The Price of Inattention (First Draft)

THE PRICE OF INATTENTION

by Gordon S. McLeod

 

Dolesham baked under the baleful sun like an overheated sealed can on the brink of bursting. The Ralladran river lay low in it’s banks, but hardly a soul was out to see it, most sane folk staying indoors in the relative cool of the shade.

Most, but not all. Archerd Dolet at least had the sense to stay under the canopy of a mighty oak, and had ceased his exertions, but practiced his forms and stances regardless.

“Archerd, you fool, you’ll have a stroke if you keep that up, and don’t say I didn’t say so.” His mother Kaylene set a tray with a large pitcher of iced tea on a bench by the tree’s trunk. She was a hard woman, radiating strength and, at present, exasperation. “And mind you drink every drop of this. Look at you, you’re sweating enough to refill the river!”

“Thank you, Mother, but you’re the one who stressed the importance of practice, are you not?”

“As I recall, both I and your father stressed the importance of reasonable thinking, too. It’s the highest heat of the day, there’s plenty of other things you can do ‘till the sun lets up.”

“I couldn’t ask for a better time to practice then, could I? I didn’t get to pick my preferred time or conditions last year on the train, after all. I had to take what I was given, and—”

“Well of course, you have to play the hand you’re dealt, and of course it’s good to be prepared for adverse conditions, but you overdo it, especially this last year.”

“Very well, enough for today.”

Archerd had spent the better part of the last year and a half learning the art of the quarterstaff from his mother, who until fairly recently had been unequaled with the staff and spear in Dolesham or the much larger city of Holdswaine to the north.

He’d been caught woefully unprepared then, especially for someone who considered himself intelligent and who knew himself to be, at least theoretically, in some form of danger. He’d been attending a conference in the north and had let something slip (another lapse, one he still berated himself over,) that had caught the attention of the Conclave, the governing body of the scientific studies, keepers of lore and hoarders of knowledge who arguably possessed more powerful than the actual government itself.

Conclave agents had boarded the train and sabotaged it, then killed almost all the crew and passengers in the ensuing chaos. Archerd and the other sole survivor, one Ms. Sunniva Witherow had defeated the pair, but that owed far more to the fact that the agents were little more than lowly thugs and had expected no real resistance than to any genuine skill on either of their parts.

Archerd was determined that that wouldn’t be the case a second time. In addition to the staff, which probably wouldn’t have served him well inside the train, he was supplementing his bare-handed fighting skills with the guards when he had the time.

He poured a glass of the tea and drank half of it on one breath, his mother nodding approvingly.

“In any event, I do have other work that needs to be done. Father mentioned an interesting possibility the other day and I’ve been working up some plans. He called it an air ship—”

The rest of his thought was cut off as a low, very loud rumbling WHUMP sounded from the south-east and echoed throughout the valley.

“What—” he gasped as he and his mother both turned and raced for the house. Stampeding up to the second floor, he found his father already at one of the large windows, manipulating the lenses of a large pair of very old goggles he wore. “Father, what do you see?”

“Not a thing, not from here … wait … there is smoke, far more than there should be.” Altman Dolet had grown frail under the strain of building, establishing and then running Dolesham, all the while continuing his real work, the free and open advancement of science. The free part he had accomplished, if not without some difficulty. The open part was still a work in progress, thanks to the Conclave.

The three raced downstairs, Archerd far faster than his parents, and he didn’t stop to wait. He could see the plume of dark smoke over the rooftops as he exited his family’s manor house, and his constant working out paid off as he ran through the heat toward the scene.

As he got closer, he recognized the area; it was the school house, a new construction that had been completed barely a year ago to replace several small temporary shacks that had been in use up to that point. His breath caught in his throat, but he let it out in a hiss; today was the one day in the week there should have been no students or teachers within.

A crowd was gathered around, milling in the heat. The building was half-collapsed, the roof blown off, with one wall blasted outward and the adjacent wall knocked over. Much of the rubble was scorched and burned, and small fires continued to blaze, adding to the haze of smoke that clung to the street and rose into the air like a beacon.

People started pouring into the street despite the heat to gawk at the sight. Among the first that Archerd recognized was his younger sister Annis.

“Ann! What happened? Did you see? Were you here?”

Annis helped out at the school; much like Archerd she’d been taught critical thinking and the scientific disciplines from a young age, and she helped pass on that knowledge to the children of Dolesham.

“I was near by, but not that near. Archerd, who could do something like this!” She was transfixed, watching the burning of what amounted to her life’s work to date. She’d personally helped construct the building that now lay in shattered ruin.

“I don’t—” he started to reply, then stopped himself. A glittering point of light near his feet caught his eye. It looked almost like …

He stooped and picked it up. It was a small metal disk, warped and blackened and bearing in relief a hemisphere bisected with a stylized lightning bolt, in the middle of 3 overlapping narrow ovals forming a perfect 6-pointed star.

He knew that symbol all too well; Annis did too. “The Conclave.”

A muttering started to rise from the growing crowd as others found more of the disks, many more.

“It’s a message, son.” Altman and Kaylene had arrived. “It’s a message to all of us. They’ve come at last.”

He was right, Archerd knew. They’d been waiting for something to happen ever since he returned from the train incident.

“I’m just thankful they chose today of all days. If this had happened yesterday, or tomorrow …” Altman shuddered visibly. “But now the question is what do we do about it?”

“We contact the guard, and get an Inspector involved.”

“I absolutely agree on the second point,” said a new voice. A short, broad-shouldered man with a close-cropped beard, bowler hat and smart gray suit stopped just short of the group. “But as for the first, won’t be necessary. The guards are on their way. Mr. & Mrs. Dolet, it’s good to see you again. I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure of meeting your son and daughter yet.”

“Ross! I should have expected you. Annis, Archerd, this is Inspector Rosston Hew with the police department. Ross, this is my daughter Annis, and my son Archerd.”

“A pleasure,” he said, nodding pleasantly to the two younger Dolets. “I just wish we were meeting under better circumstances — though it could’ve been much worse, eh? Let’s see what we’ve got here.”

“I found this, Inspector. It was right here at my feet.” Archerd handed over the small twisted disk of metal.

“Did you now …” The inspector’s voice trailed off as he examined it. “Conclave insignia, badly warped, some scorching, no sign of melting … I’ll have to give this a closer look back at headquarters, but at a guess I’d say this is going to make finding our perpetrator difficult. There’s a chain loop up top but no chain, and I do believe that’s because whoever wore this was wearing it a bit too close to the explosion when it happened.” He stared at the disk thoughtfully. “Could be wrong. I’ll need a look at the site, see what more I can learn there. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll hang on to this and check back with you later.”

“Is there anything we can do to help?” Annis looked like she had half a mind to go with him to the school.

“You can help by staying out of the site, Ms. Dolet. But … your family is pretty well respected around here, and you’re all pretty well-liked. If you were to assist in talking to people, finding out if anyone saw anything, that’d be a big help too.”

Hew nodded again then turned on his heel, briskly walking to the site, side-stepping still smoldering wreckage until he was lost behind a slow rising column of smoke.

“I did see another instructor from the school at the cafe down the block, I’ll start there.” Ann strode off with a fair approximation of Hew’s determination.

“There has to be more we can do than just talk to people.” Archerd was restless and a little put out. He’d been hearing stories from his father for years about situations he’d had to resolve and problems he’d had to investigate before Dolesham was big enough to warrant a real police department.

He’d always imagined jumping into the fray once more if and when the Conclave made their move against Dolesham, but Dolesham wasn’t a flea-speck encampment anymore. They did have quick access to the proper authorities, and it was, he reluctantly acknowledged to himself, most likely that he’d only get in the way. Still, it didn’t feel right that he’d trained for so many months only to find there was still nothing he could do.

“Mother, Father, I’ll be back at the house. I really must finish the air hull designs. Please let Inspector Hew know in case he needs me for anything, and assure him that if I think of anyone who might have relevant input I’ll be sure to ask them.”

“Of course, Archerd.” His father laid a hand on his shoulder and he turned back toward the house, mind racing.

He didn’t think he knew of anyone who’d have anything to say, at least not anyone that Ann wouldn’t already be asking. Stomach churning with the unwelcome feeling of helplessness, he let his feet carry him back home through the still largely empty streets.

The Dolet family home had been in the family for many generations; Archerd’s father had inherited it from an uncle before Archerd himself had been born. It was a large building, and Archerd had several rooms to himself. One of these he used as both office and design studio, and this was where he went now.

The room was a feast for the eyes, covered with carefully hand-drawn maps, diagrams, charts and schematics on the walls instead of art, with piles of books, gadgets and components thereof tucked in alcoves and shelves and on tables everywhere there was space. A large desk occupied one half of the room, while the center was dominated by a draftsman’s drawing table. Large windows overlooked the yards out back, and in front of those windows, a long workbench held more parts in carefully organized disarray.

He stood before the draftsman’s table, breathing in the familiar curious mixture of bookish dusty warmth and metallic tangs of filings and alloys, overlaid with wood and metal polishes and grease. It helped calm his nerves a little. He turned his attention to the plans spread out over the table. At first glance, it looked much like the plans for a locomotive engine. A long, very broad chassis stretched through the virtual space of the paper, with three large stacks rising from it to allow steam pressure to be vented from various parts of the engine assemblies inside.

From there the resemblance grew harder to see, as instead of the great wheels of the track-riding trains, this vehicle was to be outfitted with what looked like outrigger pods connected with a half-dozen braces on each side, and linked to the body again with railed steps for passengers and crew.

It was larger still, both longer, deeper and wider, for unlike a train it would not be hauling anything behind it. It would instead be hauled itself, through the air, kept aloft by … and that was what Archerd was presently considering.

Transports that float through the air had been built before, held always by heated air that buoyed the craft upwards, but he wasn’t convinced that would be sufficient for a craft of the size he was designing.

He was writing notes in a journal of the merits and detriments of various alternative buoyancy mechanisms, including the use of helium or possibly hydrogen gas, when a knock came at the door. A glance at his pocket watch told him that he’d lost track of time, and it was now late in the afternoon. Hours had passed.

Setting aside a brass-handled quill he’d been scribbling sketches with, he answered the door to find himself face to face with Inspector Hew once more. He was dusty and soot-stained, and holding a small leather sack which jangled a bit as he moved.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Dolet. Your father said you’d volunteered to lend your expertise to the investigation if it should be required, and I do rather think it’s required, if you have a few moments.”

“Yes! Yes, of course, please, come in.” He opened the door fully and stepped aside to allow the inspector entrance. “What can I do for you? Please, have a seat.”

The inspector nodded and sat himself on a brass stool at the workbench, there being few other options as Archerd was unaccustomed to guests in his office. “Well, Mr. Dolet, we found the source of the explosion, or rather the pieces thereof. It was an explosive device of some sort, and I have to confess that neither I nor anyone else on the force are knowledgeable about such things. Frankly, nobody’s even heard of such things before, but the physical evidence is hard to dismiss.” He sighed.

“We generally keep to a strict policy regarding civilian involvement in law enforcement matters, Mr. Dolet, but your father has helped us out on several occasions in the past, and he told me that in this particular matter, you’re the expert. Would you take a look at this … wreckage, and see what you can make of it?”

Archerd smiled. “With pleasure, Inspector Hew.” He cleared space on the work table top. “If you would? Let’s see what we’re dealing with here.” His mind was racing with possibilities; he was familiar with explosive devices, though the most common type he knew of were firearms, simple devices that used a controlled, directed explosive compound to drive projectiles at high speed in the desired direction. That hardly seemed to describe what had happened at the school. Something larger, perhaps, without the directional control …

The inspector spread the components out across the table and Archerd immediately threw those thoughts out the window. This was something else entirely, nothing comparable to a firearm or simple bomb; that much he could tell at a glance.

“Well now.” He took a pair of multi-lensed work goggles from the worktable and dragged up another stool. “What have we here …”

He fiddled with the lenses of the goggles, flipping some of the several lenses up then down over each eye until he got the magnification he needed. All of the pieces were of course badly damaged, burnt black in places. There were fragments of what must have been an outer shell or casing of some sort, with thinned edges suggesting seams or perhaps thinner grooves.

“Inspector, could you describe the wreckage of the school to me? What did you learn from examining the remains of the building?”

“Quite a lot, though not enough. First, I learned my early suspicions were correct; whoever set the device met his end there. He was still present when the explosion occurred, though there’s not much left of him now. At least he won’t be setting any more bombs in the future.

“Second, the walls and roof were blasted out; the perpetrator set the bomb inside the building, not outside, and the floor is relatively intact save for where the roof fell on it and where interior furnishings caught fire and burned.”

“Exactly what I was curious about. See these thinned edges on these pieces? This looks to be a casing, and it’s been designed to blow out in a particular way, guiding the blast up and out rather than allowing it freedom in all directions.”

“That would explain much of what I saw at the site. What more can you tell me?”

“I’ll have to spend some more time examining this, I’m afraid. Most of it is quite unlike anything I’ve seen before. These pieces almost look like something you’d find as part of a cooling apparatus, but I can’t imagine why that would be of any value in an explosive device, and these—”

“Actually, that might indeed be the case. Your sister was most helpful earlier. She led us to several people in different areas of the street who recalled having seen an unusual looking man carrying a large case. One of those witnesses told us he was leaving the residence of a Mr. Bowdyn Creekmore. I understand you know him?”

“Bowdyn? What would he have to do with …” He stopped and frowned. Bowdyn Creekmore was an inventor of sorts, untrained in the sciences formally, but very clever. He’d met the man several times and they had something of a friendly rivalry between them. They’d never been friends, however; Bowdyn always seemed to have just a touch of the careless to him, was just a little too eager to rush to the end result of his work. Archerd knew he could be impulsive himself at times, but his father and the Academy in turn had both trained that out of his work habits, if not necessarily always out of his life entirely.

“Oh Bowdyn. What has he gotten himself into?”

“Can’t know for sure just yet, but since you know him and you’re familiar with his field, that’s the other way you can help, Mr. Dolet. I have men talking to him now, and when they’re done, I’d like you to look over what he had to say. If we need to talk to him again, I’d like you there.”

“Do you suspect him of aiding the saboteur?”

“Right now we have no reason to think so, but it’s really too early to say. I’ll know more when I hear the report from my men.”

“Then I should let you get back to them. I’ll go over this and see what I can learn.”

“Exactly what I wanted to hear, and thank you. I’ll stop by in the morning to hear your conclusions.” Hew stood then, and extended his hand. Rising in turn, Archerd shook it and led him out, then turned back to the strange apparatus with a curious frown.

“And now, what exactly are you?” And he set to work to find out.

He worked until late in the evening, long past the setting of the sun, when the air finally cooled to survivable temperatures and he had to light candles to see. When he did turn in for the night at last, he thought he had a pretty good idea just what it was the saboteur had built.

The next morning Inspector Hew was as good as his word. He turned up at the door shortly after breakfast, just in time for a cup of coffee. Archerd and his father were still at the table.

“The good news is it doesn’t sound like your friend Mr. Creekmore was up to no good yesterday. He says the man stopped in to buy a part, paid for it and left straight away.”

“Good news, certainly,” Archerd said with a touch of relief. “But it doesn’t seem to help us any either.”

“Not that, no. But this does. The man had been in once before, several weeks ago. That’s when he ordered the piece. ”

“He’d been here this long!”

Across the table, Archerd’s father ran a hand over his thinning white hair and sighed. “Here under our very noses. And unless I’m very mistaken, we’d be fools to assume he was alone.”

“Fools indeed, Father.” Archerd wore a grim expression. “I completed my examination of the device last night, Inspector Hew, and while I can’t say what the explosive itself was composed of, the mechanism I can describe in great detail. Whatever the explosive was, it was a solid composition, not a powder nor liquid, and it required a controlled temperature. What’s more, the mechanism used to set it off was designed to be controlled, and I’d guess carefully controlled.”

“You guess? That doesn’t sound very confident.”

“I know, and I apologize, but we are discussing delicate components of an explosive device that was successfully set off. There simply wasn’t much left of that part of the device, and what there was was in dreadful shape. I have had to base my evaluation on the parts that were intact and present for me to examine, and I assure you it wasn’t easy.

“In any event, the controlled trigger looked like it should have been capable of providing enough control for the man to get out in time.”

Inspector Hew nodded. “I’ve been considering two possibilities, but that does add a third. First, he was careless and blew himself up accidentally. Second, he intentionally blew himself up. Or, in light of your examination, perhaps he was set up by someone else and the device was configured to go off earlier than he knew. A bit of a logical leap, I know, but I’ll have to check into it. Thank you for your help, both of you.”

“Perhaps I can still be of some help, Inspector.” Archerd sat forward. “If we’re looking for yet another man, possibly a smarter man, smart enough to have rigged the explosive to go off early, then maybe he’s had dealings with other people in town. Other orders for parts.”

Hew finished his coffee and nodded. “Yes … Yes indeed, an excellent thought. Very well then Altman, I’ll be borrowing your boy if you don’t mind.”

“Gone and found a replacement for me have you?” Altman said with a chuckle. “It’s about time, I’m too old for all that running around.”

“You’ve got some years in you yet, I’d wager. Don’t you worry. I’ll bring him back in one piece. You ready, young Mr. Dolet?”

“Call me Archerd, Inspector. And if I may beg your pardon for a moment longer, I’ll go retrieve something that may be of some use to us.”

Hew nodded and Archerd disappeared upstairs, reappearing moments later with a small hard case. He set this on the table and fiddled with a combination lock on the front, a series of buttons that elicited the sound of turning gears within at each press. Finally a sharp clack sounded and the lock released with a snap.

Opening the case, he withdrew two small devices. “I’m sure you’ve used something like this before Inspector, you likely have one set up at your headquarters.”

“I couldn’t say, why, what is it?”

In response, Archerd handed one of the devices to the inspector, after carefully checking the volume. “It’s for communication,” he said, his voice transmitted perfectly to the matching device in Hew’s hand. The man’s eyes widened.

“Remarkable. Simply remarkable. Altman, you old dog, you’ve been holding out on us, this young man is a treasure! You built this?”

“Designed and built, indeed. It saved my life once too, though I hope it won’t come to that again.”

“And they have the same capabilities as the larger units?”

“Exactly the same.”

“When this is over I’ll have to have a talk with you about building some more.”

“I think that can be arranged, Inspector. But for now, consider it a loan. What frequency do you use on the unit at headquarters? I’ll set your communicator up to send and receive to it. Won’t take more than a few minutes.”

Several minutes later, Archerd had Hew’s communicator equipped with both frequencies, the one for Archerd’s device and the police headquarters’ device set up on switches for the Inspector’s use. Hew delighted in shocking the living daylights out of his man on duty at the desk by calling in; the communicators were used for inter-city communications, not on the level of individuals.

With play time over, Archerd and Inspector Hew left to walk the distance to Archerd’s first recommendation. The day was promising to be another scorcher, though it was early yet and the heat hadn’t reached its peak.

“First we should talk with Werian Lukey.”

“Another inventor?” Hew walked with the long, easy stride of someone who practiced out of necessity.

“No, not at all. Junk dealer. I frequent his shop on occasion myself, though I usually prefer to make parts that I lack. He has no shortage of people willing to buy his wares around here however.” While inventing wasn’t exactly the region’s specialty — that would be mining and refining — there was an air of invention around the town, a certain indefinable freeness of the imagination that attracted intelligence and creativity in equal measure. Archerd had never appreciated that fact, not truly, until he’d left the year past for that fateful conference. And now he was certain that same atmosphere of intellectualism, so rare in any community, but a mining community especially, was partly responsible for the Conclave’s attention.

“Indeed,” Hew chewed the thought over. “Lead on, Archerd.”

Lukey’s home was a fair distance from the house, located on the main road out of Dolesham that ultimately lead to Holdswaine. It was a fortuitous location for him, being as it was along the main trade route of the community where travelers were most likely to abandon scrap that they no longer had any use for, while remaining close enough to town that the towns-folk’s leavings were accessible as well.

The house was not exactly a palace — the term “hovel” came more quickly to mind — but it was surprisingly comfortable for all its poor appearance. Werian Lukey was working outside cleaning scraps. He was a big, broad-shouldered man who would’ve been quite imposing if he weren’t so gaunt. He worked with his left hand to clean a length of scrap iron held in a vice; his right arm was withered and bound to his torso. He looked up as they approached and grinned.

“Come a slummin’ Dolet? Haven’t seen ya in weeks, I ‘aven’t. An’ you’ve brought the law along too. They haven’t gone an’ made it illegal to clean scrap on me, ‘ave they?”

“Just thought you might be in the mood to sell some information today instead of the usual scrap, Lukey. How’re you getting by?”

“Ah, well enough. Well as ever. If I know somethin’ you can use, I’ll be happy to take yer money for it, sure enough. What’re you lookin’ for?”

“Strangers.” Hew stepped forward and offered his hand; his left, Archerd noted. Lukey shook it. “Inspector Hew of the Dolesham police force. Archerd here tells me you’re the one to talk to about suspicious sorts who may have been buying odds and ends over, say, the last couple of weeks or so?”

“I likely am at that. The town’s not so big that there’s a lotta competition o’er that sorta thing now is it?” He grinned a broken grin. “This ‘ave somethin’ to do with the school gettin’ blowed up?”

“It certainly does, Mr. Lukey.”

“Rumor floatin’ round town was the guy what did it got ‘imself caught in it and won’ be doin it again.”

“That’s true. We believe he might have been working with someone though, and whether he was or not, we can’t assume this is the end of it.” Hew produced a folded sheet of paper. On the paper was a crude sketch of a man. “We think the one that destroyed the school looked something like this.”

“Aye. That’d be the one fella. An’ as fer th’other, well now … that much I think I can vouch for. Firs’ time I met ‘im he weren’t alone. Had another fella with ‘im. Small guy, slim. Older. Seen ‘im around before, sold ‘im some scrap bits now ‘n then. Name of … Pilch, it were.”

“You said you sold him some scrap? Do you remember what he was interested in?”

“You better believe I c’n do that,” and he rattled off a list of descriptions that Archerd had to pay careful attention to, nodding as the man spoke. When Lukey finally trailed off, Archerd drew a bill purse from his belt and counted out a decent sum.

“As promised, Lukey.”

“That’s mighty genrous ‘o you, Dolet. I’ll ‘ave to save some ‘o the best for ya, ‘stead of sellin’ to Pilch, if ‘e e’er comes by this way again.”

Hew shook his head. “No, it’d be much better if you did sell to him again if he returns, and then make sure you let us know what he was after once he’s gone. It’d be best if he didn’t know we’ve been here at all.”

Lukey glanced down at the money in his fist and grinned. Hew quirked a smile of his own. “There’ll be more in it for you if you sell him any more without mentioning us.”

“We ‘ave a deal, inspector sir. Pleasure doin’ business with ya.”

They took their leave and started toward the police headquarters, roughly central in the town. “A name and rough description, that’s something. What did you make the list of supplies this Pilch bought?”

“I recognized several as good matches for what you brought to me last night, but the quantities are wrong, unless he was planning to build several of them. 3, I should think. Lukey couldn’t supply everything he’d need, so they must have another source, or else they already had some of what they’d need. In particular, the shaped casing bothers me. It’s difficult to imagine anyone local being able to supply that. Either they brought those with them, or they had them custom-made.”

“Why go to the trouble of bringing some pieces and not others?”

“Difficulty with transport I suppose. Nothing he supplied them with would serve as an explosive agent, and that concerns me. Of all the things I’d have expected them to acquire locally, that’s the most important, since everything about the design suggests to me that the explosive agent is volatile. I can think of no other reason for cooling equipment inside, as just a single example among many.

“Further, I can’t yet fathom why they needed such an elaborate design. Was it purely a mechanism, if you’ll pardon the expression, by which Pilch can eliminate his ‘partners’? If so, what does he plan to do with his remaining bombs? I’ve too many questions, and I find suddenly, Inspector, that I don’t envy you your job as much as I did just yesterday.”

Hew chuckled. “Indeed, they sometimes paint the job with a rather picturesque and heroic brush, don’t they? Alas, it’s not always that way, as you’re now learning.

My questions are whether Pilch was working with more than one associate, and if so, does he plan to eliminate them similarly. I’m not sure how he’d plan to accomplish that after the first one, though, as the word is all over town that the original saboteur died in the attempt.

“More importantly and more pressingly though, if he has or could have several other explosive devices, then where and when is he planning to use them?”

By this time they were drawing near the police headquarters, a handsome building of dark brick, all columns and arches and topped with towers upon which officers could get what must have been a breathtaking overlook of the town.

Archerd’s inspection of the towers continued a moment before he realized Inspector Hew had slowed and was staring at the same towers with a look of watchful concern. “Inspector? What is it?”

“They’re unmanned. There should always be at least one lookout up there. Something’s not right.”

“And the streets …”

“Yes.”

The streets in the immediate area around the police headquarters were empty, but a block away in every direction were a few people, all just standing and watching. A black premonition danced in Archerd’s mind.

“Inspector?”

“I see them. We have to get down there.”

“Let me see your communicator for a moment.”

Hew stopped and handed the device over, and Archerd fiddled with the exterior switches, finally turning the volume knob all the way up. Voices suddenly burst out of the device, low but still audible.

“—away from that thing if you know what’s good for you!”

“Okay, it’s okay, I’m away—”

A sound like a pistol crack came through over the device.

“Anyone else gets near that thing, same thing happens to you. We know all about what you Dolesham traitors have done with your communicators.”

Archerd cursed; it was one thing to know your work had prompted a response like this, but quite another to hear and see the direct results.

“Communicators? What are y—”

BANG

Pilch and his men didn’t know he’d kept his communicator technology to himself, he realized. They’d know of its existence from the same reports of the conference that had drawn the Conclave agents to the train the last year, but they believed it was in use by the police of the town, so naturally they’d try to neutralize them.

“I said, everyone keep QUIET! You think I’m not serious? You—”

BANG—

Another pistol shot rang out.

BANG— —BANG—

“They’re trying to take him down. They don’t … this can’t—” Hew’s voice was drowned out by a crash of thunder that shook the ground. They were two short blocks from the police headquarters, close enough to see ground-level windows shattering along with several on the upper floors of the building. They broke into a run.

The scene was chaos. The police headquarters had been built more solidly than the school and appeared sound; certainly it hadn’t collapsed, not so far at least. But the interior was a mass of fire, smoke, dust and debris. Alarms pierced the air from the upper floor, where people were visible in the windows, gasping for breath as smoke rose and poured from open windows.

Down the wide street a brigade of firemen were racing up toward the building, riding a long carriage dominated by a massive water tank and pulled by a team of 3 horses riding abreast. The small but growing crowd moved aside hurriedly to let them through, and they wasted no time pulling long ladders from the back and dragging out hoses, men already manning the hand-pumps.

Before the pumps had even been primed, ladders were set up and men were swarming upward and others setting up below to rescue those trapped above.

Hew seemed to shocked to speak, and Archerd could hardly make his mouth move himself. One thought and one thought only circulated in his brain; my fault. He had no idea how many officers and employees of the headquarters had just been caught in that explosion, but every one of them was on his conscience. So many injured, maybe dead, and still at least one more explosive unaccounted for.

His fault. One more. With a sudden sick twisting of his stomach, he knew where it must be headed.

“Inspector — the last bomb — my home, my family — no time for explanations!”

He wasn’t even sure if Hew had heard him, but he wasted no time finding out. He was off at a dead run, hurtling up the street toward home.

When he arrived far too many minutes later, he hurried up the stone steps to the door. It was closed, but unlocked. The instant the handle turned under his hand, alarms equal to those at the station assaulted his mind. He didn’t know whether anyone was home; he hadn’t noticed them on his way, but there was at least the possibility they’d left. The bells of the police station were easily heard even this far away, which surely would’ve attracted their attention.

A distraction.

Entering the house, he didn’t call out. Near the entrance was a little used door down to the cellar, only used for the storage of wines and spirits. That door was never left open, for it was terribly drafty, but it stood open now. The chill down Archerd’s neck had nothing to do with the draft.

He paused for only a moment, and then moved; he closed the front door, quietly, and then ascended the stairs as quickly and quietly as he could to the upper level.

He knew his parents kept an old pistol up in their chambers, but instead he crossed the landing to a prominent tapestry hung on the wall. To either side were mounted two stout staves, decorative in their own right, being topped at each end with heavy, ornate iron caps. He grabbed one, feeling the weight and balance in his hands, and so armed headed downstairs again.

He stopped at the door to the cellar and listened; his breath caught. He heard a distinct rustling and clanking sound, and the clanking was distinctly not the glass of bottles, but of metal.

He chewed his lip in indecision, mind whirling. Every instinct screamed at him to rush down and confront whoever it was — Pilch, almost certainly — but the cellar wasn’t large; he’d have no room to use the staff.

No, he corrected himself mentally. Just not the traditional way. He felt his way down the first few steps, as the stairway was pitch black, and looked back up. Some light came in from above, but not enough to get in his way. A landing further down where the stairs turned at a right angle obscured whatever light Pilch was working with. As quietly as possible, he wedged the staff between a corner of the stairs and the wall. Anyone rushing up without knowledge of the staff’s location would at best be delayed, or perhaps even trip in the dark.

He crept down toward the landing; the faintest of glows was becoming visible as he descended. Edging around the corner, he surveyed the scene.

The cellar was maybe 6 meters by 6, brick walls packed with racks and racks of wine and casks of spirits set on the stone floor, many covered with thick layers of gray dust. There was a pervasive odor of dust and dampness to the place, stale mustiness. There was one occupant.

The man was small, slender, but moved with a certain slightly awkwardness that suggested age. He was working in the light of a single candle, so it was hard to be sure, but Archerd was certain this must be the … gentleman … that Lukey had described. He was crouched down in the middle of the cellar floor, making fine adjustments to a roughly circular apparatus a bit more than roughly a quarter-meter square in diameter. A small bowl or dome of metal lay on the floor next to him; as best Archerd could see in the limited lighting, it did look like a match for the fragments he’d inspected the night before.

The small man grunted in satisfaction and Archerd’s breath caught as he looked in his direction; he simply picked up the metal dome and turned his attention to very carefully replacing it.

Archerd knew the time was now. He stepped quietly but swiftly down the stairs between them and bowled Pilch over. The air filled with his startled cry of surprised anger; the candle dropped to the floor and sputtered, but kept burning feebly.

Archerd’s speed had knocked Pilch deeper into the cellar, and he reacted with speed that belied his age. The metal cover was still in his hands. He launched himself at Archerd with shocking ferocity before Archerd had finished picking himself up from his own charge. The cover slammed into the side of his face with a solid thud that set his head to spinning, and then Pilch was past him and running for the stairs.

Shaking his head to clear it, he was turning to follow when he heard a shout, a clatter and a series of thumping impacts that ended with one very final snap.

Grabbing the candle, he went forward to meet what he knew he’d see. Pilch had indeed tripped over the staff and fallen backwards down the stairs, breaking his neck on the way down. Archerd stared at the body dully. He didn’t look sick, or twisted, or evil, or monstrous. In that moment he looked scared more than anything. Archerd checked the man’s coat and saw the now-familiar Conclave insignia pin.

Filch was the third Conclave agent he’d run afoul of now, and the third who’d died as a result. Archerd hadn’t killed the first two; a … friend had had to shoulder that burden. He shied away from that thought. I’m in the club now, he thought instead, then turned back to the cellar.

The explosive device lay uncovered on the stone, the metal enclosure laying a short distance away, bearing a small smear of Archerd’s own blood. He hadn’t even noticed he was bleeding.

Bringing the candle in closer to the device, his breath caught in his throat. It was a marvel of machinery, clockwork components softly ticking away as he watched. It was even more complex than he’d suspected. He closed his eyes and tried to focus. Reaching into a pocket, he retrieved his communicator.

Clicking the transmit button, he said, “Inspector Hew?”

For several moments, nothing. He was about to repeat himself when finally he heard, “Archerd? This is a bad time, there are wounded to attend—”

“I found Pilch.”

“I’m listening.”

“He was in my cellar. He’s dead now, fell down the stairs trying to get away from me. I’m here with the last bomb now.”

“I … see. Is it …?”

“Yes. I am going to have to try to disable it, and … I’m terrified to try and move it, so I will have to do it here. There is some sort of clockwork mechanism inside which I believe controls the timing of the detonation.”

“I’ll get someone out there to assist in any way they can as soon as I can. Archerd, outstanding work.”

“Thank you, Inspector. I … had better get to work on this.”

“Understood. I’ll speak with you soon.”

“I hope so.” He clicked off and returned the communicator to his pocket.

<> <> <>

He turned his eyes back to the device in the middle of the floor, willing his heart to slow and his hands to steady. From what he’d already seen of this, it was an incredibly complex mechanism, and while he didn’t know what the explosive itself was composed of, the way it was secured inside assured him that he’d been correct; it was volatile.

 The constant ticking of the timer wore at his nerves. Timer. He wished he had his magnification goggles with him. Stop the timer.

He rose swiftly and returned to Pilch’s body. His tools were held in an interior pocket of his jacket; he took them and returned to the device. No magnification glass nor goggles, but at least he had the fine instruments he needed to work with tiny parts.

He had to admire the craftsmanship of the timer. It was clockwork of the finest order; in an actual clock he suspected it would keep accurate time for months without adjustment. It was a crime all on its own that such a device should be intended to self-destruct in such a manner.

There he sat for several moments, examining the mechanism and attempting to locate the best place to begin dismantling it when sounds from upstairs took his attention. The door opening; voices, several of them, making no effort to conceal their presence. Footsteps on the stairs, and exclamations of surprise.

“Archerd?” His father’s voice, and light flooded the stairway.

“Father, stay clear! Out of the house, if you can. Mr. Pilch there was setting up an explosive as a gift for us, and I’m attempting to disable it.”

His father appeared on the landing and joined him. Upstairs, worried voices called down, but were unintelligible; his mother and sister, he was sure.

“We came with a police officer. He’ll get your mother and sister out of the house, and return for Pilch’s body.”

“And yourself?”

“I’ll stay out of your way son, I know this is your area of expertise.”

“At this moment, I don’t know what the explosive agent is. I’m afraid I don’t feel like much of an expert.”

“That’s why I’m here. That’s my area of expertise.”

Altman Dolet was a master of the physical earth sciences. Had his life progressed the way the Conclave determined it should have, he’d have been a senior master in the Academy by now, but he’d barely graduated when he broke out from under the Conclave’s rules and had never looked back.

Archerd sighed but accepted the inevitable with as much grace as he could, though in the back of his mind he couldn’t escape the thought that a slip of the hand could now mean not only his own death but that of his father as well. No pressure there, he thought.

He took a deep breath. “Okay. First I have to stop this timing mechanism. I have no way to know when it will run down and trigger the device to explode.”

Altman wisely kept his words to himself, and Archerd found to his surprise that he was a bit calmer, a bit more self-assured with the steady presence of his father next to him.

Hands as steady as he could make them, working with the dead man’s tools, he started extracting tiny gears and shafts from the assembly. Gradually the mechanism stopped, the incessant ticking faded, but the tension never left him. The explosive was still there and still volatile, and any wrong move could still blow them apart as thoroughly as the school and the police headquarters.

He still felt a sense of profound relief. At the very least they had the option of waiting and studying the device at leisure now, without the fear that each new tick of the mechanism would be the one that would end them.

His father let out a long sigh of relief. “Well done, son. Now this next part is mine, I believe.”

He stepped aside and Altman immediately set himself next to the device. A set of heavy footsteps on the stairs announced the arrival of the officer that his father had mentioned. He glanced at his father, who was carefully inspecting a small glass container that held a grayish-yellowish substance he presumed was the explosive agent, then climbed back up to the landing.

Between himself and the officer, Pilch’s body was moved out in front of the house. His mother and sister were outside, impatience and worry written over their faces. They ignored the body, turning to him.

“Where’s father?”

“What’s the situation with the explosive? Were you able to stop it?”

“Where—”

One at a time! Father’s down with it now. It was equipped with some sort of clockwork timing mechanism, which I disabled, yes. Father is studying the explosive compound to determine how we can best deal with it. We don’t want to try moving it without understanding how volatile it is, or we may set it off ourselves. But at least we know now it won’t go off while we wait and study.”

<> <> <>

The wait was long and frustrating; Altman worked for 2 hours to identify the compound and assess the destructive capability it had. In the end he could only give an educated estimate. “This just isn’t a type of material I’ve run into before, I’m afraid. The Conclave must have secrets unknown to those outside their walls. This shouldn’t be a shock to anyone here, of course.”

 “So what do we do?”

“We’re going to have to trust that we can move it safely; we certainly don’t want to sleep with this down here.”

“We’re going to move it anyway? But—”

But Pilch had to get this here somehow, it’s not like we keep a store of this material down here for him.”

“That’s true, father, but what if it’s a compound of some sort? I regularly use sealants that don’t become viscous until two separate ingredients are mixed one with the other.”

“If that’s the case, we may have some … difficulty. But there’s also nothing we can do about that if it’s true. One way or another, I have to get this out of here and dispose of it somewhere safe.”

“You? But I—”

“You’ve done your part, son. Don’t worry, your old man has handled dangerous materials before, since long before you were born.” There was a firmness to his tone that brooked no argument. “Now go on, out of the house. I’ll meet you out front with this and then we’ll decide what to do with it. Keep your mother and sister back out of the way.”

When Archerd left the house, Inspector Hew had arrived on the scene. The officer was examining Pilch’s body, while Hew poured over several sheets of paper.

“Archerd. Where’s your father?”

“We need to get everyone out to the street. He’s coming out with the device. I disabled the timer, but he’s unfamiliar with the explosive agent.”

“He’s moving it! But—” he took control of himself and continued, “of course, you can’t just leave it there. Is he sure it’s safe?”

“Actually he is certain it’s very unsafe, but we don’t have much choice in the matter.”

Hew sighed. “True enough, true enough. And I certainly don’t have anyone more qualified than he is to handle it. Archerd, I do need to talk to you.”

“Of course. What is it?”

“First, you’ll be relieved to hear that while the number of injured was great, there were only two deaths in the explosion at the police station.” Archerd could say nothing to this; his shoulders slumped though, as though their lives had paid for an extra burden upon them.

“It is not your fault, Archerd. Do you think your father is the only person in this community that can see the Conclave for what they are and do? They stifle progress and advancement at the expense of everyone but themselves, until it serves their interest to do otherwise, and there are people across the country and beyond who see it.”

“And this is what happens when you resist? They come to the community in secret and kill and destroy until you give in?”

“That’s why this place is so important. We have to become a beacon against acts exactly like this. Look, I am an officer of the law, Archerd. I was appointed in the capital, and served in Holdswaine for several years. I don’t think you realize how deeply the Conclave’s influence runs through government and the law, but … I could tell you stories that would scare your hair white.” He sighed. “Your father told me all about your run-in with the Conclave last year. I know you must feel responsible for bringing them down here, and honestly, I can’t assure you that they aren’t reacting to your innovation.”

Archerd nodded. “So it is my fault, but I won’t—”

No. Whether they’re reacting to you or not changes nothing. If it wasn’t you, they’d have found a reason sooner or later. Dolesham is gaining a reputation, Archerd. Increasing numbers of craftsmen and tradesmen are moving here because of it, and my own— I arranged my transfer to Dolesham yourself after your father filed for the Dolesham charter of township. I knew of him, had helped him with a few spots of trouble in the past. Even back then this place was attracting … undesirables. I’ve quietly been culling the ranks of the local force in favor of those with no links back to them; you can bet that hasn’t won me or the town any favor with them.”

“Yes indeed, Rosston.” Altman nearly scared his son out of a decade of his life by appearing at his side suddenly. Looking back, Archerd saw the explosive device set carefully on the stone walk leading up to the steps to the house. “I didn’t hear the whole conversation, but I can guess well enough, and Rosston’s right, son. The Conclave loves nothing more than their own power and they’re well aware that we’re becoming a symbol working against them. They might have seized on you as an excuse to come here, but they would have been here sooner or later regardless. If not you, something else.”

Archerd nodded. “I can accept that, for now. But we need to be more vigilant. I can’t imagine they’re going to let this lie after they learn what’s become of their agents.”

“Indeed, if anything it’s only likely to force them to step up their activity. But now, gentlemen, we have to find some place to dispose of this rather unwelcome gift they’ve left for us.”

“Is there any hope of separating the explosive from the rest of the device, father? I’d love to study the internals if possible.”

“Hmmm … I think we can do that safely enough. I’ll leave that honor to you, however. I do have the tools here.” He removed them from a pocket, passing them over.

Several minutes passed as Archerd very slowly and carefully disconnected the explosive’s housing from the rest of the device. It was surprisingly small, assuming it held a similar quantity of the substance to the device that had destroyed the school. Whatever it was was more powerful than TNT, perhaps even more powerful than nitroglycerin. He held the small container securely in the palm of his hand.

“This should make it easier to move where we want it. There’s an empty clearing up the road out of town; we could take it there and detonate it safely.”

“That sounds fine to me, son. I certainly don’t have any better ideas.”

“What other secrets do you suppose the Conclave is hiding from the rest of us?”

“I wish I could say we’ll never know, Archerd. I’m terribly afraid though that we’ll be finding out soon enough.”

With that disquieting thought in mind, the three of them started off on foot to the clearing.

 

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