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