A crowd had gathered against the cordon that blocked the street, but they parted for Father Everard Locke’s party. Several of them were young women who, as soon as they saw Glory and Dinah, surged forward to surround them, only to be pushed back by soldiers.
One of the soldiers guarding the cordon stepped forward to greet them. “The surrounding neighborhood has been evacuated. Since we arrived, no one has entered or exited the building in question. This is going to be difficult to resolve with the buildings so close-packed around here.”
“Thank you, Aug,” said Father Locke. “You’ve been an immense help. Were you able to identify its seed-type?”
“No, we located it and decided analysis could wait until the area was clear.”
At Everard’s side, a lanky young soldier declared, “Cousin Aug, is that you? I couldn’t recognize you in all that gear!”
“And I almost couldn’t recognize you,” the soldier answered, “as tall as you’ve grown, Rusza Tate. Once you’re in all this gear, nobody will recognize you either. They’ll think you’re a real adult!”
“Do I get to wear the gear, Unc– Father Locke?”
Everard permitted himself a rare, thin smile. “All of you will wear it, at least for a short time.” He led the group of seven accused through the cordon to a tent, where sets of containment and disposal suits awaited them. He too had his own gear to don, so the young people were checked and adjusted by the staff members. More army staff continued to accumulate in the area.
“Glory Glazmere.” Father Locke spoke in an unyielding voice. “Put on the mask.”
“But I can’t breathe well in it,” the young woman replied.
“You’ll get used to it.”
She obeyed, albeit ungraciously. She sidled over to lean her arm against Mica’s arm.
That young man seemed not to notice. He stared at the floor in a daze until he heard the command to put on the safety goggles that were the last piece of his equipment.
Dinah Aldine gravitated to Glory’s other side. Seeing that Father Locke was ahead of them and could not observe, she pulled the mask down to hang around her neck. “These people,” she whispered, “who do they think we are, ordering us around like this? As if it weren’t bad enough to put us through this farce of a hearing.”
Glory nodded. “I wonder what they did to Mica. He’s being really strange.”
“And why are they treating that Outsider like she’s someone important?”
Both girls turned to look at Helena Jeru, who followed at the end of their procession. She had not been compelled to wear the ugly, uncomfortable gear. Beside her, with an arm around her waist, Elder Rosamund Fulke was speaking softly into her ear. Then the elder shifted her attention suddenly, fixing her gaze on the two young women. “Put your masks back on and leave them on,” she commanded.
Both girls shuddered oddly. They obeyed without comment.
The procession halted behind a large, ornate building in a row of old, ornate buildings. Father Locke beckoned for Helena Jeru to advance to their head. “I won’t make you go in,” he said. “I have heard enough of your story for that. What I would like from you is far less demanding.” With another gesture, he summoned a pair of soldiers forward, bid them open the cellar doors in the open stairwell to the right of the rear entrance, and led Helena forward. “Can you confirm that no one is down there from this distance?”
Helena stepped forward to the brink of the top step and gazed downward. She waited, as if listening for a noise. Then she crouched down as if she had lost all strength in her legs. “No. Someone is down there.” When she lifted her face to Father Locke, everyone could see the sickly pallor of her skin. “Late-stage infection. There is no going back.”
Father Locke exhaled sharply. “Thank you, Miss Jeru. Retreat. We’ll deal with it from here.” After he had watched Rosamund Fulke guide the young assistant away, Father Locke turned to speak in close conference with Captain Yeardley for several minutes. The end of the quiet conference brought Everard back to stand in front of the seven accused. “It is time for you to see the consequences of your fellowship’s actions. Do not remove any of your protective equipment for any reason, or we cannot guarantee your safety.” With Rusza close at his heels, Father Locke descended the cellar steps.
The other soldiers escorted the accused after him. Glory and Dinah went behind Stalworth and Mica. They walked down a narrow hallway with plaster walls. Glory passed a stack of crates, looked a second time at the labels, and exclaimed, “What’s going on? Why are we here? Dinah, this is our Association building!”
Everard stopped outside a set of double doors, where two soldiers stood guard. “Open the doors,” he commanded. “We are here, Miss Glazmere, because this is here.”
The seven shuffled forward reluctantly to look within. One of the soldiers turned on his flashlight and played it over the room’s darkened interior.
“Edmund, what type?” asked Father Locke.
“Animal-seeded,” answered the soldier. “Mammalian.”
“We have indications that someone is down here. Have you noticed anything?”
“There’s a noise. Listen, there it goes.”
Everyone went silent, so that a dull rasping noise became obvious. It was an inorganic noise, like stone rubbed on stone, with almost regular rhythm. The flashlight beam showed a translucent, ruddy-hued mass in the middle of the windowless room. The mass quivered suddenly.
The young people all stepped back in haste. Father Locke stepped forward. “We must risk more light.” He stretched out his hand to feel along the wall just inside the door.
Light blazed in what should have been a storage room. Glory shrieked. “Grandma!”
In the far left portion of the mass of Decay, submerged up past her waist, an elderly woman held a jeweler’s file in one hand and a ruby-tinted stone in the other. Her back was toward the door, and she went on filing down the stone as if unaware of the sudden presence of light or her granddaughter’s scream. Wisps of her gray hair had come loose from its bun and hung around her ears.
“Milla Glazmere.” Father Locke’s stern voice echoed in the room. “Can you hear me?”
She did not respond.
“Milla Glazmere,” he said again, “answer me. Your grandchildren are here.”
The elderly woman muttered something. She kept repeating the same indistinct mutter until the other soldier, a young woman with a black-and-white armband on her sleeve, edged closer to listen. “Sir,” she reported, “it sounds like she’s saying It’s all for them.”
“Back away, Private,” said Everard in a tense voice. “Do not provoke her.” The reason for his tension was obvious to them all. Just as the young private had reported her findings, the elderly woman had turned her head a few degrees toward the entrance. A ruddy-hued, gelatinous substance was bubbling between her lips. It was clotted on her eyelashes. It seeped down like tears on her cheeks. As they stared at her, she began to rub one ear with her fingers. In a few more seconds, a thin seep of that same substance began to trickle from her ear. When she turned farther, her entire upper body fell sideways, severed from her lower body, and was instantly engulfed by the Decay.
All of the young people cried out. The two soldiers herded them away from the open doorway. “We need to act quickly,” said Edmund. “This will cause a fresh seeding, and the second will be more dangerous than the first.”
“I can delay it,” said the private.
“Private?” said Father Locke. “How long since you enlisted?”
“Three months,” said the private, “but I have dealt with the Decay before I enlisted.”
“Thermal,” she responded. “Cold affinity.”
Father Locke gazed for a moment at the private’s black-and-white armband. “Slow it down, then,” he commanded at last. “Your name, Private?”
“Taivas, sir, Sanna Taivas.”
“From Ice District?”
“Yes, sir, but North Territory before that. I was of the Sky-wind village.”
Father Locke nodded to her. “I see.” To the young people, he said, “Follow me quickly. Don’t delay.” He led them in a retreat up the plaster hallway and out the cellar door just ahead of a wave of bitterly cold air. It was so cold that fog billowed where the cold indoors air met the hot outdoors.
“But Grandma,” said Glory Glazmere in a stunned voice.
“You saw for yourself what happened to her,” replied Everard harshly. “There can be no return from an infection so far advanced.”
“But, Grandma,” the young woman repeated.
“Listen to me, all of you,” Father Locke demanded. “All of you chose city service for your obligatory four years. That choice has kept you ignorant of many truths. Today you have seen what the territories face every day. You have seen the horrors they fight, horrors you invited into this city.” He called out to Aug Yeardley. “There has been a second seeding, a human seeding. Private Taivas has bought us some time with her sympathy. How are the preparations going?”
“We separated as much of the building as we can, but the adjoining buildings will take damage.”
“That no longer matters, as long as the people have been cleared out. Head down now and join your friend. I don’t need to tell you your own business.” Everard Locke walked back to the command center tent, followed by Rusza and the seven accused.
They were scarcely under its shade when an explosion shattered the windows of the quarantined building up to the second floor. Soldiers with water and air sympathies immediately began persuading their respective elements, until a whirlwind streaked with thick mist swirled around the building. Flames glowed through the mist.
“Our Association,” said Dinah Aldine in mournful tones.
Three figures walked out of the fog and mist. Edmund, Aug, and Private Taivas came to report at the command center. “I’ve never seen that happen before,” Aug laughed. “That was amazing. We don’t get many with cold affinity where we come from.”
“What happened?” Father Locke asked.
“You know what happens if you drop a chunk of ice into hot oil? It was something like that, but bigger. I hope this girl gets the chance to spend a tour in our neighborhood after she finishes her training. She’s useful to have on hand.”
“Keeps her head and does what she must,” Edmund added.
“High praise, Private. I’ll want to talk with you later. In the meanwhile, I need to take these children back to the Government Center.”