“Cooper, Waeber.” Everard Locke stood as he called their names. “Let’s pack up.”
Both boys responded with eagerness. “Do they need more help, sir?” Cooper asked.
“Not as such,” Everard said. “They’ve completed the initial assessment, and it looks suspicious to them. We’re going to take part in the investigation.”
Earlier in the day, a rider from Zenith Company had come to report a landslide blocking one of the side roads off the eastern patrol route. General Terenti had dispatched Polestar Company and the Sky-wind school to assist with clearing the road.
When they emerged into the rear courtyard, they found a petite rider leaning against the fender of the staff car. “So you were the second messenger, Fiola Tuovali-Guslin?” Everard said.
“Yes, sir,” replied the girl. “I’m not much use for the cleanup, so I volunteered to bring the message instead.”
“You can tell us more details while we drive.” Everard surveyed the courtyard. “We’re only waiting on General Terenti and Elder Anzor.” But almost before the words had left his mouth, the general appeared at the rear entrance. Everard called out, “Any word on David’s ETA, Sam?”
“On his way,” said Sam Terenti. “He won’t loiter, not when his daughter is out there dealing with a suspicious landslide.”
“There’s nothing like a personal interest to motivate people to action,” Everard agreed.
Terenti shifted his focus to Fiola. “You’re so young to be out on patrol, child. How old are you?”
“Not quite fifteen, sir,” Fiola replied.
“And your parents approved it?”
“My parents are deceased, sir. My guardian approved it. I’m of the Sky-wind school. The master of the school is my guardian.”
Terenti bent his neck. “I’m sorry, child. I put my foot right in it. So your guardian is the famous Corporal Taivas, is that right? She’s very young to have guardianship over you.”
“Our uncle, Axel Taivas, shares guardianship,” Fiola said, “but when my parents died, Uncle Axel was in the hospital and unable to perform the duties of a guardian. He was extremely ill for some time, and Sanna is very responsible.”
“I should say so!” Terenti exclaimed. “I’ve read her file. Ah, David is here.”
The territorial elder was almost running. “I’m here, I’m here,” he panted. “Let’s not dawdle any longer on my account. What’s this you say about a suspicious landslide, then?”
After they piled into the back of the staff car, Everard told Fiola, “Describe it as you saw it.”
The girl nodded. “We arrived to back up Zenith Company at 1120 hours. They had established a base and had started moving rubble to a ravine closer to the main road. We pitched in to help, and by 1200 hours we had cleared the road to its first bend, about twelve yards. Then Sanna asked if I could smell anything strange. I couldn’t, but Gamble, the new student, he said it smelled sickly-sweet. Sanna told Kass to persuade the air away from us, and once Kass had the air moving, we could see the traces of mist lifting off the rocks. By the time I left, they hadn’t uncovered the source, but I think they must have been close.”
“It doesn’t sound like you’ll need to confirm it, Shy,” Everard said to his driver. “We’ve gone beyond suspicion now.”
“How do you figure?” David Anzor asked.
Before Everard could answer, Terenti said, “Corporal Taivas has a long history fighting the Decay, for such a young soldier. She knows the signs. I’ve been expecting this. We’ve been too long without incident.”
“Can it ever be too long without the Decay encroaching?” David shot back.
“You know what I mean, David,” Sam retorted. “We’re blessed that it happened this time while Father’s group is with us, and that he has a specialist amongst his students. She probably saved at least two or three of ours from wandering into the radius of influence unawares. She definitely saved them from breathing in the mist. You remember the Equinox Company incident.”
David Anzor nodded with his lips compressed.
“Sir?” Cooper said tentatively.
“Go ahead, Cooper,” Everard said.
“Thanks, sir. What is the Equinox Company incident?”
“Sawtooth Ridge used to have four ranger companies. Equinox Company responded to a missing persons report. The son of a local rancher had gone out to check their fences and hadn’t come home after two days. They were combing the wilderness outside that fence line when two of their soldiers passed unawares through a cloud of the mist. They went berserk and slaughtered more than half of their company before anyone could stop them. The missing man was found near where they had been contaminated. He had passed beyond infection to seed the Decay. Those who survived the attack by their two comrades suffered varying degrees of infection themselves and had to be sent to the capital for treatment and rehabilitation.”
Terenti and Anzor both shook their heads darkly. “It was a horrible day,” Anzor said. “We lost so many good people.”
“Not today, though,” Terenti said. “Not today. Turn into that track up there, Calder.”
Shy obeyed, turning off the main road onto a narrow dirt road, hardly more than three bare ruts in the tall grass. The staff car bumped and bucked over the ruts. Above the noise, Everard said, “Tell me about this newest student, this Gamble.”
He had meant the question for Fiola, but from his corner in the very back, Mica said, “Isaakki Gamble, age twenty, former student of the Guslin school. Human body sympathy with an active-principle specialization in the senses.”
“Like Ruia Dawes-Mitzou on Cora’s staff,” Everard mused. “Handy.”
“Family mostly composed of mineral or plant sympathists, engaged in the Cavern agricultural scene,” Mica continued. “He was already on the verge of quitting the Guslin school when Stolle Guslin was arrested. Kass Ulim confirms this. I would place him at five foot ten inches, one hundred fifty pounds. Blond hair, blue eyes, manner slightly sullen at first but later less so.”
“Did you interrogate him?” Everard asked, amused.
“No, sir. It was a neutral conversation in front of witnesses,” replied Mica.
Fiola said softly, “Many of whom could be excused for mistaking the conversation for an interrogation.”
“Linnie wanted to be sure he was what she considers all right,” Mica protested.
Shy parked the staff car alongside a personnel carrier. All around them, soldiers hurried back and forth with an air of tense purpose. Everard found Cora where he had expected her: in the middle of it all, sorting through the logistical needs. She spared him a distracted smile. “We have it mapped now,” she said. She knew what Everard needed for his investigation. “It’s older and more developed than we expected at first. Sanna got it immobilized so the exploratory team could get an accurate measurement.”
“That’s unfortunate news in more than one respect,” Everard said as he bent over the map. “If it’s that developed, the chances of finding any identifiable remains are small. Any idea yet how deep it goes?”
“Not yet,” said the man at Cora’s left. Major Phillip Marva was a man of distinctive appearance. The rippled scar that covered his jaw and neck on the right side was a memento of his surviving an attack by the Decay in his childhood. “We have a team out with Sergeant Nazarian and his mechanic friend, testing out a radar gadget that might give us the answers we need.”
“I doubt I need to ask,” Sam Terenti said, “but we are talking about a human-seeded source here, aren’t we?”
Major Marva said, “Yes, but we’re puzzled by that. No missing persons reports have come in for a while, to my knowledge.”
“How long is ‘a while,’ Major? If we have a mature source, then we may need to go back to reports filed months ago,” Everard pointed out.
Sam Terenti said, “We have no outstanding missing persons reports at present. The last one was well over a year ago, and that was resolved. The girl had run off to the capital to marry her boyfriend after her parents refused their consent. My assistant spoke to the girl in person to verify that she was alive and well.”
“An Outsider, perhaps,” said David Anzor.
“It’s possible. Not many travelers would follow this cow-track, though, Elder Anzor,” replied Marva.
“Legitimate travelers,” Sam Terenti countered.
Everard said, “Have you established a usable observation point yet?”
Marva beckoned. “This way.” He led them out of the command tent to a slope that rose steeply to a small shelf of rock. “This is the best vantage point we’ve found. You can’t see much of the Decay, with it mostly hidden in that cleft there,” and he pointed, “but you can follow the work. I’ll leave you to it, sirs.” He descended, half walking and half jumping from rock to rock.
“Mica,” Everard said, handing his son a headset, “give this to Sanna. I’ve set it to channel 21. Have her broadcast to me so I can see what she sees.”
Mica’s descent was less rapid and assured than Marva’s. Everard watched him clamber down the rough slope to the point where the uniformed figure with the black-and-white armband was prowling along the edge of the crevice. The transaction took only seconds, after which Everard heard Sanna say in his ear, “Good afternoon, Father Locke.”
“Good afternoon to you, Corporal Taivas,” he replied. “Latest report?”
“The perimeter is all marked out, sir, and Corporal Poole has drilled down in three places to measure depth. The results are… inconclusive so far, I think you’d say, but I get the sense that this penetrates farther down than it looks. Corporal Poole’s latest measurement puts it at nine and a half meters at the center, or as near as we can guess the center to be. I think it goes farther down.”
“Sir, I froze it, but at the perimeter, it was still able to attempt an attack.”
“The core wasn’t affected by your sympathy,” Everard said.
“That’s how it seems, sir. It has to be far enough away from me that it can maintain a viable temperature.”
“Is it possible that we’re dealing with more than one source?”
Sanna answered, “Corporal Poole says not, sir. The samples are identical.”
General Terenti, with his microphone off, asked Everard, “Who is Poole?”
“Cora’s mechanic. Something of a mad scientist in his spare time. He develops and builds all kinds of useful devices,” Everard replied.
In his ear, he heard Sanna chuckle. “That’s what he said you call him. He says our best bet might be incendiaries.”
“I believe him, but not even he is qualified to start setting off explosions in an avalanche-prone area. Tell him to restrain himself. Zenith Company has their own specialist in that regard.”
“Yes, sir. We have Specialist Hideon with us.”
“That sounds like a dangerous and destructive combination, Corporal: you, Poole, and Hideon. Where is Hideon? I don’t see him.” Everard raised the magnification on his monocular lens and surveyed the area around Sanna.
She stepped over a chunk of shattered rock and bent down close to the ground. Suddenly the broadcast function took over, and Everard was looking down a slanted crevice at the soles of two boots. “He’s checking the stability of this crack,” Sanna said, “to see if it will direct the blast in the way he wants.”
Over Sanna’s end of the connection, Everard heard the man shout, “Out! Out!” Sanna dove into the crevice and grabbed Hideon by the ankles. She dragged him far enough backwards that he could worm his way out. Then Everard was looking at the grimy, sweaty face of the specialist, who said, “That’s aggressive! Damned Decay was trying to get around the edges of my light, if you’d believe it!” He reached up and switched off his headlamp. “By the Only One, Corporal Taivas, you sure are strong! Feels like I was just dragged over a cheese grater.”
“It didn’t touch you?” Sanna asked.
“No. It came closer than I liked, that’s all.”
“Is it warm underground? Hideon is sweating,” Everard asked. He listened as Sanna transmitted his question to the specialist.
“That’s one factor we haven’t checked,” Hideon admitted. “Hey, Poole, any of these gadgets you make include a thermometer?”
Cora’s mechanic, Jumeau Poole, crouched down beside the other two. “I might have something,” he said idly as he reached inside one of his many pockets and produced a black note case. He pulled one of the tabs loose from one side of the slim case, pressed it between his thumb and forefinger, and threw it down the crevice. After a few seconds, something resembling a calculator attached to the other side of the note case beeped. “Four degrees warmer than the aboveground temperature,” he said.
Hideon said, “The probe part’s disposable? That’s nice.”
“Corporal Taivas,” Everard said, “have your squad withdraw. Then see how cold you can make that crevice.”
“Yes, sir.” Sanna relayed the instructions to Poole and Hideon. When they and the others were well away, Sanna reached out with both hands into the void. “Father Locke, this might damage the headset.”
“Acknowledged. Go ahead.”
At once, the air in front of her whitened with fog. Frost thickened on the edges and floor of the crevice. Then, even from up on the observation ledge, Everard heard a crack like a gunshot. The broadcast function of the lens halted suddenly. Everard pulled his headset off, but with his unaided eyes he was unable to pierce the heavy fog in his search for Sanna. He did see other personnel gathering toward the area. Cora was one of them. Everard tried to signal to her, but she was too focused on the thick fog.
His headset beeped, so he put it back on.
“Lieutenant Perdita Jasper, requesting permission to speak,” came a familiar voice in his ear.
“Permission granted. What happened, Perdita?”
“Not sure yet. Coralie was startled and ran out without her headset. I’m coming up on the site now. Yes, Warhite, that fog makes it certain that Corporal Taivas is involved in whatever it was. We are trying to ascertain what it was. Who is involved can wait.”
“Taivas was lowering the temperature in a crevice where the Decay was particularly aggressive,” Everard said. “I told her to see how cold she could freeze it.”
“That was a careless experiment,” Perdita replied. “Her sympathy hasn’t been tested for its maximum output yet. Coralie, here.”
A soft rustle followed, and then Cora’s voice came over the headset. “Everard? It’s intensely cold over here. What is Sanna up to?”
He explained his part in the incident and asked, “What can you see?”
“Nothing but fog,” she admitted, “but I sensed a sudden collapse in the slope over here.”
“Give her a shout,” Perdita was saying in the background.
Without thinking that the microphone was at her mouth, Cora bellowed, “Corporal Sanna Taivas, report!”
Everard removed his earpiece and rubbed his ear. Sam Terenti and David Anzor, also listening in on the command channel, were doing likewise. Everard flipped the lens on its hinge and put the headset on the other side of his head in time to hear Cora say in relief, “She’s coming.”
“Broadcast, please, Cora.”
His lens switched over to Cora’s view to show Sanna emerging from the fog. “Well,” she said, “that had more of an effect than I expected. Sorry to alarm you, Mother Coralie, but I think I can answer the depth question now. Kass, can you persuade this to all move elsewhere?” She waved a hand at all the fog.
The air around the site began to move, almost imperceptibly at first but building to a stiff breeze that tugged at Everard’s coat. The fog drifted on the breeze. In its absence, everyone could see a sizable hole in the ground.
“Was that fissure caused only by the sudden change in temperature?”
“There was a crack already,” Sanna said. “Now it collapsed. You can see… well, you’ll see in a few seconds.” She went to the edge and pointed downward. “See?”
Cora joined her. Broadcasted to Everard’s monocular lens was a shaft more than fifteen meters deep, full of frozen Decay at the bottom. Portions of the Decay were frozen in tentacle-like formations, halted in the act of reaching upwards.
“I’ve never seen the like,” breathed David.
“I believe we’ve uncovered the main source,” said Sanna.
Others came to the shaft’s mouth to stare down at the spectacle in awe and disgust. Major Marva spat into the hole. His younger brother Timour, drill sergeant for Polestar Company, came and stared for several moments before kicking a stone into the depths.
“The question now is, how far do we want to take the investigation, and how long do we want to delay disposal?” Everard said. “If we opt for Hideon’s incendiaries, we bury whatever evidence remains. But is it worth the risk of trying to retrieve evidence from that?”
“Sir,” Waeber said, “we have to dispose of it. You can’t sense what it’s doing…”
Everard turned to find Waeber pale and nauseated. “What do you sense, Waeber?”
“Coercion, sir. It’s trying to pull people toward it. See them? They find it disgusting, but they stay to stare.”
General Terenti said over the command channel, “Set up a perimeter around that hole. It’s too far inside the radius. Get everybody away.”
Everard watched the crowd scatter to a safer distance. “It’s strong,” he mused. “Even incapacitated physically, it’s still able to exert its coercion that strongly…”
“It answers your question, though, doesn’t it, sir?” Major Marva replied. “That thing has to go.”
“Agreed. We can speculate afterward about the cause. Tell Hideon to be thorough.” Everard turned off his microphone. “Let’s get down from here before they start blasting.”