment settling over her in a shroud. It wasn’t the same as watching Naomi walk out of the dome the day before. She didn’t know Doug that well and hadn’t liked him any better than her other coworkers. But he had been a good man, so far as she knew, and knowing she wouldn’t see him again left her feeling off balance.

“Douglas Presser has passed into Silence,” Victor said. “But you’re still with us for now. Can you get up?”

She looked around, realized she was sitting in the middle of an empty Glass Box dressed in only minimal clothing, and felt the red start creeping over her body. “If I can’t I need you to move me. I’m not sitting here like this for another minute.”

A moment’s fumbling got Alyssa’s feet off the table and onto the floor then Vincent rocked her forward into a standing position and, still leaning on him, she turned towards the door. Much to her surprise she found it blocked by the short, dark haired, freakishly intense woman that had followed Volk around for the past several days. Alyssa racked her mind for a name but couldn’t come up with one. She didn’t think she’d ever heard it. “Sorry to interrupt,” she said, not looking sorry at all, “but Commander Fyodorovich would like a word with you.”

“He can wait,” Vincent replied with uncharacteristic heat.

In response the woman just hefted the helmet under her arm and pushed something inside. There must have been an external microphone somewhere as Volk’s voice came out of it. “Miss Pracht, I’d like a moment of your time.”

Alyssa groaned. “If this is about what happened at the Sunbottle–“

“Your reactor is failing.” Volk’s words hung in the air for just a moment. “In fact, I’d guess your emergency treatment today was the result of some aspect of the progressive system failure currently working its way through your reactor’s injector supply systems right now. If–“

“Listen,” Victor snapped, “my wife is our foremost expert on–“

Victor stopped short as she tightened her grip on his arm. “You’re correct, Commander.”

There was a moment of silence from the helmet, long enough Alyssa saw the woman carrying it give it a questioning glance. “Miss Pracht, for better or for worse you’ve had certain expectations of the people outside your dome for your entire life. You’ve expected them to come and change your world however they liked. It was just a question of when and whether they would be good people or bad people. For our part, we’ve had certain rules about how we treat other groups of people that tell us taking over and changing the rules in that way is, in and of itself, an evil thing to do. I’m not going to argue the merits of those positions. Instead, I’d like to offer you – and, if he’s there, the Eldest – a compromise.”

Alyssa and Nobari exchanged a glance. After a moment’s hesitation, Nobari answered. “Go ahead, Commander Fyodorovich.”

“If your people have a solution to this problem we will offer our technical expertise, available materials and fabrication capacity to assist in implementing it. If not, we have a solution of our own to propose.”

Nobari asked her the question with one raised eyebrow. She answered for the room to hear. “We had a solution, but the man who put it together died before he could fully explain it. I’m sure he had files somewhere we could use to piece it together but… the problem has also progressed much farther than we thought it had.”

It only took a second for Nobari to reach a decision after that. “In which case, we’d be happy to hear your proposal, Commander.”

“Then please meet me at basecamp at your earliest convenience. SFC Shen will show you how to get here.”

The helmet clicked and went quiet. Alyssa sighed and looked up at her husband. “I hope you brought me a change of work clothes.”


 

Volk signed off the comms and sighed, looking up at the ceiling and wondering how he got roped into all this.

“I’m surprised you got the Captain to sign off on this.” He practically jumped out of his skin and looked over at the doorway. Thacker was standing there, her AI in one hand and recording. “Nice work, by the way.”

He shook his head and laughed. “Thanks, I think. Didn’t realize I had an audience.”

“Being invisible is how a reporter does their best work. So.” She gave him a winning smile. “How did you convince the Captain to go along with this little plan of yours?”

Volk shrugged and reached for the comms again. “Let’s find out, shall we?”

Martian Scriptures Chapter Eighteen – Falling Dominoes

Previous Chapter

Vash Deveneaux did not want to go to the Captain’s Ready Room. It went against all protocol and considerations of shipboard life. When on the bridge, the Captain was surrounded in a perpetual cloud of holographic information that he had to monitor, analyze and react to on a second by second basis. The Ready Room was, in theory, a place to retreat from that and contemplate a single subject. Sometimes a subject unrelated to shipboard duties. It was grossly inconsiderate of the crew to pursue the Captain there with distractions and they all knew it.

Which was why it was doubly disconcerting to arrive at the Ready Room door and find Commander Rand there already. Vash frowned, sizing up his fellow officer. He’d never worked with Rand before their assignment to the Stewart, something that was no longer uncommon in the Rodenberry Stellar Navy. This wasn’t the six ship fleet the colony had started out with, it was a genuine fleet of eighty three ships plus six under construction. You couldn’t know every officer in your peer group anymore.

But in their six months together on the Stewart Vash had learned to loath him.

It was a very professional loathing, rather than a personal one, but a loathing none the less. Rand seemed to think shipboard security and tactical performance was the first duty of every department and spent an inordinate amount of time pestering his fellow department heads about their section’s performance in various drills. Meanwhile, he’d ignored two formal reports on excessive energy use Vash had sent him in as many months. It wasn’t the drop in efficiency that bothered him. It was the lack of consideration.

But Vash felt he had good cause to call on the Captain in his Ready Room. He was willing to do Rand the courtesy of assuming he had the same. So he just nodded a greeting. “Commander.”

“Morning, Vash.”

Vash did his best not to bristle at the familiarity. Rand was casual with everyone. “What brings you here?”

Rand was about to answer when the Ready Room door opened. The Captain was seated behind his desk, attention fixed on a text display. He waved one hand absently. “Come in, gentlemen.”

There was a moment’s hesitation as Rand wavered then Vash brushed past him. Rand followed with an annoyed sound and the Ready Room door closed behind them. “Unusual for the two of you to come together,” The Captain said after another few beats, closing down his reader. “This must be important.”

“Actually, we’re here on separate business,” Rand said, giving Vash an opaque look. “I have Jimenez’s report on the matter we discussed earlier. You did say you wanted to see it as soon as it was finished.”

The Captain nodded. “Yes, I did say that. I’m sorry, Commander Deveneaux, this will have to wait.”

For a brief moment Vash considered protesting, pushing for the importance of his own case. But it wasn’t because he honestly thought he was bringing something more important than the tactical officer; it was because he hated letting Rand have yet another win. The realistic portion of his mind knew that, under the circumstances, tactical considerations probably did take precedence but his pride still protested. Quite a bit.

“I understand, Captain. At your convenience.” Deveneaux turned around and let himself back out of the Ready Room, annoyance gnawing away at his patience. Still, there were options. As soon as the Ready Room door was closed behind him he keyed his comms. “Devenaux to Fabrication Bay Three.”

“Chief Volney here, Commander. Go ahead.”

“Go ahead and clear the fabbers for the new jobs we discussed earlier, Chief. Pull the pop-up shelters from the cue and swap in the parts the Spiner recommended, then move on down the list. Priority one, I don’t want this job suspended unless the orders come from me or the Captain.” He walked into the lift and ordered it back to Engineering.

“Understood, sir. Glad the Captain saw it your way.”

“I’m sure he will, Chief. Deveneaux out.” The truth was, very little of the equipment Vash’s engineers were responsible for was under their sole supervision. Even the nanofacturies in the ship’s fabrication plants had such constant demands placed on them that many people in other departments felt possessive of them. Which forced Vash to maneuver carefully where they were concerned most of the time. And to lean on other department heads when he had to assert himself. Vash keyed his comms again. “Deveneaux to Lab 232. Put me through to the head of Martian Operations, please.”


 

Harriet checked the AI display inside her helmet for the fifth time in as many minutes. She’d made the mistake of assuming she could navigate the streets of Old Borealis as easily as Commander Fyodorovich did and was fast discovering the actual limits of her abilities. It was annoying, less because she couldn’t get where she wanted to go and more because she’d been so confident she could do this she turned down an offer from the ensign in the lander to escort her to the base camp. Some might find constantly doubling back to find the right street in a place like Old Borealis fun. But those were people of different tastes and, more importantly, not people on the cusp of scoring the scoop of two centuries.

There were more than a dozen embedded journalists in the Fleet but the only one with a Terran human on the same ship was named Harriet Thacker.

There was still a chance some shenanigans would put the main body of the fleet in contact with Earth before her scoop developed into anything particularly meaningful. But she had to keep her instincts sharp and at least try for it or she was going to rot away and become useless as a journalist thanks to all the inactivity she’d endured in the Fleet so far.

Then again, she had gotten to Mars before any of the other journalists in the Fleet and there did seem to be something interesting going on here, too. Most of the Martians she’d met had been tight lipped about pretty much everything so far but a lot of journalism was slowly cultivating contacts until you learned something big. With less than a week invested on the ground so far she couldn’t expect a whole lot just yet.

But then again, maybe she could. One of the orange suits was hustling his way towards her. It was hard to tell with the ill fitted nature of the suit, plus the helmet obscuring the face, but it looked a lot like the Head Watcher, Teng Pak Won. Harriet waved a hand to him as he got close. “Good morning!”

He caught his breath then ripped his helmet off, confirming it was, in fact, Pak. “I need to talk to Volk, please. Is he here?”

“Last I heard he was at the base camp.” She studied his face a little more closely. “Is something wrong?”

“There’s been an accident.”


 

“So we’re looking at a Prime Directive problem,” Oda mused. “They’ve built a culture based on a work of fiction that leads to ritual suicide. The question it raises is whether it’s our place to interfere.”

“I’m sorry,” Aubrey said, her holographic projection leaning forward a few degrees, “this may not be procedure but can I ask what a Prime Directive problem is?”

“Of course, Miss Vance.” Craig dredged through old memories of Academy lessons – and now that he was thinking about it Veers was right, there was a lot of time spent on Rodenberry’s television there – to formulate a comprehensive answer. “I presume that Star Trek is not one of the aspects of old Earth culture that you maintain?”

“If it is, I’ve never heard of it,” she said. “But I’m not a real student of old world cultures.”

“Then simply put, the Prime Directive is a belief that interfering with the natural progression of a culture or civilization of vastly inferior scientific and technological knowledge is innately harmful, and thus immoral. Prime Directive problems hinge on when that belief is put in conflict with another core tenant of humanism, like the belief that life is inherently valuable. Is it ethical to use modern medicine to save a stone age species from dying in large numbers from a disease? Their culture will naturally warp in response to that. Can we guarantee it does more good than harm? We can’t see the future, after all.” Craig spread his hands. “But like the Three Laws of Robotics, the storytelling function of the Prime Directive was to challenge the idea that even straight forward moral notions could be easily understood when applied to real life.”

“That may have been Rodenberry’s original purpose,” Commander Dhawan said, “although I’m not sure the record there is clear. Regardless, many writers played it entirely straight even before the franchise crossed the accountability threshold. For example, in The Next-

“Putting aside the more labyrinthine parts of the analysis,” Craig put enough of an edge at the beginning to ensure Dhawan knew the topic was closed, “what we really need to ask ourselves is how ethical we think it is to interfere in this situation.”

Farah Dulan, human development officer, sociologist and the only other person physically present in the conference room with Craig, tapped the table to draw their attention. “While I’m not sure the Prime Directive was ever a truly ethical principle to hold to, it also doesn’t apply to our situation here. I can’t quote you every time the Directive was referenced in Rodenberry’s work but I do know that it wasn’t really meant to apply between radically different human cultures. All spacefaring civilizations were exempt from it and Mars was settled by a spacefaring civilization.”

“But they’ve clearly lost that capability,” Oda pointed out. “And there is a noninterference clause in the Naval charter, so its ethical considerations are secondary – we are bound to uphold it.”

“I think the question is moot.” There was a moment of uncomfortable silence as everyone in the physical and holographic meeting space turned their attention to Sergeant Langly.

Oda finally broke it. “Please explain, Sergeant.”

“I thought it was obvious,” Langly said with the annoyed tone universal to senior enlisted personnel who felt their officers were being obtuse. “First, you’re already here. You’ve already interfered and taken – or been given – a place in their cultural landscape. What you do with it or whether you even accept it is up to you but clearly the noninterference ship sailed long ago. Besides. This isn’t a Rodenberry mission.”

Craig nodded. This was the thing he’d been thinking all along. “It’s a joint mission between our governments. Even if Rodenberry was obliged to withdraw, a different ship from the fleet would just take our place.”

Commander Fyodorovich got to his feet and for a moment Craig thought he was about to make some kind of appeal to the assembled crew for one purpose or another. But instead he just made a motion to SFC Shen and stepped out of the hologram pickups, vanishing from view. For a brief moment Aubrey and Langly’s heads pivoted at odd angles, watching Fyodorovich leave relative to their own point of view. Opting to ignore the incident Craig carried on. “What are the potential outcomes of continuing here? Between Miss Vance’s briefings and Commander Fyodorovich discovering Out of the Silent Planet as the source text for this culture, what is there still to learn here?”

“We’ve never observed a culture this close to the myths that shaped it,” Dhawan put in. “We could learn incredible amounts just by studying it.”

“Interesting but not ultimately useful in the short term,” Craig said. “What else?”

There was another pause as Fyodorovich rejoined the call, sans SFC Shen. “Not exactly something to learn,” Langly put in, “but the colony is well positioned as a rally point for new ships entering the Sol system. If relations with Earth remain tense that’s really handy to have.”

“Interesting but again not the question.” Craig zeroed in on Fyodorovich in particular. “Given the recent difficulties, how much more can we hope to learn by remaining here? What do they know and how likely are they to share it?”

“I’m not sure what they know,” Volk said. “But I don’t think they’ll share it with us unless we agree to help them in one way or another. They’ve been desperate for contact with the world outside their dome, Captain. They want our help and I think we’ve reached the point where they’ll cut us off if we don’t give it.”

“The fleet didn’t exactly arrive prepared to help a struggling colony out,” Langly pointed out. “What do you think you can do about it?”

“I don’t know,” Fyodorovich mused. “We could probably expand the dome considerably, and equip it to defend itself against Earth or space pirates, with a couple of months work.”

“Raw materials are the problem,” Rand pointed out, “not time or know how.”

“There’s a planet full of old, empty cities we can break down and repurpose in the nanofacturies.”

“I don’t think UNIGOV is going to allow you to harvest any of the old places for parts,” Aubrey said.

“Maybe if we had anyone in the fleet that specialized in removing things from planets over the planetary government’s objections…”

Langly’s head snapped around – presumably to look at Fyodorovich although the holoprojections didn’t make that clear – and he said, “You want to send the Galileans to raid Earth?”

“They have the ships for it…”

The idea was amusing but not where Craig wanted their energy spent. “Thank you, Commander. I’ll pass that suggestion on to the Admiral. Now, for the third time -”

But there wasn’t a third time because Harriet Thacker burst onto camera and said, “Commander you need to get to the Sunbottle right now.”

Martian Scriptures Chapter Sixteen – Hard Truths

Previous Chapter

“What do you want the model number for, Jimenez?” Volk was once again in the cockpit of a lander, this time watching Mars loom ever closer as Cates brought them down towards the Borealis dome. It wasn’t much of a view but the morning had been one long string of calls from other department heads asking for him to find out this detail or try to find that piece of old equipment. He didn’t want the guests overhearing it. That would make the whole crew look disorganized. Which was unfair, especially since Jimenez was typically a very organized woman.

“Listen,” she was saying, “I am trying to run some simulations and I need to know the exact layout of the reactor.”

“They don’t typically change their layouts very often,” Volk said. “Can’t you just get a copy of the blueprints from Devaneaux, or his opposite number on the Spiner? Got an interesting report from them yesterday, lot of details on this make of colony.”

“The colony’s generator went through two major manufacturing runs. Significant changes to the reactor’s layout took place and I need to know which one I’m dealing with.” She made it sound very matter of fact but Volk was having  hard time thinking of why she’d need to know. “I’ve sent you all the different ways you could learn it but the simplest is to check in the primary or secondary control rooms. Or the manual.”

Volk opened up a display for his AI and pulled up Jimenez’s message. “Is there a serial number there or something?”

“Yeah.”

“Seriously?” That seemed absurdly simple. Naturally it turned out that wouldn’t work. “Okay, the primary control room is in a part of the building that’s off limits to us. No surprise there. But the secondary control room is… oh, also off limits. It’s set aside for the colony’s Eldest. They also haven’t given us computer access and we haven’t seen their library yet, either, so no manuals to reference. I can ask about that last one, but they’ve been very tight lipped about the reactor so far so I don’t think they’ll just let me flip through their user’s guide.”

“No, that makes sense, especially if the Copernicans are right about why it’s leaking radiation now. What about the secondary control room. You’re sure it’s off limits?”

“I could check that, too, I guess.” He shut the AI down. “Can I ask what this is all about?”

“You can, but I can’t tell you right now.”

Volk stifled a sigh. He was almost certain Jimenez wasn’t just giving him a hard time because he was the newly minted department head on board. She only had a year’s seniority on him and even headed a department at a lower rank than his temporary one. In fact, none of the ship’s department heads had given him any grief directly. It was still annoying to second guess every interaction with them. Also, he now had to try and figure out why Jimenez secretly needed blueprints for an ancient reactor. “I’ll see what I can do for you, Lieutenant Jimenez.”

“Thank you, Commander. Stewart out.”

Volk sighed and checked the clock. Briefings with Langly and Aubrey had taken up almost all of yesterday’s trip back to Mars and most of the morning had been spent bringing those two up to speed on their equipment and the Martian situation as they expected to find it on their return. The Captain himself was forced to intervene when Langly insisted he be allowed to wear his own Copernican armored suit down planetside. Volk hadn’t been able to convince him nothing on Mars warranted that kind of defensive gear so the Captain opted to impound it. Things had nearly escalated to that point again when Volk tried to explain that they’d have to wait to enter Bottletown until Pak or one of his watchers had an opportunity to admit them formally. Once Volk explained that they’d only be barred from the northern part of the colony and only for a short time Aubrey had calmed down a bit and Langly apparently decided it wasn’t worth arguing the point.

Dealing with those kinds of minor disagreements in procedure was all well and good but didn’t do anything to address the real elephant in the room. Aubrey also claimed to have spoken with an old survivor of Borealis colony that UNIGOV apparently kept buried underground in one of the old space launch areas under the Nevada desert. The people of the colony had apparently been knocked out using the government’s own internalized nanotechnology and removed from the planet. While medicine wasn’t Aubrey’s field of expertise, she said children who hadn’t started puberty didn’t have internal medinano, apparently the system started the aging process early causing any number of health issues. So the working theory was that the Bottletown colony was formed by the handful of prepubescent survivors who hadn’t been effected.

UNIGOV also apparently stole all the books and computer archives as that was part of their indoctrination program. That made Borealis in general sound like a pretty poor intelligence resource and Volk had momentarily feared that their mission would be scrubbed after all. But it turned out Aubrey had some kind of business on Mars. Helping her with it was a condition to her cooperation, so back to Mars they went.

There was a schedule to keep and by the time all the details concerning his new crewmates were worked out they were already behind so Volk decided to depart and sort out any issues left with other departments during descent. Which was how he wound up sitting in the lander’s comm room, signing off with Jimenez, twenty minutes after the ship touched down on Mars. But with all his chores taken care of it was finally time to get up and go play. He walked out of the comms station and down the ship’s ramp to find SFC Shen waiting there.

“Everything secure?” She asked.

“We’ve got a grocery list a kilometer long, but otherwise yeah.” He glanced up and down the dome and was surprised to spot Montak coming back along the structure from the opposite direction of the entrance they normally used. “What’s going on there?”

“Montak spotted new footprints going in that direction and went to check them out. He was wondering if they’d give some clue about accessing that underground entrance you found during your scans on the first day.”

“Any luck?”

Shen shrugged. “Ask him.”

Volk trotted over to do just that but Montak’s report was disappointing. “Just a set of footprints,” he said. “Either one person or a handful in the exact same size of boots. They went about four degrees around the dome and the prints stop. No idea what happened to ’em, short of doing more invasive scans of the dome we’ll probably never know.”

“Well, given what Naomi said after the tour that’s probably something they don’t want to share with outsiders.” Volk sighed. “Let’s go say hi to her, we can ask about it and see what happens.”

“What do you think they were doing?” Shen asked.

“Beats me. Could be anything. They could have just been replacing conduits or something.” Volk rapped his knuckles on the dome. “This thing’s gotta need some kind of ongoing maintenance.”

“I suppose.” Montak started towards the dome’s entrance a few yards away. “Long said not to wait, he’s gonna meet us back at Bottletown.”

Volk looked around, realizing Long and Barton were missing. “Where’d they go? Taking the Copernicans to the base of operations inside?”

“Yeah.”

He wasn’t sure he liked splitting the group like that. Then again, given the current time constraints it might have been the best use of time they’d get. It wasn’t worth chewing Long out over, he decided. It was the kind of decision that pushed him one step closer to true officer thinking, and he knew it, but it was also what got the job done. He hustled after Montak and the morning’s inevitable next meeting.


 

“Good morning, Elder Nobari.” Volk glanced back and forth, eyeing the assembled personages. He recognized a handful, like Alyssa and Vincent, but most of these Malacandrans were new to him. With nothing but appearance to go by, he presumed they were the Elders of the colony, as they all appeared to be about eighteen to twenty years old. There was one notable absence. “Where’s the Eldest?”

The red haired man drew himself up a bit taller, his lips pressing into a thin line. “Naomi Bertolini has passed into silence. I am the Eldest of Bottletown.”

An icicle plunged into his back between the shoulder blades and ran down into his stomach. Pieces of the puzzle snapped into place. The shockingly young age of the Malacandrans. Naomi’s statements about upcoming events the Eldest would oversee, but she seemed uninterested in. Even simple questions he’d ignored, like how a colony left alone for two hundred years had a population of less than two thousand. From the moment he’d met Pak out at the Square, he’d been taking far too much for granted about what he was seeing and hearing. The only thing that didn’t make sense was the timing. By his count, Naomi should be seventeen hundred and five days old, just a little past twenty and that was a fairly arbitrary –

“Leap years.” The words were little more than a whisper.

“I’m sorry?” Nobari leaned in a bit closer. “I didn’t catch that.”

“20 times 365 is 7,300. There are five leap years in twenty years so you add five days for a total of 7,305 days.” Volk’s eyes narrowed as the shock passed and unreasoning anger boiled up, shattering the ice within him. “No one in Botteltown lives past twenty years, do they?”

“We are given seventy three cents to grow and labor,” Nobari replied. “And five days grace. Then we must pass into silence.”

“And you’re okay with that? How long do you have before you go?”

“Eighteen days of labor, five days grace.” No hesitation or regret tinged the words.

For some reason that made Volk even angrier. “And will that be by ritual suicide or is there some kind of group murder event? A good old fashioned stoning? There are –“

“What do you know?” The angry shout didn’t come from Nobari, like Volk had expected, but rather from Alyssa Pracht, who pushed into the conversation, grabbed his evac suit by the belt and yanked him so close they practically touched. “You’ve got some nerve to come in here and lecture us. Greg and Naomi were supposed to have five days as a family but you showed up and took four of them. Now you expect us to listen to you preach at us the day after she passes into silence?”

“I don’t care much for euphemisms,” Volk snapped back. “If she’s dead just say she died.”

Volk saw the smack coming but didn’t move away from it. He regretted the words as soon as they left his mouth and figured he deserved it. But Alyssa caught herself before she could follow through. The fire left her. The cold that swept in was worse. “I did say she was dead. Silence is death. You’d know that if you ever bothered to listen to the people talking to you. But no, you’re the great spacer from Copernicus, come to share your glorious wisdom with the ignorant Malacandrans of Bottletown. We’ve heard stories of people like you.”

“I–“

“No, you listen for once. Really listen, don’t just dismiss us as superstitious backward children living under a dome.” Volk stiffened in surprise, as much because he realized Alyssa had made a fair assessment as from offense at said assessment. “From the moment Ransom left his notes we knew we’d be viewed as silly for the things we believe. But I don’t care. You cut us off and left us to die, every last person outside this dome, whether you’re from Thulcandra or beyond the solar system. It’s been more than eight generations since Bottletown was established and not one word has passed from your worlds to ours. We’ve been dead to you that whole time. More than twelve thousand people come and gone and you didn’t care. You don’t get to judge us for one more now.”

She pushed away from him and stormed away. After a brief moment of silent deliberation most of the Elders followed after, leaving Volk alone with Shen and Nobari in the middle of the promenade over the Sunbottle. Nobari sighed. “I know you had some kind of agreement with Naomi that made being rude to each other impossible. But it didn’t extend to anyone else here. I’m not sure how many people are going to be able to look past this… misunderstanding.”

Volk sighed, doing his best to rally his thoughts. “Eldest, I apologize for the way I spoke. But limiting the age of your population, especially to an age so young, goes beyond a cultural difference in my book. It’s flatly immoral.”

Nobari scowled. “That’s not what I meant, exactly. In fact, I agree with Alyssa on one thing for sure. You sometimes come off as a very arrogant man, Lieutenant. I suspect you’re a Weston – excuse me, an atheist? Is that the term?”

“I lean more towards agnosticism personally, but the general consensus on Rodenberry is that religion is not credible as anything other than baseline sociology, yes.”

“I suspected as much. You might want to work on hiding that better when you’re talking to people with different beliefs. But that wasn’t my point.” Nobari stroked his beard thoughtfully for a moment, struggling for words. “The point is, we’ve always thought the next people to come to the planet would either do to us as they did to Borealis, or come to free us from the confines of Bottletown and draw us into a new human fellowship. The problem was, you were neither. You didn’t even know we existed. Even if we didn’t say it, many of us were hoping you would change the paradigm and give Naomi another shot at life. You didn’t. That’s the fault of our expectations, not your actions, but it’s still hurt many of us.”

Volk sighed. “I see. Whereas we had no idea you were pinning such hopes on us.”

“Yes. I see that now, and I’m sure others will eventually.” Nobari shrugged eloquently. “But for today, I think we’ll have to postpone. Give them some time.”

Volk nodded. “Of course. Thank you, Eldest.”

Nobari nodded and headed off his own way. Leaving Volk to stew in unspent anger and frustration. He was still furious at the idea that the Bottletowners could have just thrown away the lives of one of their own. He also knew there were so many examples of cultures that would do just that. And for very understandable reasons. Mostly he was annoyed that he’d missed the signs and the chance to understand or even perhaps prevent such a heinous thing from happening.

“Sir?” Volk came to a stop at the sound of Shen’s voice, then realized he’d paced around the promenade at least once as his thoughts stewed.

He looked at Shen. “Yes?”

“I don’t think we’re going to see anything else today. Perhaps we should go back and report?”

“Oh. Yes, perhaps.” He realized he was standing at the end furthest from the entryway they normally used. The door to the Eldest’s office was right there. On impulse he walked over and tested the knob.

The door swung open.

“Sir?” Shen hurried after him. “The Malacandrans are already angry at us. I don’t think we should be in here.”

“Definitely not. So stay here and make sure no one looks in and sees us.” Volk slipped in and looked around.

The room was as well-lit as any other part of the Sunbottle Volk had seen. There wasn’t much there to see, though. Just a desk, a smattering of plants and, tucked away in one corner, a bookshelf stuffed to overflowing with books. The shelves were near where the serial number Jimenez wanted was supposed to be written so Volk moved over to have a look around for it. In the process he glanced over the bookshelf titles.

Most of them were manuals related to the care and maintenance of the various pieces of equipment they’d seen around the colony so far. A handful looked like introductory training textbooks. And one was about two inches shorter than all the manufactures and maintenance manuals on the shelf around it. Volk leaned in for a closer look.

It was old and made out of actual paper, rather than the plastic sheets that the manuals were printed on. It was paper bound and the spine had been opened and closed so many times the creases had made reading the title or other information there impossible. With two careful fingers Volk pulled the book out enough to grip the sides, then gingerly pulled the book all the way off the shelf and looked at the cover. Then keyed his comms.

“Fyodorovich to Stewart.”

“This is Ensign Veers. How can I help you commander?”

“I need a general workup on a piece of literature pulled from the archives, please.”

“Certainly. Name on the work and the author in question?”

Out of the Silent Planet, by C.S. Lewis.”