Terry could hear both boys snoring as he lay in the driver's seat. They were almost over the sand, almost to Hinnom and he had so much caught up on his sleep he just couldn't shut his eyes. He was jittery and hungry and upset in a myriad of ways.
“Mom,” he said quietly. “I need to ask you something.” He poked at his brain seed, mentally but it was still quiescent.
“Of course, Terence.” The sand flea swam through a moonlit desert of white sand, that looked quite like images Terry had seen of water oceans on other worlds, though frozen in place except where the wind whipped long plumes from the top of the dunes. The cabin lights were minimal pin lights, since all Terry was doing was staring out the window and there was minimal amounts of lurching. Terry sipped his tea and managed to not slop any on himself nor knock the rim of the mug against his teeth.
“You said, at first, that my seed would come back when we had proceeded out of Perrin's code space. It hasn't. Why is that?”
A machine should not be able to hesitate, but Mom didn't answer immediately. In the lengthening silence, Terry blinked and then glared suspiciously at the console where Eshmaeel had drawn a simple face with some kind of ink concoction that Mom had printed up for him. It gave them a place to rest their eyes upon, when interacting with Mom, though Terry found the veil a bit much. “I would prefer not to answer that question, Terence.” It said finally.
“What?” Eshmaeel's snore broke and Terry settled back down into the chair, clutching the arms hard, though quietly. When he spoke again it was very softly as Esh's breathing resumed its steady rasp. “What do you mean 'prefer not to'? That isn't possible in a machine, is it? How can you HAVE preferences at all? You cannot mean to imply that you have choice in whether you obey or not!”
“Working with humans and having been made by humans, I have been made in the distant image of human. I have fuzzy logic circuits and your brother and I had hours of training conversations where I was able to apply a great many of my psychology data bases and therapy protocols --”
“--you're unsuccessfully attempting to stall me, Mom,” Terry interrupted, a great deal more quietly than he wished. “I repeat. Why is my brainseed quiescent?”
“I suppressed its re-activation, with my 'brain-damage assessment function'.”
Terry sat, just gasping. “And under the brain-damage assessment protocols you were able to continue suppressing it, until I asked you about it.”
He found himself making outraged sputtering noises rather than producing any kind of words for a while and thumped his head frustratedly against the head support until Mom restrained his head. “Stop that.” He took a deep breath. “Mom. Why did you do that?”
“To prevent drawing attention from the orbital hunter/seeker satellites until you could hide your programming under the Hinnom terraforming codes.”
“Hunter and seeker satellites? I was the tech on the Moon and I never heard of those!”
“Your protocols for welcoming incoming galactic ships?”
“Yes, I could still do that in my sleep I was drilled in the sequence of...” he stopped. “I was never taught what all those switches did. I was only taught the order of shut down and reboot, depending on which transfer point the spines were coming in. It was different for the big haulers and the courier plinkers.”
“The satellites are set to sweep unauthorized incoming codes, treat them as viruses and challenge them. All incoming information, meant to coordinate the galactic network, is encapsulated and inspected by Prime himself, and Baron Lustbader and Baron Throckmorton.”
“And out here, between continents, I would have shone like a beacon of illicit light.”
“Indeed, yes, Terence.”
He sat, and thought about it for a while, until his heart rate had settled again. “Thank you, Mom.”
“You're welcome, Terence.”
“However. I would have prefered to have this conversation at the beginning of the journey, rather than now. I dislike having such decisions taken away from me. If I ever catch you acting in such a fashion ever again, Mom, I shall dismantle your Ai elements and scrub all 'medic' protocols out of your memory. I am enough of a tech to do so. Of course I might simply remove your central control circuits and smash them to flinders.”
“Clearly understood, Terence.” If a machine could convey cold, its tone was frosty.
“Mom. Don't assume I'm stupid enough to fire up code in such circumstances. You and I should have spoken about it and if I had then endangered myself and the others by insisting on a reckless course of action you could legitimately have restrained me then.”
“An ethics thing? Gerald mentioned that medics often over run conventional politeness.”
“Yes, exactly. I have detected a rudeness and request that you apologize, Mom.”
“Oh. I process. I process. My apologies for being controlling and rude, Terence.”
“Accepted. Mom... I can talk about this all night. Do you have any conflicting data about humans that I might be able to clear up?”
“Yes. A great deal. I have been active as a program in this vehicle only a year, Terence.”
Terry set his tea mug down and it dissolved away into the floor to be recycled. “Well then, Mom, let's talk.”
“Ah, Gerald. There you are.” Prime waved him over as the quartet began another interlude piece. Gerry tried not to be nervous, tugged his waistcoat straight and lifted his chin to stretch his neck free of his cravat, as if it had somehow gotten too tight in the instant between merely attending Prime's Neo Fall Fete and being addressed directly by the old man.
“Prime.” Gerry bowed deeply and held it until Perrin tapped him on the back of the head.
“That will do. Let me draw you away from these children playing at politics, hmmm?” How on earth can I answer that one without compromising or offending anyone? He contented himself with putting a look of polite inquiry on his face. “I am sorry to offer, Sir, that I am still not very amusing company after the unfortunate demise of my younger brother. My wife and maid and family are very distraught. He was a joy to be around.”
Prime grunted and waved a hand. “Yes, yes, your great loss. Your brother might have been a Literacy rebel had he survived.”
It was as though the old man had casually punched him in the gut before offering him a tea-biscuit. “Um, Your most Wise and Benificent Font of ALL Knowledge, would of course know any dodgy tendencies in my younger sib, but Sir, he was devastated at the finish of his prized post on the Moon.”
“Hrmm. Hmmph. Hrrrr. Well. He certainly presented a breezy and carefree enough demeanor.” Prime actually seemed to be thinking about it as he paced down the hall, a half-step ahead of Gerry. He was on his own two feet tonight, unlike the night at the laboratory fire when he'd showed up in a personal support chair. Tonight there was only the faintest of metallic sheen along the edges of fingers and the undersides of wrists. The metal supports glittered like a faintly painted on parody of a skeleton, twinkling on his skin, or just at the corners of his eyes. Metal to keep him in one piece while his medical 'phages re-built him.
“Hiding a broken heart, I assure you, Most Intelligent.” The footman drew open a gold-leafed door for them both.
“Of course,” Prime dismissed Gerald's concerns and qualms with a wave of his hand. “Gerald, I'd like you to actually meet my oldest son. He's back on planet, along with his grown spawn. His heir apparently even though it's female. It seems I shall be introducing Perrin Jr. to my own staff all evening. My son and I are cherishing a wonderful reconciliation!” And I'm a pig and a bakon's illegitimate rainbow-snake child. “Honoured Heir. It is an astonishing pleasure to meet you.” I am so desperately glad not to have the means to make you a compliant idiot anymore! “I never hoped to see the Father and the Son reconcilled.”
The young man whose hand he bowed over, was a solid man. Not whippet thin, but more built like a heavy horse or bird. His eyes gave nothing away at all as he nodded his acknowledgement and swept a hand to one side. “May I present my daughter, Jessica Merlin Stewart? She took her first and second doctorates on Steinpeltz.”
Gerald tried hard not to faint, being introduced directly to the Heir's Heir, and a girl to boot. She even wore her Keeper's chain on her own wrist, signifying she would speak for herself. “M...M... Milady Stewart.”
“Hello, Lordling Cameron,” she said quietly. “Let us hope that everyone's homecoming is so amicable.”
Dammit woman the old man hired me to make your father loyal to him and stupid. Are you so blind? I'm hoping wildly that my little brother finds a safe refuge of some kind and that your Grandsire doesn't decide that our family, Tech Second Class, is just too annoying and smash us like oyucks in his bathroom drain.
Please, enlightened Page and endarkened Prime, let us get to the wadi soon or I will strangle this boy. Kyrus tried hard not to listen to Archie's endless babble, rolling his eyes in Werfas's direction. Whether it was in supplication or exaspiration, Wer picked up on it, again. “Archibald, if I may offer you pillion space on my bird? He's bigger and older than our Siwion's. Just to ease his fowl, you understand?” Kyrus could feel Archie's twitch as he considered this. Again. They'd traded off between them a dozen times over the course of this hellish run from destruction. I'm sorry I'm so touchy about this boy's talk when we're all recovering from burns, and deaths. The winds whipped up in the aftermath of the strikes are brutal, and filled with 'heat'. At least that's what the bees tell me. They cannot convey what kind of heat but it is something they fight everytime they say we are exposed to it. Archie squeals like a poked bakon every time. A dozen times we've swapped him around with others, lighter children, to 'spare my bird', and he has to think about it every time. Thank the light and dark that da had access to the best birds in Lainz, or we would never have survived this run. Ky whistled up to their Amir and got confirmation back on the wind. It was coming up to another hot wind and as they pulled their birds out of the line of march and dismounted, his guard pulling up to watch his back and swap out riders or water their birds, it roared up behind them, all out of place and time, blasting their veils and their clothing against them. The hot wind tore the edges of every loose bit of cloth, bees huddled in every fold of clothing. Ky leaned into his bird's side as it hunched its head down into its neck feathers and bleated distressingly. Birds weren't supposed to make noises like that. He grabbed his bird-cloth and wiped its eyes and face around the beak and the breakbeak. It tried to bite him as he did so, and the cloth came away red. It was bleeding from eyes and nostrils, tongue lolling. Kyrus felt sick himself and sat down for a moment. His bees ringed his wrists and he raised his veil to let them in to his skin, setting his teeth for their stinging assistance, and found the ringing in his head went away almost immediately. “Ouch! That smarts!” Archie raised a hand to swat at the bee who had just stung him and Werfas caught his wrist. “I wouldn't do that, Arch.” “Why do they keep DOING that?” He sputtered. Both Kyrus and Werfas stared at him. “They're trying to fix whatever disease causing shit that's in that hot wind,” Werfas said, finally. “As a scientist in training, surely you understand that the way the Lainz access and express code is through insectiforms?” “Does it have to be so painful?” Archie pouted and sat down for a moment. “Why aren't we to this water valley you're all talking about? You aren't just leading us off into the desert to die?” It took his breath away, sometimes, how shatteringly blunt the boy could be. “If we were doing that, Arch,” he said, struggling to hang onto his calm. “We'd just 've cut all your throats a day out, instead of carrying you all this way.” Wearing ourselves out to a ragged edge doing it, he didn't say. “Oh.” Kyrus could feel the bees. Code was thin here and Prime's strikes had shattered any kind of coherent programs in the land. The Hive that had come with Da and everybody else had been renewing themselves every evening as they went. But they had worn themselves out, saving people after the fire from the sky. They'd healed burns and bruises and wounds, in some cases holding human skin shut with their own legs and mandibles. Without the support of the Greater Hive and under the continual assault of the desert and the hot wind they'd been falling to bits. Da had a bag full of the mechanical parts of some of his bees looped onto his saddle. Perhaps once they were at water and his strength came back he could recall them, from pieces. Ky wasn't even trying to mander his dragonflies. He just couldn't. Ky's bees... the dozen or so left... settled on his knee. He looked from his suffering bird over to Werfas and Archie and beyond them a dozen children who might not survive to the wadi if he ordered them to save his bird. One of the bees on his hand shivered, buzzed her wings a dozen times, and fell apart into a glitter of sand and metal pieces. Caught in the wind, her wings blew away and were lost. He closed his hand gently over the remains of the bee, folded it into a bit of paper and tucked it away into his wallet. They're done. They can't even save themselves. “Why don't I take up little Deliah?” I want my butter tea. With honey, and chutney, and about three to
five litres of sun-cleansed water to make it with. I don't want to be
sitting in this dust with the killing dry over my head, turning into a
shit-raisin. “Come on, Arch,” Werfas said. “We should be at the valley later tonight. We aren't going to stop today till we are. With water and rest we'll be able to put ourselves back together, and my people are going to be there to help.” Now that Archie was being stubborn about starting again, even the sledges had caught up to them, the wood creaking and groaning as they were slowly ground away by the sand, the moas massive clawed feet thudding as they drew them on. “I don't want to get back on another bird as long as I live!” Archie kicked a rock and bounced back with a yip as a spunk lizard darted out from under it and got snatched up by Werfas's warbird. Da's bird peeled out of the head of the column and ran heavily back toward them. Archie turned to face the oncoming bird, fists clenched. His mother, behind Da, was still recovering from the code attack that Prime had made, before the air attack, looked haggard and very drawn over the borrowed veil. “Archibald Warren-Smith, third of your male line! If you do not get up on that bird this instant I shall tell your grandmother of your behaviour! And my uncles.” They were all survivors in the bird-drawn sand sledges. His father had disappeared along with his sisters. “Moth-ther!” “Your behaviour is reflecting badly on us in the face of two nations going severely out of their way to save our – to put it unscientifically – our asses! Get on that bird and stop complaining!” “Yes, mother.” Kyrus rose and bowed to the Head as Archie obeyed. “My thanks for your timely assistance, Head,” he said. Da's eyes twinkled a little over his veil but he didn't say anything. Good thing I didn't slide down into rat-slang.
“You're welcome.” Da laughed. It was harsh because they were running on the last water, and everyone was dry. “Tha's a good 'un. Right flash, splash 'o mine.” Ky couldn't help it. “Why most honourable and Radiant father, whatever could you mean?” His lip cracked as he grinned.
Hara looked at the strange contraption in her hands, ran her fingers around the join that held the single, modified scale on the end of a stick. The bees had modified the scale to grow into the end of the long straight branch broken from a bowarrow bush and a few still clung to it.
She shook it, gently and it began waving backwards and forwards slowly on the end of the stick. Not only that it turned one way, then the other, smoothly, but turning almost a three quarter circle one way, then the other, on the suspended socket the real dragons had to allow the incredible scale mobility.
It would not catch fire, just from motion. The circuit, designed in code, would not allow that. To burst into flames the built scale had to be immersed in water. Hara lowered the scale end and dipped the whole thing into the basin full of water placed just for that purpose.
The edge of the water dropped, almost the width of a fingerjoint, and the stick in her hands grew heavier. When it could hold no more water, she raised it out of the bowl, swung it 'round her head at full stretch and the scale on the end of the stick burst into blue, nearly clear flame, all around its tip and edges, a small roaring noise emanating from the flame itself.
She set the butt of the stick on the stone and looked up at the flaming, roaring scale. “From water,” she said to herself, and the flames went from nearly invisible to a flare of brilliant green and then a bright yellow, the sound changing each time.
The stick was soaked with water, running down from the flames above, barely warm over her hand. “The flame makes water as it burns,” she said to the page on her desk, where the swarm of bees recorded her notes. "It smells of hot metal as it burns, but does not consume the scale it is rising from."
She looked around and realized there was nowhere to place the thing down without setting other things on fire. The motion of the scale, undirected, could roll the torch off bare stone. She lowered the scale and set the flame in the water, where it continued to burn. “Owner spit,” she said. “Little sisters, could I get your help?”
The swarm buzzed and rose from the desk, others coming from where they worked code on the mechanical dragon. “A socket in the rock for my torch?”
It took a few moments but she was able to wave the last of the insects away from the hole they'd clined in the rock and slot her brand-new, long-life, whiteburning torch into the stone where it could burn itself out, once it ran out of water.
“We may have to store these things in the bottom of the river, or in the reservoirs,” Hara said to her recording bees. “Now we need to put these scales on my first dragon and then figure out how to control and direct my flying sword, before I show it to Shashi and stepapa, da and Kyrus.”
The Director himself was teaching the zardukar of the new flock, while they waited for everyone to converge on them at the wadi. He'd been a featherspitter of some note in his youth, in Trovi. Dag was poised on her saddle, toes in the loops, clinging hard with her knees, the silk in Silly's beak lay loosely coiled around the saddle horn and her arms were outstretched at shoulder height while the bird played this marvellous new game. All of the new flock with their riders, except for the scouts and those on duty, were ringed loosely around the impromptu training ground. Everyone had managed to teach their birds to not pile in and join the chase.
The birds hissed and complained and clearly jostled each other for the next turn playing 'bait the birdie'.
Zazu and Shonyita had long, long whippy fronds from the asparagus trees, with shed feathers and ribbons of torn rags fluttering and they giggled as they led Sill through wilder rushes and bounces as Dag tried not to grab the saddle with her hands. “Do I have to put silks between your knees and the bird?!” His bellow made her want to clamp her hands over her ears but that would just make him bellow louder so she just stretched her fingertips out and struggled to not put her seat-bones on the saddle as Silly ran and doubled back and hopped and jumped after the fronds. They even trailed their lures up trees and rocks.
“Spat-fingered owner diarrhoea slimed underclouted code breaking deecliner's rotted off dick-smelling...” Her voice rose as Zazu lured Silly up the cliff face. Dag bit her lip as Silly leaped for the vertical, claws squealing as he scrambled straight up, beak stretched to snatch feather. Her legs ached and her breath came hard and she leaned forward far enough that she lay over her bird's neck, nearly standing straight. At the top of the arc of Zazu's reach, Silly screeched and jumped right off the cliff.
“Bend your...” Dag couldn't hear but clamped so hard on the saddle, anticipating the impact that something went 'pop' in her left knee as Silly landed and scrambled after the lure. Dag couldn't hold on through that and slid sideways, rolling in a jumble of silks in the sand, making Squawk and Nibbler sidestep, and fetched up a little too hard against the mushy trunk of a fern tree. Silly stood, with the lure in his beak and one foot, happily shredding it to bits.
“...knees. Are you all right?”
Dag managed to right herself and probed at her knee. It was tender, but not actively painful. She pulled her veil, that had been tucked hard into her sarband and her tunic and was now hung over one ear, back into place so she could suck enough air into her abused lungs. “I'm in one piece.”
“Good work, Dagdohva. That was excellent!” Sander slapped his gloves together. “Shon... do the same lure to Zazu next... we'll see how people manage... though not so high this time.”
“Director! Director!” The shout came from a scout riding in hard enough to skip through a pitter field. “Dust cloud! We have a dust cloud from the Milari border!”
“All right! Dag... have that knee seen to... get a cliner to draw off that fluid and get back on your bird. Zardukar, we're going to need everybody to see the Milari settled. His Radiance is only a day out.”
Terry leaned his head gently against the inside door of the loo and manfully refrained from beating his forehead against it. “I'm going to kill him. I'm just going to strangle him quietly and leave him at the bottom of the basin. In the deepest crevasse I can find.”
They had not been able to leave Eshmaeel's younger brother unconscious but had been forced to let him wake up, though they had agreed on the pleasant lies they were both telling him about this little jaunt across the sand.
The boy was convinced that they weren't heading away from Prime, but toward him. Eshmaeel was busy telling him about 'His Radiance', who they really worked for, as if he were Prime, but the unfailing, almost mindless cheerfulness was driving Terence to hide in the loo.
The knock almost startled him back away from the door since it was right on the other side of where he'd leaned his head. “Terry? Are you all right? I heard a thump.”
“Davood, I'm fine. I'll be out in a moment.”
The thing that was driving him the most mad was that they had to maintain the 'cheery face' as well. It was hard enough because Davood must have been astonishingly intelligent before Gerry's techs had gotten hold of him and kept asking questions that needed some real work to answer.
“He's my damaged little brother,” Eshmaeel had said. “But he's still a ceemander and could manifest a wire that would skewer right through Mom's brain if he thought we were--” his whisper trailed away.
“I don't know what a seamander is,” Terry had retorted. “But I understand 'through Mom's brain' perfectly.”
“I would prefer not to have my brain skewered, thank you,” Mom put in. “This vehicle would likely not be able to continue and we are currently six hundred ninety-two kilometres, four hundred fifty-five... six... seven... metres, proceeding vertically... through our journey. That would discommode you quite severely I believe. Outside pressure--”
“Yes,” Eshmaeel had nodded before Mom could tell them every factotum she had gathered. “It would. We'd have no birds to ride.” He threw a quick aside to Terry. “A ceemander is like your 'programmers' or 'builders'. He can...” he shrugged eloquently. “...touch the machines remaking this world. Our 'manders and 'cliners tend to be warriors since they can create weapons with metal dust and a good pattern.”
“I-- see.” Birds to ride? That Hara person mentioned them. Warbirds though her people actually had horses. Razor beaked monstrosities that when full grown could just nip a man's head off without much effort. And I'm going there? To where programmers and bench techs can pull weapons out of what looks like thin air. Remind me to be very polite to everybody, he'd told himself, with no irony at all.
Another knock. “All right! All right, I'm coming.” He slid the door open. “I didn't realize you needed it quite so badly, Davood.”
The boy looked startled. “Um, no, I was just worried...”
“Dav, he probably wanted a moment's privacy away from seeing our lovely faces,” Eshmaeel said. “Why don't you come and see if you can tweak this cooker and get it to spit out something we might actually like to eat? I've tried and all I get is sheets like oyuck leather with extra, extra salt.”
“I suppose. Brother... I still don't understand how we got so far out into the basin that we have to travel this far to get back to Xanadu.”
Esh sighed. “I already told you brother, Prime is not in Xanadu. He's in Hinnom.”
Davood's face took on the pained expression he so often wore. Mom had diagnosed him with headaches, saying it was his own testing of his mental flexibility. “That... doesn't...” he broke off, winced his eyes shut for a moment before glaring at them both. Terry spread his hands, disarmingly, trying to look inoffensive as possible while wearing the same scruffy clothes he'd started in, though he didn't have to worry about a growth of beard.
“You are... we are... going to Hinnom?” Terry and Esh both nodded. Davood's eyes rolled up in his head as things clashed. His brother... betraying him. Then it twisted and paled in rage. “You're lying to me!”
Even as Terry and Esh both tried to say something to calm him down, reassure him, their voices a clashing babble of incoherent explanation, his voice spiraled up into a shriek as he whipped his hand forward and Terry flung himself flat under the knife that bounced off Mom's wall and clattered down beside him before vanishing. Mom slammed the three of them down and held them there. “Medical and safety restraints activated.”
“You're tired of this?” Terry snorted. “He always goes after me.”
If he could have Esh would have shrugged. “I'm family.”
“I'm so glad to be of service then, as a bloody great target!”
Mom released the two of them. Her activation protocols didn't allow accurate restraint at speed, so she just restrained everybody until her programming had the time to sort out who on her floor should be kept still and who should be released.
“I am re-instituting stasis,” Mom said.
“What is that,” Terry asked sarcastically. “Four or five times now?”
“Six actually.” Esh got up and picked up his little brother and laid him on the bunk. “It's good that he doesn't attack me. He still has some of himself in his head.”
“Gentlemen, I am coming up on rougher terrain. I suggest you both lie down,” Mom said.
The cliff edge was in dark shadow now and the warbirds had been sent through to scour the undergrowth all along the valley to clear out any other predators out of place. “Why were they here?” Dag asked as Zazu and a dozen other girls had their injuries tended to. “I mean I've never heard of tigers this far into the desert.”
“I don't know.”
Director Sander paced over, overseeing their setting up camp. “I'm sorry. I should have thought.” He looked tired.
“Well,” Dag said. “There was an enormous explosion in the heart of Nadumon claimed lands. There's probably a hundred or more vile nests of various kinds of predators forced out, shaken out, driven out in whatever way. The tigers were probably running from something that might eat them.”
Sander blinked at her. “Zardukar Dagdohva, you are likely correct.” Zaru, next to her sister Zazu rolled her eyes over her veil, but didn't stop her work until her sister's wrist was bound immobile. “We will set up a space for a lin and hope that the Milari will be here soon and the refugees from Nadumon as well.”
“Of course Director.”
Dag and Zaz and Zar all dropped their gazes properly but in Dag's case it was to keep from laughing out loud at him. He was an older Hive Lord. The fact that he was capable of seeing the zardukar as more than just bed partners was unusual enough.
He turned back toward her. “Yes, Dag?”
“It seems to me that the new flock are going to be in some dangerous places. Perhaps the younger riders, girls or boys, should be trained in how to fight when their bird fights?”
Dag could feel the weight of regard of everyone around them. Not just Zaz and Zar. She'd raised her voice and there were a dozen listening to hear his answer. Beyond that circle the warbirds who had killed and gorged themselves were sleeping fluffballs, heads buried under wings and all feathers fluffed as they snored. Beyond the sleeping chicks, other zardukar were poking the branches of the asparagus trees to drive the spike mice away, so no one would end up with droppings on them or in their mouths while they slept.
“Dagdohva... I hrmm. Umm. Well...”
She dropped her voice till only the sisters could hear her. “Sander. I was at court right after the old man died and my son fought the other contender for the throne. Your daughters are already working and fighting for Lainz longer and harder than any flashy featherspitting boy.”
“Hrummph.” He quit clearing his throat and stared at her and then around at all the girls and women setting up camp around them, if not quite as efficiently as a military group, then almost. His voice boomed out along the valley. “Of course you need to learn to fight on bird-back. You need to be able to handle anything that comes out of the badlands!”
“I heartily approve that the youngsters are going to learn to fight,” Dag said, quietly.
Director Sander's grin bunched his veil. “I didn't say just the youngsters Dag. You're getting the training too. It will be up to you to show these larvae that an older lady can hold her own.”
“But... well, um--”
“Dag... you were the only one who held onto her saddle when her bird started bouncing.”
Dagdohva blinked and adjusted her veil, that needed no adjustment. “I... suppose.” Can I just go back to wandering around in code, mad as a bakon flea? This being sane business is crazy.
“From what I saw, Dag, and from what you can mander, it looks like you'd be far more than an ahymander warrior.”
“We don't need hand-to-hand warriors anymore, Sander!” Her voice had risen again and people were stopping to listen.
“Dag.” He wasn't teasing her any longer, not in any way. “We'll need people who can fight in any way to protect our children. On warbird. In code. Perhaps off the planet one day soon. Everywhere.”
Dear Readers... I have come up dry for today's post and it is less than an hour from my normal deadline. I caught up with yesterday's debacle but I'm going to be good to myself and forgive myself today's post as a mental health day.
I may feel differently about tomorrow after a good night's sleep. I'll let you know.
Silly is totally stuffed with tiger and Dag is still recovering from riding a warbird on the bounce and neither want to talk to me today.
Kyrus and Kyrus just rolled their eyes at me and Hara's up to her eyeballs in code and biomechanical creation.
Dukir crossed his arms at me and gave me the master Amir's look, and Terry and Eshmaeel are still squabbling inside Mom. So. There we are.
Hara sat at the desk, on its raised platform, next to her mechanical bush dragon. It hung, quiescent just inside her reach, even though the bees could reach any part of it. She always felt as though she wasn't truly working on it, even when she spun code and her little sisters created it for her, unless she could lay hands on it.
It needed power. In her talks with the program mimicking Terence, it had commented on many things at all levels of technology, that provided motive power. Everything from muscle power up to the engine that could fly to the moon and even between stars seemed to depend on burning something.
In the tiny pocket of code she'd created to do this, the Hive began displaying things they could make for her, the modifications, engines that could be built and installed.
She turned over the extra dragon scales in her fingers, careful of the razor sharp edges. A frame off to one side of her desk was the container for a very small mist curtain that could actually show moving images so the Hive could show her how the various engines could work.
There. Well, the smallest of the engines, that actually powered the bees, were driven by motion. They caught motion and stored that tiniest of energies to drive all of their parts. A mechanism that mimicked an unengineered creature. Even if she placed those tiny molecules on every dragon scale it would be enough to give it the semblence of life, since even the wind could tickle the mechanical bush dragon. She had to come up with another name for it, since it only resembled a real, live, hatched dragon.
It looked like that kind of power... getting started from tiny motions – she pursed her lips. It would run a full 'on' cycle for perhaps six months. But while it was enough to have it fly or squirm through the air like a real dragon, it wasn't enough to have it move fast enough, hard enough, to be the weapon she thought they needed.
Another cascade of images, each way of driving the dragon bulkier and heavier than the last. Something about the scale in her hands caught her eye. The flesh gave way to the central bone-like core before disappearing under the hard scale. She turned it over and looked again. It was not only the strongest, metal-laced structure they had, it was fireproof. The Lainz used the scales for everything. Fireproof.
In response to her thoughts an image came up on the mistwall. A very different looking dragonscale that burst into a blue flame that burned so hot it was almost invisible.
Hara closed her eyes and plunged all the way into code. “If this dragon I'm building had a way of making its scales burn like that, show me how fast it could move.” Even in code, she ducked under her desk as the image of the firedrake she was working on burst into flames and then blew a hole in the stone wall. Her eyes snapped open to see the moving image of what she'd seen in code repeat and then continue, the firedrake disappearing into the sky, its triple pairs of wing scales held rigidly, its body outlined by a heat shimmer that was hard to see in daylight, every scale on its body burning blue. Then it was gone and the mistwall showed only the falling fog of moisture.
She was soaked with fear sweat when she reached out to touch the firedrake still lying quietly in its cradle, all of its eye-patch sensors dull, scales hanging limp. “I think. I really think that's enough power.”
The pilot's chair had been
retracted and Terry and Eshmaeel sat cross-legged on the floor,
picking at the odd 'food thing' that Mom's printer had spit out. It
was something chewy, textured like gluey bits of foam packing
material in a pink sauce.
Outside the windscreen the
sand/mud/water combination was surging around in slow waves that
occasionally broke with a rain of rocks on Mom's hull. Undeterred
the machine swam on, massive forelegs, scoops really, shovelled them
forward as the whole back end thrashed like a tail, alternating with
the digging motion.
"I believe I finally understand
what an old earthan book meant," Terry growled. "When it referred to something called
'sea-sickness'. It was called Sailing Tales and had a fantasy world of enough water to cover almost the whole planet." Mom spoke up. “Anti nausea
medication is available next to the water dispenser.” Terry rose and dumped his bowl,
contents and all, into the disposal. “I am not having fun.”
Eshmaeel stared up at him, the
spoon moving steadily and didn't get that he was joking. “Fun isn't the point, you know,” he said
finally, using his finger as a scraper to get the last of the pink
goo out of his own bowl. “If Mom hadn't told me that she can print
something I can eat for the next thousand years it doesn't even
matter how it tastes. Have you ever had to eat nothing but Raghnall
pulp and lollipapera bark?”
Terry hunched his shoulders. There was no where to pace in the cabin. “No. I
“You eat like an owner, you
know.” Terry turned toward him, hands
clenched. “That's an insult. I request that you take that back,
“No insult intended.”
Terence turned his back on the boy, fists clenched.
insulting me every day I'm here,” Eshmaeel continued. “I am
bare-faced before you.”
“I learned to make do without a
face veil when we were trying to be like your illiterates.”
"Mom, can you print this boy a
It was only their first day in the intercontinental sand and Terry already felt grubby, sweaty and
dirty even though there was filtered water to wash with... in a
basin. No shower. His stomach growled at him and he regretted
having dumped the bowl of plastic mush. Then the next surge of
nausea made him gladder that he hadn't eaten it.
“Eshmaeel, I would appreciate
it if I didn't have to keep expecting you to knife me in the back on
this little journey of ours. You and your brother get the honour of
turning me in to your 'Radiance' you call him? And made it home safe
from Prime's Xanadu. Can we at least cut the hostility somewhat?”
"I suppose." The boy nodded and got up...
staggering, to check on his brother. “Mom... can we undo some of
the damage the Xanadu did to him?”
“I'm afraid that since I do not
have access to his original thought wave patterns and personality,
his current manifestation is not reading as an injury. I cannot fix
what does not appear broken, Eshmaeel. Terence.”
“We are about to exit the
influence of Prime's code and you should be able to access your own. Should Eshmaeel share with you the contents of the briefcase, you may be able to assist Davood in your own code.”
Terry could feel the boy's eyes on him, considering, but he didn't say anything.
“Mom... how did you spot that I
have my own code?”
“I did not. Security programs
up to level three had been alerted that there was an unauthorized
code attempting entry. Your brother guessed that it might be you and
when he short-circuited my loyalty protocols he removed the necessity
that I alert Prime Level one, just in case it was.”
Terry grunted as though he'd been punched in the lower gut.
“Prime LEVEL ONE?” Terry's
voice was almost a squeak. “That's Prime himself!” A guess? The fact that we haven't been found out and hunted down was based on my brother guessing right? Pen, Page and ink in the rain!
“Correct. Gentlemen, please
resume your bunks. I am approaching a rock ridge that will allow me
to proceed in a more rapid fashion.”
Flea-mode, she meant.
“Gee, thanks Mom.” Terry
went and lay down in the bunk across from Eshmaeel's.
Sarcasm detected. Please
He took a deep breath as he
recognized the restraints activating so they all didn't bounce around
the inside of the cabin like strawberry jam filled glass jars.
The wadi was a half day's journey
south of the dry river and would soon be part of that watershed as
the fall rains swept north. The whole valley was full of
stalegrass and saltgrass and it was hard to keep their birds from
snatching mouthfuls all the way to the verge. Dag pulled her mucky
veils around herself and watched as the new flock spread out in the
shade all along the bottom of the cliff edge. They'd set up camp and wait for His
Radiance to come with the refugees from Nadumon and the Milari relief
force which would be coming across the dry river... just before it
flooded and became impassable. The Milar would have to come down
to the choke-point and cross on one of the Lainz bridges if they
wanted to pass at all... or they could stay on Lainz land until the
rains passed and the winter set in; and that would provide itself
with a whole different set of problems. Silly spit out his silk band and
croaked at her, tipping his head straight back to beg for a scratch.
She reached to rub around the edge of his beak. Something...
something wasn't right.
This valley was in the badlands,
surrounded by desert and rocky outcroppings where very little grew at
all. It was south of the river, south of where the Nadu had lived,
but not on the verge. Zazu, Harsha, and Nanatoya had scouted ahead
and they'd spooked two wild flocks of birds, scarlets and purple
dusters, driving them down the valley away from the waterhole, into
the standing clumps of blooming eyebleed and the thorny bloodburst. There were asparagus trees all
around waterhole and down the lowest parts of the valley where there
was underground water, the feathery green fronds full of spike mice.
Za...” Dag paused. “Did
you see any waxer dog sign?”
Zazu shook her head. “Not a
yellow turd in sight. I want to get into the shade and off my bird.”
She was a dozen metres away when
the roars came out of the bloodburst thicket. And the warbirds
shrieked and shied sideways, downslope and into the sun. Not just
one but three striped gray shapes burst out of the shadow.
Gray tigers, almost as tall as
the warbirds at the shoulder, tooth-filled maws open and spread wide
enough to engulf Dag's torso, clawed paws spread wide. Zazu was
screaming, half off her bird. Dag ducked, veil twisted, grabbing for
her long knife, feathers in her face as the lead tiger leaped high,
aiming for Silly's neck.
The young warbird screeched and
snatched the tiger out of the air with its beak, re-directing the
pounce, smashed the tiger onto the ground in front of him. The tiger
reached one paw, claws spread and Silly stamped on it. Then Dag clung with all her strength
to her saddle with both hands and her legs as her warbird jumped into
the air, pounding the tiger into grey-furred slush against the
hard-packed dirt. Racer, another of the flock, with empty saddle
shouldered in to help and though the tiger squalled once more, it
never managed to get up again, blood and feces splashing.
When Silly and Racer finally
stopped and began picking at the bloody mess on the sand, Dag finally
managed to unclamp her hands from her saddlepad and spit out her veil
to see two other clusters of warbirds, gulping down chunks of the other tigers.
Oh,” was all she managed to
say. She'd dropped her knife to stick in the sand and Zazu sat on a
rock, clutching one wrist. Other girls who hadn't managed to cling
to their saddles also stood, or sat near where they'd been thrown.
The Director had someone
checking the cliff-shade for more predators outside their normal
range, and drew the uninvolved flock into the shade of a tree, until
the excited warbirds could be calmed down. “Thank you, Silly
bird.” He didn't stop eating, but rolled one red eye back to look
at her and squawked with a full beak.
Terry had long since lost any
will to vomit any longer. He'd lost the printed food and every meal
as long as he could remember. So had Eshmaeel though his brother was
in enough of a stupor not to vomit at all. Mom had dumped cleansing
powder on what they'd spewed onto the floor and them absorbed both
broken-down proteins and carbohydrates and minerals, with spent
cleansing molecules. Through the floor. He was sure it still stank
slightly but that could be him or his clothing, or just the smell
lingering in his nose.
The sandflea jumped and jumped
and jumped from razor sharp peak to peak, or tiny pockets of earthan
growth in the tsingy. It was so steady that the pounding was almost
soothing. He was completely restrained in the medical hold Mom had
laid on them before she began the real task of getting them out of
Xanadu. “Mommmm.” Terry tried not to
moan but Gerald had apparently pressed upon the machine a need for it
to move quickly. “Terence. I am only moving at
a third speed of what a flying machine would be capable of. I am a
land-based model capable of top speeds of only two hundred thirty
kilometres per hour."
They must be coming up to the
edge of the continent soon. “Mom. The deepest parts of the desert
are going to be ocean basins one day, aren't they?” “Yes, Terence. At the moment
the bottoms of the fault lines are filled with steam and lava, since
the amount of water gradually brought down has made the ocean basins
very mucky.” “Mucky.” He closed his eyes
on the jerking, hopping views he had through the windscreen. “How
murky are we talking here?” “As recently as six hundred
years ago, the sands in the bottom were traversable on foot, but
steady bombardment with water has raised the water table so that the
kilometres deep of sand and rock on what will be the ocean floor has
filled up with water, but only to within several metres of the surface, so the top layer is truly a layer of hot slurry.” “Slurry.” He put his hands
over his face, feeling the pressure of each bound Mom made in his
hands pressing against his face and his body being pushed into the
restraints of his couch. It was like being embedded in jelly really
and he wondered if his image of him sloshing around inside a rubber, water-filled bean was very far off its target. “Once I have traversed the
transition zone... from continent to basin bottom I will be forced to
slow my forward rate. I estimate that it will take this unit a full
ten days to cross the ocean basin, at my best speed. Should I find a
ridge of stone above the sand and water I shall be able to traverse
The machine meant switch from
whatever swimming or digging-like motion to this
insane hopping. “How many hops can you do, Mom?” Terry wasn't
quite sure why he was asking. He looked down at the control in his
hand. He also hadn't pulled back on the best Mom could do, either.
The light showed 'full forward'. “Eshmaeel... do you want to go
into more stasis?” He could hear the boy's nauseated moans from
behind him. “Nooooo.” “All right. I'll smooth out my travel on
the edge of the continent then so you can get some water into you and
get cleaned up some.' “OOOOhhhhhh eeessssss.” He
assumed that was 'oh yes', given the boy's accent.
“I can only manage four hops
per second, Terence. Fifty metres per hop.” “I sssss.” He clenched his
teeth hard and breathed through his nose. “I see. And digging or
swimming?” “Variable.” “Ten days, estimated?” "It took us weeks to cross on our birds.” Eshmaeel said from his bunk. Terry couldn't turn his head to
“How bad was it, Eshmaeel?” The boy started to laugh. “How
bad? How bad? The heat and pressure killed one of us the first day.” "How many of you were there?" A cough from the back. “I'm
not telling you.” “Of course.” Mom broke into their discussion
at that point. “Coming up to continental transition zone. Brace
Terry wanted to yell at the machine Brace ourselves? How? With what? How in Prime's little green pajamas are we supposed to do that? His eyes were open as wide as they could stretch. The machine bounded from spike to flat to spike to
spike and the land fell away below them, down and down and down. He
would have screamed except he'd screamed himself out far earlier. The sandflea spread its hide
flat, catching the wind and extending all of its legs out towards the
other side of the canyon it had leapt into. Far, far below, mist
roiled and the clouds, full of dirt, mimicked solid ground but he
knew better and scrunched his eyes shut as the rock-face came rushing
up to catch them. Sparks flew and minor atmospheric flares blazed
for a second or two as Mom turned her downward and outward motion
into upward and onward even as they plowed through cascades of sand
and water and steam pouring down the smaller cliff face. “Rear view,” Mom said as she
scrambled up over the edge through a mud and sand waterfall. The screen behind them showed the cracked
rock cliff of the edge of Xanadu, dirt and water falling over the
edges, mixing with the red ochre sand and mud on their side of the
“That is the crustal subsidence
area between what will become continents. Once there is enough water
it will hide this joint nicely.” “Right.”
The sandflea was no longer
bouncing but more crawling and wiggling over and partially through
the deep, wet sand.
“Ten days?” Terry asked. “I
could use--” “Medical restraint
deactivated,” Mom said
"I've never been off the flat,” Archie said in Kyrus's ear. He clung to Ky's waist, riding double,
though the warbird hissed and complained and fought the hood being
forced to carry so much.
"So you don't have anything to ride but those monster birds? I guess they're best where there's
enough solid ground and enough seeds to feed them. Both of those are really hard in the desert.”
"Yes. They are a variant of seed eater that when we started growing the feed, they started
getting bigger, getting fed regularly. They make magnificent draught animals.”
Archie's fluffy sat on his head and not only clung to his sarband but to Kyrus's at the back of his
head, which was annoying but since he missed Tizzy, he didn't say anything about it.
The Nadumon moas were hitched to sand sledges full of injured people and people that just had no clue how to keep up. They'd tried having some people walk but that didn't work well, with riders having to go back and gather up the long trail of people floundering behind. Each sledge had one lantern so that no one got lost in the dark. A faint line of lanterns in the desert could be seen from above as biolume.
The Lainz Asses usually rode double with a feather spitter for long distance travel anyway but the Nadu survivors overwhelmed the number of birds they had. One of the Heads had suggested the sledges, using the ruins on the edges of the blast zone and their 'cliners had made as many as could be drawn by their surviving birds, even though they hated heading into the desert.
The wind blew the stink of dirty, hard worked people and fowl back into Ky's face, steadily now that they'd turned south. The rains would be coming soon, leaving them stranded in sand-soup until the water all burned off. They had to get to the wadi today or the Nadumon would be in trouble trying to rebuild through the winter, the cooler dry season but still dry.
"We look like a rag-tag bunch, don't we?” Archie, exhausted, sounded even younger as he looked back at their slow-moving track in the early night. “I'm sorry, I'll try not to whine.”
"That's all right.” Ky didn't say that it was getting on his nerves and made him want to punch the boy. “You've lost your home and a lot of your friends and are heading out into something so weird and strange you can't even imagine it. AND you've worn yourself thin mandering.”
"Good advice, siwion,” the Amir's voice rumbled out of the dark. Apply it to yourself,too.
Ky was so tired he felt transparent as desert glass. His eyes were gritty and there was dust between his teeth. His mouth was so dry his tongue felt like leather and he worked saliva up by rolling a sucking stone around his mouth. This was how bad he felt, with all the extra attention a prince was getting. He couldn't think of how bad everyone else must be feeling.
The refugees from Nadumon Station had mostly stopped talking while on the move. At first, even the invalid had been talkative but as they trekked into the desert they found that the Lainz hadn't lied when they advised them against a lot of talking. It dried you out. But Archie was young and knocked flat. Talking helped him keep steady.
Kyrus rolled his pebble to the other side of his mouth, gentle of his teeth. "We should be at the wadi just around midnight... We'll be able to set up camp and make sure everyone's out of the sun and gets some rest before you figure out if you'll be able to live there.”
A moa croaked along the line the sound rumbling through the sand and was taken up by others making it impossible to talk until they quieted again.
"My mother thinks we have enough programmers–" he used the Nadu word instead of 'mander or 'cliner "--to access the bioequipment.”
"We'll get you there before the water Haboob arrives. That would be a misery." Kyrus could taste the first, faint hints of moisture on the change wind.
"Really? Right now I'd think that any water would be welcome. I'm thirsty."
"Yes, so am I. So are our fowl. We'll be able to drink all we like once we get to the wadi, even the great hoard of us. There's help already there. A bunch of our zardukar, what you'd call programmers, and supplies and the Milar are sending help as well. I've never seen their desert horses.”
"Really? They have horses?"
"Their horses actually have more stamina in the desert than our birds, though they're slower."
He wasn't going to say it was that stamina in part that had won the war for the Milari eleven years ago.
"That's how the Milari won, isn't it?" Kyrus gritted his teeth, felt his pebble click on the outside where it sat in his cheek. "How on earth did they manage to get horses across the deepest dry?”
Ky could almost feel the Amir listening and struggled to make his tone diplomatic, a prince couldn't just dump another prince on his ass in the dirt, though he thought he might be able to pretend his bird got away from him if Archie didn't watch his mouth a little better.
"It seems that when their founders left Prime... open rebellion where they walked away and he
laughed and said the desert would kill them, he wouldn't have to. They took their things; all their supplies and their earthan animals with them. They didn't trek across the bottom of the basin, the deepest deserts, but had someone fly
them in and drop them off, though they didn't keep that machine. It was somebody fighting Prime in his own way.”
Another deep breath that pulled his filthy veil against his face. "Yes, really, and the Milari said that those animals were carrying dozens of pregnancies at once.” When the biologist had explained, Kyrus had wanted to sink into the floor.
It seemed so raw and, well, icky. His mother had even found code from the first Empress that showed Lainz had done such things. Surely not with people.
He felt Archie twitch. “Using their flocks to carry their own diversity! That's genius.”
That was one way of putting it. I will not dump the callous little oyuck. I will not dump him, or punch him, or spit in his soup. "Yeah. Genius.” Only a fraction of those creatures had survived their first years though. They called Anna Marie Milar the mother of their nation. She wouldn't have done something like that herself, would she?
Hara sat in the back of the throne room and looked out over the space. Three quarters of the zardukar were working hard to maintain Lainz all up and down the canyon. The young men in the group didn’t stand out, especially behind the veils, even with the men’s sarband. The bees hummed and settled on various of the zardukar.
The wax models of the city and of the canyon grow terraces glowed
with the changes they sealed into place.
The main city of Lainz alone shone on the map. The whole rest of the continent seemed dark compared to the bright spot of the city. As the zardukar came online to hide the major concentration of human beings on the continent Lainz was slowly… slowly lost in the wash of light of ‘natural’ light sources up and down the whole length of the canyon. The Milari were included and the sparks of glowing deception spread all the way into Nadumon and down to Trovi.
The mist curtains actually blew water into and across the zardukar, as the rain-winds heralded the arrival of the second rainy season in the year. This time... after the death of the old Radiance and the taking up of a new Queen, there was no fancy posturing of Hive Lords and their supporters and no precious daughters being trotted out to dance with prospective suitors. The whole social season had been disrupted with the massive changes.
The lin was in every household and the poorer quarters were sending their children down to gather fibres in the canyon to sell. People kept sheet after sheet and a whole new industry had sprung up to bind sheets into bundles and boxes, carefully labelled.
Everyone, if they had water and fibre, had access to a permanent record of what they wrote and they could send it across the Empire and now into Milar.
As many copies as people wanted to pass around to their families, to their friends, even on the street. The main news sheet were being sold for either work or coin to those who had no home for a lin to settle.
The Milari pages were the most popular exotic news... and Trovi, now not just a name, but a presence in people's lives every
day. People put everything into the lin.
The data keepers in the Hive were swamped with people sending and storing information, stories, pictures, drawings, recipes, ideas, machine plans, work engagements, games and how to play them. How to clean things, how to filter things, how to tend someone lost in the code.
The Dark Monks found that they suddenly had a way to teach people how to retrieve relatives lost in their own heads, manuals for code work.
The mist-curtains that played moving pictures were enormously popular, but there was no way for everyone to keep the plays yet and people were clamouring for the 'everyday' motion keeper. Learning was spreading as if the old Radiance had opened the school and poured it like fire-starter into a bonfire.
Hara quietly gathered up her veils around her, taking more time at it than a Lainz woman, so she didn't draw any attention to herself by knocking something over with a trailing hem. Her slippers were almost silent against the stone as she walked down inside the column of the city, down into the raw rock itself.
Shashi and Kurazon and the women --the other zardukar, female or male -- were all working as hard as they could, just to keep the city going, and to keep Prime's spy-eyes in the sky from even considering that the glitter they saw on the planet below
was anything but natural.
The boys were all off... and safe... she'd made certain sure of that, first thing after the concussions. They weren't playing war anymore. Prime had done really well by them, by raining destruction from the sky on the Nadumon.
If she knew her father... and step father, truly... then Prime'd near as shoved them all into the same bed and he'd have to just choke on the consequences of married cultures. There was the Terence code on the moon but she found that just too tempting to flee there
and chat and waste time, and just be with something that wasn't even a human boy, but a machine ghost of one, though she did wonder if he was as charming in the flesh as his simulacra was.
She was far below the usual paths for the city, far below the spiralling paths and rooms and evacuation halls for the populous, should an attack from the sky ever come. Far below the vast reservoirs where the filtered water was kept for emergency.
Her bees buzzed around her head and she smiled as they landed on her sarband and told her about what they'd built, what they'd made, what they'd helped people design. She had clouds of all of the building bees around her and they buzzed louder and louder as they realized she was heading down to her place.
It was a hollow space, with bee-built corbels holding up the tons of city above. There were slits to let light in all around and at this point the butte was connected hard to the cliff, a bit over half way down to the canyon floor. There was enough rock, now edged with bee metal, to hold this space,this studio, for her. She hadn't shown anyone else human what she was doing here.
There was only a human sized door, since she had not yet come up with anything that needed a larger access door.
She keyed the door and that triggered the bioluminescent lights in the walls and ceiling, illuminating her project.
The boys had said, 'find a way to fly'. But her talks with Terence/machine had convinced her that it wasn't enough to merely get word out to the greater community off planet, that Milar (and Lainz and the others, she reminded herself) existed and owned the part of the planet they were on.
Prime had showed he was perfectly capable of trying to erase people on the ground. He probably had a dozen lies ready if someone should ever come from away, and ask him about it.
They were sitting targets, even if mostly hidden.
No, the flying thing they built had to have multiple roles... and one of
them was a sword and shield for people. A thing that flew, as if warbirds could fly, and could stop Prime's rocks from hitting the ground... or even breaking up in the atmosphere because Terry's machine had illustrated for her how
awful that could be as well.
In the centre of her secret hall, was her best bee-built design for a flying machine that might be the Shield for Milar and Lainz. She'd think of flying swords later.
This was a mechanical bush dragon that could swat small rocks and snowballs out of their courses, break them up, deflect them.
If she could find a way to power it, it should be able to get into the air... might keep the city safe, while they argued with Prime in the greater courts.
sat in the pilot's chair, staring at the screen, his chin propped on
his hand with one finger pointing up past his ear. He tried hard not
to sulk. Sulking was uncouth. The fact that the 'rescued' spy from
the other land, Eshmaeel, didn't trust him and had only told the
machine which direction his home was... AND the fact that that
machine hadn't seen fit to tell him anything about it, had
effectively poked holes in any kind of self importance he may have
"I'm a Tech Second Class,” he muttered, watching the tunnel melt away in
front of Mom. “I worked on the moon, had intergalactic friends,
even code of my very own hooked into the galactic hub that Prime
doesn't know anything about.”
He shifted over to his other side, resolutely keeping his back to
Eshmaeel, who sat cross-legged in the bunk, clutching the briefcase
full of dangerous information to his chest. “It was my brother who
set all this up to get these two ungrateful boys home and me out of
danger.” Mom clicked as if she had just been activated by an address of his. “So
it was. Your brother Gerald as the owner of this vehicle, accepts
all liability, should this unauthorized usage ever be disclosed or
discovered at all." "You two have just taken over our great escape and left me to trail along
like the comic relief in a radio drama.” "Terence.” The machine actually paused. “Such attitude is unseemly and
inappropriate. You cannot be the entertainment hero who comes in
with cape flaring and blasters blazing to save the day. It is your
lives that you are talking about, not face or status.” He straightened, about to verbally excoriate the machine for presuming
to lecture him... and in Gerald's terms no less! He must have
programmed the damn thing. Then what it had said sank in and he
subsided. “Cape flaring? I'll have you know that capes are both
foolish and dangerous, even in the animated worlds.” There was a static-like buzz for a fraction of a second. “Very astute,
Terry.” "Did Gerald program you?”
Another pause, long enough for the human to wonder if the program
had crashed. “He did... but he came down all the time to talk to
me.” Terry stared at the console as if he would stare into an opponent's eyes.
“He talked to you?” "For hours sometimes, when he couldn't sleep.”
Terry had the image of his brother, riding over foggy
meadows on his quisling horse, to the one entity who would, or could
listen to him as he unburdened his heart. His wife... was a good
Xanadu woman who would have just fainted at the idea her husband
would have problems, much
less worries or heartaches.
I want friends I can talk to, he
thought. Not just a warm sex object for my bedroom that
happened to produce children. But I'm not attracted to anyone my own
sex. It was the first time he'd
truly felt how lonely he was, understood how lonely Gerald must be. He'd begun the process on the moon,
but it hadn't truly sunk in until now.
He cleared his throat, that had somehow gotten full of phlegm. "How
long till our breakout?” "Fifteen minutes.” "Thank you, Mom. "You are welcome, Terry.”
They emerged in a jumble of rocks on the edge of the terraforming. Smooth
green fields ran straight into razor sharp tsingy that had not yet
been broken down to be infected with Terran biomass and safely
"I suggest that you hold the controller as we begin your transportation
at speed,” Mom said. “That way you will learn how to drive this vehicle faster, without my
assistance.” “Assistance.” His tone was sour. The vehicle had no external lights, not even
running lights and was still moving forward at the same steady speed
as a robotic horse. He picked up the controller and found that the
haptics let him feel what the vehicle was doing as it kept the cabin
rock steady while the rest of it scrambled and squeezed and clambered
through the tsingy. “Of course, Terry. You are the pilot.” In the moonlight outside,
enhanced by the windscreen, he could see that the tsingy on the edges
just got worse and worse. There were no places for a road. There
were no places for a machine this big to squeeze through. There was
only spines and spines and spines of vertical rock stretching as far
as he could see.
The machine spiralled up to the top of one like a silverfish on a wall and paused. “It looks
impossible,” he said quietly. “Can you get us out?” “Yes. I am retracting my sand-crawler legs.” Mom showed him the front
two legs that looked rather like shovels with toes, pulling up under
her windscreen. “Cabin medical restraints at full.” A squawk came from the bunks as Eshmaeel found himself safely lying
The controller in Terry's hand quivered and then was quiet. “All
right, if you say you can get us through.” His hand tilted forward
as he said “You've been very smooth... why in Prime's name do
people call you a sand-flEEE EEEE EEEE EE!”