Ventus – Day 49 of 135

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Tamsin cowered back into the wagon. Uncle must be insane! He was picking up strange men on the highway–they were sure to be robbed and raped by this crazy person who talked to himself and had gold cloth stuffed in his shirt.

She felt the wagon dip deeply as the man stepped up onto the front seat. Then it commenced rolling forward. She sat down on a bale of cloth, disconsolately picking at her embroidery. Finally she threw it on the floor.

Some days were fine. Today had started out that way. Some days, she could wake up in the morning, and clouds would be just clouds, water just water. She could actually smell breakfast as she cooked it, and feel hungry. Some days she could listen to Uncle’s plans, and tease into life a small spark of enthusiasm that he seemed to know she had. She could look forward to being an ingenue at Rhiene or one of the other great cities of Iapysia. So there were days when she practised her curtsies, her embroidery, and recited the epic poems Uncle had coached her in.

And then there were days… Her hands trembled again as she reached down to massage her leg. She couldn’t remember why she had been running–all she remembered was the overwhelming bleakness of the landscape. Bare trees, yellow grass. Cold air. Her own thoughts and feelings were inaccessible to her. One thing was sure, she was certainly not looking where she was going that morning. No wonder she’d sprained her leg.

Sometimes the tiniest little annoyance would set her off in a fit of temper that made her Uncle’s eyes widen in disbelief. Once it was because she had dropped a stitch! He did nothing to calm her down, but let her play it out. Afterward, she was always listless and ashamed.

I will not explode, she told herself. Even if Uncle is trying to get us killed.

They were talking up there–chatting like old friends. Of course, he did that with strangers all the time, but it was normally when they stopped at roadside markets or near towns. Uncle was an insatiable vessel for news, and these last two days he had been stopping everyone for information about the horrible incident at the Boros estate. It just wasn’t like him to pick people up off the road to talk.

Tamsin gritted her teeth and glared at the canvas flap. It was true an extra set of hands would be good right now. Rationally, she understood it. It didn’t stop her seething.

She sat in the dimness for a while, arms crossed, trying not to think. Thinking was bad. It led to things worse than anger.

This will all end soon, she told herself. When we get to Rhiene everything will be different. Meanwhile, she would have to make adjustments, and test her patience. So, after a little while, she adjusted her hair, planted a smile on her face, and opened the front flap of the cart’s canopy.

“Hello,” she said brightly to the startled young man who was in her seat. She held out her hand. “My name’s Tamsin. What’s yours?”

§

Calandria May slung the bag of potatoes over her shoulder, and made her way out of the market. The place was still buzzing with talk of the Boros catastrophe; the consensus was that the Winds had finally gotten around to punishing the family for unspecified past excesses. Attendance at church here in the town of Geldon was decidedly up.

There was some confused discussion of Yuri’s assassination. It was laid at the feet of Brendan Sheia, and two spies from Ravenon were named as accomplices. That explained why Calandria was currently disguised as a boy. She had cropped her hair and changed her voice and mannerisms. Right now she used the bag of potatoes to add swing to her shoulders as she walked, since otherwise her lower center of balance was harder to disguise.

People were also talking about Jordan Mason. No one knew his name, but some people had witnessed a confrontation between Turcaret and a young man. The controller had accused the youth of bringing the Heaven hooks down on the household.

Her shoulders itched as she walked–a familiar feeling that she was being watched, or followed. It had nothing to do with any townspeople who might glance at her on the way by. This was an older, and more fundamental, fear.

If she closed her eyes, Calandria could invoke her inscape senses: infrared sight and the galvanic radar that told of the presence of mecha or Winds. She couldn’t help herself–every few minutes, she paused, closed her eyes, and looked around using these senses.

Ever since the night that the Heaven hooks came down, Calandria had refused to let herself be lulled back into thinking that Ventus was a natural place. She was trapped in the gears of a giant, globe-spanning machine–a nanotech terraforming system that barely tolerated her kind. This appeared to be ordinary dirt she walked on, but it had been manufactured; it took more than the thousand years that Ventus had been habitable for soil like this to form naturally. The air seemed fresh and clean, but that too was moderated by unseen forces.

Those unseen forces were a threat. They might yet kill her. So she remained vigilant.

Calandria turned into a narrow alley and went through a roughhewn door that had a latch but no lock. Up a flight of stairs, through another door, and she was home.

This was the safe room where they had intended to hide August Ostler. The room was about four by six meters. It had one window which let out on the street–not an advantage, because mostly it just let in the smell of the open sewer that ran down the center of the lane. The place was built of plaster and lath. Calandria could hear the landlady snoring in the room next door. But it was out of the elements, and warm at night. That was all that mattered.

Currently everything she had was in this room, or on her person. Their horses had been killed in the destruction of the Boros stables, and she never had recovered her pack with its supplies of offworld technology. That had complicated matters, over the past couple of days.

Axel Chan grunted something and shifted in his sleep. His face was still flushed from the fever that had gripped him since Turcaret’s attack. His diagnostic nano were supposed to be able to handle routine infections. They didn’t seem to be working. Without the proper equipment, Calandria couldn’t determine why, though she suspected the local mecha were suppressing the offworld technology.

Would the same mecha contact the Winds and warn them of the presence of aliens here? Each night as she lay down, Calandria found herself imagining the harsh armatures of the Heaven hooks reaching down to pluck this small room apart.

It wasn’t like her to be afraid. But then, she was never afraid of merely physical threats. This was something else.

She put the potatoes down on the room’s one table. Axel coughed, and sat up.

“How are you feeling?” Calandria ladled some cold soup out and put it next to Axel. He drank it eagerly.

“As the good people of Memnonis like to say, I feel like a toad in a pisspot. Is this brackish swill best you could do?”

She sighed. “Axel, have you ever been truly ill in your life?”

“No.”

She nodded. “Why?” asked Axel after a moment.

“Because your nurses would surely have strangled you in your bed, the way you carry on.”

“Oh, ho,” he said. “Leave then. I’ll be fine on my own.” He coughed weakly. “I’ll manage somehow… I’ll feed on the rats and bugs, and be sure to die somewhere out of the way, where no one will trip over my shrivelling corpse.”

She laughed. “You do sound much better.”

“Well…” He raised his arms and examined them. “I no longer feel like I’ll leak all over if I just stand up. I should be able to ride in a day or two.”

She shook her head. “It’s going to take longer than that. We need you in top form when we go after Armiger.”

He nodded, and sank back on the straw bed. “Any word on Jordan?”

“No one knows what happened to him, and I have no way to track him now. We used the Desert Voice’s sensors to locate Armiger’s remotes the first time. With the Voice missing, we don’t have that option. Anyway, Jordan’s probably on his way home. No reason he shouldn’t be.”

Axel shifted uncomfortably. “I don’t like it. I still feel responsible.”

“I know,” she said. “But our first responsibility is to find Armiger and destroy him. If we don’t do that, then Jordan won’t be safe, no matter where he is.”

Axel appeared to accept this logic. “I assume,” he said, “that we’re not going to take Armiger on ourselves at this point. Just track him down.”

She nodded, coming to sit next to him. With the loss of the Desert Voice, they no longer had the firepower to destroy Armiger themselves. They would need help. At the same time, having the firepower wasn’t enough: they had to find Armiger, run him to ground. Calandria wanted to be sure of where he was before they left Ventus for reinforcements.

Axel looked better, but was still pale. He’d lost weight. “As soon as we get a ping from a passing ship we’ll try to get offworld,” she promised. “Meanwhile, we can’t afford to lose track of him.”

“We may have already.” He closed his eyes, wincing as he tried to turn on his side. “We don’t know for sure that he’s going after the queen.”

“Yes. Well, it’s all we’ve got.” Axel didn’t reply, and after a moment she stood and went to the window. His breathing deepened with sleep behind her, as Calandria looked out and up at a blue sky full of rolling white clouds. She fought the urge to look behind that facade at the alien machinery that maintained it.

Losing the Desert Voice was a catastrophe. She loved her ship, but more than that, they would have needed its power in order to destroy Armiger. Somewhere out there, beyond the rooftops and the clear air, he was hatching his schemes. She should be able to see him, like a stain on the landscape, she thought. It was horrifying that he should be invisible to the people he was setting out to enslave.

Calandria hugged herself, remembering what it had been like on the one world of 3340′s she had visited. The people of Hsing had been traumatized to the point of madness; their only goal in life–more an obsession–was to win the attention and favor of 3340 by any means possible, so as to avoid destruction and win immortality as one of its demigod slaves. People would do anything, up to and including mass murder, to gain its attention. And once enslaved, they became embodiments of their most base instincts, in turn enslaving hundreds or thousands of innocents; or simply slaughtering them as unwanted potential competition.

And all the while, 3340 had eaten away at the skies and earth, rendering the planet progressively more toxic for the few unchanged humans who struggled to survive in the ruins.

Armiger might find the key he was looking for at any moment. Irrevocable change would come sweeping from over the horizon like a tsunami, and this time Calandria would not be able to stop it.

She sat down by the window, and forced her hands to stay still in her lap. There was nothing to do but wait. Wait–and watch the skies for a sign that the world was ending.

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