Left foot, right foot. Pause and listen. Left foot, right foot. Pause and listen.
Mira had learned the pattern of safely traversing Helfang Forest from her father, and even though she had no fear of being attacked by a giant leechlion or a Barbary raptor—not this close to Brindlestar—she kept to the pattern she had learned long ago. Her heavy moccasins slipped silently across the white forest floor, the snow clinging to the rough leather of both her feet and her breeches.
She heard a heavy sigh behind her. Jair, on the other hand, didn’t see the point of caution, and for every careful step she took through the woods, he scuffled two steps in the snow.
“This will take us forever, you know,” Jair said, his thin voice cutting through the silence of the forest.
Mira shook her head. “Jair, it’s a wonder you haven’t been eaten before this,” she said. “I bet every longtooth within thirty sectors knows that you’re coming.”
“Yeah, well, if we lived in New Athens like most people, we wouldn’t have to worry about longtooths, er longteeth.”
“Plural is longtooth,” she said. “Now let’s be quiet or you will be someone’s lunch.”
“Lunch? I’m hungry,” he said. “When do we stop to eat?”
“There will be plenty to eat when we get to New Athens,” she said quietly, still looking around her. “You haven’t been to a Brindlestar Festival before. Knowing how much you like to eat, it’s something you will never forget.”
“How old were you when you were at the last Festival?” he asked.
“Just about your age,” she said. “Now shush. We’re almost there, but there still could be wild things around here.”
“I’m not worried, not even if there was a specter around,” he said. “I’ve seen you shoot. You never miss.”
Mira glanced back at Jair and smiled slightly, then glanced at the bow on her shoulder. Jair was right; she never missed. But that didn’t make her any less wary. Being wary is what kept you alive in Helfang Forest. Father had taught her that, sometime before he had been killed himself.
Athena’s flivver dropped from the skies silently, invisibly, just a sector from New Athens. She smiled to herself as she thought how ironic it was. She was originally from a city that was her namesake, and yet she was here to take something that belonged to them.
The camoed flivver could hardly be seen in broad daylight. Here, in brindle light so close to the azimuth of the three suns that served this bleak planet, the flying vehicle could only be seen if you were standing on top of it, or if you had an electronic sensor, which she did.
Still thinking about her name and the name of the town, she looked up at the weak light of the three suns: Paris, the yellow dwarf that signaled the onset of a three-year winter; Hector, the gas giant that brought four years of scorching summer; and Achilles, the one people never thought or talked about anymore, the dangerous one. Even now, she saw its pale blue outline on the horizon. Achilles, the death bringer, the tower toppler, the wave crasher. Every child on the planet learned to pray that Achilles would be held away one more season. And for close to a hundred years their prayers had been answered. What they didn’t know—and Athena did—was that scientists had been the ones to answer their prayers. And the cost of answering their prayers had been a thermonuclear detonation.
It was still a couple of hours before the Ascension and the beginning of the Brindle festivities. Athena forgot about astronomy and focused on her job. She pressed a button on her Doppler suit and disappeared from view.
Mira breathed a sigh of relief when she saw the lights of New Athens before her. The forest parted and they found themselves on a rutted dirt and cobblestone road, one that looked like it had been used a great deal. And it had, especially when it came time for everyone in the region to gather for Brindle Festival. When Paris was in ascension people had to wait for three long, cold years before they could gather again for the Festival; with Hector it was four, hard dry years. Everyone looked forward to the Festival, not just because it forecasted the next few years, but also because the Brindle season was the best time for growing and harvesting; between hot summer and frigid winter came a very fertile season.
Fertile, Mira thought, and shook it out of her mind. People got a little crazy when it came to fertility. It was the task of the city fathers—and mothers—to take advantage of Brindle season in every way possible. That not only meant planting and harvesting, but also making sure animals bred and had their babies, and people, well….she sighed again. At age 14, she was still young, but within marrying age. And she knew of at least two old women who had eyed her for their sons since the last Festival. Now that father was out of the picture, they would be on the hunt for her. As wary as she had been in Helfang Forest, she needed to be just as wary here in town.
Athena stood on the roof of a shop overlooking the town square, watching the community gather for the festival. She was totally invisible to the crowd below, still wrapped in her Doppler shroud. She pointed her sensor at one person and then another, catching a snatch of a conversation as she scanned, but paying little attention to what was being said. She saw the shadows of men behind the leaded windows of the city hall across the square, and knew it was the city fathers getting ready to make the Ascension announcement. Curious, she pointed her sensor at the window and immediately heard their conversation as if she had been standing in the same room.
“Are you sure?” said one voice. “Are you absolutely sure? I mean, it’s been close to a century since….”
“I’ve checked and rechecked the measurements and compared them to the ancient charts,” said another. “There’s no doubt in my mind. Achilles is in ascension.”
“But the people,” said the first. “Achilles means famine, floods, earthquakes. It’s the reason why the countryside is filled with ruins instead of a civilization. It’s the reason why we were able to settle here to begin with. But it will be the end of us all. What do we tell the people?”
“We tell them nothing,” hissed the second. “They can’t really prepare for it, and all telling will accomplish is panic.” There was a pause. “No, we tell them that Paris is in ascension again. They will plant and harvest, then store their grain and their meats, ready for another cold winter season.”
Athena listened to the city fathers, raising an eyebrow. She wondered why the scientists hadn’t told her that Achilles was in ascension, but then it wasn’t part of her job. Her job was merely to recruit. Maybe these city fathers knew something that the scientists didn’t know. But she dismissed that thought as quickly as it struck her. The scientists knew all about it, or the city fathers were wrong.
She turned her attention back toward the gathering crowd below her. A young couple just arriving caught her attention. The young girl—woman in this society—looked to be about 14; the boy about 8. She scanned them with the sensor. The girl was remarkably intelligent, scoring 144 IQ on the register, with a high quotient for problem solving. Athena smiled; she would have made a good specter. After all, that’s how Athena had became one.
She turned to the second one, the boy. The register shot up to 160 IQ. Her mouth became a thin line. This was the one she wanted. He was even young enough to adapt to the transition of living in a scientist’s compound.
She put her sensor away and jumped from the rooftop into an alleyway below.
Mira wasn’t enjoying herself. Part of her attention was focused on avoiding Mrs. Claret and her three fat, rowdy boys and Mrs. Tatkins and her tall, quiet, pimply son. The other part was struggling to keep an eye on Jair, who had never been to New Athens, much less a Brindlestar Festival. It was too much for him and he raced from table to cart to booth, looking at everything, wanting to touch everything, and threatening to get in serious trouble with the shopkeepers there.
Mira reached out and grabbed Jair by the collar just as he started to chase after a cart full of apples. He turned and stared at her, surprised.
“There will be plenty of free food,” Mira said. “But first they have to make the Ascension announcement.”
Jair slumped his shoulders and hung his head, but stopped pulling away, resigning himself to standing beside and slightly behind Mira in the crowd. As they stood there, trumpets began to sound, and everyone turned toward the platform standing in front of the city hall.
“Hear ye, hear ye, his honor, Mayor Landcraft will now speak.” A man in blue satin pants and red coat and hat spoke loudly from the front. Then a portly middle-aged man dressed in short pants and short waistcoat stepped forward to the front.
The mayor spent the next ten minutes talking about what had happened since the last Festival, information that Mira tuned out. Finally he got down to the important news.
“It is my duty and privilege to declare the Ascension of Paris,” said the mayor finally.
The crowd sighed as one. Three years of hard snow and cold weather would be followed by three more years. No one looked forward to more of the same.
“Did you hear that, Jair?” Mira said, turning toward him. Jair wasn’t there. Mira looked around her in the crowd, but didn’t see him anywhere. Becoming more and more panicked, she continued to scan the crowd, then the shops and displays, then the alleys and streets surrounding them. Just as her father had taught her, she turned out the sound and sights of the crowd surrounding her, and tuned in for her brother’s voice and anything that didn’t seem to belong. A moment later, she turned when she heard a garbage can fall over in an alleyway behind them. She saw the can rolling across the alley. What surprised her was there was no one anywhere near it.
She sprinted to the alley and looked down it in the gloom.
“Jair?” she shouted. She heard a fumbling sound and thought she heard the squeak of his voice for just an instant, and she followed it down the alley. She caught a flash of something in front of her, something that looked like a form running fast and carrying something. She arrived at the end of the alley just in time to see a door close. She pushed on the door, but it was locked. She pounded on it and began to scream.
Her noise brought the attention of the city police. Others began to gather. “Hey there,” they said. “You can’t go banging on people’s doors unless you know them.”
“My brother’s been taken,” Mira gasped, the tears beginning to come to her eyes.
“Taken?” the policeman said. “Taken by whom?”
“Something,” she said. “A dark form. Something invisible.”
“A specter,” said an old woman standing nearby. “They always come at Brindlestar. They take them to the city under the mountain.”
“Hogwash,” the policeman said. “Old ghost stories told to frighten children.”
“Hogwash nothing,” the woman said. “They took my niece three Festivals ago.”
“What’s you name, young lady?” the policeman asked.
“Mira,” she said. “And my brother’s name is Jair.”
“Well, Mira, I am sure that Jair is around her somewhere, getting into mischief or filling his face with dillberry pie. Festival will be done tomorrow morning. And when it is done, I am sure he will turn up. Until then, there’s not a lot we can do.”
Mira wasn’t so sure, but she didn’t argue with the policeman. As the crowd filtered away, she stood close to the old woman who had spoken up. Finally, when they were alone, the woman looked at her sharply.
“You’re going after him, aren’t you?” the woman said.
Mira nodded silently.
“When I was your age, I would have too,” she said. “Instead I stayed here, got married, had kids and got old.”
“I love my brother,” Mira said. “If I don’t do something, I will never see him again.”
This time the old woman nodded. They stared at each other for a long moment, before Mira spoke again.
“Tell me about the city under the mountain,” Mira said.