With thanks, as always to my good editor, the next chapter is up:
A is for Acorn
The bone-dry air and sheer vastness of the surrounding desert seemed to deaden the steady thwack of sledgehammers against steel as two sweating figures drove a pair of anchor plates into the sand, watched by their companions. One of the figures leaned on his hammer for a moment, taking a pull from his water bottle before checking the edge of his plate, where a thin black line was just visible. He flexed his fingers, dealt the plate a last, resounding blow and grunted in satisfaction. “That’ll do it. Hand me the line.”
One of his companions hurried forward, dragging a clinking bundle of ropes and carabiners behind him. Putting his hammer to one side, he slipped two of the carabiners through their end-rings on the anchor plate and spun them closed. His companion checked his work then straightened up with a nod.
“Second plate ready?”
The figure walked over to a set of climbing gear spread out on a tarpaulin. Donning a hard hat, he stepped into the leg loops of his harness and pulled it up around his waist. By the time he’d tightened the last strap, a Y shaped rope was laid out before him, two ends secured to the anchor plates, the third disappearing over the edge of an enormous crater in the sand. He snapped his harness onto the rope, waited for one of his team to check his gear, then lowered himself into the pit.
Cascades of dislodged sand streamed over his boots and ankles as he descended, checking over his shoulder every few steps. Bending his knees, he lowered himself onto the crater floor, kicked against it to test his footing, then straightened up. Slipping a climbing pole out of its loop on his harness, he made his way across a treacherous scree of sand and shattered concrete, probing the ground in front of him before each step. Even then, the sudden lurch as the pole sank into deeper sand nearly overbalanced him.
He knelt and scooped the sand away with gloved hands, uncovering the buckled edge of a discoloured metal rim. He thrust his pole into the sand beyond, hoping against hope to find a gap or air pocket beneath the surface as he worked it back and forth, but meeting the same gritty resistance in all directions. Wiping the sweat out of his eyes, he set to work digging out the rest of the rim but, no matter which side or angle he tried, his pole met nothing but sand. With a heavy heart, he walked back to the crater’s edge, boots crunching over loose concrete as he went. He stowed his gear, took a two-handed grip on the rope and, hand-over-hand, began pulling himself up to the surface.
The look on his face as he heaved himself over the edge of the subsidence crater told the waiting KNSA team all they needed to know.
“No joy. Looks like we’re doing this the hard way.”
“Thank you for pointing out the obvious yet again, Madame President. As I recall, we’ve agreed on numerous occasions that security around our nuclear facilities is paramount. But the fact remains that, as we’ve seen, the KNSA is simply not equipped to defend those facilities against a sufficiently determined force.” President Maller unclenched his fists with an effort. “We cannot depend on future attacks being as slipshod or poorly planned and, for all their well-deserved reputation, we would do well not to assume that all KNSA agents will be quite as dedicated as Mr Hading. I trust that President Lanrick will agree.”
Lanrick wilted in his chair. “I quite agree, Mr President. Rest assured that Wakira will do everything in its power to ensure that this incident is not repeated.” He bowed his head. “This Council will already be aware that Chief Ambassador Burvis and I have tendered our resignations. Until such time as those resignations are accepted… everything in our power.”
“Which would be greatly assisted by a more permanent accord with Firesvar,” said Burvis acidly.
“No doubt,” President Enemone leaned forward in her chair. “But, once again, without more substantial commitments from Wakira, that is impossible.” She spread her hands. “I have spoken plainly in this matter - the Firesvarn Ruling Council will have no trust in a military which permits its officers to attack its own civilian facilities.”
The Firesvarn Chief Ambassador scowled. “And neither will our Conclave.”
Chief Ambassador Aldwell cleared his throat. “This is all very well, good kerbals, but I fear the people may regard our… deliberations, as mere excuses.” He made a circular gesture with one hand. “I would remind this Council that we are now into the fourth night of demonstrations against the war. I cannot speak for other Regionalities but I am advised that similar demonstrations took place outside government buildings at a number of our territorial capitals last night.
“I presume your citizens are also demonstrating against the Children of Kerbin?” Burvis leaned back in her chair. “Perhaps if the Confederation had been more assiduous in securing its own facilities against a home-grown terrorist organisation – or had put more resources into countering those terrorists before they got completely out of hand…”
“This is hardly the time to chew old soup, Madame Ambassador,” said Maller sharply. “And I would remind this Council that of all the Regionalities, only Veiid and the Confederation have avoided outright conflict – and have found common cause against the Children!”
“Only because you’re scared witless of Doren,” somebody muttered. Maller darkened but before he could reply, President Obrick knocked on the table for attention.
“I agree with my honourable counterpart from Veiid. This is not the time to chew on old soup.” He reached into his briefcase and placed a small, battery powered tape recorder on the table in front of him. “And I can assure Chief Ambassador Aldwell that the Kolan people share the same sentiments as those of the Confederation, although they choose to express it in a rather different manner.” He tapped the tape recorder. “With the Council’s indulgence, I have brought a recording of a song from a recent funeral service that I would play to you. I’m told it was originally composed to commemorate the Humilisian conflict but that versions of it have since been played at memorial services across Kolus.”
Chief Ambassador Donman gave his Doreni counterpart an apologetic look. “We also beg the indulgence of our honourable Doreni colleagues. The opening verse is less than diplomatic but please be assured that it does not set the tone for the rest of the piece.”
Chadlin raised an eyebrow. “Are you serious?”
Obrick met his gaze squarely. “Never more so, Mr President.” He glanced around. “If there are no further objections?” The expressions around the table ranged from indifference, to polite curiosity to mild exasperation. Obrick nodded and pressed the playback button on the tape recorder, watching the other’s face as the strains of a tinny but still melodic duet filled the Council chamber. Chadlin’s expression darkened as the opening verse came to a close but, at a gesture from his Chief Ambassador, settled for folding his arms across his chest. The somewhat distorted sound of Spierkan pipes joined the singers, to the visible dismay of several around the table and President Chadwick’s lip quirked in a half smile as Obrick turned the volume down.
Exasperation and indifference were soon replaced by increasingly intent expressions as the second verse segued into the third, the original duet long since submerged beneath a chorus of other singers.
“…our flowers of Kolus. Who brought us homeward. To think again.”
Obrick stopped the tape. “Thank you, good kerbals, for your indulgence.” He looked at Chadlin. “It is far from a formal mandate but I believe it makes the views of the Kolan people abundantly clear. As their President and Chief Ambassador, it is therefore incumbent on us to negotiate for peace on their behalf.” Obrick pushed his chair back and stood up. “And peace must begin with apology.” He walked around the table and up to the lectern at the end of the chamber.
“Be it known before these Twelve Pillars, that the Regionality of Kolus does hereby apologise to the Regionality of Doren and does most earnestly request a cessation of conflict and hostilities. In furtherance of that request, we offer to cede any and all claims to the islands of Humilisia, their airspace and lawful territorial waters, acknowledging the sovereign control thereover, of the Regionality of Doren.
Donman stood up. “We humbly beg that our request be placed on the public record, thereafter to be deemed accurate and inviolable.”
Aldwell tapped on the table. “As the senior presiding member and keeper of the minutes for this Council session, I declare the Regionality of Kolus’s request to be placed on the public record. As it was spoken, so let it be written. Does the Regionality of Doren wish to place a reply on the record?”
The Doreni exchanged looks. President Chadlin inclined his head. “Doren does not wish to place such a reply at this time. We note that the Regionality of Kolus is making a virtue out of a necessity but, nevertheless, we thank them for their offer and do hereby undertake to consider it in good grace and honest spirit.”
“Then let the minutes show that.” Aldwell made a note. “As set out in the Bill of Land, Article 25, disputes over territory are to be settled by the involved Regionalities outwith this Council, save only that any new treaties between them are presented here for discussion. By long custom, this Council merely offers itself as a mediator in the event that negotiations should break down.” Aldwell steepled his fingers. “By even longer custom, peace treaties have historically fallen within the ambit of Article 25, although without consulting the Archives, I would be hard pressed to inform this Council precisely when that custom was last invoked.
President Lanrick looked thoughtful. “Let the minutes also show that, unless Doren wishes otherwise, Wakira would recuse itself from any mediations. As a wartime ally of Kolus, we would hardly be impartial.” There were a number of approving nods from around the table.
“Very good.” Aldwell made another note. “Do any further Regionalities wish to follow Kolus’s example at this time?” He saw several pensive expressions but nobody else spoke up.
“Then, as it has been spoken by the Twelve Pillars, let it be written by the Twelve Pillars. This session of the Council is hereby adjourned, the next session to begin in two hours.”
<Is this possible?>
Professor Erlin seemed to think the equipment would work, Jonton replied. But getting the whole system working will need a lot of help from you, Jonelle and Obrinn.
<yes. We will also need to learn to read> Amusement rippled down the Communion link. <maybe we’ll discover if all kerbals really do tell long stories. This will need thought, my Keeper. Finding two…chemokines>, the mindscape flickered as Elton’s mental voice stumbled over the unfamiliar word, <that I can use will be easy, but finding two that all Kerm in all soils can use, will not>
If understood everything correctly, you won’t need to. As long as every Kerm can tell us which chemical they want to use for a dot and which one for a dash, the machine can match everything up. Jonton paused. Making a different set of probes for every Kerm will be complicated though – perhaps we can find some chemokines that work in most soils, even if it doesn’t work in all of them. That might make things easier for the Berelgan team.
<yes. And that is another matter> Jonton sensed a bare hint of unease. <how will these probes be placed in the soil?>
I thought we could use star poppies. Jonton sent an image of a thin red line of flowers marching across the landscape, tracing out a puckered line around Elton’s territory. The way we did before, only we’d need more of them this time.
Thirty-eight brown circles appeared, each surrounded by a ring of red dots. The rings became ragged, sprouting fern-like patterns of threads in all directions.
<a map of my roots and fibres? It is a good plan but it would be difficult to control the poppies so precisely>Elton’s mental voice became faintly chiding <you were Kerm – have you forgotten the knotweed?> Patches of red appeared at random, blotting out the delicate threads and then overrunning them entirely.
Hmph. Jonton thought it over. Perhaps clover would be better. With a mental wave of one hand, the scarlet puddle vanished, replaced by a carpet of green around the brown dots representing Elton’s trunks. Black dots appeared, first in their tens and then their hundreds, running together into filaments and then the same fernlike patterns. Could you make a map from wilted plants instead?
<that would be easier. But what is this clover – I do not recognise it>
Surprise rippled across the mindscape, followed by sudden humour. After your time old friend. There was a subtle emphasis on the old. Something that kerbals developed to improve poor soils. Your soil is old and rich enough that we’ve never had to plant it near you but for Gerselle’s… The mindscape shimmered into grey. Gerselle used it a lot when Jonelle was a sapling.
An image of thirty-eight saplings amidst a carpet of green appeared. The greenery wilted and disappeared into the soil, leaving the saplings behind. Properly done you can get three crops a year. Easier than trucking in so much compost or night waste.
<then this is good!> Jonton felt a sudden surge of awareness, felt the snap and tingle of distant chains of thought being forged. <I would learn of this clover and perhaps it will also help turn the desert world Duna into a place for planting new Kerm>
I think the Berelgan are trying to develop new clover strains for Duna, Jonton agreed.
<then I would learn of those too> Elton’s voice turned droll <is it not fortunate that their machine will let me speak to kerbals as well as Kerm?>
Ferry looked at the half-empty sack of clover seed and scratched his head. “Will this be enough, Jonton?”
“The stockist is closed and boarded up, so it’s going to have to be. Not a surprise with all the seed security checks but I did try.” Jonton turned around, arms full of pegs and twine. “I spoke to Patbro too but Tivie didn’t have any left over from planting her Grove and he couldn’t find anyone else with any spare.”
“How much of the Grove will we need to cover?”
“As big a patch as we can around each of Elton’s trunks. We can start three or four metres out – any closer than that and we’ll be too near to the main nerve ball anyway.”
“We’ll still have to make every seed count though,” Thombal noted. He knelt down before his son. “Sorry, Adbas, I don’t think you’ll be able to help after all.”
“I’m afraid not, Adbas,” said Jonton. “And the same goes for you too, Joenie.”
Enely raised his hand before Joenie could speak. “And that’s just as well. I’ll have plenty of spare hands to help me make a proper sathy job of the alphabet cards.”
Jonton shot him a grateful look. “Good idea. Adbas can make some white ones for me and Elton and Joenie can make blue ones for herself and Jonelle.” He smiled at Joenie. “I know Jonelle will find white cards too bright through your eyes – and I don’t think she’ll let anyone else except her Keeper teach her to read.”
Joenie shook her head.
“Very well then.” Jonton rubbed his hands together. “We’re just waiting for…morning Fred.”
“Mornin’. Got both those spreaders for yeh.”
“I can take one of those for you.” Thombal took the handle of one of the seed spreaders from Fredlorf’s hand.
Jonton dumped the pegs into his pack and dropped the balls of twine in on top. “Seed, twine, markers, scissors and a couple of mallets. Anything else?”
“Got the spare rakes, plenty of water, a bottle of prickleberry juice in the cab, and a bag o’ vittles for lunch,” said Fredlorf. “Reckon we’re set. See yeh later, Enely. You too, Adbas an’ Joenie.”
“Bye, Mr Fredlorf. C’mon Adbas.” The two young kerbals disappeared inside the hut.
“I had better get started too then. I hope there’s enough clover seed and I’ll see you all at dinner.” Enely waved and followed his helpers inside.
“Let’s get started then. Tractor’s jus’ round the front.” Fredlorf led the way, the seed spreader squeaking and bumping along behind him. Jonton picked up the sack and followed him, Thombal bringing up the rear with the second spreader. They heaved everything onto the back of Fredlorf’s trailer and set off for the Grove.
Sitting in the back of the trailer as it rumbled along, Jonton’s thoughts drifted back to another long-ago tractor ride out to the sunfruit fields which had just been ruined by the fighting between two Kerm. The cinnamon scent of bruised fibres filled his nostrils as he took the gourd from Gerselle and recognised it for what it was. The scene shifted, grey-robed Walkers standing around himself and Gerselle, Kerm seed weighing down the cowl of her newly-made – and itchy – woollen robe. Once again, he saw himself scraping out a shallow pit in the gritty soil, Gerselle planting the new Kerm, blessing it with the last drops from her waterskin as Kerbol sank below the horizon.
Jonton stared back at the village, eyes blurred by more than memory. He shook his head at Elton’s voice in the back of his mind. And if you had not, what then? The scientists at the Berelgan would still be toiling in vain to find a way to keep new Kerm away from old. I would merely be one more Kerm cowering in the darkness, lashing out in fear at another whom I did not know or understand, never having dreamt of calling her daughter. And both of you may have been killed or broken by our fighting, like so many other kerbals before you. You carry a heavy burden, first of my Keepers, but in carrying it, you have given our world hope.
One of Elton’s branches tapped on his shoulder. Jonton shook it away, leaning forward away from his trunk.
“My apologies, Keeper. I didn’t like to intrude but we’re here.”
Jonton shook himself awake and found a concerned-looking Thombal standing over him. “Oh…Sorry Tom – years away.” He looked over at the treeline. “Shall we make a start?”
“Thought yeh’d never ask,” Fredlorf swung himself down from the tractor cab. “Can’t believe nobody thought of this before – jus’ asking the Kerm what they want could’ve saved the world a powerful load of grief.”
“What’s done is done,” said Thombal quietly. “Better to put things right now that we can, rather than wasting time looking for someone to blame.”
“Yeh in a proper thoughtful mood this mornin’, Tom. Reckon you’ve got the right of it though.” Fredlorf opened the lid on one of the seed spreaders and poured clover seed into the hopper before squatting down and tightening a knob on its underside. “Better set these for as light a cast as we can – doesn’t look like we’ll have much spare seed to work with.”
By the time the morning sun had driven the dew from the undergrowth, three of Elton’s trunks had been surrounded by a grid of pegs and twine that marked out long strips across the newly cleared Grove floor. Jonton walked back to the tractor to retrieve his sunhat and by the time he returned, Fredlorf and Thombal were plodding back and forth along neighbouring strips, spreaders bumping along in front of them.
“I’ll make a start marking out his northwest trunks!” Jonton called. He waited for Thombal’s wave of acknowledgement then shouldered his pack, pulled the brim of his hat over his eyes and headed into the woods.
The sound of birdsong in the trees and soothing smell of greenery in his nostrils lulled Jonton into a comfortable sense of oneness with the Grove around him, as he stumped along. Almost automatically, he sorted through the scents surrounding him, the half-buried memories of his time spent an-Kerm providing a constant assurance and reassurance that all was well with the plants and soil around him. A carpet of cornshakes caught his eye, his nose wrinkling at the sickly-sweet odour from the scattering of yellowjacket symbiotes growing between them. On a sudden whim, he turned his head and saw the expected pair of elderly leatherbarks, the clusters of fronds running along their upper branches, swaying in the breeze.
Jonton’s eyes lost their focus. For a moment, the woods lit up with ever-shifting myriad-hued threads of light running through the soil, tying everything in it into the mighty living tapestry of which, he knew, his kerm-an senses could only perceive a tiny part. Smiling, he turned off the main trail, cutting through familiar clumps of undergrowth towards the Kerm tree he knew would be waiting for him.
“Reckon we’ve done all we can today.” Fredlorf hefted the sack of clover seed, squinting at the sunset. “We’ll not be able to do as much planting around the last four or five trunks as we’d like but it should make a sathy enough space for Elton to draw his map, as Enely might say.” He lifted the sack onto the back of the trailer. “Gives a kerbal a thirst all this mapping does – a half litre of 905 would go down a treat about now.”
“It would,” Jonton agreed, “if there was any left to buy. Meleny managed to pick up a couple of bottles of 1G, the last time she was in Barkton. You’d be welcome to them – they’re a little too fruity for me.”
“So long as it’s got a bit of bite to it.” Fredlorf clambered up into the cab of his tractor and started the motor.
They arrived home to the smell of white bean stew on the stove and, much to Fredlorf’s satisfaction a cold jug of Jorfurt’s finest 1G ruby ale on the kitchen worktop, alongside an pitcher of iced water and a bottle of sapwood cordial.
Joenie and Adbas sat side by side at the kitchen table, each of them putting the finishing touches on the stack of cards in front of them. Jonton watched his daughter cutting a picture of a cluster of yellow clover out of an old cookery book and pasting it onto the last-but-one card on her pile. At the other end of the table, little Katisa scribbled happily on a large sheet of paper, watched over by Meleny and Enely.
Thombal gave his wife a brief hug before squatting down to pick up an abandoned crayon. He offered it to his daughter who grabbed it and gave it an experimental chew before dropping it on the floor again and returning to her scribbling.
“Finished!” Adbas coloured in the final corner of the capital Z on his last card. “Can I have a sapwood please, Mum?”
“Yes, but only one. Would you like one too, Joenie?”
Joenie shook her head. “No thank you. I think I’ll have mine after dinner.”
Jonton finished drying his hands and poured himself a mug of iced water. “Are you sure? I thought we’d try your cards out after dinner.”
For a moment, Joenie looked torn and then she rolled her eyes. “I bet we won’t be doing that until you’ve had coffee. I’ll have my sapwood while I’m waiting for you and that way my stew won’t taste all weird either.”
“And speaking of stew,” Meleny declared, “The sooner certain young kerbals lay the table, the sooner we can eat.”
Jonton put down his empty coffee mug and looked at Enely and Adbas apologetically. “If you don’t mind, I think it’d be best if only Joenie and I Communed tonight. It’s going to be an odd experience for us all anyway and I think it’ll be easier for Jonelle if there aren’t too many others around.”
“Of course.” Enely cracked himself another sweetnut. “I owe Fred a return match of Tiles anyway.” His expression turned faintly wistful. “Perhaps we could all read Jonelle a bedtime story one day soon though?”
“I’d like that,” said Jonton softly. He smiled. “I’ll have to dig out some of Joenie’s old books.”
“Still can’t believe yeh teaching a Kerm to read,” Fredlorf broke in. “Ah’ll take you up on that match though, Enely. Honours even tonight – I’m feelin’ lucky.”
“We’ll leave you to it then. Come on, Joenie.”
Joenie grabbed both stacks of alphabet cards from the living room table and ran through into the sleep room. Jonton closed the door behind them and turned to see Joenie shove a cushion under one of Jonelle’s leaf clusters and place the stack of alphabet cards within easy reach before sitting down against her trunk. Lying down on his bed, he watched the leaves close around his daughter’s forehead before lifting his head into his own waiting cluster.
He emerged into Communion to find Elton already waiting, the older Kerm’s presence maintaining a discreet distance. Joenie stood still in the middle of the mindscape with her eyes closed. Jonton sensed her link with Jonelle thrumming, then with a sudden twist of focus, he found himself resting against a much smoother, younger Kerm trunk, looking at a stack of blue cards on the floor.
Joenie glanced up at her father lying on his bed and, for a disconcerting second, Jonton had the unnerving feeling of being in two places at once. Clamping down on his momentary nausea, he waited for Joenie to turn her attention back to the cards and pick one up.
Can everyone see?
Perfectly. You and Jonelle have gotten very good at this.
<we have been practicing a lot. Can you see, Daddy?>
<I can see> Jonton received the briefest flicker of amused tolerance which was swiftly overtaken by curiosity. <what is the meaning of that symbol?>
This is the letter A said Joenie importantly. A is for acorn. She flipped the card over revealing a picture of an acorn glued to the back, before picking up the next card in the stack. This is the letter B. B is for breadfruit…
Jonton felt Elton’s presence come forward and took a mental step back to make room. The edges of his awareness flickered with spillover from the Kerm’s thoughts; half recognised images of signs and book pages blurring past, letters flaring brightly in time with Joenie’s voice. Snatches of other voices chattered past and Jonton could just make out the occasional ‘acorn’, ‘breadfruit’, or ‘carrot’.
This is the letter D. D is for damsonwire….