From the Tupolev ridge to the South, cool wind glided down across a vast pumice desert and wafted against Bukowski's chest as he sat in the visitors' quarters, slouched in his chair. He was slightly dazed by the three months of travel from Old Earth to Nimbus on the Theta-5811 hyperspace corridor. Bukowski squinted his right eye and gazed at the bottom of his glass as he twirled it, the maroon liquid in it splashing on the sides.
“Like gin except bitter and stale. I'd forgotten the taste,” said captain Lacroix. He exhaled a billow of smoke and put his boots on the cube-shaped, illuminated onyx coffee table in front, knocking off the welcome postcard in the middle.
A man in his early forties, the captain had a steady yet jocular look. The memo Bukowski had read on Lacroix a week before the trip sketched the captain as a once-prodigy child, who had turned a rising-star cadet of the North American Guard. He had risen to captain in the ranks, been honorably discharged for family reasons and not done much of note since joining the private sector.
The door to the visitor's igloo slid open and an Altera girl appeared at the doorstep. She was over two meters tall: quite tall even by Altera standards, as gravity on Nimbus was 5/6th that of Old Earth. She bowed graciously to the two guests and said one of the only two phrases Bukowski understood in Neo-Coptic. He placed the hearplug of the comlog in his left ear.
“Assent and bliss,“ she opened with the native greeting. “I have been appointed to serve as your chaperon. Is there anything that I can bring you?”
“Food,” Lacroix said.
“Yes, anything to eat will be fine, thank you,“ Bukowski added.
The girl curved the ends of her lips into a smile and left.
Bukowski emptied the glass in his throat. He stood up from the chair and stepped close to the window. His eyes roamed along the weathered curvature of the far-off, lemon-hued hills to the West.
“I suppose these are the victims.“
“Yes, these bad boys. Fifteen years back, when I was stationed here as a young officer, I left Nimbus with the last batallion. No one thought there was anything of value left behind us.“
“You might have been right.“
“How's that?“ Lacroix asked.
“This far out on the fringes of the Hegemony, it needs to be a big find for digging to pay itself. It took two years to get the travel permits and get funding from corporate for this expedition only. It would take five times that to get all the permits for mining and industrial usage. And Theta-5811 is risk travel.“
“So high insurance premiums?,“ asked Lacroix.
“Right. Or not insurable at all.“
Bukowski shifted his gaze further to the right and stopped it at the obsidian tower in the center of village.
“What is the story of the tower? Is it a shrine or something?“
“This is the two-score eye tower. A beauty isn't she?“
“It sure stands out. What is inside?“
“I have not been inside myself.“
Bukowski yawned. “You think we are going in there tomorrow?“
The door slid open and the chaperon girl entered. She pulled a wheel cart and placed it behind the two guests. Silent, with lowered chin and shoulders, the girl bowed in the same manner as she had the first time then left.
Bukowski and Lacroix came near the wheel cart. There were two boxes, two sets of silverware and a stone cup with a small folded note in it. Bukowski opened the note.
“The high priest requests your presence. The chaperon will meet you at 0700. We are eager to have your two months on Nimbus as guests of the Altera be as effective and pleasurable as they can be.
Assent and bliss.
Altera Tribal Council.”
“Well, there's my answer,“ Bukowski said.
They sat back on the chairs, pulled closer to the wheel cart and leaned over it.
Lacroix pushed his plate to the side in disgust. “Rhino curry.”
Bukowski walked down a broad, straight path that led to the arched entry of the two-score eye tower. With long mechanical strides, the chaperon girl walked in front, Lacroix followed behind. The two moons of Nimbus stared down at them as they neared the base of the tower.
The tower rose tall and shapeless before them. The facade of the tower was glossy, black and opaque. Its surface was jagged, covered with dozens of yellow, hexagon-shaped, matte slates scattered in a random pattern. Four bright projectors at the top of the tower overlooked the entire village.
After a minute, they were down a corridor with elliptical lucent stones immured in the walls. The clack of shoes stepping on polished stones intermixed in an irregular beat that echoed forward and back. Warm humid air emanated from the ceiling. They climbed stairs that led straight up, then up in a spiral, then straight up again. Another hall, narrower, dimmer followed. A square granite door with no door knob stood before them at the end of that hall. The chaperone girl knocked on the door once.
The door opened and a splash of light from the widening door slit blurred Bukowski's eyesight. He entered the room and was offered a chair by a woman whose face he recognized from the slide presentation on the Altera in corporate headquarters.
“We shall have the official presentations shortly.” She walked back and sat to the left of the priest. A man—sharp-angled face, ramrod jaw, reserved look in his eyes—sat to his right.
The priest waved the chaperon out.
“I trust you slept well,” he said.
“I did. The gravity and air-concentration conditioner made it about the same as what conditions are back home,” Bukowski said. “It showed.”
“I am glad of it.”
The High Priest sat at the table across from Bukowski, with a solemn inquisitive look. Dressed in a brick-red linen robe with a trimmed white beard his hands rested palms-down on the table, his slender knuckles sticking out from the end of his sleeves. He paused long between thoughts.
“As representatives of our potential partners from Terra Nueva Mining you have come to make inquiries into the sulfur mine lease. The Altera tribe is the present de jure owner of these lands as per Article thirteen of the Tribal Restitution Law that returned illegally seized lands to the original settlers. The Altera tribal council—myself, Judge Lind to my left and Judge Luder to my right—is the body authorized by the tribe to conduct these talks.” The High Priest fastened his look on Lacroix and paused. “Captain Lacroix is an old acquaintance of ours and we are delighted to see him present with us again. Mr. Bukowski, from corporate we have a notion of who you are and in what capacity we can expect to be seeing you. We have not had the pleasure of knowing you, Mr. Bukowski, and we would care for you to present yourself as we insist on knowing the people who work and live among us.”
Bukowski stood from his seat. The formality of the presentation so far had stiffened his shoulders. “Luke Bukowski, engineer. Geologist. I have been commissioned to make the preliminary technical and economic feasibility study of the Tupolev mines. The report I write at the end of my stay will determine the price tag of the Terra Nueva proposal for the lease. The corporate office will then forward you—via space courier—an official letter of the offer.”
The high priest and the judges consulted briefly.
Judge Lind leaned forward. “Bukowski, besides the technical and economic study, the letter from corporate mentioned an environmental and cultural feasibility studies of the mines to be conducted here. If I recall correctly, they were both to be done by Dr. Tobias Kilko.”
“Dr. Kilko couldn't make the trip,” Lacroix said. “Dead.”
The High Priest kept his look on Bukowski. “Please continue.”
“Kilko passed out a week before the trip,“ Bukowski said. “The corporation had no time to train a replacement. All apt choices were either unavailable for the task or did not have the time to be immunized for life on Nimbus.”
The crevices on the priest's forehead deepened. “So what solution did they settle on?”
“I will be in charge of conducting the environmental and cultural studies. Captain Lacroix will help me do that as someone familiar with the Altera culture.”
“Do either of you have the appropriate training?” Judge Lind asked.
“We do. Well, I do. The captain will help me with conducting the interviews and with the cultural aspects of it.“
Judge Lind started a sentence but it broke into a sigh as the priest glanced at her and tapped on her wrist with his middle finger. Judge Luder lowered his chin and to the left shoulder of the high priest and whispered something. The priest nodded and pursed his upper lip.
Judge Luder forged a smile. “What kind of assistance will you need to do your work?”
“Technical assistance? Not really, I—”
“Logistical rather. You will surely need apt transportation? The valley of Tupolev is notoriously dreadful this season and getting around can be a problem.”
Bukowski's eyes rested on Judge Luder's. “Of course. Some means of transportation will be all.”
“We have prepared an ACH-12 hydrogen-propelled aircraft in the hangar for the purpose. Should there be any other assistance you may need, let the chaperon know and a meeting with a representative of the Tribal Council shall be arranged.”
“Thank you.” Bukowski loosened his shoulders.
The priest had returned to the placid look he had when he did his introductory speech. “Your superiors must have informed you of the two clauses of your presence here. Whether they have or whether they have not, it behooves me to repeat them.
“While living with the Altera you fall under the full jurisdiction of our laws. You are entitled to the protection and benefits of these laws and you are a subject to its penalties. If you are unfamiliar with them, correct that at the first chance you get. At a minimum, you must attend the mandatory Probity Training. The chaperon will assist you with the details of it.
“Second, you are forbidden from talking about your work with anyone except the Tribal Council. There has been a writ issued that forbids the locals from asking you about your work. Should anyone approach you with a question about your work, it is your duty to report them to the chaperon.”
“Lastly—and to clarify how the lease will be approved on our end—when the lease offer is received by the Tribal Council, the council will meet to discuss it. We will then present it to the Gathering. The Altera Gathering will have the final word on the matter. The decision will be made in the traditional Altera way: by clapping and taking the decision that gets the loudest applause.“
The high priest keyed something with his left hand on a keypad built into the table. “It takes a few misguided souls to wreck a Gathering. We do not want rumors leaking and morphing into falsities in the minds of the villagers before the Gathering. Our harsh stance on rumors is one thing foreigners find hard to comprehend.”
A girl, carrying a tray with five glasses, entered the room. She placed the glasses squarely in front of everyone present.
The priest sat silent as the door behind the girl closed. “This was certainly a grim note to leave our conversation on. Let us have a welcome glass of kylo wine before we part.”
The elliptical lights embedded in the walls melted into a spotted yellow snake on the way back.
“A merry fellow, isn’t he?” asked Lacroix.
Bukowski chuckled. His arms were limp, his muscles were loosened and he felt his joints barely hold his body together. He looked at his hands as he walked, as if they were not his own. He tried to answer but stuttered. He saw the shoulder blades of Lacroix as he walked in front of him, then they were gone, the next instant he heard a thud and saw darkness all around.
With a skull-shattering hangover, the kind that lasts well into the afternoon, Bukowski sat in the cockpit of the ACH-12. A map covering eighty thousand square kilometers of land—the land that headquarters had dubbed an 'area of significance'—lay in front of him. Small orange stickers numbered one to twenty three were scattered about the lower left corner of the map. Twenty three grab samples of yellowish rock, all bagged and tagged, lay in the sample vault.
The nuclear decimation in the first half of the twenty first century, the subsequent spike in human reproduction and the typhus outbreak that followed, were the last uncontrolled ebbs and flows of human population size. With the advances in cybernetics, virology and medicine in the Age of Singularity, life expectancy had increased to a hundred and thirty eight years on Old Earth and the colonies, in what the Hegemony had labeled Big Surge in population growth. The resultant breakthroughs in farming and cryogenic refrigeration had ushered in the Second Agrarian Revolution.
The new gold, as some predictably called it, sulfur was the one commodity that produced the potent fertilizers and insecticides needed to keep up the Big Surge. As a drug addict looking for the next big hit and convinced of his full control over the addiction, the Hegemony was looking for more of it.
Bukowski did not need much channel sampling to know that the area Northwest of the Tupolev ridge was a sulfur mother lode. The find far exceeded anything the company could hope for. In fact, it was unlike anything he had ever seen. The color, the smell and the pristine desolation of the canyons carried in it the tickle of huge discovery: a discovery that would have enthused him ten years back. Staring out the window of the ship, Bukowski could almost see the miners, the giant earth diggers, the pubs, the craps tables, the diseases, which all tag along in the wake of digging, as poor relatives dressed up for a reunion.
The humming of the old hydrogen engine of the ACH-12 carried Bukowski's thoughts back to the here and now.
“Untalkative mood?“ asked Lacroix.
“It is ... It is just the hangover.“
“No, it's not,“ Lacroix looked straight ahead. “I am an old drinker, Bukowski, I know the look. It is never just the hangover.“
The black screen of the positioning system had Connecting ... written in the middle of it. The two men sat in silence as the ship rode over the Tupolev ridge on its way back to the village.
“Captain, lower the ship,“ Bukowski said. His eyes had stopped at the black morsel below them, on the north slope of the ridge. It stood amid rocks and shards of snow.
Lacroix rolled and yawed the ship back toward the morsel and reduced altitude. The speck humanized into a far-off silhouette, standing still in the snow. The altimeter rolled past 2300, then 2250 meters. His hands down, his feet close apart, the man was slender, thinly dressed, his face covered by a black scarf with two slits left for eyes.
Lacroix steadied the ship at about twenty meters to the slope. “I can't find a spot to land here. Hope you can handle heights.“
Bukowski zipped himself inside the sub-zero protective suit. He put on the oxygen mask, glasses, earplug, helmet and, as a habit, fastened the express sampling kit to his chest. Bukowski climbed into the steel basket and hooked himself to the iron rope and gave the thumbs up to Lacroix. Lacroix walked over to him. He pulled a sonic pistol from the side of his left upper arm and pushed it into Bukowski's gloved hand.
Heavy gusts of wind and snow pounded against Bukowski's sternum, as the basket left the ship. The basket swayed side to side as it descended. Bukowski lost sight of the man on the ground for an instant. He switched his visor to thermal imaging and found the blurry white blob of the stranger in the same still position and posture. Just as the basket was about two meters above the ground and stabilized, the man sat and laid on his back. He crossed his arms, pressed them against his chest and kicked with his heels against the snow as a child trying to set a bobsled in motion. Bukowski saw a white ray sloosh down the slope and stop at the edge of the precipice. The man stood up, raised his arms and dove into the abyss as if on cue when the basket hit the ground.
“Whatta trick, eh?“ Lacroix's voice could be heard from the earplug.
Bukowski got out of the basket and walked to where the man had been. A crack, no more than two millimeters wide, ran between the two footprints left in the snow on each side of the crack. The snow cover over the crack was thinner, more so in the middle. Bukowski knelt and ran his index finger along the crack. Snowflakes tossed about by the wind, twirled around and fell into the crack and died out as they did so. He lowered his face to the ground, removed the oxygen mask and smelled. The unmistakable smell of matches just-struck indicated the presence of sulfur dioxide.
He pulled a sampling bag out, pressed it above the crack and twisted the valve open. He filled about three quarters of the bag and closed it. He stuck a termometer needle in the crack. Through gusts of wind, he could not see the reading of the termometer. He pressed the 'Save' button of the termometer and placed it back in the express lab.
Instinctively, he walked a couple of steps toward the precipice where the man had jumped unsure of what he would do once he got there. He slipped, steadied himself with his hand against the thin snow cover. Bukowski looked at the direction of the jump, turned back and headed for the basket.
He climbed into it. “Let's head back to the village and call it a day.“
The day of the Probity Training found Bukowski on the safe side of a one-way glass window, the tribal council on the other. An accused man stood before the Tribal Council. His chin was dug in his chest and his eyes were lowered. Judge Luder was reading the charges.
“What did he do?“ asked Lacroix. The visitors were not allowed to carry comlogs to the training.
“Gossiped,“ answered the chaperon. “He has spread a rumour that his neighbor's wife was unfaithful.“
A boy and a woman entered the room and sat at the table. The high priest asked the boy questions and the answers came back promptly. The woman nodded. After the boy finished, the woman placed her hand gently on his shoulder. She threw a glance of chagrin over her shoulder at the accused man as the door behind them closed.
“His wife and son,“ the caperone said. “The boy listened to the rumour daily but kept quiet for days. He was reprimanded, of course.“
Next, a short man and a woman entered. As soon as he was given the word, the man pointed at the accused and burst into a harangue. As he handwaved, he knocked off a papyrus off the table. When he saw what he had done, he darted to the floor and picked up the papyrus. His face had gone pale. The judge keyed something on his keypad and a small glass of kylo wine was brought in. The man hoisted it and accepted a chair that was offered. The woman answered colyly when asked questions, while holding her hands clasped in her lap. The short man bowed twice before they left.
The accused was given the word next. Bukowski glanced at the chaperon to hear the man's defense, but he found her squinting her eyes and adjusting the earpiece.
“He says he is uhm ... he wishes that ... he were ... a, a rock man? An upright man, I'm sorry ...,“ the chaperon girl chuckled.
The man was sentenced to public opprobrium before the Gathering and 130 days of deferential labor. Two guards entered the room, grabbed the man under the arms and carried him away.
The Gathering was held in a large, underground auditorium below the tower. At the entrance, six smiling girls in loose robes held trays with cups of kylo. Bukowski went to the visitor's room, where there was a large one-way window and a table with a couple of binoculars on it and a tray of sugar cookies.
The auditorium buzzed with excitement. At the back of the auditorioum, men stood on their toes, and children had climbed on their fathers' shoulders. The ruckus grew quiet as Judge Luder entered the room and stepped on stage.
The judge started with a brief greeting and then announced the convict's full name and sentence. He raised his right hand, which held a yellow flag. He brought his hand down, and a deafening thunder followed. Men and women, their faces as light bulbs, clapped deliriously. The display on the wall stopped at 105.1 dB.
The judge raised the flag in his left hand. The same routine was repeated and the clapping registered 86.6 dB.
“It is not even close,“ the chaperon girl smiled. “The sentence will be carried out.“
The convict was brought to the stage and stepped on a small white round platform. The platform was brought toward the crowd by a mechanical arm to the center of the auditorium. There was an opening on the floor, the size and shape of the platform. The platform was lowered into the opening and stopped at a level just below the auditorium floor. The convict removed his robe and a large clock on the wall flashed 00:00.
At the sound of a buzzer, the crowd erupted in verbal onslaught. Red faces, shiny lips, white teeth, children, men, women, old, young all yelled and cussed. The convict's hands covered his ears, then his genitals, then his ears again, then one hand up, the other down. He pressed his head to the side against his left shoulder, then to the right. He fell to the floor for a bit and the timer stopped. He got up and the fray went on. As the clock counted off ten minutes, the buzzer went off. All was quiet again.
The white platform was brought up to the level of the auditorium floor. The convict knelt and reached for his robe. A couple of hands from the crowd tapped him on the back as he dressed. Faces around him were now bright, some even cheered. A girl carried a kylo cup to him.
The convict drank it in a single gulp.
Bukowski awoke from a tremor. Two glasses, one empty, one quarter full scuttled across the coffee table, their rims clanked against one another, dashed for the floor once past the edge and burst into smithereens. The tremor increased to steady shaking. The bed swayed side to side. His head bumped against the wall and he grasped the two stone slabs on the sides of the bed. He tightened his grip as sweat greased his palms and fingers and the muscle feebleness of morning fatigue made it harder to hold on. The lights flickered then went out. The dome ceiling shuddered, tiny rock granules and white dust covered the floor. Bukowski’s right eyelid caught a dust particle. He blinked, rubbed it, blinked again and again to soothe the itch but could not.
The rocking stopped. Bukowski rubbed his eye free of the prickly bit inside it. The two-score eye tower could be seen through the twilight of early dawn.
“You all right, captain?”
“Safe and sound.” Lacroix, crouched under the bed, came out and dusted off. “Safe and sound. These beds they build: they are supposed to be quake-safe,“ he added defensively.
“This happens often then?“
“It did. I guess it does still. Though, this was a bit over the top, even by local standards. How strong was it, do you reckon?“
Bukowski walked over to the luggage: the seismograph was still unpacked. He pulled it out and slid the cover open. The display was off.
“Around 5.5 to 6.0 on the Richter scale,“ Bukowski said, as he flipped the switch.
“A guesstimation. The tool was down. Though I am confident of the lower bound: as confident as I can be of my gut reading, at least.“
“The chaperon was telling me they'd become much more frequent as of late.“
Bukowski pursed his lips. “Did she say how frequent?“
“There were two so far.“
“For the month of Epip alone.“
Bukowski walked across the room to where a table with a large “Lab“ sticker on it was set. He pushed the sampling vault cart to the side. From his backpack he got the gas sampling bag from the day before. He set the valve on the female inlet of the gas composition analyzer.
Lacroix approached the table. “Something's eating you.“
Bukowski turned the knob of the analyzer. He sighed and turned. “Is it that obvious?“
“That and more. It's written all over your face.“
“Well, it is probably nothing to write home about. But the crack on the slope of the mountain, that man yesterday and the earthquake just now.“
“They add up to what?“
Bukowski bent toward the analyzer, his elbows on the table and read the values. “One thing that I can be be positive of ...“ He straightened up, his eyes still on the reader. “Is that the Tupolev ridge is a dormant stratovolcano.“
They stood silent for a while. Bukowski wrote the sulfur dioxide concentration numbers off the analyzer and the last saved number off the termometer.
Lacroix took another step toward the lab table. “That alone can't be troubling you. There are thousands of dormant volcanoes on Nimbus.“
“Can you tell when it is due to erupt?“
“No, not with the data we have at moment. It might never. The rocks may crack and rumble as gas and lava move around the pipes, but they might never make it to the surface violently, as an eruption. It can stay dormant for millions of years as this one probably has. Though, the pumice desert that stands between the village and the mountain is a result of a recent eruption.“
“Geologically recent: hundreds or thousands of years.“
Lacroix loosened his shoulders. “But with some likelihood? Can you tell?“
“Not really. These sulfur dioxide concentration values alone can not tell us much. We will get a second sample and a read in a week and then another and then we might have a better idea. It's not the values but the change in values that matter. It will take many samples before we can say with certainty.“
“What about the earthquakes? How's that related? They've had them forever here.“
“That's the bad news. Earthquakes may become more frequent before imminent eruption.“
“Define 'imminent'.“ Lacroix pupils had widened.
“Can't be quoted on it. I don't know,“ Bukowski said calmly.
Lacroix accosted and grabbed Bukowski's shoulder violently. “You can't be quoted on it? Look, I do not care much for your academic reputation and what you can and can't be quoted on by some bookworm prick who'd love to get you at a seminar or wherever is it that you go and measure up your dicks. What I do care about is my family who's expecting to see me back when I promised them that I will be back. Now, let me put it differently.“ He snapped his fingers. “Can it be that imminent?“
Bukowski's expression was stern. “I don't have the crystal ball, Lacroix. I don't even have a decent seismograph. You want the odds, here are the odds: they're minuscule. They certainly beat the odds of hyperspace travel and those, I'd say, are livable.“
Lacroix looked down. He went back to his chair, sat and sighed.
“Do we tell the High Priest about it then?“
“I would not cry wolf. Not yet.“
Lacroix scoffed. “Cry wolf?! Agh, that's precious. Hadn't heard that one in a while.“
“That's what it would look like at this stage.“
“Then so be it! I am not concerned with appearances.“
Bukowski exhaled and sat on the chair across from Lacroix. “We must have hard data before we jump to conclusions. We will take another recording in a week.“
Lacroix nodded in understanding, his lips pursed. “Now here's my take at this. It takes 50 minutes to set up the Sparrow for space. Our ship goes to scrap in the case of eruption: that I think is clear. At best, we'd be losing all of our communication back to Old Earth if this thing erupts. We're in the tribal frontier of the Hegemony. They're not sending rescue missions into the Thetta-5811 corridor as we both know. Simply put: we'd be goners if this puppy poops.“ Lacroix paused, his face still sparked by vigor.
“So my plan is simple: if another quake happens, we're firing up the engines. I have full authority in matters of safety of our expedition.“
Bukowski stretched his hand toward Lacroix. “Deal?“
“Damn right it's a deal.“
“Are you coming?“ Bukowski asked, his hand on the door handle. “Last call.“
Lacroix laughed. “Everyone and their rhino will be out today: no, thanks. You go, I am staying. Looking forward to sleeping through the day.“
It was market day in the village. The commons was crowded with spice tradesmen and cart pushers. Wizened old women babbled, children pranced about. Two cavalrymen atop rhinoceros--the local breed, genetically engineered for domestication--spoke amiably. Igloo repairmen, with pozzolana ash on their elbows, stood in the shadows of the concession window covers of the food trucks.
Though separated from Old Earth by twenty light-years and colonized only recently, there was something distinctly organic in life on Nimbus, Bukowski thought. Men on Nimbus lived in a simpler world where early death was met as an inevtability. Humans were resigned to premature aging. This peculiar resignation could be understood in the days before the Age of Singularity, but to chose not to transcend biological aging when they could--as the Altera had done--Bukowski found naive in a quaint, provincial way.
A boy cart-pusher leaned on his cart absent-mindedly. “Assent and bliss. Where to?“
“Does not matter, really.“ He handed two tokens into the fist of the boy.
“Unpaid. This is deferential labour.“
The cart-pusher walked slowly, slightly tipping his body side to side as he stepped, peeking in curiosity at the face of the stranger. “You're that visitor, aren't you?“
Bukowski turned and smiled. “I guess I failed to camouflage.“
“You camouflaged good, mister. The commonfolk robe, the sandals: you did good. The thing in your ear and the mouthpiece gives you away, though. What's that anyway?“ the boy asked, pointing with his chin to the hearplug.
“A comlog. It translates my speech into Neo-Coptic and yours into something I can understand.“
“Grand. So if you were to go yonder,“ he pointed up “you'd understand the speech of the Goffes.“
“Yes, I'd understand them.“
“Hm. But no one understands the Goffes.“
Both laughed. They drove around a half-dome full of old people. Some of them sat behind boards of mahjong and held their chins in thought. Others stood by the players and murmured comments. A dusty Mental Vigor Corner sign was hanging from the wall. On the opposite end of the street stood another half dome, Chastity Corner. Girls in loose virgin robes giggled and chatted with boys of the same age.
Past that, the two-score tower loomed larger as they neared it. It was squarely in the middle of the village commons, with stone fence posts around it.
“Does not anyone guard the tower?“ Bukowski asked.
The boy's expression sobered. “Why? The tower watches over the city. It guards us.“
“How so?“ Bukowski asked.
The boy's expression assumed the arrogance of knowledge. “It does. The two-score eyes are always vigilant.“
“See, I never quite understood this. You mean there are men on guard inside? The judges and the High Priest hang out there and watch?“
“The two-score eyes are always vigilant,“ he repeated louder.
As the cart drove around the tower, a wall appeared where a man hung a huge papyrus with big letters on it.
“What is this?“
“The village dazibao. Oh, and that's my father“ the boy waved to one of the two man hanging the dazibao.
Bukowski asked the boy to stop. The cart stopped and Bukowski stepped out.
Free of crime: 19 days. Last reported crime: petty gossip. Penalty: 04.
Old Earth visitors are here in their second week. Be courteous. Penalty: 1F.
All villagers with IDs starting with 'U' report for volunteer duty at 0600 tomorrow. Penalty: B3.
War Between Rieland and Ruffus, Now in its Bloodiest Month, Takes 120 victims: Rieland (12), Ruffus (108).
Price of Ink Goes Down Sharply: 2.2 tokens.
The Mahjong Championship Heats up: A.Z. leads the pack.
The Rhino Baby Born Yesterday Was 47 kg: named Vuv, can be seen at ...
The two-score eyes are always vigilant. Assent and bliss.
The father of the boy caught Bukowski reading through the comlog visor.
“It's anything of importance, really. It brings the word of the Tribal Council down to us,“ he smiled.
“Yes, I see,“ said Bukowski.
The Universal Affairs Corner was next to the dazibao. Mostly men had gathered there. They read the news section off the dazibao and debated. Some supported Rieland, others Ruffus. The gossiper that Bukowski had seen punished at the Probity Training was there, too. He stood on the side of the Rieland supporters and belly laughed.
The ground shook. At the first sense of the tremor, the villagers looked at each other quizzically, asking a question and answering it at the same time. In a few seconds, the villagers laid flat on the ground, leaving Bukowski the only one standing. He laid his hands on the ground, then full body and waited for the quake to subside. It lasted for twenty seconds. Bukowski stood up looked around for the cart-pusher boy, but could not see him. The villagers stood up, dusted off and bumped into each other and went their way or back to debating the war.
Bukowski ran on the way back to the visitors' quarters. The seismometer read 5.5 on the Richter scale. Lacroix was dressed and ready. They boarded the ACH-12 and headed for the Tupolev ridge. It was calm and quiet as the sunlight glistened and reflected off the receding snow cover at the top of the ridge. The ground had visibly bulged on the northern slope. A dozen more cracks gaped on the ground. Bukowski filled a sampling bag and measured the concentration again. The sulfur dioxide levels had risen twelvefold. They had a week at best.
The chaperon met them at the door. Bukowski waved off the greetings and demanded a meeting with the Tribal Council. The chaperon returned in half an hour with a folded note. The meeting was to take place at 1000 on the following day.
Judge Luder sat in the reception room alone, his eyebrows in a triangle, frowning over a thick stack of papyri.
“Glad to see you on such a short notice, judge. It really is urgent.“ Bukowski walked to the table and pulled a chair.
“Glad to have you again. Do say.“
In a frenzy, Bukowski narrated the story: the man on the slope, the earthquake and the suspicions that it triggered, then reinforced by the second earthquake, the sharp increase in sulfur dioxide that, in high probability, foreshadowed an eruption. The judge sat calm and expresionless at first. His posture tightened as the story went on. He watched intently as Bukowski drew the north slope of the volcano, the village under it. His hands were squarely in front of him, the tips of his fingers straightened and met as he sensed Bukowski's story coming to an end.
“To be sure there is a hermit living out in the mountain, a wild creature. We'd hoped that you would be spared the sight of him and it is unfortunate that this wretch has distracted you from your mission. He was a traveler from who knows where. We hosted and fed him over some time: just a merry fellow, we thought at first. Over time, we'd come to accept him as one of us. It did not take long for us to see him as he really was. Several complaints came in from the village girls. It was confirmed from the tower that he was a lascivious man. He attacked an orphan one day and our patience ran out. The council made a decision to expel him to the mountains.“
Judge Luder paused and exhaled a sigh. “He's tried to draw attention in other ways since.“
“But that aside,“ Bukowski said “we're left with all the scientific evidence.“
“True. I followed your line of reasoning quite well, Bukowski, but I point out that to start off you were misled by this miscreant. And allow me the observation that one's mind frequently gets thrown off by an unwarranted connection such as this and what starts off as a hunch can build up to falsity by drawing in evidence that support the hunch and remaining blind to evidence to the contrary. As scientists, you and I know that.“
“Judge, I assure you that I would not be sitting here in front of you on a hunch.“
The Judge leaned forward on the table. “We have conducted studies on the Tupolev range in the past and we still are doing so regularly: we are aware that this is a stratovolcano. I am not sure who has given you the information that the earthquakes have become more frequent as of late, but that is a false rumour: a punishable rumour and I shall see to it that it's origin is found.
“The Tupolev ridge is at the border of the New European and Cressian tectonic plates. Seismic activity is more common here than raining is. The cracks on the North slope of the ridge have always been there. The receding snow cover has simply uncovered them. In your hurry, you have jumped to the conclusion that they were caused by the building up of magma and gas below the surface.“
“And what about the gas concentration?“ asked Bukowski.
“An increase of twelvefold is high; I grant you that. But it is not unheard. See Bukowski, although a primitive civilization compared with Old Earth and the rest of the planets in the Hegemony, our science is not provincial. Our scientists maintain records dating over a hundred years back in our knowledge vault. The last eruption occured--if memory is not failing me--in 2211. I know that you are a busy man, but if you wish we can both go to vault in the morning, or whenever suits you, and look at the records.“
“But, as a precaution, would it not be safe if you evacuated the village?“
“We never have. Now, if you have the time and the willingness to listen to an old man's ramblings I can give you the brief history of that.“
“Back in the days when the Altera were nomads our ancestors had a vision: that we'd settle in a land enclosed by a mountain and yellow hills that smelled of fire.“ His face turned into a sly smile. “Of course, I am rephrasing: it sounded more poetic in the original. They had also seen that leaving this land would be the day we cease to exist as a people. Call it a superstition if you will, but it is a superstition that binds our tribe together.“
Bukowski sat silent for a full minute. The judge gazed at his hands, and the ends of the papyri in front of him fluttered as he breathed. A buzzer went off and the judge looked at the clock on the wall.
“I must attend to another matter.“
“Understand,“ Bukowski said and stood up from the chair. “Once again, I thank you for your time.“ He went for the door.
“I am looking forward to having the deal go through,“ the judge said solemnly.
Bukowski turned. “I will make my report available to corporate. The decision is up to them and the process will go through as per our earlier conversation.“
“Indeed. Indeed. Now one last thing.“ The Judge leaned forward another inch and the shadow he cast on the wall skewed and sharpened.
“If it sounds as a warning you will excuse me, but I must say this nevertheless. The volcano speculations must not be discussed outside of the Tribal Council. Furthermore, whatever has been discussed with the Tribal Council must remain a closed matter.“
Bukowski looked up. “Good night, Judge Luder.“
“Assent and bliss.“
The granite door clicked shut behind Bukowski. Gaze fastened to the floor, his thoughts in a jumble, he walked in a hurry.
He stopped. The light shed by the lucent stones embedded in the walls flickered.
Bukowski ran on his way back.
“Watch it, mister!“ the boy said.
“Sorry, I did not mean to ... Hey, is that you? I did not recognize you in the dark. You work this late? I lost you from sight that day.“
The push-cart boy cast his eyes to the ground. “I've got another trip for the night to do. You need a lift by any chance?”
Bukowski hesitated a bit, then mounted the push-cart. “Well uhm, yes, as a matter of fact I do need a lift.”
The boy rubbed his hands against each other, then took the cart handles. “Well, where are you headed?”
“Give me a lift to where you live. I want to see where you live. Where your folks live. I want to meet them.”
The boy's hands let off the handle. “Are you... Are you in your right mind tonight, mister? You do not look so well.”
“No, no, really. “ Bukowski attempted a smile. “Please oblige me.”
The boy set the cart in motion. The cart rolled down empty streets with lamp posts and self-serve hydrogen stations on both sides. They went past rows and rows of same-size, same-height, gray igloos. All village igloos had a single window and all windows faced the tower. The igloo windows got bigger the further away from the tower the igloos were built. The house where the boy lived was at the southernmost edge of the village, overlooking the desert. This far out, the windows of the igloos were thick magnifying lenses and were about half of the dome facade.
As the boy opened the door, boistereous laughter and bright light splashed into the street. Bukowski saw three men over a board of mahjong, with three cups of kylo wine on top of the board, the mahjong tiles on the floor, piled high in the shape of a beat-up pyramid.
“There, there, speaking of the devil. Now tell your uncle of the one time ... Oh, assent and bliss there!“
Bukowski nodded to the men. “Assent and bliss.“
“Have a seat, do have a seat. Now, Fomah, tell your uncle of the one time you and I went bird hunting and you caught a wild goat between the eyes. Yes, yes, it was the month of Paremoude and it was goddamn hot month of Paremoude--“
Bukowski listened for a while as the man told the story, red-faced, saliva flying out. He laughed to tears before telling the funny bit of the story. The other men sat on the sofa, bobbed their heads up and down until one of them dozed off and fell to the side, snoring. The boy nodded and glanced at Bukowski at times but avoided seeing his face full-front.
Bukowski caught the boy's elbow and pulled him to the side. “I want to tell you something,“ he whispered. “Your father is in no condition to hear this, but I need you to tell him something when he is fit to listen. I need him to post something very important on the dazibao.“
The boy winced and freed his elbow. “But only the council decides what's important to post. We don't get a say in it.“
“I understand but, see--“
“Did you speak with them?“
“I did, I did speak with them. Now look, I do not think that we have much time here--“
The boy stepped back so as his full face was made visible from the tower. “What did they say when you spoke with them?“
“They--he, I mean--the judge said he did not think it urgent enough, but see--“
“Now I don't want to hear this, this is gossiping. Whispering, gossiping. You don't know our ways, mister. Stay back!“
“Hey,“ the father said and stood from the sofa. “What are you doing with my boy?“
The boy's face got distorted into a contemptious smirk. He glanced up at the tower, then his father, then back at Bukowski. He ran to his father and in a loud voice told what Bukowski had asked of him.
“I think the village is in a real danger,“ Bukowski said. “The northern slope of the mountain is due to erupt. I want us to do something. You, your son, your two friends and me. We can post a note, tomorrow, on the dazibao and warn the village.“
The father stood from the sofa and the two other men we behind him. His forehead crinkled, his fists and jaw clenched as he approached. “You leave this house, this very minute!“
“Please, you must listen to me,“ Bukowski implored.
“Leave the house!“ the man growled.
“Why won't you listen ...“
A blow to Bukowski's throat knocked him to the ground. The door slid open. Bukowski was pushed and kicked while he crawled out of the house. He struggled to breathe for a while.
He got up and looked up at the mountain. He had to meet the hermit.
The hermit came at sunset. He was dressed in the same black clothes. The warmth of his breath rose as mist from under the scarf.
“Follow me,“ he said. He headed downslope.
Bukowski followed him. The two men entered a shallow cave overlooking the village. The hermit pointed to a couple of round stones covered by dried goat skin. Bukowski sat on one while the hermit stood and watched, his hands hanging limply on both sides.
“I was a child when I met the traveler. I used to stroll up the slope by myself every day after the Art of Submission class. He was dressed in rags and irritable when hungry and he was constantly hungry, I thought, as he used to ask me to bring him food and wine every day.
“His mood did pick up once he ate. We read and talked for hours at a time over a fire that cracked and smelled of musty charcoal. He read to me the stories of one Master Kong, a man he spoke of in admiration, a man that seemed to be in every way unlike the people from the place he'd come from: a place he despised. These stories were about a man who defined 'good' as filial piety, loyalty and ritual and envisioned a society guided not by laws but by perfected human relationships. The idea was grand in my impressionable child mind and it appealed at the same time because of how close it was to what I'd been taught and knew was good from studying the Art of Submission but also of how noble and pure it all sounded when coming from this man, not the patronizing tongue of the Sister Superior. Every night that I went home, I recorded these stories at the back of my notebook. While in class, everytime I recalled passages from these stories, I would write them and visualize them and float in daydreams as only a lame child of eight can.
“Soon enough the stories of Master Kong had a following among the rest of the children. There were three of us at the beginning then another seven joined. Back in those days children of that age were exempted from the Law of Concealment, as it was deemed the 'folly of childhood' to resist authority. The Sister Superior of the school could not disagree more, but the Tribal Council had rationalized that suppressing the urge to resist in its subjects from that early age would cause a lasting resentment in these children's minds, resentment that would be irrational. To smother an irrational resentment would be much harder than letting it grow and have the subject realize its futility at a later, more rational, age. Uprooting the will to defy is easier when this will is planted in rational soil, or so they reasoned.
“Long after the traveler left, we would fantasize about overturning the Tribal Council and instilling a new council guided by the principles of Master Kong. We would bring down the two-score eye tower as the idea had snuck in that there was never anyone in that tower and it was only a way of the Sister Superior to assert her presence everywhere. We would abolish all current laws and prohibit the teaching of the art of submission and have classes in 'gentleman art' instead. Once we all become the gentleman that Master Kong spoke of, there would be no need of the tower, no need of laws, no need of the Gathering and certainly no need of the Sister Superior. We had made a list of steps we would first take and people we would have to send somewhere far so that they did not get in the way of building the new 'gentleman order'. The Sister Superior was inevitably at the top of every such list.
“The Sister Superior would employ other children as snitches, spread rumors between the ten of us. She would collect and burn our writings. One day we decided to shave our heads and ink the stories of Master Kong on the back of our heads, and let the hair grow over it: that way we preserved the stories and we'd promised each other we'd shave our heads once we grew up and crack on the existing order for good. We were twelve by then.“
“The news reached the Tribal Council. What the stories of Master Kong taught was not only piety and loyalty of subject to master, but also the piety of son to father, or friend to friend. And that was reactionary. But what made the Tribal Council really furious at ten twelve-year olds, and what sealed our fate, was our heresy of the tower. The very thought that this was all a sham--an empty hideous thing built to create a feel of constant observation and scare people into submission--had to be made an example of.
“The Gathering made a decision to punish us. Our heads were shaved publicly and I, as a mastermind of that foolishness, was tarred and feathered and forced to live the remainder of my days here.“
The hermit stopped for a moment. Somewhere under the black clothes and the scarf, his body gave off a deep sigh.
“How long ago was this?“ Bukowski asked.
“Haven't much idea of time here. Over ten years. Have not spoken to a living soul since then.“
“Do you ever go back?“
“I've lived in fear since that day: they'd murder me if I did go back. See, I am a pariah, not a vigilante. I have no desire to go back and set things straight. Far from it. Truth be told, if I could I do it all over again, I'd stay down there and submit to it.“
“And what about the volcano?“ Bukowski asked.
“What volcano?“ The hermit's surprise was genuine.
“The volcano you pointed me to. That first time, the crack you stood above. Surely you knew.“
The hermit moved his chin side to side. “I wanted to tell my story to anyone who would listen. I heard you fly over on the way out of the village. I stood on the slope that day, knowing you'd return. As you came down, I saw the handle of the sonic gun. I got scared.“
“Do you want us to help you get out of this place?“
“I'd be grateful. I'd be lying if I said otherwise.“
Bukowski took two steps toward the hermit and squeezed his shoulder. “We will be leaving tomorrow. Meanwhile, go West. As far west into the yellow hills as you can.“
The cave exit was illuminated by the two Nimbus moons. Lacroix sat behind the cockpit, his chin propped on his knuckles, gazing at the silver slate that was the pumice desert at this hour. The two-score eye tower beamed bright.
When they got off the ship, Bukowski and Lacroix were met by three guards in brown robes. One of them, shorter with a dark red collar, informed them that the Tribal Council wished to see them immediately. Lacroix asked why, and the response was a placid, uncomprehending look. They headed for the tower. The guards walked behind them; the red-collar was in the middle, the other two walked two steps behind him, with plasma rifle slings hanging from their shoulders.
The granite door that led to the bunker of the tribal council was left open. The priest looked older than Bukowski remembered.
“Assent and bliss. Please be seated,“ the priest said. His lips, a thin scratch on a sickly face, barely moved as he spoke.
There were six more people in the room, also armed, lined in a circle, around the dome walls, with equal space between.
“It has recently come to my attention,“ the priest started, “that the two of you have commited untoward acts recently. There were signals, coming from various sources, that you acted with complete disregard for the rules of our land. And that is inexcusable given that you underwent our probity training. It is my duty, as the village priest, to react to this string of acts that has, frankly, disturbed many.“
Bukowski unclasped his hands. “I had evidence that--“
“You shall be given a chance to defend yourself, Bukowski. Rest assured,“ the High Priest went on calmly. He unrolled a papyrus and placed it squarely before him. “Several charges have been brought against you. In order of severity these are: three counts of civic insubordination, one count of initiating a rumor, one count of an attempt of propagating a rumor, one count of interfering with proper dissemination of information, one count of dissent, four counts of consipracy to bring about dissent, one count of inducing a delinquent minor to dissent and one count of inquiring of and sympathizing with the Lame Bird heretic.“
The priest gave the word to Judge Luder, who recounted his meeting with Bukowski from the night before. Next, the judge called in the push-cart boy, the father, the two other men from the igloo from the night before, now sobered up, smelling of lilies, with officious looks on their ruddy faces. The word was then back to Judge Luder who turned on the hologram where the conversation of Bukowski and the hermit unfolded. The guards around the table watched and listened with revulsion on their faces, Judge Luder and Lind sat with unmasked contempt on their faces, while the priest calmly waited for the holo scene to end.
“Do any of you two wish to respond with regards to these charges?“
“The village and your people are at a grave danger: an immediate grave danger,“ Bukowski started.
“Speak with regards to the charges“ the priest repeated.
“I know that Judge Luder and myself disagreed on it,“ Bukowski continued, “but since then there were several more quakes, smaller. I am convinced they were all precursors ...“
“Again, please respond to the charges I just read,“ the priest repeated.
“What drove my actions--and I wish to distance the captain from them as he did nothing wrong--was that the mountain--“
Judge Luder slammed his fist on the table. “Answer the charges!“
Bukowski winced back in his chair. He tried to swallow, but his mouth had gone dry. “I am just trying to give the context of my actions--“
“Will you answer the charges!“ the judge banged his two fists on the table repeatedly after every word he yelled, his face now aflame.
“Context-shmontext, why do you bother?“ Lacroix waved dismissively at the tribal council.
The priest turned to Lacroix. “Do you wish to answer for him, captain Lacroix?“
“Yes, I do. I do, as a matter of fact. Here goes our defense: it's a pretty fucked-up shop you're running here. You want to play judge, old fart? Here, judge this,“ Lacroix grabbed the nearest papyrus from the table, crushed it in his fist and threw it at the priest, now pale and aghast, hitting him on the forehead.
Judge Luder jumped from his chair and went for Lacroix's hand. Lacroix jerked it back in time, aimed it at the judge and knocked him down with a single punch to the chin. As one, the guards launched themselves at Lacroix. Neural stun gun flashed amid the fracas. A dull zap followed. The guards stepped away and Lacroix lay on the floor paralyzed, his fingers convulsing. The guards picked him up and carried him out of the room.
The judge had gotten up by then and stood trembling. The priest touched the judge's elbow, whispered something in his ear and the judge sat.
The High Priest smiled. “You were given the word to answer the charges and muster a defense against them. You chose not to. Your dubious intentions or fears of nature are not what is being questioned here. Your disagreements with Judge Luder are of no relevance either. What you are charged with are your actions and these, I can see, you will not--and frankly can not--defend.“ The priest sighed with a strained effort. His faced took on a composed, determined look.
“I am old enough to remember the day when the tyranny of Old Earth came to an end. It was a tyranny of values more than anything and captain Lacroix is not a degenerate of this system but a direct result of it. The Old Earth system of right and wrong was wrongheaded as it had a man's life and wellness be the ultimate value that all else was a means to. They would try to prevent every known disease, gasp at the earliest symptoms of a disease, genetically condition people against hereditary deformities and, in general, extend their pathetic lives as much as they could. They failed to see that everyone's pursuit of long life and happiness couldn't be met in a universe of limited abilities and limited resources. If you and I could only be made happy and live long by owning a rhinoceros, we're taught from the craddle that we have the right to that rhinoceros, and there is one only rhinoceros in the pen, then one of us is going to be miserable.
“The inevitable result of all this was collective unhappiness and dissent. Instead of working for a common purpose, the cogs of this machine chafed against one another and the more they multiplied the more they chafed. Yet the men of Old Earth live in denial to this day and instead of adjusting their ways to the laws of the universe, have sent you, Bukowski, here to adjust the laws of the universe to their ways. But satisfying this gluttony can prolong their doom for only so long.“
“I see much of the problem myself,“ Bukowski said, “but how does one resolve this? Surely there is misery and needs that go unfulfilled here?“
“On the day the Old Earth colonizers left,“ the priest continued, “the Altera Tribal Council of that day decided unanimously that the ultimate value of a just system needed to be the happiness of the whole. An action was only right if it added to this happiness and was wrong otherwise. But whether an individual action did or didn't add to collective happiness was hard to measure at first. Until we found something related and observable that was easy to measure: assent. Our scientists saw that assent was not only a major cause of happiness, but it was also caused by our happiness and, hence, a great gauge of it. At the outset we needed to foster just the perception of assent among our tribe, but as time went on, that assent grew genuine and so did our happiness. To be sure, there were malcontents and misfits at the outset, but we promptly removed them.
“Society needed to be reorganized around, what we called, the assent-bliss axis. The colonizers of Old Earth had a bizzare ancient way of making decisions by counting presence and adding up the Yeas and Nays. But decisions made by the mere presence of the many will sooner or later come in conflict with the fervor of the few. So when we invented the Gathering, we chose clapping as the way to avoid that friction.“
“But wouldn't such a decision come in conflict with the many?“ asked Bukowski.
“If a thief attacks a rhinoceros kid, would you expect its mother or the rest of the herd in the pen to come to the rescue? Fervor overrides presence, Bukowski. Always.“
“Over time,“ the priest continued “our code of law grew large and untenable to enforce. And the two-score eye tower resolved this problem. It was the one tool we needed to foster assent and happiness. From every corner of the village, the tower saw and the tower could be seen. Constant unverifiable vigilance. Everything the Altera needed to know was posted on the tower dazibao. The tower brought millenia of collective human suffering and discontent to nil.“
“Why did the hermit come to be so hated?“ asked Bukowski.
The priest laughed heartily. “He is not hated, Bukowski, the Lame Bird heretic is not even pitied. But this heretic's inanity ate at the heart of Altera's assent. It failed to grasp that whether the tower was empty or not was really a moot point. The tower succeeded at building our society around the assent-bliss axis. It binded the Altera together as one. And whatever dried mud binds a people togther, no stick must poke.“
“But why not murder him, remove him, as well?“ Bukowski asked.
“It was judge Lind's brilliance that saved him. She was the Sister Superior at the time and she argued that it was the right action for the lame child to live. Hence, we created the Lame Bird hermit. He came to be the inverse of the two-score eye tower. On the one hand, he could not be seen by the villagers, so that he would not evoke pity, while on the other, the Altera knew that he existed. From a detractor, we turned him into a useful instrument of collective happiness.“
The high priest rose from his seat. “We left him alive on a single condition: that his future sympathizers be murdered. The Lame Bird accepted that condition. Your sentence shall be carried out at 0900.“
The three guards came to the cell early in the morning. The youngest one yelled something in a forced, shrill voice. His fingers trembled as he held the latch in his left hand and fumbled the key in it. The door creaked open. Lacroix swore, spat and charged the guards headfirst, his hands tied behind his back. The guards wresteled him to the ground and jabbed elbows, knees and fists at him until he lay quiet, his jaw mired in dirt and blood. When commanded to get up Bukowski stood listlessly from the bench. The convicts walked out of the one-story, one-cell jail. The cold dry muzzles of the plasma rifles touched their backs.
It had rained heavily all night and went on steady into the day. The five men sloshed their way through the mud. The red collar stopped the older guard before he got on the ACH-12 ship, shouted and gesticulated. The red collar headed back to the village, his hands behind his back, kicking unseen rocks away from his path. The two convicts and the two other guards sat silent as the ship took off. Bukowski stared blankly out the window. The village zoomed smaller. The streets of the village looked deserted at this hour. The ship pitched up, rolled to the right and yawed over the desert and headed for the hills to the west. The Tupolev ridge stood gloomy and gray.
A plume of black ash shot up from the North slope of the mountain high into the atmosphere. A massive, loud explosion followed and the white shards of snow and glaciers scattered around the top of the mountain melted instantly. Large lateral landmass broke off from the top of the mountain, slid down the slope, then rolled down, faster, along the slope in an avalanche of soil, rocks and trees and built up and grew as the landslide went further down. Several more explosions thundered, and a volley of rocks and thick shapeless fingers and bulges of charcoal ash, propelled by the expanding gas and steam, surged up and out over the desert. The village lay straight on the path of the oncoming juggernaut.
Village igloos shattered--one, then another, at the edges, then the center--by rocks thrust by the eruption with a crushing momentum. Landmass followed the rocks and trampled the remnants of the igloos, which lay as cracked eggshells on marble. The Sparrow buoyed up and was carried by the landslide at first and was devoured the next instant. The two-score eye tower, dwarfed by the enormity of the landmass, took the blows of the stone projectiles one after another, lost power, swayed side to side, met the landslide standing and cracked and vanished under it.
The ship landed, the airlock opened. The two guards left the ship, their rifles still pressed against their chests. They commanded the convicts out of the ship. His gaze nailed to the havoc below, the older guard lowered his weapon. The guards exchanged a few words. The younger guard untied the convicts. The familiar odor of matches just-struck permeated the air. As ink spilled on a palette of hazy-yellow hue, the sky was turning dark.
Bukowski turned his head back as he heard a man come from behind. His head was covered by a black scarf, with two slits left for eyes.