Chapter 3, Part A

(C) Copyright Brian Gottheil, 2014

The purpose of the Energize Project was to generate electricity using the power of the Gateway Well in northeastern Deugan. It was a complete failure.

The basic principles have been known for centuries. The Energy is bound to the Wells, and can never travel or be used outside their borders. The Energy will infect any person who remains in a Well for more than 24 consecutive hours — that’s approximate, you understand, some people certainly hold out longer — and the infection is dramatic and irreversible. It allows the infected person to use the Well’s power while inside the Well’s bounds, but it causes sickness, unnatural aging, potentially even death.

In order for the Project to succeed, we needed to either discover a method for removing Energy from the Well, or design a generation plant that could be located inside the Well and harness its power mechanically. Mechanism was essential. Otherwise, large numbers of humans would need to infect themselves, station themselves inside the Well, and channel the Energy through their bodies to power the generators. Even if anyone was crazy enough to volunteer, their lifespan would drop to a few years and we’d soon need to find someone crazy enough to replace them.

Frankly, I wasn’t surprised when CADS [the Council for the Advancement of Deugan Sciences] cut our funding and ended the project. In five years we hadn’t made a hint of progress. Not even a single minor discovery that could propel future work. The only thing I learned from the entire Project was that the Power has its own agenda — and it doesn’t want to be understood.

— Excerpts from an interview (1692) with Dr. Albrecht Dreidger, professor at the University of Czemers-Broden and former head of the Energize Project

 

“Jayla.”

She blinked and looked up from her papers. Brenner was standing at the edge of her desk, a crude construction built from stones they’d found lying around the cavern. She smiled at him. “Hey, Brenner,” she said. “Can we talk in a little while? I’m working on my essay and I’m just starting to get a good flow going.”

After their first span trapped in the Well, Professor Terial had insisted on teaching classes and assigning work. They were here on a university assignment, he declared, and they were damn well going to continue their education. Though the cavern could get dark, the orange glow off the walls was more than enough for them to study by. Jayla was actually glad for the schoolwork. It gave them all something useful to do and helped take their minds off their predicament.

The essay was topical, too. It was about the reasons for the Wassian government’s newfound interest in studying the Wells, years after abandoning the project as a lost cause. Jayla remembered her father ranting about the idiocy of pouring money into such a useless endeavour. “Can you believe all this talk about military applications?” he’d shouted. “How can there be a military application if the power can’t leave the Well, and the Well is hundreds of leagues from the Orastan or the Deugan borders?” The professor, as far as Jayla could tell, seemed to agree. The government wasn’t actually trying to use the Well’s power. Only to understand it, to explain it scientifically, and so to undermine the Steifar, who revered it as a gift from their god — and who were spearheading the Amimi independence movement.

“Let me give you a hint,” Brenner said to Jayla, laying his hand on the desk. “There’s a bell curve in this class, and I’m the only other student. All you need to do to get your ‘A’ is to beat me. And I’m not working on the essay.”

“Wow,” Jayla teased. “You just said a whole bunch of words all in a row.”

“Hey, I’m not that quiet, am I?”

“Brenner Halloway! I barely got a word out of you for the whole first month we were in here!” Jayla said.

“Okay, I know, but this whole thing was a shock and that’s just how I reacted,” he said. “I’ve been a lot better since — well, since that night you showed me the stars. I don’t think you understand how much that meant to me.”

She blushed. “Brenner, I — I just —”

“I wanted to pay you back,” Brenner said. “Do something nice like that for you. Come on. I’ve got something to show you.” He turned and started walking toward the large room of the main cavern, where they’d watched the stars together. Jayla hesitated, then quickly scribbled two more sentences of her essay and ran to follow him.

When she caught up with Brenner, he was kneeling on the ground in the main cavern. His face was screwed up in concentration, and he was muttering to himself and gesturing strangely. She stood silently, watching him work. He seemed to be getting frustrated, but just when it looked like he might be about to give up, the cavern was suddenly plunged into darkness —

— and a split second later, it erupted into colour. A column of shimmering white light burst from the ground inches from where Jayla was standing, and she jumped backward, startled. She heard Brenner let out a whoop of joy, and then she saw him, bathed in another column of purple light. New columns started bursting up all around them, red and green and orange and silver. She saw Brenner start to run without any direction, his arms raised in the air, joy lighting up his face. He passed through two of the columns and they seemed to explode into fountains, streams of coloured light cascading down like the tails of fireworks. It was the most beautiful sight Jayla had ever seen.

She started to run too, and as she passed through a column of light, she suddenly felt the power reaching out to her, and she seized it and spun it around. The lights started drifting in a slow circle, the fountains spraying their sparks out in waves. She reached out again, and this time the lights started drifting away from them and new lights, fainter, showed up to replace them. Soon the scenery had changed entirely. Instead of darkness interspersed with columns and fountains, the entire room was suddenly bathed in lights that were all the colours of a rainbow.

Then Jayla felt strong arms wrap around her from behind, and she shrieked as Brenner lifted her off the ground and spun her around. The rainbow lights shimmered around her feet as they flew through the air. She started prying at his hands, and he was still trying to lift her, and somehow they both ended up on the ground. Jayla pushed herself up to her knees —

And the scenery shifted again. Brenner had tapped into the energy too, she realized, just as she had. The old columns were blazing streaks of light as they rushed back to meet them.

When their surroundings settled, Jayla and Brenner were kneeling together inside a fountain of golden light that erupted and cascaded all around them. Brenner reached out and took Jayla’s hands in his. “I know I’m not as good with words as you are,” he said, “but this is my way of saying thank you.”

Jayla squeezed his hands. “Brenner, this is so unbelievably beautiful.”

“And so are you,” Brenner said, and he leaned in toward her, and he kissed her as the fireworks exploded —

 *

 No, Caryn thought. That was wrong. The golden light was right, and the cascading fountain, and his strong hands taking hers, and the kiss — but there were no fireworks then, no explosions. That was the present creeping into her memories.

The shelling had begun within twelve hours of their arrival at the Gateway Fort. It was brutal and frightening, and it never ceased. The concrete walls of the Fort dulled the sounds of the shells, but Caryn was still constantly aware of them, aware that any one of them had the power to end her life. Did the garrisons at these forts ever grow accustomed to it, she wondered, the way she slowly learned to accept her life in the Well? Did they find ways to laugh or joke about it? Could the terrifying become normal — and wasn’t that terrifying?

“There’s a lot of sorceress talk going around,” Lana informed her as they sat together in the quarters they shared. The fort had two and a half corridors dedicated to officers’ quarters, but even so, General Freed had declared that the politicians could only be accommodated if they slept two to a room. Caryn shared her space with Lana, while Marwin shared with Janusz. Hans and Reimund had quarters in the centre of the corridor, where they could easily respond to any threat.

The Gateway Fort was a massive concrete labyrinth of twisting paths and tunnels. That morning, as a young captain by the name of Willem Toppel led her on a tour through the fortress, she found herself glad to have Marwin by her side. Though still somewhat impetuous, the fair-skinned boy with the freckles and light brown hair had surprised her with his knowledge of military construction. He had been raised in a military family and had read voraciously about armaments, fortifications and tactics. His great-grandfather had served in the Unification Wars, and his grandfather in the Wassian Intervention. His father, in addition to being a reservist, had worked on the construction of several forts that protected a vital highway in Deugan’s southeast. Caryn was pleased. The president had chosen well in assigning Marwin to this particular mission.

Marwin had reported the same thing to her, though. He’d taken his lunch in the mess hall that afternoon, and he had overheard the soldiers asking each other whether it was truly a coincidence that the shelling had begun just after the sorceress arrived.

“If I were really a sorceress, I’d stop the shelling, not start it,” Caryn said.

Lana grinned. “I hoped you would say that. People can be ridiculous sometimes. Of course they’re shelling us because some sorceress made them, and not because we’re at war.”

Caryn laughed too. It felt good to laugh; it hadn’t happened too often recently. “Maybe my sorcery muddled the brain of the King of Brealand and forced him to declare war on us in the first place,” she suggested. “Or maybe my sorcery caused his pen to slip when he was writing the declaration. He actually meant to attack the New Empire.” Lana grinned again. “I have been wondering one thing, though. Yesterday, on the train, I was asking you that exact question, why you thought Brealand entered the war. Why were you so shy about answering?”

Lana sighed. “Marwin had just been openly disrespectful of you, and I know from experience how hard it is for a woman to get respect in government. I know Marwin is young, but if young people keep those attitudes, what hope do the rest of us have? I didn’t want to undermine you in front of him.”

Caryn was taken aback. Lana’s answer, while touching, was not the one she had expected. Caryn groped for words. “Thank you,” she finally managed.

Jayla had never had to grope for words, Caryn remembered. She could carry on conversations effortlessly. But she was more carefree then, and younger, so much younger, even in the Well when her skin started to wrinkle and her hair started to grey.

“My lady, my answer yesterday was honest,” Lana said. “I do think you’re probably right about cultures and counter-balancing and all of that.”

“That doesn’t matter,” Caryn said. “Whether you think I’m right or wrong, I just want you to feel comfortable enough to speak your mind. Don’t let Janusz or Marwin shut you up.” She sighed. “If I’d let people like that shut me up, I might still be scraping by as a number cruncher in the treasury and counting myself lucky.”

“Whereas now you really are lucky.” Lana grinned. “You’re at a military fort that’s been hit by four hundred shells since breakfast, and you’re meeting this evening with a general who hates your closest political ally.”

“Which is why I need your help,” Caryn told her. She changed her tone, all business now. “What has your research uncovered?”

“Unfortunately, my lady, I could not find a great deal that we did not already know,” Lana said. She was quick on the uptake; she had dropped her informal speech instantly. “We already have the general’s family background, his education, his military career.” She pulled out a piece of paper from the bundle of materials on her lap. “Here is something you may not have known, my lady. The general actually requested Northern Command. It was two years ago, around the time you became foreign minister. You may recall that tensions with Wassia were high then.”

“I do,” Caryn said. In fact, she remembered feeling that the president was playing a sick joke on her by thrusting her into the position in the middle of an international crisis. Deugan and Wassia had already been to war twice in the previous century. The more recent occasion had been just thirty-eight years before Caryn’s appointment to foreign minister, when Wassia had invaded Deugan in support of a group of rebels fighting for the secession of the coastlands from the nation Tomas Scheil had united. Deugan had beaten back the Wassian Intervention, but Caryn was under no illusion that tensions had resided. “The Wassians had frozen some Deugan-owned accounts in Wassian banks. They accused us of using them to fund Amimi independence groups. I brokered a compromise where the allegations would be reviewed by a joint committee of Wassian and Deugan officials.” It was her first foreign policy triumph, Caryn remembered fondly, a breakthrough that had silenced many of the critics who said a woman could never be taken seriously on the international stage.

“My lady, do you not find it strange that at a time of increasing tensions with Wassia, when many wondered if war would break out in the south, General Freed specifically requested northern command? A move to our calmest border?”

Lana was right, Caryn realized. That was bizarre, and it might be useful. “What does it mean?” Caryn asked. “Was the general looking for an easy assignment? Or were there personal motivations?”

“The general was born in central Deugan, my lady. He has no family in the north, save a single cousin living by the coast, hundreds of leagues from the Gateway.”

“I know that you have a theory about this,” Caryn said. “What is it?”

“My lady,” Lana replied, “this is purely guesswork, but I suspect General Freed recognized that Wassia was already suffering from severe economic stress and unyielding political rigidity.” Caryn hid a smile. Having grown up in Wassia herself, she knew both to be true. “Wassia would never have the resources or industrial capacity to compete with us in an extended conflict,” Lana continued. “The New Empire, meanwhile, was already struggling with Steffian terrorists and independence movements throughout the Fringes, and was at risk of losing the empire entirely. General Freed would have known that, since he spent many years gathering intelligence on the Fringes. My lady, I think that the general was looking to the future and saw Brealand as the true threat looming on the horizon. A large population, a brutal but efficient dictatorship, and enormous naval capabilities that we cannot match. This was not a request born of cowardice, I think. It was a remarkably prescient move that the general took because he wanted to be on the front lines, organizing our defence against what he believed would be a menace to Deugan’s very existence.”

“Interesting,” Caryn said. She was mulling it over and thought that the younger woman was almost certainly right.

“What is most interesting about it,” Lana continued, “is that it means you and the general have something in common. Both of you looked to the future and saw that Brealand would join in the next war against us. Nobody else did.”

“Sorceresses were always good with prophecy,” Caryn said with a grim smile. “Lana, you have a brilliant mind. Please don’t let anybody silence you. Not Janusz or Marwin, not your bosses in Foreign Affairs, not anybody. Promise me that.”

Lana blushed, but she smiled. “I promise, my lady.”

 

***

Next chapter: Chapter 3, Part B

If you enjoyed this sample, please consider purchasing the full novel. Thank you!

You may also wish to read this sample together with the Map of the Continent.

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