THE PRICE OF INATTENTION
by Gordon S. McLeod
Dolesham baked under the baleful sun like anoverheated sealed can on the brink of bursting. The Ralladran river lay low init’s banks, but hardly a soulwas out to see it, most sane folk staying indoors in the relative cool of theshade.
Most,but not all. Archerd Dolet at least had the sense to stay under the canopy of amighty oak, and had ceased his exertions, but practiced his forms and stancesregardless.
“Archerd,you fool, you’ll have a stroke if you keep that up, and don’t say I didn’t sayso.” His mother Kaylene set a tray with a large pitcher of iced tea on a benchby 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’resweating enough to refill the river!”
“Thankyou, Mother, but you’re the one who stressed the importance of practice, areyou not?”
“As Irecall, 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 cando ‘till the sun lets up.”
“Icouldn’t ask for a better time to practice then, could I? I didn’t get to pickmy preferred time or conditions last year on the train, after all. I had totake what I was given, and—”
“Well ofcourse, you have to play the hand you’re dealt, and of course it’s good to beprepared for adverse conditions, but you overdo it, especially this last year.”
“Verywell, enough for today.”
Archerdhad spent the better part of the last year and a half learning the art of thequarterstaff from his mother, who until fairly recently had been unequaled withthe staff and spear in Dolesham or the much larger city of Holdswaine to thenorth.
He’dbeen caught woefully unprepared then, especially for someone who consideredhimself intelligent and who knew himself to be, at least theoretically, in someform of danger. He’d been attending a conference in the north and had letsomething slip (another lapse, one he still berated himself over,) that hadcaught the attention of the Conclave, the governing body of the scientificstudies, keepers of lore and hoarders of knowledge who arguably possessed morepowerful than the actual government itself.
Conclaveagents had boarded the train and sabotaged it, then killed almost all the crewand passengers in the ensuing chaos. Archerd and the other sole survivor, oneMs. Sunniva Witherow had defeated the pair, but that owed far more to the factthat the agents were little more than lowly thugs and had expected no realresistance than to any genuine skill on either of their parts.
Archerdwas determined that that wouldn’t be the case a second time. In addition to thestaff, which probably wouldn’t have served him well inside the train, he wassupplementing his bare-handed fighting skills with the guards when he had thetime.
Hepoured a glass of the tea and drank half of it on one breath, his mothernodding approvingly.
“In anyevent, I do have other work that needs to be done. Father mentioned aninteresting possibility the other day and I’ve been working up some plans. Hecalled it an air ship—”
The restof his thought was cut off as a low, very loud rumbling WHUMP sounded from thesouth-east and echoed throughout the valley.
“What—”he gasped as he and his mother both turned and raced for the house. Stampedingup to the second floor, he found his father already at one of the largewindows, manipulating the lenses of a large pair of very old goggles he wore.“Father, what do you see?”
“Not athing, not from here … wait … there is smoke, far more than there shouldbe.” Altman Dolet had grown frail under the strain of building, establishingand then running Dolesham, all the while continuing his real work, the free andopen advancement of science. The free part he had accomplished, if not withoutsome difficulty. The open part was still a work in progress, thanks to theConclave.
Thethree raced downstairs, Archerd far faster than his parents, and he didn’t stopto wait. He could see the plume of dark smoke over the rooftops as he exitedhis family’s manor house, and his constant working out paid off as he ranthrough the heat toward the scene.
As hegot closer, he recognized the area; it was the school house, a new constructionthat had been completed barely a year ago to replace several small temporaryshacks 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 shouldhave been no students or teachers within.
A crowdwas gathered around, milling in the heat. The building was half-collapsed, theroof blown off, with one wall blasted outward and the adjacent wall knockedover. Much of the rubble was scorched and burned, and small fires continued toblaze, adding to the haze of smoke that clung to the street and rose into theair like a beacon.
Peoplestarted pouring into the street despite the heat to gawk at the sight. Amongthe first that Archerd recognized was his younger sister Annis.
“Ann!What happened? Did you see? Were you here?”
Annishelped out at the school; much like Archerd she’d been taught critical thinkingand the scientific disciplines from a young age, and she helped pass on thatknowledge to the children of Dolesham.
“I wasnear by, but not that near. Archerd, who could do something like this!” She wastransfixed, 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.
“Idon’t—” he started to reply, then stopped himself. A glittering point of lightnear his feet caught his eye. It looked almost like …
Hestooped and picked it up. It was a small metal disk, warped and blackened andbearing in relief a hemisphere bisected with a stylized lightning bolt, in themiddle of 3 overlapping narrow ovals forming a perfect 6-pointed star.
He knewthat symbol all too well; Annis did too. “The Conclave.”
Amuttering started to rise from the growing crowd as others found more of thedisks, many more.
“It’s amessage, son.” Altman and Kaylene had arrived. “It’s a message to all of us.They’ve come at last.”
Continue to NaNoWriMo 2011 Story 4 - Day 20
Continue to NaNoWriMo 2011 Story 4 - Day 20