LOST COLONY CH. 05-4

The rest of the pilgrims were equally in awe. The bachelors, for a moment, forgot their bluster, each falling silent as they gaped at the scar that was the canyon. The couples stood close together, either embracing quietly, or pointing out some particularly interesting detail here and there. Liette, for a time, wisely said nothing. The moment lingered heavily, the scale and degree of the damage difficult to process.

“We’ll have the lesson over here,” Liette said, finally. She summoned the pilgrims, who found seats near the edge of the viewing platform. “Here, in the shadow of what was Omm’s greatest test, we will discuss the sixth step on his journey.”

As always, Sparr tuned out the lecture, choosing instead to study the vista. Foot paths had been carved into the side of the canyon, allowing the locals a way not only to cross, but also to access the sublevels of those towers closest to the edge. Either through erosion and collapse, or the work of the inhabitants, scores of openings now allowed access to what once would have been building systems, storage, or underground passages. Sparr spotted telltale traces of smoke wafting from several of them. At least a few were occupied.

Further overhead, the towers themselves were gradually being dismantled. From a precariously-supported scaffolding hundreds of feet off the ground, two people cut away sheets of glass from a tower. As Sparr watched, the two finished separating one such sheet from the window that it once protected, then slid it back inside. On a lower level of the same structure, a crew was flinging out handfuls of wire, pipes, sheet metal, and fittings of all sorts. When they paused, another crew on the ground hauled the pile away for sorting.

Trying not to attract too much notice, Sparr glanced at his communicator. Just like the last one hundred times he had checked, the device located no radio signals of any sort. He groaned in frustration. The city was so massive it would take days or weeks even to walk it. There were no lights, no radio waves, no sign that any of the technology that had been used to build and sustain it survived. When Liette summoned him and the guards, he shuffled back, depressed and listless.

“We’ll leave in two hours,” the priestess announced. “You may visit the stalls here at the plaza. Many of them sell unique souvenirs. And there is another shopping area around the way there. You may find it more varied, although I cannot attest to the quality of the merchandise. Kern will lead a group there in five minutes.”

The pilgrims scurried off. In addition to glass merchants, craftsmen sold sculptures wrought from scrap metal of various grades. The most common were replicas of spires, followed closely by models of the airships. A few squat replicas might have been ground vehicles, although Sparr had yet to see any of the real thing. There were also finer works, highly-polished metal, glass, and stone that Sparr found beautiful. An earnest young boy stood before a single, stunning work, both of Kaybe’s moons carved from glass spheres, hung with fine wire over the planet itself, a solid sphere of stone.

“Let’s go to the other plaza.” Lord Toph had joined him. The merchant had traveled the road to Shong many times, and no doubt was already familiar with the souvenirs. “I hear they distill a spirit from a berry which only grows in the valley. Very bitter. Very strong!” Still depressed, Sparr assented. He and Toph followed Kern, who led them from the Overlook and into the crumbling streets of central Shong.

The difference was immediately apparent. Whereas the Overlook plaza was orderly, with tidy stalls, the streets were buzzing with the chaos of everyday life. Carts loaded with scrap trundled by, pulled by men, not beasts. Drying clothes hung from lines, craftsmen hammered or polished scraps of metal, and curses outnumbered greetings. Clusters of children shot by, shrieking.

“The spirit merchant is here,” Kern said, leading the two to a shop half in the street, half in the shell of a gutted building. Slender, improbable bottles featured prominently in the street-front displays. They could only have been formed by heating sheets of glass, twisting and folding them until they resembled a bottle. Neither was like its neighbor, and neither seemed to contain the same spirit.

“Do you have the green berry spirit?” Toph asked, grinning. “I hear it makes the ladies, ah… interested.”

While Toph shopped, Sparr looked around the little square. The buildings had all been gutted, again with no sign that anything but the fabricated stone walls remained. As Sparr glumly mulled over his misfortune, a pair of children passed, singing.

Here’s the story, of a lovely lady,

Who was bringing up three very lovely girls,

All of them had hair of gold, like their mother,

The youngest one in curls…

For a moment, Sparr ignored them, children singing yet another unfamiliar, local song. Then it dawned on him, the lyrics were entirely in English. His breath caught in his throat. English featured prominently in the local language, but so did words and phrases in Spanish, Mandarin, and French. The children had heard the song somewhere. Sparr darted after them.

“Hey,” he said, trying not to seem threatening. At well over six feet tall, this was sometimes a challenge. The children, a boy and a girl of around seven or eight years of age, stared at him with wide eyes. “I like that song you were singing.”

Still, the two only stared back at Sparr. The boy took half a step back, ready to flee. He was about to lose them. He began to sing, trying to recollect as best he could.

“There is a story, offfff a lady,

Who had three girlssssss to raise,

They all had blonde hair, and,

Some curls”

“That’s not it!” the girl shrieked accusingly.

“What?” said Sparr, feigning indignation. “That’s it, I’m sure.”

“Noooo!” She stamped her foot. “You’re dumb.”

“Prove it,” Sparr taunted.

“No,” the girl said. “I’m not taking you there!”

Where, Sparr wondered. He was about to try another approach when the boy spoke up.

“A token.”

“No, two!” the girl said. “One each.”

Sparr wasn’t about to argue. “Okay.” He fished two tokens from his pocket, flashing them for the children to see. “One each.”

“Okay!” the girl said, suddenly cheerful. She tore off, the boy in tow.

Sparr waved at Kern, who had been observing the exchange with wry interest. “Ten minutes!” he promised, before taking up the chase.

The pair led him back to the lip of the canyon, then down one of the foot paths he had seen from the Overlook. Checking over her shoulder periodically to make sure Sparr was keeping up, the girl went several hundred meters along the path, took a switchback turn, then darted another hundred meters. Here, what had once been the foundation of a tower had been cracked open. The children leapt through the gap, followed by Sparr, for whom the opening was considerably more difficult to navigate.

It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the light. The room was barren, except for one corner which apparently saw routine use as a fireplace. Several heavy stone blocks had been positioned around it in a semi-circle. Circular holes both in the floor and ceiling suggested that ductwork or heavy pipes must once have passed vertically between the levels. The metal had long ago been scavenged.

“This way,” the girl said. Dodging the holes, she led him first through an oversized doorway on the far side of the room, then another. Only indirect sunlight peeking its way through from some higher floor prevented the rooms from being completely dark.

“Here, dummy.” The girl pointed to a glossy rectangle affixed to the wall. To Sparr it looked like little more than a glass square. The girl touched it near the top in a practiced motion.

From some hidden speaker, music played.

Give us any chance we’ll take it

Read us any rule we’ll break it

We’re going to make our dreams come true

Doing it our way

Sparr was stunned. Though not familiar, the song, like the one he had overheard the children singing, was in English. He was hearing an ancient Earth song, played from a still-functioning machine.

“Not that one!” the boy chided. “Here!” Practically shoving the girl aside, he ran his fingers over the dark panel. Again, music erupted.

Here’s the story, of a lovely lady,

Who was bringing up three very lovely girls,

All of them had hair of gold, like their mother,

The youngest one in curls…

“Seeeeee!” the girl said, tossing her hair. Both children held out their hands.

Astounded, Sparr paid each one token. His head was spinning. However bizarre, he had at last found a functioning piece of Earth technology. He ran his own hand over the panel, pressing first at the top.

“Top seventies TV theme songs!” a voice said, swelling with exaggerated enthusiasm. The panel must be a touch screen, Sparr decided, although a damaged one. He pressed his finger farther down the side.

Boy the way Glenn Miller played,

Songs that made the Hit Parade,

Guys like us we had it made,

Those were the days…

Sparr tried touching every location on the screen, carefully moving his finger no more than one centimeter at a time in between presses. The speaker only played music. He cursed. The device had power and data storage. It had to be connected to something. Desperately, Sparr checked his communicator.

Short-range radio waves nearby, five meters down.

Sparr leapt up. While he had been absorbed by the panel, the children had left. He hardly cared. Retracing his steps he found a stairwell, scrambled one flight down, and located the room directly beneath where he had just been. Here he found several of the glossy panels, none of which responded to his touch.

Archaic terminal, his communicator stated. Low power mode active.

“Activate display,” Sparr said.

Done, the communicator indicated. Most panels damaged.

One panel, though, came to life, its display barely visible through the coating of dust. Sparr almost wept. He wiped away the grime.

Component replication mode, the display read. It had two options: ‘component library’, and ‘manual key’. Sparr touched the first.

Component library null, the display read.

“What the fuck?” Sparr muttered. He pressed the second option, ‘manual key’.

Enter manual key.

“What manual key?” Sparr asked, but the machine either had no voice recognition capability, or couldn’t understand his request. He saw no keyboard, optical lip reader, pointer, or other input device. Was the machine damaged in more ways than were evident? Frustration began to set in. He was so close. Finding this one working machine had been a fluke. The idea that it might do nothing at all was depressing. He sagged to the floor.

There, in front of Sparr, was a rectangular slot. From his crouched position, Sparr inspected it. The slot was directly below the screen. It was roughly three centimeters wide, and less than half a centimeter thick. Below, he spotted a tray, slightly larger. He ran his fingers around the edge. Was it for some sort of vintage storage device? Sparr couldn’t remember enough about Earth technology at the time of the colonization. In any event, would a storage device be referred to as a manual key?

Overhead, the light was fading. Several floors down, even with the gaping ductwork holes, Sparr could barely see. He would have to leave soon, or risk getting lost. The two tokens he had spent to find the machine would have been wasted.

Tokens. Sparr pulled one from his pocket and examined it. As he had noticed before, each token was almost infinitely complex, with multiple layers. Each layer consisted of multiple sections, and each section had a different depth, shape, and details along its edge. Each was just under three centimeters in diameter.

Enter manual key.

Numbly, Sparr placed the token into the slot. A whir of hidden machinery reached his ear, almost too soft to detect. The screen refreshed.

Soft mineral drill housing, front assembly.

An image appeared, a cutaway view of what must be a drill housing with the front portion highlighted. Beneath the image was a statement and a question.

Stored to component library. Fabricate now?

Both yes and no showed as options. Sparr jabbed at yes.

This time the mechanical sound was unmistakable. Sparr heard the hiss of what could have been liquid, or highly compressed gas. A low rumble could be felt more than heard. After no more than thirty seconds, a previously-unseen panel opened to the left. In the space beyond lay what could only be the front housing of a soft mineral drill, still smoking from its rapid fabrication. The token reappeared, dropping into the tray with a rattle.

“Holy shit,” Sparr gasped. He had no need of a drill housing, but the discovery was monumental. The tokens adopted as currency on Kaybe were, in fact, manufacturing specifications stamped into near-indestructible discs. What’s more, at least one colonist-era machine still existed capable of fabricating the components. Sparr dug out a different token and fed it into the machine.

Hydraulic coupler for tilling/seeding expander.

Sparr studied the new image, which showed a piece of farming equipment, and the exact placement of this subcomponent within it.

Stored to library. Unable to fabricate: inadequate resources.

Frantically, Sparr fed one disc after another into the machine, hoping for something useful. There were parts for ventilation systems, fasteners for assembling storage containers, a heating element for an oven, reinforced corner bricks for construction, and an axle housing for what was either a trailer or a vehicle. Only something called a Universal Electrical Bus Current Adapter showed any promise for building a radio. Sparr fabricated one, then with the last shreds of light to guide him, returned to the surface.

He emerged to chaos.

Almost as soon as he climbed into the canyon, Sparr was stampeded by a throng of locals fleeing into the myriad cracks and openings that lined it. They cursed him, pushing by desperately. “Hide!” an aging woman with wide, fantic eyes shouted, before plunging by. A youth elbowed him painfully. Only by lowering his head and pushing forward like a bull could he make any progress.

Once at the top, Sparr looked either for Kern or Toph among the panicked crowd. By now most of the locals had found shelter, either in the subterranean rooms along the canyon, or in the gutted hulks of the buildings themselves. He saw several people laying on the ground, unmoving, either dead or paralyzed. Only a few merchants trying to secure their wares were still in the open. “What is it?” Sparr shouted at one.

“A demon machine!” he cried. “Leave me be!”

Radio waves detected, his implant reported.

Sparr stormed forward, desperate to reach the caravan. He rounded the end of the canyon before doubling back toward the Overlook. That’s when he saw it.

The demon machine was an Alliance drone. The high-pitched whine of its thrusters was unmistakable, as was its simple, barrel-like shape, ringed with sensors. As Sparr entered the plaza, the flying weapon locked onto one of the princes, fleeing in terror. In a space of less than three seconds it caught him. Sparr watched helplessly as the drone shot the prince with a stunwire. The youth collapsed immediately, his muscles paralyzed by a potent electrical shock. The drone hovered over him, scanning the inert body.

Sparr scrambled beneath the last wagon in the caravan, gasping with fatigue and fear. His eyes swept the ground around him. Several drivers and guards had already been stunned, as had any princes and pilgrims who had tried to flee. Their bodies littered the plaza. One wagon groaned forward, its draybeasts agitated, but unguided. Sparr could hear the screams of the pilgrims and maidens that must be cowering inside it, and the other wagons. He peeked out, trying to get a fix on the drone.

“Haaaaa, fuuuuuuuuk!” Tuck burst from cover, dashing toward the drone with his short sword raised. The device detected him immediately and, with alarming ease, shot the boy with a stunwire. Tuck dropped with a thud. The drone, however, failed to detect Kern, who had waited for just such a distraction. The guard captain charged forward. Before the drone could react, he landed a powerful blow against its side, then another against one of the four thrusters. The drone lurched away crazily, briefly out of control. Kern pursued it.

Sparr counted the wagons, then sprinted, leaping into the back of the one he hoped was Liette’s. It was. The occupants shrieked at him, crazed with fear.

“What is it?” Liette demanded. “What is that thing?”

“My magic kit!” Sparr screamed. “Where is it?”

Liette stared back with hollow eyes. “What? What is happening?”

“My magic kit!” he repeated.

Liette said nothing, her eyes wide with terror.

“There!” It was the chef, Silla, who he hadn’t noticed earlier. She was clutching a cleaver in one hand, pointing under one of the seats with the other. “Your bag!”

Sparr dove under the seat, clawing at the row of crates and sacks stored beneath. His hand found the distinctive fabric. As he yanked it toward him, a new chorus of screams erupted behind him. The wagon lurched as the normally docile draybeasts spooked. The contents of the bag spilled out.

There it was! Sparr spotted his pistol among the energy bars, water pouches, and first-aid kits. He clutched at it, doing his best to regain his feet. The screams were coming from the wagon behind them. When Sparr peered through the canvas, he spotted the drone torching the other wagon’s cover. He crouched, aimed the pistol, and fired.

The reaction was immediate. The machine spun, sparks emitting from its body, and from one of the thrusters. It shot toward Sparr, who stumbled back into the wagon.

“Shit!” he said. There was no time to change ammunition, and in any event, Sparr was certain he had nothing that would be more effective against the armored drone.

The drone fired a stunwire, but perhaps thrown off by the damage to its thruster, missed. Sparr fired again. The drone shuddered, but flew closer. It wouldn’t miss a second time.

“Fuuuuuuuuuck!” Silla lunged at the drone, cleaver raised. She stabbed it into the drone, wedging the blade into a ventilation port just above one of the thrusters. The chef stumbled to the ground. The drone turned, seeking the new threat, but now, with two thrusters damaged, lost control. As Sparr watched in relief, the machine lurched across the plaza, spinning faster and faster. With a tremendous shattering sound it crashed into the glass merchant’s stall.

Wary, exhausted, and near broken by the last two hours of discovery and threats, Sparr jumped from the wagon. The drone spun on the ground, unable to fly, but still alive. Sparr picked up a timber from the shattered stall. Only after he administered fifteen or twenty blows did the thing finally grind to a halt. A gout of flame shot from one of the damaged thrusters.

Sparr moaned, half in shock. In the space of just a few minutes, he had learned something he had been eager to know for months. The Odysseus had survived whatever had befallen the ship prior to his escape. The Alliance mission was intact. They were on the surface somewhere.

And they were hunting him.

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