"You're really going back there."
"I have to. It's my home, it's my..."
"Gods male! Don't say it! Dying's got nothing to do with your duty." Chaiila bore an agonised look, understanding what he was going through yet knowing what awaited him. "Sekher, there's nothing you can do!"
He touched the hilt of the sword at his waist; he had no illusions. "Don't tell me! I have to be sure. I can't just run without even seeing."
"But if they find you..."
"I know." He swallowed hard. "Gods, but I know."
Nothing either of the females could say would change his mind. They had all known this had to come, this moment they went their own ways. Now it was here and they stood atop a wind-blown knoll under dull skies as they made their farewells.
"Then where are you going?"
Chaiila frowned and looked at her cousin, then at the clouds: "Can't say for certain. North; then perhaps down-river towards the Hub. If we find a place we like that'll take us... well, we'll hang our blades there a time." Then she touched her stomach and smiled at him. "And there'll be a stop at a crèche along the way."
They moved together for a final time, arms around the other: "You'll take care," Sekher told her.
Her ears twitched. "A. You also, male."
He touched her mouth with a finger, then moved it down, to her stomach. Chaiila flinched and trembled in pleasure when he touched the hot flesh of her pouch. "I would... enjoy meeting you again."
"A." A single syllable. She laid her hand over his. "As you said before: you never know."
Riding eastwards, Sekher twisted in his saddle, finally succumbing to the impulse. Perhaps he imagined the pair of specks on the distant northern skyline. Then again, perhaps not.
Days passed by; long days and cold nights alone on the plains, deliberately avoiding other Trenalbi. Once a group of soldiers had spotted him as he turned away from their patrol. Their interest turned to suspicion by his avoidance, they pursued him for a whole day until he lost them in the tangles of a gallery forest. It was the only thing he could do: although his fur was growing back it was still sparse and his ruff was blatantly patchy, crying out 'criminal!' to all and sundry.
Yet he continued west, following the Lightbringer, after a few days angling northwards until he reached the Marshlands river. He was another two days searching for a spot to ford it, but once across was on the borders of the Che Plains domains.
The roads were filled with refugees, fleeing. Rim soldiery was everywhere: troopers and cavalry, wagon trains carrying troops and supplies.
Smoke hung in palls over gutted towns and villages.
Carrion hunters fought and squabbled in streets paved with bloated corpses.
Sekher could see the smoke long before the walls came into sight. He urged his already-exhausted shen into a gallop, reining up as he crested a hill. The gatehouses were toppled, the walls in ruins. Beyond, the buildings were blackened skeletons and ruins where guards watched as slave force struggled to demolish them. Outlying farm buildings were being ploughed under and already the palace, without a chance of withstanding a siege, was a pile of rubble, some of the walls looking half melted due to the Rim priests.
And outside the walls a forest of gibbets festooned with tattered bodies. There were soldiers milling around a cluster of impaling spikes where a struggling figure was raised, then lowered. The distant screams rose rapidly to insane heights before dying.
The stench of mortality was faint, but everywhere.
Rim troops swarmed like a plague. Their tents and pavilions and weapons of war surrounded the town. All the time patrols and convoys were coming in or setting off to more remote corners of Che.
None of which had escaped Kissaki's revenge, Sekher knew.
He howled in pain and loss and the shen shrilled as he yanked it around. He rode hard, not knowing or caring where he was going.
Damn you, Chaiila! You'd been right! Damn your eyes for being right!
He hunched down in the saddle, burying the still-blunt tips of his claws into its tough hide, urging the shen on across fields where farm buildings and peasant huts lay in ruins, cattle gone and crops burnt to ash.
Why so much?! Burn them! Why'd they gone so far? His people were never any threat to the Ch'sty Rim. This was simply retaliation for what he and his companions had done to Kissaki's troops? What kind of a mind would do that! What kind of a mind could... Sekher clenched his teeth and howled.
The shen ran until it was spent, and then some, ultimately staggering to a standstill and collapsing to its knees. Sekher kicked and swiped at its hide, cursing as he tried to get it moving again. He dropped from the saddle and hauled on the bridle. It rolled its eyes back at him.
"Rot you! GODS BURN YOU ALL!" he screamed at the sky.
The twisted leaves and interlaced branches of Wovenboughs bobbed and nodded back at him. The small grove of trees was peaceful, far from the smoke and violence. He stood panting hard, then yowled and drew his sword, wielding it like a bat as he swung. The steel slid through a trunk as thick as his leg with no more resistance than if it had been fog. The tree stood, seemingly untouched. Until the wind caught in the branches and it slowly toppled.
He stood there, shaking violently, then dropped to his knees and snuffled and choked uncontrollably; weeping.
The fire flickered like a beacon in the darkness. The Rim patrol had built their campfire in the lee of the burnt-out farmhouse. Several of them were crouched around it, their shadows creating lopsided spokes in the warm-orange disc of light, their low voices carrying as a subdued susurration. Away in the darkness shen whickered and stirred.
Sekher licked his lips and snarled silently. Grain rustled almost inaudibly as he inched closer, his sheathed sword clenched in a death-grip. His nostrils widened as he sniffed the air; there was food and drink, also blood. That was old. There was no scent of alarm.
The shen chirred and stamped.
"What's wrong with 'em?" a voice asked.
"Don't know." One of the troopers by the fire rose to his feet, staring out towards the shen.
"A! Perhaps a Che guard?"
There was laughter at that.
"Or worse, a Burrowrunner!"
Laughter barked out again. The one who had stood had moved towards the shen, then glanced Sekher's way and hesitated. Sekher saw the silhouette of the Rim trooper's head cock and he took a couple of steps forward:
"Hai! There's... GODS!"
Sekher launched himself forward, his blade leaving the sheath with a hiss. The Rim trooper stumbled back a step, but his hand was only beginning to move for his own blade when the alien steel swept through his neck, nearly severing his head. Blood fountained in a dark spray, knocking the head back on the spine as the body collapsed in a clatter of armour.
"ATTACK!" The others were screaming, scrambling to their feet while drawing swords.
They couldn't know how many there were, Sekher knew. Another died before he could get up, falling face-down in the fire in a cloud of rising sparks. His fur caught and the stink of roasting meat filled the air.
Another trooper. Armour of scale mail. His sword up to block. Sekher swung wildly and his opponent stared in shock as his sword was reduced to a useless stump. He was still staring when Sekher's blade came back and eviscerated him through the armour. He went down clutching at his own entrails.
Two more. Sekher struck at another sword and this time felt an impact. That blade had been steel. That warrior howled in sudden terror and staggered back, throwing up his arms to ward off the sword. The alien blade would sever steel; it found flesh posed little difficulty. The Rim warrior staggered, then stared down at his arm twitching on the ground while his own blood was black in the moonlight as it soaked his side. Uttering horrified squeals he staggered off into the grain.
More Trenalbi spilled from the farmhouse with weapons in their hands. The remaining Rim soldier backing away from Sekher was screaming, "KILL HIM! KILL HIM!" Then Sekher's slender blade thrust forward through his breastplate and ribs and the heart behind. The Rimmer stared, then coughed blood and scrabbled at the sword. That final act lost him several fingers.
The body in the fire was burning brightly now. The fur and cloth blazing in a twisted bonfire that sizzled and stank.
More Trenalbi appeared in the light.
More of them!
The sword slid out again and Sekher crouched to face the new opponents. Three... four of them. No matter...
They melted back from his charge. Sekher tried again, swinging at another dark warrior who danced back from his blade. Again and again, then something wrapped around his ankles and he cried out as his feet were yanked out from under him and abruptly claws were tearing at his skin as hands grabbed him, an arm curling around his neck. Sekher lashed out madly, snarling as he drove an elbow into an unprotected gut. The warrior holding him in the hammerlock dropped away with a choked grunt and Sekher managed to break away but that chain dropped him again. He twisted around and chopped at the links to be rewarded by a metallic rattle as the chain was severed. Shouts of surprise and the warriors dropped back.
Sekher swung wildly and one-handed, trying to keep them at bay as he hopped around working the chain loose, finally kicking it off and finding himself staring at the recurved tines of a heavy crossbow held in the grasp of a very competent looking male.
Wearing a heavy roadcoat.
Panting hard Sekher blinked and looked around. He was surrounded, but none of them were dressed in Rim armour. Mismatched armour and weaponry; all looking very used.
"You're Wanderers!" he heaved between breaths.
There were other weapons out by now. By the firelight Sekher could see two of them bore small darters, doubtlessly poisoned. There were grins. The one carrying the crossbow drew his head back a fraction. "A. And who in all the hells are you?"
Sekher looked around at the weapons and warriors. Four of them, but they were Wanderers; they knew what they were doing. "Ser. Ser Kysi." He lied and glanced down at the bodies of the Rim troopers, then back at the Wanderer bearing the crossbow. "You're with them?"
The other lowered the crossbow and studied him for a few beats before saying, "Were with them. Looks like our contract's done."
"Contract!" Sekher snarled. "That's what you call it?! Try murder for size! I saw what's happening at Tsuba!"
The other bared his teeth in return. "We had nothing to do with that lot. Kissaki pays well, but we've got our honour. Now, speaking of murder, that's an interesting blade you have there." He nudged a fragment of steel sword with a toe. "I've never seen one that slices good steel before. Where'd you pick it up?"
Sekher tightened his grip.
"Kenner, see: he's been shaved," one of the others pointed out.
"A, I noticed," Kenner replied. "That where? You steal it? Perhaps it comes from the Temple?" He grinned and gestured with the crossbow, "Tell me, youngling: What's to stop me skewering you here?"
"I don't know," Sekher said even as his hand found the bracelet's stud, then Kenner howled and clutched at his arm as flame flicked across his fur and sparks flew from the crossbow. The lefthand crosspiece was cut in two, the tension snapping it back with a whiplash that just missed the Wanderer's face as he dropped the weapon.
The others had reacted in confusion: freezing in place or flinging their arms up at the flash. Anyway, whatever they did, it gave Sekher time to lay his sword at Kenner's throat. The Wanderer struggled briefly until he felt the edge cut through his hide and spots of blood bead on his fur. There was a black-rimmed gash burned through the Wanderer's shoulder and Sekher could feel his heart racing as he scrambled around behind the Wanderer with his sword still at his throat and hissed in his ear, "How about this for starters."
The others shifted in dismay at this turn of event. "He's Gods-burned GIFTED!" one of the others hissed.
"Drop the weapons," Sekher growled. "Drop them! Tell them!"
"A," Kenner gestured to his companions. "Do it."
There was hesitation, then they did it.
"All right," Sekher gasped. Gods, he was tired. "Now, I don't have an argument with you..."
"What?!" He started. Kenner made a choking noise as the blade bit a little deeper and a whiff of fear reached Sekher's nostrils. Gods knew his own was strong enough to be smelt all around the campsite. He looked to see who'd spoken.
"Sekher Che." A wanderer in leather kilt and cuirass worn atop a tunic stepped forward to stare at him. "He matches the descriptions. The Rimmers are baying for him. I heard he destroyed half the palace at Jai'stra, along with about thirty battlegroups. That's why they came down on Che so hard."
"That true?" Kenner choked out. "You got a reason to be..." He cut off with a gasp as Sekher twitched the sword. It would be less than a fingerbreadth before the blade cut arteries.
"I don't have any argument with you," Sekher hissed to the group. "Now, just move back. I'm taking your friend here for a walk."
There were low growls.
"When I'm away he'll be released."
Sekher eased up on the sword a little; enough to let the Wanderer walk, then directed him off into the darkness, away from the fire and his shen. He'd circle around later.
"You got nerve, youngling," Kenner grated. "Either that or a deathwish."
"Huh!" Panting hard, Sekher glanced back at the campsite, he could see them through the trees. Still there; They hadn't followed.
"You're good, but you didn't kill off thirty battlegroups."
Sekher grinned. "Nah, it was only twenty. And it wasn't me who killed them."
Kenner stumbled a little. The burn on his arm was beginning to bleed. "All right. I wouldn't mind meeting him."
"We went different ways."
"Here," Sekher stopped the other and moved away. "Now; Get down, bite the dirt."
Kenner lowered to a crouch and hesitated. "You know we can track you down easily enough if we want to."
That made Sekher pause. "I told you I've got no problems with Wanderers. I could have killed you earlier. I could kill you now..."
"But you aren't going to," Kenner finished. "Look, you're Che. Che is gone; no more. Where you going now? Aski says the Rimmers are looking for you. He usually knows what he's talking about."
Sekher stared at the Wanderer. "What in the hells are you talking about?!"
"Where do you think WE come from?!" Kenner demanded. "Most of us are clanless or outcasts. Sekher... Ser... whatever you want to be called, don't you just want to talk about it?"
"About..." Sekher stepped back in confusion, then the light dawned. "You are asking me to JOIN you?!"
"Youngling, you look like a good fighter, but I don't see you as the sort who's going to survive on his own. I'm offering you a chance here. You willing to talk about it?"
Sekher realised he was still staring. He looked at the sword in his hand, then at Kenner: "Uh..."
"You have my word nothing will happen to you if you agree to talk."
What?! This was not what Sekher had been expecting. Wanderers... how the hells did one handle this?! The fine tip of the sword wavered, then lowered. "All right," he said in a small voice.
"Excellent." Kenner grinned at him, then called out, "Right! He's going to talk!"
"Great!" someone shouted back. "And is he going to put that sword away too?"
Sekher stared out into the darkness and saw nothing but the outlines of trees and bushes. Grudgingly, he slipped the sword back into the sheath.
Undergrowth rustled slightly and two other Wanderers materialised from the darkness, the darters in their hands not quite pointed at him.
Sekher stared at the wineskin but made no move to take it. The Wanderer chuckled and took a sip himself and offered it again.
"Thanks," Sekher said. It was wine; not very good wine - bitter and with an undertone of the skin's own leather - but wine nevertheless. He drank, wiped a forearm across his mouth and passed it back. Still, he couldn't feel comfortable here. Why the hells did they want him?
Altruism was something he didn't entirely trust.
Two of the Wanderers, two named Diksi and Veydiu, had drawn the short straws. They were out disposing of the Rim bodies. Kenner was grimacing as the one called Aski wrapped a poultice around the burn on his arm. He was older, considerably older than Sekher, with touches of silver creeping into his ruff. More heavily built, with the worn fur and callouses on his hands that betrayed long familiarity with a sword. The scorch mark was an angry black and red streak against the bronzed fur of a highlander. "Ah!" his heavy face wrinkled at sudden pain.
"Hold still," Aski growled. He was a slightly built Trenalbi, with a most unusual roadcoat: It seemed to be lined completely with pouches. All the medicines and dressing Aski was using came from his coat.
"Easy for you to speak!" Kenner muttered. "You know, Che..."
"Kysi. Ser Kysi."
"Probably a good idea," Kenner grinned. "Alright then, Ser Kysi it is. As I was saying: you're pretty good with a sword, but not quite good enough to fight your way out of Jai'stra. How'd you do it?"
"I told you, that wasn't my doing."
"A. Your friend. He's a better swordsman, is he? Good enough to take on thirty..."
"Twenty battlegroups. I would really like to meet such a virtuoso with a sword. Who is he?"
The Wanderers stared, then Aski coughed. "You did say a daemon?"
"A. That's right."
They exchanged glances. "Look, if you don't want to tell us, that's your business."
"Then how would you explain this?" Sekher asked, patting the alien sword's sheath.
"I don't know," Kenner confessed, then pointed at the sword, "May I?"
Sekher didn't move.
"You have my word you will get it back. I am quite satisfied with my own blade, thank you."
The youth scowled, then handed it over. The Wanderer examined the craftsmanship closely, turning both sword and sheath over in his hands. He used a claw to trace out the stylised Lightbringer on the pommel.
"Don't touch the blade," Sekher warned. "It'll take your finger off before you know it."
"A." Kenner acknowledged the warning. "I've never seen work like this before. Aski? Your opinion?"
Aski took the sword and squinted at it, then produced a small bundle of black cloth from the depths of his coat and unwrapped a small glass disk. He squinted at the sword through it.
Sekher's curiosity was piqued. "What's that?"
"Some gadget he picked up from some of his associates," Kenner replied. "Makes small things look bigger." That might have been astonishing. Might have been. Once; a few moons ago. Now Sekher had seen things that made tricks such as that resemble cublin games. Kenner may have noticed his lack of surprise, but he didn't comment.
Aski concluded his scrutiny. "This is new to me. It's not steel... and the craftsmanship; I've seen work that's more intricate and fiddly, but nothing like this style." He hissed and passed the sword back, "It's a new one to me. This daemon you're talking about: tell us more about it."
And Sekher hesitated, looking from Wanderer to Wanderer. "You worked for the Ch'sty Rim. You start asking questions..." He took a deep breath, "How the hells do I know you won't turn me over."
"Sek... Ser," Kenner leaned forward. "Do you know anything about Wanderers?"
"A little. You're mercenary. You work for whoever pays..."
"Huh!" Kenner scratched his muzzle. "You know what you've been told, and that's not a whole lot. Look, we're an old affiliate, almost as old as the Priesthood. You could say we're almost a clan in ourselves, and we look after our own."
"Then why me?" Sekher asked. "We draw blood trying to kill each other, then you go and ask me to join you. Why should I?"
"You need us more than we need you," Kenner grinned. "Trust me, youngling, I've got a good sense about these things."
"True," Aski agreed.
"Yeah, thanks. Anyway, the way you go charging around attacking Rim soldiers, you're not going to last long doing that."
"I think I did alright."
"They were conscripts. If they'd been a bevy of royal guards or veterans you'd be walking with your ancestors. Listen, youngling: you're on your own. You've lost your entire clan. Where else are you going to go?"
"We all saw you fighting, and I reckon you've got promise. You had a good teacher, whoever it was showed you the spit and polish approach, not a foot wrong, but no imagination. Clanless and inexperienced, I doubt you'd last long. I'm just offering you a chance to live."
Clanless. Those were cold words. Sekher shuddered and drew his knees up, hugging them as he looked to the pale orbs of the Daughters swinging through the night sky. How could he be sure this was the truth? There was always the chance that Kenner was lying, simply intending to hand Sekher over to Rim forces at the first opportune moment. But... he seemed sincere enough, and he was - Sekher considered - probably right: He'd never been outside Che before; what did he know of the world? How could he last? was he sure he wanted to? What was there ahead? Nothing but more running. Home was something he no longer had...
Yet there was Chaiila. There was a female who had marked him as her own and carried his seed. That was something to aim for.
Slowly he clenched and unclenched his fist, watching the stubs of his claws sliding in and out of his fingertips. Why weren't they growing back? "All right," he said, not looking at the Wanderers. "All right. I understand. Well, you wanted to know."
So Sekher told his tale, from the K'streth campaign onwards to this moment. However, it was a carefully edited version: He made no mention of Seth'Nai's origins and people, nor his metal vessel. He never named Chaiila or Nersi, or even mentioned their sex. In fact if Sekher had heard this story from someone else's mouth, he'd have never recognised it as part of his own life.
Still, Kenner and Aski listened, quietly. There were doubts, Sekher could see that, but they kept their questions... at least until he'd finished.
"And did this daemon also have something to do with your Gift?" Aski asked.
Kenner glanced at Aski. The slight Wanderer rubbed his jaw. "Huh! I've heard of Trenalbi finding themselves Gifted as they grow older, but I've never heard of anyone actually meeting his benefactor."
"But it didn't do anything to help my people," Sekher growled.
Kenner touched the bandages on his arm and grinned. "I wouldn't complain. It doesn't seem that useless. That was an excellent crossbow you ruined."
"But he could have... he could have stopped them." Sekher turned to stare in the direction of Tsuba... what remained of Tsuba. Blood scented metallic as his nostrils flared.
"Youngling," Kenner spoke, his words slow and measured. "Look, that's behind you. It's gone. What can you hope to do? one against the Ch'sty, a hero appearing to save the clan... Kysi, don't make a fool of yourself."
Sekher started to snarl, caught himself. Wasn't that what he'd been told before? Rush in and carry the day to triumph... That time by a female. Huh, perhaps it was some advice he could take. He sagged. "A."
There were voices approaching, the other two Wanderers returning from disposing of the Rim corpses. Kenner glanced in that direction. "All right. You've got a shen somewhere. Yes? Well, you may as well bring it in then get some rest. We leave at first light."
Kenner shrugged. "Well, for starters we get out of Rim territory, then... Well, the world's a big place."
A, Sekher thought to himself, bigger than you can imagine. Alright, for now he'd trust them. Fool that he was...
Could they trust him?
He was a strange one, that youngling. What else could he be? Charging a Rim patrol; his sword; that Gift... What about that story of meeting a daemon... Huh! He seemed all right, but there was perhaps that chance that he wasn't entirely sane. It wouldn't be altogether surprising, after losing his clan, his entire land, then going through a term in the dungeons in Jai'stra. That sort of ordeal would be enough to loosen anyone's hold.
Kenner touched his burn wound. Then again there was that. That and the sword did corroborate his story. The youngling had shown skill with his blade; also restraint. He had known when to stop, when to listen, and when to talk. There was something there he could work with.
Huh! Kenner shifted the reins and squinted into the windblown dust. The Che youth was riding before him, hunched down into a cloak that seemed far too thin to offer much protection against the westerly - straight off the Ramparts. It had been a long time since he had had an apprentice. The last one, now he had been quite good, but still foolhardy and unable to hold his liquor. The last Kenner had heard he had gotten himself killed in a tavern brawl. A tavern brawl for godsakes!
Still, he'd been the same way himself. Once. How long ago? Gods! That long? He shuddered. Growing old was something he'd never liked thinking about. It just snuck up on you, never giving you a chance to face it. Worst of all, there would come a time he would be too old for this kind of travelling, but the thought of being relegated to rotting in the confines of a town, freezing to death slowly in an attic somewhere, that brought a bad taste to the mouth. He coughed quietly in disgust.
Yet, there was still time. He had a couple of decades left. Eventually, he would find something more dignified.
For now... there was some teaching to be done.
The river was a sparkling blue ribbon along the green floor of the alpine valley, almost metallic as it glittered in patches of sunlight pushing through the clouds. On either side the mountains rose: forest rising to rock climbing higher to snowbound peaks that buried their heads in a ceiling of shifting clouds.
Animals moved in that valley. There were the small herbivores and scavengers and hunters scuttling in the undergrowth, hiding from the larger predators who occasioned down from the heights. There were things analogous to fish in the river. Christo only knew how they came to be there; perhaps through an underground channel. Perhaps they'd been there since the mountains raised themselves from the oceans.
From a distance none of that was apparent. There was just the mountain valley.
Hayes perched himself upon a sun-warmed outcropping of red rock high in the northern end of the valley and just watched it all. Before him the sheer drop fell away for more than seventy meters. Beyond that, behind him, all around, the sea of dark green twisted leaves of countless trees rustled in the shifting air. The brilliant yellow, work-scarred metal frame of the loading waldo waiting beneath a nearby tree didn't fit here at all. Nevertheless, no matter how motionless the machine may have appeared, the sensor cluster inside the chassis cage never ceased its survey of the surroundings.
This place was so different from the vast openness of the plains; so much greener and... vertical. Hayes had never seen so many trees in one place in all his life. There were some agrohabs that had parks set aside, several hundred square kays of 'wild' terran flora and fauna. One could find a high spot and watch it spreading out along the curve of the horizon until the green vanished beyond the blue of the projected 'sky'. But they couldn't compete with this.
And there were no natives here.
That was something Hayes had made absolutely sure of. Drones had scoured the valley from end to end. Thermal, IR, Kirlian, EMR, ECG, enhancement, contrast, seismic... none of the sensors had uncovered anything, neither natives nor their artifacts. If they had been hiding, there would have been some trace.
There was little doubt that if there had been something intelligent here, it would have seen him arrive. A black scar, seven-hundred meters long, was burned into the mountainside where trees had been vaporised by plasma. This landing had been better than the last, but still the module had taken damage. At the moment it was further up the moutainside, perched drunkenly on damaged landing jacks and looming over the trees like a gigantic white glacier.
The flight had been little more than a hop, but getting that mass airborne had taken power. A lot of power. The superconducting accelerators for the Aggies chewed through megawatts while the plasma engines did the same to reserves of both solid and ionised fuel. Running systems like that from a single PCU was like trying to run a firehose from a bathtub.
"9.056 percent remaining before reaction mass is insufficient to sustain PCU core. Shutdown will be initialised at .26 percent."
Hayes sighed helplessly and pinched the bridge of his nose. "How long?"
The vaguely gorilla-shaped machine couldn't shrug. "At minimum consumption, an estimated minimum of thirteen months."
"Burn it! And with repairs?"
"Four months. And I do not have the onboard facilities to fully repair the number three and seven extensors in landing jack three or realign structural bulkheads in the starboard services pods. Life-support filter units 69 percent operational. Rebreather service pods damaged..."
Hayes propped his chin in his hands and listened morosely. The list went on.
Jeet! But that last hop had been necessary! What else was he supposed to do? Sit around and wait for those fuzznuts to catch up to him? Then what? Sit around and wait while they tried to crack his shell. They wouldn't even have anything able to breach the outer hull! Hordes of them trying to burn him out while their bogus priests pulled their parlour tricks. What then? Perhaps turn one of the module's KK cannon on them? A burn from the engines?
He raked his fingers through his hair. Who'd have believed it? The first terra type world; inhabited! To beat that, by things that looked more like two-legged hairy wolves than people. He'd never thought to scan for a pre-industrial society without even the most basic filament lighting, their small towns built from stone and wood, not much agriculture for a primarily carnivorous species. They ate their meat raw, RAW for Christo's sake! Go out and kill something and eat it while it was still warm! Eating a meal with them was something you wouldn't forget quickly. When they stood close you tended to remember that, especially when they chose to grin.
And it was stranger yet that he found he had come to call some of them friends. He still wasn't sure of their real names, he could only hear them as a squeaking and trilling tickling the upper edges of his hearing. Their language was pronounceable if lowered into a range audible to humans, but he'd been making do entirely with software and electronics, splicing code-crackers and translation lexicons and algorithms together in an operating shell. It worked, and the software learned a great deal faster than he could and never forgot, but there were times he felt the machine didn't really convey what he was really trying to say.
Such as that night he'd woken up to find a hairy body in his bed.
That still confused him. They had talked, but what she had wanted... it was also what he had wanted. And that was physically impossible. He had liked her, she had been openly friendly. The talks they'd had told him so much about their society and the natives themselves; the Trenalbi.
She had been related to the other female in some way, the dark one with the volatile temper. What did he think of her? Hayes wasn't too sure. As first impressions went, she came across as abrasive as a sandblaster. She was stubborn, vicious, touchy, and intolerant, but she'd managed to trick her way into a frigging castle, she was perhaps overly protective of Nersi, and her affection and trust for Sekher was obvious enough. Perhaps it took some searching, but there was enough there to like.
And then there was Sekher, that other one he called friend, the one who'd scared him spitless in the cage, also the first who'd begun to treat him as something more than an animal. He wasn't the convict Hayes had first thought him. A political prisoner, Nersi had told him. The son of the king of one of the dozens of small provinces the crater was fragmented into, to be used as a hostage in the coming war.
Murphy, but he'd had a good run, Hayes sighed. Contact with pre-industrial cultures prohibited and he'd gone so far as to detonate a PCU, killing hundreds of them. Sekher's appeal for help was something he'd hoped would never come, but it did, and when it came, there was nothing he could do but refuse. Things had already gone too far.
Hayes picked up a fallen stick and twirled it idly between his fingers. Shit! He hoped Sekher would make it home all right. There was nothing he could have done for him. He swung the stick, then began breaking small pieces off and flicking them away, watching as they spun away over the cliff. Now, he was following regs, and where did that get him? A damaged ship on its last ergs.
Another piece sailed down.
Now? Power was ebbing all the time. His life-support relied on that, food and atmosphere recycling, also the maintenance systems, computer, comms. After life-support went he'd be onto ratcakes; maintenance down and the servos would run on batteries for a time, then grind to a halt. Pan... the computer had fission power cells capable of keeping the system up for centuries, but the scanners and auxiliaries that gave the system its power would be crippled. The gravitic links with the main body of the miner would fail. Before that happened he'd have to upload a copy OS, control systems, and relevant addresses to a tempcore in the mainship. Once communications were reduced to the timelag and distortion of old-style EM pulses, it would be the only way the mainship and factories out in the belts could continue their work on replacement modules. When maintenance died the servos would stop; any damage in the module or equipment would have to be repaired by hand. Not easy. The human body wasn't designed to squeeze into conduits ten centimeters across.
He flicked another twig over the edge. Was there a way around this? With the juice left, there was no way to build another reactor. Sia! but he couldn't even depend on solar panels. What?
"First, what have you got on supplementary energy sources? Something that can be used downside. Non-emitting, passive, non-polluting."
"Searching... Entries found under library, historical: Hydroelectric, fossil fuels including natural gas, windpower, tidal power, geothermal, and solar. Is there a particular item you had in mind?"
"Ah... What would be most effective in this sort of environment?"
"More geographical data is required before an accurate recommendation can be made. On existing information possible suggestions are windpowered generators, solar collectors, hydroelectric and possibly geothermal."
"Hydro, huh?" Hayes gazed thoughtfully at the river. "What would that take?"
"A full survey of the watercourse to find a suitable site. The resources involved depend upon the location. An estimate based on optimum conditions downloaded to matrix now."
Hayes flicked the matrix display on and scanned the listing on the projected screen. Murphy! Most likely types looked to be either the arch or buttress dam. Core samples for soil analysis. Steel and plascrete into the kilotonnes. Servos and heavy waldos by the dozen. Construction of a cofferdam, high capacity pumps... Perhaps that could be circumvented. Provided the current wasn't too powerful plascrete and compressed rock could be worked underwater. That would mean ensuring the machinery was waterproof. Then there were the spillways, generators...
And in damming the river, what would that do to the valley? Put that on hold for the time.
There were more problems with windpower. Namely, finding enough square acreage where windmills could be erected.
Geothermal power, now that had possibilities. There were hot springs in the valley. They had a source. Perhaps that could be harnessed. Steam turbines were ancient, but they produced power. For a long time Hayes sat muttering to himself and staring into the middle distance, completely lost in thought. When the inspiration came, he could have kicked himself for not having thought of it earlier.
"Dammit! First, what about the exchangers in the PCU!"
The AI hesitated, then did its best to answer, "Thirty two Cromwell carbon-rhenium exchange envelopes each generating..."
He waved that aside as he scrambled to his feet and began pacing on the rock. "Yeah! I know all that! You know what temperatures they can take?"
"Recommended operating temperature is 1500è C, but they can withstand temperatures up to approximately 3700è C."
"So suppose you were to use a, say... R-19 worm, fit it with the exchangers, then bore down through the crust until you hit magma. How would that compare with the PCU?"
"Theoretically, the idea is feasible. However, there could be technical difficulties aside from the heat. Pressure and moving rock might cause damage. If enough magma congealed around the exchangers it could degrade performance and cause damage."
Hayes shrugged. "Shielding and reduced friction treatments should do it. The ground's not going to move that much in a year. It's been done before on Terra. Check the references, then get to work."
"Acknowledged," the AI responded.
Hayes turned to watch the valley again. A trio of the featherless alien birds were circling the treetops like miniature aircraft. If they were calling it was in the auditory range of everything else on this world, he couldn't hear them. Christo, if he screwed up and turned this mountain into a volcano quite a few people were going to be blowing blood vessels.
Hah! What did one volcano matter; he already had enough on record to get the 'crats and contact specialists ripping their hair. He'd be lucky if they contented themselves with dumping his licence, slamming him in some forsaken refinery orbiting an iceball somewhere and melting down the key. Again, HAH! Grinning, he kicked at a stone, sending it clattering down the cliff.
Pale walls of sand-colored stone encircled the town. Behind it, the sluggish brown snake of the Mestrie river wound through the plains, the colors of the crop fields along its banks like a crazypatch blanket in earthen tones. Dust hung in choking clouds above the road as a steady supply of wagons, shen, and Trenalbi on foot braved the summer heat. The bright colors of their clothes and the tassels of their animals and wagons were travel-stained but still stood out cheerfully against the golden sienna of sun-bleached grasses. Festival time; outlying farms journeying to town to sell their wares, socialize and join the festivities.
Tenada. Not a large town; an outpost at the peripheries of the Soli Clan holdings, a realm itself at the western edge of the world, several kingdoms removed from Ch'sty lands.
Chenuk hitched up his carrybag and started walking down to the road. His shen was gone, sold. Now a sword hung from his hip. It wasn't much: bronze, no embellishments, but it was almost all his silver. His food was gone, he hadn't been able to catch anything over the past couple of days. The coppers in his purse would buy a modest meal this night, but no more. He would spend the night... somewhere; a disused attic, under the walls, somewhere.
Festival time. Would there be work here? Perhaps the Watch would be desperate enough to take him on. He had been practising - wrong handed he could make himself look dangerous with the sword, but was it enough?
His stomach growled. With a sigh he hitched his bag again and wondered if someone would offer him a ride.
End Godsend part 14