KSK

First Flight (Chapter 99 - The Needs of the Many)

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On 6/17/2017 at 3:28 PM, KSK said:

Well - that just happened.

Putting eldest godson to bed tonight and he'd pretty much run out of bedtime story material. Sooo, First Flight it was. Prologue and a good chunk of chapter 1 - and they both went down fine! 

He'd just finished the young adult novelisation of Rogue One with his dad, so I figured it was worth a go but yeah - that was an unexpected perk. :) A shame it won't last too long - he's only eight going on nine, so we're going to run out of suitable material fairly imminently. But while it lasts... :) 

 

On 6/17/2017 at 4:00 PM, Just Jim said:

OK, once First Flight is finished you can read him all of Kerbfleet, then Emiko... But he might need to be a little older before you hit him with the Kraken series... lol... 

Another reason @SQUAD should let us publish! WE WANT OUR PUBLICATIONS! WE WANT FRE- what's that? They're here already! Quick! Spread to rebellion as best you c- *End of transmission*

EDIT: Yay Page 52!

Edited by DarkOwl57

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Next chapter is up. With special thanks to @CatastrophicFailure ,and especially to @Ten Key, for all the polishing.

Instincts

“Tell Jonton that I’ll be over as soon as I can.”

“Of course I will,” said Patbro. “Come on, Joenie - the sooner we start, the sooner we’ll be there.” He nodded at Meleny in unspoken gratitude, raised his hand in farewell to a solemn Adbas and led the way down the path. Silently, Meleny and Adbas watched them go.

As soon as they were out of earshot, Joenie tugged on Patbro’s hand. “Is my mum dead?”

Patbro glanced down at her. “No,” he said carefully. “She’s not dead…”

“I saw you look at Meleny,” Joenie said. “It was one of those looks grown-ups use when they don’t want to lie but they think telling the truth will be too scary.” She scowled. “I hate it when grown-ups do that.”

“She’s still breathing,” said Patbro, “I wasn’t lying to you, Joenie, your mum isn’t dead. I don’t even know what really happened - I didn’t get a chance to speak to your dad before he sent me to get you - but Enely said there’d been an accident with her Kerm.”

“Was it a bad accident?” Joenie’s voice quivered.

“I don’t know, Joenie.” Patbro ground his teeth in frustration but managed to keep his voice level. “I just don’t know.”

A bitefly landed on Patbro’s arm and he slapped it away. Joenie carried on walking, face scrunched up in thought. “Mummy might be asleep,” she said. “Like Daddy was when his Kerm got black spots.” She trembled, eyes brimming. “It was horrible. Daddy kept screaming. I tried to fight the tree for him but I was only little and couldn’t do anything. Then daddy fell asleep for three days and when he woke up he wasn’t the same any more. Mummy used to shout at him a lot, then she took me away to stay in her house with her Kerm. She used to talk to it a lot but she never screamed.”

Joenie sniffled and wiped her nose on her sleeve, then blushed and turned her face away. Patbro pretended not to notice as she carried on talking. “I think Daddy started getting better after my birthday. Maybe the butterflies helped. He was always talking to his Kerm - Mummy said he was part of the Kerm, helping it to look after the Grove but I didn’t know what she meant. One day, daddy told me all about it, how he had arms and legs and branches and roots and leaves.” Joenie giggled and she put her hand in front of her mouth. “Daddy told me that the beetles tickled him. He talked to me in my head and showed me the worms chasing each other.”

Patbro smiled. “You’re lucky”, he said. “I can’t talk to my Kerm the way you used to talk to your dad. All I get see is a big mess of everything in the soil all jumbled up together.”

Joenie nodded. “I haven’t asked Elton to teach me about the soil animals,” she confided. “Elton’s nice but he’s a bit scary too, like Grandpa. I don’t think he wants to talk to kerblets very much.”

Patbro opened the passenger door on his truck before walking round the other side and climbing in behind the wheel. He checked that Joenie had her seatbelt on before looking all around and pulling away. “I think Elton does want to talk to you,” he said. “I think he’d like that very much.”

Joenie looked at him through narrowed eyes but Patbro’s expression was quite serious. “Leave it a little while though, Joenie. Elton’s worried about your mum too and might not want to talk to you right now.” He started the motor and pulled onto the road.

——————

The truck stopped opposite Gerselle’s hut and Patbro climbed out. The few small Kerm branches visible above the roofline swayed and rustled despite the lack of breeze and Patbro stared at them uneasily. Then the creak of passenger door opening and sudden patter of footsteps drove all other thoughts from his mind. “Joenie - wait!”

Joenie stumbled, scraping her shin on a stone but scrambled to her feet and ran for her mother’s hut, heedless of the blood trickling down her calf. Patbro sprinted after her. “Come back, Joenie!”

Joenie ignored him. She pelted up the path, hurtled through the front door and pushed her way through the crowded kitchen, nearly tripping over Enely and leaving a trail of indignant kerbals behind her. One of them opened her mouth to speak before her elderly companion nudged her in the ribs. “Close your mouth lass. That’s Gerselle’s young ‘un.”

Mortified, the younger kerbal clapped her hand over her mouth. “Oh Kerm - oh the poor girl.”

Enely sprang to his feet, eyes widening in alarm. The sleep room door banged open and Joenie charged through. “Daddy!” She skidded up to the bed and stopped short. “Mummy?” She shook Gerselle’s shoulder, careful not to disturb the leaves wrapped around her head. “Wake up, Mummy. Please. I’m here now.”

“Joenie!” Patbro raced into the room, the scent of cinnamon catching the back of his throat. He saw Joenie shaking her mother’s shoulder, saw Jonton getting to his feet; the villagers around him backing away as if in slow motion. Jonton’s head turned towards him and Patbro stopped in dismay, quailing at the look in his friend’s eyes. 

“Jonto…”

“Fetch Joenie. That’s what I said.” Jonton’s voice shook. “Not ‘let her run away from you.’ Not ‘let her see her dead mother before I could do anything’.” He clenched his fists, molten torrents of rage and grief blazing from his eyes. “I asked you to do one thing. ONE SIMPLE BJEDLA THING!” Jonton’s gaze scoured the room. “AND YOU! NOT ONE OF YOU COULD STOP A LITTLE GIRL! NOT ONE OF YOU!”

Joenie backed away from her parents, trembling like a cornered creva, gaze darting around the room. In the ringing silence following Jonton’s outburst, she bolted for the spare bed, squirmed past its stunned occupants and slid under the nearest leaf cluster. Jonton saw the movement from the corner of his eye and spun round to follow it. “Joenie! No!” He threw himself after his daughter, Patbro following close behind and narrowly avoiding a low branch. Jonton’s head scraped through a cluster of leaves, hairs brushing across his scalp and then recoiling from the roiling inferno of emotions raging beneath the surface.

Vines erupted from the ground hurling both kerbals back. Their writhing tips seemed to taste the air, unfurling into double rings of needle sharp teeth from which clusters of thinner, paler tendrils emerged like pulsating tongues, glistening with ichor.

Patbro landed hard, gashing his forehead on the floor. He rolled over and sat up, blinking blood out of his eyes.  The kerbals on the bed screamed in terror, freezing as the vines lashed at them. The other villagers stampeded for the door, barging past Enely and knocking him to one side. The leaves closed around Joenie’s head and for a second, the thrashing vines froze. Seizing their chance, the kerbals scrambled off the bed and ran for their lives.

Connecting to her mother's Kerm felt itchy compared to connecting to Elton but Joenie was in too much of a hurry to care. Ignoring the waves of agitation dashing against her, she called out with her thoughts as she'd been taught. Mummy! Where are you, Mummy?

There was no reply. Joenie tried again, making the words in her mind as big and as loud as she could. Mummy - I've come to find you! The agitation around her boiled over into fright.

<Gerselle!> <dangerdangerdanger> <make safe!>

The vines whipped around and over Joenie’s inert form, wrapping her in a protective cage. One of them found the scrape on her leg and began to probe it. Jonton staggered to his feet, grabbed the roaming vine and tried to pull it free, crying out as it twisted out of his grip and slashed at him, its cluster of dripping tendrils trailing lines of fire across his face. He staggered back, eyelids aflame.

—————

The sound of her mother's voice all around her brought Joenie up short. Mummy?

<I am not Mummy. I am Jonelle.> <confusion> <you are Gerselle but not Gerselle>

Joenie frowned. The voice wasn't talking like her mother even if it sounded like her. Then she remembered that Elton’s voice always sounded like her father's. Are you Mummy's Kerm?

<I am Kerm. I do not know Mummy.>

Yes you do. She talks to you all the time. She's talking to you now. An image of Gerselle's head wrapped in leaves flashed through Joenie's mind. Where is she?

<said before. I do not know Mummy. I know Gerselle and Jonton and Enely and now Gerselle-but-not-Gerselle>

Mummy is Gerselle, stupid! She has to be here. Mummy? Mummy!

<Gerselle is not here! I told other kerbal called Enely to find her. Want Gerselle, not shouting kerbal!>

She is too here! I saw her head in your leaves - she must be here. Tears pricked the corner of Joenie's eyes. Why are you hiding her - why are you being mean?

<what is mean? Go away bad, angry kerbal! I want to talk to Gerselle! >

She is. She is talking to you! I saw her. Joenie burst into tears. I want my Mummy now! The waves of grief and anger radiating off her made Jonelle wilt. I hate you - I hate you!

Overwhelmed, Jonelle curled in on herself, withdrawing her vines and retreating behind her mental barriers. Instinctively she curled her leaves up too, slipping them free of Joenie's head. With a final anguished cry, the link to Joenie broke and echoing silence descended. 

Jonton rushed over to his daughter, a still shaken Patbro following at a discreet distance. Joenie lay twisted around on her bed, her face buried in her pillow, muffled sobs squeezing their way around its edges. Her feet flailed at the wall trying to reach Jonelle's trunk. Jonton dropped to the floor and tried to wrap his arms around her, only for Joenie to squirm away from him.

"Go 'way!"

"It's me, sweetheart. It's daddy. I've got you."

"I want Mummy."

"So do I, my love. So do I." Jonton climbed onto the bed beside her. "Come on, up you get - that pillow will be getting all soggy."

Sniffling, Joenie uncurled herself, peered at him through tear-blurred eyes and screamed. 

—————

Horrified, Enely watched the vines flow over Joenie’s body. Their writhing grew more and more agitated, tips peeling back to reveal needle teeth and then squirming closed again. One vine flew free, a second joined it and then they all seemed to crumple in on themselves, sliding off the bed and leaving Joenie looking curiously exposed.

He heard Joenie’s scream, saw her scuttling away from Jonton and for an agonising moment he froze, torn between his friends and their newly awakened Kerm.  As if you have a choice, sefflek, he thought. Unless you want your weakness to finish what it started. Face set in a grim mask, he skirted around the room, eyes fixed on the ground around Jonton’s abandoned bed. Bracing himself, he darted forward and leapt, hitting the bed in a tangled heap. Behind him, the  sleep room door flew open and Meleny hurried in, panting for breath.

Offering up a silent thanks for the distraction, Enely slipped his head under Jonelle's wilted leaves. They squirmed over his forehead as if fighting against the touch of kerbal flesh but aeons old instincts were not to be denied. The last thing Enely saw, before the white light filled his vision, was Meleny putting her arms around Joenie.

Jonelle? Jonelle - are you there?

<Enely?>

Relief swept over him. Yes, Jonelle - it's Enely.

<nasty kerbal is here?>

Nobody else is here - just me. 

<good. Nasty kerbal very loud, very angry. Said I was hiding Gersellemummy. Jonelle's voice was flat. <not hiding Gerselle. Don't understand mummy>

Enely cast his mind back to life in his old village. The nursery hut, thick walled and whitewashed to keep out the worst of the desert heat. A place of sanctuary for new mothers carrying pouched kerblings or with very young kerblets. He showed Jonelle an image from inside the hut; female kermol sitting on brightly coloured cushions, sipping from glasses of water and watching their youngsters at play. Fluffy headed kerblets crawling around in search of playmates or peeking over the edge of their mother's pouches.

Can you see the small kerbals?

<yes. Many small kerbals. Some being carried by big kerbals>

That's right. The big kerbals are all mummies. They look after the small kerbals. All the small kerbals have a mummy - a  special kerbal to look after them. Enely sensed a sudden spike of curiosity.

<why?>

That's... complicated, Jonelle. Can you just believe me?

<...yes. I see your picture, must be true. But it is very strange>

I suppose it is. Now the...

<the angry kerbal said mummy was called Gerselle. She said I was hiding her. I don't understand why. Gerselle is not here. Why did the angry kerbal say she was?>

Enely swallowed hard and concentrated on the sight of Gerselle lying under the Kerm leaves. Because she saw her talking to you.

<confusion> <this is not right. The kerbal in my leaves is Gerselle? But Gerselle isn't here>

No, said Enely gently. She isn't. And that's why we need your help, Jonelle. He focused on his image, remembering the healing vines burrowing into Jonton and imagining them crawling out of the earth and slipping beneath Gerselle's skin. With a shock of recognition he remembered that the tips of the healing vines had also split into clusters of paler tendrils. We need you to keep Gerselle alive.

<confusion. whywhywhy?>

Please, Jonelle? Something in his voice brought the young Kerm up short.

<I will do this for you Enely. But it is very strange>

I know it is, said Enely but thank you. He paused. I have to go now though - I need to talk to Joenie.

<Joenie?>

The angry kerbal. Her name is Joenie.

--------------

Jonelle's mental voice faded to a whisper and vanished. The light faded and Enely found himself face to face with a pair of blurry eyes.  He blinked them into focus and the rest of Meleny’s face swam into view. Behind her, Jonton was sitting with one arm around Joenie, murmuring to her and holding a dripping cloth to his face with his other hand. He lifted his head as Enely sat up and let the cloth fall away. 

Enely choked back his own scream. Jonton’s face was a grotesquely inflated mask, one eye half lidded and the other swollen completely shut. A line of weeping sores marched across his forehead, the skin around them split and bleeding. When he spoke, his voice was mushy, his jaw moving as little as possible.

“Did you get through?”

In reply, Enely pointed at Gerselle's bed and then down at the ground beneath it. Jonton followed his gesture, his suddenly clenching jaw pulling his sores further open. “You’re sure they’re healing vines?”

“Yes. They’re all the same I think.” Enely lowered his gaze.

"Do you think it'll make any difference?"

“No,” Enely replied at last. "But as the song goes, you never know till you try." He glanced at Joenie's tear-streaked face. "And I think we have to try."

Jonton's arm tightened around Joenie's waist. "I think so too," he said. "And, Enely... you can wait with us if you like."

Enely felt a great weight lift off his shoulders. "I would like that very much," he replied. "Thank you."

Behind him, the vines wound their way up the foot of Gerselle's bed.

 

Edited by KSK

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It's horrible, yet amazing. What should I feel now? What do I feel? Why do I suddenly feel like I would be good at philosophy? Oh wait, I know that one: I'm great at asking questions.

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7 hours ago, KSK said:

With special thanks to @CatastrophicFailure

What'd I do? :confused: I pointed out a single mingle typographic error, I didn't even get a chance for a useful critique! Curse you, Real Life! :sticktongue:

8 minutes ago, superstrijder15 said:

It's horrible, yet amazing. What should I feel now? What do I feel? Why do I suddenly feel like I would be good at philosophy? Oh wait, I know that one: I'm great at asking questions.

Or you've just been listening to this one. :wink:

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11 minutes ago, CatastrophicFailure said:

What'd I do? :confused: I pointed out a single mingle typographic error, I didn't even get a chance for a useful critique! Curse you, Real Life! :sticktongue:

Or you've just been listening to this one. :wink:

Well apart from helping to turn this story around - not a lot really. :wink: And all critiques of forthcoming chapters (or indeed, this one) will be more than welcome.

@superstrijder15 - thanks for the kind words and all I can say at this point is - hang on to your hat...

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3 hours ago, KSK said:

hang on to your hat...

I'm not wearing one right now, but to be sure I'll get one and press it on tight, better to lose a brand new hat then to suddenly be bald...

Edited by superstrijder15
typos all the way

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Next chapter is up...


The Straw and the Mallek

"Copy, Prospector. We see you on the mains. Welcome home!"

For the first time since their final midcourse correction burn, Wilford felt himself relax. Bringing Moho 3 back from orbit had been positively tranquil compared to the crushing reentry at Minmus transfer velocities that he, Barrie and Milden had just endured. 

He shivered inside his spacesuit. Rationally, he knew that the flight control team had been watching over them from launch to plasma blackout - and had probably been following Prospector 2's systems in more detail than he’d been able to onboard. Rationally, he knew that the thermal protection systems - and their safety margins - had been thoroughly flight-proven by the Pioneer flights. Rationality however, couldn't hide the sight of burning chunks of ablator resin shooting past the capsule window or dispel the cold, gut-level knowledge, instilled by endless simulator sessions, that their survival depended on such a terribly thin margin of error in their trajectory. 

Radio chatter from the retrieval boats filled the cabin. Barrie rolled her eyes and turned the volume down. "Not that the welcome isn't appreciated but I can't hear myself think with that racket going on!" 

"Pressure equalisation valves closed," Milden reported. "Dumping RCS propellant." 

The capsule rocked on its parachutes then settled, the brief thrust from the venting propellants not disturbing its fall. A muted hiss sounded overhead followed by the familiar thump of closing valves. Wilford checked the altimeter. "Passing through fifteen hundred. SAS to OFF."

"Beacon is on, floats are armed," said Milden. "Did we miss anything?”

"Not a thing,” said Barrie. "Hit the water, cut the chutes and we're done. Okay, brace for impact."

Wilford watched the altimeter unwind. Three hundred...two hundred...one... 

The impact drove him into his couch hard enough to knock his teeth together. The capsule lurched, spray fountaining past its windows, then steadied, right side up, bobbing like a cork. He heard a pungent oath from across the cabin and, to his astonishment, realised it was Milden swearing.

"Chutes gone," said Barrie. "Not sure I'd care to try that with a gronnek but each to their own."

Milden's cheeks flamed in the gloom. "Um - we're not on hot mike are we?" she asked.

"Luckily for the tender ears of the flight controllers, we're not," said Barrie dryly. She toggled her microphone. "Flight, Prospector. We're in the water, blunt end down."

"Glad to have you back, Prospector," Nelton replied. "Recovery boats are on their way and I'm told it's a fine day for a swim out on the Great Tranquil Sea." 

"Copy that, Flight. Sure could use the bath. Somebody needs to figure out how to build a spaceworthy sweetmoss pool for the colony ships."

"Something to put the pool in would be a start," said Nelton. "But I'll add the suggestion to the list."

By the time the recovery teams arrived, a distinct swell had developed and Wilford was beginning to feel more than a little queasy. From the introspective look on Milden’s face, he guessed that she wasn’t faring any better. The knock on the hatch came as a welcome distraction. 

Barrie unbuckled her harness and pressed three fingers to the hatch window. She counted to twenty to give the divers time to get clear, then pulled the locking handle down and swung open the hatch.  Fresh salt air blew into the capsule almost visibly dispersing the fug within. Peering over Barrie’s shoulder, Wilford caught a glimpse of cloudless sky and a smear of green on the horizon. He undid his own harness and reached under his couch.

Barrie scrambled out of the capsule and into the waiting life raft. One of the divers poked his head above the hatch sill and stretched out a hand. Wilford handed him a heavily insulated tube with a loop of cord attached to one end. "Hang on to this," he said. "The propellant lab will want to see it as quickly as possible and it's a long way back to Minmus if you drop it.” 

The diver’s eyes widened behind his mask. He slipped his wrist through the loop and, clutching his  end of the tube tightly, proffered the other end to Barrie. He watched her clip it to her belt before turning back to Wilford and helping him through the hatch.

——————

Dunney eyed the scratched and worn coffee pot as it burbled away, a faint smell of burnt coffee residue lifting from the hotplate. Like its owner, the pot was showing signs of wear and, he thought, hard wear at that. Through the window, the main Alpha tracking dish revolved slowly against the sky. Dunney tucked his hands behind his back and watched it turn.  

He was interrupted by the sounds of hurried footsteps and the office door clicking shut behind him, followed by the thud of a large stack of files landing on a desk. The pot gave a last protracted gargle, like a kaya clearing its throat, and stopped. Dunney poured two cups, handing one of them to Lodan as he sat down by the fire. 

“So what’s the verdict?”

Lodan put his cup down. “Enough ammonia to be worthwhile but mixed with water and Kerm only knows what else. Certainly enough to keep the labs busy for a while.”

Dunney frowned. “Vacuum distillation ought to do the trick then - and if there’s one thing we’re not lacking for out at Minmus, it’s vacuum.”

“Indeed. Although we may have other options first - the snow samples were apparently almost pure ammonia.”

Dunney’s eyebrows rose. “Were they now? Interesting - very interesting indeed. Perhaps a big drill is what we need then, rather than a still. Or, to begin with, maybe just a crew of strong and willing kerbals equipped with shovels.” 

“I think not,” said Lodan, his voice suddenly cold enough to freeze the ammonia under discussion. “Or has it slipped your mind that it almost took the lives of two good kerbonauts to bring those samples back?”

Dunney bit his lip. Kerm. “I’m sorry… you’re right of course, Director. My enthusiasm gets the better of me.” He averted his eyes from Lodan’s expression. “Have the Site D boys had a chance to run a test yet?”

“Not yet,” said Lodan. “Although I understand that they were none too enthusiastic about handling large amounts of anhydrous ammonia.”

“Better the kraken you know, I suppose,” said Dunney. “Personally, I’d be none too enthusiastic about handling any amounts of enriched uranium, but each to their own.” He toyed with his cup, unable to meet to KSA director’s eyes. “I don’t suppose…”

“No,” said Lodan heavily. “There, I remain at the Council’s pleasure. I’m told that my budget requests are ‘up to their usual exemplary standards’, with a strong overtone of ‘but gathering dust on a desk.’ The one time I did manage to get through to Obrick, I merely received a double earful of platitudes for my trouble.” He drained his cup and stared at the ceiling. “The Duna shuttle programme is on hold, the LV-N programme will be on hold after the ammonia test fire series. Booster construction for Pioneer 7 continues on schedule, as does the first production run of Rockomax Type 6s reserved for Starseed. R7 development is on hold until further funding can be released. I could go on.” Lodan rubbed his eyes. “The ecology and agronomy programmes are on a different budget, so at least the Berelgan is moving forward with those - and Erlin is managing to eke out a token life support development programme too, which is something.”

“But otherwise, we’re grounded,” said Dunney. He saw his own frustration mirrored in Lodan’s eyes and bit back a more pointed comment.

“Yes,” said Lodan. “I’m flying out to the Capital next week and I fully intend to sit outside the necessary doors for as long as it takes to put a head-knocking meeting together. But until then we are, as you say, grounded.”

——————

The air cannon boomed, launching its canister on a fast, flat trajectory.  A small packet, dangling on a short length of line, fell out of the speeding projectile,. The gunner swore, “Reload, Blight you!” 

His loader scrambled to obey, grabbing hold of the cannon barrel for balance. He fumbled another canister into the breech, slammed it closed and hit the deck. “Clear!” 

The patrol boat heeled over, spray shooting over the bows. The gunner swung his weapon round, spun the elevation handle and fired again. A second canister boomed across the waves, trailing a parachute behind it on a rapidly unspooling line. Both parachute and canister hit the water with a distant splash. The enemy vessel roared past and the gunner began counting under his breath. He reached fifteen and gave up in disgust as it raced into the distance unimpeded. Too short or too weak to foul the prop. No damn good either way. He ran for the wheelhouse, rapped on the window and held up a fist, thumb pointed down. The pilot lifted a hand in acknowledgement and keyed her microphone. 

“Unidentified vessel, you are in violation of Veiidan territorial waters. You will stand down and prepared to be boarded.” The fleeing vessel ignored her as she expected it would, the afternoon sun sparkling from its foaming wake. The pilot turned to her navigator, stooping over his chart table and binnacle. He scribbled two words onto a card and handed it over. She scanned the message, lips moving silently and keyed her microphone again, voice shifting subtly. “Come on, whoever you are. Give it up and we can all go home for djeng.” 

Closer to shore, two motor dinghies rode at anchor, their crews sitting hunched over their radios. “…whoever you are. Give it up and we can all go home for djeng.”  In the first boat, the kerbal sitting in the stern sat up straight. “Sixty minutes out, bearing west-by-south from Staanton Point.” 

One of her companions was already busy with kneeboard and grease pencil. “Well that’s nice of them,” he reported. “Coming straight for us unless they decide to head someplace else first.”

“Standard sweep with a flank-and-spank finish then. We head east, track them in and save our juice for the final sprint. The noisemakers handle most of the sweep, including the dummy run.” The sergeant grinned humourlessly. “Sun’ll be nice and low in an hour. Send those lazy kafratt herders the plan and lets get to it.” 

The navigator nodded and flipped his kneeboard over, revealing a patch of metal foil glued to the back. Angling it catch the sun, he flashed a brief message over to the second dinghy.  The sergeant slipped off her bench and checked the straps securing their gear. One of the nondescript canvas carryalls clanked as she cinched up a loose strap and the intermittent squeak of hawser against cleat from the bow, told her that the fourth member of her crew was already busy with the anchor. She emerged in time to catch the answering flashes and hear the distant coughing splutter of a diesel powered outboard motor starting up.

“Anchor raised ma’am.” 

The sergeant thumbed a button on her own outboard which started up with a purr. She glanced at the charge meter and, checking her compass, fed power to the motor and swung the small craft around, heading due east. 

For the best part of half an hour they cruised the Southern Ocean at a leisurely, battery-conserving speed, the navigator busy with chart and chronometer, the other crew members keeping a sharp eye out for other boats. Then one of them saw it; a white v-shaped trail of foam, laid ruler straight across the waves. He gripped his crewmate by the shoulder and pointed. The sergeant’s gaze followed his and she nodded in satisfaction. “That’ll be them,” she murmured. “Looks like the net chuckers managed to spook ‘em, even if they did sweet Blight all to stop them.” She raised her voice slightly. “Right you lot - rig for stealth and we’ll follow them in. Out of the sun, nice and steady and if any of you flash anything shiny, I’ll skin you.”

Her crew didn’t bother to reply, each of them double checking the other’s kit for reflective items. She eased the throttle forward a notch and threw her tiller over, swinging the dinghy round in a looping turn that ended with them dead astern of the fleeing vessel and shadowing it at a discreet distance. She waited for their target to change course, ears straining for the sudden crack of deck guns. When it showed no sign of noticing them, she let out her breath in a tightly-controlled sigh of relief and glanced at her own chronometer. Then her ears pricked up at the distant sound of a diesel motor.

About bloody time.

The sound swelled to a muted, and then not so muted roar. The second dinghy barrelled in from the north, prow angled high, foam trailing from its exposed hull. Suddenly it heeled over, flanking their target and matching speed with it. “ATTENTION UNIDENTIFIED VESSEL. THIS IS THE VEIIDAN COASTAL PATROL. REDUCE YOUR SPEED IMMEDIATELY AND MAKE YOUR COURSE DUE NORTH.

The sergeant swore as the enemy vessel held its course, wake boiling from its stern. “Brace yourselves - we’re going in!” She slammed the throttle hard against its stop and her vessel surged forward.

“UNIDENTIFIED VESSEL. THIS IS YOUR FINAL WARNING. REDUCE YOUR SPEED TO FIVE KLICKS AND MAKE YOUR COURSE DUE NORTH.”

The dinghy bounced and jolted, buffeted by the larger vessel’s wake. The sergeant worked the tiller in short, precise movements, jaw set, eyes locked on the looming hull rolling and swaying bare metres away from her own craft. Her crew scanned the deck rail overhead, grapple poles at the ready, bracing themselves for contact. The dinghy skipped sideways and steadied. Three poles swung up, slapped wickedly curved hooks over the rail, and were discarded. Three armed kerbals grabbed their boarding lines, tugged them once and swarmed up the side of their target, rolling over the rail and coming up in a poised crouch, then running for cover, weapons at the ready. Shots rang out from the other side of the boat, rapid, staccato cracks audible over the noise of the decoy dinghy.

The boarding team darted aft, keeping low, leapfrogging from cover to temporary cover. A baton whipped out, dropping the lone sentry on their side of the boat and then they were through, charging up the steps to the bridge, kicking the door open and bursting in.

“Drop it! Down - now! Hands over your heads!”

Two of the bridge crew took one look at the armed intruders and hit the deck, hands clamped over their ears. The third lunged for his own weapon, yelling at his companions to stand and fight. A single gunshot crashed out, deafeningly loud in the confined space and he dropped to the floor screaming.

“The next one goes through your head! Now stay down!” The marine dashed forward, kicked the discarded handgun to one side and landed between his would-be assailant’s shoulder blades, driving the breath out of the downed kerbal with a grunt, before snapping on a pair of wrist restraints. Behind him, he heard his teammates dealing with the other two. Doubled over to stay below the bridge windows, he sprinted over to the throttle levers and pulled them back to all-stop. 

——————

The dinghy slipped in behind the drifting boat, juddering as it bumped the larger vessel’s stern. The sergeant thumbed off her outboard motor, swung her grapple pole up against the rail to secure her boarding line then pulled herself up the rope, hand over hand. The rattle of gunfire from further forward told her all she needed to know. Glancing all around for possible sight lines she flattened herself against the deckhouse wall and crabbed her way round to the inspection ladder, alert to the slightest movement around her. Scrambling up the ladder she belly-crawled round the foot of the radio mast and peered over the edge of the roof. 

As expected, the boarding team were pinned down by the bridge. Her first shot saw one enemy sailor staggering back, hand clamped over his shoulder, his gun skittering across the deck. Her second shot narrowly missed a second sailor as she ducked into cover but the sudden confusion was all the distraction her beleaguered boarding team needed. Another sailor fell to the deck and then another fell screaming in the sudden quiet. Three more grapples appeared over the deck rail, rapidly followed by the second boarding team. 

One of the enemy crew spun on his heel and then froze. Shoulders slumping, he placed his gun on the deck and stepped back, hands raised in surrender. The rest of his crewmates quickly followed suit. The sergeant unclipped a radio from her belt.  “Seawall Four-Alpha, target immobilised, requesting seed pick up on my beacon.”

“Copy that Four-Alpha. Pick-up is inbound, ETA 20 minutes.”

——————

“And the Kerm was planted safely?”

Chief Ambassador Obmy gave him a dour look. “Naturally. It’s not ideal territory; the sapling may find the southern reaches to be constrained by the Hartock mountains, but it plugs a gap.” He shrugged. “Besides, planting it any further north would have caused unacceptable Blightborders with neighbouring inland Groves.”

“We appreciate your continued aid,” Chadwick broke in smoothly. “But did I hear you correctly? Plugging a gap?”

“Indeed,” replied President Maller. “Please do not doubt my words; Veiid appreciates its alliance with the Confederacy but at the same time, we must note that despite our great efforts, the so-called Children of Kerbin remain a persistent menace. Their unsanctioned plantings disrupt our planning, forcing us to use less than optimal Grove layouts and depriving both our nations of much valuable territory.”

Chadwick frowned. “Our coastal patrols have doubled since we signed our concord - and continue to increase. We are diverting significant resources to increasing our air cover and rapid-response capability. With respect, I believe that the Confederacy is upholding its side of our bargain.”

Maller lifted his hands in a placating gesture. “And Veiid has no reason to doubt your commitment but nevertheless.” He lowered his hands. “We feel that a second line of defence is required.”

“What did you have in mind?” Aldwell asked.

“A firebreak.” Obmy led him over to an immense, antique Kerm wood table that occupied most of the space along one wall of his office. Under its glass top, Aldwell was surprised to see historic pen and ink maps of Veiid resting side by side with the latest HOTSPOT and SKYMAP satellite imagery from the KSA. Obry pointed at three side-by-side maps depicting different sections of the Veiid eastern seaboard. “It’s not a new idea. In fact the very oldest Groves in the Northern Reaches are suspiciously well laid out already.” He tapped at the map. “You know our twin jewels of course, Bolanerbat and Boladakhat. Both cities protected by mountains and the sea. Now look - strung between the jewels, between the Guardian Peaks here and the Hartocks here…”

Aldwell saw. “A double line of Groves.” He studied the map. “Quite closely planted too.”

“Almost perfectly planted,” Obmy corrected him. “And making full use of the Lakes as borders between Groves to allow overlap without Blight. A remarkable job of surveying - quite remarkable. Even with the KSA satellite maps to guide us, we were unable to find any significant improvements.”

Chadwick raised an eyebrow. “Clearly your ancestors of the Age of Sail were also on less than cordial terms with their neighbours.”

“Sobering is it not?” said Maller. “Centuries later and we’re solving the same old problem in the same old way.”

Aldwell couldn’t help but agree. “I presume you intend to extend your ancestors’ work?”

“You presume correctly,” said Obny. “We’re planting similar double lines between the southern Hartocks and the Trenchers and between the Trenchers and the Scorpa Range in the far south. The lines aren’t closed yet but when they are, they will protect the rest of Veiid from the depredations wrought by those over-zealous fools.” He saw the other’s cheek twitch. “I mean no offense, Aldwell. As you well know, we respect the Confederacy’s official position on this matter. But we do not extend that respect to terrorist organisations, whatever views they choose to adhere to.”

Chadwick’s features remained composed. “Ambitious,” he commented. “No doubt your firebreak also depends on loyal Veiidan patriots,” his voice remained carefully bland, “to keep a watch for any terrorists. May I ask what happens to any that are caught?”

“Naturally, they will be detained,” replied Obney. “and charged under the Bill of Land for breaching the peace of nations and endangering the fair and equitable allocation of land to Kerm, Kermol and Kerman. Much as we might prefer this to remain a matter for the Veiidan courts, we recognise that the Court of Twelve Pillars has jurisdiction in any dispute invoking the Bill of Land. If found guilty, the defendants shall be declared skilda bar an taleka.” An inscrutable expression crossed his face. “Veiid shall respectfully petition the Court to devise a suitable sentence - the ancient remedies under the Bill are…not consistent with modern jurisprudence.”

Chadwick exchanged a long look with Aldwell. He couldn’t see any obvious flaws in Obney’s proposal and from the look on Aldwell’s face, neither could he. “No indeed,” he said at last. “And how long do you estimate the firebreak will take to finish?”

Maller shrugged. “That rather depends on the Kerm does it not? And our continued cooperation and diligence against the Children of Kerbin.”

 
Edited by KSK
Correcting old Kerba grammar

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Well, a mallek is the Kerbin analogue of a camel:

Quote

Cal laughed. "Something must eat it. Have to admit though, I never thought of farming cacti. Guess I've seen too many films - I always think of two, maybe three cacti in the middle of a load of sand."

"Oh no," said Enely, "You should see the malkaball fields when they're ready for harvest. Hundreds of brown balls all lined up in rows. Looking very much like the real thing but neater."

"The real thing?" said Cal curiously.

Enely stared at his feet, flushing slightly. "It works better in the Hazachim dialect," he explained. "You know about mallek of course. Four legs, humps, bad temper. Malka is our word for bad tempered, so most of the time we just call the mallek, malka." He glanced at Cal's puzzled expression."So a malkaball is a small brown ball that..."

Cal hastily covered his mouth, stifling laughter behind a cough. "Sounds appetising," he said at last. "Do they taste as good as they look?"

"Much better than they look," said Enely. "Bake them in a sand pit with the right spices and they're actually quite sathy."

And you know the old proverb about straws and camels' backs...

Edited by KSK

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Just a quick update folks, prompted by @CatastrophicFailure's epic writing week and posted here to avoid cluttering up the Revelations of the Kraken thread (because that would be rude!).

Next chapter is a little over halfway done. First section is written, the POV change to the second section has been successfully negotiated and I've finally figured out how to deal with the third section. I can't promise it'll be good but I can promise it'll beat the flarp out of the page or so of exposition that I reluctantly had in mind but couldn't see an alternative to until yesterday.

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Hey folks.

I usually try not to spin out too many progress reports in lieu of actual updates but I'm also conscious that it's been a month since the last chapter and that I'm unlikely to be posting the next one until the weekend at the earliest.

So with that in mind, I just want to say that the next chapter is drafted and that my Good Editors have done their usual sterling work in kicking around the rough draft and reporting back on which bits fall off, smell dodgy, wobble, clank, and in general need to either be tied on more securely, or left by the side of the road somewhere to rust in peace. :) The good(?) news is that it's shaping up to be quite a hefty piece - so much so that I've actually split it in two to save you all wading through too many section breaks.

Rewriting is in progress. 

And last but not least - welcome to the thread @SpaceN00b. Thank you so much for the stream of likes - there are so many different things rolled into this story now other than spaceflight (some further out in the weeds than others) and it's always tremendously heartening when someone just motors through the lot!

 

Edited by KSK

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7 minutes ago, KSK said:

which bits ... need to ... be ... left by the side of the road somewhere to rust in peace. :)

...or pinched to be used elsewhere... :ph34r:

 ...found lying by the side of the road... 'tis the Kerbal way...

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@KSK You're welcome, this is an amazing story by the way it is truly awesome to see someone take so much time to world build for such an awesome story. Can't wait for more!

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I'll see what I can do. :) Although in deference to the new forum eyestrain colour scheme, I trust everyone will be fine if I post the next chapter in a very pale grey text?

Dear Kerm above...

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I thought someone forced a mobile-friendly theme on my desktop.  This is awful.

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Next chapter is up...

 

Darkness falls

“I’m fine, Meleny. The tingling has stopped, the punctures aren’t weeping as much and even the swelling is going down.”

Meleny rolled her eyes. “Certainly. You just look like you have a sockful of tubers under your skin rather than a basket load of breadfruit. And changing your dressings twice a day rather than four times a day is real progress. It’s been over a week, Jonton - you are not fine.”

Jonton rubbed his one, fully open, eye, unable to hide a wince as still-tender skin shifted under his bandages. Spots of blood bloomed on the dressings over his other eyelid. He ducked his head, unable to face Meleny’s look. “What about Joenie and Jonelle?” he said.

“Joenie can’t understand why you haven’t been to the medical centre already,” Meleny replied, a touch of asperity in her voice. “As for Jonelle - if you’re even thinking about trying to Commune with her, then you’re a bigger fool than I thought.” Meleny eyed the droplet of fresh blood trickling down Jonton’s eyelid. “And believe me, that’s quite a trick right now.”

Jonton spooned up the last of his soup and pushed his bowl away. “We’ve been here before. Communion is not what I meant and you know it.” Under the bandages his skin turned pale. “I close my eyes to sleep and all I see are two bodies wrapped in Kerm vines or worse.” Jonton took a deep, shuddering breath. “I was sleeping better after Elton’s Shattering. I can’t leave Joenie alone with her, Meleny - I just can’t.

“Oh we’ve definitely been here before,” said Meleny. “And nothing’s changed. I’ll stay here and look after Joenie. She’ll enjoy helping me with Katisa and Edbas isn’t afraid to come and play with her. Enely will look after Gerselle and Jonelle.” She ignored Jonton’s flinch. “Neither of us will let Joenie into Gerselle’s sleep room alone, or let her climb Jonelle outside. She’ll be fine.”  Meleny threw up her hands. “And Pillars preserve me, it might even persuade Enely to stop tiptoeing around you. He’s worse than Fredlorf was, the one time I left him to hold Katisa for a minute.”

Jonton sighed. “Yes, not having Enely walking on eggshells around me would be nice.” He reached for Joenie’s old curly-straw cup and took a long slurp of sapwood and milk. “They’ll want to know what happened though,” he said at last. “I can hardly tell them I was attacked by a Kerm.”

“We’ve been here before too,” said Meleny. “Tell them you were bitten by something and got a bad reaction. For all we know that may not be far off the truth.”

Jonton summoned up a rueful smile “I’d hate to see the insect that did this,” he said. Even to himself, the joke sounded flat. He rolled the end of his straw between finger and thumb, rocking the cup back and forth across the table. “Will you be alright here, if Enely drives me over? What if…” He broke off at the sight of Meleny’s patient expression. “You’ll be fine,” he murmured. “You, Joenie, Edbas and Katisa. Just fine.”

As if in reply, Meleny’s midriff squirmed and a tuft of downy hair appeared over the seam of her poncho opening. Meleny dipped a finger into her pouch, smiling as it was promptly grabbed by a tiny hand and popped into a tiny toothless mouth. Presently, small, chirruping snores began drifting upwards. Despite himself, Jonton’s answering smile turned into a grimace, fresh spots of blood appearing on the other side of his dressings. 

Maybe I do need to get this looked at. “I’d better go and find Enely and Joenie,” he said resignedly. “And then think about packing a bag.”

——————

“So - what seems to be the problem?”

Jonton resisted the urge to describe a wholly fictitious broken toe and settled for giving the medic a slightly incredulous look. “I’m not sure,” he replied carefully. “I think something may have bitten me but I’ve never had this kind of reaction to a bite before. I was hoping it would go down on its own and it has a little bit but…” 

The medic nodded. “Have you taken anything for it?”

“I tried greenwort tea for the first day,” said Jonton. “That didn’t have any effect so I left it for a day and started taking anti-inflammatories instead.” He took a half-empty pack of tablets out of his pocket with an apologetic look. “These ones - I’m not much good with medical names. Anyway, they just made me nauseous.”

The medic glanced at the packet and made a note on his pad, a crease appearing on his brow. “Did you get any other side effects. Sweating palms? Intimate rash?” 

Jonton shook his head. “No, just the nausea.” He tapped his swollen cheek. “Which wasn’t a great deal of fun I can tell you.”

“I’m sure it wasn’t,” said the medic. He unpicked the knot of fabric at the base of Jonton’s neck. “Now, I’m just going to take these bandages off and have a look underneath. Just tell me to stop if it gets too painful.” 

The first layer of bandage unwound easily. Jonton gritted his teeth as the second layer peeled away, breaking open the scabs on his injured eyelid. Pus trickled over the corner of his mouth, nearly making him gag. The medic pulled away the final, bloody swathe of fabric, flinching at the sight of the rank and sodden dressings underneath. Eyes screwed up against the pain, Jonton didn’t notice.

“Okay, I’m just going to tip you back a bit. With a hiss of compressed air, the chair back tilted flat. The medic fastened an absorbent drape around Jonton’s neck. “Normally this might sting a bit but I think these are about ready to fall off on their own.” He slipped on a pair of gloves and gingerly peeled up the corner of one dressing. “Easy does it - and there you go.” He dropped the pad onto a tray with a faint thud and turned to the next one.

“Well something got you real good. I’m going to take a couple of samples for the lab but right now, I think we’ll let one of our Kerm take a look at you.” The medic dabbed at Jonton’s face with a damp surgical sponge and noticed the flicker cross his patient’s face. “Sorry about that - nearly done. Okay, I’m just going to tip you back up again.” The chair hissed again, lifting Jonton into a sitting posture. “If you could just hold this here and here and follow me please.”

Jonton followed him into an airy, pleasantly lit room. One corner was wholly occupied by a section of Kerm trunk, it’s branches spreading across the ceiling. A wedge shaped sweetmoss pool surrounded by well-tended grass borders took up much of the floor space. The medic pointed towards a curtained off enclosure, its plastic drapes looking distinctly incongruous against all the greenery. “Please could I ask you to shower and change before getting into the pool. You’ll find everything you need inside the cubicle.”

Several minutes later, a damp and faintly pine-scented Jonton emerged from the shower clad in a pair of loose fitting shorts. He slipped into the sweetmoss pool and stared up through the Kerm branches, feeling his pulse begin to pound. 

“There’s a set of steps just under the water if you need to brace your feet against anything.” The medic was lying on a slim futon bed, head resting under one of the larger Kerm leaf clusters. “I’ll be with you in a couple of minutes. Try and relax - the healing vines might tickle a little but they’re nothing to be afraid of.” He smiled. “Although I’m surely not telling the Sage of Barkton anything new there.”

Jonton swallowed hard. Images of swarms of needle sharp teeth slashing dripping white tendrils across his face raced through his mind,. His pulse throbbed painfully against his skull, fresh blood beginning to well up through the open wounds in his forehead. When the vines brushed against the side of his head it was all he could do not to scream. They crept over his swollen face, probing delicately at his injuries.

A choking gust of cinnamon billowed from the ceiling. The vines whipped back, slicing through the water and dragging clumps of moss with them. Jonton barely had time to turn his head before dozens more vines erupted all around him, glistening tendrils exploding from their tips. Jonton’s feet spasmed, mashing his toes into the pool steps. White fire shrieked up his legs and settled in his guts like a ball of hot, liquid lead. His vision blurred, became a darkness fringed tunnel, shadows from the thrashing vines more sensed than seen. There was a terrified cry from somewhere behind his head and then everything went black.

He awoke to silence and a screaming pain in both feet. Shaking, he hauled himself out of the pool and collapsed face-down on the grass.

“What in the seven smoking hells just happened?” Jonton lifted his head and saw a very pale around the eyes medic staring back at him. “Never known anything like it, never heard of anything like it before!”

Jonton rolled onto his back. A part of him heard hurried footsteps and a door slamming. A distant voice in the back of his mind shouted at him to get up before it was too late, to escape while he still could. Moving, though, seemed like an impossible task, let alone the brain-tangling complexities of getting dressed. He heard door hinges squeak and much more measured footsteps coming towards him. One kerbal or two? Did it matter anyway?

——————

Jonton awoke and promptly screwed his eyes shut against a glaring white light. He tried to sit up only to find his limbs unable to move. Crying out, he thrashed against his bonds, back arching in desperation, He sensed the room lurch around him, felt himself tipping sideways before something righted him with a thump.

“Hold still. Unless you want a splitting headache on top of your other troubles.”

Jonton opened his eyes, squinting against the glare. A syringe filled with a pale, straw-coloured liquid floated just out of reach. “Kerm vines… attack…let me go!” He jerked his hands back and forth, struggling to break free. ”Let me go!”

A pair of hands clamped around his wrists. “Take it easy now, sir. You’re safe here - no need for all that.”

“And lucky to be alive,” said the medic flatly. “I want some answers. Now.”

“Where am I?” 

“You’re in the Blight trauma ward and about this far from being hauled up before the district Enclave unless I get a real good explanation for what just happened. So talk.”

Jonton rolled his head to one side, dislodging a padded bolster from under his neck. The medic sat opposite him, a grim look on his face. A large kerbal dressed in the white uniform of a hospital orderly, tucked the bolster back into place. “No need for that either, sir,” he said. “We can get you off that gurney and into somewhere more comfortable once you’re done talking.”

Jonton talked. 

Hesitantly at first but gradually the familiarity of his story took over and he recovered some semblance of eloquence. The medic sat spellbound through his descriptions of Elton, a florid medley of emotions crossing his face as the story of Jonelle’s awakening unfolded. He sat back in his chair and regarded Jonton at length.

“I don’t know whether to applaud you or have you locked up.” The medic shook his head in bemusement. “Either way, that… explains a lot. The attack by your partner’s Kerm… sorry, Jonelle must have marked you with something that sent mine into a real fighting panic. Which sort of makes sense if the first part of your story is right - any kerbal marked by one Kerm would likely be seen as a serious threat by other Kerm. Good thing you were in the pool - the moss probably slowed the vines down some.” He shivered. “Bought me enough time to stop it killing you maybe.”

A chill ran up Jonton’s spine. 

The medic shivered again. “It’s as well I’m not a drinking kerb. If you ask me, a story like that is better remembered through the bottom of a bottle. A very strong bottle.” He visibly pulled himself together. “Anyhow, what to do with you, since setting a Kerm to heal a Kerm sting plainly isn’t going to work.” The medic’s eyes lost their focus for a moment. “We do have some options there but I’m afraid I’m going to have to keep you in under observation for the duration.”

Jonton sat bolt upright, fists clenched. “How long?” he asked harshly.

“I don’t know. You’ll need a full diagnostic workup to start with - the samples I took won’t be nearly enough.” The medic’s voice wasn’t unsympathetic. “After that - it’s too early to tell I’m afraid but at least a week, probably more. I know you’re worried about leaving your daughter for so long but I think you’ll just have to trust your friends to look after her.” 

He saw the appalled expression on Jonton’s face and offered him a bleak look in return. “You’re going to be our test subject my friend. I hope to the First Council that I’m wrong but something tells me that you won’t be the only Kerm-stung kerbal I have to treat before all this is done.”
 
——————

In a remote valley, tucked away beneath the Trencher mountains of Southern Veiid, a kerbal watched two figures approaching across the scrubland. The distant streak of greenery around the narrow watercourse winding down from the foothills contrasted vividly with the sparser ground cover beyond and then the ochres and russets of the Hook escarpment curving around the horizon. A thin, keening wind stirred up the dust, piling it against boulders and boots alike.

The figures drew closer, close enough to be recognised and moving more cautiously now, disappearing behind a tussock of coarse grass here, a rocky outcrop there. The watching kerbal unfolded a cloth and draped it over the the lip of the cave entrance, it’s white on black bisected circle logo standing plain against the orangey stone. She saw one of the figures pointing, then they both veered towards her, no longer bothering with the sparse cover. The soft crunch of leather on gravel announced their presence as they rounded the final bend of the trail and ducked into the cave beside her. She rolled up the cloth and tucked it away in her pack.

“You took your sweet time getting back. Boss is starting to get restless.”

“He’s going to get even more restless when he hears that we’re boxed in.” The scout upended his water bottle, swishing the meagre mouthful of water around his mouth before swallowing. “New Groves planted right up to the foothills and beyond. Overlapping too, near as we could tell on foot - not that there’s much around here for the Blight to ruin.”

“Planted in a tearing hurry by the looks of it,” his companion added. “No kermol at all over yonder,” he pointed at the Hook, “and precious few at the next nearest Groves neither. We did see one patrol though, heading north. Kerm knows what the poor beggars did to draw duty at the armpit end of Veiid.”

“Can we get through the mountains?”

“Not with the supplies we’ll have left by the time we catch up with the boss. The nearest pass is about half a day away but the way in is blocked by another Grove. Couldn’t find anything else within striking distance.”

The watcher shaded her eyes and squinted at the distant Hook. “But yonder Grove lies unguarded?” The scout nodded.

“Then its fate is sealed.” She picked up her pack and slipped noiselessly out of the cave. The two scouts looked at each other wordlessly, then followed her.

Kerbol was low in the sky by the time the three scouts reached a fringe of stunted trees clinging to the mountainside. Two other members of their party stepped out from the shade and watched them approach. One of them opened her mouth to speak before catching sight of the almost identical expressions on their faces. She slung her weapon over her back with suddenly trembling hands and quietly fell in behind the scouts as they marched past.

The setting sun turned the campsite into a maze of knife edged shadows. The row of tents arrayed at the edge of the clearing lurked under the trees, doors yawning open to reveal ill-defined shapes inside. The loose semi-circle of stones in front of the tents resembled a set of giant’s teeth, crooked and worn from overuse. A white box, its lid marked with the bisected circle emblem of the Children of Kerbin rested beside one of them,

As the scouting party emerged from the trees, the kerbals sitting atop the stones stopped talking and looked up from their seats.

“Well?” One of the kerbals got to his feet. “You’re late. Explain.” 

The first scout gave a succinct summary of their expedition. 

“No way through? Not even across the mountains? No.” Their leader smiled. It was not a pleasant smile. “I believe the cowards leave us little choice then.” Two of the other Children leaned forward expectantly, an unhealthy sheen in their eyes and spots of dark green flaring on their cheeks. Their leader reached under his poncho and withdrew a small Kerm wood disc on a simple chain.

“I have made the pilgrimage,” he said softly. “I have travelled to Kolus and consulted the Sage. I have seen our history - and it is on our side. On the side of all true heirs to the kerm..olia.” He licked his lips, voice caressing the final syllable. “We are warriors for our Kerm my brothers and sisters. Its roots will be more cunning and…” He bared his teeth, any pretence at a smile vanishing. “Its kerbals will be the stronger.”

A feverish buzz of anticipation greeted his pronouncement. The scout bowed his head in acceptance, then looked up, emotions locked away behind walled up eyes. “When?”

“We travel in the cool of the night. We plant our Kerm at dawn.”

——————

Kerbol rose over the Hook, bathing the empty village in gold. A Kerm sapling stood alone in the centre of the village square, leaf clusters unfurling to greet the new day. The scout stared at it, the mask-like expression on his face slipping for an instant, revealing the roiling stew of emotions beneath. He gripped his spade, taking what reassurance he could from the smooth timber of its handle.

The other Children clustered around him, their leader standing alone before them, white box by his feet. He bent down, lifted out a large yellow and brown mottled gourd, and held it aloft. A whiff of cinnamon graced the morning air, pungent even at a distance and the scout’s nostrils twitched. His leader placed the gourd back in its cooler, picked up his own spade and slung it across his shoulder. “Today we are kermolia. Today we fight for our Kerm.”

The Children fanned out across the deserted village square, surrounding the sapling in a precise circle. Their leader lifted his spade over his head in a two-handed grip, before stabbing it into the ground, levering out a clod of dense gritty soil that crumbled as it fell. Emboldened, the other Children followed his lead, spades rising and falling in unison, the scrape of steel against hardscrabble loud against the desert quiet. The scout dragged his blade through the grit, eyes fixed on his feet. Its just another tree, Chop the roots, pull the stump and we’re done.

But it isn’t just a tree, whispered another voice in the back of his head. And warriors - hah. You know enough Old Kerba to put the lie to that. Kermolia weren’t warriors - they were protectors. He dropped his spade, lifted his head and stared at the sapling, mask falling away from his face. Behind him, a ring of uplifted blades gleamed in the dawn sun…

The blades came down. Chopping through the hardscrabble, shearing through roots and fibres, the blades came down.

And the vines rose.

Screaming, the scout turned to run but a wiry something whipped around his ankle, pulling his foot out from under him. He rolled upright, spitting gravel as he tried to scramble to his feet.

Then the vines came down and everything went black.

——————

The Veiidan patrol returned the next day. They wondered at the criss-crossing of animal tracks leading towards the village. Then they rounded the corner, looked out across the village square and wondered no more.  

A pack of desert dogs fled yelping, leaving their half-finished meal behind. An insistent warbling drone filled the air, dense clouds of insects crawling over oozing fibres and splintered Kerm roots and swarming over the hideously swollen figures sprawled in the dirt. 

Three members of the patrol turned away retching. Their leader stared in stunned disbelief, the blood draining from his face. He walked forward, outstretched fingers reaching for a toppled branch and its clusters of glossy green leaves. A stray fly buzzed into his open mouth and he spat it out, oblivious to the sounds of vomiting behind him. Then he saw - truly saw - the bodies beneath the leaning trunk and the thin, corded vines speared through the writhing black carpets that covered them. 

His gorge rose, disbelief turning to fear laced with sick despair. Stiff-legged, he turned away from the devastation and marched over to the nearby radio hut, the message that would shatter his world already churning through his head.
 

Edited by KSK

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I think I've said this before but ... that happened.

There was me thinking this whole Kerm overpopulation issue was getting out of hand before this.
Whatever happens, I get the feeling from this that if Kerbin is to avoid another age of madness, something drastic will have to be done.
I'll have to check but, wasn't the age of madness the precursor to the age of sail?

Interesting ... but not all that comforting seeing what it came to before stabilising that time around, this time ... it's even more extreme.

Looking forward to what happens next

AviosAdku

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5 hours ago, AviosAdku said:

I think I've said this before but ... that happened.

There was me thinking this whole Kerm overpopulation issue was getting out of hand before this.
Whatever happens, I get the feeling from this that if Kerbin is to avoid another age of madness, something drastic will have to be done.
I'll have to check but, wasn't the age of madness the precursor to the age of sail?

Interesting ... but not all that comforting seeing what it came to before stabilising that time around, this time ... it's even more extreme.

Looking forward to what happens next

AviosAdku

Thanks! For better or for worse, it sounds like the last chapter hit all the intended notes with you!  I'm very curious to find out what you'll make of the next couple of chapters - and the rest of the story for that matter. Exact details are still in flux (and I wouldn't want to post any spoilers in any case) but I think 'something drastic' is a reasonable two word summary. :) 

Incidentally, the Age of Prosperity (although there's an argument for calling it the First Age of Prosperity) was the direct precursor to the Age of Sail. In any case, it was an Age in which the new institutions and social structures created in the aftermath of the Age of Madness became thoroughly embedded in kerbal society - so much so in fact, that they're very largely what present day kerbal society is based on. A wave of Groves spread across the land, driven by the more or less peaceful expansion of Kerm, kerman and kermol populations. The last great Seeding of the Age nearly led to a Second Age of Madness due to a shortage of land for planting new Groves but fortunately for the kerbals there was new land a plenty across the seas.

Driven by  dire need, the Age of Sail began with an explosion of technical and scientific progress in seafaring, navigation, astronomy and any number of related disciplines. However the resultant land grab race by the proto-nations of Kerbin, nearly ended in open warfare. It took the founding of the Council of Twelve Pillars (led by a visionary leader named Jebediah Kerman) and the signing of the Bill of Land to stave off disaster.

The Age of Sail segued into the Second Age of Prosperity - which once again seemed set to end in Kerm overpopulation and another Age of Madness. Once again dire need drove an outpouring of scientific and technical progress and the so-called Age of Fire began with another great leap for kerbal society - the development of spaceflight and the founding of the Kerbal Space Program.

Only time will tell whether this Age will be a second Age of Sail across the new oceans of space - or a descent into the Second Age of Madness.

Edited by KSK

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Ok, thanks for clearing up the timeline, I haven't had time to re-read the relevant chapters so that really helped.

Interesting these cycles that the Kerm/Kerbal symbiotes have gone and continue to go through, different but the same pattern.

"Time moves on but history repeats itself" - James Gurney (I think), Dinotopia

AviosAdku

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14 hours ago, KSK said:

Only time will tell whether this Age will be a second Age of Sail across the new oceans of space - or a descent into the Second Age of Madness.

It's almost as if Time is cyclical... like a wheel or something, or maybe...

Spoiler

Kaka.

:ph34r:

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Heh, indeed. Although I have to confess to channelling McCaffrey here rather than Jordan or King. Have your world ending catastrophes happen just far enough apart that by the time one comes around, the preceding one is more myth than history - or has been reduced to catechisms to be learned by rote without really pondering the meaning behind them.

‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ (George Santayana-1905)

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Hey folks,

Can't remember the last time I posted two updates in such close succession so if you've been away for a while, there's another update to read first. :) For everyone else - the next chapter is up...

 

Shattered

Mama take this badge from me.
I can't use it anymore.
It's getting dark, too dark to see.
Feels like I'm knockin' on heaven's door.

- Bob Dylan.
 

———————

Geysers exploded all around The Shield of Kolus, the enemy gunners coming perilously close to the mark despite her crew’s best efforts at evasion. The forward turrets swung round, returning fire with deafening effect. Dense clouds of cordite smoke wreathed the corvette’s flanks, lit by rippling muzzle flashes as her smaller guns laid down a continuous barrage against the smaller Doreni vessels. Her captain stood impassively on the bridge, issuing orders in a voice loud enough to be heard over the din but never hasty or panicked enough to be called a scream. The younger officers responded in kind, their commander's iron control more than sufficient to stiffen their own spines.

“Their reserves have split, ma’am. Shore radar is picking up two flanking squadrons, they think north-south envelopment.”

“Very good. Signal Pride to fall back; burning barn retreat. Tenacity will close the door once the Doreni have found the mines. Five and Six squadrons to plug the gap.”

“By your orders, Ma’am.”

“Radio?”

“Ma’am?”

“Immediate sitrep for Fleet Commander Gusden. Message begins. Humilisia stands. Reserves committed, Second Fleet engaged but holding.”  And Kolus stands, she added silently. We do not abandon our Kerm nor murder those of the Doreni.

———————

Chadlin pinned the newly minted insignia tabs onto the young kerbal’s collar, the chrome steel circles bisected by their horizontal bars, a deliberate echo of the Doreni flags fluttering above the imposing edifice of the Doreni National Guardhouse behind them. Once a heavily fortified corner of the walls surrounding the Doreni capital, the Guardhouse had been a museum for as long as Chadlin could remember. The irony of its hasty repurposing was not lost on him.

He shook the new officer’s right hand and pressed a ribbon-bound buff envelope into his left. The sombre faced kerbal stepped back and saluted his President, waited for Chadlin’s return salute and marched briskly off the stage. Chadlin’s eyes tracked him for a moment before snapping back to the next soon-to-be officer marching past the rows of assembled dignitaries towards him.

The queue moved forward one space. At its far end, another uniformed kerbal emerged from the Grand Portico and waited, stony-faced, for his commission.

———————

The soldier deposited a last armful of wood by the uprooted tree stump, removed his heavy steel gauze mask and gorget and began stripping off his stained and torn leather jacket.

“The armour worked then?”

The soldier bit back his first response. “Yes, sir. Blighted tree fought like something from the seven smoking hells but the armour held.” He draped his jacket over the stack of branches, casting a baleful glance at their drooping clusters of leaves and unfastened the canvas belt holding his equally battle-scarred padded trousers up. “And that was a just a young one. Begging the platoon leader’s pardon but taking a big one down is going to need a damn sight more than steel gauze and padding. Myself, I’m thinking a backhoe loader would be a start.”

——————

Chadmore surveyed the serried ranks of shivering recruits, all dressed in identical singlets and long shorts despite the weather. He clasped his hands behind his back, tucking his thumbs into the waistband of his own shorts, watching the nearest rows of kerbals coming to ragged attention in response. Preserve me but I never signed up to train cannon fodder. Troop shortage or no blighted troop shortage, I should send half these un-spanked kerblets back to their farms where they can do some good.

“Alright, listen up. My name is flight sergeant Chadmore Kerman. You will refer to me as Sergeant.” Chadmore paused. “I’m gonna spare you the rousing patriotic speech about duty and service and the fine traditions of the Kolan border security forces. You already know why you’re here and I know that neither you, me, nor Kolus has time for that grolnisch. Likewise, I’m gonna spare you the shouty sergeant routine because we don’t have time for that grolnisch either.” 

Chadmore’s eyes bored into the front rank of kerbals. “I have served Kolus in three regionalities, under five different commanders. I have seen kerbals die - some of them by my hand - but you will have noticed that I am not dead. You might want to think about that when I tell you to do something.” He waited for the smirks and nervous laughter, nodding in satisfaction at the utter silence. 

“We’re all grown kerbs here. I’m not expecting perfection - not straight away. You are here to learn and you will screw up. Absorb the lesson, don’t do it again and that’s all you’ll hear from me. But screw up through gross stupidity, through cowardice or through failure to follow an order given by a superior officer…” Chadmore’s voice turned steely. “I trust I make myself understood?”

The response was immediate.

“Very good. Let’s get warmed up - it’s cold out here.

———————

Anti-aircraft fire stitched the sky around them. 

“Kraken 2 calling Joker.”

“I copy, Two. Too much noise around the target anyway - remind me to have a word with Recon when we get home. All sections - break off and return to base.”

Cal listened to his squadmates confirming their manoeuvres. The corner of his mouth twitched at the droll response from one pilot and the rather more frosty reply from their commander. Gil would have been proud of that one. Once again memory threatened to overwhelm him; the sudden roar of static in his headset and his own panicked shout in reply. Oh-Kerm-oh-Kerm-oh-Kerm! Gil’s down - no chute! No chute!

He reached forward and clicked his radio off. 

Ignoring the rapidly intensifying explosions buffeting his aircraft, Cal tipped the Cloudrunner onto one wing, pulling its nose around to point directly at the onrushing anti-aircraft batteries. Easing into a shallow climb, he flicked open the trigger guard on his flight stick, his other hand resting on the throttle. On his dashboard a light turned from green to a sullen pulsating red.

The Cloudrunner leapt forward, pitching down into a screaming dive. Enemy fire punched home in sharp stabbing clangs, ripping open jagged holes in its fuselage. Unperturbed, Cal pulled the trigger and held it down. The cannon under his feet opened up with a roar, far louder than it should have been. Curiously, Cal glanced down through the remains of his cockpit floor, watching the ground hurtling up to meet him. Another shell tore open a wing, shredding cables and other mechanisms beneath. The control stick went slack in his hand as the Cloudrunner teetered on the brink of control before tumbling into a spin. The cannon sprayed shells across the sky, spun on empty for a fraction of a second then shut down, a solid amber light replacing the pulsing red glow on his dashboard.

At last, the Firesvarn gunners scattered from the enemy aircraft scything towards them amidst an expanding cloud of flaming debris. Then steel kissed earth in a cataclysmic embrace. 

The last thing one gunner saw before the fire and darkness enveloped her was the enemy pilot gazing peacefully at her through the bloodied wreckage of his cockpit, a faint half smile still tugging at the corner of his mouth.

——————

“Because it’s desertion, sir. That’s why.”

“No it’s not. We’re staying exactly where we are. We hold the line - just like we were ordered to do. We just won’t be planting any Kerm seeds on our patch of hilltop - and for damn sure we’re not going to be digging up anyone else’s Kerm either. Not if the stories coming out of Veiid are even half true.”

“So what happens if somebody else wants to plant a Kerm on our section of hilltop?” The section leader’s voice stopped carefully short of outright sarcasm.

His lieutenant raised his eyebrows. “Why, we ask them nicely to leave and if asking nicely doesn’t work they can speak to Rifle Kerman here. I’m sure they’ll find him to be an eloquent sort.”

“Reckon a nice baked tuber would speak louder, sir,” the platoon sergeant said. “For our boys anyway. The Firesvarn seffleks can have a short chat with Rifle Kerman there. The Kolan seffleks too for that matter.”

The section leader looked at him in disbelief. “You planning on turning farmer, Sarge?”

“You taken cover behind one too many rocks, son? Or were you planning to live off your rations till the end? Besides, we won’t be farming, we’ll be running a forward operations and logistics base, specialising in field consumables.” The lieutenant flashed his sergeant a tight grin of approval. 

The section leader’s lips thinned. “I’m having no part of this and neither are my squad.”

“Are you disobeying my orders, mister?” The lieutenant’s voice was dangerously quiet. “Insubordination and dereliction of duty in the line of fire?”

“I take orders from my lawful superior officers,” the section leader said coldly. “Not from a deserter.”

The lieutenant’s voice turned bitter. “Those lawful superior officers that sent us halfway up the Bouldertops to die and when that didn’t work, sent us up to the top? No matter how many good kerbals - good comrades - that we lost. And for what? Defending those murderous bjedla trees?” He spat. “That to your lawful superior officers.”

The platoon sergeant raised his sidearm. “I’m sorry about this, son.”

A single flat crack echoed across the hilltop.

——————

“Here you go, boys. Three 905s, a half of T30 and a pint of LV-1 for the driver. Can I get you anything else now?”

“That’s all thanks, Jorfurt.” The speaker took a long pull of his 905 and wiped the foam from his lips. Once the landlord was safely out of earshot, he turned back to his companions. “So who’s with me? Head to the hills and find a bit of land we can call our own? Keep ourselves away from the fighting with no Kerm to threaten us neither.”

“I’m in. Never figured on becoming a farmer until I went back to the old Grove.” The voice shuddered. “But I never figured on needing to escape from killer Kerm either.”

“You’ll need to show me which end of the spade goes in the dirt, but I’m in. Should be a tidy profit in it too, selling Kerm free food. Specially now that import restrictions have gotten so Blighted tight with all the seed checks.

The eldest kerbal straightened her poncho collar and looked up at her companions. “Guess you’ll need somebody to tell you what to plant and to go inside when it starts raining. I’m in.”

The last kerbal took a sip of his LV-1. “I suppose so,” he said. “World’s moving on and not for the better. I remember when you’d come in here of an evening and find half the KIS at the bar, talking about spaceships and Mun rockets and all that.” He gestured around the room at the quiet knots of drinkers sitting by themselves. “Not any more.”

“Nope. Young Jeb got himself to the Mun, we got a lot of fine words from the government and not much else.” The eldest kerbal tapped her glass of T30 stout on the drum-like table in front of them. “I remember when Jeb brought these in for Jorfurt’s birthday present. Made of genuine recycled rocket parts he said. Wonder what happened to to him.”
 

Edited by KSK

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