This is chapter six of my series Lost Colony. Most readers should start with chapter one, but if you want to scroll down to the steamy parts, be my guest!
This is a work of (science) fiction. All characters are over age eighteen. Thanks for reading!
Lost Colony: Chapter 06
"Did I drink the green berry spirit? I feel sick."
Following the drone attack, the caravan pulled together at one end of the Overlook plaza. While Drian nervously kept watch, those that had been stunned were laid on a row of pallets. Most had fallen in or around one of the wagons, but Lord Toph had been found on the opposite side of the canyon, near the merchant square. Like the others, his first few moments of consciousness were marked by confusion and fear.
"No, no," Talia said, soothingly. "Here, have some water." She and the other maidens were looking after those who had been stunned by the drone.
Sparr didn't have the heart to tell the man that his bottle of spirit had been smashed in the chaos. "We were attacked," he said. "A rogue machine. You were stunned."
"Rogue machine?" Toph stared up at Sparr groggily.
"It was horrible!" Talia said, breaking in. "It came after everyone... it could fly!"
While the maiden gushed about the horror of the attack, Sparr moved further down the line of the fallen. The princes and guards were recovering swiftly, even if they complained about lingering pain and numbness. Kern wasn't so lucky. The guard captain was pale and stiff, his left arm held at an odd angle to his body.
"How are you?" Sparr asked.
Kern stared back, pain evident. "How do I look?" he asked. He took in a difficult breath.
Sparr held his finger against the man's neck. The pulse he found was wild, erratic. He didn't need medical training to know the man's heart had been damaged by the electrical pulse from the drone's stunwire. "Can you take a deep breath?"
Kern tried, but had to abandon the effort as soon as he started. "Fuck," he said, coughing. "Did I kill it?"
"You damaged it," Sparr said. He smiled. "You took right after that thing, gave it a couple of pretty good blows. I didn't see what happened after."
"Did something to me," Kern said. "Hurts."
"I'll get you something."
Sparr found one of the maidens. "Kern is in a bad way."
The girl nodded solemnly.
"Bring him some spirits. The strongest you have." Sparr watched as the girl scurried off, then headed back to where the drone lay.
There was no mistaking the drone's origin. It was constructed from the lightweight, synthesized alloys favored by the Alliance. A band around its center held an array of sensors, the thrusters were redundant, and it was rigged with multiple stunwire ports. It wasn't a research machine; the drone had been configured for observation and suppression. As to what it had been doing in Shong, and why it had attacked, Sparr had just one idea.
He found Liette sitting alone at the edge of the impromptu camp. The priestess was facing away, as if reluctant to confront the disaster which had befallen the pilgrimage. Sparr joined her.
"I don't think Kern will live," he said. There was no point in skirting the truth.
Liette turned to him, her expression distant. "I know," she said quietly. "I could see it in his eyes. That thing..."
"Liette, I have to know. From the time that thing appeared until I joined you in the wagon, how long had it been?"
The priestess turned away again. Dusk had turned into nightfall. A few fires had been lit in the city, and Sparr could just make out agitated cries reaching them from across the canyon. Like the pilgrims, the inhabitants of Shong were re-emerging and taking stock.
"It attacked the others first," she said, a flick of her head indicating the merchant square. "We could hear it, the whine of... whatever that was. We heard their cries."
"How long?" Sparr repeated. Liette was obviously traumatized, but Sparr was desperate to reconstruct the timeline.
Still, the priestess declined to meet his gaze. "Twenty minutes? We heard it, heard them." She glanced at him briefly before once again turning away. Liette was pale, slumped and defeated. The strong woman who had led them so far, who held so much authority, was in shock. "Maybe fifteen minutes on the other side before it came for us. Another five here." She took a deep, sobbing breath. "Oh Omm, why?"
Sparr pieced together the timeline from his memory and Liette's description. It had taken him fewer than five minutes to climb out of the canyon, cross the merchant square, and reach the edge of the Overlook plaza. Prior to that, he had been experimenting with the replicator he found in the ruins. Assuming the drone had been stationed somewhere nearby, it would have been activated around the same time he had revived the machine. It had almost certainly been woken by Sparr's actions.
"And did it scan everyone that it stunned?"
"The demon machine," he said. "Did it, uh, fly nearby each person that fell?"
"Oh." Liette seemed lost. "I don't know." Then, just when Sparr thought she would lapse again into silence, the priestess spoke. "Why did you want your magic kit?"
"I thought I could scare it," he replied. Sparr had shouldered his survival bag, also known as his 'magic kit'. He had no intention of surrendering it.
"You killed that thing, right?" The question came from the glass merchant, a woman of late years, garbed plainly but draped with a score of different, intricately cut glass ornaments. She had sought out Sparr at the edge of the plaza.
"Several of us did," he said warily. More than a handful of people had seen Sparr deliver the flurry of blows that had finally silenced the drone.
"Well, do you think you could move it? I won't be able to sell anything with that thing there!"
Sparr's first reaction was to send her away. What responsibility of his was the drone? But an examination of the drone might yet reveal its secrets. Wearily, he rose.
Less than one and a half meters tall, the drone was nonetheless heavy. Grunting with the effort, Sparr dragged the hulk to the edge of the pilgrim camp. There, just enough light from Silla's cook fire allowed him to give it a more exhaustive inspection. He pried off the bottom plate, already loosened from his earlier attack. The inside was a densely-packed jumble. Sparr identified the sealed power module, the connector to the sensor array, and the stunwire canisters. None of the parts were of use. He might be able to replicate more colonist-era technology, but nothing from four hundred years prior would be interoperable with modern Alliance tech. Just when he was about to give up, something occurred to him. Nearly broken by fatigue and stress, Sparr pulled at a cluster of thin wires attached to the sensor array. They led to a small module which could only be the drone's main processor. Sparr popped it loose. If he could locate a reader, the module might reveal who had sent the drone, and why.
Kern died in his sleep.
The guard captain, according to Talia, had welcomed the bottle of spirits, consuming it slowly. The guards, some of the pilgrims, and even Liette herself had checked in on him as the night progressed. By sunrise he had passed. An even darker mood settled over the caravan.
"We'll return to Vonde," Liette said, flatly. She had rallied somewhat from the previous day's depression, but still looked pale and tired. "There's nothing else to do. Omm has tested us, and tested us again. We cannot know his reasons, but the intent is clear. We are not meant to proceed further."
There was no objection from the pilgrims. The assembly stood in a rough circle as the drivers and remaining guards fussed with the wagons and broke down the tents. Even the usually boastful bachelors were silent.
"We leave in half an hour. I don't suggest going back into the city. There has been some talk that we are to blame for the attack." Liette slipped away, devoid of her usual showmanship. Sparr followed her.
"I can't go back with you," he said, plainly. Like Liette, Sparr was still numb from the previous day's events.
The priestess looked at him blankly.
"The machine was looking for me," he said. "If I go with you, I will put the entire pilgrimage in danger."
"Looking for you?"
"Yes. Look, I don't know why, but you saw it come after me in the wagon yesterday. Not you, not Silla, me." He wasn't lying. Sparr strongly suspected the drone had been waiting for him in Shong. It had targeted him after he shot it, but the thing had awoken only after he had activated the replicator.
"Have you angered Omm?"
"I... I don't think so. I only know what I saw."
Liette took a look back over her shoulder, toward the caravan. Tuck had recovered quickly from the drone attack. He and Drian were busy loading the wagons and harnessing the draybeasts. "I made a mistake with those two," she said.
"They're good boys," Sparr said quickly. "They'll-"
"Oh, I know, I know," Liette said, cutting him off. "I mean as princes." She shook her head.
"Well, yeah," Sparr said, trying to avoid smiling. "But they'll do well for you on the way back. They'll guard and fight as well as the others. Just don't expect them to learn any dances."
For a time, the two stood in silence. The soft morning sun threw long shadows from Shong's towers across the Overlook plaza. The glass merchant cursed as she cleaned up the wreckage of her stand. Cheddar, the planet's second moon, hung low in the sky, its soft orange light barely perceptible. After a minute, Liette spoke.
"Get your things," she said. "Don't tell anyone else you're leaving. Just go." She turned to him. "You're an odd one, Alain. Where will you go?"
It was the first time Sparr could remember Liette calling him by name. He thought on Liette's question. Sparr had studied the tapestry in a Vonde fabric vendor's shop. In addition to Shong, the map had shown another promising city.
"There's a city. East of here and a bit south, near the coast."
"Santi," Liette said. Her expression wrinkled in distaste. "Not a clean place."
"Perfect for an animal, then."
Any dream Sparr might have had of recruiting Efreem or Silla was thwarted by Liette. By the time he had gathered his things, the priestess had called the group into an impromptu prayer circle. She invited Efreem and Silla to stand beside her.
"During these trying times, we call upon Omm for guidance..."
Sparr groaned in frustration. Liette had allowed him to leave, but assured he would do so on his own. To flee without Efreem would be heartbreaking. The man had been the first to offer his hand in friendship on Kaybe, had fought beside Sparr, and offered quiet companionship. Sparr stood torn. He couldn't burst into the prayer circle, and if he did, he would certainly be cut down by the guards before a confused Efreem could even lift his blade in defense. Instead, he watched as the priestess consigned him to a solo journey.
Sparr turned away.
When Liette gathered the party, she unwittingly provided Sparr with a final opportunity. While the priestess droned on about Omm's divine will, he hopped into the supply wagon. After quickly filling a satchel with salted fish and dried vegetables, he prepared to get on his way. Something stopped him. This was the wagon that Silla rode in, where she prepped for the day's meals. Impulsively, he scratched out a hasty smiley-face with his knife. Trying not to focus on how much he would miss the chef's company, Sparr leapt from the wagon.
If he remembered the tapestry correctly, a road skirted Shong to the east. To reach it, Sparr followed the north side of the canyon. Whereas to the south was the crumbling city core, the north was characterized by lower, sprawling buildings. They must once have been warehouses, fabrication plants, or depots. All were long abandoned and completely scavenged, little more than hollow outlines. Sparr stopped next to one to rest and gather his thoughts.
He could stay in Shong. It had been a stroke of luck finding the working replicator, but he couldn't rule out finding another. He had enough food to last several days, and with his few tokens could probably hang on for several more. But Sparr's instincts told him he wouldn't find what he was looking for here. The city had been scavenged and excavated for centuries. As well, the canyon's stagnant waters no doubt had flooded the lowest levels of the city's infrastructure, damaging or destroying any technology they reached. No, he decided, it would do no good to stay here. He resolved to find the road to Santi. If nothing else, travelers along the road might provide him with some insight as to what he would find there. He rose.
Late morning sun warmed Sparr as he made his way out of Shong. Leaving the densest part of the city behind him, he once again found himself in the shallow, dusty valley. A lattice of streets had been laid out, but unlike those the pilgrims had passed through on their way into the city, these had never been built upon. For the hundredth time, Sparr wondered what had befallen the colonists. Had some natural disaster struck? Had they fallen into conflict? Shong had given no clue. The damage there appeared to have been inflicted by scavengers, not war.
Sparr also wondered how he would stay safe. His first day on the planet had seen him pursued by a pack of wolf-like creatures which he had evaded only to be captured by slavers. He had learned a great deal about the planet over the past months, including its language and culture. Would it be enough to keep him safe? Doubts gnawed at him.
By mid afternoon, Sparr had climbed to the edge of the shallow valley. Ahead lay a ridge line, dotted with green. Puffing with the effort, Sparr topped the ridge. Here the way dropped down into a land completely different from that which he had just crossed. Scrub, grasses, and dwarf trees led down the slope, giving way at the bottom to thicker clusters of greenery. The abundance and diversity of life on Kaybe never ceased to intrigue Sparr. Apart from some hunting, the colonists didn't seem to have inflicted any serious harm on the local fauna. It was, Sparr thought, much like life on Earth must have been before the emergence of men.
The road wasn't much farther. Sparr approached it cautiously, looking for any sign of recent traffic. There wasn't, but shortly after turning south east, he spotted a cluster of buildings. At a spot where the road pressed close to the ridge, a tiny village had taken root. Fearful of slavers, he crept toward it.
There was little sign of recent inhabitation. One decrepit building was large enough possibly to have served as a guesthouse. Two much smaller buildings, little more than shacks, would have been suitable for at most two occupants each. One of the two had been largely stripped of its walls, the wood apparently used for a fire. Little else recommended the place. Shade was sparse, there was no sign of access to fresh water, and the ground was rocky. Little wonder, Sparr thought, that the spot had been abandoned.
The ridge wall, however, was unique. Where it passed near the village the sheer wall had been crudely carved. Sparr tugged away some vines to reveal a pictograph. To the left, clusters of crudely worked stick figures surrounded what might have been the towers of a city. The figures stood tall, their arms outstretched. Nearby, a circle had been drawn, surrounding a downward-pointing arrow. To the right similar figures seemed to crawl, or lay flat. Farther to the right still, a few lonely figures stood, surrounded by trees. Sparr tried to make sense of the drawing.
"Can you believe travelers used to pay to see this?"
Sparr spun, startled, but the woman facing him offered no obvious threat. Dressed in drab, threadbare clothes, greying, and carrying only a wooden bucket in each hand, she stood facing Sparr with amusement. He tried to gather his wits. "People paid to see the carving?"
"Oh, yes," she said. "This used to be a pilgrimage station. They'd stop for the evening, set up camp, and as soon as night fell, the priest or priestess would bring the group to the carving for a lesson. One of Omm's stages. The fifth? I get them confused."
"Was it the one where Omm liberates the faithful from their tokens?"
"Exactly!" she said. Sparr caught a glimpse of a weary smile.
"Nooma," the woman said. She set down the buckets, which Sparr saw contained a thick liquid.
"But seriously," Sparr said, returning to the carving, "what is this all about?"
Nooma swept her eyes across the carving as if she might previously have missed something. She gestured to the buckets. "Help me with these and I'll tell you."
Sparr hesitated. It was earlier than he had planned to stop. On the other hand, his new friend might have important information. For that matter, she might know of a safe place to pass the night. He hoisted the buckets. "What is this stuff?"
"Sap," Nooma explained, taking off along a path which hugged the ridge. "Give it a smell."
He did. "It's sweet?"
"Yes," Nooma said. "Very. I boil it down, dry some into candy, and bottle the rest."
"And you sell it to travelers."
"And I sell the candy to travelers. The molasses I sell to a spirit vendor."
"Why did the pilgrim caravans stop coming to visit the carving?" Sparr asked.
"When they found out it was a hoax?"
Sparr snorted. "What?" The two reached a small clearing.
"You can set those buckets down over there," Nooma said.
Sparr did as he was asked, then watched as Nooma re-kindled a modest fire. She poured the sap into a kettle which might four hundred years prior have been fabricated as a sink. So much of Kaybe life still depended upon the technology first built then abandoned by the original colonists. The two sat.
"You said the carving was a hoax?"
She sighed. "I don't know, honestly. My husband and I debated it. He thought it was a convenience for the Origin, something that had been twisted to support their teachings."
"Like the importance of the phases of the moons." Efreem and Silla had explained how the Origin had borrowed their symbolism from an older religion known as the Precipice.
"Like that, yes." She eyed Sparr anew before continuing. "We, my husband and I, thought that the carving had nothing to do with the Origin, but tells an important story nonetheless."
"Well, it's obvious most people used to live in the cities, right?"
"Sure," Sparr said, surprised. It was obvious to him, but it came as a pleasant surprise that at least some of the local inhabitants made the connection as well.
"But we don't, not any longer. Only the scavengers still live in the cities. Mostly we live in villages."
"So that's the first and third sections of the carving. In the first, people live in large numbers in a city. In the third, just a few people remain, and there's no city."
"What happened in between?" Sparr asked. No question plagued him more.
"I think we got sick," Nooma said. "Remember the people in that section weren't standing? They were crawling or, I think, dead."
Sparr hadn't seriously considered illness. By all indications the colonists had arrived in good health, and prospered for decades. What new affliction could have stricken them?
"What about the circle? It had an arrow inside, pointing down."
It took Nooma a moment to recall. "Oh," she said. "My husband and I disagreed on that. He thought it meant the people escaped the city through a hole."
"And what do you think?"
"I don't know," she confessed. "I just didn't like his explanation. You know how husband and wife are."
"Do you mind if I ask..." Sparr let the question trail off.
"Dead," Nooma said. "It's okay. It's been many years." She ran her fingers through greying hair. "Dusk hounds."