Hexwood: Dust and Ashes – A Foray into Different Mediums

Hello folks! This post is coming to you a bit off schedule, I know. Back before I started on Firespinner I mentioned my comic project, Hexwood: Dust and Ashes and said I would be bringing you more on that subject in due time. Well, the time is now! The Indiegogo for Hexwood is now live and ready for your consideration. Curious? Check out this short trailer I put together for the campaign!

Here’s a few more details: Hexwood is a comic with 85 pages of story, illustrated in black and white in a painterly style. It tells a complete story, although one with plenty of promises of things to come. It’s set in an alternate Earth with a much different history and metaphysic than ours, but more details on that are included in the worldbuilding post. (Haven’t read it? Seriously, check it out!)

We follow the sheriff of the town of Hexwood as he investigates the murder of a local miner and slowly gets pulled into a much deeper and darker plot. We meet fun characters, escape surprising situations and get embroiled in some fantastical action along the way. If you read Firespinner and were intrigued by the world, you just love weird westerns in general or you love comics please consider supporting the book! You can find the campaign by following this link:

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/hexwood-dust-and-ashes/x/26322352#/

Spy x Family – Too Full to Work, Yet It Does

Tatsuya Endo’s Spy x Family is a fascinating stew of ideas, crammed into one place in a dizzying Jenga tower of contradictions and potential. The basic premise is thus – a superspy, codenamed Twilight, cover identity Loid Forger, must contribute to maintaining the balance of power during a cold war in a city clearly inspired by Berlin in the 1950s. His current assignment is to get close to the reclusive Minister Desmond by infiltrating his son Damian’s prestigious private school. 

Rather than join the staff, Twilight rapidly builds a family from scratch, creating a paper marriage with a woman named Yor Briar and adopting a girl the same age as Damian Desmond. Anya, Loid’s adopted daughter, will be tutored until she has excellent grades and the Forger family is invited to attend school social functions with the Desmonds. Convoluted? Sure. But we’re just getting started. 

You see, Loid has accidentally married the Queen of Thorns, who was approaching thirty and single and thought that getting married would decrease her risk of being discovered as Berlint’s most dangerous assassin. Yor has also married Loid as part of a cover, although for far less noble purposes than upholding the fragile peace between major world governments. Lots of potential dramatic tension there, as they could wind up working many of the same situations but on opposite sides, then come home after and not even realize they’d been in conflict. A bit cliché? Sure. But it could be executed well, provided nothing else comes- 

Oh. I forgot. Anya is a six year old with telepathic powers, the result of clandestine experiments performed on her before she escaped from captivity. This means she knows both of her adoptive parents secrets, even as the adults hide them from her and each other. She is also the only one capable of understanding the visions of the household pet, Bond, who is a dog that can see the future. 

There is so much going on in this family it seems like the whole thing should just come apart. However, Endo’s firm sense of comedy, clean art and heartwarming touch take these ingredients and blend them into something far beyond the sum of their parts. There’s a strong desire in some storytellers, myself included, to look at the elements of a story and allow them to take over. The spy and the assassin must be in conflict. The psychic girl must be burdened by knowledge. The struggle between spy mission and family integrity must be ever present. But Endo does something a little different, allowing the two elements named in the title of his work – spycraft and family – to orbit one another in a constant dance, informing each other but never fully overriding each other. Everything else, the weird powers, the geopolitical conflict, the school drama, all boils down to fodder to emphasize the symbiotic relationship between the Folgers as a family and their secret lives. 

At the heart of the story is Twilight, a man who works for world peace as an ideal but never had any stake in it himself. He’s alone and always has been. But in striving to create something to benefit the world he finds the people he needs to complete himself. In many ways the Forger family, although originally a forgery, become a united family, dedicated to protecting one another and, at the same time, protecting the peace of the world. It’s a heartwarming tale about how doing small things is a necessary building block towards greater things, and how no truly great thing is done alone. 

It’s also funny, full of wacky characters and situational hijinks. Anya is one of the best written young child characters I’ve seen since Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes. Loid and Yor are both full of contrasting strengths and weaknesses that can be both humorous and endearing. Berlint itself is a nostalgic look at a world of romantic secrets and adventures that never really existed, but we all kind of wish had. By the same token, by all rights Loid’s family of secrets should inevitably end with broken hearts and broken lives. But even so, based on everything I’ve seen, I’m almost certain everything will turn out all right in the end. 

Stargate SG-1 – A Retrospective

When I was in college the most discussed scifi series was Stargate SG-1. Based on a film that spun into a franchise, Stargate was a great intersection of conspiracy theory and old school science fiction. It was also on cable. My family never subscribed to cable, so while I heard a lot about Stargate back in the day I never watched it. Then there was Netflix. 

Stargate SG-1 ran for ten season. Ten seasons. That is a lot of TV. Catching up on it all was a bit of an endeavor and I’ll confess I wasn’t always paying the strictest attention to it, playing it on my tablet while I was cooking dinner or sketching. As such I can’t really say I know it as well as Star Trek: The Next Generation, where I’ve watched most of the episodes more than once and discussed with my family on a semi regular basis. That said, I have watched it all over the course of the last year or so and I have thoughts. Many thoughts. 

Let’s start with a quick overview of what the premise of the Stargate franchise is. 

Archaeologists discover a giant ring with odd symbols on it near the pyramids at Giza in the 1920s. In the 1990s archaeologist Daniel Jackson decodes the symbols and concludes the ring is a Stargate, a piece of alien technology that creates stable wormholes between one another. By “dialing” a set of seven symbols on the gate and pumping electricity (lots and lots of electricity) into it humanity can travel to other worlds and explore space. 

Great stuff. It unites longstanding conspiracy theories about ancient aliens and pyramids with a solid scifi premise into an engine for perpetual scifi adventure. SG-1 featured a quartet of very solid central characters, a stellar recurring cast and some very memorable villains. On top of that, while I’m not sure how solid any of the science on the show was, the mechanics of the universe are clear, easy to understand and incredibly consistent. 

One of the central elements of SG-1 is how far behind Earth is, technologically speaking, compared to the people who build wormhole gates and starships. The Stargate allows them to poke around the galaxy, find friendlies and slowly collect technology to even the score. While it takes a while for them to acquire significant tech, SG-1 does slowly build up an arsenal of fancy alien gadgets, eventually giving way to starships and hyperdrives of their own. 

Watching the slowly expanding capacities of the Stargate team is one of the great pleasures of the show, and the writers clearly enjoyed it too. While they never allow technology to become a magic “out” from bad situations; there’s very few to no cases where they “forget” about a piece of technology that could have solved a problem for them. There is one case where every chance they have to acquire a useful device fails for one reason or another, but that’s because the tech in question made people incredibly difficult to kill, which would remove a lot of the narrative stakes. Eventually healing sarcophagi were revealed to drive humans insane, effectively ending their utility to the cast and allowing the focus to fall elsewhere. 

Of course, while the consistency of the mechanics is great that’s only part of the equation, the people who inhabit stories need to be entertaining as well. Here, too, SG-1 delivers. While the most entertaining character in the cast is doubtless the team lead, Col. Jack O’Neil, and the character I most resemble was probably Dr. Daniel Jackson, my personal favorite was Teal’c. The stoic warrior alien is a trope that is well mined, but Christopher Judge brings a charisma to him that lends a tired trope a depth and nuance found in few others of his stripe. We see Teal’c as a father and a son, a leader and a follower, a dependable hero and a wounded warrior. Part of this is facilitated by the length of time spent developing him, part of it is Judge’s excellent instincts as a performer, relying on physical acting as much as voice and expression to convey his character’s thoughts. 

Major, later Lt. Col, Samantha Carter rounds out the team, and is the show’s science guru. Like Teal’c, Sam, Jack and Daniel are all stock tropes given life and considerable depth by the skill and talent of their actors and the considerable time spent developing them. While Richard Dean Anderson left the show in the eighth season, and Jack wound up replaced with Cameron Mitchell for the last two seasons, O’Neil would serve as the heart of the show for as long as he remained with it and was probably the best developed character in the cast, with Dr. Jackson coming second and Sam and Teal’c tied for third. All are well rendered and their characters remain consistent as established over the course of the show, with any major shifts in personality well choreographed and expounded on over the show’s run. 

In addition to a well handled central cast, a number of fantastic supporting characters give flavor to much of the show’s run, with Doctor Janet Frasier and General George Hammond as standouts, along with the villains Apophis and Anubis. But before we get to the latter two, let’s talk about the structure of a Stargate season. 

One of the great challenges of long form storytelling in a medium such as television is that episodes are released over time and need to be self-contained to some degree. On the other hand, you need some unifying threads to keep people coming back over time. Some shows function on a Netflix model, where every episode pours over into the next, which is fine but doesn’t work well on a weekly broadcasting schedule. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the Deep Space Nine model, where almost every episode is a self-contained story with ties to a greater whole. Stargate SG-1 is very much in the DS9 model, although it executes on it with more skill than any other take on that model I’ve seen, including DS9 itself. 

Every season of SG-1 follows a basic formula. The first episode pulls together the loose threads from the proceeding season or, in the case of the first season, the movie. Near the end of that episode or the beginning of the second episode at the latest the season’s primary antagonist is introduced. Over the course of the next ten episodes Stargate Command collects intel on the antagonist and the technological, biological and philosophical threads of the conflict are established. Secondary conflicts on Earth are also established, usually from other elements of the government trying to move in on the Stargate program. After these threads are set up serious skirmishes build over a series of four to six episodes until matters come to a head and the season ends with two to four episodes revolving around a significant confrontation that sets up the first episode of the next season. 

While the formula is clear it works for a number of reasons. First and foremost, SG-1 doesn’t always win at the end of a season, something that makes these climactic confrontations surprisingly nail biting. Beyond that, they seriously consider the outcomes of more than just technology (which, as I said before, they think about more thoroughly than many other scifi properties). They also consider the societal implications of the alien cultures and technology they encounter. Many episodes I watched felt eerily similar to actual problems we struggle with today, problems that SG-1 handles with far more grace than we have I’m sad to say. 

But another thing that makes this formula work is the villains. For the most part. Apophis is a classic pulp villain, chewing scenery and never quite staying as dead as you’d like. Anubis is far more subtle, manipulating the many egos around him into a dance that always manages to favor him in ways that are impressive to watch. The Y’shen are the mundane face of evil, quietly destroying everything they touch all while wrapped in a seemingly benign and charitable shroud. The Replicators are a slightly on the nose take on gluttony and overindulgence. 

These were all strong villains, give or take the Replicators, but towards the end of the series it felt like the writers were running out of steam. The Ori felt like a bad attempt to clone the conflict created by Guaold like Apophis. The Ori have many of the same dynamics with their followers as the Guaold had with the Jaffa and I would’ve liked to see a new take on this dynamic as late in the series as they were introduced. 

It would’ve been nice to have a degree of uncertainty added to the mix. The Guaold were pulpy, scenery chewing villains. The Ori were immaterial beings, much like their opposites, the Ancients, and there was little to no objective way to measure their claims about each other and it would have been nice if the conflict between them was less straight forward, to reflect the less tangible nature of the evils at work. It was a disappointing finish to a show that handled most of its villains, big and small, with deftness and skill. 

All in all, Stargate SG-1 was a great show that pushed episodic, weekly storytelling about as far as it could go before binge watching became a phenomenon. It owes a lot to a dedicated writer’s room, who really put in the work to keep things consistent, good casting and actors who believed in the project enough to stay with it for years at a time. I now understand why so many people were so heavily invested in it when it was airing. If you’re looking for a scifi show to watch that takes its characters and cultures as seriously as Star Trek but plays with its toys like Star Wars, Stargate SG-1 might be the thing for you. 

Firespinner Chapter Nine – Prelude to Myth

Previous Chapter

“It’s because they’re druids,” Oldfathers said, helping O’Hara load up her bushwalker the next morning. “Not in the formal sense, but Mr. Harper and Mr. Grunwald both show some of the most basic and recognizable signs of druidic initiation and that makes binding oaths possible.”

“But they’re not knights!” O’Hara protested. “They’re not even proper soldiers, they were drummed out of the Regulars years ago!”

Oldfathers raised an eyebrow. “Really? They strike me as excellent soldiers.”

Roy recognized that the general was giving him an opportunity to step in and explain but he ignored it. He hadn’t survived red caps, thunderbirds and wendigoes by constantly talking. In fact it was often more important to listen.

Once Oldfathers realized Roy didn’t intend to satisfy his curiosity he went on. “The dolmen that make up stone circles aren’t single rocks, they’re made of a mixture of sulfurite dust and regular stone sludge. Druids sit under the dolmen long enough for the sulfurite dust to work into their bodies and then-“

“Wait,” O’Hara held up a hand. “Sulfurite is dangerous if it comes in direct contact with the body. Either it sucks the heat out of the flesh or it burns it, depending on how much magic it contains.”

“Very true. But all living things have a touch of all the elements of magic in them. Fire isn’t very strong in humans but we have to have some of it to live. If sulfurite is balanced against the normal flow of flame in the body it can be handled safely.” The general plucked the sulfurite from his silver cane and cradled it in his bare hand. “Now a select few, like your Mr. Harper or Mr. Grunwald, can achieve this equilibrium entirely naturally when infused with sulfurite dust, displaying the magics of the strengthened body or firemind once they achieve balance. But that’s at most one in eight people, one in twelve if no one knows the right treatments to help them survive. The rest die.”

O’Hara looked shocked. “How did the druids find initiates if the process is so dangerous?”

“Before Arthur I suppose the promise of power was enough. And as you yourself prove it is possible to wield many of the druidic arts without the extra oomph that comes with the infusion.” Oldfathers returned the gemstone to his cane. “But Arthur discovered ways to test initiates, formulated ways to ease the process and increased the scope of the magics druids had on hand. The rites are secret, of course, so I can’t say more than that, other than that fewer than one in a hundred initiates die from sulfurite exposure these days.” His expression clouded over. “Or at least, that’s how it was.”

“So Roy and Ben went through a ‘natural’ bonding with sulfurite,” O’Hara mused. “I suppose that happened when they were in Morainehenge after the war. That made them druids, at least to the point that you can make binding oaths? Is that it? I don’t understand how something so simple can allow for such powerful magics to function. Magic based on vows is the most complicated part of every magic theory I’ve studied.”

The general sighed. “That I can’t answer. There were some things only the Masters of the Henges understood. If Master Southwick were still alive maybe he’d have told me by now. But I’m afraid I’ll never know now.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure,” O’Hara said. “Perhaps some enterprising young circle of druids will raise a new Henge and ask you to lead them in its ways.”

Oldfathers laughed as he loaded her last bundle of supplies onto the bushwalker. “I doubt it. The vulcanic way of magic is so much safer, easier and faster. I doubt anyone would take the time to build up a single dolmen from scratch these days, much less a circle of them. And it’s an expensive thing to do. Most of the Henges were built over two or three generations, remember.” A rueful shake of the head. “I think the age of druids has passed out of Columbia. The few of us who remain will need to find new ways to pass on our callings.”

Roy frowned, surprised to hear that admission. Most of the druids that he’d met in the days after the Palmyra Campaign had been supremely confident that their order would bounce back. And in those days, when the men of his company were freshly buried and the blood was still in his eyes, Roy had been happy to cut down as many of those boasts as he could. Looking back he wasn’t so sure. The Knights of the Stone Circle were old, powerful and knowledgeable and time was their ally, not their enemy. And he’d always expected Oldfathers or a similar figure to return to take the reins.

Perhaps that wasn’t the case.

And perhaps a leader with the skill and guile of Hezekiah Oldfathers was playing a long game, obfuscating his goals and counting on the way rumors spread through the West to spread the impression that he’d given up. But as the thought crossed his mind he immediately dismissed it. Oldfathers was off base in thinking the Stone Circles weren’t coming back but he was right about the oaths. Whatever had happened to Roy when he broke down Morainehenge, it had changed him, connected him to the general somehow. And that connection gave him unshakable certainty in the oath Oldfather swore.

But after seeing that oath, which was a simple guarantee of sincerity, Roy found something bothering him. How could Oldfathers have abandoned the oath he took to the Stone Circle simply because the circle was overrun?

As the group started up the next stage of the ascent Roy lengthened his stride and caught up to where Oldfathers was blazing a trail, using simple looks and the occasional gesture to send brush twisting up and out of their path. It was impressive and Roy took a moment to admire from a purely professional point of view. As he finished coaxing a small evergreen push to move a half foot to the left Oldfathers asked, “Is something bothering you, Mr. Harper?”

“Just wanted to set a few ground rules, General.”

“Hezekiah is fine,” he answered. “I’m not a general anymore and I certainly never commanded anyone in the Columbian Regulars.”

“What makes you think I wasn’t in the Vulcanus militia?”

“None of them made it to Palmyra,” the general answered with a laugh. “Some small justice there.”

The first half was true, even if he didn’t agree with the second. “Fine. The ground rules are simple, Oldfathers. First, I’m in command of this expedition.”

“That much is clear. I’m happy to leave it in your capable hands, even if you have asked me to work in the front of the formation.” He gave a wry smile. “The better to keep an eye on me.”

Roy ignored what the druid was implying. “Second, I need to know what everyone in the group is capable of. Now you don’t have to swear to anything like last night, but I need to know what kind of magic you have to offer. If you disagree with that, you’re welcome to leave.”

“No, no, the mother of those boys has some part to play in all this and if I want one as well I’ll have to stay with you.” Oldfathers paused for a moment, his eyes wandering up the next ridge. “I suppose I can share with you. The only thing I had on hand that you haven’t seen during the war was the thunderbird. And it turns out you could handle that, too.”

Roy watched as a barren hexwood tree suddenly pulled up its roots and started towards them. Bindle sized sacks dangled from two of its three main branches. “If you didn’t bring anything I haven’t seen I take it you didn’t bring any of the relics from Morainehenge’s armory? No Sword of St. Elmo?”

The tree walked up to Oldfathers and began pacing them as they climbed, holding the bags out for inspection. “I wouldn’t have room for it, would I?”

“What about the Roots of the First Yew? The Bedrock Shackles?”

“All passed on.”

“How can relics pass on. It’s not like they have a spirit.”

“They certainly do, and a purpose as well. When they no longer fulfill those purposes they depart from the people who hold them just as we depart this world when our purpose is done.” The general rummaged through one of the sacks the hexwood held for him. “I had my own part to play in that process, much like harbingers have in our own passing, and for the things you’ve mentioned that part is already long ended. I’m afraid the only relic I have left is this.”

He pulled something out of the sack and held it out for Roy’s inspection. It was a black, leather bound book. Roy reached out and took it, skeptical. “What is it?”

“Pellinore’s Journal. A record of all the hunts of those who have undertaken the Quest in his name. When a new owner takes it he copies everything within. When he finishes the journal begins to transcribe every note he makes about the hunts he undertakes.” Oldfathers smiled, though his expression looked more pained than happy. “Of all the relics I took with me, it’s the only one that actually belonged to me.”

Roy frowned, thumbing through the pages. It was taking longer than he expected. “How long is this thing?”

“As long as it needs to be. It’s also indestructible, always weighs the same no matter how long it grows and always returns to its owner.” The general shrugged. “But it’s not what people think of as a great relic, I know. I was underwhelmed at first, too.”

“Maybe the Brothers will calm down if we fold them some paper hats.” Roy tapped the journal against his palm, annoyed that he’d spent so much time wondering what arcane engines of destruction Oldfathers would bring against them only to discover they were all gone. Which might actually be more worrying than the druid still having all of them. A concern for another day. “What about the more esoteric druidic arts? What are your gifts outside of waking the trees?”

“Unfortunately waking and commanding trees is my specialty. I’ve surpassed every teacher I ever had in that arena, but the more ‘esoteric’ arts have always escaped me. I don’t deal with incense very well and I’m a terribly average diviner.” The general reached out and grabbed the hexwood tree, shook it once and it shrunk in on itself, rolling its branches and braiding its roots until it looked for all the world like an eight foot walking stick. He slung it over one shoulder, saying, “Mete seems to have some connection to the trees, and I might be able to counter it, but if you want me to duplicate myself or give us all the strength of ten men for an hour or any of the other tricks you might have seen druids do I’m afraid I can’t help you.”

“I appreciate your candor.” Roy gave him a sideways look. “How were you planning to deal with Mete if that’s all you have on hand? More thunderbirds? How do you plan to summon them?”

Oldfathers frowned. “What do you know about thunderbirds, Mr. Harper?”

“They were summoned by blood ritual and used as guards, typically in ziggurats. They’re not truly alive, in the human sense, just an embodiment of the power of air in a vessel of water. They’re summoned with an alter and the heart of a living sacrifice.”

“You know more than I’d expect,” the general said, giving Roy a shrewd look. “You can name some of the more obscure relics from our vaults and you’ve studied ancient Tetzlan enough to know the lore of the thunderbird.”

“Hardly,” he snapped back. “I just like to know my enemies. Druids and Tetzlanii masons are the most dangerous I’ve ever seen.”

“I’m not sure I like the comparison.” Oldfathers spat to one side. “The masons were a bad lot, no doubt. To answer your question, no I can’t summon another thunderbird. A conjuror can use their own blood in the ritual although he must substitute something for the heart to keep the power and vessel united if he wants to live through the process.”

“Something like this?” Roy reached into the inside pocket of his jacket, swapping the journal in his hand for the fulminite crystal he’d put there the day before. He held it out for the general’s inspection.

“Exactly like that,” he said tapping it once. “I wondered if you found it. The Tetzlanii had other substitutes they used but fulminite was the easiest work around I had when I summoned my thunderbird.”

The general made no move to take the fulminite crystal back, which annoyed Roy. Not because he wanted to give it back but because some irrational part of him wanted the general to stop cooperating. Roy quashed that voice, it wasn’t helping. He turned the crystal over in his fingers as he thought. “Can you conjure another one?”

“Not if you want me at full strength by the equinox. It requires a lot of blood.”

After a moment of deliberation Roy tucked the crystal into his belt next to his dagger. “So if they could summon them without killing anyone why didn’t the Tetzlanii just produce the things on a massive scale?”

“The thunderbird is tied to the conjuror but it’s also tied to the person who gave the blood to summon it,” Oldfathers said. “And loyalty by blood is stronger than loyalty by rite. The masons killed their victims to ensure they had control over the elemental when the rite was done.”

“And you only bothered to summon one before you came here?”

“You didn’t study Tetzlanii magic enough if you don’t know the answer to that one.” Oldfathers smirked in an annoying, superior way. “Blood can only be tied to one rite at a time. It’s got something to do with the way blood bonds magic to the ritualist.”

“Well.” Roy huffed. “I’ll keep that in mind for the future. You said you had other countermeasures to slow Yose with on other parts of the mountain. What were they?”

“I had some of my trees waiting to trigger landslides. There was one place where I dammed a river to set on him.” He shrugged. “There wasn’t anything we could easily move to Mete’s Grave if that’s what you were wondering.”

Roy pinched the bridge of his nose. “Fine. If we slow down Yose for you how do you plan on dealing with Mete?”

“Well, I was actually hoping to have the time to examine the nawonota before working on it.”

“Why so?”

“The legends of Yose and Mete conflict on some details. The most material difference is on what their mother built the nawonota for. Some say it was a general ward against evil spirits, others say it was specifically designed to ward against their father’s ghost, which had been haunting the family for some time.”

Roy’s brow furrowed. “Their mother was a widow?”

“And a recent one. Again, the legends aren’t consistent about why.” The general glanced behind them, towards where Nora rode on her lizard some thirty feet back. “That part isn’t important. But I’d say there’s a lot of evidence suggesting their father’s ghost is. So I want to know who’s inside that nawonota before I try to cleanse it – Mete or his father. It will change my approach.”

“That’s sensible.” Roy sighed and looked over the party until he spotted who he wanted. “I’ll talk to Reeds about it, see if he has any insight.”

“Of course.” The general turned his full attention back to trailblazing.

Roy was certain he’d say something at any moment. But he remained stubbornly focused on the task before them until Roy finally gave up, dug the journal out of his pocket and balanced it in the branches of Oldfathers’ hexwood before turning and working his way back to Reeds.

“Is your father alive?” Roy asked without preamble.

“He died four years ago,” Reeds said. “In fact his death is what eventually led my brother and I to come here. Why?”

“Never mind. Help me think of some ways to cleanse or destroy a nawonota…”

Firespinner Chapter Seven – Rain After Storm

Previous Chapter

“So how much further, Reeds?” Roy asked, accepting a tin mug full of hot soup from Mrs. Blythe. “We covered a fair stretch of ground today. We getting close?”

“We’re about two ridges from Mete’s Grave, Mr. Harper.” Reeds passed his brother a mug before keeping O’Hara’s second offering for himself. “We should be there by midday tomorrow.”

Roy grunted in acknowledgment. Grunt and Nora settled in on a log nearby, Grunt taking a moment to swing his end of the log further under the overhang they were using for shelter. Marshall emptied the cook pot and set it out in the rain to start soaking. For a moment the six of them just shared in companionable silence.

When he finished his soup Roy unclipped his buckler, removed its sulfurite from the setting and tossed it into the campfire to recharge. The heat from the flames dimmed just a bit as the stone started absorbing some of the power into itself. Grunt pulled his greatsword over and worked the lever in the blade to release the weapon’s sulfurite, which he also added to the fire. The rest of the group followed suit, except for Nora who hadn’t used her weapon that day.

She just watched them as they went through their maintenance rituals then glanced at Reeds and asked, “Why say Mete’s Grave, Reeds? The Sanna name is Mete Wahaka, isn’t it?”

Marshal and Reeds both smiled broadly. “That is correct,” Reeds said. “But the Sanna believe a thing only exists when it is heard and understood. If I selfishly speak in a language you do not understand I become less real. So I say Mete’s Grave, that you may understand and I may exist in truth.”

“So you speak our language to be more real to us?” Nora looked very pleased with that answer. “That’s a lovely thought.”

Grunt chuckled. “Your brother must be in a difficult place, then.”

Reeds turned stone faced in a single breath. “I speak for my brother. I assure you he is quite real.”

“Of course,” Roy murmured. “Marshall is quite fortunate to have such a considerate older brother.”

Reeds frowned. “I am the younger of us, Mr. Harper.”

“Ah. My mistake.” Roy brushed his pants off and got to his feet, pulled flame from the campfire into his cufflinks and grabbed the pot. “All right, people, drop your silverware here. Marshall, could you bring the cups?”

This time he was watching closely and he saw the byplay. Reeds glanced at Marshall, who raised a finger and tilted his head towards the campfire. Then he got up, gathered the cups and followed.

It was a short walk back to the stream, barely two minutes, and they walked in silence. The light drizzle still fell but neither man felt put out. When they reached the water Roy filled the pot and set it boiling with the power in his cufflinks. Marshall produced a rag from a pocket and began scrubbing the cups, dipping them in the boiling water to rinse.

Roy fished the silverware out of the pot with his free hand, the heat little more than an irritant. “So tell me something, Marshall.”

He laughed, a belly laugh that set his clothes flapping around his rail thin body, then pointed at his mouth.

“Oh, I heard what your brother said back there. But you can make yourself known, words or not, no matter what the Sanna think.” He leveled a spoon at Marshall, an accusation. “I’ve been thinking about you two and this Sanna legend since we talked at the saloon a couple of days ago. And I was wrong. You’re not here to play out the legend of Yose and Mete, you’re here to kill it.”

Marshall raised his eyebrows and pointed at himself.

“Yes, you. Yose is the older brother, that’s why he’s named first. I know about the ways Sanna speak, you see, although I’m not nearly as proficient as your brother is with Avalon’s tongue.” Roy let the pot stop boiling. “If you two played out the legend you would kill Reeds and then you’d be alone with no one to understand you. Meaning that in the eyes of the Sanna you no longer exist and the legend would disappear with you.”

Marshall furrowed his brow and pointed at Roy.

“I know I said you can make yourself understood. The point is how other Sanna would perceive you, that usually has more import in these kinds of mystic events. So is it true? You were sent to kill the legend?”

For a long moment Marshall stared at Roy, the animation draining out of him. Or, at least, the overly exaggerated mannerisms he affected when dealing with people other than Reeds. Finally Marhsall nodded.

“They cut your tongue out just for this or did it happen earlier?”

He didn’t respond to that question.

“Fine then. I’m not sure why the Sanna chose to try killing a legend or why the two of you agreed to the idea, much less your family. But I got a warning for the two of you now.”

Marshall tilted his head, curious.

Roy dumped the cooling water back into the river and got to his feet. “Don’t try to play that stunt out with the Blythe boys or we are going to have a falling out. Do you understand me?”

The two men stared at each other. Then Marshall nodded, stacked his cups and started back towards camp. Roy snorted, not sure what to make of that, and followed after.

As they walked Roy said, “I saw what you did on the wall. I presume you’re some sort of hero? Or whatever the Sanna would call it?”

Marshall shrugged, an elegant gesture of casual indifference.

“Right. Neither of you are medicine men.” Roy sighed. Reeds would probably know but he was much cagier than his brother. Which made sense if Marshall was a genuine hero. Not much was known about them, beyond the fact that they were probably some kind of Earth magic made manifest, and their nature was entirely instinctual. So long as the hero had conviction in their cause they were almost unbeatable in combat.

That bit about conviction was really the key, the surest way to overcome a hero was to break their conviction. The best way to avoid people breaking your hero’s conviction was to keep the fact they were a hero secret. So it was something they rarely shared, even with allies. The worst bit about heroes was how little control they had over their own power; it was hard for anyone to control their own convictions and heroes were no exception. Maybe it was better if he didn’t bother asking Reeds anything and just proceeded on the notion that Marshall was one. It didn’t make a big difference in his plans going forward.

Roy was jolted out of his reverie when they came up on the campfire again. He quickly offered the Sign of the Hearth before taking his seat. He’d meant to face Mrs. Blythe as he did so, it was customary to present the sign to a Hearthkeeper when they were present, but at some point she’d offered her seat next to Grunt to O’Hara. To his greater surprise O’Hara offered the traditional response, making a zigzag with two fingers that she then held up in a V shape, creating the funnel cloud shaped Sign of the Storm.

Grunt laughed. “You’ve become a devout man in the last few years, Harp.”

“People change all the time, Grunt,” he said with a smile. “Or did you forget, Mr. Solicitor?”

“Fair enough.”

“Is devotion why you dislike people calling you Giant Killer?” Nora asked.

Roy scowled. “I don’t like it because it’s not true. There’s a grand total of three giants in the history of Avalon and only one of them was ever slain by mortal man. Assuming you accept Arthur started out human. A wendigo is a terrible creature, to be sure, but it ain’t got anything on Everest Walking.”

Reeds leaned forward, interested. “Indeed? I understand that wendigos grow in size equal to the amount they eat, and thus are never satisfied. During the Summer of Snow a group of them supposedly wiped out Tin Gulch, a town with over two hundred people. The creatures that did it must have been enormous afterwards.”

“Not as big as you’d think.” Roy held up the beads of his necklace, each about five inches long. “These are made from the finger bones of the wendigo I killed. It was about four times the size of a man. Big, but not a giant.”

Marshall laughed and Reed asked, “What would you call a giant then?”

“The smallest of the Brothers Walking was Shenandoah. You can still see his bones to the east.”

Reeds laughed this time. “The Shenandoah Mountains have existed for generations. We did not name them because of some Avalon tale.”

“Yeah, well, we didn’t know the they existed nine hundred years ago either,” Roy said, smiling as well. These were mysteries he loved pondering in free moments himself. “Legends aren’t always true, and when they are they’re rarely the whole truth. But in this case… well, the tale said Our Lord in Raging Skies chased Shenandoah Walking in the direction of the Middle Kingdom and slew him somewhere there. It’s more likely Shenandoah only made it this far before he was killed, as it isn’t like we knew this place existed at the time.”

“And how were we to know the name of this dead giant?”

“A good question I can’t answer,” Roy admitted. “But Our Lord also pursued and slew Shenandoah’s brother, Kilimanjaro Walking, in a land to the south of Avalon. He smote Kilimanjaro so hard he was buried up to his neck in the dirt. And you know what we find, down there in Nubia?”

Reeds frowned. “A mountain named Kilimanjaro?”

“I’m surprised a Teutonic wizard wasn’t aware of that,” O’Hara said. “It was Johan von Heilman who mapped Kilimanjaro and noted the connection.”

“Most Teutonic wizards don’t think much about Avalon’s history,” Roy said. “I wouldn’t really expect them to.”

Reeds nodded. “The tradition is mostly theoretical, what history their books do teach are more interested in connecting things to the Forever Wars. Regardless, if a creature that leaves mountain sized bones is your standard for giants I can see why you wouldn’t think of a wendigo as one.”

Marshall nudged his brother’s arm and held up three fingers.

“The third giant was named Everest Walking,” Roy said. “He was killed by an alliance of Arthur, the Last Man of Wyrms, his mentor, Meryl of Linds and Our Lady in Burning Stone. His death was such a cataclysm that it carved the Everest Channel between Avalon and the Francs. That’s also how Arthur earned the favor of the Lord and Lady and became the Phoenixborn.”

“Sounds complicated,” Reeds said.

“It’s a famous story in Avalon,” O’Hara said. “And it’s particularly important to druids and hedge mages as Arthur learned a lot of the craft he used to form the Stone Circle and organize modern druidry from the Lady as part of his reward from her for aiding in the battle.”

“And, of course, that’s why the Mated Pair are the patron gods of Avalon,” Grunt added. O’Hara offered a vigorous nod of assent.

“In a manner of speaking,” Roy murmured.

“How so?” O’Hara demanded.

“Our Lord and Lady are guardian deities to the nation and they did offer special powers to Arthur because he aided them in special ways. Becoming the Phoenixborn. Walking as One With the Storm.” Roy shook his head, wondering of those titles of Arthur’s had any significance, or if they referred to aspects of his power and rule that were now long forgotten. “But much of the rest of what they offered him they offer to everyone. The Lord and Lady are intercessors between people and the raw elemental forces of magic. The First Elements are incredibly dangerous and don’t have any concept of humanity and what is good or bad for them and that makes any kind of understanding with them difficult, if not impossible. The Lord and Lady place less risky, more human magic in the reach of those who follow their teachings.”

“This is what you call druidry?” Reeds asked.

“No, druidry existed before Arthur. But he took it and organized it, made it safer and easier for people to get a handle on. It wasn’t exactly safe – still isn’t – but it’s better than what was. That’s why all the people we consider real druids now come out of the great Henges – Stonehenge, Ayershenge, the Dream Henge, Rajhenge and, until ten years ago, Morainehenge.”

“You’re very knowledgeable, Mr. Harper,” Nora said.

“After the Battle of Five Ridges I had a lot of time and motivation to learn. And I happened to be in the right place to get a start on it, too.” Roy shrugged. “I managed to learn a little from the Morainehenge druids but they weren’t exactly fond of people in Columbian uniforms at the time. The broad strokes of the story is all I know. I’m not sure what Arthur changed that made the Stone Circle a better way to produce druids or how he improved on their magic. If we find him and he doesn’t kill us all General Oldfathers could probably explain those things much better than I.”

“Yes. I believe I could.”

Firespinner Chapter Five – Distant Rumblings

Previous Chapter

“Why are we leaving town so coalstoking early?” Grunt demanded. “We should at least put together a search pattern, we’re not even sure what part of the mountain Oldfathers is on.”

“We don’t need a search pattern,” Roy said, throwing his borrowed saddlebags over a rented mule. “If he wants to tap the Brothers legend he’s most likely going to the mountaintop where Mete fell. Reeds knows where that is and we know Oldfathers is going to be there in two days. So we need to get there in time to get ready for him.”

“Two days? Why do we know he’ll be there in two days?” Nora Blythe asked, working a bridle over the head of her riding lizard as the creature trilled in annoyance.

“Because the fall equinox is in three.” Roy slid his sheathed sword into place next to the saddlebags and gave it a tug to make sure it was secure. “Forces in balance or otherwise locked together are easiest to influence on the equinox, plus elemental forces ebb and surge at various times of the day so if you’ve the skill you can exploit those surges for a boost to your own magic. If Oldfathers is really here and trying to exploit Mete for some reason he’s going to do it on the equinox. We need to get to him before he does that because we’re not stopping him after. So we need to climb the mountain in two days.”

“Do you think Andrew is in any danger, Mr. Harper?” Nora asked.

“I have no idea, Mrs. Blythe, I don’t know what Orphanfree is planning or how your son or the Brothers’ legend plays into it. I don’t even know which one of Yose and Mete your son is a stand in for.”

“Mete, Mr. Harper.”

“Ignis fatuus!” Roy unclenched his shoulders and turned to find Reeds and Marshall had arrived with characteristic silence. “Will you two stop doing that?”

Marshall spread his hands helplessly, as if not having a tongue somehow prevented him from making any noise at all. Reeds ignored both his brother and Roy. “Andrew is clearly meant to act as Mete in this situation. He climbed the mountain first, then Yose followed. Thomas Blythe is still here in town, thus he must be filling Yose’s role.”

“I defer to your expertise,” Roy said. “Is Thomas somewhere safe, Mrs. Blythe?”

“Miss O’Hara arranged for him to stay with a trustworthy family she knows. The Guild will keep him safe.” The widow’s expression told Roy that, as a mother, she was having trouble trusting in that.

Roy couldn’t blame her. In the last month she’d lost her husband and potentially a child. He suspected he wouldn’t be functioning any better under similar circumstances. “So long as we’ve made allowances. Where’s O’Hara? She’s the only one we’re missing.”

“She’ll meet us at the north gate,” Grunt said, tugging on the straps that held his unwieldy pattern of ’61 greatsword in place by his saddle.

“Are you still using that?” Roy asked, incredulous.

“What’s wrong with it?” Grunt demanded. “We can’t all carry an officer’s toothpick or use the powers we got from the druid’s curse to throw fire. Some of us need help.”

“Well bring reliable help next time.”

“Hey, the pattern of ’61 is light-“

“Overly complex,” Roy interjected.

“-lively in the hand-“

“Terrible edge retention.”

“-and a classic design.”

“Classically ugly and doesn’t hold a flame right.” Roy jumped up into the saddle, rubbing his ribs absently.

“At least I have a weapon I know I can count on.” Grunt nodded at Roy’s falcatta, strapped in place on his saddle. “You’ve got another weird thing from your collection.”

“Hey, this is a genuine Alexopolous reproduction. Do you know how hard they are to find?”

Grunt ignored the question and changed the subject. “Speaking of ugly, did you ever get those bruises looked at?”

“I’ll get them looked at when you replace that coalstoking sword.” Roy took a deep breath and quickly blew it out. “See? I’m fine.”

“If you say so…”

Roy ignored him and glanced over the rest of the group. The twins brought their own mules loaded for a long stay in the mountains. Nora was traveling a bit lighter than those two but Roy was glad to see that she did have a straight bladed arming sword strapped to her saddle. “That lizard of yours going to be okay up in the mountains, Mrs. Blythe? I’m told it gets cold up there.”

“Old Slith has been out in snow before,” she said, patting the ugly creature on the neck. “We probably should have replaced him when we moved up here at the beginning of summer but he’s been with us so long…”

“Well there’s no snow up there yet,” Grunt put in. “It should be okay, Harp.”

“If you say so.” But Roy eyed the overcast skies with distrust.

Yellowstone was not a big town in the grand scheme of things, essentially just two roads running east to west crossing a single main street going north to south. The total footprint was barely half the space inside the town walls, which were two thousand feet from one side to the other at the widest point. Getting to the north gate was still a struggle as they dodged carts of lumber, boisterous groups of woodsmen heading out to start the day and hurrying townspeople running errands.

They finally reached the gate almost twenty minutes later.

Once they were through Roy understood why O’Hara hadn’t met them at the stables. She was seated high atop a bushwalker, the creature’s evergreen branches loaded with packages and bundles. Instinct born of long experience told him he was looking at a kind of walking arsenal of cantrips and prestidigitations, the kind of miscellaneous magic collection that made hedge mages so notoriously dangerous throughout Columbia and Avalon.

Eyeing the shambling creature with the wary caution normally reserved for grizzly bears or siege grade sulfurite crystals, Roy asked, “What have you got there, O’Hara?”

“Good morning to you, too, Mr. Harper,” she said. “Are we all assembled, then?”

So that’s how it was going to be. He affected a bright, hard tone. “Good morning, Ms. O’Hara. We are.” And discarded it. “Now I’d like to know what you intend to do with all that.”

“A little of this and a little of that.” Which was pretty much the worst answer Roy could think of. “Supplies for conjuring a living cloud, my personal specialty. A few Sanna charms for safely navigating the forest. A collection of Tetzlantii spell tiles that might prove useful.”

Roy grimaced. Druidic magic was heavily invested in plants as a medium for the energy of fire and many of the most powerful conjurings of that tradition created toxic smokes and residues as a byproduct. Only druids with carefully built resistances could use them safely. Worse, when their magics mixed the poisonous nature of the residues amplified one another so blending their magic was generally frowned upon. Hedge mages ignored that taboo to the detriment of themselves and others.

Some of that taboo had faded as Vulcanic and Teutonic magic, based on the far safer mediums of metals and patterns, spread. They had virtually no dangerous after effects but were not nearly as powerful as the druidic tradition either. That was a big part of why hedge mages like O’Hara could still find steady employment these days. Roy wasn’t familiar with a living cloud but if the Guild was comfortable with it he figured he’d tolerate it as well. He wasn’t familiar with Sanna totems, his own necklace notwithstanding, but he knew Tetzlanii spell tiles were a flavor of stone based magic. So long as O’Hara knew enough not to choke them with her cloud then it should be fine.

“That’s fine, then,” he said. “Just keep a handle on those tiles, I don’t want us raising a ziggurat on top of the mountain by accident.” Roy lightly spurred his mule and started down the path towards the mountain.

In spite of mustering out of the army nearly a decade ago the old marching habits came back quickly and Roy found himself tracking positions of his group without even thinking about it. The steady clopping of the Reeds brothers’ mounts were side by side behind him. The steady creaking of O’Hara’s mobile bush came next, mixed with the quiet whispers of some conversation she was having with Nora Blythe. Grunt was far enough back that Roy couldn’t hear him but, outside of the warm air of town, his body heat was enough to buzz quietly in the back of his mind despite Grunt’s place thirty or forty feet back, watching the rear. Roy considered it a good formation.

The terrain was poor and kept them from packing in close, plus there was always the chance that this far out they’d run into a tree old enough to take notice of them and spreading out meant it wouldn’t be able to grab them all at once. Hopefully their group was few enough in number that O’Hara’s wards would keep them from notice. Beyond the trees he wasn’t too sure what to expect. Outside of several months in Tetzlan he’d never spent much time in the mountains and, this far north, the plants and wildlife were very different.

About an hour out of town, as the trail approached the top of the first major ridge line, Reeds came up and rode beside him. “We will need to leave the trail and follow the river in the bottom of the next valley.”

Roy nodded. “How many times have you visited Mete’s grave, Reeds?”

“We go yearly.”

The Sanna man didn’t seem to think that was strange but Roy did. He also knew better than to approach it directly. “You’re a diviner, right? I saw you had one of those omen sticks the Sanna medicine men use.”

“A kennet stick, yes. The meaning is closer to future than omen.” Roy didn’t know much about the Sanna but he had heard they were picky about the meanings of their words. “For a short time I was in training as a medicine man, but I fear I only learned the very basics of casting the kennet. For the most part I can only take the read of the land. If we are separated I can also find my brother with it but that’s never been necessary.”

“Why’s that?”

“We have a sense for each other. He can find me with no kennet as easily as a trained diviner could find a man he’d known his whole life.” Reeds shrugged. “As for me, I’m afraid my training did not take me much further than learning a few of the protections against the leaf brothers.”

Roy shot him a sideways look. “So you can kind of cast divinations and ward off trees. Are you sure you’re going to be okay on this trip?”

“Oh, I’m a fully initiated student of Herr Magister von Stossel as well. There are actually a great number of similarities between the basic medicines of the Sanna people and the core principles of Teutonic magic.”

So Reeds was a wizard, not a medicine man. Add that to the list of things he hadn’t been expecting on this trip. “So why didn’t you just finish your studies as a medicine man? Is it because you got sent to Yellowstone?”

Reeds returned the sideways look. “What do you mean?”

“Yose and Mete were identical twin brothers. So are you and the Blythe boys. I’m not any kind of formal practitioner, or even a hedge mage like O’Hara, but I’m not so dim as to miss the pattern. Plus, Grunt told me you came to him and asked to be involved.” Roy looked back at the group spread out behind them. The only one close enough to overhear them was Marshall, who wasn’t going to share it with anyone anytime soon. “I presume this is because you came here because of the Brothers legend. Did that cut short your training?”

“I lost my place as an apprentice before we were sent here,” Reeds said, voice flat and expressionless. “But we did come here because of the legend.”

“So why send you? Wouldn’t a fully trained medicine man be more appropriate?”

“You question is fair, Mr. Harper.” Reeds turned far enough in his saddle to look directly at Roy. “Before I answer, will you answer one question of mine?”

“So far as I can, sure.”

“How certain are you that your Orphanfree is taking a hand in this?”

It was a good question and one he didn’t have a solid answer for. His instincts told him General Oldfathers was tied to things somehow but he couldn’t put that certainty into words. Finally Roy asked, “Have you ever been to war?”

“I have. My brother and I fought against the neighboring tribes many times, and the Columbians once.”

“Well, I don’t know how it was for you. I don’t know how it was or is for anyone outside the 43rd.” Roy found himself absently drumming his fingers on his saddle and forced himself to stop. “But in my experience people who haven’t been to war celebrate what is done. People who have been celebrate surviving what was done to them.”

Reeds nodded once. “There is truth to that among the Sanna as well.”

“And when I was on campaign we looked forward to things being over.”

“That was also true for us.”

“But it’s not true for Oldfathers,” Roy said. “He vanished before the Final Truce with half a company of loyalists and he was never caught. He took a reliquary’s worth of powerful relics and weapons with him.” The overcast sky flickered once, then moments later a dim rumble reached their ears as if the skies themselves disapproved.

“So you believe your general still seeks to fight a war you wish was over,” Reeds mused.

“And the power of a legend, especially a legend about warring brothers? That is a weapon that he would not ignore. Nor is it one I can leave in his hands.” Roy checked positions once more. Nothing had changed. “So tell me. Can you and Marshall take the Blythe’s places and deny Oldfathers the chance to manipulate Yose and Mete? It’s the easiest solution I can think of.”

“I’m afraid you’ve gravely misunderstood what is unfolding here, Mr. Harper,” Reeds said. “The legend of Yose and Mete offers little power to use. Rather, it is a thing that must be fed. Once a generation the legend must play out again, for the souls of Yose and Mete live on in these rivers and hills. You heard Yose’s heartbeat when you arrived, did you not?”

“You mean…” Roy studied the Sanna man in growing horror, “your people sent you here so you two could fight and kill each other? To pacify the legend?”

“More or less. There was no need for me to finish learning the medicines. I only needed enough to safely climb the mountain. Everything else I know I learned in the years since we came here, as a way to pass the time while we waited for the Brothers to show themselves.” Another flash of light and rumble of thunder punctuated Reeds’ matter of fact reply.

While most of his mind was still thinking about Reeds, Roy’s eyes wandered up to the ridge-line. Something struck him as odd and he couldn’t put his finger on it. Even as he spoke Roy’s eyes were straining to catch the next flash of lightning. “Why do the Sanna care if the legend is pacified? What happens if you ignore it?”

“We don’t know. Some believe it will grow and eventually plague the whole world if it isn’t fed, others offer different but equally dire predictions. We don’t want to find out so we do what must be done.”

Roy was trying to think of a response to that when the next flash of lightning came. The rumble of thunder followed it immediately. That thrust the conversation out of Roy’s mind as he scrambled off his mule.

“Mr. Harper?” Reeds asked. “Is something wrong?”

“Stay here and hold my reins. I need to check on something.” The Sanna man took the offered lead from Roy, who then scrambled up to peak over the ridge some twenty feet further ahead.

“Dust and ashes,” he whispered. “A thunderbird.”

Firespinner Chapter Four – The Guild Agenda

Pervious Chapter

“I’ll be honest, Mr. Harper, the Woodsmen’s Guild isn’t happy with how Mr. Grunwald has handled this.” Hanna O’Hara had a face well suited to showing that displeasure. In spite of being slightly shorter than Roy she still contrived to look down her nose at him. And an impressive nose it was. Sharp and patrician, it blended well with the rest of her features. Not even her two long braids and quite feminine blouse softened her overall stern impression.

“I take it you expected to be in charge of this little expedition?” Roy asked.

O’Hara laughed an unconvincing little laugh. “No. We expected Mr. Grunwald to take the lead, as he is both an expert on the local woods and a representative of the Guild. You are neither.”

“Very true.”

“However Mr. Grunwald has flatly refused our request that he take charge of the situation.” The purse of her lips spoke volumes about O’Hara’s opinions on that. “I understand you didn’t originally want to take part in this business at all.”

“Correct.”

“In which case, whether it was my original goal or not, I think it best if I took the leadership role in-“

“No.” Her indignation at being interrupted was priceless, satisfying and not at all helpful. Roy waved a hand around at the luxurious, hickory paneled room they were seated in on the second floor of the Guildhouse. “I understand why the Woodsmen’s Guild would need to protect its reputation and investments in Yellowstone. But the fact is, I am your best bet to do both of those things.”

If Roy thought O’Hara was displeased before, she moved to a whole new level after hearing that. “You think you know the Guild’s interests better than Mr. Grunwald? Or myself?”

“Not at all.”

“And you certainly do not know the land better than someone who’s worked it for two years, as Mr. Grunwald has.”

“Correct. Are you familiar with his service?”

The rapid change in topic was supposed to unsettle her but to Roy’s surprise she answered without missing a beat. “Enlisted in ’60 as a Private, assigned to D Company, 43rd Columbian Infantry Regiment. Fought in every action that unit took part in from Mishawaka to Palmyra. Discharged as a Corporal after the Battle of Five Ridges and the Final Truce in ’64.”

Not the most thorough summary but still more than Roy had expected. “Grunt’s role in the 43rd was on the skirmishing line. Scouting and reporting back was what he did.” Roy rested his hands over his stomach and leaned back in his chair. “And he made those reports to me.”

“Are you suggesting the only possible relationship that can exist between the two of you is officer and soldier?”

“Don’t presume to know anything about how old soldiers relate to each other Ms. O’Hara. But no, we could find any number of other command dynamics for field work, with time.” Roy let an edge into his voice. “Which we don’t have.”

“You’re saying the Guild’ first choice for leader is going to look to you for orders by dint of old habits you don’t have time to undo. So you might as well just lead the whole thing anyway.” She steepled her fingers and glared at him. “So why shouldn’t their second choice take over?”

Roy gently pulled his bone necklace off and set it down on the desk between them, just beside the small, potted willow tree. “Because I killed a wendigo during the Summer of Snow.”

O’Hara tentatively reached out for the long, finger bone beads of the necklace. “This could be anyth-“

She stopped as her fingers rested on the necklace. Roy raised an eyebrow in challenge. After a moment’s silence O’Hara swallowed hard and drew her hand back. He took the beads back and wound them back around his neck in their customary double loop. “Ms. O’Hara, I don’t know this mountain, but I know how to get the most out of people who do. I don’t know the legend of the Brothers, but I’ve fought legends before. I know how terrifying their power is, I know that they can still be killed, and better yet, I know why they can die. I know how often legends are untrue and I know that sometimes the truth of a legend is less important than its power. I’ve lived all of it before, and more than once. You have a druid, an expert in magic, trying to wield a legend against you. You need me.”

“Not a bad bit of boasting. But can you back it up?” It was a good bluff, made with a clear expression and steady voice. But O’Hara’s eyes were fixed on the necklace.

“Why don’t we make a little demonstration.” Roy leaned back in his chair, rested one ankle on the other knee and folded his hands in front of him. “Make me leave the room.”

She blinked. “I’m sorry?”

“I’m no druid or warlock,” Roy said, “But I can see that you’ve set a number of wards in this office for your own protection. Surely they’re enough to get me to leave, if you really think you’re fit to-“

He gave O’Hara credit for taking the initiative. The legs of his chair spasmed in an attempt to pitch him backwards towards the door, a simple, harmless magical trap. A logical opening to a game with someone you hoped to keep around to work for you. Logical enough to be predictable.

As soon as he felt the chair flex Roy tapped his necklace, activating the charm he’d laid down while putting the beads back on, freezing the chair to the ground in blocks of ice. Every battle of spells was founded on preparation and Roy knew he was a step or three behind on that score, so he was willing to play a few tricks to catch up. He snapped his fingers and small jets of flame flew from his cufflinks into the wards hidden in the rosettes engrave on the corner of the desk. The fire power hidden there burst free in a flash of light and smoke.

O’Hara clapped her hands and the willow on her desk stretched its branches up and out, roots cracking through the pot and grasping greedily. He hadn’t expected her to play such a valuable card so easily but he’d picked a counter already. He slammed his iron dagger into the desk by its roots, between himself and the tree, and the willow recoiled in fear.

A panel on the front of the desk popped open, revealing a three crystal sulfurite array that belched fire at him. Roy glanced at the flames.

Demanded they stop.

And smiled.

He held his hands to the sheet of fire that hung like a hungry curtain, as if he was just warming them by a campfire. “That’s very pleasant, Ms. O’Hara. Anything else?”

Her eyes boggled. “What kind of ward is that?”

“It’s not.” Roy took a moment to study the vulcanic spells inside the desk. It looked like the central crystals fueled the wards he’d destroyed on the desk corners, the lamp on one corner of the writing surface and probably fed magic to the willow somehow, too. When it popped open the magic channels shifted course and discharged everything forward instead. He pushed the panel half closed with one toe then fed the flames through the crack and back into the sulfurite within. “I’m a dolmen burner. When I ask, fire answers.”

O’Hara watched the process, wary. “I’m not familiar with that term.”

“We’re the scrawny, bad tempered cousins to dolmen breakers like Grunt.” Roy closed up the panel the rest of the way and removed his necklace again. A quick rap of the beads to the side of the chair broke the charm and the ice vanished as fast as it appeared. “We’re not strong or tough like they are but we can sense the magic of fire and manipulate it. To an extent.”

O’Hara dug around under her desk for a moment then came up with a new pot for her willow. It wriggled in discomfort as she coaxed it into the container. “I’ll admit I’m impressed, even if it is just an extent.”

Roy allowed a small smile. “Then I hope you’ll-“

“But that demonstration, while impressive, doesn’t answer any of the questions I have.”

“Such as?”

She stood to scoop the soil off of her desk and dumped it into the pot, then started packing the willow’s roots down. “Such as why you’re here.” A quick look cut off Roy’s objection. “I know it’s a job and an old friend asked you to come. But Roy Harper is one of the best known mercenary firespinners in Winchester County. You could go anywhere in Winchester, Pyrenees or Death Valley Counties and not find another person with a reputation like yours, whether you deserve it or not. So why are you charging the Guild a pittance of a fee?”

“A hundred silver marks is not exactly cheap, Miss O’Hara.”

“But any average firespinner could charge twice that. The Reeds brothers are taking two hundred and fifty apiece. You could take a fee equal to both of theirs and no one would question it.” She shook her hands off and sat back down. “So what do you get out of this? And don’t say it’s for an old friend. I know what you charged your pal Van Der Klien during the Summer of Snow.”

Roy scowled, he hadn’t expected the Woodsmen’s Guild to know that much about his activities. “What do I get out of this? Well, if by some black curse it turns out we are dealing with Hezekiah Oldfathers, and by some unsought miracle we beat him, I expect to walk away with all his instruments of the craft.”

O’Hara huffed a short laugh. “You just said you weren’t a druid.”

“You’ve clearly learned the craft to an extent,” Roy said, gesturing to the willow. “But did you train under a true initiate of the Stone Circle?”

“No, by the time I was old enough to start my studies the Lakeshire War was already well underway and Morainhenge wasn’t taking new students. Not from outside of Lakeshire County, anyways.” She shrugged. “Even if it was, the Stone Circle was always a gentlemen’s club.”

Roy smiled a wistful little smile. “Yes, I used to be like that.”

“Oh? How’s that?”

“Bitter. The whole war was because of the druids, you know,” Roy said, his mind drifting back through the years. “Because we hated them. Because we thought they horded the purest magic for themselves in those dolmens of theirs. Do you remember the things the papers said, back when Columbia took sides with Vulcanus?”

“I was born here in Pyrenees County,” she said. “It was just a territory at the time, hadn’t gotten its charter as a county yet, so they didn’t hold recruiting drives in these parts. I don’t remember much of what was said in the papers, I was too young to take an interest.”

“No drives? That’s surprising, I met at least two people from Winchester when I was in the Regulars and it wasn’t chartered yet, either.” Roy stretched his mind back. “Fat Stu was from Leondale, died at Strickland Marsh, and old Drake was from Allentown. Lost him at Briarheart Ridge.”

O’Hara shrugged. “You could cross from Winchester or Pyrenees to Bancroft County and enlist there. But the recruiters didn’t come to us.”

“Well. We all hated those smug, sanctimonious, condescending druids. Funny, that, considering we’d never met one. Fat Stu died years before he’d get the chance.” Roy laughed a humorless laugh. “I first saw a druid in action at Coal Creek, right after we crossed the border into Lakeshire County. Fifty men with the same face, all happy to kill you stone dead but they just turned to smoke if you cut them back. A literal one man army.”

“I’ve heard of that trick,” O’Hara said, looking confused. “But I thought it was impractical for things like fighting.”

“Not for a druid,” Roy said. “They truly are a different breed, those Knights of the Stone Circle. The Smoke Company was just the start. Every unit we faced in Lakeshire had at least one druid in it, raising trees and spying on us through bushes. But the worst of it was the Battle of Five Ridges.”

“That was the end, wasn’t it?”

“Probably looked that way from the outside and it was close enough as to make no difference.” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “It was the end for the 43rd, at least. I never saw anything that horrible in my life, before or since. Not even in the charnel houses of Allentown. One minute we were working up the ridge line. The next minute the Folger brothers were gone.”

“What happened to them?”

“Closest brothers I ever met. Marched halfway up the country together, side by side in the line of battle, watching each other’s backs all the way.” Roy shook his head. “We were rounding the second switchback and watching the top of the ridge for hostiles when they just drew swords and killed each other. Never found out the why or how of that one but every couple of minutes it would happen again, somewhere up or down the line.”

“You were killing each other?” O’Hara put a hand over her mouth. “That’s horrible.”

“That was a distraction, a minor hex meant to break morale and sow dissent in the ranks, make it impossible to work together.” Roy passed a hand over his eyes, working to keep his mind in the here and now. Those days were long since passed. “Terrifying at the time but nothing compared to what some of the other units faced on other Ridges. The vines on Ivybrook Ridge strangled the Eighth Cavalry, horses and all. On Pinecrest Ridge the 28th Infantry ran into an honest to goodness hero who killed most of their A and C companies single handed. And all that was before the main body of druids awoke the forest and sent the trees at us, hundreds strong. They wiped the 43rd off Briarcrest like it was nothing. Took the 28th, the 17th and about a dozen others along for the ride. It took a week for the Regulars to effect the breach at Slatetop Ridge, flank the Lakeshire boys and push them back to Palmyra proper and by the time they did it we’d lost three divisions.”

“And General Oldfathers led the rites to awaken the trees?”

“I don’t know, they didn’t invite us to watch. But he was the one who commanded them in battle. A whole division of trees answering to one man. Could you do that?”

O’Hara blanched. “No one can. You must have missed the other druids handling the trees in all the chaos. Not even a true master of the craft can command more than three, perhaps four trees at a time.”

“There was a man in the 43rd who would have agreed with you.” He laughed. “Roy Harper was his name. He didn’t believe any of that foolishness about how the Knights of the Stone Circle stretched back in an unbroken line to Arthur Phoenixborn and his retainers. Didn’t think there were truly any magics so powerful they mustn’t pass into the hands of the unworthy. Didn’t believe magic had a living will and that it would test you, sift you like flour and destroy even the least of impurities. But that man died on Briarheart Ridge.”

Roy leaned forward over the desk between himself and O’Hara. “Michelangelo Vulcanii taught that magic was simple. Build a form out of one of the five Noble Metals, fill it with the power of fire and you have a construct. Stack those forms and add more power and you can construct a magical solution to almost any problem you face. Easy, right? But like many legends it’s true but it isn’t the whole truth. Vulcan magic is simple and straightforward because humans are simple, straightforward people. But magic at its heart is neither of those things. It is a trial and a test, it takes the measure of a man and amplifies it, and if that old Roy Harper had ever found any of the secrets the druids showed him at the Five Ridges he would have failed that test and turned himself and everything he touched into ruin.”

Roy reached out and plucked his dagger out of the desk, then settled back into his chair. “So if Hezekiah Oldfathers is here, and the Lord in Raging Skies favors us enough to let us beat him, then his secrets must pass back to the druids when things are done. I won’t risk them falling into the hands of the unworthy. That is the price of my cooperation.”

O’Hara thought for a minute, then nodded once and said, “I understand. Or, I think I do. And nothing you’ve said sounds like it would go against Guild interests so I suppose we can agree to the terms Mr. Grunwald has offered you along with the addendum you’ve proposed.”

“Good.” Roy ran his handkerchief along the edge of the dagger, checking for imperfections. “And one other thing.”

O’Hara tensed. “Yes?”

“I fought four years of war because Columbia and Vulcanus lied to us about the druids. They never had mountains of sulfurite hidden in their dolmen, they were never planning to sweep into Hancock and crown a new king once Columbian supplies of sulfurite ran low. They never needed any of that when they had the secrets of the Stone Circle at their disposal. If they wanted to destroy us at any moment before we raised an army against them they could have. In exchange we believed the slander, smashed their order and scattered the ashes to the winds.” He looked up from the dagger’s edge. “If those four years taught me one thing it’s that I hate being lied to. I hate fighting for liars even more. And while I hate the idea of fighting Hezekiah Oldfathers if it turns out he’s not here, and you’ve lied to me…”

Roy got up, ignored the twinge in his ribs, and sheathed his dagger. “There will be consequences.”

“I understand.” O’Hara’s tense silence followed him out of the Guild.

Martian Scriptures Chapter Twenty Five – Life After Silence

Previous Chapter

“How many people are down there?” The Admiral asked. “A thousand? Two?” 

“Four thousand and sixty eight,” Craig said. He’d read the number in so many reports over the last hour that he didn’t even have to check. “All locked in some kind of medically induced coma, kept healthy by Terran medical nanotechnology. We’re working on figuring out how to revive them right now but it’s been slow going.” 

“Well we might be able to help you there.” Carrington manipulated something off screen for a second. “We do have a few files on their medinano that Langley and Hu brought back from their time on Earth, plus a few samples taken from the Terrans on hand that we’ve done some preliminary studies on. But we also think the Shutdown process could be hard on the people it effects, particularly mentally, with time in Shutdown as an aggravating factor.” 

“The longer they sleep, the worse they fare.” 

“Exactly.” 

The admiral returned his attention to Craig. “And that is completely ignoring the other difficulty this discovery poses.” 

“The Borealis dome can’t support five to six thousand people,” Craig said. “I know. There was a solution proposed by our head of Martian Operations.” 

“I saw it.” There was a hint of malice in Carrington’s smile. “Your boy there is going to ruin his own career with this kind of freewheeling initiative. Or he would if we were back in the Triad Worlds. I’m rather glad you brought him with you. Taking building materials from the derelict parts of Earth is a novel thought and one I am considering. Given the significance of that step, and the inevitable increasing tensions it will provoke, I’ll be consulting with the senior captains of the Newtonian and Gallilean groups but, before that, I’d like to hear your opinion.” 

Craig paused for a moment. He’d expected that question and mostly had his answer. But the answer cut so hard against who he was he still hesitated to say it. “Sir, I don’t see as we have any choice. We’re already entangled with the Martian population and we know Earth doesn’t like either of us. And the Martians waited so long for someone with the time and resources to lend them a hand, it seems cruel to demand they keep waiting. We could send a message drone back to the Triad Worlds, they might even answer us right away. But, even with the time it would save not having to drop below superluminal to do fleet position checks, we’d still wait a year to hear from them. I’m not sure Bottletown will hold together that long, now that they know the truth about their colony.” 

Carrington sighed. “I tend to agree. We’ll still inform the Triad Worlds and Rodenberry, of course, but I don’t think there will be any objection in the fleet proper to your proposed course of action. I suspect that by this time next week we’ll be formally at war with Earth, God help us.” 

“Perhaps,” Craig mused, “UNIGOV will hold to their pacifist principles.” 

“Don’t count on it, Captain” Carrington said. “Don’t count on it.” 


Volk looked around the Vault in momentary confusion. He’d never entered through the Sunbottle side of the underground bay and it looked quite different from the entrance along the edge of the dome. Most of the wall was occupied by large pieces of equipment he couldn’t attache to a purpose, some part of the old yet shockingly advanced Earth tech that kept most of the population of Bottletown in Shutdown and awaiting revival. In the first few days since finding the Vault the Stewart‘s top medical and engineering officers had swarmed the Vault, examining equipment, taking measurements and dumping code. Now the Fleet’s best and brightest minds were collaborating to try and crack it, to figure out some way to revive the people of Mars. 

By the same token many Malacandrans had rushed down to the Vault, looking desperately to see if it was true, and all the people who had left them in Silence were still close at hand. They’d transformed the aisles and stacks of pods. Now there were ribbons, piles of books or mementos stacked by the pods where long Silenced relatives lay sleeping. Portable display boards were stuck to the ends of aisles listing the hundreds of people stacked there and, in the few places where the sleepers had expired of age in spite of the wonders of Terran medical nanotech, black clothes covered the pods in a symbol of respect. 

Taken together, it made Volk feel very out of place. In five years of Naval service he’d traveled to two dozen worlds never intended for human life and put his very own boots on seventy percent of them. But walking through the Vault felt more like trespassing than surveying those places ever had. 

A soft tune echoed down the aisles and drew him away from the entryway, as if the Vault had changed from mausoleum to enchanted grotto and now fairies were tempting him further in. Volk shook his head and got his head in the present. He’d been too stressed with the whole “Martian Operations” thing the past few days. It’d been nothing but scheduling trips to and from the Stewart or facilitating meetings between the ship’s Senior Staff and the Elders of Bottletown. The culture shocks of men and women in the thirties and forties, still striving to reach their professional peaks, dealing with eighteen and nineteen year olds who were used to being the final say on everything in the entire world posed a steep challenge. Volk was looking forward to getting all that sorted and returning to his normal role as leader of a five man survey team. 

But there was a lot to sort before he could get there. 

He found the source of the tune at the far end of the Vault, near the other entry. Aubrey was there, examining Naomi’s Shutdown pod and consulting with the AI readout she’d set on the ground next to here. She looked out of place, like a sunflower in the middle of a cave, and the Malacandran girl leaning against the next rack of pods in the row and humming lent the whole scene an ephemeral air. He exchanged a glance with the girl – Gemma, if he was remembering her name right – and stepped over to Aubrey. “Everything going all right?” 

“No.” She sighed and shut the readout down. “A couple of emergency medical training classes did not prepare me for this. We got some of the medical data from… from Earth, and it says you can revive people from Shutdown without special measures for about a week. But that applies to modern medical nanotech, not this ancient stuff. Your doctor is taking precautions in case there are complications in reviving her but I’m not sure they’re going to be enough.” 

“Hey, take it easy,” he said, putting a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “Like you said, you’re not a doctor you’re a traffic controller. No one’s going to blame you if this doesn’t work. We all just do what we can.” 

“Easy to say when what you can do is fall out of the sky like a rock with all the parts the town needs to pull through.” Aubrey shook her head. “Sometimes I think I should have stayed on Earth.” 

“Really?” 

“I don’t know. There’s so much wrong there and I barely understand what’s right here and I’m not even sure that made sense.” She pressed a hand to her forehead. “I thought if I came up here to space and looked around I could understand more about what we did wrong down there and help fix it. Turns out I can’t even help with this one little thing.” 

Volk laughed and gestured back at the Vault full of sleeping people “I’d hardly call reviving all these people a little thing.” 

“You’re missing the point.” 

“Aubrey, I don’t know what all is wrong on Earth. The Admiral is keeping those details to himself and that’s his right. But I do know we wouldn’t have any idea what Earth is like or any of those medical records from Earth if you hadn’t helped out Martin when he was stuck down there. And look!” He gestured back to Naomi’s pod, decorated  with a half a dozen drawings from her kids, ready to greet her when she awoke. “There’s a lady who’s boys are missing her that’s going to see them again tonight, all because you lent a helping hand. That’s plenty to be proud of for a week’s work. Take a day off, think about what to do next after you’ve had a break.” 

“Okay.” She rubbed her hands over her eyes and blew out a breath. “That sounds like a good idea. Like a great idea. So what is there to do for fun around here, Gemma?” 

She laughed. “Fun? I guess you could sing with the choir, that’s what I usually do. Or talk to the Elders. They spend a lot of time just talking, I dunno about what. We got some old games on the central computer network.” 

“It’s a colony, they’ve only got so much leisure time to start with,” Volk said with a chuckle. He leaned back against the pod behind him only to feel his hand bump against something. A stack of three books slid off the pod and landed in a jumble on the floor. He stooped to pick them up, thinking they must be of recent manufacture. He hadn’t seen that many books around Bottletown before. Looking closer he realized there was a red book, a green book and a gray book, each about the size of the old paperback format. 

His landmark oriented surveyor’s brain flashed back through his trip from the entrance and realized he’d passed at least four stacks of identical books on his way. He flipped them around to read the titles. Out of the Silent Planet. Perelandra. That Hideous Strength. “Where did these come from?” 

“Damian came down and left them for his father. For when he wakes up.” Gemma pointed towards the pod they’d been resting on. “He told me once he loved talking about Ransom’s notes – the first book, I guess – with his father. Solomon Drake was a petitioner, too, and I guess listening to his dad talk about the story of Dr. Ransom was a big part of why Damian followed in his footsteps. So he’s probably really excited to talk to his dad about the rest of Dr. Ransom’s life. I heard he read the other two books the very first day he got them.” 

Volk stacked them back on top of the pod, ambivalent. “Well,” he finally said. “I hope they enjoy them.” 

“You don’t sound fully convinced,” Aubrey said. 

He shrugged. “This may sound odd but until I was twelve I thought James T. Kirk was a real person who really saved the galaxy from disasters. I didn’t realize how much of what he did would actually cause disasters, or that no person was really as brave, insightful or persuasive as Kirk. My dad is a true believer, convinced we’re always just days away from that perfect kind of society. But once I saw all the flaws in the details – people who didn’t ever live by the perfect standards, standards that contradicted and the like – I couldn’t look at it like he did anymore. We haven’t really been on good terms since I told him that. I’m not sure we’re doing anyone favors here.” 

She put a hand on his arm and rubbed it soothingly. “Listen, I don’t know much about this Rodenberry person you worship–” 

“We don’t exactly worship him.” 

“Whatever. I don’t know about him any more than I know about Priss’s Catholics or Dr. Ransom so I can’t speak to what you do or don’t believe. But I can tell you this. UNIGOV lied to us about their perfect society and hid all those flaws in the details from us.” She turned him around and looked him in the eye. “If you hide the truth you’re no different than they are. Gemma and her people survived on top of a faulty nuclear reactor for a century and a half, they can make it through this, too.” 

Volk smiled. “You know, I think you’re right.” 

“Me too!” Gemma chimed in. 

That got an actual laugh from him. “Fine, fine. But believe it or not that’s not why I came down here to find you.” 

“No?” Aubrey laughed. “So what brought you here.” 

“The Admiral is asking you to come back to the Sea of Tranquility,” Volk said, some of his good humor leaving him. He’d hoped to get to know Aubrey better but the harsh reality of Naval life had its say in all things. “He didn’t say exactly what it was about, just that you needed to know Steven had agreed to cooperate.” 

“I… wasn’t expecting that.” She visibly gathered herself and nodded. “When we finish Naomi’s revival operation I’ll be ready to go.” 

“Wouldn’t dream of taking you away before it,” Volk said. “Check in with me afterwards and we’ll arrange your transfer back to the Stewart. I understand one of the Newtonian ships will be coming to pick you up the day after tomorrow. It’s been a pleasure working with you.” 

He started back towards the Sunbottle entrance but stopped when he heard Aubrey’s voice. “Volk?” 

“Yes?” He turned halfway and looked back. “Something wrong?” 

Aubrey was staring at the stack of books now. “Are you staying here? On planet?” 

“That’s the plan. I am the head of Martian Operations, after all.” 

“Do me a favor?” 

He shrugged. “Sure. What is it?” 

Her fingers rested on top of the red book. “Find out why it was different.” When she saw Volk’s blank look she added, “The outcome. Mars and Earth both have societies based on stories with little to no truth in them. So why were they so different? Why did Earth reject something new and a little frightening, in spite of all our supposed history telling how we were kind, welcoming and courageous? Why did Mars accept people so far outside what they were used to when their story is all about the consequences of distrust and cruelty? If we can’t work it out UNIGOV is going to keep Earth a silent planet, no matter what the Ransom books say.” 

Volk nodded. “I understand your question, although I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to answer it. Better men than me have spent lifetimes trying. But we’ll do our best.” 

And as he walked out of the Vault, as all the details of responsibilities and tasks swarmed in around him once more, Volk admitted he’d made an impossible promise. Rodenberry thought space was the final frontier, that humanity must surpass itself before it could challenge the stars. In truth, Volk thought it was quite the opposite. Life as a department head, however brief, had convinced him that the intricacies of the human experience were far deeper and more difficult than anything he’d experienced on new planets. Either way, it was never boring out there. 


Pak looked up when Gemma returned to the watch tower. Alyssa had left an hour before, leaving the bottler team reconnecting the secondary boards to the power system unsupervised, which led to one conclusion. “I take it they finished reviving Naomi?” 

“Yup. Her family and Alyssa’s practically threw a party right there in the Vault! It was something.” Gemma sat down in the chair next to his. “Then Volk hustled Aubrey away, she’s going back to Earth for something or another.” 

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Pak said, entering a final command sequence and looking at her while he waited for the last code to compile. “You two seemed like you got to be good friends.” 

Gemma waved a hand. “Sort of? I thought the way Volk followed her around sometimes was cute. I feel kind of bad for him, with her going so far away.” 

“Oh.” He hadn’t gotten that impression at all. “Well, we have a bit of a wait before anyone else is revived but I guess I can deal with it. Anyone you’re excited to see again? I know my sister and I have been talking about what to show our parents when they wake up.” 

Gemma made a very noncommittal noise. “I annoyed my dad a lot before he went into Silence,” she said. “Mom ran interference but I think I gave them a lot of headaches. I don’t know what to say to them when I see them again.” 

“Don’t talk about the past,” Pak suggested. “Talk about the future. What do you want to do with them now?” 

Gemma looked up at the watch tower’s ceiling for a moment. “I want to go to Earth.” 

The urge to smile tugged at the corner of his lips. “I’m sure that’s not something they’ll expect.” A pinging noise told him his code was done and he turned back around to look at his handywork. “Perfect.” 

“What are you doing?” Gemma asked, coming to look over his shoulder. 

“Testing out some new equipment and software the Rodenberries gave us.” He pointed to a simple display of Malacandran orbital space, complete with a bright green dot representing the Stewart. “We can monitor incoming flights now. See?” 

“Oh… Not bad, head watcher. Not bad.” 

She was getting cheeky for a watcher in her first cent. But then, maybe that wasn’t so bad. Things around Bottletown were changing, almost entirely for the better. Perhaps the watch tower would be less of a dead end job in the future, and head watchers would need a more personable touch. Time would tell. The board sounded a clear tone as a small blue dot departed the Stewart, one of their landers coming in with some new batch of people, equipment or mix of both, to push Bottletown a little further on their way. Maybe soon they’d reclaim all of Borealis. But for the moment, at least the space they watched was far less silent. 

Martian Scriptures Chapter Twenty Four – Final Resting Place

Previous Chapter

Volk popped the vent and let the impact gel drain out into the container underneath. The quiet gurgling nooise had an odd mournful sound to it, as if the lander already understood it was destined to be broken down and recycled. With the lander’s power plant offloaded and running the colony dome and valuable cargo unloaded and awaiting installation the lander was bereft of purpose and scattered over half a square kilometer of Martian soil so Captain Gyle had finally ordered it tossed into the nanofacturies planetside and broken down into its base components. If the Stewart really needed a sixth Tigris class lander they could always rebuild it in their more advanced facilities shipside. But right now no one was missing it. 

A banging noise came from inside the main hull section, followed by a frustrated growl and the distinct sound of a nanosealer hitting a bulkhead at throwing speed. “Shit.” 

A smile tugged at the corner of Volk’s mouth. So someone was kind of missing it. He climbed up the canted hull and slid into the lander’s main hatch, adjusting his balance in an effort to stay upright on a floor canted about twenty degrees off level. “Got that flight recorder yet, Langley?” 

“No.” Volk found the nanosealer sitting in the lowest corner in the room and picked it up. “I forgot how damn hard it is to get these things out on purpose.” 

“Removing them wasn’t part of your training on Somme class landers?” 

Langley’s head appeared in the doorway to the cockpit. “Under the circumstances, if we crashed one of those we were expected to sterilize the crash site and go to ground. I have experience with that but I suspect you wouldn’t appreciate it, much less the Borealis folks.” 

“You blew up your escape pod when you landed on Earth?” 

“Yup.” He disappeared back into the cockpit, his voice echoing through the empty compartments of the ship. “And my Somme when it went down, although that had a much bigger boom.” 

Volk made his way towards the cockpit, stepping carefully in the slimy remains of the impact gel. “This may be an indelicate question to ask but how many ships have you crashed?” 

“Four.” He’d pulled the entire side of the central computer compartment off and was trying to balance it on the pilot’s chair but it wasn’t cooperating. He sighed and just tossed it in the corner. “We’re recycling everything anyway.” 

“Isn’t that kind of a lot of ships to crash?” 

“In my defense one of them was an actual waterborn thing and I was six.” He dug into the guts of the computer, pushing racks of purpose built processors and general purpose storage drives out of the way. “The other two involved getting shot by hostile parties before the crashing part took over and this one was calculated and deliberate-” 

“Sure.” 

“-so I’m confident my flight privileges are in no danger.” 

Volk handed Langley the nanosealer when he waved a hand for it. “Well, I do plan on putting in a good word for you though I’m not sure how much difference it will make in your command structure. You did get us down with everything of note intact and no casualties.” 

“That’s a first,” he muttered. 

Not a subject he felt a need to dig into. “So if you want…” 

Langley came out with the flight recorder in hand. “Yes?” 

“I’m trying to say, you don’t have to stay here and work cleanup. We’ve got a second lander on landing orbit now, stuffed with all kinds of engineers to sort all this out. And I was under the impression you were here to keep an eye on Miss Vance.” 

“Well you’re wrong. I’m here as her security blanket. She gets nervous very easily and is away from everything she’s ever known, plus a lot of the assumptions she’s always held about humanity got seriously shaken about a week ago. She wanted a familiar face to come along with her to Mars.” Langley shrugged and tossed the flight recorder into the seat beside him and scrambled to his feet. “That was me. But she took to you folks and the Bottletowners like a fish to water, like I kinda suspected she would. She keeps running off places without telling me. Frankly, I think it’s healthy for her and I’ve taken a strict hands off policy about it for the time being.” 

“So she’s more Starfleet’s speed than the Klingon’s?” 

He laughed. “More or less.” 

Volk took the flight recorder and started working his way out of the cockpit. “So how did you get exposed to the Great Man’s work, if I may ask? I know our recordings came from the original colony records but I was under the impression not many people put a lot of weight behind his work most places.” 

“In general we don’t. Until a few years ago I knew only the stereotypical stuff about Rodeberry’s work – he was overly idealistic and had notions about human nature which don’t really bear out. Everyone knows it’s more nuanced than that but few people dig in to his stories to get an idea of how. So after I was shot down over Minerva I got rotated back to Copernicus and went on leave for a bit. Wound up taking a bunch of correspondence courses to brush up some skills and I signed up to audit an introductory course on the ‘Great Man’ from the Naval Academy in New San Francisco along with everything else. And the thing that stuck out to me most was the guest lecturer who came in to talk about the Klingons.” 

Volk smiled. “Professor Pachelli.” 

“You know him?” 

“He’d just started teaching STC 201 when I took it,” Volk said. “That’s ‘Introduction to Rodenberry’s Antagonists,’ if you were wondering. Fluent in Klingon and mean as vinegar, he had definite ideas about what the best aspects of the Great Man’s work are. Let me guess. When he was guest lecturer he gave the ‘Five Insights into the Klingon Mind’ talk.” 

“That’s the one. I got interested in Klingons, their stories were fun and I thought the idea of them as antagonists was clever. The honor code let Kirk and Spock outmaneuver them without always resorting to violence. But also another indication that Rodenberry was writing without considering human nature. No one sticks to their guns to that extent, and having the bad guys do it instead of the good guys isn’t great messaging either.” Volk hopped down onto the ground and Langley followed a moment later. He glanced around the empty field the lander sat in and dropped his volume to a quiet but still conversational level. “Still, I’ve been thinking about Klingons a lot the last couple of days.” 

“Oh?” Volk looked around as well but couldn’t find anything noteworthy. “Why is that?” 

Sins of the Father.” 

“You’ll have to refresh my memory.” 

“Worf’s father is censured by the Klingon government and, after investigating, Worf chooses not to tell the truth in order to protect the reputation of a powerful Klingon. In doing this he prevents a possible civil war but is dishonored for his father’s supposed actions. Worf believes trading the truth for lives is the honorable choice.” Langley held his hands out and tilted them like he was a scale, weighing justice. “But then the Klingon ruler dies and the powerful Klingon Worf protected fights a civil war to take power. And the war is worse, because he had more time to gather allies from inside and outside of Klingon space, than it would have been if Worf just disgraced him. In the end, Worf made the wrong decision.” 

This was ringing some bells somewhere in the recesses of Volk’s memory. He’d always enjoyed the later stories, from the Deep Space Nine incarnation, more and many of the details from the era Langley referred to were spotty. “Yes, I remember that story, somewhat. What’s significant about it?” 

Langley sighed. “Never mind. Just make sure you tell the Malacandrans the truth. They deserve to know that the story they’re living in is over, Fyodorovich. Tell them who C.S. Lewis is. Show them the other books he wrote and let them know the Silent Planet talks to them again. The truth will out, one way or another, and any fallout from that will be worse later. Not better.” 

Then he took the flight recorder out of Volk’s hands and walked off towards the Old Borealis basecamp. Volk glanced at his empty hands with a start. “Hey!” 

“I need a copy of that descent telemetry,” he said, “or no one will ever believe I pulled it off!” 

Volk shook his head and followed after, still not sure what he made of the man. 


Pak watched as Elder Alyssa and the rest of his guests worked their way along the outside of the dome. While blueprints and programming for custom built vacuum suits was one of the many blessings the Rodenberries had given them over the past few days a form fitted suit you were unfamiliar with was almost as cumbersome as a poor fitting one and it was slow going for most of them. With the exceptions of Volk and his silent shadow. Pak was now convinced Spacer First Class Shen was actually some kind of personal watcher that Volk’s superiors had tasked with keeping him out of trouble because she’d refused to leave him alone since he’d crashed his ship in the cornfields three days ago. 

Out of the Malacandrans who’d come out with him only Gemma had any kind of time logged in suits so the rest of them, from the Eldest down to petitioner Drake, stumbled over every hillock and flailed against every gust of wind. They still got where they were going inside of a quarter hour. “We saw this doorway when we first arrived,” Volk said when he saw where Pak had stopped. “But it didn’t look operable. Now power readings, anyway.” 

“It doesn’t need power,” Pak said, taking the hatch by the handle and lifting it completely off its hinges and setting it aside. Without the added gravity inside the dome it was an easy enough thing to accomplish. “It hasn’t worked that way in more cents than I can count.” 

Volk just stared at the door for a minute. “I don’t know why we didn’t think of that.” 

“In my experience,” Alyssa said, “overthinking things is Rodenberry way.” 

“Speaking of doing things the hard way…” Pak turned and tried to pick the Thulcandran woman out from the crowd. With everyone in vac suits it was hard to do. “There’s an entrance at the bottom of the reactor, right? Why aren’t we using that?” 

“We don’t have the passcodes to open the door,” the Eldest said. “And we can’t be sure the door isn’t boobytrapped.” 

“What’s a boobytrap?” Alyssa asked. 

“Nothing good,” Volk said. “Let’s go down and see what this place is all about.” 

The stairs down were caked with red dust. Most of the lights were dark but they’d anticipated that and Volk passed out four portable lanterns and they picked their way down with appropriate reverence. “Why do you think your Founders closed this part of the dome off?” The Thulcandran woman asked. “The plans don’t show anything interesting down here.” 

“We don’t have any idea,” the Eldest said. “We just know they didn’t want it reopened until we’d made peace with Thulcandra.” 

“That’s why you’re here, Aubrey,” Volk said. 

“I always wanted to be a living loophole.” But she didn’t seem too put out at the idea. 

At the bottom of the stairway there was a locked hatch. The lights fucntion for the twenty or so feet leading up to the landing and this entrance had power. A key pad at the center of the hatch suggested how people gained entrance. Eldest Nobari pushed his way to the front of the line. “Naomi told me the combination before she passed,” he said. “It’s part of the oral tradition.” 

“What happens when you open the door?” Volk asked. 

“Those instructions come once we enter the next chamber,” Nobari replied. “But I don’t think anything dangerous. Naomi said it was our last, best chance to see peace with Thulcandra but she didn’t know anything more than that.” 

He put the code in and the hatch clunked. The Eldest was reaching to open it when Volk gently pulled him back from the entrance. “Shen? If you would.” 

The small woman wormed her way to the place Nobari had been standing, taking her weapon in her hands and nodding to Volk. He reached out and opened the hatch. 

The room inside was dark but as soon as the hatch opened completely old lighting systems snapped to life, marching across the chamber in an ever expanding circle of illumination. At first Pak was listening for the instructions that would tell them what happened next. But he lost track of that notion as he began to realize how big a room he was looking at. It was nearly thirty feet from floor to ceiling but he couldn’t tell how far it went in any given direction because it was full, floor to ceiling, with racks of pods. He wasn’t sure what was in the pods but they were about ten feet long and three feet high. After a moment Pak realized with a start that they were the exact size of a Glass Coffin. 

“The floor, sir,” Shen said, gesturing to an illuminated strip running down the center of the aisles. Most of the lights were white but a blue strip led off to the left. “I think It’s telling us where to go.” 

“I agree. Aubrey what do you- hey!” Volk pulled her hands away from her helmet. “Keep that on until we know what’s going on here.” 

“It’s a Vault,” she said, voice wooden. “Schrodinger’s Vault.” 

“What’s that mean?” Pak asked. 

Shen knelt by one of the pods, down at the point where the blue lights ended. “Wait, Naomi is in here. What the hell is this?” 

“She’s gone into Shutdown,” Aubery said. “They all have. Your Founders put everyone into Shutdown in the hopes that they’d get revived once Earth broke its silence and contacted you again. None of your elders are dead, just waiting for us to break the Silence…”