The priest finished his elegy with the usual pronouncements, then added a turn of phrase Elo hadn’t ever heard a priest use.
“Gods and the Destroyer be merciful,” the old man had said. Just like any man of the troop might have, with Destroyer and Gods in the same sentence.
Elo looked around the bowed heads. No one else seemed to have noticed. Maybe the priest was an ex-soldier; maybe he’d just been among the profane company of soldiers long enough for their habits to have rubbed off on him.
“First Troop!” barked the lieutenant. The troopers came to attention. Elo’s indiscipline in ranks at a funeral seemed to have gone unnoticed as he snapped to with everyone else. “Now muster our honored dead.”
That was flag sergeant Elo’s job. Gods curse them both for idiots. “Trooper Frothdeg Miyo. Trooper Palam Beg. Fall in for final muster.” He kept the bitterness out of his voice, there being no point putting any more unpleasantness into this business.
The boys took both bodies, salted and swaddled up for travel, onto their shoulders and marched slowstep. Ordinarily, this would have been the part where they’d have been buried. But their family tombs were a long way down from here, and the nearest consecrated territory wasn’t much closer. The troop would stow the bodies until they reached their new destination.
“Mount! Up!” Sergeant Elo said in the command cadence long since become his natural dialect. There was a brief hesitation as the corpse-laden funeral detachment fought their automatic urge to obey the usual meaning of “mount up,” swarming up the leg spurs of a massive dust mite to reach the battlements built onto the insect’s carapace. Instead, they lifted their fallen comrades into slings, to be winched up and stowed with the rest of the troop’s baggage.
Elo had official reason to watch the sad bundles swaying up and out of sight, bumping a little as the line handlers raised them too quickly. Angry shouts from somewhere above the curve of Old Union’s back marked efforts to restore some funeral decorum. Elo noticed the priest watching too, a disapproving set to his expression. Maybe the old guy knew something about rigging, too. Elo felt a nagging lack of sadness. He should have felt sad, properly.
The lieutenant called Elo over. “Sergeant, it’s getting late in the day. We’re going to be losing light soon.” He gazed up at the formless sky. It showed no visible sign of dimming yet, but Elo didn’t doubt that it was probably drawing near the time that it would dim, leaving them to bumble around in only Roomlight if the angles were bad. “Get the troop mounted up as soon as possible. The Captain will be back shortly, and I’ve a feeling we’ll be diverted to an outpost to deliver those two for proper burial.”
“We’re leaving the caravan, sir?” asked Elo.
“Can’t be helped. Those nitwits got themselves killed too far out to be hauled all the way to the fort without rotting, and the Old Man doesn’t want to send us all the way back to Atlas Crossing. There’s an outpost towards the spine end of this Book, there should be some consecrated ground there. We’ll get orders to divert there, then put the spurs to Old Union and catch back up with the caravan.”
“That’s a lot of detail, sir, for someone who isn’t there overhearing the Old Man and the captain.”
“Bet me on it, sergeant?”
Elo adjusted his pickelhaub and scowled. The lieutenant had won some of Elo’s meager salary before. “Why don’t I just get everything stowed presently, sir?”
“Good man.” They exchanged abbreviated field salutes.
The lieutenant didn’t know as much as he thought he did, but Elo grudgingly admitted he was often right on target about what was going on in the minds of their betters. There was little else for Elo to do in the way of getting all the men and their gear back in their places on Old Union’s back. After the accident, no one was anxious to stay, even if it meant a detour further out to the sticks.
Elo knew it was unfair to pillory the dead in their absence, but he found he shared the lieutenant’s opinion of the two lost men. They’d deliberately stayed out during the giltfall, watching the huge shining gold fragment coming into view, confident it would pass them by. They’d gawked like simpletons, right up until the illusion of floating disappeared, and the awful speed it had was no longer cloaked by distance, and they were running and screaming, and then there was only the terrible noise of the impact. The vast bulk of it lay gleaming, utterly inert. The troop had emerged from their shelter beneath Old Union and pieced together what was left.
As a final insult from the Gods, no one else had been hurt; it hadn’t even been a disaster. Just two unlucky sods finding out how the old Books worked. In fact, some enterprising miners from down in the Reftlands would likely receive a claim to come and harvest the valuable gold and polymer. None of that was Elo’s affair. Not yet, anyway.
There was movement around the spiny trunk of Old Union’s leg. An oblong shape, about half as long as Elo was tall, was scooting around in blind circles. A wild bacillus, of the kind common enough near any caravan route, snuffled in search of mite droppings. Elo stilled his intense need to vent his frustrations of the day by kicking the scavenger away. It reminded him a bit of the pet he’d grown up with as a boy. He left the creature in peace and climbed up the rope ladder to his home away from home.
The little structures built onto Old Union’s vast domed back resembled little castles, yet their wickerwork walls were really more to keep out the elements than enemy fire. Four little towers provided fields of fire for the swivel guns, one housed the mite-mahout who goaded Old Union in the proper direction, and the largest, in the center, housed the troop and served as a mounting for their one real piece of artillery. Elo walked up the curve of the mite’s shell directly to the main castle, from where distinctly non-funereal noises were coming.
The men were all sobriety as soon as he ducked in, stooping low enough to get the spike on his helmet through the low doorway. Elo set his jaw and avoided glaring, letting them have their opportunity to shape themselves up.
“I trust this means we can get moving immediately,” Elo said. “Now that we’re busy dividing up all the issue gear.”
“Stowed and strapped, Sarge,” said Corporal Ferg. “We were just waiting on His Nibs to get done jawing with the Captain.” Ferg was as dishonest as Books were tall, but Elo did not doubt that they could leave straight away. They’d hardly decamped to speak of, before the giltfall, and he’d seen most of the restowing himself.
Elo finished the conversation with a stern look, but a minor grade of disapproving look by the standards of his vast arsenal. The boys had need of something to divert them.
“Sergeant, any of those to spare for a thirsty old man?” the priest asked.
Elo picked up his sack of wine. “I had no idea you imbibed, Father.”
“Hardly anything else to do on the climbs, is there?” Father Brix levered himself onto the forward wall of the central fort, which was horizontal now. “Old Union isn’t the fastest mite I’ve ridden in my time, we’ll be inconvenienced for a good while yet.”
Elo poured out several dozen molecules into the priest’s proffered cup. “So you have been on a few interShelf caravans. I was wondering.”
“That obvious, is it?”
“I don’t know that anyone else sees it.”
Brix laughed. “I don’t know that anyone else cares to.”
“You’ve been an Army chaplain for a long time? Or were in the service and then got religion?” Elo picked over his own wine the same way the priest did.
“Both,” Brix said. “Never cared for the easy life. What gave me away?”
Elo contemplated his diminished wine bag uncomfortably. “You mentioned the Destroyer so casually in the sermon. That’s not something I hear in cathedrals down in the Reftlands.”
The priest looked out over what was normally the top of the fort. “No,” he said. “I suppose they don’t. Up the Shelves, one tends to dwell on the dangers.”
“Hear, hear,” Elo said, hoisting the bag. “Do you remember the last time it came?”
“Gods distant, I must look older than I am,” Brix said, light in tone but not expression. “No, son. No, I don’t go that far back. But I read about it quite a bit in cloister.”
“I’m glad some of those sermons got through to you. Too many young folk think we made it all up.”
“It’s why we fight, isn’t it? The Gods-denying Aerosols, and all that.” Elo regretted the slip-up, not wanting to encourage discussions in this vein.
“Is it?” the priest asked. “Do you, personally, feel the need to stab some belief into the enemies of the priesthood?”
Elo watched the craggy vertical face of cellulose moving past. Some of it had a slightly chewed look where caravans past had harvested a few replacement logs. For a moment, he lost his thoughts in wondering who those past paperjacks had been.
“I fight because it’s my job, Father,” Elo said finally. “No other reason matters.”
Old Union snorted and clanked to a halt finally, horizontal again. The troop lost no time dismounting and forming ranks before the mite’s massive clawed forelegs.
“Sergeant Elo, set the men to,” said the Lieutenant. “Standard field precautions, less a labor detail to take the bodies down to the outpost.”
Elo saluted. “Sir!”
The Lieutenant walked off, swagger-stick tucked in, heading down the twisting trail that descended towards the just-visible bulk of Book Two Five Seven.
“Fall out by watches!” Elo barked. “Red watch, re-mount. You’ve got the duty first. Green watch, I need four volunteers. Ferg. Bax. Trig. Zem. You just volunteered. Unship the bodies and follow the trail down to the outpost. Father Brix will take charge of them once you’re there.”
“What in the Destroyer’s dander is this place, Sarge?” Ferg knew better than to argue, but considered complaining his own divine calling. “Book Two Five Seven? What kind of a name is that?”
“That’s what it says on the map. We’re too far up for any of the Books to have individual names.”
“Maybe the Moteriders call it something,” Ferg opined.
“Why don’t you ask them, Private? After you get back from burial detail. Get moving.”
They’d had their official ceremony, but there was a new sad finality in the departure of Miyo and Beg from Old Union. The two bodies and their four uniformed bearers disappeared over the curve of the rough ground, a melancholy caravan in miniature.
The company waited, slept, ate, gambled, and cursed their recruiters. After a time, the Roomlight blazed to life, illuminating the heavens above the page forest with the dazzling colors of a new day.
The wonders of the vista did not please Elo.
“Where the fuck is the burial detail?” he muttered. The Old Man, the Lieutenant, and Father Brix were overdue as well, but they couldn’t be called to accounts by someone with Elo’s number of chevrons. Ferg and the other men were a different story.
Up in the mite-mahout’s tower, Elo found the only other rank still mounted up.
“Colb, wake up.”
“Eh? We leavin’ at last?” The old mahout looked around his little room, blinking sleep from his eyes.
“No. We are not. I’m dismounting to go see what the delay is. You’re in charge until we get back.”
“Me?” Colb looked at Elo with rheumy astonishment. “I’m not officially-“
“I know. You’re the only other rank we’ve got left. I’ll be back quickly.”
The mite-mahouts were warrant officers, not in the chain of command of the infantry company that rode with them. Colb technically outranked him, but that was mostly honorary. Elo had nothing else to do. They were short officers, and somebody had to fix things.
The trail down from the Shelf was little improved, despite the outpost. It wound back and forth toward the spine of the unnamed Book in the manner of frontier settlements. The view was distracting in the early light, even to a veteran like Elo.
A long way down, Elo thought. If you were lucky, maybe you’d float on an air current far enough that no one you knew back home would have to see your body hit. At this height, you’d be falling for a couple of days, not counting any updrafts. Maybe even dead of dehydration before you hit.
No one who’d been up the Shelves any ways had failed to imagine what would happen if you weren’t careful. Elo stopped himself from jogging on the steep trail.
Soon enough, the trail flattened to the Book headlands, a small plateau atop the vast cellulose bulk extending off out of sight. At the edge of the headlands, perched fearlessly over the drop, stood a small blockhouse with a domed roof. Beside the outpost were a few storage sheds, and the freshly-covered graves of Miyo and Beg. It must have been murderous work, hacking them into the hard oxide scrabble here. Elo grimly shouldered his carbine and strode towards the single door.
Voices were audible well before he reached it. They weren’t intelligible yet, but Elo picked out the Old Man’s timbre, as well as that of Father Brix. There were others in the mix as well, strangers’ voices. Ferg and the rest of the burial detail were slouched about, drinking something hot out of mugs. They all gestured upward, glum. The argument sounded no signs of abating as Elo tromped up the spiral stairs.
The upper floor of the blockhouse was much more open than the base. Elo guessed it was all one large room. The dome held a turntable gun mounting similar to the one that rode in the battlement atop an army mite, though the carriage held something much larger and more complex than the breechloading cannon for which it had been built. Around the device were angry people.
“This is getting us nowhere,” the Old Man said, needlessly straightening his uniform. “Nothing I’ve seen here is more important than the reason this observatory was built in the first place, and-“
“You aren’t even looking!” said a woman about the Old Man’s age. “This telescope has us on the verge of discoveries much more important than looking for more things you can use your guns on.”
“You’re on the verge of blasphemy, is what you’re on!” said Brix, flushed a shade Elo had never seen anyone not in terminal cardiac distress.
“Who’s to call it blasphemy?” Countered the woman. “Did the Gods ever forbid us to capture their images?”
“Professor, this facility isn’t your toy,” the Old Man began, in the tone of going back to something he’d already said. The Lieutenant nodded on cue.
“They’ve been at this since before dawn,” said a new voice close to Elo. “I think they could keep it up for a day or more.”
Elo looked around for the source of the voice. There was another woman behind him on the stairs, whom he’d somehow managed to not notice either on the ground floor of the observatory blockhouse, or when she’d approached. She was younger than the Professor, and dressed a similar lab coat. Elo found himself distracted.
“If you’re thinking of trying to cut into that,” she continued, “you’d better be prepared to use that gun of yours. Come downstairs and wait, if you’d like.”
The three and a half arguments upstairs (Elo never heard the Lieutenant say anything other than “Quite right, sir.”) continued as they took seats downstairs.
“Quelle Jex,” the woman said. “I assist Professor Gosh with her work here at the observatory on Two Fifty Seven.”
“Nice to meet you, Miss. Vintner Elo, Flag Sergeant with the 22nd Dragoons. I see you’re already acquainted with the men.”
Bax, Trig, and Zem nodded, bored. Trooper Ferg grinned, lifting a cup of tea.
Elo scowled at him before continuing. “What’s the short version of the point under contention, if you don’t mind me asking?”
Jex stirred the tea she’d poured herself, which was still hot enough to be visibly shaking. “Your Captain is upset that Professor Gosh is using the observatory’s equipment to do something besides spot enemy moteships, is the short of it.”
“And there’s a priest involved,” Elo supplied.
“Yes, he was quite concerned about the nature of the work, as well.”
The argument progressed apace upstairs, with stomping on the floorboards that rather ruined the pregnant silence downstairs.
Jex stopped stirring her tea. “This is the part where you ask what it is we’re doing here that’s causing such a fuss.”
“No, Miss. This is where you might, I grant, but I assure you my interest has been thoroughly extinguished. I can recognize when something’s beyond my paygrade.”
Jex took a sip of tea, made a face, then resumed stirring. “Do you see that picture on the wall there?”
Elo took in a whole series of pictures, mostly spiky profiles of moteships used by Aerosol raiders: the sorts of threats that inspired the arsenal clanking about on the back of Old Union, waiting far above them on the Shelf.
“You mean that one, I suppose?” One was indistinct, and looked nothing like a moteship at all. “What is it?”
“Ah, you’ve become curious again,” Jex said. “Professor Gosh thinks it’s the first definite image we’ve recorded of the Destroyer.”
Elo looked more carefully at the picture. He’d stood up to do so, an action he didn’t remember performing. There was an irregular dark blotch, surrounded by a slightly lighter blotch. “What does it look like?”
“We’re still not entirely sure,” Jex said, smiling with a tiny concealed triumph. “Lots of issues. Parallax. Foreshortening. It’s a complex shape, though. Much like a mite or a person, it’s got a lot of appendages. And we know it’s big.”
“How big?” Elo asked, more quickly than he meant to.
“Best estimates? Five or six hundred thousand microns, end to end.”
“That’s pretty b- Wait, what?”
“Equal to the distance from Websterburg to Britannicport. Roughly. Or, put another way, about the altitude between here and the deepest mines.”
“That’s… That’s a very large thing.”
“You have a gift for understatement, Sergeant.”
“I always assumed the Destroyer would be like a mite, only bigger. Like a few times bigger. Something that could wreck a building, not…” Elo understood the pale looks on the troopers’ faces better now.
“‘Discovery of the age,’ is the way the professor put it,” Jex said. “You see why she’s adamant about not giving up use of the telescope.”
Elo’s insides churned with all the thoughts, which he tried to ignore. “So why’s she having such trouble?”
It was Jex’s turn to look glum. “All those other pictures.”
“Those. They aren’t the usual course of distant sightings for the month. Those pictures were all taken within the last few days. The ships are close, and headed this way.”
Some quick mental math based on what Elo knew of the Aerosols’ capabilities yielded some unpleasant results. “I’ll be right back down,” he said. “You men get ready to move.”
“-and if anything is going to give way, Professor, I say it is your intransigence!”
“Sir, a moment of your time, please?” Elo stood at the top of the stairs at attention.
“A moment, Sergeant,” said the Lieutenant, before the Old Man could. “Wait, if you’re here, who’s minding the company?”
“Begging your pardon sir, I left mahout Colb in charge after you were delayed.”
“Not now! We’ve only… Dear Gods, it’s light out.”
All four parties in the dispute suddenly seemed to notice daylight outside the dome.
“Yes, sir, it’s been some time. Miss Jex apprised me of the situation. Best we all get moving.”
“Quite so!” Said the old man. Elo could see him working out the times and distances. “Quite so,” he said again, haunted.
Elo felt queasy. He’d hoped the Captain would have worked out that it was going to be okay after all.
“Why don’t I locate the moteships’ current position?” Professor Gosh asked no one, already moving to the controls of the great telescope.
“There’s no time,” the Old Man snapped. “They’ll be upon us. If we can get mounted up, we have a chance.”
“I’m not leaving! Not now!” the Professor stopped fiddling with the telescope as quickly as she’d started.
“Best we abandon all this, anyway,” said the priest, just loud enough to be heard.
The Lieutenant looked on, helplessly.
Elo was already downstairs. “Miss Jex, I have a question. Where did you get that tea you brewed? It doesn’t strike me as the usual outpost supply fodder.”
“An odd question, Sergeant. We trade with some frontiersmen to supplement our usual supplies. Why do you ask?”
“Paperjacks, I assume.” Jex gestured vaguely upwards to the unseen bulk of the Shelf above. “We see them every dozen days, or so.”
“Excuse me again, please,” Elo said, and tromped back upstairs. “Sirs and Madam, begging your pardons again,” Elo interrupted, “it’s come to my attention that the Aerosols may know something of what the Professor is up to here.”
The Old Man and the Professor didn’t take so much as a breath of pause at Elo’s interjection before they were at each other’s arguments again, but the Lieutenant and Father Brix were not.
“What do you mean?” they said in unison.
Elo told them.
“They have agents all through the Upper Reaches,” the Lieutenant muttered. “Of course.”
“Evacuate, sir?” Elo asked.
“Get it started,” the Lieutenant said. “I’ll…” he gestured at the still-raging debate.
“Right, sir.” Moments later, Elo was downstairs again. “What would it take to move all the work you’d done?” he asked Jex.
“Surely you’re joking, Sergeant. The photographic plates alone would be more than all of us could carry.”
Elo didn’t pause to consider long. “Trig,” he said, pointing at the startled trooper, “get back up to Old Union and tell Colb to bring him and the company down here.”
“Sarge, that’ll take-“
“I know. Get moving.”
Jex crossed her arms and stood as tall as she could make herself. “You don’t seem inclined to defend the observatory, Sergeant.”
“Without support, Miss, I am not. I’m sure the Old Man isn’t either,” he added, hooking a thumb upward to where the debate raged afresh. “But that’s what we’re left with. We’re going to be hip-deep in air-worshippers before Old Union can pick his way down here with the artillery we need to fight them off.”
“I see. Sergeant Elo, I hope you understand how important it is that the Professor’s work survives.”
“I do, Miss.”
“This used to be a fort, shouldn’t it be defensible?”
Elo looked around the blockhouse. The thick logs of tough white fiber looked solid enough; he imagined them hewn from pages in the forest below and packed up onto the headlands of Book 257. “What happened to the gun that used to be up there?”
Jex shrugged. “Everything like that had been taken down by work crews before I got here,” she said. “The covers for the main embrasure had to be removed, too—they were interfering with the telescope—and they went into one of the outbuildings. Perhaps there’s something there.”
“Show us, please,” Elo said. “You three, come help.”
Ferg, Bax, and Zem were bored enough that they forgot to look sour at the prospect of labor.
The outbuildings were little more than sheds, constructed of the same material as the blockhouse, only planks that had been shaved much thinner. Still, it took all of them to force the door on the largest and most recent of them.
A flight of nesting viral phages floated out from their roost, disturbed. The group squinted into the darkness unrelieved by daylight streaming in.
“There are the doors they removed,” Jex said, holding a warding arm over her head in case the phages should return.
“I see. And there in the back is the gun.” Elo pointed out the long, low mass of it.
“Can we move it?” Jex asked.
“With a crane, perhaps. There’s a few casks of powder still, though I’d not trust it after all this time.”
“Can’t we wait until Old Union gets here, and use fresh powder from our stores?” asked trooper Zem.
“The whole point of this exercise is to hold out until they get here,” Elo said, more sharply than was necessary. “If we had Old Union here, we wouldn’t need any of this. Start tearing through all this, see what else we can find. We don’t have much time.”
“Professor, for the last time can you not see that it would be better if you would simply flee to the safety of the mite? We can hold your findings for safekeeping with the men we have on hand until such time as they can be safely loaded aboard with us.”
Professor Gosh maintained her look of arch contempt still. Elo wondered how she made her face do that for so long without spraining something.
“No, Captain,” she sniffed. “I do not intend to commend my life’s work into unfriendly hands.” She looked pointedly at the priest. “I will stay.”
No one about the observatory looked surprised.
“Here they come!” came a shout from above.
“Numbers, Zem!” Elo shouted back.
Trooper Zem’s head appeared at the top of the opening in the dome. He pointed off in the distance. “Two motes just cleared the Shelf. Too far away for me to make a count of how many aboard.”
“Smallish, Sarge. Maybe ten-man jobs.”
“Okay, get down here.” He moved to where the officers were peering into the distance.
“There they are,” the Old Man said. “Your trooper is right on about the estimate. We’d better hope those ships are too small to carry a swivel gun, we’ll have trouble enough with twenty air-worshiper troops.”
Elo couldn’t resist taking a peek himself. Even without a spyglass, he could see the approaching moteships plainly: hulls of ragged, irregular outline, probably ash or dander. Fragile things, but light enough to waft on the air and carry a small crew besides.
“Here’s your igniters, Sarge!” Trooper Ferg came bounding up the stairs into the dome, holding two bottles.
“Two?” the Old Man asked.
“I thought it prudent to have a spare ready, sir.” Elo said. “Ferg’s idea, sir.”
The Old Man went back to his spyglass. “Good thinking, Trooper.”
Ferg beamed, then took his place with the others.
“Damn shame we couldn’t have remounted that gun,” the Captain continued. “This bit of chicanery with wires and matches will have to do.”
Elo tested the tension on the wire they’d rigged from the observatory to the armory shed. “Indeed, sir. As our total assets remain four rifles, my carbine, and your and the Lieutenants pistols. Neglecting edged weapons, sir.”
“Ahem,” came an indignant reminder.
“And Miss Jex’s hunting rifle,” Elo said. He looked back to where the young academic stood in file with the men.
“Yes, it’s a damn cocked-up situation all around,” the Old Man said. “Can’t be helped. Still, all we’ve to do is hold out. Get down!”
The Old Man hadn’t changed tone, and so it wasn’t until he saw the captain throw himself away from the embrasure that Elo understood what he meant.
The first shots from the Aerosols came whistling past the opening in the dome; a few spanged off the thick walls of the blockhouse. Elo found himself prone. He didn’t remember reacting.
“You may return their fire, Sargeant.” The Old Man didn’t sound any different than he usually did.
“On the brace!” Elo yelled from the floor, struggling to right himself and ready his carbine all at once.
His four troopers dashed up the former gun embrasure, kneeling behind the lip, rifles ready. After a moment, Jex followed suit.
Elo joined them straightaway, crouching behind them and aiming over their heads. “Pick targets!”
Bullets continued to peck at the thick outer wall. The Aerosol marines shot light loads, needle-pointed tin bullets moving at man-killing velocity.
“Four rounds rapid!”
Four rifles thundered in rapid unison, each punching out fat, greasy gold slugs. Elo’s own carbine snapped out lighter, faster shots, more for assurance than actual effect at this range. Jex had been taken by surprise again, and fired a single desultory round at the end of the volley.
“Recover!” Elo snapped. The troops dropped prone and started to reload. “Are you all right, Miss jex?”
The woman’s hands shook as she reloaded her big single-shot weapon. “Yes,” she said unevenly. “What’s stopping them from shooting us while we’re sitting there shooting?”
A bullet glanced off the edge of the opening, burying itself in the back wall.
“Fortune, Miss Jex.”
She nodded. “Marvelous. Go again?”
Elo peeked around the edge of the opening. The two moteships were settling on the headlands, easy shots away. He saw no sign of the first volley having had any effect. “On the brace!” he yelled again.
They smashed out three more volleys, and then Trooper Bax pitched backwards, gasped blood, and lay still. Before returning to cover, Elo counted unmoving figures on the ground beside the motes outside. Too many of them were moving still—moving outside their field of fire.
“They’re at the base of the blockhouse,” Elo said. “Watch for hooks. Fix bayonets. Captain! They’re here!”
There was an ominous thud from downstairs, then another.
“I agree with your assessment, Sergeant,” said the Old Man. “They’re trying the door. If you’re going to try your pyrotechnic stunt, now’s the time.”
Elo slung his carbine, and reached down to where he’d stowed his two makeshift detonators. “Squad! On the brace! Fire as you bear!”
“That means just shoot anything you see, Miss,” supplied Trooper Ferg when Jex hadn’t moved. She was still staring at Bax’s slumped body. She forced herself to look away, and crawl to the embrasure, and not notice that her boot was touching the dead man.
They began to pick targets, slow measured aimed fire, as the battering ram thumped out the Aerosol’s displeasure on the blockhouse door. Whether due to the suppression provided by the squad, or by the fact that they were concentrating on breaking in, the fire slackened. Elo hooked one bottle to the wire, and let it go. He could hear the skittering noise as it slid down towards the storehouse shed.
“Cover!” he yelled a moment before a tremendous low rumble shook the blockhouse, sounding more like another giltfall than an explosion. The great telescope wobbled in its cradle above Elo’s head.
“All okay?” came the Lieutenant’s voice from downstairs.
Elo looked around at the people picking themselves off the floor. “Excepting Trooper Bax, sir, yes.” Elo motioned to the opening. Zem and Ferg dashed up to the rim.
“They’re moving off, Sarge!” said Trooper Zem. A moment later, a ragged hole had opened in his chest. Zem mouthed something soundless and slumped over the embrasure’s lip.
Ferg returned fire without being ordered, leaving Elo and a horrified Jex to clutch at Zem’s legs to keep his body from falling out.
“Did it work, Sergeant?” The Lieutenant had come up partway up the stairs.
“Run, you Gods-denying bastards!” Ferg yelled out the port, emptying his rifle again.
“Lost another man, sir,” Elo said, “but it seems the Aerosols are retreating.” Elo lay there, panting, with Zem’s life slowly draining onto him.
“Hard luck,” the Lieutenant began, before his eyes went wide.
A grenade bounced off the deck, and began to roll, sputtering, down the stairs.
The Lieutenant took a moment to register the small object for what it was, sputtering and clattering down each step as if walking.
In that moment, Trooper Ferg had dropped his rifle and turned to follow the grenade’s path. Goldbrick Ferg, slacker Ferg, laughing insolent short-timer Ferg dove down the stairs after it.
Ferg and the Lieutenant had the same idea. They fouled each other, and the grenade bounced away from them as they tumbled.
Elo lay flat. There was a scream, and then the floor jumped.
By the time Elo had disentangled himself from Zem’s body. There were only groans from below. “Stay down, the both of you,” he said.
Jex didn’t respond, but looked unlikely to do anything but remain shocked.
Elo picked his way down the stairs. The grenade had splintered the bottom steps. He looked around. The blast had also converted the compressed cellulose into a hailstorm of lethal fragments. Gore painted every wrecked surface.
“Call out, sirs!” Elo said, looking for any footing. The cluttered abbatoir of the blockhouse was a danger in itself, now.
Another groan. Elo moved over the entangled remains of the Old Man and Professor Gosh, pushing a rack of documents out of his way. “Hello?”
Father Brix groaned again, a gurgling sort of groan that Elo tried not to think about. He finally pulled the last of the debris off the old preacher—and saw the arm-length fragment of wire protruding from his gut.
Brix’s eyes acknowledged the look on Elo’s face. Elo shook his head. Neither had to say anything more.
Elo came back up the stairs, and wiped his bayonet, and sat down.
Jex had recovered somewhat. “Did every-“
“Yes. All of them.”
“What are we going to do?” Jex asked.
“What’s going on outside?” Elo asked, toneless.
“They took off, both ships. I don’t think they had as many men as when they landed.”
Elo absorbed this intelligence for a moment, silent. “Miss Jex, you understand that you’re the most important human being on the Tree now, don’t you?” he said finally.
“No. Don’t look.”
“All her work! Everything she’d discovered!”
“You’re what’s left, Miss. The explanation for what you’ve discovered is you, and anything that can be salvaged downstairs.”
“What if they come back?” she asked, looking around the dome. “We can’t hold off another attack like that.”
Elo felt oddly detached. “No, but they don’t know that. That’s why they won’t fiddle around with trying to rush us next time. They’ll bring up bigger ships and wreck this place with gunfire, or burn us out. We have to hope Old Union gets here first.”
“You think they can get him down here that quickly?”
Elo closed his eyes and did some math. “Sure,” he said. “Colb’s a weird one, all the mahouts I’ve ever known are, but he isn’t one to dawdle around if he thinks there’s trouble. We should see them before the end of the day.”
“That’s a relief. I’d hate to try this at night.” Jex was looking down the stairway, unmoving.
Elo sighed. “I may have to ask you to stay down there, Miss Jex.”
“Quelle,” Jex said. “Call me Quelle. And no, I’m not staying down there.”
“Nothing we do here matters if you’re hit by a stray round. Your life is more important than the extra rifle, at this point.”
“Being downstairs didn’t save them, did it?”
“Point taken. But I still think that…”
Elo looked up to the ceiling of the dome. “What’s that noise?”
“Sounds like steam escaping,” Jex said.
“I’ve heard that before,” Elo said. “Somewhere.”
“It’s getting louder,” Jex said. “Outside? Is it the Aerosols?”
Elo picked himself up, horror and fatigue shut away again, and ran to the opening in the observatory dome. He looked skyward.
“Oh Gods,” he said without the energy for emphasis. “It’s Old Union.”
Jex rushed to join him.
Far above, in the panorama of the Shelf-dominated sky, the world arced into imperceptibility. Beside it, coming out of the indeterminate grayness of distance, fell an object too far away to have perceptible speed.
The mite fell, hissing and squealing in panic. Tiny lights on its carapace marked where the fort and supporting towers burned.
Elo knew there would be a whole cloud of smaller objects falling around it. Things as small as cannon or soldiers couldn’t be made out—small things like the hundred-odd troops of the company.
Old Union began to show his speed as the creature neared the headlands plateau.
“Get down on the floor,” Elo said. “Away from the telescope.”
They didn’t hear the impact, but they felt it. Again, the blockhouse twitched and wobbled. And again, it was over.
The two of them lay motionless much longer than was necessary.
“Perhaps the priest was right,” Jex said. “Perhaps this is for the best.”
Elo sat up. “Miss Je-“
“Quelle. What do you need to recreate what Professor Gosh has discovered here?”
“You can’t be serious,” she said, sitting up to face him.
“There are ships up there,” Elo said. “Big ones. Moteships the size of Old Union. We have to get away from here with you, and anything you can think you might need.”
“I’d need a telescope, and all our notes and film plates, and Professor Gosh.”
Elo slammed the butt of his carbine down, levering himself to his feet again. “You’ll get another telescope. You won’t get another Professor. Of the things you can carry, what do you need to convince other people?”
Jex’s mouth worked, but nothing came out at first. “The Professor’s summary notes. At least one plate.”
“Now you’re talking, Quelle. Are those boots of yours any good?”
Jex looked down. “They’ll do.”
Elo didn’t quite grin. “Sore feet are still better then murder, that’s right!”
“Sergeant, I have to admit I’m puzzled. What’s gotten into you?”
It was Elo’s turn to struggle for words. “All I’ve ever had is duty. I never had another reason to go on. I never wanted or trusted any other reason. I passed on orders and did my job and made sure everyone did theirs and I felt nothing. I never wanted to feel anything. That picture you took changed that. It’s important to make sure everyone sees it. I guess I have a new duty now.”
Jex didn’t smile, not exactly. “It suits you,” she said.
Jex squared her shoulders and followed the Elo downstairs. She blanched when she saw the Professor’s body, but dug out the implements she needed.
“Let’s go,” she said, facing the door and not looking back.
“One last thing,” Elo said. He started the blockhouse stove, and placed the remaining liquid detonator on it.
The door swung freely once they’d thrown the bar, and they emerged onto the blasted headlands. The Aerosols had retreated in haste after the storehouse explosion, leaving their fallen.
The enemy soldiers had been scattered by the blast, flinging them away from the beam they’d been using to batter the door. They were slightly-built men, pale-skinned and ethereal-looking.
“Mysteries of the Gods and Destroyer,” Elo said. “I always heard they had points to their ears. I guess that was just a rumor.”
The trail up wound up into the fading roomlight; the day was ending. Darkness, speed, and rough terrain were their only shields now, though they both carried rifles. Behind them, the observatory had begun to burn, ceding all trace of the Reftlander claim to Book 257.
“What if we don’t make it?” asked Jex. “I mean, beyond the obvious.”
Elo squinted up into the fading light. “I aim not to find out.”
Copyright 2013 S. Hutson Blount
About the Author
S. Hutson Blount has worked with nuclear propulsion systems, robotic laser welders, and mutant cats, but as yet has no experience with mythological figures. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area with a wife who tolerates his foolishness to an alarming degree.