The Price of Independence - Rough - Day 2

 


He fastened the nearest of the aprons to himself, checking the coverage, then fitted himself with a heavy and uncomfortable mask and an ungainly set of gloves. So equipped, he was about to resume work when a deep knock sounded from the door behind him. With a sigh of exasperation, he stripped off the gloves and mask once more and opened it, expecting Deman and another assault on his work.
What he saw instead was an elderly gentleman with pale blue eyes, sharper than his age suggested they should be. He was dressed in dark grey, scholarly robes, with a matching cap perched on his nearly-bald head. Embroidered on the robe and the cap in darker grey thread, subtle but still possible to see, was a symbol. It featured a central circle crossed by a lightning bolt. Surrounding this arrangement lay 3 overlapping ovals centered on the circle and crossing each other, looking like a 6-pointed star. Instructor Calland, Altman’s favorite teacher of the geosciences.
“Mr. Dolet, it’s a pleasure to see you again. I trust I’m not interrupting?” The man’s voice was cultured and just a touch crinkled with age, worn, with years of lecturing behind it.
“Nothing I can’t delay, sir. Were you looking for me?”
“I’m afraid so, Mr. Dolet.” His eyes cast downward a moment, a shadow of sadness crossing his face. “It’s not good news. I received a letter today, as did you. Both are from your uncle, Mr. Eldrid Tremaine. I know not what he had to say to you, but the news he had for me is grave. I’ll say no more until you’ve read yours.” He pulled a sealed letter from his robes.
Taking the letter with curiosity, his eyes narrowed briefly in thought. “Eldrid Tremaine, you say? Tremaine is certainly a name I know. I’ve aunts and uncles and cousins who bear it, but I don’t know of an uncle named Eldrid.”
The old man looked surprised. “Really! Why, I had assumed you were acquainted. He certainly knows of you and your work here, Mr. Dolet, and he does follow your work closely.”
“You know him, then?” Altman asked, curiosity piqued further.
“I certainly do, yes. Eldrid has been a friend for a long time … a long time. He used to teach here, much as I do, but years ago he decided the academic life held no further appeal. He retired. ‘To the country,’ he said, but I visited once and if you ask me, it’s no country at all, just a house in the wilderness. But it suits him, and that’s what matters, I suppose.”
This set Altman’s mind at ease, for while he still failed to recognize the name, it did ring a distant bell of memory in his mind, of a relation who had retired to what seemed the middle of nowhere when he was very young. It had been the talk of the family for years, at least among certain elements of the family. He’d never paid it much mind.
He looked down at the envelope, a folded sheet of fine parchment with a wax seal. So his uncle was a man of means then. His name, Altman Dolet, was written in large, sure script. He broke the seal and unfolded the letter.

My dear great-nephew Altman,

This letter will undoubtedly come as a surprise to you. It’s likely you don’t know me, as I haven’t laid eyes on you since you were a babe, but it is indeed true that we are family. I am your maternal grandfather’s brother.
I haven’t been close to my family for a very long time, for reasons I won’t go into here. Suffice it to say that there is no ill will involved; the requirements of my research have deemed it necessary for me to separate myself from Holdswaine, the Academy, the Conclave, and yes, even my family, much as it pains me.
It is this research that concerns you, young Altman. I’ve been in correspondence with Instructor Calland for many years, and of late he has kept me abreast of your studies, at my request. He tells me you have a most promising mind, a real talent for the sciences of the earth.
It is likely that you should receive this shortly after your graduation. I have a great request to make of you, one which I know I have no right to make. If you have any commitments to the Academy or to the Conclave for purposes of employment, I ask that you set them aside temporarily. Delay them, if you must. Instead, travel to my home, to my laboratories. If you are half the scientist I believe you to be, you will find the trip well worth your time.
I do beg of you to hurry though, nephew Altman. My time grows short as age and illness have their way with me, while my work grows long.

His great-uncle’s signature occupied the bottom of the letter, but it was not alone. A small but detailed map of the land sat opposed to it, showing Holdswaine, the city he now stood in, and the Southern Road that lead through unclaimed regions to more great cities further south.
Noted on the map was a route that followed the Southern Road for a time but veered off to the west after what looked to be several days’ journey. More days of travel through uninhabited distant woodlands were indicated, and finally a valley was marked as the destination.
“He is dying, then?” Altman asked, a mix of emotions welling up in him; sadness for the immanent passing of this relative he’d barely known he had, curiosity about this work Tremaine was so concerned about, concern for his own plans, for he had indeed intended to begin almost immediately at a position in the Conclave’s new research complex not far from the Academy itself.
“I am afraid so, yes. But are not we all? In the end, we all have our time. He has informed me of his request that you visit him, Altman. The decision is yours, but your absence won’t be held against you under the circumstances.” The man’s voice held a compassionate warmth.
“Thank you, Instructor.”


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