NaNoWriMo 2011 Story 5 - Day 26

 


 

 

* * *

Dr. Maulden greeted Constable Hughes at the door to his practice. “Good morning, Constable. Come in, what can I do for you?”
“I’m here on business I’m afraid, Doctor,” Hughes said, stepping in. “We got word not an hour ago that Holdswaine’s got some sort of epidemic on their hands. They’re informing outlaying regions like ourselves. You seen signs of anything out of the ordinary?”
“Epidemic? No, can’t say that I have, officer. What else can you tell me about this epidemic? What sort of illness it is? How fast it spreads? How lethal it is?”
Hughes looked a little puzzled. “Not real sure I’d even know how to guess how fast an illness spreads, doctor, and they didn’t say anything about that on the communicator that I’d heard of.”
“No, I guess you wouldn’t.” Maulden was something of a renegade in medicine, a doctor who didn’t believe in bloodletting and festering, leaches and amputation and scalding as the forefront techniques of the medical trade. He studied illness and the many causes it had in attempts to eradicate the illness without killing the patient in the process. This was a large part of the reason he’d moved to Dolesham, a place that was becoming known for acceptance of unusual modes of thinking.
“Sorry Doctor, we’ll be sure to let you know when more information comes through.”
“Thank you, Constable. And I’ll be sure to be watchful for any patterns that might be helpful.”
The officer nodded, another puzzled expression crossing his face, and left. Yes, there’s much work to be done yet, Dr. Maulden thought to himself.

* * *

Lynna feebly reached for the pottery cup, hands jittery and shaking even when she wasn’t coughing. It seemed to be so far out of reach, and the effort stole her breath away. So … cold …
A spasm of coughing shook her, knocked her hand into the cup. It clattered to the floor and rolled away, spilling its contents to the ground. Nobody would notice, if there were anybody to notice. Lynna lived in a tiny room in a dirty, run-down Holdswaine tenement that was all she could afford on the pub’s pay. She’d been on her own since the last of her family passed a few years ago.
She tried to groan, but the coughing wouldn’t let go of her lungs and throat. She felt like she was going to suffocate. She managed to turn herself onto her side, intending to chase after the cup, but that was as far as she got.
All she could do was curl into a ball and try to preserve warmth. The coughing came again, and again the strangling feeling, stronger than before. There was nothing to do but ride it out, and so she did, and lay still at last, the world going to dark.

* * *

The early autumn night was cool, but the storm drove the temperature down until the traveler wished for nothing more than a chance to get out of the rain and the cold for just an hour. Her cloak was soaked clear through, and the cold water was working its way into every gap in the warm clothing she wore underneath. She’d been on the road for days, passing through smaller communities in the darkness until she’d come upon Holdswaine in the south. That city she’d had to skirt, passing around to remain unchallenged; a city that large never truly slept.
Ahead of her a faint light beckoned off the edge of the road. Embers from a fire, or a fire banked low perhaps. She started to skirt around, though she felt more reluctance than usual; the fire light looked welcoming, a temptation on a freezing night.
She almost got too close to be sure she’d avoided being seen when she heard a choking cough from the vicinity of the camp. She froze, indecision warring within her. The coughing intensified, great wracking barks, then went quiet.
She cursed to herself and changed direction, heading toward the warm light, afraid of what she might see there.
The fire was burning low, logs reduced almost to ash, with some low flames flickering over the charred remains of a few. Embers glowed red and orange across the bottom of the fire pit. 3 men lay sleeping around the fire, or so it appeared at first glance. She knew they would not be waking up any time soon, though, and noted the curled in position the bodies were huddled in. The weather could certainly account for that, but she knew that wasn’t it. She also knew it wasn’t safe to stay in their vicinity; she’d lingered too long already. She turned her back and vanished into the night, headed south.

* * *

Archerd Dolet ran a hand along the superstructure admiringly. “She’s really coming along, Waldon. You’re sure the brass isn’t going to be too heavy?”
“She’ll be fine, boy, ‘n it’s only a thin coverin’ for strength anyway. Biggest problem with it is expansion when it gets hot, ‘n constriction when it gets cold. M’boys took that all inna their thinkin’ when they put ‘er together.” Waldon Sias was an old, old family friend, and certainly looked the old part. In spite of his age, he was still tough as a bear and was Archerd’s first and only pick for the head of the construction team building the Skyward Bound, the air ship he’d spent the last three years designing.
“I’m sure you’re right, and I can’t fault her appearance. This will put typical air ships to shame.”
“Y’done a fine job designin’ her, Arch. We’ll ‘ave her up and ready fer a trial run in time for the spring, or I’ll kill ‘n eat a bear with my bare hands.”
Archerd was sure the old man could do just that, and grinned. “How’re the gas bags coming along?”
The old man stopped and rubbed at his back thoughtfully. “Gas bags are about done. It’s the rigid structures that concern me. We got a few guys off ill the last few days, it’s settin’ us behind schedule. Not to worry though, we’ll get ‘er done.”
“I have no doubt. Thanks for the tour Waldon, I’ll come again in the next week.”
He left the construction yard, eyes scanning the roads of Dolesham. His father was waiting out by the yard gate. “How’s she looking, son?”
“She’s a thing of beauty. I can’t wait to get her into the air. Soon all of this—” he swept his hand along the road, where people walked, or rode horses, or in horse-drawn carriages, or some few even rode carriages driven by steam engines, “all of it will feel so antiquated. We’ll be looking down upon it all from comfortable seats in the sky!”
Air ships were nothing new, but they were uncommon and as a rule poorly designed and built. Archerd aimed to change that, much as his father and he himself and worked to improve train designs. It was a bold move; trains were a very familiar sight throughout the land, but airships were far less common. Drastic improvements were sure to be seen as a direct challenge to the Conclave, throwing Dolesham’s technical prowess in their faces.
They were past the point of hiding though; the Conclave knew full well who and where they were and the concentration of talent in the area was becoming too high for any sort of concealment. Far from just engineering and power and material sciences, the town was growing at a fantastic rate even in just the last two years, and welcoming pioneering thinkers in medicine, politics, philosophy, mathematics … it made Archerd’s head spin to think about it.
They walked out to the road, where their own steam-powered coach waited. It was big, easily able to seat 6 or 7 people straight across the seat, with wide-spaced wheels. Archerd helped his father up and in, then sat beside him at the controls. “Father, could you put the roof up? The sky’s a bit gray, it’ll probably rain again shortly.
Autumn was often a stormy season in that part of the country, but this year seemed more so than anyone could remember. The Ralladran river was broad and flowed low in high banks where the town was built, so they weren’t too concerned about flooding, but the farmers further down river might have a tough time of it if the rains continued as they had.
His father cast a glance out at the sky, then walked down the central aisle to unlatch the waxed canvas roof and draw it over a folding framework to hold it in place. Archerd had no sooner started the carriage and driven it out into the street than the first misty rain started falling. He flicked a switch on the instrument panel to connect electricity from the electrite generator to the lights mounted on the front of the carriage. Despite the great size of the carriage, the generator was nearly silent, and on top of the rain, it was getting dark.
The ride was smooth and quiet, and while not much faster than walking would have been, given the other people on the road, they were infinitely more comfortable than they would have been on the muddy streets. Before they’d been 10 minutes on the road, they saw the first boys rushing about, climbing street lamp poles with speed and agility, lighting the gas lamps and hurrying on to others. Without ever taking his attention from the road itself, Archerd found himself thinking about how one might design self-igniting gas lamps.
“Electric street lamps.” His father had his own musing expression on his face. “Save all that manual climbing and lighting the lamps. Though the light tubes would have to be changed eventually …”
“I was just thinking self-igniting gas lamps. Electrically igniting them, however — flip one switch and an entire street is lit!”
“I like it, son. We must draw up plans and a proposal over the winter.” He coughed, cleared his throat.
The rest of the trip passed uneventfully, the rain growing in intensity, dripping down from the roof as they passed the lamps, aglow in the growing dark. Thunder booming in the distance announced the imminent arrival of lightning.
It held off just a little longer though. The sky lit bright as noon with lightning just as they passed through the gate to the family home and parked the carriage off beside the house. They quickly retreated inside just as the real rain began, a pouring mass of water that could as easily have been the river draining right on top of the house.
They were met inside by Archerd’s sister Annis and the gentleman she’d been seeing for the past year, Dr. Tristram Maulden. “Father, Archerd, you were lucky to miss most of the rain! How is the Skyward Bound?”
“Mr. Dolet, Archerd, good to see you again.”
“And you, Doctor,” Archerd nodded, “Good to see you again. Ann, she’s shaping up remarkably well, old Waldon should have her ready as planned by next spring. A lucky thing too, seems he’s had a few of his workers get ill this past week.” He removed his overcoat and hung it in the small cloakroom off the main foyer, then took his father’s to hang as well.
Altman coughed and chuckled. “I may have picked it up myself, but I wouldn’t worry about Waldon. When he says he’ll get something done, he’ll have it done one way or another. He’s been working here with me for years.”
“Dinner’s ready,” Ann said as she led the way to the dining room. The rest followed.
“That’s Mr. Sias at the construction yard on the edge of town, is it not? The one with sick workers?” Maulden’s face was a bit more grave than Archerd was used to. He’d known the man for months now, since his sister introduced him to the rest of the family. They got along well enough, though their different fields meant that they had little opportunity to see one another save at dinners and events.
“Yes, he mentioned several workers have come down with something the last few days. Is there a problem?”
“Hmmm … I was visited by a constable from the police department earlier, apparently they received word of an epidemic that has broken out in Holdswaine. There was very little detail, so I don’t know that it’s of any relation to the sick workers, but I’ll have to keep an eye on the situation, and examine them if I can. You’ll want to keep an eye on your father too, just in case, and bring him to see me if he starts getting bad.”
They retired to the dinner table then, and to the parlor after that for an evening of conversation by the fire. Dr. Maulden said his goodbyes and returned home, and then the family drifted upstairs to bed, first Archerd’s mother, then Ann. Altman was rising to his feet, about to excuse himself when they heard a soft tapping at the front door, difficult to hear for the rain and the still crashing thunder. “Curious … Who could be calling at this late a time?”
“I don’t know, I’m certainly not expecting anyone.”
“I’ll get it son, you stay where you are.”
Archerd nursed a drink, hearing the front door open and muffled voices. His interest was piqued when the cloakroom door opened. He set his drink down and was rising to his feet when his father entered the room. “Archerd, there’s someone here to see you.”
He was just opening his mouth to ask who when suddenly he found his arms were full, the breath being squeezed from his lungs, and his nose filled with a powerfully familiar scent of jasmine. His startled eyes met those of his father, who simply smiled and left the room.
“Sunniva!” Worldly, serious green eyes met his with a sparkle that had an unaccustomed look to them; she hadn’t had much cause to smile in the past few years, he found himself thinking.
“Archerd. I’ve come a long way to get here.” She looked it, he thought with concern. Even with the traveler’s cloak hung away, her travel clothes were worn, dirty and damp, her eyes were black-circled with fatigue, and she looked drawn, and hungry.
“You look exhausted! Let me get a room set up for you, we have a spare.”
“Thank you, Archerd.” She was on the verge of collapse, exhaustion closing in fast; he could see it in her face. “We must talk, first thing in the morning, it’s vitally important.”
He led her upstairs to the guest bedroom; Altman, who had been anticipating this, was already finished dressing the bed. “Ms. Witherow will be staying then? As I expected. Wait just a moment, I think Kaylene has some bedclothes that will fit you.” With that settled, they retired to their respective beds.
When the morning sun rose, the rain remained, though the thunder and lightning had moved on to other lands. Sunniva had passed out before they’d had a chance to even offer food, so she tore through breakfast as though she were starving, somehow managing never to lose her decorum through the whole process. When they were done, which took some time since Kaylene and Ann insisted on meeting and fussing over the storied mystery woman of Archerd’s much-talked about train incident, she asked Archerd and Altman both to speak with her in the parlor.
“Mr. Dolet,” she exclaimed as soon as they were assembled, “I’ve heard all about you. Arch told me some of course, the night on the train, but in the three years since then I’ve heard much, much more.” She smiled. “Archerd, after we parted I spent a long time traveling, coming to terms with what I’d had to do, and what it meant for me and my future. A lot of that was about … well … killing those men. But more than that, it was also about betraying the Conclave.”
She sat down by the fire; the two men took their queue and joined her. She stared into the flames in the fireplace. “It would have been so very easy to simply return to them and go on as if nothing had happened. Or that’s what I believed at the time. They had no reason to think I was involved after all, and every reason to think you’d done it all. You certainly had reason. I could have slipped back into the ranks, resumed my post as a junior researcher studying physics and writing equations and all would have been well with the world, as far as they were concerned.
“What I found was that I couldn’t do that, Archerd. I went to the academy out of an intense need to know, to understand, and it seemed like that was my only route to that understanding. When I encountered you on that train, you opened my eyes to many things, but perhaps the most important was that the Conclave is wrong. They’re wrong to seal the knowledge of the world off from that world itself. They’re wrong to keep it locked away, accessible to only a few, leaving it unused, unknown, except when it suits their need for power or wealth.
“You showed me the possibility of knowledge escaped, of knowledge used, of practical uses that can make a difference in people’s lives. It’s a shockingly easy lesson to learn when the evidence is contraband technology that saves your own life. It took me time to accept it, but once I did, I knew I could never go back to them. At least, not as I had been.”
“As you had been?” Archerd’s brow raised.
“Yes. Many things about the incident on the train bothered me; chief among them the part where they tried to kill ever one aboard, of course. But beyond that, I wanted to why they handled the situation the way that they did. It was stupid, Arch, clumsy and stupid, and if there is one thing the Conclave is not, it’s stupid. The same can be said of their second attempt to reach you a year and a half ago. More ham-fisted brutality, throwing power out uncontrolled and half-blind.”
Altman was nodding. “I must confess the same thought has occurred to me.”
“Well, I realized I was in a position to at least find out, if not do something about it. About 2 years ago I got back in touch with friends I had there. Not people I’d worked with; people I’d studied with and who had moved on to other assignments after graduation.
“It was a dangerous game I played; you know the suspicion I held you in when I learned you weren’t with the Conclave, Arch. Things were made a bit easier by the fact that I did know these people, they knew I’d been in the academy, and they knew I’d gone on to work with the physicists afterward. It took a long time to start getting useful information about other areas of the organizations—”
“Organizations?” Archerd had thought it was just the one.
“Yes, the Conclave is often spoken of as a single organization, I know, but it works more like a … union of unions, I guess you could say. And that in fact was part of the reason for their ham-handedness. Information simply does not flow well within the Conclave, and they often find themselves facing situations where their left hand is acting without knowing what the right hand is doing.
“That brings me to why I’m here. That problem of information flow is beginning to change, and you — we — are going to have to be ready for it. The Conclave council recently elected a new chancellor, a man named Raedan Sholl. Everyone I know inside is in an uproar since he assumed primacy; he has the entire organization in a state of confusion. He’s implementing changes across all the individual unions and in how they inter-operate with one other.”
“It rather sounds like we should find this Raedan Sholl and thank him. They’ll be far less of a threat if they’re in a state of confusion, don’t you think?”
“For a time, yes, but maybe not for much time. His changes are attempts to improve efficiency and communication within the whole structure. He is also the picture perfect representative of Conclave policy with regards to renegades like yourselves … Like us.”
Altman sighed. “Yes, it would be best not to let our guard down too quickly, as nice as it is to hear that they Conclave is in disarray for the time being. If this Sholl is working to bring us more trouble, and do so more efficiently, we’ll have to use the time he gives us to be prepared. But Ms. Witherow, you said earlier that the flow of information was only part of the problem. Have you identified the rest?”
“Yes, and that’s the part that troubles me. I started looking into the history of the Conclave and their works; not a difficult task, they’re eager to let the whole world know how good and wonderful they are, after all. In that research, one thing became very clear, and that is that they have never faced a serious level of resistance to their ideas before. They’ve had the odd individual or two to deal with over the last few centuries, but never anything on the scale of Dolesham, an entire guarded community in a remote location with natural defenses resisting their ways. That is why they’ve handled their attempts to deal with this place the way they have; they’ve never learned how to deal with a threat like this. The approach they took with Archerd has always worked before; the approach they took with Dolesham was someone’s frightened “Get rid of them quick!” bungle compounded by poor communication with cooler, wiser heads above.
“With Sholl in the chancellor’s seat there’s a very real threat that that will change very shortly. As I said, the Conclave is not stupid. And they’ve studied their mistakes in handling you. They’re learning from those mistakes, and they’re not going to repeat them this time … and I am I afraid I know what it is that they’re planning to do this time. Have you had news out of Holdswaine lately?”
Archerd looked at his father. “Yes, a little. We discussed it over dinner. Ann’s man Dr. Maulden informed us that he’d been warned of an epidemic in Holdswaine. The doctor thought it might make its way down here, but he didn’t seem too concerned.”
“It’s possible it will, and it is a terrible illness so we should certainly be on guard for that. But more, it’s not just Holdswaine; many cities further north have been ravaged. It just arrived in Holdswaine recently and already thousands are sick, hundreds dead. I saw other travelers on the road myself, dead where they lay for the night.”
“I don’t understand; how does this help them deal with us? Are they going to send sick people here to make us all die of plague?”
“No; indeed, it would work better for them if we were spared entirely. They intend to strike at our credibility. They intend to blame Dolesham for starting the epidemic.”


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