In the humid closeness of the jungle, Maccani Moor noticed in himself an impulse to stay bunched up with his fellow Sky-wind students. The four northerners and he were the most vulnerable members of the convoy. Because of her duties, Sanna was unable to stay close at hand all the time. Maccani understood this, but understanding did nothing to ease his nerves.
They were on their way to an identified hazard, a source of the Decay growing within South Territory itself. A regular patrol had spotted danger signs, so Company G’s scout, Corporal Tezelin, had gone in to confirm and assess. He had returned with not only a confirmation, but a high-level hazard assessment. That caused the authorities to assign a second disposal company, Company C, to the mission.
“You lot, listen close,” shouted Captain Yeardley. “West side is ours. We set up a perimeter, dig a fire break, and prep the ground. Just a typical mission.” One of the Company C commanders was shouting similar orders to his men at the same time, as the two companies diverged in the thick growth. “Jude, how close are we right now?”
Tezelin was up a tree, searching. He yelled, “Twelve yards, maybe eleven.”
“We have confirmation of multiple cores,” Haigh said. “We can’t settle for maybe here. Bish, send out one of your drones.”
One of Haigh’s men, surnamed Bishop-Osborn but called simply Bish by everyone, rolled out a small remote-controlled robot on little tank treads and steered it forward. Maccani was right behind him and was able to watch on a monitor just the size of a playing card deck as the drone rumbled through the undergrowth. The image cleared suddenly to reveal dead foliage in a broad clearing. The drone rolled forward toward a long, flattish object on the ground. Maccani groaned before he could help himself.
“Victims?” Yeardley came to look over the specialist’s shoulder too.
“Half of one, sir,” said Bish. “Lower half. Look at that.” He pressed a button on the controller, and the monitor showed a beam of brilliant white-blue light shooting out from above the camera. This light revealed a deep glade where the ground dipped low beneath the dead trees. This glade was full of the Decay. Even as they watched, the source quivered and stretched, forming something almost like a tentacle.
“It’s… it’s reaching,” Bish said in disbelief. “Toward the light, sir, it’s reaching! Not away.”
Yeardley growled at the back of his throat. Maccani saw him glance toward Haigh. “This changes things. Can you still do it, old man? You can certainly say no.”
Sanna, who was currently serving as Haigh’s combat partner, seemed to understand exactly what the question meant. “We can do it. I can slow it down.”
“Don’t dawdle,” Haigh said.
“No fear,” said Yeardley. “Bish, pull back and give us a perimeter mark to start from. Make it twice the usual.” While the specialist obeyed, Yeardley turned to the rest. “Everybody with two hands takes a shovel or an axe. One-hand Hilston, start the small burn as soon as the drone sets a mark.”
“Now, Captain,” complained Falgrim Hilston, “that puts me almost on top of the source, all by myself.”
“You won’t be as close to it as they will,” Yeardley retorted, nodding toward Haigh and Sanna. “Get ready.”
Maccani took a shovel as one was passed to him. He knew the standard procedure: dig a fire break, set a controlled burn to clear the area, then retreat so the thermal energy sympathists could incinerate the source. He had been out on two of these missions already, but never had he seen them use decoys before. He found himself digging next to Private Breton-Padbury. “Why decoys?” he asked her.
“This is a mature source,” she said. “Light doesn’t faze it. That’s our one main protection, gone. If we go near it, it will attack. So, while we make preparations, they draw its aggro away from us. Dig faster.”
Maccani had hesitated, looking in the direction Sanna had gone, but at the reminder, he went back to digging.
Yeardley, as one of the bigger men in the company, was chopping down a young tree. Between swings of the axe, he grunted, “Major, where’s… our support… team?” He shouted, “Way!” as the tree creaked. “Well, isn’t that just marvelous,” he said bitterly. “Yes, sir, I know: luck of the draw.” His first tree felled, he moved on to the next nearest. “Meanwhile, I have my best friend and my new intern dicing with death to protect us while we dig a fire break inch by inch, sir.”
A sharp thunderclap made everyone jump. “Edmund?” Yeardley said in a rising tone of anxiety. “How many?” This was said in disbelief, followed by an awed, “What happened here?”
“Sir?” Maccani asked without letting his shovel slow down, “is Master Sanna all right?”
Yeardley yelled, “Way!” again and gave his second young tree a shove with the sole of his boot for good measure. “For now, Moor, yes. They say there might be as many as two dozen cores inside this one.”
A general mutter of incredulity rose from the rest of the company. Lightning and thunder discharged simultaneously from only yards away, making Maccani’s ears ring. A wave of cold air swept through the jungle. Instinctively, Maccani said, “Ulim, push it back. Make sure it stays where they need it most.”
Kass Ulim paused in her digging to persuade the stagnant air to flow back in the direction Sanna had gone. With five trees now felled, the wind was beginning to reach down below the canopy, giving Ulim something to work with.
“Captain,” Bish said, “I hear engines. Eastward.”
“Good,” said Yeardley, “and bad at the same time. If they start on the other side, that drives a very active source, in a very agitated state, toward our people. Where is our support?”
Maccani glanced around. Fiola was digging alongside Ulim, while Gamble and Jainin were digging side by side behind them. Then Gamble dropped his shovel and cupped his hands behind his ears. He turned to the north, then eastward a little, and again northward. “Sir! Engines behind us!” Gamble pointed.
“Blessed be the Only One,” Yeardley exclaimed. “Edmund, they’re coming. Can you hold out a few more minutes?”
As if in reply, a bolt of lightning struck nearby. Gamble and Bish cried out and doubled over in pain at the instantaneous clap of thunder that shook the ground.
When the air stopped vibrating, Yeardley said dryly, “You two can stop amplifying now. Safer for both of you.”
The roar of a big engine approached from the north. Yeardley shouted, “Company, fall back!” He herded them to the clearest area they had yet made, just before a truck with a front-mounted brush cutter pushed through the undergrowth. It veered around the larger trees and mowed straight through anything smaller, starting from the work Company G had done. A plow tractor came behind it, turning over the soil in two waves.
“Start the controlled burn,” Yeardley shouted. “Taivas, you can get both of you through a small fire, can you not? Then, as soon as you see the flames, bring him through. You’ve both done more than enough on this one.”
Maccani gathered the other students on the far side of the growing fire road as the incineration squad crossed to the near side to start setting every combustible thing on fire. He heard Yeardley talking to the other company’s commander over the headset microphone. It sounded as if Company C had stalled their controlled burn in order to prevent what Yeardley had described earlier. Maccani heard Yeardley say, “I’m in your debt, Allen. Just tell me what you want.” Then Yeardley and his squad spread out, just far enough apart that their hands outstretched at their sides didn’t touch. The ground started to smolder. Fires broke out, small at first, then connecting into a fiery ring that followed the squad members as they advanced. Through the fire, Sanna and Captain Haigh came running. They were both breathing fast, both covered in dirt and dead leaves, both more than usually grim. Sanna was carrying her jacket in one hand, as if she had scooped it up off the ground as she ran.
“That ranks as the most disturbing sight I’ve seen in years,” Haigh declared as he reached his squad. His mouth, at rest, compressed into a hard, flat line.
Breton-Padbury asked, “Sir, how far do we have to retreat?”
Haigh tapped Sanna’s shoulder. “Have you enough sympathy left to shield anyone who wants to stay? I want them to see this.”
“I’ve never run low yet,” she admitted. “I have more than enough.” She turned her back on everyone, facing the scene, and stretched out her arms. The air temperature dropped rapidly. “Stay back a little from me,” she advised as fog began to build around her feet. “Kass, would you?”
Kass Ulim took up a position two steps behind Sanna and worked on persuading the cold air away from the group with a gentle breeze. Fog rolled along the ground, extinguishing the nearby flames of the controlled burn.
“Not so much,” Sanna said. “We don’t want to undo what they’re doing.”
“It’s fine,” said Haigh. “That much controlled burn will keep the incineration fires from going out of control.” He had his arms folded across his chest as he took his position next to Ulim and watched over Sanna’s shoulder. “This will keep the smoke away from us too. Oz, when they start the incineration, I want you up here, supporting Ulim.”
“I’m excited,” said Haigh’s lieutenant, Karli Donisthorpe. “More than I thought I would be. I’ve never gotten to watch from this close before. Will it really be safe, sir?”
“Taivas is strong enough.”
Through the shimmering heat and the fog, Maccani could see the incineration squad coming back along the path of the controlled burn. Yeardley shouted, “Nice touch, old man! We won’t worry about the small fires. Squad, form up!” His squad tightened the line until they were almost shoulder to shoulder. In a crescent line, the squad members advanced with their hands reaching out in front of them.
Maccani realized that their spectating group was only a few yards away from the source. He could see the stand of dead trees and the entrance to the deep glade with his own eyes. “I didn’t realize we were this close,” he said. “In the trees, it was so hard to tell.”
“You were closer than I liked,” Haigh said.
Yeardley shouted, “On your guards! It’s active!” Heat haze blurred the glade entrance. The dead trees made a startling whoof and went up in flames, popping and crackling violently. Something was undulating close to the ground, almost like a mirage but colored dark amber.
Gamble sucked in a gasp that made Maccani turn from the spectacle to check on him. “What’s that noise?” Gamble demanded.
Bish said, “Can you hear it also? It’s the sound the Decay makes before it comes to a boil. Any second now—”
“Oz,” Haigh barked.
The air sympathist on Haigh’s squad raised his hands. The wind that was already rough suddenly blew in a gale past them, swept the inferno of flames higher than the surrounding jungle canopy, and then ceased for a moment as the ground trembled. Then the wind returned to its usual gusts, and the fire raged on as before. Oz, otherwise known as Sergeant Ozlak White, wiped the back of his hand across his forehead. “Sorry, sir. I’ve never done that from this close a distance before.”
“I’m sure everyone noticed,” said Haigh. “You pulled it back. That is what matters.” He put his hand to his ear, over his headset. “Yes, Aug, I saw. We can talk about it later.”
As the incineration squad tightened their human cordon, a thin metallic screech made the incapacitation squad and the Sky-wind students flinch. Private Breton-Padbury said, “I know it’s just inorganic remains responding to the heat, sir, but at this close a distance, it just sounds so… so…”
“So much like a monstrous creature, shrieking in pain?” said Haigh. “It does. Having seen the source up close, I can agree with you on that. It looked exactly the sort of thing to make such a noise.”
Sanna was nodding her own agreement. “It was monstrous.”
It took most of an hour of intense fire to burn in the glen before the last of the source was eradicated. Even from just watching, Maccani felt worn down. He watched the incineration squad members trudge back to rejoin the rest of the company. They gravitated toward Sanna in order to cool themselves down. “That was close to the edge for me,” confessed Corporal Herrie Wake. “I felt like I was about to reach my own boiling-point. Ah, what delightful cold…”
Falgrim Hilston, his fire-retardant sling charred, rested his forehead against Sanna’s shoulder. A hiss rose from the contact. “I’m saved,” he groaned. “Thank you very much, Miss Corporal Taivas.”
“Just Corporal, if you please,” Maccani prompted him.
“One cannot call a lady just ‘Corporal’,” the man returned.
“You never call me Miss,” Corporal Wake said.
Hilston retorted, “You aren’t a lady. You’re a female.”
“Enough bickering, children,” Yeardley commanded. “Cool down in silence. Major,” he said into his microphone. “Major? Good, it still works. I did wonder, after those temperatures. Major, has the intel squad arrived yet? I want to know what caused this hazard, while the evidence is still fresh and relatively uncontaminated. I know it’s hot. Believe me, Major, I know exactly how hot the scene is. For once, we can do something about that. Corporal Taivas, how quickly can you cool down this hell-hole?”
“With people still in range, sir?” she replied without a pause.
“We can move out of range. What is out of range?”
“As long as everyone is behind me at least…” She paused to consider. “Twenty feet? Call it seven yards, sir. I can keep the bulk of it in front of me, and if Private Hilston makes even one lewd comment about my chest, I will give his good hand frostbite, and he knows I can do it.”
Falgrim Hilston took refuge behind his cousin. “I said nothing.”
Captain Haigh turned away suddenly, his shoulders trembling with suppressed laughter for several seconds. Captain Yeardley just grinned. “Fair enough. Squad, seven yards to the north, quick march!”
Maccani joined the retreat. When they had put the requisite distance between themselves and Sanna, he turned to watch as Sanna took off her boots and socks. She walked barefoot over the smoldering grass. Fog billowed up from the hot ground to engulf her.
“Oz,” said Haigh.
The air sympathist persuaded the gusty wind toward Sanna’s back so that they could see her picking her way delicately among the coals. The soles of her feet were already black with cinders, but she seemed unfazed by walking over ground that still smoked.
The group followed slowly, always maintaining the seven-yard margin. They maintained silence as well, for the most part, although Bish remarked once, “Does Corporal Taivas have very tough feet, or can she really not feel the heat?”
Fiola spoke up. “That ground probably just feels pleasantly warm to her. She never feels truly warm, because of her sympathy. Captain Yeardley, Captain Haigh, we should probably remind you that this is likely to make the weather a little weird for the next few days.”
“Right,” said Yeardley. “The climate effect. It slipped my mind. Major, can I impose upon you to send word to the climatology school, letting them know that we’ve created a localized cold front. Extremely localized,” he added. “Temperatures in this immediate area are at least twenty degrees cooler than the surrounding areas and falling, with winds now out of the northwest. Wind speed, Oz?”
“Twelve to fifteen miles per hour,” the sergeant reported. “We’re getting pushback from the southeast, sir, so my Company C counterparts are probably trying to send the cold air back.”
“You heard, Major?” Yeardley said. “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” He moved the microphone away from his mouth and raised his voice. “How is it, Taivas?”
“I don’t see any more glowing embers,” she called back.
“Edmund, it’s all yours,” Yeardley said. “I’m taking my squad back for rest and fluids.”
Maccani said to Captain Haigh, “Sir, may we rejoin Master Sanna?”
Haigh took his time to consider the request. “Respirators on, then.” He was already sliding his mask over his head as he spoke.
Maccani checked his fellow students to ensure they were all properly masked against potential toxins. He gestured for them to keep close, and they followed the incapacitation squad closer to the glen. Although they had no specific role to play in the next phase of the mission, they had orders to observe all phases, as training for their own future as a disposal company. Sanna came to join them. She had her boots tied together by the laces and slung over her shoulder. She too had already donned her respirator. “The stench down there is disgusting,” she said. “I stayed at the edges to avoid contaminating the scene, but from the top of the slope, you can see…”
“Well done, you,” said Captain Haigh. He went to the point where the grown dipped down into the glen. “Remains of three… probably three vehicles, one large transport, two trucks. What does that suggest?”
“Rendezvous point for traffickers,” Lieutenant Donisthorpe said. She reached out a hand to radiate stored sunlight into the depths of the glade. “There’s a track climbing out the south side. No exit track, not here, not eastward. This was a destination, not a stopping-point.”
“A covert destination,” Sanna added. “Well-hidden from all directions, even overhead.”
“Well spotted. The number of cores suggests a fairly large-scale rendezvous gone bad. We’ll know more when the investigators get here,” Haigh said. “Oz, clear the stagnant air. Don’t disturb the scene. Teach Ulim how to do it.”
The two air sympathists moved off, with Sergeant White speaking in his quiet, clipped voice as Ulim listened with bowed head. Maccani was glad to see that she made no sign of resentment at having to learn from a man, but listened attentively and asked the occasional question. They began to stir the air upward, rather as the sergeant had done earlier but gently this time, so that the debris remaining at the bottom of the deep glen was left unmoved.
After a time, Bish said, “Chopper incoming, sir.”
Haigh shaded his eyes and surveyed the sky northward, where the specialist was pointing. “Squad, form up!” he commanded.
The incapacitation squad hastened to form two rows of three, with the lieutenant, Corporal Tezelin, and Sergeant White in the front row. They stood at attention, watching the helicopter descending.
Sanna said, “Line up.”
Maccani took the position between Fiola, the senior student, and Kass Ulim, the next newest arrival after Maccani. They too stood at attention and watched Sanna walk forward with Captain Haigh to greet the three soldiers who descended from the helicopter across the clearing. The helicopter blades were too noisy for any words to reach Maccani. He could only watch as the stocky middle soldier, an officer, shook hands with Captain Haigh and raised Sanna’s hand almost to his mouth for a perfunctory kiss. They spoke for a few seconds. Haigh gestured toward the glen. Sanna must have said something, because the officer glanced from her to the line of students, pressed his lips tightly together for a few moments, and then spoke.
Sanna returned to them. “We have permission to observe. Touch nothing, stay well back from the investigators, and listen carefully.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the students replied together.
Sanna led them forward. “Detective-Major Pryce, these are my students.”
“Are you all from Sky-wind?” Detective-Major Pryce spoke in a clipped, impatient way. He scanned their faces with some interest.
“Three of us are. My cousin Fiola, and our newest, Daava Jainin. We three were all there that day.”
“I’ll want you three in my office tomorrow morning, early. Who here witnessed the manifestation directly?”
Haigh indicated himself and Sanna.
Pryce opened his briefcase and brought out what looked like a house painter’s color sample deck. He fanned it open to the yellow-orange color spectrum. “What color was it?”
Haigh and Sanna pored over the samples for several seconds before they both moved at the same time to indicate two different but adjacent chips of color in the burnt orange range.
Pryce grunted. “Could have been as old as eight to ten months, then. How did patrols miss it for that long?”
“This was a well-hidden area,” Haigh replied. “Before we burned the surrounding foliage, I believe it could only have been seen from the air, and then as just a patch of dead trees. You can see from here that there is only one approach. Everything else was thick jungle.”
“We need to be more aware of areas like this,” Pryce said. “Lieutenant, note that for my next briefing with the elders.”
One of his companions produced a pocket notebook and started jotting a few words.
“Anybody entered the scene yet?” Pryce demanded.
“No, sir. This is as close as we’ve gone.”
“Good. Stay here. I’ll call for you if I need you.” Pryce prowled down the slope, scanning the ground in front of him before he placed his feet.
His two companions stayed back with the observers. The one with the notebook said, “I’m Lieutenant Case Atherley, and this is Detective-Sergeant Markham Nithering. If you have any questions, feel free to ask us.”
Maccani said, “Thank you, Lieutenant, I have one. What is the Detective-Major looking for right now?”
Everyone turned to look at the investigator, who was on his hands and knees with his head turned sideways to gaze down the length of the glen. Lieutenant Atherley said, “Small inorganic debris. Specifically, metal badge pins worn by some traffickers.”
“Badge pins,” Maccani repeated in disbelief. “Like lapel pins? Like… membership pins? As if they’re some sort of service club?”
Pryce spoke without looking back. “The pros don’t wear ’em. It’s the small-time distributors, what you might call the semi-pros, that wear ’em. Two small trucks and one transport truck usually means a pro is meeting a small-timer to distribute goods. If the badges survived the fire…” Wearing gloves that covered up to his elbows, he started sifting a deposit of ash caught in a hollow of the ground. Some moments passed, and then Pryce brought up an object between his thumb and forefinger. “Light,” he demanded.
Detective-Sergeant Nithering pulled off one of his gloves and sent a shaft of peculiarly white light toward his superior.
Pryce squinted at the object. “Free Brokers, Lieutenant. It’s only just still legible.”
Atherley took out his notebook and said, “Ancient Order of Free Brokers of Knowledge. Is this the first solid evidence on them, sir?”
“Not the first,” Pryce grunted as he ran his gloved hands through the ashes again. “But it is rare good evidence. If I can get… just one…” He paused and then started chuckling grimly. “Let this be what I think it is…” He brought up a handful of ashes and blew gently to scatter them. What remained among the residue was too small to be seen from a distance, but it seemed to please Pryce immensely. He took out a small, clear plastic bag, sealed the object in it, and held it out in triumph.
Nithering crept down the slope as if in imitation of his superior’s prowling step. He took the bag from Pryce and brought it back to show Atherley, who took it and held it up to the light. “Remarkable,” Atherley said.
“What is it?” Sanna asked.
“Human tooth,” said Nithering. “Survived because of the crown.”
Atherley added, “It may enable us to identify one of the dead. We take blood and tissue samples from every prisoner of war brought back for treatment. A man once enslaved to the Decay often goes back eventually. This one could be in our records.” He crouched down to write on the evidence bag, using Pryce’s briefcase as his writing desk.
“Question,” said Daava Jainin.
“Go ahead,” Atherley replied.
“What sympathies work best for this investigation work?”
“Doesn’t matter!” Pryce yelled from the glen. “It only takes two qualifications: a pair of eyes connected to a functioning brain, and a personal trauma experience with the Decay. Everything else you learn as you go.”
Atherley smiled a little as he stood back up. “Any sympathy can be adapted to disposal intelligence. The only thing that can’t really be learned is the visceral experience that you only gain from a close-range, traumatic encounter with the Decay. You’ve had that, you and all your fellow survivors. You know the smell, the sound, the fear and disgust.”
Jainin nodded somberly.
“You won’t be easily fooled by it. Those who only know it second-hand are always in danger when they go anywhere near a manifestation. They don’t know how to take it as seriously as they ought. They get fooled by it or taken off-guard.”
Once Detective-Major Pryce moved deeper into the glen, Atherley allowed the observers down into the area already searched. He made Sanna put her boots back on, for safety’s sake. “And step around the deeper cinder piles,” he advised all of them. “This area won’t be considered truly decontaminated until a cleanup team goes through and disinfects according to protocol.”
Maccani kept his mask on, although Pryce and his men went without respirators. He considered what those ash piles consisted of and found in himself not even the slightest inclination to touch them.
Pryce was peering through the wreckage of one small truck. “Any of you have good eyes?”
Haigh said, “Bish, Gamble.”
The two young men moved forward. “What are we looking at, sir?” Bish asked Pryce.
“Permanent vehicle registration tag,” Pryce replied. “Little metal rectangle, just under the steering column. Tells us point and date of origin for the truck. Can you read it?”
Bish brought out a penlight and pointed it into the twisted cab of the truck. “Sir,” he said, “between the acid corrosion and the heat warping, I can’t be sure, but I think it says R36P9. Gamble?”
“R3GP9, I would’ve said,” Gamble offered.
Pryce said, “Lieutenant, take both down. We’ll check every possibility.”
Maccani edged over to stand next to Jainin. “Considering specializing in investigation?” he murmured.
Jainin shrugged. He kept his gaze on Pryce almost without blinking. But Sanna overheard and glanced back at Maccani with quick comprehension. By this he knew that she would be writing to Father Locke for advice on how to get extra training for Jainin.