Authors: Ken Scholes
But now, he found himself waking up with a level of arousal that made him uncomfortable both emotionally and physically. He gave himself a final glance, chuckled at his discomfort, and then stretched out a hand on the morning air. “Clothe me,” he said.
The mist wrapped him, and he felt it clinging to his flesh as his silver robe took shape. Then, he set out along the canal at a leisurely pace.
He’d finally grown accustomed to the heightened senses he now commanded. He could hear the lunar wildlife stirring as the jungle prepared for morning, and his nose was full of the scent of flowers and fruits still foreign to him. And some of the fruits made his mouth water—evidence as far as he was concerned that those fruits were likely intended for eating.
All of this was made for us.
The story of the People had kept his mind full these past several days. The idea that his ancestors had that kind of power baffled him. They had made worlds with everything their children might need built into them, including and especially the blood of the earth he now clothed himself in.
He’d read the best Androfrancine thought on their origins, including the scraps of apocryphal material about the Younger and Elder Gods, but nothing in the Great Library of Windwir had prepared him for this.
He suspected that once the library was open to them, he could spend decades in it and still have only learned a small percentage of what it held.
But I do not have decades.
He wasn’t sure how much time he had. Right now, he felt fine. He’d had a few headaches and nosebleeds here and there, but they left as quickly as they arrived. And he’d not yet told Neb and the others what was surely coming at some point in the near future. He didn’t want to believe it himself.
Of course, he’d died before. But this time, Petronus knew he wasn’t coming back. And though he told himself he was ready, that he’d lived more life than many, he knew he wasn’t ready at all.
Life asserts itself where it will.
It was something P’Andro Whym had said in his Eighth Precept. And in Petronus’s case, his desire for more life—especially with this new body and in this new place—was strong.
He heard a noise behind him and looked over his shoulder to see Neb moving in his direction. The young man had changed so much in the time he’d known him. He walked with more confidence now, his posture upright and his head moving slightly to the left and right, tracking the sounds and the smells around him. His hair was fully grown in now, and his face had lost the softness of boyhood in favor of the sharper angles of adulthood.
“Hail, Petronus,” he called out as he approached.
Petronus smiled. “Hail, Nebios. Couldn’t sleep?”
Neb shook his head. “No. And I like the early morning.”
Petronus nodded. “I do, too. Always have. There’s something peaceful about it.”
He started walking again, and Neb fell in alongside him. The sky moved toward pink, and the first of the morning chatterers started up in the jungle. As far as he could tell, the entire lunar climate was tropical in nature, and he suspected it was engineered that way. It was something else to check the library for once they could.
Petronus chuckled at the thought. When he realized Neb was waiting for an explanation, he stopped walking. “I’ve spent most of my life growing old in a library,” he said. He held up his hands before Neb. “Now, I’m young again and walking on the moon, and all I can think about is getting back into that library to learn more about this place.”
Now Neb chuckled, too. “I feel the same way. But since we can’t, there’s only one alternative.”
Petronus waited for him to finish, and when he didn’t, he raised a single eyebrow. “And what alternative is that?”
Neb started walking briskly. “To experience it,” he said. And as he said it, he started running, building speed quickly so that when he shouted next, his voice already seemed far away. “Come on, old man.”
Petronus lurched into an easy run and caught up to Neb with ease. It felt good to stretch his legs without being chased by something, and he found himself smiling. “Try to keep up,” he shouted as he passed the boy.
They ran for hours, until the sun was up and Lasthome tucked away, darting away from the canal to follow trails deep into the jungle that had once been roads, past hills that had once been buildings. They ran, their laughter running ahead of them to scatter birds and send monkeys scrambling into trees. When they stumbled upon a pool, they stopped and swam, then stuffed themselves on the sweet-tart fruit that grew in abundance around it. After, they stretched out in the sun to dry.
I am at peace.
Petronus couldn’t remember feeling like this in a long time. Maybe it was that last night of limericks in Caldus Bay, the night before the pillar of smoke sent him to see what had happened to his city. He looked over to Neb and saw the brooding look upon his face.
But he is not.
“What are you thinking about?”
Neb looked to him, then looked away. “I don’t know what to do next.”
Petronus sighed. “I’ve certainly had a lot of those days myself.” He met the boy’s eyes. “But you will know. And when you don’t, things still have a way of turning out if you just keep your eyes and ears open for the opportunities around you.”
Neb nodded. “I know.”
Petronus suspected that he did indeed. He’d carried a lot, that one. And he’d seen too much for his years. Suddenly, he felt the need to say something he’d never said before, and the suddenness of his need surprised him nearly as much as the lump that he found growing in his throat. “I never had a son,” he said, “but if I had I would’ve wished him to become a man like you, Nebios. You’d have been a fine Pope someday yourself.”
Neb smiled. “You excommunicated me so that I couldn’t.”
Petronus chuckled even though the memory of it stung. “I did, but not because I didn’t think you’d be a fine Pope. I didn’t want you to kill Sethbert and carry that scar upon you.”
Neb shrugged. “I thought he’d killed my father. In the end, he hadn’t. And the man I thought was my father wasn’t.” Then, he looked at Petronus, and Petronus saw the young man’s tears now, too. “But I suppose if I could’ve picked a father for myself you would have been the man I would have chosen.”
They were silent after that for a while, and when they were dry, they climbed to their feet. Petronus stood still in that place, savoring that moment and savoring the words that they had shared with one another on the moon, by a pool, in a meadow beneath the sun. He knew he did not have many days left, but Petronus hoped that more of them would be like this one.
He watched Neb leap into a run and listened to the boy’s wild laughter as Neb vanished into the jungle.
He tried on the words quietly. “My son.”
Petronus smiled at the sound of it and then let his own laughter and feet carry him forward at breakneck pace as he ran the jungles of the moon.
It was winter when he faded in and out of awareness–cold and unforgiving–and Charles felt himself buffeted and shaken by a metal wind that whispered when it should have shouted.
What is happening to me?
He forced his eyes open and saw the dimly lit ceiling of the Beneath Places sliding past overhead. It took a moment for him to realize he was being carried, and that information struggled to connect with his most recent memory. They’d been on the barge and had been rowing for what seemed forever. When had they reached shore? He had no recollection of it.
But what did he recollect?
He remembered the knife. And he remembered its removal and how badly it had hurt. He remembered feeling as if his heart—his entire chest—were being crushed to the point he couldn’t breathe, the pain shooting down his left arm.
Now, he felt nothing but cold.
His awareness continued to grow, and Charles realized it was Isaak who carried him. The metal man must have noticed him looking, because his red eyes turned downward to take him in. He stopped, and Charles heard others stopping as well. “He’s awake,” Isaak said.
He felt a hand on his shoulder and tried to crane his head to see who it was. But the voice gave her away. “How do you feel, Charles?”
He worked his mouth around the word but couldn’t find his voice. He tried again. “I’m cold.”
She moved, and now he could see her, could also see the sweat that beaded on her forehead. He could also see the look of fear upon her face. “Are you thirsty?”
He realized he was and nodded. She opened a canteen and held it to his mouth. He couldn’t taste the water, but he felt it in his mouth and as it trickled down his throat. “Where are we?”
“Somewhere beneath the Entrolusian Delta,” Winters said, “if the maps are correct. Moving toward Caldus Bay.”
He wanted to ask what was in Caldus Bay, but those few questions he’d asked left him exhausted. And he suspected that he wouldn’t live to see Caldus Bay, regardless, though that knowledge felt strangely detached given its gravity. He closed his eyes and drifted off, not opening them again until he did so from a pile of blankets on the ground. The chattering of his teeth awakened him, and when he stirred he felt a form moving beside him as a hand squeezed his.
Charles squinted into the gloom. He felt more alert now, though he still had a sense of disconnect after falling asleep on a barge, waking up while carried and then waking up again in this new place. From what he could tell, it was an intersection. He could not see the mechoservitors, but he saw several blanket-covered forms scattered about, along with various piles of equipment.
“Do you want some water?” a voice whispered. He looked over and down to find Marta cuddled up against him, one hand holding his and the other holding a canteen.
He nodded, and she pressed it to his mouth. He swallowed. “Thank you.”
She offered a weak smile. “How are you feeling?”
He suspected his own smile was grim. “Not well.”
She squeezed his hand again, then pointed with the canteen to the tunnel ahead of them. “There is an access hatch up ahead and a physician in Caldus Bay. We’ll be there in a few days.”
Yes, he suspected there was. But he could tell from the look in her eyes that she didn’t believe it would help. And she was right not to. He didn’t have a few days.
And of course, the mechanicals have basic medico knowledge.
“Isaak told you, then?”
Her lower lip quivered. “And Hebda. He’s had medico training.”
Charles coughed. “Where is Isaak now.”
“He and the other mechanicals are … hunting.”
“What are they hunting?”
Marta’s voice dropped even lower. “There are Y’Zirites and Gray Guard in the tunnels.”
Her words impacted Charles like a fist, and he found himself suddenly trying to stand. He had no strength and sagged back into the blankets. “No,” he said. “I can’t let them—”
She squeezed his hand again. “It’s okay, Charles. They’re not
them. They’re just breaking their legs.”
“Call them back and wake the others,” he said. “I need to talk to them.”
Charles drowsed while he waited, and when he heard them humming and clacking up the corridor, he let Winters and Marta sit him up.
Isaak limped to him and knelt, his eyes casting the gloom with the color of blood.
“How many have you found?” Charles asked.
“Six. They have been disabled and left with supplies. Two were Y’Zirite Blood Guard.”
Charles sighed. “There will be more when they don’t return.”
“Yes,” Isaak agreed.
Charles thought about the magicked scout Isaak had tossed into the blood of the earth. “I don’t want you to kill them.”
“I will do whatever I must,” Isaak said. “But I don’t want to kill them either.”
Charles nodded. “Good. Then listen to me.” He looked up. “All of you, listen.”
Then, he quietly and simply laid out the facts and then his solution. There was argument from Marta, questions from Winters. Hebda and Tertius stood silently by. It wasn’t until the others had packed and were ready that they each came by to crouch beside him.
Winters hugged him, and her tears were cold on his neck. “Thank you,” she said.
“Take your people home,” he said. Then he chuckled. “And keep your damned dreams on the moon.”
She chuckled, too. “Do you need anything?”
He nodded. “Do you have any root?”
She dug in her pocket and pressed a black strip into his hand. He slipped it into his mouth and started chewing it. Her questioning look prompted an explanation. “It will keep me awake,” he said. “Ideally until they’re here. Or until I can’t stay awake any longer.”
She nodded. “I hope I see you in my dreams, Charles.”
“I’ve liked the ones we’ve already shared,” he replied.
He found himself tearing up when it was Marta’s turn. He looked from her to where Isaak worked with the others, running wires and setting bags. “You really do love him, don’t you?”
She nodded. “I kind of hate him too now, because of Windwir, but there’s enough love to handle the hate.”
“Take care of him for me,” Charles said. “And for what it’s worth, I think he loves you, too.”
Marta blushed. Then she moved on.
Hebda and Tertius crouched together, and their exchange was brief and to the point. After they’d finished and gripped his hand, they moved off with the others in the direction of the access hatch.
Isaak and the mechoservitors finished setting the charges and brought him the metal detonation trigger that he himself had designed. He checked it by touch with his fingers, surprised at how fast the root was taking hold in him. Everything was brighter, and he felt strength moving through him. Of course, the ache in his chest worsened.
His metal children gathered around him, and he saw that Enoch’s missing arm had been reattached, though it hung oddly now and would require more attention. “You will need to take care of each other now,” he told them.
Isaak’s shoulders began to shake as his eyes filled with silver tears. “One of us could stay back,” he said.
Charles laughed. “I scripted you better than that, Isaak. There is no logic in robbing the world of something as amazing as one of you, with so much good that you can do. I’ve had a long life. And my outcome is likely the same no matter what I do. But your outcome, statistically and tactically speaking, is far superior if I take this action.”