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April 23, 2023
Iron Age submission - 04/23/2023
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The Death of the Authors!

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A Checklist is Not a Story

Do I have some kind of a grudge against pitching culture in writing circles? Not really. But there's more to writing a story than just the pitch and a lot of it should come before you think about that pitch...

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ACCESSING

CODEWORD: Dry Cleaning

ATTENTION – CONFIDENTIAL DOCUMENTS

AUTHORIZATION LEVEL: Bermuda

PLEASE ENTER IDENTIFICATION

ACCEPTED

CODEWORD Dry Cleaning File Directory

  • Transcript of the Journal of Jacob Salazar

  • Theater of operations maps for Operation Syndicate

  • Notes of Ryan Giles (AUTHORIZATION LEVEL: Tesseract)

    • Restricted due to insufficient authorization

  • Photographic evidence from Operation Syndicate

    • Items 1-88, general operations record

    • Items 89-122, Ryan Giles personal records (AUTHORIZATION LEVEL: Tesseract)

      • Restricted due to insufficient authorization

    • Items 123-135, specimen photographs (reclassified and moved to PROJECT: Extra Starch records)

  • General historical notes, assembled by RESEARCH TEAM Uriel

ACCESSING TRANSCRIPT

ACCESS GRANTED

BEGIN TRANSCRIPTION

Daily Journal

Owner: Private First Class Jacob Salazar, 12th Mechanized Infantry

22 March, 1924

Bought this because my little brother wants to hear all about life in the army and the Captain says we're gonna be under a communication blackout until after the deployment is over so I can't write him until after that. Hopefully this helps me remember everything.

No one's sure why we're being sent into Highland yet, although Sarge thinks its got something to do with the river. The plan is to flank the city of Willow Springs, sweep in and grab the docks. Then the steamers can go up and down the river a lot easier. We're moving out in two days, once all the extra gas is brought up to the front. Captain Giles thinks it'll actually take more like four, since it's the Army in charge of getting us kitted out, but regardless we can't leave camp until deployment. Don't know as there'll be much to write until then.

25 March, 1924

We assembled and moved out of camp this afternoon, been a pretty boring trip so far. Highland roads are pretty nice compared to most of what I've seen in the Rus. We haven't seen anyone on them in person yet and we've been moving pretty fast. We only had to get off the troop trucks once to clear some cows off the road, not exactly the kind of terrifying combat we were promised. I'm pretty happy about that. We're camped out along the roadside now, hoping to make Willow Springs by tomorrow night.

Woke up in the middle of the night to make water, saw the Captain awake and walking the perimeter with the guards. He looks really spooked for some reason. I wonder what he knows that we don't.

26 March, 1924

We made it to Willow Springs without seeing anyone. Even Sarge was starting to find it really weird but by the time we got to the city outskirts the boys on the scout bikes motored back reporting they found about a dozen artillery nests along the road leading into the city. We backed off about ten miles and we're planning to try and take them out tomorrow.

28 March, 1924

It was a mess. You hear stories about people fighting to the last man but I know I never thought I would actually see someone do it. Highlanders are truly insane. We had to smash a sandbag nest with a 20mm gun in it and it didn't seem to matter how man bullets or grenades we put in it they wouldn't retreat or surrender. Lost eight men from my company. Finally we threw a petrol grenade in and listened to the poor bastards burn. If they were just going to die screaming like that they could've just left the damn foxhole. I hear it every time I close my eyes.

We're in the city now, for all its worth. Believe me when I say, all the Highlanders are insane not just the ones at our gun. Every unit we group up with reports the same – the bastards won't give up a foot of ground until you've turned them into mincemeat. Seems like they're all made of iron. One of the boys manning a motorized repeating rifle said he put a dozen rounds in a man and he kept running ammo up to the artillery. He didn't die until a grenade went off practically at his feet and turned him to shreds.

Civilians in Willow Springs are just as insane in different ways. Half a block from their defensive line there's people just walking around like they don't have a care about stray bullets or shells. One man crossing the street stared at us and burst out laughing. Cackled like a hyena the whole time he was out of doors and kept his eyes locked on us but otherwise just went on his way! Damnedest thing I've ever seen. He swiveled his head 'round like an owl rather than doing the sensible thing and stopping and pointing at us or ignoring us entirely. Sarge said he must've snapped. Pretty common in these situations he says.

He's the expert, so maybe. But no one I know down in the Rus would still be leaning out a second story window to hang their laundry on the line while a bunch of soldiers drive into their city and secure the streets. Most of them don't talk to us. None of them seem to care that we're here. It's probably good that they haven't all hidden away and started fighting some kind of underground war. That would be a nightmare. But everyone's spooked enough that this may not be any better.

Captain says we're through the defensive line on both sides of the river and getting ready to move on the docks and other major structures in the city. Command seems to be waiting for first light tomorrow before we move in.

29 March, 1924

Woke up this morning, two guys were gone from the unit. Sarge thinks they deserted. Says it always happens after the first big scrape, getting shot at really changes the way people think. I think it was the screams, myself. I know I thought about doing a runner when I woke up in the middle of the night after hearing men burn alive in my dreams. Those two must've been smarter than me.

We're moving towards the river now. Streets are pretty clear so we're bringing the trucks and halftracks along for now, although Sarge says Captain's orders are to leave them if we run across any roadblocks. And when I say clear, I mean of obstacles. There's still lots of people out, wandering around like they've got errands to run or something. Every time I turn around I see people with huge cloth bundles. At least it looks like they're okay with the Rus annexing the Highlands. Kinda makes me wonder why the guys in the defensive line put up such a fight. It doesn't add up.

Right now we're waiting for the scouts to come back from taking a peek at the docks. I expected a few people to stop and gawk at us but so far most of them are ignoring us, except the occasional man who does that weird, owl head thing like the guy from yesterday. Must be some Highland custom. None of them have laughed at us yet, in fact they're not talking much at all, but at least that part makes sense. If only anything else did.

Okay, Sarge is looking over my shoulder and he just pointed out it looks like the Highlanders sensibly evacuated the women and children. At least he hasn't seen any yet. I wasn't paying a lot of attention but now that he mentions it I don't remember seeing any and there aren't any on the street right now. But I'm pretty sure I saw a boy or two under ten yesterday. Strange.

We're moving towards the river again now.

Captain Giles called a halt around the headwaters area. There's an ancient looking building there powered by a huge set of waterwheels. I thought it was a power plant but Sarge says its actually a grain mill. It was in the briefing, he says. The Highlanders have set up a sort of perimeter around it by pulling most of the trucks and cars in the city into the roads around the mill and leaving them there. It's enough to keep us from bringing up any of the vehicles or self propelled guns.

The Captain has mechanics hotwiring the vehicles so we can move them out of the way but it's taking a lot of time. I had to drive one of them down to the river earlier. It was bad, the whole thing smelled like sweat and old socks. Makes me wonder what they were using it for.

We were packing the trucks into a paved area along the riverside that Sarge thinks was for unloading river freighters or something when one of the other boys driving started yelling. We went down and discovered a drowned woman stuck in the supports for a pier. She was naked, which was really strange but not particularly interesting as she'd been in the river for a while and it wasn't kind to her. The man who spotted her wanted to go out and retrieve the body for a proper burial but Sarge wasn't willing to risk it. He sent me to report it to the Captain.

I was expecting to find Captain Giles with the boys trying to clear the streets around the mill and he was in the general area but I actually found him looking behind us towards the edge of the city. I heard him muttering something about Shibboleth not being enough, perhaps Carthage. When I asked him about it he didn't answer, just asked me if I remembered seeing so many clotheslines overhead when we came up on the mill. I told him I didn't pay a whole lot of attention.

He told me not to worry about it and sent me back to the blocked streets. It took us most of the afternoon to clear three streets of parked vehicles. None of the locals complained. No one tried to stop us or asked us what we thought we were doing or even where we put the things after we moved them. Occasionally people did pass by us while we were working on it but they kept totally silent. They were so quiet a couple of times I walked around a truck and nearly got run over by a local man going the other way. Once I saw someone a couple of vehicles away carrying a basket full of laundry towards the mill which was even stranger.

The Captain put strange notions in my head. Now I keep looking up expecting to catch the locals stringing more clotheslines but so far I haven't seen anyone up there like yesterday. In fact I think the city is emptying out. Sarge says that's to be expected and I shouldn't worry about it. Lots of extra people showing up in town would be a lot worse than people quietly slipping out.

We're going into the mill tomorrow. Sarge said the mill wasn't even close to an operational objective for our unit or any of the other units he talked to before we left Rus. Couple of the Lieutenants objected to spending so much time on it as well. Captain didn't change his mind so I guess that's what we're doing tomorrow.

29-30 March, 1924

Not sure what time it is but I woke up hearing the screaming again. Gonna be smart this time. Sarge and the Captain are good men and I want to do my bit for the Rus but I gotta get away from this. If I get caught and you use this as evidence against me, Captain, I don't blame you. I just can't keep hearing the screams when I'm trying to sleep.

 

Probably March 30, 1924

Well.

I guess I'm not going to try and desert again.

Sarge found me when I was picking my way out of the camp. We commandeered a couple of buildings around a square where the road leading down to the docks and the streets headed up to the mill intersected. About half of us were put in the houses and the rest kept an eye on our wheels. I was outside, sleeping in the bed of a truck when I had the nightmare again and decided to head out.

I slipped out off the back of the truck without waking the other two guys hunkered down there but I'd barely slipped out past the perimeter and into a side alley before Sarge found me.

He didn't yell and scream, which surprised me. Half the time I think that's all he can do but today he proved me wrong, had me sit down and explained that this is really common in war. You find yourself in situations where you have no control at all and your mind can't handle it. He said I wanted to run so I'd feel I was in control. He also warned me that running is just another way of giving up control and saying I'll never be back in charge again. Run once, you'll always be running.

A smart man, our Sergeant. Very perceptive, very persuasive, very wise, very much aware of what I was thinking and how to talk me out of it. I was about to go back to camp with him when they got him.

I wasn't sure what it was, at first. As we got back to the entrance of the alley I noticed that the stars overhead winked out for a second and I looked up, confused. The sky hadn't been overcast before. For a brief moment I saw the now-familiar sight of a clothesline with laundry flapping in the wind. Sarge gave a sudden, surprised yell and vanished. As I spun around, trying to figure out what happened to him, something long and thin wrapped around my leg and yanked, sending me toppling to the ground. My head struck the pavement and my vision swam.

For a brief moment, as I was held upside down by my leg, I saw Sarge flailing as he went flying upwards ahead of me. As the world around me turned to a shapeless blur I thought I saw the cloth on the line wrapping around his body. Then I passed out.

I woke up some time later and eventually began writing this entry. I assume I'm in the mill we surrounded. It doesn't look much like a grain mill, although I'm hardly an expert. It looks more like hell.

Those damnable clotheslines are everywhere, whipping around like snakes, tying themselves to random spots on the ceiling or working on machines they've built out of the pieces of the mill. Highland men keep coming in carrying piles of clothes, sometimes with people still in them. The clothes are thrown into huge vats carted in from who knows where and huge fires are kept burning under them. Other men stir the vats with a mix of sticks, shovels, brooms and who knows what else.

Eventually the soup gets thrown onto the millstones and ground up. The result somehow comes out as new clothesline and bundles of fabric that masquerades as laundry. Here in the mill the stuff's less shy and you can see the fabric and lines flapping about on their own. Sometimes you even catch a glimpse of an eye or a mouth peeking out, strange things made of buttons and zippers that take in the world from their weird and alien point of view.

When there's people in the clothes things get bad. The woman probably have it easier. The clotheslines strip them out of the fabric and strangle them, then throw them into the river. Once I think they missed a girl in one of the large bundles and threw her into the boiling water with the clothes. That was worse than the men burning alive at the 20mm gun. That doesn't sound easier, does it? But the lines are gathering the men for something else entirely.

We're being waiting for a visit with her.

Right now those of us the lines are holding just have to sit here and watch her work. They won't let us run away but they don't hold us that tightly like they did when they first grabbed me out on the street. One of the others looks like he came from another unit. I didn't recognize him but I understand why he took his sidearm and blew his own brains out. After that the clotheslines and their bundles looked us all over and took away our weapons. But they didn't take this journal and they're letting me write in it.

So I'm writing it down, because someone needs to know. I was going to run away and leave you boys to this thing and I got what I deserved for that. I'd rather be hung for desertion but this is where I am. You need to know what this thing is doing.

It looks like a woman and it hates other women to the point of murder so it's got the primary hallmarks of womankind. It's the shape of a woman but the cloth and the lines all tie into the bottom of her body as if cloth and flesh have woven together into a single being. Her hair weaves itself into sheets of linen. Her fingers end in knitting hooks. Folds of fabric twist down into her heart, churning and twisting with the beat of her heart, then unravel back out into the twisting, writhing web of lines and fabric.

Folds of fabric twist down into her heart, churning and twisting with the beat of her heart, then unravel back out into the twisting, writhing web of lines and fabric.

She sits in the middle of this mess like a spider, if a spider puppeteered its victims like marionettes after it cocooned them rather than eating them. She studies each man when he's brought to her. Then she knits their clothes into her own body at the end of one of the long, writhing lines pulled from the mill. She stabs their wrist, elbows, knees and ankles through with her fingers and runs threads through them. Fresh, writhing cloth is pushed down their throats until they gag. Even their eyes are sewn open.

If they scream the other men who've been woven into her longer laugh and jeer at them. Soon enough they learn it hurts less if they don't struggle or complain. Not even the dead are spared this fate. The man who shot himself in the head was stitched up and sent off on spastically jerking limbs. Even in death his body wasn't spared desecration. I'm certain most of these poor men stitched into the Ragamuffin will only die if they're burned.

I killed some of them, after all. Now I'll be one of them.

This is our fate. We're all doomed to it and it's not even clear why she's doing this. She doesn't seem to want anything other than to stitch and sew and deform us all. Burn us. Burn us all, and soon. I am next. Soon enough there will be nothing of me left. Tell my mother

END TRANSCRIPTION

ACCESSING HISTORICAL NOTES

Details from Operation Syndicate are not as complete as we might wish. While Literati Ryan Giles was a deep cover operative for the Rusvi organization known as the Literati Obscura, a predecessor to the current Archives, he sadly died much later in life during Operation Solstice. Under normal circumstances that would not pose significant issue. However, since Operation Solstice took place at Literati Giles' personal laboratory and resulted in the loss of said laboratory all his personal diaries and research vanished with him.

LITERATI RYAN GILES, CODENAME: Pestle, RECORDS ARE AUTHORIZATION LEVEL: Non-Euclidean. INSUFFICIENT AUTHORIZATION FOR RECORD ACCESS.

OPERATION: Solstice RECORDS ARE AUTHORIZATION LEVEL: Tesseract. INSUFFICIENT AUTHORIZATION FOR RECORDS ACCESS.

The turmoil resulting from the annexation of the Highlands and the eventual Rusvi civil war resulted in the loss of most of the official records related to Operation Syndicate both in the Rusvi military and the Literati Obscura. Very few references to it exist in the records incorporated into the modern Archives. What details TEAM Uriel has managed to gather are as follows.

Literati Giles eventually did chose to employ a STERILIZATION LEVEL: Carthaginian protocol on Willow Springs, rather than a LEVEL: Shibboleth. We're not sure what all that entails as that particular designation was retired before the Literati Obscura officially joined the Archives. We believe it similar in outcome to the modern LEVEL: La Brea protocol, although obviously different in methodology. Literati Giles then secured the site and impounded multiple samples of the creature's bodies only slightly damaged by the flames.

Full details on those samples and what the Obscura and the Archives have learned about them in the intervening years are detailed in the records of PROJECT: Extra Starch. While the project has not reached many conclusions based on what they've seen one thing they're relatively certain of is that there's not enough in the way of remains to account for the creature Salazar calls the Ragamuffin. Its ultimate fate remains unknown.

In addition to the Extra Starch samples Literati Giles also discovered the Journal of Jacob Salazar. On reviewing the contents Giles chose not to reveal its existence to the Rusvi military and instead listed Private Salazar as killed in action. He tasked a medical team with recovering Salazar's remains but, after two days of carefully surveying the ashes, they found no dog tags or bones that belonged to Private Salazar.

His current status remains unknown.

END FILE

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The Rival

It had been nine days since Ghiarelli Glasseye last passed through Masselli but it felt like the entire city had transformed. A winter chill filled the valley at the foot of the Carrerra pass at the time. Now a warm breeze rose from the plains to the south and brought the distant scent of the fields to the rocky shores at the headwaters of the Valentine river. Ghiarelli sucked in a lungfull of the beautiful air and let it out in a huff of satisfaction. “Do you smell that, garzone? No doubt we're back in Nernoa again.”

Garzone Tichello took a deep breath and sighed. “I don't smell anything, Signore Ghiarelli. It smells normal.”

“Exactly!”

“It smells like old grass,” Lenneth muttered, looking about at the crowded streets of Masselli with wary eyes. “As far as you can smell anything over the streets here.”

“Perhaps you begin to see why we cityfolk are wound so tight, signorina,” Ghiarelli said, a smile tugging at the corner of his lips. “All these people around. Strange smells and noises everywhere at all times. I wouldn't worry, Lady Wingbreaker, Masselli is the largest place we'll pass through on our way to Verdemonde. The mountains there will be much more to your liking, I think.”

“There are no mountains like those in Isenlund, Ghiarelli,” Lenneth said. The words seemed condescending and the Isenkinder's face was impassive but the tone of her voice was a little wistful. In the three days since he'd left Wingbreaker lands he'd noticed she was growing more and more morose. At first he thought she was just homesick. Now he was wondering if there was some layer to her mission that he'd missed. When her father sent her back to Nerona with him as an emissary to apologize for the Wingbreaker's ignorant complicity in a kidnapping and assassination plot Ghiarelli had just assumed it was typical politics. As Lenneth had grown more and more despondent he'd started to wonder if it was something else.

Of course, the Lord of the Wingbreakers may have just sent his daughter along because of Tichello. Ghiarelli's charge had rapidly grown fond of the young woman, perhaps because she had been the one to break the enchantment on him or perhaps because the striking Isenkinder woman had beautiful features and exotic, yellow-gold hair. If Ulfar Wingbreaker was trying to soothe the possible wrath of the Marquis sending Lenneth along with them was a good way to start.

And if the Isenkinder lord had guessed the full truth there was another layer to it. No one had told him that Tichello was the heir to the province of Verdemonde but it wasn't a hard guess to make, either. If Ulfar had sent his daughter to return the Marquis' son it was a masterful touch. However they were still days from the borders of Verdemonde province in one of the largest northern cities of Nerona and it was clearly making Lenneth uncomfortable.

As if he sensed her discomfort, Tichello stuck his hand through hers and said, “Verdemonde isn't like your mountains but it is a wonderful place!” The boy swelled with the pride of his homeland. “The three highest peaks have a lake in the middle of them, you know. It's amazing to see from the air! Not that I can show you that, of course, but it's one of the only things I remember from my bird life.”

Ghiarelli snorted and marveled at the boy's resilience. Tichello had yet to clearly manifest a gift but Ghiarelli suspected he was an Empath like his father. Most of the physical Gifts would've been obvious in the child at this point. The recent incident had proven the boy had his father's immense mental strength and he was clearly attuned to Lenneth's poor mood as well.

“Let's hope things go as smoothly as you expect,” Ghiarelli said to his charge. “Lenneth should at least have the time to visit Lake Sapphire if she wants. I do recommend it, by the way, it's one of the wonders of Nerona and far more pleasant than the Gulf of Lum.”

She managed to put on a smile. “Thank you, I will. Hopefully we won't be making any such sidetrips here, though. I apologize for all that I said before about you being too tightly tied up in yourself, Ghiarelli, I never knew what it was really like for you city dwellers. The air here is so heavy.”

“That's one way to put it,” he said. Truthfully he suspected her reaction had more to do with the people and the closeness of the buildings than the air or the smells in it. Already her heavy cloak of roc feathers and her strange Isenkinder dress were drawing attention. That, and the long strip of skin her clothes left exposed. For reasons Ghiarelli never quite understood, in Isenlund leaving the left arm, shoulder and side of the body uncovered was a mark of welcome and peaceful intent. On the men it was a little strange. On a woman like Lenneth it was almost obscene, drawing the eye of ever person on the street to gawk or leer as they saw fit.

He took a couple of extra steps forward, placing himself just in front of her so her side was less exposed. Even with the dress covering her enough to suit Neronan notions of modesty this was not going to be viable for the rest of their journey. “I know you may not like it, Lady Wingbreaker, but I think we do need to stop here. I should send ahead to confirm the Comte is still at Citadel Verdemonde and we should find you something to wear that will stand out a little less. Your traditional garb is suitable for a formal visit of state. Something less eye-catching is better suited to the road.”

Lenneth pursed her lips and nodded, saying, “I suppose if you think its best I could. Your roads have certainly inspired me to invest in boots. I wouldn't have thought paving stones could be more dangerous than the clutter of the forest floor but it's certainly been terrible for my feet.”

“I know just the place. The southern part of Nerona is much warmer than your mountains this time of year and I had to buy a few things to prepare for the cold on my way north. The hostelry I visited had plenty to fit your needs that would suit you just fine.”

“She'll be pretty in anything,” Tichello said.”

“An excellent eye, garzone,” Ghiarelli replied with a laugh. “But she is a visiting lady of standing! We must ensure that she is attired as befits her rank!”

“Stop it, both of you.” A glance told Ghiarelli she was blushing, which had the amusing effect of turning her red from the shoulders up. “I'm sure the two of you-”

Drum beats boomed out across the city, three pulses of three beats each. Ghiarelli froze, his eyes going wide as they stared through the mists of time, searching for what might be amiss. The struggle of all clairvoyants was finding just how deep the should peer into the future from moment to moment. Even with his trademark glasseyes, he tried not to look more than half a second most of the time. Too much could happen to throw off a vision of the future before it came true. However clairvoyance was a very instinctive gift. Sometimes he glanced things from random moments in the future that made it difficult to gauge what happened when. Even with the glasseye he wasn't sure what to expect.

Then again, even normal people found their seemingly reliable vision easily fooled with shocking regularity. They had to muddle through, just as he did. So Ghiarelli peered into the future and saw a griffon with blue wings dodging arrows and bolts of fire rising from the town. By his judgment what he saw was no more than forty seconds in the future. “Lenneth, you were followed.”

“What?”

“I think a griffon from Wingbreaker lands has been following you for some reason,” Ghiarelli said. Already the future was changing before his eyes. He narrowed them, trying to dial in on something closer to the present, and saw Lenneth running towards the creature. The poor thing plummeted in free fall, its feathers burning. The vision rewound as Ghiarelli pulled his gaze back to the present moment. He pointed towards a long, two story stables building on the opposite side of the river. “Can you get up there? It will fly over that building in half a moment and you need to wave it back out of the city if you can. Otherwise it may be hurt.”

Lenneth took off in that direction, taking long, leg baring strides then lapsing into an easy glide across the paving stones as her Gift took over. Even the river wasn't a real obstacle to someone with the Gift of Grace. She slid along the surface of the water as easily as the ground.

Once she was safely on her way Ghiarelli peered forward in time once more, only to find the future changed again. As Lenneth glided up the side of the stables, somehow defying gravity the whole way, another person popped into view as well. He was at least twice her size, dressed in a bright red doublet with slashed sleeves. His royal blue cloak billowed behind him, a black and gold hammer insignia sewn across it. The symbol of Caesar Shieldbreaker.

Caesar Shieldbreaker appears

“Zalt,” Ghiarelli muttered. “Garzone, you must find an out of the way place and wait for me there. A complication is about to come up.”

“Ghiarelli.” He paused, looking back at his charge. “Make sure the lady is safe. If she gets hurt I'll be upset and father's hospitality will be insulted!”

The bravo grinned. “Consider it done, garzone.”

The he took off at a dead sprint for the nearest bridge across the Valentine.

 

In Isenlund woodwork was a necessary part of the architecture. In Nerona it was art, pure and simple. The smoother a surface the easier Lenneth found it to cross with her Gift. Very rough ground was harder to cross by her Gift than normal walking while still water was almost as easy to cross as it was to stand still.

The lumber of Isenlund was so rough that gliding along it was as bad as crossing dirt. In stark contrast the timber in a simple Neronan barn was smooth as glass. She marveled at how easy it was to cross. With a sliding start she was even able to move up the side of the building, something she'd only managed on sheer stone cliffs back home.

For a brief moment her concern for the animals Der Isenkoenig had entrusted to her family gave way to amazement at the skill of the craftsmen and exhilaration at the way she rushed along it. The sharp scent of tar filled her nostrils as she swept up onto the roof. For a brief moment she had a breathtaking view of the river valley and the mountains rising behind. Standing out in sharp contrast to the green and gray mountainside a golden feathered griffon with blue wings wheeled through the sky.

The occasional crankbow shot came up after the creature. None of them moved in the unpredictable way they might if guided by someone with the Impulse Gift so the creature was able to avoid them easily so far. Lenneth adjusted her heading slightly to intercept the griffon. Taking in the city spread out before her she picked a path down the other side of the stable, across an open field and then up the city walls to meet it. If the masonry in Nerona was half as good as the carpentry getting atop the wall and attracting the griffon's attention would be simple.

But the moment she started to follow through she was cut off by a man in red flying up the other side of the barn. Deep lines carved by a lifetime of cares creased his face. White and gray shot through the deep chestnut hair on his head and face but the signs of age seemed to end there. The man was huge but moved with as much Grace as she did. There was power in his shoulders and a deadly watchfulness in his eyes.

All the details took only a split second to take in then their moment carried them into each other with a heavy thud. The breath left Lenneth in a rush. Then the big man's hands clamped onto her shoulders with bruising force. “What's this?” He boomed. “Griffon riders in Nerona again? I haven't seen your kind in almost fifteen years, little woman! Explain yourself.”

 

It was about a hundred and fifty feet down the river to the narrow plank causeway Ghiarelli used to cross the river and the same to get back. Hardly a great distance but enough that Ghiarelli's lungs began to burn with the effort of running. He'd just set foot on the grass around the stable building when a flickering premonition in the corner of his eye warned him someone was about to step around the side of the building.

Instinctively Ghiarelli slid to a stop on the grass he drew rapier and buckler. One eye narrowed to stay firmly in the present the other opened wide, diving into the future. He got a clear look at the men about to round the corner. He didn't know one but the other was tall and thin, carried a rapier and dagger and wore a bright yellow doublet with fur lining his collar. Ghiarelli recognized him immediately. “Nero Ninelives,” he called out. “I see you there!”

"Nero Ninelives," he called out. "I see you there!"

The future shifted and the two men disappeared from it, accompanied by the sound of feet sliding to a stop in the present. There was a muttered exchange Ghiarelli couldn't make out then Nero stepped around the corner. The man looked almost unhealthily thin but he was a dangerous duelist and he'd decided to draw his weapons before rounding the corner so they were on equal footing. Ghiarelli raised his own guard and pulled his foresight closer to the present again. Any more than a second's worth of foresight would just be confusing going forward due to the nature of his opponent.

The best swordsmen were constantly reevaluating their options and considering movements. They never committed to a decision until the last possible moment and that made their future incredibly difficult to see clearly. An Impulse duelist like Nero, able to change the movement of his blade almost at will, was even worse. Even now, looking only one second into Nero's future, Ghiarelli saw him breaking forward to attack, backwards to retreat and remaining steadily in place.

“I thought it sounded like you, Glasseyes,” Nero murmured. His prominent nose, the only overly thick thing in his body, twitched once like he was about to sneeze. “What brings Verdemonde's dog so far north?”

“I could ask you the same,” Ghiarelli snapped. Something bolted past them and into the stables with stomach turning speed, a blur that passed by them first in the future then in the present. It happened too fast for him to react even with his clairvoyance warning him ahead of time. “What was that?”

“Nothing for you to worry about,” Nero purred. “Griffon riders are no business the Marquis of Nerona's southernmost province needs to worry about.”

Ghiarelli took a single, careful step forward with his weapons raised. “Shouldn't you be in Torrence, watching the court of that dotard you call a prince?”

Nero chuckled. “I won't mention that when I report this to the Captain. That way the Prince of Torrence won't blame your employer after I kill you.”

“I suppose we'll see, won't we?” Ghiarelli slid his foot forward and began to probe Nero's defenses and their blades met with a ring of steel.

 

“I'm not a griffon rider,” Lenneth blurted out. Not the most eloquent thing she'd ever said but true none the less.

“You'll have to try harder than that to swindle me, Isenkinder,” the big man said. “I founded my condottieri during the Rider's war. I remember womenfolk riding with the men and I've seen griffons searching for downed riders plenty of times. I can't-”

At the last possible second the man ducked out of the way as the griffon swept low and slashed at his head with its talons. Lenneth shot backward, trying her best to watch him and the roof's edge at once. The griffon wheeled in midair, looping back towards her and Lenneth quickly took her feathered cloak and pulled it up and over her right arm, making a semiprotected surface for the creature to come to rest on.

Now it was apparent that the creature was quite young. About the size of a hunting dog, although much lighter, the griffon couldn't be more than three years of age, more than a decade away from fully grown. It spread its wings to their full extent and hissed at the big man, the sharp silibance of griffontongue a contrast to the scraping of his boots on shingles and the pounding of blood in her ears. Griffons were simpleminded creatures and Lenneth didn't speak their language well. Many of the concepts just didn't translate.

But she was pretty sure it was calling the man a rock and demanding he fall of the roof and sit in the mud until he died.

“Hush,” she whispered to the griffon. Lenneth rolled her shoulders, encouraging the flying feline to move so its weight was more over her shoulders than on her arm. It wasn't as heavy as its size implied but it was still a good twenty or thirty pounds. “Stop antagonizing him. They don't trust griffons here. You need to head back to the mountains.”

The griffon chirped something about theft that she couldn't follow. The big man snorted. “Not much of a mount for you, griffon rider.”

“I'm not a griffon rider, Lord Condottieri, I am a traveler headed south, nothing more.” Lenneth stroked the side of the griffon's head, trying to keep it calm as it pranced nervously and spat at the man.

“My name is Caesar,” he said, his hand resting on a dagger in his belt. “As for you, if you wanted to appear a simple traveler you should have left your cursed beast at home. I know too well what kind of spy they are. You're not leaving here and reporting back to you commanders about the defenses Masselli. Surrender and we'll ransom you back home in due time.”

“I tell you, I'm a traveler and guest of the Marq-”

The rest of what she was trying to say was cut off when something moving impossibly fast exploded out of the barn's hayloft, grabbed the rope used to lift hay and swung up onto the roof. For a brief moment Lenneth thought she could make out a human silhouette in the blur of motion. The griffon reared and shrieked at the sudden threat and Lenneth backpedaled to keep her balance. Instead her back foot slipped off the roof.

For a moment she thought she could recover by gliding forward on her front foot but the griffon's wings caught the air and yanked her back, breaking her connection with the roof. Flailing wildly for any purchase Lenneth tumbled backwards into empty air.

 

The Gift of Impulse is used to give an extra push to something, which is useful enough in any line of work. In battle it was most often used to ensure a thrown lance or loosed arrow hit its target. For the select few that could develop the right degree of finesse with the Gift it was used to change the course of a weapon just enough that it avoided a parry and struck true or landed in a critical gap in a suit of armor. Or, on occasion, enough of a push to carve all the way through multiple people.

For example, when a man named Nero used it to slash the throats of nine men in one slash.

For Ghiarelli, an Impulse duelist like Nero was the most frustrating thing there was since he could use his Gift to change the trajectory of a strike slightly and the decision to do so did almost nothing to change the future. Small changes were the hardest things to see by clairvoyance. They made three passes, then four, each crossing of blades sending sparks in the air and leaving small nicks on Ghiarelli's buckler and the guard of Nero's parrying dagger. A cut opened in the sleeve of Nero's doublet. A thin, angry red crossed the back of Ghiarelli's sword hand.

Nothing was working. Reading ahead of your opponent was supposed to be the way to win a duel but it wasn't working on Nero. It wouldn't be so frustrating if it was a stranger. But he'd dueled Nero Ninelives a year ago at the Grand Tournament in Torrence and lost. They were headed for a repeat under much less friendly circumstances and for some reason Ghiarelli was infuriated by it.

Bravos died in stupid duels like this all the time. However in this case he feared he was going to be a tremendous disappointment to Tichello and Lenneth, which sat poorly with him for some reason. Holding his buckler forward, Ghiarelli prepared for another pass.

Then he had a flash of involuntary clairvoyance and glimpsed Lenneth flailing as she fell through the air tangled with her griffon. Shocked, he jerked back and looked up. An inhuman shriek rent the air and a split second later the vision came true.

All his life he'd heard people talk about time slowing down in times of danger. That wasn't something clairvoyants understood. For him, time always moved forward with the same feeling of inexorable progress. However, in moments like these he suddenly felt, heard and smelt everything around him with the kind of clarity he could normally only hope for. He heard Nero saying, “What on-”

He smelled the hot metal of his weapons.

He felt more than saw that Nero was also looking up at Lenneth falling, perhaps drawn to look that way when Ghiarelli did.

And he understood exactly what he had to do. With a single full body lunge he shoved his buckler into Nero's gut and pushed him flat. He let go of the buckler as he did then shoved his sword point first into the dirt. Lenneth was tumbling ever lower.

Eyes wide, Ghiarelli looked into the future for the right kind of catch to make. A jumping catch killed them both, or near enough that it didn't make a difference. Just putting his arms out wouldn't slow her enough to break her momentum, she'd break through his grip and break her neck. At the last moment he put his hands up just over his head and grabbed for her shoulders, pushing as hard as he dared. He hadn't seen a clear future for this move but it couldn't be any worse than the alternatives.

He felt Lenneth's weight crash into him, pushing his hands down to his chest. Her elbow came down and cracked him over the head, stunning him, and they both tumbled to the ground in spite of his best efforts. As they did something dug into his shoulder and pulled up. Ghiarelli screamed, thinking Nero had come back around and stabbed him in the back for good measure.

For a moment all he knew was pain. Then he heard hissing and flapping and realized he was alive, pain or no. The world swam around him as he opened his eyes. Not because he was in pain, or not entirely because of that, but partly because he was seeing a swirl of possible futures unfiltered. Somewhere in his fall he'd lost his glasseyes. His left shoulder shot pain through his body when he tried to move it and find the artifact. Groaning, Ghiarelli squinted and looked down at it.

There were three clawlike puncture marks there. Looking around he spotted the source of the injury – the bloody talons of the griffon hissing at Nero Ninelives as he approached. Ghiarelli prodded Lenneth with his right hand and she made a pained noise. It might not be safe to move her so he left her in a tangled heap in his lap, eyeing both griffon and Nero warily. “How unexpectedly sacrificial of you, Ghiarelli,” Nero said, approaching with sword point first. “Should I arrange for a suitable epitaph for your gravestone?”

“Please do,” Ghiarelli spat. “Something pithy, like, 'killed by a coward.'”

“Now what does that say about you?” Nero asked, flicking his sword in a quick slash at the griffon, which danced away.

Caesar Shieldbreaker swept down the side of the stables, his cloak rushing behind him like a thundercloud, and skidded to a stop beside the three of them. Somehow the effortless Grace was even more impressive coming from a man of his size than it was with Lenneth. “Enough, Nero. I can't have you killing the Marquis Verdemonde's favorite bravo. It's just going to cause us problems down the line.”

“What's wrong, Captain?” Nero asked. “I thought you were worried these damn griffon riders were plotting something new. Shouldn't we be rid of them and their collaborator as well?”

“I'm not collaborating with anything,” Ghiarelli said with a groan. So that was what this was all about. The man who made his name driving Isenlund's famed flying cavalry out of Nerona feared a repeat of that invasion was in the offing. “I'm escorting a guest of the Marquis Verdemonde back to his province for an official visit of state.”

“Meaningless!” Nero snapped. “We are here to protect the northern border on the orders of the Prince of Torrence.”

“Verdemonde is pledged to the Prince much like your captain,” Ghiarelli said, irritation starting to overwhelm the pain. “You're in no position to gainsay his orders.”

“Can you prove these are your orders, Glasseye?” Caesar asked.

“I can.” Tichello's high voice cut through the tension like a knife. The boy trotted up to them, brimming with confidence and showing some of the poise his tutors had tried to drill into him on those days when they could prevent his slipping out to watch the soldiers spar. “It's good to meet you again, Captain Caesar.”

The condottieri swept off his cap and bowed from the waist. “Comte Cerulean! The honor is mine. I had not heard you passed through these lands recently.”

“Today is my first day here,” Tichello said. “Forgive me for imposing on you but do you have your full Century here, Captain? I think Ghiarelli and my guest, the Lady Wingbreaker, are both injured and I would like to hire your Mender to look after them if he is available.”

“Of course. Nero, Tiberius, see to it.” A second man, perhaps the blurring man who'd passed by at the beginning of his duel with Nero, stepped out of the stables, his face slick with sweat. Nero looked like he was about to complain but Tiberius took him by the arm and led him away.

Some further pleasantries passed between Tichello and Caesar but Ghiarelli lost track of it. The griffon was prodding at him with its beak and hissing at him. Lenneth stirred and pushed it away. “Stop it,” she said. “You're being rude, little one. He's not.”

“Not what?”

Lenneth struggled to sit up. “You're not a thief. For some reason this little fellow thinks you stole something when you left the mountains and has been following us to try and get it back.”

Ghiarelli helped her get upright then used her as a brace as he sat up as well. In the middle of the process he started chuckling. “That's what caused all this? He followed us and caused this mess because I'm a thief.”

“But you haven't stolen anything!”

He laughed once then stopped when it made his ribs creak. “No, no, he's quite right.” Ghiarelli wrapped an arm around her waist, pulled her closer and leaned against her so the mutually supported each other's weight. “But I don't think I'm in any mood to give it back right now. Your friend's welcome to follow us all the way back to Verdemonde but I don't think I'm going to change my mind any time soon.”

The griffon sat down on it's haunches, stared at him and squawked.

Ghiarelli grinned. “Do you worst.”

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April 12, 2023
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Predictable as the Rain
A Sidereal Saga

It was raining when I got to Sky Heights. Gray water came down in sheets, fracturing the orange light of Wireburn's helium seas into dancing autumnal shadows. Weather on a Jovian planet was an unpredictable mistress. Human evil, on the other hand, was only surprising in how simple, repetitive and mundane it was. If most of human life was as erratic as the glints of light from the sky then crime followed paths as predictable as a raindrop tumbling from the top of the neighborhood's pressure dome to the liquid granite streets below.

A man wanted something and did whatever was necessary to get it. Those he injured in the process would suffer what they must. Often his victims set out to get even. Sometimes that meant prosecuting a vendetta on their own. Rarely they would turn to the Lawmen.

Most of the time they called for a Theiftaker.

The dame who called me up to the Heights was named Sarah Carter and she met me up by the neighborhood beacon. Her raincoat was a bit tattered but it was originally of good quality. The tailoring and layers let the water wick off her easily but still proudly displayed the kind of body most men would kill for. Chestnut brown hair escaped from under a matching cap. She sauntered up to me as I cleared the beacon's arrival zone, asking, “Are you from the Theiftaker's Hall?”

“Yes, madam,” I said. “Elisha Hammer, at your service.”

I handed her my Casebook, the Theiftaker's seal prominent on the cover, and flipped it open to the active case. “I'm a certified slipsensor and qualified for forensic work both here and in the sidereal. If you'd like a demonstration?”

“That's not necessary.” She handed me her umbrella and drew the stylus from the Casebook as she perused the form. “So I just need to sign to officially open the case?”

“And deposit the retainer's fee.”

She bit her lower lip, looking a little unsure of herself. Or at least trying to look unsure. She didn't strike me as the type not to know the effect that kind of action would have on men. “Ten thousand lira is a lot of money, Sir Hammer.”

“If your case is resolved quickly enough that your entire retainer is unnecessary the balance of the funds will be returned to you,” I replied, doing my best to ignore her provocative manner.

“Do you think you'll need all of it?”

“We refund part of our retainers about a third of the time. But in my experience, madam, investigations require a lot more time and expense than you're anticipating.” I took the Casebook back from her and tucked it into my pocket then returned her umbrella. “I can't really predict how much this is going to cost you until I know a bit more about your case.”

She nodded, looking me over with the kind of judgment only a young woman could muster. I suppose it was only fair given the level of scrutiny I'd applied to her as a matter of course. The Theiftakers didn't have an official uniform like the Lawmen or the Wayfinders so I'd chosen to build a functional outfit to wear on the job. A heavy pullover tunic with a belt from shoulder to hip and around the waist of loose, heavy pants plus sturdy workbooks. It looked respectable enough but could still stand up to a nasty fight if it came to that.

Most villains don't give up quietly when you find them, after all.

Whether she saw through that purpose or not, Sarah didn't comment on it. She did hesitate a moment when she spotted the helmet and glasses case clipped to my waist on one side and the sliplash on my opposite hip. Ultimately she kept her peace on these scores as well. “I'll tell you about it on the way. Do you have an umbrella?”

“I'm afraid not. If it's a long trip I could bring in my slipcar.”

“No, just a few block from here. You can share mine, if you want.” Sarah stepped out from the pavilion over the local beacon and started down the street to the west taking us downhill.

Sky Heights was a part of Ashland I was somewhat familiar with. I'd visited it twice on previous cases and found it to be a pretty broad spectrum of the greater Ashland population. We were high up on the Prominence and the helium outside clung to the pressure domes in wispy film like the memory of a recent lover. At the highest elevations there were several streets of impressive mansions but the further down you went the more normal things became.

Sarah led us downhill for several blocks until every trace of Ashland's upper crust was gone and all that remained where two and three story buildings that slumped along to the surface of the Prominence like tired dogs. “My brother lives here,” Sarah said once we were away from the heavy foot traffic that you found around every beacon. “As best I can tell he got a new assignment from the Wayfinder's Alliance about two weeks ago. No one's seen him since.”

Missing people are pretty much the worst kind of case out there to work. Now, contrary to the name, Theiftakers will try and sort out just about any kind of crime there is, from blackmail to murder. Criminals don't constrain themselves to theft. Why should we?

But a missing person was a slippery thing to deal with in no small part because maybe he went missing since he didn't want the people looking for him to find him again. Maybe he went missing because the people looking did find him. Maybe he went missing because bad luck found him. And on and on it goes. At least when there's a missing necklace or a dead body you can make an educated guess what might have resulted in the death or disappearance. One thing was for sure. I didn't expect Sarah Carter to get any of her retainer back once the job was done.

“I'm sorry if any of these questions sound obvious,” I said. “I just want to be thorough. Have you contacted the Wayfinders?”

“That was the first thing I did. Unfortunately he didn't check in with them after he received the assignment and they say they can't share any details on it without breaching the confidence of their client, whoever that might be.” Her voice had a sharp edge to it. “Time was the Wayfinders considered looking after their own one of their most important responsibilities.”

“They've fallen on hard times of late, madam. How did you discover he was missing?”

She approached one of the apartment buildings and punched in a code at the door that let us into a hallway. The building wasn't nice enough for a lobby but otherwise it looked like it was in good shape. “Mum sent me down here to take Lloyd some leftovers from dinner on Seventhday because he didn't show up then. But when I turned out of the house I couldn't find his beacon.”

“Your brother had a private beacon in his apartment?” That was worth writing down in the case log. “Don't take this the wrong way but if your family can afford private beacons why are your worried about a ten thousand lira retainer fee?”

“Daddy worked for the Wireburn Militia then the Slipknot Guild before he retired. He built a lot of beacons and similar things in his time and he made one for both of us when we moved out of the house. He wanted to be able to find us if he really had to.”

Sir Carter sounded like a shrewd man, apt to look out for his children. Beacons were expensive because of how long they took to make and the massive demand for the expertise of those who'd mastered sliptech. The parts themselves were not hard to come by. I'd made my own blast glasses from a set of standard safety glasses and saved myself almost two hundred lira in the process. “So your old man tuned the beacons and sent 'em with you. Did you have him check for your brother's beacon?”

“He couldn't locate it either,” she said as she hit the call button for the building's lift. “And daddy has experience with interstellar travel so he didn't just check Wireburn. Lloyd's beacon isn't on Coldstone, Bluewave, Halogen or any other planet within a hundred lightyears unless someone's put it near a resonator.”

You only put things near a resonator when you want to make them invisible to the slipsense. “I take it that your dad didn't include an interrupter in the beacon he gave to your brother?”

“Daddy doesn't believe in interrupters.” We stepped into the lift and Sarah slid some kind of key card into the control panel for a moment, then removed it once the lights on the panel cycled. “He always said there's no sense including an off switch in stationary beacons. Seemed to think there's never a purpose in disengaging one unless you plan to move it somewhere through the sidereal.”

“Clearly he's never done any forensic work on that side of things,” I muttered.

“Like I said, Slipknot Guild. They make things and expect the rest of us to figure out how the thing fits in our lives. Adjusting the thing to suit us?” She gave an eloquent shrug. “Not something they tend to think about.”

“Is that the mindset of a slipknotter or just the Carter family?”

“Daddy wasn't that unusual among his friends from work,” Sarah mused, “but the again maybe like just attracts like. I also can't say I knew all his close acquaintances.”

I decided we'd wandered far enough from the main topic for the moment. “Was your brother's beacon on the standard frequency or did your father program them with a unique signature?”

“It wasn't standard but it was close.” The lift came to a stop and Sarah led me down the hall beyond it, chattering away without bothering to look back. “If you think it will help I can take you by my studio. My beacon is on the same frequency and you can familiarize yourself with it there.”

“It might be useful.” She slid the same card from the lift into the apartment lock and the door clicked open. “Did your brother give you a key to his apartment?”

“He left it with our parents and I borrow it whenever I'm planning on stopping in or they send me here on an errand.” She tucked the key card into a small handbag and gave me a sideways look. “I can let you in if you need to come back to double check on something but I can't lend it to you or let you make a copy.”

I wondered if her parents knew she'd hired a Thieftaker to look into her brother. Every once in a while you heard stories about women who developed an unhealthy fixation on someone and started following them, even going so far as to call the Lawmen or Thieftakers in to investigate made up stories about total strangers. Hopefully I wasn't dealing with one of those. “I should be able to gather most of what I need today but you never know.”

The apartment was typical for Ashland Prominence. Main room, kitchen, restroom and bedroom all laid out for maximum space efficiency. The main room had a sofa and armchair, an end table in the corner between them and a shelving unit holding the usual mess of entertainment and communication appliances. The first thing I checked was his home voicecaster, which was blinking with an indicator for messages waiting. I hit the replay and the display switched to a keypad. “Do you know your brother's security code for his voicecaster messages?”

“No.” Sarah went to the bedroom door and opened it, glancing inside as if she hoped her brother had miraculously come home and passed out drunk or something. “He didn't want any of us hearing Wayfinder business we shouldn't. You know how it is.”

I did, but that didn't prevent a lot of Thieftakers and Lawmen from leaving their casters unlocked so they could just come home, hit a button and collapse into an armchair with a glass of whiskey and the day's regrets. My estimation of Lloyd Carter's professionalism went up a notch. I didn't tell his sister that, however, because we Thieftakers do have our image to maintain after all. “Do you mind if I tamper with it? It may be possible to retrieve the messages with a little work.”

She gave me a curious glance. “Go ahead. I can always get him a new one if you blank it.”

The voicecaster was a Vannix Strato48, which was simple, reliable and easy to crack provided you had the right tools and knowhow. I picked it up off the shelf and turned it over, carefully moving the odd, brass knickknack sitting beside it off to one side to make a little more room to work before setting the device back upside down. Sarah came over to watch me over one shoulder. “What are you doing?”

“I'm going to pull the memory crystal and run it through my portable VC,” I said, pulling out a multitool and going to work on the screws on the bottom. “Vannix models don't usually encrypt their memory unless you spend a good chunk on aftermarket upgrades.”

“He doesn't really have the money for that kind of thing.” Sarah picked up the knickknack, a strange, funerary mask looking sculpture woven out of brass wires and attached to a small pedestal. “Doesn't really have the money for this kind of thing, either. What've you been doing, Lloyd?”

“Did you notice any kind of sudden changes in attitude in your brother before he disappeared?” I asked, setting aside the voicecaster's bottom plate. “Anyone new show up in his life?”

“He seemed normal when I saw him at mum's birthday party last month,” Sarah mused, “but he didn't spend a lot of time talking about his personal life. He never mentions ladies to me. If he talked about that kind of thing with our parents they kept his confidence because I never heard about it. The only change is how he apparently started collecting these weird sculptures.”

“Oh?” The back of the voicecaster was a mess of thread thin copper wires twisted into frequency coils and the various transmission, reception and memory crystals that let the thing receive and broadcast. It'd been a while since I'd done something like this so I couldn't remember which was the right crystal for messages. I started pulling and testing them one at a time. “Your brother wasn't a fan of art?”

“He never mentioned it.” She set the thing down with a sigh and looked around the main room. “But he must have found something about them interesting. There was another one I've never seen before over...”

She paused, pointing in the direction of the end table. I followed her finger, wondering why she's stopped, and saw that it was empty. Mentally I backed up to the moment I'd walked in and replayed my quick glance around the room, comparing it to how it was now. Nothing seemed out of place. “Something wrong?”

“There was this strange stone thing on the end table last time I visited.”

I paused in the process of slotting the memory crystal into my VC wristband. “What did it look like?”

“Some kind of fat bear thing with a lot of curly hair on its head?” She set the brass mask down on the counter and held her hands apart to indicate height, sliding them from ten to fifteen inches apart. “Somewhere around this size. I don't remember, it was a few days ago.”

“It was stone, you say?”

“It seemed like it. I didn't take a very close look at it before, Lloyd's brought a lot of weird stuff home from trips down into the helium and methane seas.” She shrugged. “You know, Wayfinder memorabilia. I thought it was more of the same.”

I hurriedly crossed over to the door, pulled it open and examined the lock, looking for any signs of tampering. “Who besides you and your brother has a key to this apartment?”

“The building manager, I suppose. No one else that I know of.”

The door was old and worn but otherwise fine. I quickly closed it and hurried back over to the corner, looking under the table then behind the sofa and chair for signs of this stone statue. There wasn't anything. I stood up in the middle of the main room and slowly turned a complete circle but there was no sign of anything like Sarah described anywhere in the room. “So who moved the statue between your last visit and now?”

She slowly turned the strange wire sculpture over in her hands. “You know, now that I think about it, I don't know if I remember seeing this here on my last visit either...”

The light from the windows caught and refracted off the brass wirework in mesmerizing fashion. I took the thing from her and checked the pedestal and back of the mask for some kind of maker's mark or artist's signature but there wasn't anything that I could recognize. I set it down where it originally sat and pulled a wallet sized flimsyscreen out of a pocket. After a couple of seconds of framing I recorded four or five images of the sculpture on it from various angles and saved them then stuck it back in my wallet. “I know a few antique dealers and pawn shop owners who might know what the source on something like that is. I'll ask them a few questions after we're done here.”

“Do you think Lloyd got caught up in some kind of art theft ring? Or forgery? He doesn't even know anything about art!”

“Calm down, Madame Carter,” I said, going back to the voicecaster and pulling the last of the memory crystals. “Wild speculation hasn't ever helped solve a disappearance.”

I started slotting the crystals into my wrist VC. Two of them wouldn't play which meant they didn't hold audio files but rather the operating system or something similar. The third one played just fine but didn't contain anything useful. Lloyd Carter had a total of eight messages waiting for him on his voicecaster, three from his parents, three from the Wayfinder's Alliance asking him to check in and two from the Ashland Museum of Fine Art asking for updates. None of them included anything particularly useful aside from revealing he was possibly working for an art museum.

I started putting his VC back together as I said, “I'll try checking in with the museum after we're done here and see if they'll admit to working with your brother. Unfortunately my experience with those kinds of people is that they won't unless they're forced to.”

“Why not?” Sarah asked plaintively. “What does it cost them to just be honest?”

“If they bought a forgery or were robbed it can seriously compromise their reputation,” I said. There's nothing like ego to drive horrible decision making. The only things better at it in my experience are parental and erotic love, though that's not the kind of thing I bring up in mixed company. “Don't worry too much. Thieftakers and Wayfinders have our ways of swapping information without breaking our contracts and I may be able to find something out via them as well.”

“I hope so. Did you want to look through his bedroom as well?”

“If I could.”

She didn't mind but I suspected her brother might so, while I did do a pretty careful search of the man's bedroom I'll hold what I saw there in confidence save to say that I didn't think any of it had anything to do with Lloyd Carter's disappearance. An inspection of the bathroom and kitchen was much the same. Once I was done and back in the main room I said, “Now I plan to turn sidereal and do another sweep. Are you able to come along? And do you want to?”

“Yes to both.” She loosened the collar of her coat and undid the knot on her scarf, saying, “Daddy made sure all his children were tested for the slipsense and taught those of us as had it how to use it safely. I don't know what your forensic work involves but I should probably tag along just in case Lloyd has something stashed on that side of things. I'd recognize all the nasty tricks daddy taught us right away.”

Something about this whole case had me off my game because I hadn't even put together the fact that a militiaman who went into the Slipknot Guild after his enlistment was up probably specialized in fortifications and traps until she hinted at it. Still, there were other, more dangerous things in the sidereal than what men could make. I don't like taking people there if I don't have to. But Sarah made a compelling point for going over with me so I didn't press the issue. “Well then, let's-”

A soft pinging sound from the voicecaster interrupted me. Not from my voicecaster, either, but from the one I'd just put back together some fifteen minutes ago. Sarah reached for the VC set but I grabbed her hand long enough to say, “You're alone here. You haven't hired a Thieftaker to look for your brother. Try to get them to tell you anything you can, understand?”

She nodded once and I let her go. She pushed the receiving button on the VC and said, “Hello, this is Sarah.”

There was a brief pause then a smooth, cultured voice with the long, relaxed vowels of the University accent said, “I am looking for Lloyd Carter. Is this his wife?”

“Sister,” Sarah said. “I'm here for a visit. Unfortunately you've caught us at a bad moment – Lloyd is out on assignment right now and probably won't be back for a bit. Can I take a message for him or would you like me to shunt you to the caster's messaging channel?”

“That's not necessary,” the voice said, “if you'll just leave him a note or speak to him when you see him. I've retained your brother's services to track down a missing shipment of crystal etching tools for Ermine University's engineering department and he was thinking of hopping up to Coldstone to see if they were misrouted at the junction there. He's probably still there. Tell him Oscar called and I've ruled out the Deuterium Prominence Junction as a potential location, the clerk there recently returned my call.”

“Oh, I see.” She scrambled to pull a flimsyscreen out of her pocket and scribbled a note on it. “I'll make sure he knows, thank you.”

“No, thank you. Give your brother my regards.” The voicecaster pinged once and the transmission went dead.

Sarah took the flimsyscreen and slipped it under one corner of the voicecaster then propped her hands on her hips with a hmph. “Well, I suppose that settles that.”

“Has your brother been to Coldstone before?” I asked.

“Once or twice,” she said. “Wayfinders did work up there as well down here on Wireburn, in fact they pursued their core mandate there longer than here because the environment wasn't as hospitable to life before we terraformed it.”

“No indigenous life like the Great Jellies to give us maps.”

“Exactly. So he could have slipped up there for a few days without telling us.” I could see from the set of her lips that she wasn't entirely convinced by that but she wanted it to be true. “Would he take two cases like that? From the Museum and a University?”

“I've done similar things. Speaking of cases, I can return your deposit, if you'd like?”

She was quiet for a long moment. “Could you wait a day? I think daddy knows a few people he can call up there to see if they've seen Lloyd.”

That wasn't the way Theiftakers were supposed to handle a case. Everyone in the world has their problems but the reason to hire a Theiftaker is to solve those problems not to wait while you solve them on your own. If the lady wanted to investigate by herself then I really should leave her to it and move on to my next case. Instead I handed her my VC card so she'd have my direct line. “Call me bright and early, day after tomorrow, and let me know if you're dropping the case or not.”

She took it with a grateful smile and tucked it into a pocket. “Thank you, Sir Hammer.”

We headed out of the apartment and she moved to lock the door behind us when I stopped her, patting at my pocket for a moment. I threw a glance back into the apartment and confirmed what my slipsense had just picked up. Then I pulled my multitool out of my pocket and said, “Sorry, couldn't remember if I'd grabbed this or not.”

“Ah. Wouldn't want to leave that behind,” she said. “I'll call you once I know anything for sure.”

“Of course. If you'll excuse me, I'll just slip back to the Hall and see if the dispatcher has anything to fill out my afternoon. Take care, Madame Carter.” With that I turned sidereal.

The building around me vanished and the familiar gleaming horizon that contained the brimming energy of Wireburn appeared beneath my feat. The pulsing light of the various beacons on Wireburn twinkled in the distance. However I wasn't interested in those at the moment so instead I backpedaled into Lloyd Carter's apartment.

Physical barriers are great for keeping the rain off your head and giving you some measure of privacy but they don't do a whole lot of good against someone who can turn to the sidereal and ignore those barriers entirely. It's only the lack of recognizable landmarks that makes it difficult to exploit the sidereal to its fullest extent. Slipknots can link the physical and the sidereal and create things like beacons which solves some of the landmark issue but building a beacon takes a long time and sliptech has hundreds of other uses that have always kept the number of available beacons low.

There are two alternatives to slipping through space while navigating by beacons. The first is a bit obscure, where you draw a bunch of power off the local planet or star and use it to stretch your slipsense in a chosen direction then jump to the endpoint of that stretch and see what you find. That's called dead reckoning by those who know of it, because I reckon you're more likely to wind up dead than anywhere useful. The second one is obvious to anyone with the slipsense and that's following someone else when they slip through the sidereal. If you're right next to a person when they slip through space it's very easy to follow them.

On the other hand if someone slips off even a minute or two before you show up and try to follow them the process gets much harder. Even recognizing that someone has slipped through the space you stand is difficult without training. Tracking them to along their route is basically impossible unless you know what you're doing. Fortunately that is a basic part of Thieftaker training. I slipped on my blast glasses and helmet, just in case, and looked over the sidereal until I found the snarl in the fabric of space where something had crossed over from the physical a few minutes ago. A quick check confirmed that if I turned out of the sidereal I'd arrive by the apartment's voicecaster.

When I glanced back through the door a moment ago I'd noticed the brass wire mask on the shelves there was missing. I suspected it was some kind of disguised listening device left to make sure no one was poking around in Lloyd Carter's apartment when they weren't supposed to. The stone statue Sarah noticed earlier was undoubtedly more of the same. Whoever was on the other end of these listening devices had noticed our presence and arranged for the very convenient call we'd just heard to try to get us to stop looking for Sarah's brother.

They'd missed a bet, though. I was a Thieftaker and when they recalled their listening device I'd caught an echo of its departure and now I was going to find them and see what they were up to. Sure enough, after a few minutes study I isolated a tunnel through the sidereal exactly like I'd expect from someone slipping off elsewhere. I probed it with my slipsense while pulling enough energy from Wireburn to slip myself after the sculpture.

A second later I was in a new stretch of sidereal. To my surprise the expanse of energy below me was much smaller and dimmer, consistent with what I'd expect from Coldstone. Not surprising, honestly. Oscar had lied to us over the VC but clearly he'd included Wireburn's moon in his story because Coldstone was already in the forefront of his mind. I probed to make sure I could turn physical safely. Once I confirmed the area was clear of obstacles and people I turned physical and found myself in a large room with vaulted ceilings full of skylights. In the windows overhead I could see the breathtaking orange and brown whorls of Wireburn filling most of the sky.

I was standing in an octagonal room. Two opposite sides of the octagon were doorways to other rooms, both closed at the moment, and the other six sides had alcoves built into them. Four of the six alcoves were occupied by statuary. One was the familiar brass mask. Another was a stone creature, about a foot high, that looked like a fat dog with curly hair on its head. The third was a strange mass of brightly colored yarn hanging from a hook. At first I wasn't sure what it was supposed to be but as my gaze slipped away from it and on towards the next alcove I saw it out of the corner of my eye and realized it was a very abstract rendition of a Great Jelly, one of Wireburn's odd native creatures. Interesting.

The last statue was a three foot tall structure made entirely of elaborately folded paper to make a strange toad-like structure with far too many joints in its six limbs and eyes drawn on the paper seemingly at random. I didn't recognize any of these sculptures but I could tell someone had spent a lot of time on each of them. Unfortunately that didn't tell me who was using them to spy on people. I glanced from one door to the other, wondering if I should pick one to go through or just turn sidereal and head back to Ashland Prominence for the moment.

I'd just started to turn towards the sidereal when Oscar's deep, cultured voice rang through the room, saying, “Welcome, Theiftaker. I was wondering if you'd come here to speak with us.”

I backed out of the sidereal and searched for the source of the voice. “And you're Oscar. Tell me, did you kidnap Lloyd Carter and set up in his apartment to dissuade people looking for him? Or did he give you the slip and you're hoping to follow his sister or I to his location?”

Oscar was quiet for a second. Then he said, “Very impressive pattern recognition, isn't it?”

“Rudimentary.” The new voice was thin and reedy.

“For us, perhaps, but very advanced for a human. I propose a multiplicative stance to facilitate progressing the situation.”

I spun around again, still trying to determine where in the room these voices were coming from. “Why don't you stop talking about me and start talking to me?”

“Agreed,” the reedy voice said. I wasn't sure if he was talking to me or Oscar or both of us.

The brass mask shifted, the wires suddenly writhing and weaving themselves about like a pile of spaghetti had grown sentient. If the squirming movement wasn't bad enough it was totally silent as well. A moment later the mask was gone, replaced with an eight inch tall mannequin made of woven wires. The thing's face turned towards me with a disquieting regard. “Hello, Thieftaker Hammer. I am O-193118, known to most humans as Oscar, and as you have deduced I am attempting to locate Lloyd Carter via the observation of his residence. This has been an unproductive approach.”

I stared at the bizarre thing for a long moment, unsure what to make of it. Finally I lapsed back on my instincts and asked, “What does that have to do with me?”

“Simply put, Sir Hammer,” it said, “I would like to hire you to find him.”

People are as varied and surprising as the stars of the galaxy whereas their crimes as predictable as the driving rain. I work with crime every day so I know that's the case. I don't know as I like what that says about me, seeing as how I could predict his offer and my answer before they were even spoke. Still, the formalities need to be observed so I said, “I accept.”

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