KSK

First Flight (Epilogue and Last Thoughts)

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Posted (edited)

Next chapter is up, with another one to follow shortly, once I've left enough time to avoid them being merged by the forum software. A big thanks as always to @CatastrophicFailure for editing, proofreading and generally knocking things into shape.

Fair warning - this one gets dark in more ways than one. It follows on directly from the end of the last chapter.

 

To Walk Amongst Them

“You might want to reconsider that, my friend.” The commander’s voice held an edge of steel.

The kerbal in front of them looked down the rifle barrels pointed directly at his head and laughed. “As I said - cowards. Unworthy to set foot inside She who watches over us.” He raised his arms and five Kerm vines erupted around him in a shower of earth. Three of them snaked over to the figure still lying prone on the ground, the other two rose to caress his fingertips, before bending and unfurling into a double ring of needle-sharp teeth. Slowly, almost languorously, the glistening inner tendrils emerged and waved at the commander.

“I am the Speaker to the Unworthy.” He gave the commander a mocking smile, before prodding the fallen figure with his toe. “I could kill her with a thought. I could kill all of them with a thought.” Two of the tendrils twisted together into a point. The vines on the ground curled around the prone figure’s head and plucked the circlet of leaves from her brow.  “And as for you, your foolish masks will not save you here.”

Something glinted from the eaves of the Keeper hut and Gusemy looked up sharply.

“Stand down.” The commander’s voice was suddenly ragged. The Veiidans lowered their weapons, fear showing in more than one pair of eyes. Their sergeant took a step back, her tongue moistening the corner of her mouth.

Gusemy cleared his throat. “It would be a difficult shot for me,” he said. “But I don’t imagine it would present a challenge to any of my companions.” He pointed at the hut in the centre of the clearing. “Your Keeper is good but she will find it rather harder to control the vines without a camera to see them with.” He gave the Veiidan commander a grim look. “With that level of control, we’re dealing with a Kerm which can see through its Keeper’s eyes and is intelligent enough to take instructions.”

The commander’s eyes widened. “Awakened then. But the Children wouldn’t break the law of…” He turned back to the crowd and the look on his face caused his sergeant to take another step back. Behind her, the Veiidan troops raised their weapons again. “I don’t know what you’ve done here,  but you will take me to your Keeper. Now.”

To his utter astonishment, the other gave him a lopsided smile that wasn’t quite a sneer. “Are you sure you want to, my kermbal minsathona? We are not blasphemers here, who would break the most sacred Law. We keep to the old ways – the forgotten ways.”

“Enough of this!” The commander whirled and pointed at four of his troops. “You, you, you and you. With me. And you, Ambassador.” He beckoned Gusemy over before spinning round to face the Children. “Let’s go.”

One of the waving vines bobbed up and down in an unmistakeable nod. The Speaker looked at the soldiers, malice dancing behind his eyes. “Let us go indeed.” He walked over to the hut, flung open the door and bowed. “After you, good kerbals.”

The four Veiidans piled through, Gusemy and their commander close behind. They found themselves in a wedge-shaped room, with doors on both of the long walls and a Kerm trunk visible at the far end. A sparsely furnished kitchen area ran down one side of the room and a scattering of homespun sack chairs around a low table occupied the other side. The cinnamon laden air caught the back of Gusemy’s throat making him cough.

The commander waved two of his squad over to one door and took up a position at the opposite door with the others. He gave a low whistle and both doors crashed open, propelled by the shoulders of the largest soldiers. Gusemy hurried in after them and stopped in dismay.

In the middle of the room by the Kerm trunk, a naked kerbal sat on a hewn wooden throne, her modesty preserved by a short loincloth and the profusion of vines wrapped around her legs and waist. Her head rested against a forked branch, swathed in multiple clusters of Kerm leaves.

Gusemy glanced around the room, barely hearing the pungent oath from one of the troopers as he took in the rows of bunks curving out from either side of the throne, each of them occupied by a small white-robed figure, head nestled within a leaf cluster. Almost absently, he noticed their blank-eyed stares, their sandaled feet barely reaching the end of their bunks. Then his mind caught up with what his eyes were telling him and the acrid taste of bile rose in the back of his suddenly heaving throat.

“Why?”

He was answered by creaking branches and a gust of cinnamon. Then an all-too-kerbal voice replied from amidst the Kerm leaves.

“This one I speak through was the first. The older ones broke and were shed but the young ones were resilient. They joined with me and then they became me.”

“Who are you? What are you?” The commander spoke through clenched teeth, whether through anger or the need to control his own stomach, Gusemy couldn’t tell.

“I have no need of names. I am Kerm.”

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

Outside the hut, the five vines whisked back under the soil. The kerbal on the ground picked herself up and looked around warily. The Speaker waited for a moment then, when the vines remained out of sight, raised his arms to the sky.

"She calls! To me, my brethren - to me!"

At his cry, the still-silent crowd came to life, scurrying towards the Keeper's hut, which was rapidly surrounded by a ring of bodies several kerbals deep. One figure, robes streaked with dirt and her cheek still sticky with saliva squirmed her way to the front door where she stood behind the Speaker.

"Clear the entrance!" The Veiidan sergeant cocked her weapon. "Clear the Blighted entrance!" Seeing no movement from the crowd, she fired a single shot over the hut roof.

"Stand and be true, my brethren! They cannot harm us in Her sight!" The Speaker folded his arms over his chest. "Would you kill us all? Females and children too? I named you well, coward."

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

A small part of Gusemy's mind began to pick out the details in what he was seeing. The rivulet of drool escaping from the corner of the Keeper's mouth, eyes staring at a screen suspended from the ceiling. The splashes of colour adorning the wrists of the motionless kerblets on their bunks. The Kerm vines openly coiling around bedsteads and kerbal flesh alike.

"...so many kerbals. I only have so many vines and most are needed to keep their bodies alive. But there are always more kerbals, and with care..."

The Keeper's gaze snapped round. A wet, tearing noise plucked at Gusemy's ears followed by the thump of bodies hitting the ground. They convulsed, bloodstains blooming against the whiteness of their robes, then lay still.

"...I may regain the use of enough vines for the purpose."

Gore streaked tendrils slashed at Gusemy, the needles around their base strung with gobbets of tissue and shreds of green skin. With an inarticulate cry he reeled back, arms thrown up to shield his face. The needles scored parallel grooves across his sleeve, snagged against his elbow pad and ripped free.

Hit the dirt and let my lot deal with it..  Gusemy dropped to the floor, arms curling protectively around his head. He felt a second and then a third vine lash against his armour before coiling around his boot and pulling. Panic rising, he kicked out with his other leg, scissoring one boot against the other. The insidious tugging relaxed and he rolled away, yells and then barked commands sounding overhead. He crashed into the side of a bunk, swearing as he struck his head, and then gunfire made any further thought impossible.

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

Despite himself, the Speaker flinched at the gunshot, it's deafening retort only slightly muffled by the hut wall. "Stand, my Brethren! The Vines will protect us!" Sporadic shots crashed out, accompanied by shouts and yells. "Feel their panic! Smell their fear of Her wrath!"

The crowd began to shuffle, twitching at the muffled sounds of combat from inside the hut, flinching at every shouted order. The Speaker’s gaze flicked from side to side. "Stand! Or be forever cast out as Unworthy!"

Another burst of gunfire crashed out and the crowd broke. Seizing their opportunity, the Veiidans charged, knocking fleeing figures aside as they went, before kicking down the hut door and dashing inside.

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

He ran.

Ignoring the fleeing Children around him, doing his best to ignore the furious cries and promises of eternal suffering at Her hands, he ran. Part of him flinched with shame at every screeched imprecation, knowing that deep down at the core of his being, he was indeed unworthy. Another part of him noted the lack of pursuing vines and knew that his worst fears had come true.

The forest enfolded him, vast and comforting, and yet another part of him slipped into the familiar routines, avoiding fallen twigs that would give him away, skirting around the animal trails, stepping around the soft ground that could reveal a stray boot-print, snatching up a handful of mud to smear over his clothing or a fallen bough to brush out the signs of his passing.

The Unworthy were not lacking in skills of their own but they did not have his intimate knowledge of this forest. He wormed his way into a patch of thorny bushes and waited, mud-smeared clothing blending in with the shadows. Eventually, satisfied that the chase had been abandoned, he drifted back to the village breaking off every so often to circle his own trail, alert to any signs of lingering pursuit.

Creeping from tree to tree he made his way to the edge of the village clearing, anger rising at the sight of his brethren herded like kaya and watched over by stony-eyed Unworthy.  Then he caught sight of the white-robed figures laid out in a row in front of the hut and anger congealed into fear.

Even without the bands of green at her collar, the very size of one figure, when set against the rest of the Blessed, would have been enough to give her away as his Keeper. His eyes flitted from one set of forlorn robes to the next, scanning the patches of colour at their sleeves. A flash of yellow caught his eye and he stiffened.

The chequered band seemed to taunt him, its uneven pattern a mute testament to his inexperienced needlework. He felt her arms around his neck, her voice reassuring him that the Kerm wouldn't mind and that she didn't care anyway because yellow was her favourite colour.

Fear erupted into blazing fury. He tensed, lips writhing in a silent snarl, poised to hurl himself at his tormentors, hooked fingers ready to gouge and tear until the cowards could finally put an end to him.

Don't be silly, Daddy.

The fury collapsed. Shaking with grief and self-loathing he crawled back into the forest.

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

The cars drew up at Jonton's front gate. He watched the driver climb out, followed by a pale-haired kerbal whom he recognised as Gusemy's aide. Finally, the ambassador himself emerged, face drawn with weariness and something else that Jonton couldn't put a name to.

After a strained lunch, during which the ambassador's mind was very obviously on other things, his staff retired to their rooms upstairs. Gusemy stood listening, head on one side, then at the quiet click of two closing doors, turned to face Jonton. "Is Elton available?"

"I spoke to him immediately after your telephone call. He's expecting us."

"Good. I have no desire - or intention - of going through this twice."

Jonton nodded and held open the sleep room door. "After you, Ambassador." He watched Gusemy approaching his bunk with a curious reluctance, lips moving soundlessly as he arranged his pillows and lay down. For a long moment he stared at Elton's leaf cluster over his head with what looked like revulsion before finally closing his eyes and submitting to their touch. Brow furrowed with concern, Jonton lay down on his own bed and joined them.

He emerged above a similarly furrowed mindscape, which thrummed across his nerves like the air before a thunderstorm. A dark, hunched figure stood alone, tension radiating from him in waves. Jonton sensed Elton's presence maintaining a discreet distance and wondered why the Kerm wasn't doing more to reassure the obviously distressed ambassador.

<I have tried. Any closer and my presence causes him too much fear to contain>

Fear?

<I do not understand either, First of my Keepers. I would have you ask him, kerbal to kerbal, whilst I listen from a distance>

I think that might be for the best. Jonton broke his private connection to Elton, letting himself drift forward towards Gusemy.

“Is he listening?”

Yes, but he's promised not to come any closer. He seems to think you'd prefer it that way.

Given the choice, I'd prefer to be as far away as possible from any Kerm, let alone a sapient one. A harsh laugh scraped across their mental link. But since when have my duties ever been so obliging. Gusemy gathered himself. You told him the release word?

Yes, and he will honour it, although he doesn't understand why it should be necessary

He will. You both will. Black loathing flooded down the link like a tide of raw sewage and Jonton swallowed the bile that rose in his own throat in response. But I can promise that neither of you will like it.

An image of armoured figures standing around an olive green off-roader appeared.

I'd been working with the neo-Kerman - visiting their camps and doing what I could to persuade them that we were serious about giving them a voice before the One-Twenty. We thought - hoped - that we could also persuade the Children of Kerbin that were serious about throwing ourselves on the wisdom of the Kerm...

As the final image of discreetly covered corpses being gently lifted into the back of that same off-roader, faded away, Gusemy felt his mental links with Jonton and Elton widen fractionally and then a little further, the Kerm clearly trusting that he'd be able to keep his emotions in check once more. The mindscape had turned a uniform slate grey, ominous thunderheads building up in the distance, sensed rather than seen.

Why? Jonton shook his head. Wrong question. How?

From what we learned speaking to the villagers, a wilful and reckless lack of control. Jonton sensed that the ambassador was deliberately retreating behind formal language. We already knew that a sizeable faction of the Children held a... romanticised view of a kerbal's place before their Kerm and apparently that was reinforced by your historical revelations. Gusemy felt Jonton blanch. I'm afraid so - at least one of this particular village had Communed with you which, unfortunately, reinforced their worldview. Even more unfortunately, it introduced them to the notion of mass-Communing as part of that worldview.

I'm not sure I like where this is going.

No. They revelled in their first mass Communion believing it to be a long-lost gift from the Kerm. Secure in that belief, they made no effort to damp down their emotions. In retrospect they were lucky that the mental feedback didn't kill them. Given the depths of madness that feedback eventually led them to, it would have been better if it had.

A whiff of sewage trickled down the link.

Sorry.  Word of their rediscovered Kerm gift leaked out and in time their village became the hidden centre of a cult of Kerm worship. Which is how we eventually learned about it of course. What we didn't reckon on was the effect of years of uninhibited mass Communion. At some point - we don't know when or how - they decided that the true reason for the historically documented mass Communion was to raise their Kerm to new heights without breaking the most sacred Law of Thirty Seven.

Instead of adding the mental capacity of a thirty-eighth tree to Awaken their Kerm, they used kerbal minds instead. The mindscape around Jonton's presence turned pitch black.

Yes. Gusemy's mental voice was toneless. They gave themselves willingly, even when the first volunteers died. Then they gave their own children to the cause and, for the honour of serving the Kerm, they went willingly too. Apparently younger minds were flexible enough not to break under the strain.

Lightning flared in the distance and Gusemy wasn't sure whether the growling roll of thunder that followed was a leak from Elton's thoughts or his former Keeper's.

Were they an-Kerm?

We don't know, Gusemy replied. Nobody tried Communing with it to find out. I suppose it’s possible though. He paused and Jonton sensed his unease rolling down their link.  And the worst of it is that I can't get rid of the idea that they were right - about mass Communion I mean.

<no> The negation was absolute. <I cannot speak for all Kerm but my kerbals were free to join with me and leave as they wished - unharmed> Images of prehistoric kerbal villages flickered around them. <young kerbals made the best fighters and were needed to make more kerbals. I do not think that any Kerm would have thought to use them in that way>

No Kerm would have, Gusemy thought privately.

<you were wise not to Commune with the insane one. If there are any kerbals sharing its mindscape there may be ways to speak to them but they will be dangerous. I would speak of this to the One-Twenty when they Awaken but until then, no kerbal should go near it.>

I don't believe that anyone will argue with that.

And any kerblets still in Communion with it will be physically safe, Jonton added. It needs to keep them alive after all.

I suppose that is some small comfort. Although the thought of those poor souls left in the middle of nowhere, in thrall to.... A wave of desolation rolled out across Elton's mindscape.

<I will speak with the One-Twenty and any kerbal who wishes to join our talk. We will rescue them if we can>

Gusemy sighed. I know. Could you release our link please, Guardian. I would like to be alone for a while.

<you are welcome to join me again whenever you wish. But until then, farewell, Ambassador>

Gusemy's presence faded and then vanished into nothingness. Jonton felt their connection dwindle and then break. Do you think they have any chance?

<the young ones who became a part of the insane one? No. A part of them may live on as memories within its memories but I think the rest of them will be lost>

That's what I thought. We have to try though.

<yes> The Kerm seemed strangely distracted. <I would speak to you of another matter now, first of my Keepers>

Of course - what is it?

<Gerselle>

Jonton froze. The mindscape around him remained a bleak, formless grey. What about her?

A vast sadness pressed against Jonton's consciousness. <my daughter and I searched everywhere but could only find a poor few of her memories - and our memories of her. But Gerselle is gone. She too is lost>

 

<< Chapter 110     Chapter 112>>

 

Edited by KSK

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Posted (edited)

And as promised, the next chapter is up. For anyone just joining us, this is part 2 of a twofer.

 

Legacy

She acts like summer and walks like rain
Reminds me that there's a-time to change…

But tell me. Did the wind sweep you off your feet?
Did you finally get the chance to dance along the light of day?
And head back to the Milky Way

Train – Drops of Jupiter

 

Elton's words were muffled and indistinct, as if heard from the far end of a dark tunnel. Unseen, a line of trees sprouted across the mindscape and a part of Jonton gradually became aware of another sadness brushing against himself and Elton.

<Jonton?> A tentative mental voice spoke from the blackness. <I could not find Gerselle so I let my father share my soil and my thoughts. He could not find her either>

The trees vanished, leaving a thin red line of star poppies behind. Hosts of Kerm fibres crawled towards the line from both sides and mingled with one another, leaving the poppies intact.

<We preserved what we could of her, First of my Keepers> Elton’s mental voice was only slightly less tentative than his daughter’s. <when you are ready, we can share them with you>

In a dark corner of the back of Jonton’s mind, a wall of interlocking sparks stood defiant against the enemy swarms. The sparks flickered out, replaced by a devastated sunfruit field. He stared at the poppy line, iridescently alive despite the Kerm fibres writhing beneath them and finally grasped what Jonelle was telling him.

Jonton hunted through the emotional thicket of his own mind, reaching for words but falling short. Thank you, he said at last, trusting to the Communion link to share his tangled feelings with the two Kerm.

He sensed a flicker of thought from Elton and a younger version of himself appeared, standing scowling in front a Kerm sapling, ready to ward off any threat. A copse of other saplings sprouted around them, glowing with a soft inner light. The younger Jonton staggered and was caught by an outgrowing branch as the light surrounded them. Understanding and sympathy flooded the combined mindscapes in verdant hues and even in Communion, the elder Jonton felt tears flowing freely down his cheeks.

The light engulfed him washing away the images with the pearlescent white of a new Communion link and shrank down to a pinprick, in response to an unspoken need. The pinprick vanished; Elton’s last words a whispered echo in his ears.

<when you are ready…>

Jonton sat up and wiped his eyes. He looked up to find Gusemy sitting cross-legged on his bunk, staring at the wall. For a while they both sat in silence, each with his own thoughts, before the ambassador roused himself. “Preserve me but I’m glad that’s over, although I doubt it’ll stop the nightmares.” He caught sight of Jonton’s expression. “I did promise that you wouldn’t like it.”

“No.” Jonton opened his mouth, then closed it again. “I’m sorry, Ambassador, Elton had some bad news for me. Not as bad as yours or bad but in a different way, a closer to home way.” He buried his head in his hands. “Luckily it’s not far away. Gerselle’s family’s Grove that is. Not far to take her home.”

Gusemy’s forehead wrinkled in puzzlement for a second before a sympathetic expression settled over his face. “She was kerbal,” he said simply. “My condolences.”

“Thanks.” Jonton didn’t look up. “Stupid of me really – she’s been as good as gone for so long.”

“But you never quite lose hope.”

“No. Deep-down, I guess I always hoped that she’d find herself somewhere in there,” Jonton gestured at the Kerm branches criss-crossing the ceiling, “and Awaken, like Elton and all the others.”

Gusemy rested his forehead on his knuckles. “That doesn’t bode well for those poor…” He set his thoughts firmly to one side. “Not the time. Sorry.” He looked at Jonton. “I’ll need to pass this up to the Council, I’m afraid. Any Awakening related fatalities have to be reported and learned from.” He saw anger flare in the former an-Kerm’s eyes, which faded to a defeated acceptance. “ I didn’t know her as well as Erlin did – but if he cannot be here, I would also be honoured to carry a spade for her.”

“And Gerselle would be honoured in return.” Jonton said mechanically, before shaking his head. “Thank you, Gusemy – that means a lot to me.”

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

Jonton stood in the corner of his sleep room and watched Joenie brushing Gerselle’s hair. It fanned out over the pillows, the sunlight catching against a faint waviness that he didn’t remember being there before. Joenie knelt by her mother’s head, bent over her task and ignoring her silent father. She leaned back and examined her work with a critical eye before gathering up one side of Gerselle’s hair into three tresses and began plaiting them.

Oh. Jonton closed his eyes, wondering how many times Joenie had to have braided and brushed out her mother’s hair to put a permanent wave into it. By the time he opened them, one plait lay flat against Gerselle’s neck, the end tied off with a length of black ribbon, and Joenie was kneeling on the other side of the bed, hairbrush rising and falling.

“You’re very good at this.”

Joenie didn’t bother looking up. “I’ve done it before.”

“I know. I’ve heard you. Just sometimes though, when you forgot where that squeaky floorboard was.” He saw his daughter’s shoulders tense up. “It’s alright, sweetheart. I’d have been more worried if you hadn’t been finding time to spend with your Mum.”

The brush stopped moving. “Why didn’t she wake up, Dad?”

For a long moment, Jonton didn’t trust himself to speak. “I don’t know. I wish I did.”

Jonton! Help me…J…

He gritted his teeth, Gerselle’s last, terrified cry ringing in his ears. “I wish we’d never tried to awaken her,” he whispered to himself.

“Dad?”

“I thought she would wake up one day, but Elton was right.” He looked at Joenie. “He and Jonelle tried everything but…”

“They couldn’t help.” Joenie’s voice was flat.

“No. They couldn’t bring her back.” He watched his daughter finishing off the second braid. “I hate to do this sweetheart, but we need to ask Jonelle to take her vines out before the funeral. She’ll be as gentle as she can – I know she will.”

“I don’t think I want to see that. Can we tie her sheet on, Dad, in case it falls off?”

“Of course we can.” Jonton walked over to her and sat down cross-legged beside her, staring unseeingly at the vines curled around the bedframe. “I don’t think I want to see it either.” He plucked at the sheet, twisting a fold of it between his fingers. “I’m not sure that tying it on will help though. I’ll be back in a minute.” Glad of something to do, he patted Joenie on the shoulder before leaving the room and returning with his mending basket. “Let’s start by tucking the sheet in, as much as we can. I’ll do this side and you do the other one? Don’t pull it too tight – I’m going to cut out some windows for the vines.”

“Okay.” Joenie set to work. Jonton waited until she was finished before smoothing the sheet over Gerselle and tucking it in on his side. “That’s good. I’m going to need two pairs of hands for the next bit. Can you hold it here? Little bit further from the vine? Perfect.” He retrieved a fabric pen from the basket and made a mark. “Same on the other side… and a mark across the top.” He looked at Joenie anxiously. “Are you alright doing this?”

“No. Not really. But I don’t really want to talk to Jonelle right now and I don’t know what else to do.”

Jonton nodded. “That’s about how I feel too, sweetheart. Come on – the quicker we get this part done, the quicker we can go into the living room and finish it off. Maybe over a sapwood coffee or a prickleberry juice and mint?”

“I suppose.” Joenie shook her head before giving him a wan smile. “Sorry. That would be nice, Dad.”

Presently, the sheet covering Jonelle was decorated with a fringe of pen marks. Jonton stood up and helped Joenie to her feet. “I’m going to take the sheet off now. Do you want to go and make a drink and I’ll come through in a minute?”

Joenie nodded and left the room, closing the door behind her. walked over to the bed, pressed his fingers to his lips and brushed them against Jonelle’s cheek. “She’s so very much like you, you know,” he said softly. “She’s going to make us both proud – I just wish you were here to watch her do it.” He slid the sheet off her, being careful not to snag it against any of Jonelle’s vines, and gazed at his wife’s closed eyes.

“That’s no good.” Jonton fetched the covers from the spare bed and draped them over her, tears prickling the back of his own eyes. “Couldn’t just leave you there getting cold.” He balled up the sheet, hands knotted within the tangle of fabric. “Just… couldn’t do it. I’m sorry, I’m not doing this very well.”

You’re doing it just fine, seeing as you’re keeping it together for my daughter and my father.

“I should go and help Joenie.”

Why don’t you do just that, Jonton Kermol.

Jonton inhaled deeply, letting his breath out through his mouth. Then he slung the sheet over his shoulder, picked up his mending basket and left the room.

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

He walked into the living room to find Meleny and Adbas sitting with a red-eyed, Joenie, both hands wrapped around a mug of juice. Giving Meleny a grateful look, he spread the sheet out on the floor and began cutting along one of the pen marks decorating its border. Meleny watched him cut out a strip of fabric and set it to one side before starting on the next set of marks.

“Do you have any spare scissors?”

Jonton didn’t look up from his work. “Two, I think.”

“Just right for these two spare pairs of hands sitting next to me. This is for Gerselle isn’t it?”

Jonton nodded.

“I thought so. Now why don’t you hand over your scissors to me and make yourself useful putting a hem down that slot you’ve just cut. If we’re going to do this, let’s make a proper job of it. Adbas – you start on that side. Joenie – you go and work on your Dad’s side, and I’ll start here.”  

She received a watery grin in reply. Adbas gave Joenie an anxious look as she sat down beside her father, before taking up his own scissors and peering at the edge of the sheet. Jonton retrieved a needle from his basket and began threading it.

By the time that Thombal arrived, scissors had been swapped for needles and thread all round. He took a seat in the corner and watched Adbas finish a line of stitches, tongue poking from the corner of his mouth.

“Finished, Mum.”

“I’m finished too.” Joenie put her needle back in its box and sat cross-legged on the floor, staring at her feet.

“I think we’re all done.” Jonton put his own needle away before tidying up everyone else’s tools and gathering up the sheet. “Thanks, Meleny, thank you, Adbas.” He squeezed Joenie’s shoulder briefly before getting to his feet. “I’ll be back in a moment.”

After a murmured conversation with Joenie, Adbas, disappeared into the garden, leaving Meleny and Thombal in an awkward silence that was only broken by Jonton’s reappearance.

“You can come through now, if you’d like.”

They followed him into sleep room, to find Gerselle’s body draped with the sheet, its edges tucked neatly away, and Jonelle’s vines disappearing under it through the hand-stitched slits. Thombal and Meleny bowed their heads in respect, before Adbas tiptoed in and handed Joenie a pair of flowers. She stepped forward, jaw clenched, and arranged them on her mother’s chest, bowing her own head for a moment before walking back to her father’s side.

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

The day of the funeral dawned bright and clear.

The lack of funeral cars available for hire, even to the Sage of Barkton, had been a sobering reminder that, for so many others outside his Grove, life was only just beginning to return to normal after the war. In the end he had made do with Fredlorf’s old tractor and trailer, both cleaner than the day they’d been bought, and draped in black. Somewhat to his surprise, Gerselle’s father had wholeheartedly approved of the impromptu arrangements, reminding anyone in earshot that his daughter had been a hard-working lumberkerb before she became a Keeper.

Atop the trailer, Gerselle’s body lay in repose, wrapped in the traditional white linen on a bower of fresh Kerm branches donated by both Elton and Jonelle.

In one Grove, villagers lined the sides of the road to bid farewell to their Keeper. In another, they turned out to the last kerblet to escort one of their own to her final resting place. They walked alongside the trailer, the muted rumble of the tractor’s electric motor providing a sombre accompaniment to their footsteps.

At the end of the field, at the edge of the Grove proper, the sweetblossom pole stood against the skyline, the officiant’s podium already set up in front of it. The tractor drove through the gate and stopped; its escorts already making their way across the field to take their places by the graveside, leaving six figures standing by themselves.

Jonton climbed onto the trailer and lifted one end of the bower. Fredlorf and Thombal caught the other end, passing it back hand-over-hand to where Gusemy and Enely stood ready. The four bearers stepped back, careful to keep their burden level, to give Jonton and Ferry room to climb down and take up their end of the bower.

They marched across the field in lockstep, all heads turning to follow them as they made their way through the centre of the rows of villagers and set down the bower by the graveside. Jonton knelt by Gerselle’s side for the last time, picked up her burial mask from its Kerm wood stand and gently placed it over her face.

Six black ropes were tied onto the bower frame, the bearers taking the strain and then lowering it into the ground, the eyes of the mourners upon them all the while. The village Keeper bowed to Jonton from behind the podium. He counted the spades set out in a row beside him and cleared his throat.

“Good kerbals. We are gathered here today to celebrate the life and mourn the passing of Gerselle Kermol. She was kerbal, and as she came forth from her Grove, so in the presence of us all, does she return…”

Jonton let the words flow over him, soothing in their rhythm and intent. As they came to an end, he picked up his spade and waited for the remaining four bearers to join him. Head down, he scooped up a load of earth and sprinkled it over Gerselle’s mask, before the others joined him with their own spadesful of soil.

The eulogies seemed interminable, the line of mourners from both his and Gerselle’s villages moving slowly forward to be introduced to the crowd and handed the microphone. Jonton was surprised, and touched, by the messages from President Obrick and Chief Ambassador Donman. Then, all too soon, the last villager stepped down from the podium and the Keeper was beckoning him forward.

“Good kerbals.”

“I thank you all for your kind words today. My name is Jonton Kermol and Gerselle was my beloved and irreplaceable wife. She leaves me an equally beloved - and just as irreplaceable – daughter, Joenie Kermol.” Jonton looked up to see Joenie staring back at him, clutching Meleny’s hand.

“I cannot possibly hope to say anything that hasn’t already been said about Gerselle today but I would ask you to remember that in a very real way, she leaves us all with so many more sons and daughters. The Kerm awakening across three, maybe four now, Regionalities,” Jonton’s shoulders lifted. “They too are her children – and her legacy.”

 

<< Chapter 111     Chapter 113>>

Edited by KSK

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All caught up.

Excellent work. I'm glad you've written this.

 

In case you're wondering, it took 6 days to read it all.

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Kerm, that's rough. :(

I admit, there's a part of me that never gave up hope... but now, finally...

Poor Joenie.  And Jonton.  Kerm watch over them both.

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Posted (edited)

@Tetragramm. You're very welcome! Thanks for dropping by to say so although I can't quite believe that First Flight takes six days to get through now. 

And thanks to @CatastrophicFailure and @Commander Zoom. Sounds like that last chapter wasn't much easier to read than it was to write. :( 

And speaking of writing, the next chapter is just over 2,000 words to the good. 

Edited by KSK

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I've been gone for a while and honestly hoped to find a bunch more to catch up on, tho I can't say I'm disappointed!

Can't wait for more!

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@KSK I just started rereading this after having stopped following it for several years. FYI, the links in the 'Artwork and Crafts' section of the first post are all old-style forum links and thus do not work.

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Welcome back! Good to see you again!

Those links should be fixed now - let me know if there's still any problems.

You picked a good time for a re-read - it's been a long while coming but we're almost done with this pile of words...

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Posted (edited)

@KSK Glad to be back! (All thanks to @Brotoro, BTW; I logged back in for the first time in years to reread his Long-Term Laythe series.) And thanks for fixing those links. Though I just noticed the 'The Fan Works Library' link in your signature is also an old-style, and thus broken, forum link.

Also, it looks like @Yukon0009's lovely fanart has been adversely affected by the changes to Photobucket's changes in hotlinking policy for free accounts. I see he is still an active forum member, though, so I shall PM him to inform him of this degradation.

 

Apologies for what is likely to be a string of multiposting by me. As I mentioned in my previous post, I'm starting a much-needed reread of this fic from the beginning. Due to this forum software's lack of support for saved drafts, multi-quote, or raw BBCode editing, it won't be practical to save all my comments and replies for one big post at the end; I'll have to post them as I go (though I'll try to collect at least a few thread-pages' worth at a time to keep the numbers down somewhat).On that note, does anyone know any way that you can use the 'Quote selection' function without it automatically scrolling down to the bottom of the page?

Edit: Correction: This forum does support multi-quote, but only of whole posts, not highlighted selections.

Also, apologies, @KSK, if I end up explaining things to you that you already know perfectly well; long experience editing fanfiction online has taught me to assume that every error is the result of ignorance of the underlying rule, and to accompany every correction with an explanation of why it's wrong and how to fix that error in the general case, until conclusively proven otherwise.

 

Prologue:

On 6/1/2013 at 12:40 PM, KSK said:

He sighed. The reality of course was rather different. A rusty launch tower constructed from old scaffolding. A bunker full of worn out monitors and other abandoned electronic gear. And a last ditch attempt at a rocket that they had built from whatever junk they could scavenge up and weld together. Wernher's original LV-1 engine had proven far far more difficult to scale up than any of them had imagined. Getting the stability augmentation system to work had eventually been an exercise in stubbornness rather than elegant engineering. And as for the decouplers.

Geneney shook his head. Best not to think about the wretched decouplers.

He reached the first of the launch clamps and inspected it carefully. The rocket loomed above him, a battered metal cylinder with a tangle of plumbing at the base, connected to the familiar ribbed shape of the LV-15 engine bell. Four RT-5 solid fuel boosters attached to the sides by explosive bolts and a simple capsule secured to the top with more explosive bolts completed this most unlikely looking spacecraft. In Geneney's opinion 'booster' was an optimistic name for a squat drum of firework propellant with a cone attached to the bottom. As for sticking them on with explosive bolts...

I have to say, I really like how this description really captures the image of a clunky, low-tech rocket. I can't help but envision the Kerbal 1 as being made out of the old pre-0.16 rocket parts - the tiny Mk1 Pod atop the old Liquid Fuel Tank, surrounded by Solid Rocket Boosters. (Though, now I think about it, this may be a case of perspective shift; to me reading this now, those parts are a dimly-remembered relic of the Old Days, but this was written in June 2013, less than a year after the big part remodels of 0.16 and 0.18, when those parts would have been considered superseded and obsolete but not particularly old.)

 

Ch. 1:

On 6/8/2013 at 4:59 PM, KSK said:

Jeb jumped down off the running board and came to join him. "Things have changed quite a bit since you were here last haven't they?" he said with a grin. Ornie shook his head. "Has the whole town gone rocket crazy?" he asked. "I've only been away for a couple of days and I come back to find crowds outside the gate, a building site in here..."

Need a paragraph break between 'grin' and 'Ornie'; right now you've got two people speaking in the same paragraph.

 

Ch. 2:

On 6/9/2013 at 3:33 PM, KSK said:

Botse - that means a lot. 'Voyage to Jool" is epic - I'm more than happy to be in that sort of company.

Is this referring to [AAR] Odysseus: Voyage to Jool by RogueMason, or is there another fanwork of a similar name?

 

Ch. 3:

On 6/24/2013 at 9:29 AM, KSK said:

Doesn't much matter how big the plan is but Geneney needs to know that you've thought about how to get from where we are now to where he wants to be. Sitting in the Kerbal 2 waiting for launch.

Should be 'where he wants to be: sitting in the'

 

Ch. 5:

On 6/29/2013 at 9:58 AM, KSK said:

"In a manner of speaking," replied Jeb, “I met Roncott anyway. Good to meet you too, Camrie!"

He raised his eyebrows, "Filing cabinets, Genie?"

First, while this isn't actually an error, these should probably be one paragraph. When you have a conversation - i.e. a block of text which is mostly quotations and represents two character speaking back and forth - generally each new paragraph represents a switch to the other character as the active character, i.e. the one talking or doing the actions, but here both successive paragraphs are about Jeb. This is compounded by the fact that the second paragraph identifies Jeb only by a pronoun which, because both characters are male, doesn't uniquely distinguish them.

Second (and this is an error, though a minor one), the comma after 'eyebrows' should be a period. When you have a sentence of narration followed by a quotation, you only end the narration with a comma if it's a dialogue tag for the quote. For example:

Quote

Alice said, "Let there be light!"

Bob shook his head. "We're out of candles."

In the first line, you use a comma, because that's actually all one sentence - 'Let there be light!', while a complete sentence in itself, it in this case the thing that Alice is saying. In the second line, you use a period, because 'Bob shook his head' is a complete sentence. 'We're out of candles.' is an entirely separate, also complete sentence; the fact that its wrapped in quotation marks tells the reader that it is being spoken aloud, and the fact that it is in the same paragraph as Bob doing an action tells you who is speaking it.

Finally, the comma after 'Jeb' should also be a period. While 'replied Jeb' is a dialogue tag, it's trailing a dialogue tag for the quotation before it (which is why there's a comma after 'speaking' and 'replied' isn't capitalized), and is grammatically unconnected from the quotation after it. The only time you have a trailing dialogue tag with a comma like that is when the quotation before it ends with an incomplete sentence which the quotation after finishes:

Quote

"You're wrong. I went to the store yesterday," Alice replied, "and bought some more."

'I went to the store yesterday and bought some more.' is a single sentence, despite being split between two quotations (which is why 'and' is not capitalized), so both quotations must be considered one quotation, grammatically, which acts as the object of the sentence of which the 'Alice replied' dialogue tag is part of.

 

On 6/29/2013 at 9:58 AM, KSK said:

“Well as I said, we're in the gas storage business. Pressurised gas mainly - although we are starting to look at cold storage solutions too. Anyway, we've come up with a design for a compact spherical tank. Very light, very strong and holds about 20 kg of fuel... I mean gas."

Jeb drew a circle around '20 kg' on his pad. “How about pressure regulation?" he asked, “and how big is this thing?" He listened intently as Thomplin rattled off details. “Hmm. I think we could certainly use that. I hate to ask but how much do you sell these for?"

“Uh - I presume you offer discounts if we buy them in bulk? Oh that is with the discount... OK"

Jeb sat back in his chair. “I'm sorry but we can't afford that," he said, disappointment leaking into his voice. “It's a real pity - I've got some ideas already about how we could use those tanks and I bet the team here will have even more. But we could get an awful lot of much needed material for that price."

“Although... hmm. Maybe we could work something else out. What would Stratus say to a sponsorship deal?"

Thomplin's voice was cautious. “What kind of sponsorship are we talking about Jeb?"

Again, you've got multiple successive paragraphs with the same active character. Now, there is a common alternative format besides the standard alternating-paragraph-conversation which is sometimes used for telephone calls where only one side of the conversation has their dialogue written out at all; in this case, all paragraphs have the same active character - the person on the end of the call that we can hear - and each new paragraph implies an unheard reply from the other party. I believe that's what you were trying to do with the paragraph break after 'how much do you sell these for?', and possibly also with the next paragraph break after that. Unfortunately, since you've already had Thomplin contribute audible dialogue, you're already locked in to the back-and-forth format, so you need something in between to indicate Thomplin responding, even if you don't want to write out the actual number. Here are a couple solutions:

Quote

Jeb drew a circle around '20 kg' on his pad. “How about pressure regulation?" he asked, “and how big is this thing?" He listened intently as Thomplin rattled off details. “Hmm. I think we could certainly use that. I hate to ask but how much do you sell these for?" He winced at the answer. “Uh - I presume you offer discounts if we buy them in bulk? Oh that is with the discount... OK"

Quote

Jeb drew a circle around '20 kg' on his pad. “How about pressure regulation?" he asked, “and how big is this thing?" He listened intently as Thomplin rattled off details. “Hmm. I think we could certainly use that. I hate to ask but how much do you sell these for?"

Thomplin's answered with a number containing far too many digits.

“Uh - I presume you offer discounts if we buy them in bulk? Oh that is with the discount... OK"

Note how, in the first one, an action performed by Jeb, namely wincing, is used to imply Thomplin responding, because Jeb is the active character for that paragraph, but the second one has Thomplin as the subject, since it's his paragraph this time.

Also, when you have one paragraph which ends with a quotation being spoken by one character and the next paragraph starts with another quotation spoken by the same person - which, despite what I've said before, isn't always a bad thing; sometimes, for clarity or impact, you really do need to have multiple successive paragraphs with the same active character, in which case you have to depend on careful use of formatting and dialogue tags to make sure it's always clear who each paragraph belongs to - the way to format it is to omit the closing quote mark on the end of the first paragraph like so:

Quote

"First," said Bob, "we must... [blah blah blah] or else we are doomed.

"Second, we can... [blah blah blah] when the warning buzzer sounds.

"Finally, we should... [blah blah blah] and we'll all be home by Christmas."

It may seem odd, at first, but that is in fact the standard and correct way to indicate a paragraph break which is inside a quotation, rather than being part of the narration.

  

On 6/29/2013 at 9:58 AM, KSK said:

“Looking forward to it. Would Münday afternoon at 2:00pm suit you?"

Just wanted to mention I like the way you drop little bits of world-building in like 'Münday' here.

 

Ch. 6: 

On 7/5/2013 at 6:15 PM, KSK said:

“Pressurised," said Halnie casually, "I wouldn't try that with an empty one but they're pretty sturdy once you fill them up. I would stand back for this part though."

Everyone moved a respectful distance from the test stand as Halnie donned her protective clothing and lifted a second tank off the cart and hooked it up to the propellant cylinder with practised ease. There was a collective drawing in of breath as the filler pump started up with a loud clatter and monpropellant flooded into the tank.

There seems to be a distinct lack of any mention of draining or venting whatever is already in the tank before (or during) filling it with monoprop.

 

Ch. 7:  

On 7/6/2013 at 9:57 AM, KSK said:

The main parachute unfurled, lines going briefly slack as the Kerbal 2 slowed to a virtual standstill and then floated sedately down towards the waiting sea.

First bit of critical review, rather than praise or proofreading: Things have been going a bit too smoothly up to this point. You might want to add some bumps in the road - maybe the engine fails to develop full thrust during the hold-down test and they have to abort the launch, fix it, and try again. Or the main parachute fails causing a moment of terror before the reserve deploys successfully.

 

Hrm. I'm only up to the end of page 2, but this is already getting pretty long. I think I'll post this now; I really don't want to lose everything I've written so far in case I accidentally hit 'next page' in the wrong tab.

Edited by macdjord

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Cheers for the comments, corrections, and explanations. 

Some of it I did know, or at least picked up as I went along, but one genuinely useful tip was the part about splitting speech from a single character into multiple paragraphs. I've never been quite sure how to do that and I've taken the opportunity to skip ahead a few chapters now and fix a couple of Big Speeches accordingly. The other punctuation snafus you noted have also been fixed, so thanks! 

Couple of comments in reply:

I enjoyed your comment on the Kerbal 1 because I'd always envisaged it to be made out of the demo parts as well (right down to the three-crew capsule)! Later craft are based (perhaps 'inspired by' would be more accurate), the new-as-then parts.

The monoprop tank started empty as I recall. One full one to demonstrate that a pressurised tank is pretty sturdy, one empty one to fill with monoprop for the test. Unsure whether this is entirely accurate but I was envisaging them as being at least self-supporting when empty, rather than being balloon tanks.

Looking back now, I'm honestly not sure what the 'Voyage to Jool' was but I suspect it may have been this fic by Czokletmuss.

As for the bumps in the road... they will happen. :) Whether I ever get the balance quite right is debatable but I can promise that spaceflight won't all be smooth sailing.

 

 

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Posted (edited)
21 hours ago, KSK said:

The monoprop tank started empty as I recall. One full one to demonstrate that a pressurised tank is pretty sturdy, one empty one to fill with monoprop for the test. Unsure whether this is entirely accurate but I was envisaging them as being at least self-supporting when empty, rather than being balloon tanks.

Ah, I hadn't caught that it was a different, empty tank from the one they whacked. Okay then.

21 hours ago, KSK said:

As for the bumps in the road... they will happen. :) Whether I ever get the balance quite right is debatable but I can promise that spaceflight won't all be smooth sailing.

I remember the staging failure on what, IIRC, is their next flight. Just saying that these problems should start earlier.

 

Also, you've not yet fixed the 'The Fan Works Library' link in your sig.

Edited by macdjord

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Oh for sure. In hindsight, Part 1 of the story could be expanded a lot and its pacing doesn't match up too well with the rest of the tale. Looking back over this thread, I see you also had some on-point comments about KIS funding and such which, again, could be expanded on quite a bit. In fact, you could probably take the events of Part 1 and turn them into a novel in their own right.

All I can say is that it took a while for First Flight to settle down and find its tone. It started off very 'KSP the game', with the focus being on the actual flights (and those flights happening in about the order you'd expect from a KSP Career Mode game), until someone pointed out that at some point I was going to need an actual story to hang all the exposition off. I flirted with the idea of a KSP vs Rockomax competition, which is where all the Probodyne Prize stuff came from, before giving up on that as a) being just a different kind of Space Race and b) stretching the whole KIS junkyard space program conceit to breaking point and beyond. So eventually, after a bit of zigzagging, the story turned into what it is now.

This is why rewrites are important. :) Whether they're going to happen for First Flight is another matter.

On a different note, my signature link should be fixed now. Unfortunately the Library itself is pretty much a pile of similarly broken links and I plan to revamp the whole thing once I'm done with First Flight.

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Ch. 8:

On 7/14/2013 at 4:19 AM, KSK said:

As Jonton drifted off to sleep, he was only vaguely aware of the familiar tickling sensation of hundreds of wispy leaf hairs burrowing into his scalp.

That night he dreamed of rockets and kerbals flying far out beyond the reach of Kerbin. High above his head, the Kerm trees rustled in the still night air.

On rereading, I now find myself wondering if Jonton inadvertently triggered the birthing of the seed here, by dreaming of exploration and new lands, thus triggering the kerm's 'there is space available to expand to' instincts?

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11 hours ago, macdjord said:

Ch. 8:

On rereading, I now find myself wondering if Jonton inadvertently triggered the birthing of the seed here, by dreaming of exploration and new lands, thus triggering the kerm's 'there is space available to expand to' instincts?

Oh man - and wouldn't that be a bitter irony.

Not something that occurred to me when I first wrote it but it fits.

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Ch. 13:

On 8/23/2013 at 6:11 PM, KSK said:

Underneath the pilot's light hearted banter, Obrick could sense a very relieved kerbal and, he thought, no wonder.

Took me a couple tries to figure out the italicized part was Obrick thinking, rather than emphasis. Recommend separating this into two sentences for better readability:

Quote

Underneath the pilot's light-hearted banter, Obrick could sense a very relieved kerbal. And no wonder, he thought.

 

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On 4/20/2020 at 5:08 PM, macdjord said:

Ch. 13:

Took me a couple tries to figure out the italicized part was Obrick thinking, rather than emphasis. Recommend separating this into two sentences for better readability:

Yep - that works better. Cheers - and sorry it took a while to get back to you.

And on a related matter, today has been a bit of a milestone day.

The last few chapters and epilogue, of First Flight are now written, although they'll need some more work before they're finished and ready to post. And to say that I'm a bit nervous about that is a definite understatement.

Hang in there folks - we're almost done.

 

 

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On 4/22/2020 at 9:03 PM, KSK said:

Yep - that works better. Cheers - and sorry it took a while to get back to you.

And on a related matter, today has been a bit of a milestone day.

The last few chapters and epilogue, of First Flight are now written, although they'll need some more work before they're finished and ready to post. And to say that I'm a bit nervous about that is a definite understatement.

Hang in there folks - we're almost done.

 

 

Too bad it's coming to an end soon. But with Project Starseed just getting started there's gotta be more to come.

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Posted (edited)

https://forum.kerbalspaceprogram.com/index.php?/topic/30718-first-flight-chapter-115-now-and-forever/&do=findComment&comment=3766090The next chapter is up.

 

We will not seek.

The forest enfolded him; vast, comforting, and a source of food and shelter. He watched the Unworthy from afar, taking care never to approach the village from the same direction twice. His Brethren were allowed to return to their homes whilst the soldiers maintained their vigilance outside. None of the cowards dared venture near Her abode.

The Blessed were buried side by side with his Keeper. The soldiers offered to help dig the graves, too ignorant to know the offence they were giving. Once this was made clear, they kept a respectful distance until the Rights were concluded, and took pains to avoid the sacred grounds thereafter.

In time, more soldiers came with more of their vehicles. His Brethren were taken away, abandoning the village to Her, to those Blessed who remained in Her service, and to the instrument of Her Truth and Her wrath.

Don't be silly, Daddy.

This is not foolishness beloved daughter, Chosen of Him and my heart; this is proper. I am the last of the Brethren, the last Kerm-olia to stand between the Kerm and those who would break the Law most Sacred. I will seek him out and he will learn the Truth.

Who will you seek, Daddy?

The Corruptor, the so-called Sage who would sacrifice all for his pride. He will suffer - as I have - and in suffering will bring the Unworthy back to Her Truth.

And I know where he may be found.

Imbued with new purpose, he strode back to his dwelling. Dragging his bed to one side, he knelt and scraped away the thin covering of earth with his bare hands, revealing a long-buried trunk which he opened, revealing the clothing and trappings of a past life. Stripping down to his smallclothes, he pulled on trousers, a colourful but faded undershirt, and a poncho, unable to hide a shudder of distaste at the unclean and unworthy clothing.

I would suffer far more in Her service.

Next was the money belt, clinking faintly as he strapped it on under the poncho. He thought for a moment, then undid it, slipped one end through the scabbard of his hunting knife, and buckled it up again. An old but serviceable pack was dragged out of the trunk and its contents checked. It was the work of a few moments to pack it with food, a map, and other small items for a long journey.

Then, after a brief stop at the communal sweetmoss pool to fill his water bottles from the village tap, he turned and walked away from all that he considered good and right in the world.

At the edge of the village he turned and genuflected towards Her dwelling then slipped into the trees and began the long walk back to the nearest town of the Unworthy.

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

“Any volunteers that show up can wait or Patbro can introduce them to Elton. They’ll understand if you’re not there in person.”

“You need to get out,” Meleny said bluntly, putting her mug down on the table. She glanced at Thombal and saw the agreement in his eyes. “Of course everything reminds you of Gerselle – how could it not. But more to the point, Joenie needs to get out. She’s not talking to Adbas, she’s not reading her books, she’s not even Communing with Jonelle.”

“I know.” Jonton stared at the fridge, resisting the temptation to fetch a bottle of prickleberry cider.

“And before you tell me that you don’t know where to go, why don’t you take Joenie back to the Capital? You could show her the Grand Gardens and the Wildlife Museum and whatever else she didn’t get to see the last time. If you both feel up to it, why don’t you carry on out to the Berelgan and say hello to Mallas and Professor Erlin.” She gave Jonton a sympathetic look. “If it wasn’t too much, you could even speak to Obrinn.”

“If you can, I think that reminder of her legacy might help you,” Thombal said quietly.

Jonton sighed. “You’re both probably right.” He looked at Meleny. “She might want to stay with you, you know? You’ve been a mother to her for so long now.”

“And maybe when she’s ready, I can be again.” Meleny gave him a half-smile. “She’s getting to the age where she’ll have things to talk about and she probably won’t want to talk about them with her dad. But right now, I’m not her mother, and she knows it. I don’t think she’ll want to stay with me.” She raised a hand as Jonton opened his mouth to speak. “And that is quite proper and I’m not remotely offended.”

Jonton scrubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands, before looking up at her and Thombal in mute gratitude. “I don’t know how we would have got through all of this without you both. Through all of this.” He leaned back in his sack chair, closing his eyes for a moment. “I’ll talk it over with Joenie tomorrow. If she wants to go, I’ll let Elton know what we’re doing and ask him to tell Jonelle.”

“You might ask Joenie first in case she wants to tell Jonelle,” said Thombal. “From what you were saying about your last Communion with her, I think  would probably understand why Joenie needs to leave her Grove for a little while.” He stood up. “And now that all the hard talking’s done, I think we’ve earned a prickleberry cider between us. Can I get you anything, love?”

Meleny shook her head. “I’ll be heading to bed soon. Forestry teaching group tomorrow.” She rolled her eyes. “We’re at the ‘pollination of economically valuable trees’ stage, so I’ll be spending all day rigging safety harnesses and getting covered in climbing gum.” She saw the momentary shadow behind Jonton’s eyes and decided not to comment. “Both of which need a good night’s sleep behind me if I’m not going to end up strangling one of my little teenage darlings before the day is done.”

Thombal popped the top off a bottle of cider and poured it into two glasses. “No sapwood tomorrow night then?” Meleny gave him a look, as he handed Jonton his drink before settling onto his sack chair. “Cheers.”

“Cheers.” Jonton took a sip of cider and sighed. “Thanks, Tom. Thanks for helping with the hard talking and making sure it was done first.”

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

The ticket clerk watched the figure approach, the sound of his trail boots loud on the tiled floor. He wore a dusty, road-worn poncho, the shirt sleeves beneath printed in a pattern that even the clerk, long past the age of caring about such things, recognised as old-fashioned. The stranger turned to one side and fumbled with a money belt under his poncho, before walking up to the desk and setting down his pack.

“One to Barkton, please.”

There was something in his accent that the clerk couldn’t quite place.  “Certainly, sir. Single or return?”

The stranger appeared to give this some thought. “A single,” he said at last. “I do not know if I’ll be coming back.”

Ahh. The clerk smiled at him. “Going to volunteer for the One-Twenty? You’re not the first kermol we’ve had passing through.” He bent over the ticket machine, missing the momentary look of confusion on the other’s face. “That’ll be one kero eighty and twenty-five funds please.” He watched the stranger scrabbling around in his coin pouch before finally putting down the right amount. “Thank you, sir. You’ve got three changes, four if you stop over at Cabaralb.” He slid a printout across the counter with the ticket. “I’ve printed out a reminder of them for you here. You’ve missed the morning train I’m afraid but at least you’ll have plenty of time for lunch - the next one doesn’t leave for just over two hours. Platform three.”

The stranger studied the printout before carefully folding it up and tucking it into his poncho along with his ticket. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure, sir. Good luck at Barkton.”

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

As Meleny had expected, Joenie chose a trip to the Capital over staying at home, although without any great enthusiasm. Somewhat to Jonton’s surprise and pride, she also chose to tell Jonelle about the trip herself. When he asked Elton about it later, the elder Kerm merely reported that neither his, nor his Keeper’s daughter had spoken to him, but that he had sensed acceptance instead of distress from Jonelle.

No sooner had he and Joenie packed, than they were being bundled into Ferry’s car and driven over to Barkton. At the station, Meleny pressed a sheet of handwritten notes into his hands and hugged him and Joenie goodbye. Ferry leaned out of the car window to add his own goodbyes, before they were shooed on their way by Meleny.

As they walked in through the grand archway to Barkton Central Station, Jonton was struck by the quiet. The hubbub of soldiers that he remembered from his and Joenie’s first trip to the Capital had gone, replaced by the occasional group of civilian passengers, most of them soberly dressed or carrying attache cases. Some things though, he reflected, watching the station manager hurry over to them, did not change.

“Keeper Jonton! It’s good to see you again.” He handed Jonton an envelope. “And also yourself, young lady.”

Joenie blinked.

“Tickets to the Capital, I believe; one adult, one concession. One shared and one private compartment booked on both trains. The lady on the phone didn’t say but we assumed you’d prefer to take adjacent ones. Now, if you’d just like to follow me through security, we can get you to the platform in time for the evening train.”

They followed the manager across the concourse and into a sectioned off area where their bags were checked. The searches were still reassuringly thorough and Jonton had to stifle a grin at the expression on one inspector’s face after Joenie’s approving little nod. Another inspector fastened a tag marked with a white cross onto each of their bags and waved them through.

The station manager escorted them on to the platform. “Your cabins are in the second carriage from the front. I’m afraid I won’t be able to show you onto the train but I think you’ll find everything just the way it was for your last journey.”

“I’m sure they’ll be fine,” Jonton replied. “Thank you for arranging everything at such short notice.”

“Oh, it’s my pleasure, Keeper, my pleasure. Have a peaceful journey and enjoy your stay in the Capital when you get there.” He tipped his hat to Joenie and hurried off across the concourse.

Joenie watched him go. “I don’t know why he’s in such a hurry. There aren’t that many people here.”

Jonton gave her a wry look. “Not really, no. Maybe he’s expecting more to arrive later.” He inspected his luggage tag and nodded to himself. Joenie looked at her tag curiously. “Why the white crosses, Dad?”

“After the White Cross Company, I would imagine.” He saw his daughter’s blank look. “They were a group of volunteers during the war. According to Patbro, they used to help with the Kerm seed inspections to speed up food and medical supply shipments, although he did hear rumours that they helped the space program too.” Jonton fingered his tag. “I guess they’re either still going, or people just got used to putting a white cross on anything that’s been checked for Kerm seeds.”

Joenie’s reply was drowned out by a train arriving at the platform behind them, accompanied by a raucous announcement from the overhead speakers. She scowled, clamping her hands over her ears, and even Jonton winced at one particularly loud squeal of feedback.

“Maybe that’s why he was in a hurry – he had to go fix the speakers.” Joenie removed her hands from her ears, staring balefully at the offending equipment.

“Probably,” her father said. He glanced at the station clock. “Twenty minutes till our train arrives. Do you want a book while we’re waiting?”

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

As promised, their compartment was very much as Jonton remembered, right down to the cupboard under the table and the water heater set into the wall. He busied himself stowing their luggage whilst Joenie went off to explore her private cabin. By the time she returned, two cups of steaming djeng sat on the little table and her father was sitting by the window, watching something with great interest, as their train pulled out of the station.

“What’s happening, Dad?”

“A rocket I think – or a part of one. Over there, hanging from that crane by all the floodlights. I guess they must be sending it to the other launch site on the east coast.”

Joenie peered out of the window. “It’s got no engines,” she said doubtfully. “I don’t think it can be a rocket. Gildas would know.”

“I’m sure he would,” Jonton agreed. “Maybe it was part of that space station that Wernher and Jebediah showed us. It was pretty big whatever it was.” He blew on his djeng before taking a sip. “Hmm, that’s good. I made you one too.”

“Thanks.” Joenie perched herself on the bed opposite him. “Could I have this compartment, Dad? The one next door doesn’t have a moss room.”

“Of course you can. Now - how about a game of Triangles before bed?”

“Triangles?”

Jonton produced a worn cardboard box. “I haven’t played since I was a student and to be honest, I’m not even sure if anyone makes it anymore.” He slid the box open and removed a scuffed game board and a bag. “It’s a travel set – works pretty well. He drew a triangular wooden piece from the bag and placed it on the board. “You put your first piece here, where it’s marked and every new piece you put down has to touch an existing one along one edge. The idea is to match the colours along the edge if you can and you get bonus points for making different patterns. Here.” Jonton took a yellowing piece of paper out of the box and unfolded it. “Chains are pretty easy but rings and linked rings are harder. I don’t think I ever managed to get linked rings in the same colour!”

Joenie saw the hopeful look on her father’s face and didn’t have the heart to turn him down. “Sure, sounds good.”

“Excellent!” Jonton rubbed his hands together. “New players go first.”

Joenie drew a piece from the bag and placed it on her starter zone. She drew a second tile, studied it for a second then placed it next to the first. “Blue matches blue.”

“Good start,” Jonton drew his own piece. “And blue matches blue again.”

After the first few moves, Joenie began to take more of an interest in the patterns unfolding across the board and by the time her chains began to cross over onto her father’s half of the board, she was engrossed, her mug of djeng long since gone cold. After narrowly winning a second game and losing a third, her offer to make it a best three out of five was interrupted by a prodigious yawn.

Jonton glanced at his watch. “I think…” his eyes widened as he too yawned hugely. “I think it’s later than I thought.” He drew the curtains of their little compartment before standing up to retrieve his overnight bag from the luggage rack. “You’re definitely on for tomorrow though!”

“That was fun – thanks, Dad.”

“Glad you enjoyed it. Good night, sleep tight.” The compartment door slid shut behind Jonton. Smiling slightly, Joenie unpacked her washbag and started to get ready for bed.

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

The next morning, the fifth game of the set was interrupted by the train driver’s announcement that they would shortly be arriving at Cabaralb station. Jonton declared the set to be a draw, raising an eyebrow at his daughter’s unspoken demurral. Joenie gave him a half-smile and began packing away the board.

Their stopover in Cabaralb was much more cheerful than their previous visit. Jonton was relieved to find the station empty of any military presence and was pleased to see more fishing vessels than warships in the harbour. For her part, Joenie bounced along the far busier streets and had to be pulled away from two or three of the shops, much to her father’s secret amusement.

Both of them agreed though, that the best part of the day was visiting the transformed town park. The flowerbeds and gardens were in full bloom amidst the freshly gravelled paths and the central meadow was newly mown and dotted with groups of kerbals enjoying the sunshine. The patch of raw earth that Jonton remembered had been weeded, fenced off and planted with a new Kerm sapling. The other thirty-six saplings were dotted around the park and a faint whiff of cinnamon filled the air.

They stayed at the Grove Hotel again that night where, much to Joenie’s surprised delight, their waitress recognised them from their previous visit and brought her a minted redfruit juice with ice without having to be asked. The food was just as good as she remembered, especially the greenleaf fondue which turned out to be a plate of crispy greenleaf stems served with a herb jelly and a pot of cheese dipping sauce which arrived at the table on its own little nightlight heated stove.

The train journey to the Capital passed by in a pleasant blur of reading, Triangles, and watching the world go by from the carriage window. What roads they saw were busy with traffic: trucks hauling all manner of supplies and construction materials, White Cross cars, and the occasional private car. As the train followed the coastline south towards the capital, Joenie spotted a single contrail streaking the sky over the Great Tranquil Sea, a glinting speck just visible at its tip.

By tacit agreement, what conversation there was steered carefully clear of anything that would remind them of Gerselle and if either became distracted mid-game, or lost in their own thoughts, the other would find something else to do for a while.  Even so, towards the end of the journey, Joenie disappeared into the moss room, returning sometime later with a freshly scrubbed face and red-rimmed eyes. She shook her head as Jonton started towards her, giving him a grateful look as he pulled a spare handkerchief out of his pocket and passed it over to her.

Joenie’s subdued mood lasted through their arrival at the Capital and walk to the Grand Gardens. Jonton eyed the tik-tik lot as they left the station and briefly considered hiring one of the pedal-powered buggies but decided that Joenie probably wouldn’t be interested. They crossed the Boulevard and turned onto City Avenue, stopping every so often for Jonton to consult his map.

At the far end of the Avenue, the arches and domes of the Capital Building stood out against the skyline, it’s flagpole still visible over the rooftops as they turned right onto Progress Walk and towards the Gardens. A quiet descended as they passed through the wrought-iron gates, the trees around them screening out the bustling streets outside. Joenie looked up at a songbird perched on a nearby branch and her mood seemed to lift a little.

A sapwood coffee and a cake from a nearby concession stand lifted it a little further and by the time they reached the glasshouses near the centre of the enormous park, Joenie’s head was turning from side to side as she took everything in. Jonton caught a glimpse of immense shapes through the panels of one glasshouse and tapped his daughter on the shoulder. “Shall we start in there?”

Puzzled, Joenie followed his finger, then her face cleared. “You remembered?”

Jonton grinned at her. “I wasn’t going to forget after our last visit. Come on.”

The centre of the desert hothouse had been fenced off and planted with a group of kerbahusk cactuses. Joenie stared up at them in delight, remembering the papier-mâché version she’d made with Enely, although she had to admit that the real-life spines looked rather more impressive than pieces of drinking straw glued to a model. She read the nearby sign warning visitors not to climb over the fence and touch them and nodded to herself, Enely’s voice clear in the back of her head. Stroke the spines one way and they’re not dangerous but stroke them the other way, away from the bulb, and they’ll cut your fingers to ribbons. They make good knives but you have to be careful.  Smiling at the memory, she moved on to a sandy area dotted with large boulders which were draped with fleshy green ribbons. Patches of twisted, knotty tubes, improbably decorated with tiny crimson flowers, sprawled across the sand between the boulders.

Jonton caught up with her by another sandy patch, this one planted with rows of what looked like brown clay balls. He saw Joenie’s puzzled expression and walked over to her. “What’s up?”

“I thought these ones were malkaballs but the name on the sign is totally different.” Joenie heard a choking noise behind her and turned to find one of the hothouse gardeners behind her.

“They’re malkaballs all right but it’s been a long time since I heard anyone else call them that.” He studied Joenie through deep brown eyes. “You don’t look Hazachim if you don’t mind me saying.”

Joenie blinked in surprise. “I’m not, but one of my friends is and he taught me about them.” She scrunched up her face in thought. “He always said they tasted very… sathy, even if they don’t look very nice.”

The gardener’s face broke out in a broad grin. “Sathy they are. What was your friend’s name?”

“Enely.”

“Oh, now, now. I knew a young Enely once. He was the village Keeper’s son – wasn’t much older than you are when I last saw him.”

“He could well be our Enely then,” Jonton said. He caught the flicker of recognition in the gardener’s eyes. “He left his village when their Kerm seeded and to cut a long story very short, ended up living with us just outside of Barkton.”

The gardener eyed him. “A very long story – and not a happy one I’m thinking, if he ended up leaving his own Kerm behind. What happened to him after he left you?”

“He went to help Awaken the One-Twenty,” Jonton said quietly. “I don’t know exactly where he is now but I do know he’s doing well.”

“Well now.” The gardener looked like he was about to say something but had thought better of it. “There’s no reason he should remember me but if you cross paths with him again once that business is all done, you can tell him that he’d be welcome to stop by the Gardens any time he likes.” He looked at Joenie, the corners of his eyes crinkling in amusement. “You can also tell him that he might want to teach young’uns the polite name for those cactuses over there. Anyway, I should be getting on. Enjoy the rest of your visit.”

“I’m sure we will,” Jonton replied, “and I’ll be sure to let Enely know.”

 Joenie nodded in agreement. “Thank you!”

“You’re very welcome, miss. You have a sathy day now.”

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

Jonton pushed his bowl away and watched Joenie chewing on the last of her sandwich. The Glass Café was quiet, with most of the waiting staff spending more time cleaning tables or serving drinks than bringing out food. He glanced at the clock on the wall, braced himself inwardly, and turned back to Joenie.

“I’ve been thinking. We could go to the Wildlife Museum tomorrow if you like and spend the rest of today here instead?

Joenie swallowed her mouthful of sandwich. “I’d like that.” She paused for a long moment. “Are we going to the Berelgan afterwards?”

“Would you like to?”

His daughter stared at her plate. “I don’t know. Probably? I don’t want to go home yet and it would be nice to see Mallas again… but I don’t think I’ll be able to stand it if he starts talking about - you know. It.”

“Me neither.” Joenie looked up at her father in surprise as he continued.  “It would be good to talk to Professor Erlin again and maybe to Commune with Obrinn. Meleny and Tom both thought that would help me but I’m not sure I can do it.” Jonton sighed. “But I don’t think I’m ready to go home yet either.”

“We should go to the Berelgan then, just so you can tell Mr Thombal and Meleny that you tried to speak to Obrinn.  We don’t have to stay very long if it’s too weird.”

“That’s true.” Jonton gave her a quizzical look. “And when did you start getting so grown-up?” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “Forget I asked, Keeper. Silly question.” He drained his glass of fruit juice and pushed his chair back. “I thought we could take a walk around the arboretum this afternoon, unless you wanted to see the cactuses again?”

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

“We are now arriving at Capital Station. All change. All change, please.”

He gathered up his belongings, checked to make sure that his knife was still tucked away in the bottom of his pack and stood up to join the queue of passengers waiting to disembark. As he stepped onto the platform, he stared around at the cavernous railway station, hiding his private dismay behind an impassive stare.

I would suffer far more in Her service.

Shouldering his pack, he set off towards the main concourse, striding past his fellow passengers, only to join another line of travellers at the turnstiles. He turned his pack to show its white-crossed tag to the nearest guard, who merely nodded and waved him through. Walking by a line of tables where a handful of kerbals were having their bags searched and past a row of shops, he emerged into a huge vaulted atrium, a line of constantly shifting departure boards at its far end. He wrinkled his nose in distaste at the overly-grandiose archways leading outside. Then he caught sight of two figures walking into the station and his jaw dropped open.

Even from afar, her Will prevails.

He hurried across the atrium before the two figures could disappear into the crowd, following the wake of gawkers and excited onlookers pointing them out to each other. Skirting round another group of shops, he slowed to a walk, holding his pack up again as he passed another turnstile and onto platform fourteen where, according to the signboard, the train to Olbinat would shortly be departing. Waiting for the two figures to board the train, he got on the same carriage by the opposite door and found a nearby seat from which he could eavesdrop on them. Then he settled down to wait.

The Corruptor and his daughter spent most of the journey reading or exchanging trivialities over what appeared to be a pointless and tedious game. Eventually though, the kerblet started complaining of hunger and asking when they would get to the Berelgan.

Which can only be the Berelgan Institute. Good. He leaned back in his seat, closed his eyes and tried to block out the irritating chit-chat from across the aisle.

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

With a start, he awoke to find the train juddering to a stop amidst a raucous announcement that it was now arriving at Olbinat. The Corruptor and his daughter were both overburdened with luggage, giving him time to retrieve his own pack and follow them off the train at a discreet distance. Trailing them across the station and outside into the pleasantly shady car park, he watched them greet  another kerbal before being ushered into an off-roader and driven away, leaving him standing, momentarily witless, outside the station.

A Kerm-olia is not so easily defeated - not after She has delivered them into my hands.

Cinching up his pack as he went, he set off in pursuit. The road out of town was easy to find and a little way past the final cluster of houses, a signpost declared the Berelgan Institute to be thirty-two kilometres away. He glanced up at the afternoon sun and slowed his all-out march to the easy, kilometre eating pace which, he knew, he could sustain for most of a day if necessary.

By the time he reached the turreted brick archway marking the entrance to the Berelgan grounds, twilight had long since turned to night. Light spilling from a window illuminated a heavy looking and conspicuously locked gate. He stood motionless by the verge, well back from the pools of radiance thrown by the roadside lamps and waited for any signs of activity.

His patience was rewarded when a patrol of guards marched past and stopped by the gate. After a brief conversation, they disappeared inside the gatehouse, leaving its previous occupants to begin their own patrol. Noiselessly, he drifted into the surrounding trees, freezing as torchlight played over the ground nearby. He waited for a long moment, using the time to check his pack for loose buckles or straps, before pulling his poncho cowl further over his face and slipping deeper into the woods.

Crossing the open pastureland between the woods and the brightly lit buildings in the distance became a test of nerves. Shadowed mounds lurked in the fields near the road, the smells of dung and warm fur giving them away as some kind of animal. He crept past them as quickly as he dared, praying to Her will that the creatures would not spook at his scent and give him away.

Reaching the top of the driveway, he skirted round an expansive gravelled space; a row of boxy off-roaders parked along the side nearest to the grand buildings behind. Nodding in satisfaction, he stared at their ornate façade, fixing the position of the front doors and the steps leading up to them in his mind, before slipping away between the smaller outbuildings which surrounded the car park. Slinking from shadow to shadow, he searched for a concealed spot from which to watch the main entrance and the vehicles parked outside; eventually settling for a nook between a drainpipe and the moss-covered entrance to what had once been a wood cellar.

Satisfied with his hiding place, he prowled the Berelgan grounds, scouting out what escape routes he could, until the first fingers of dawn began to show on the horizon. Then, murmuring a prayer to Her will under his breath, he returned to his nook and settled in to wait for sunrise.

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

Jonton stood at the top of the manor house steps, gazing out over the Berelgan grounds and savouring the early morning smells of greenery and dew. He yawned, watching Joenie and Mallas walking across the car park, the fresh air doing more to wake him than his morning coffee.

With a crunching of scattered gravel, a figure burst into view, racing towards Joenie, something glinting in its hand.  Jonton heard a muffled scream and sudden oath from Mallas, then Joenie was being dragged away, heels scraping along the ground, the stranger’s arm around her neck.  Heart hammering in his chest, Jonton hurled himself down the steps, only to see Mallas scramble into one of the off-roaders and Joenie bundled into the back at knifepoint. The hooded figure swung himself up into the passenger seat, the door slammed shut and Jonton had to shield his face against a spray of stones. By the time he looked up, the off-roader was already careering down the driveway.

He sprinted for the nearest vehicle and wrenched at its door, an icy band of fear clenching around his guts. Finally realising that the door was locked, he swore and ran for the manor house.

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

The off-roader jolted over a speedbump, Mallas’s jaw clenching as the stranger’s knife pricked his skin.  “Does this place have a Kerm?” The knife dug little deeper. “Quickly. Does it?”

He felt a trickle of blood running down his side. “Yes!”

“Then you will take me there. Quickly.”

Mallas nodded tightly, gunning the off-roader over a rise before glancing in his passenger mirror and seeing Joenie’s terrified face staring back at him. Eyes to the front again, he saw the track to Obrinn’s planting site coming up and eased off the accelerator, not daring to brake. He swerved sharply left, missing the drainage ditch by centimetres and put his foot down, the off-roader’s rear wheels throwing up a rooster-tail of mud. Racing up the track to the copse of Kerm trees, he pulled up outside Erlin’s hut with a wrenching jerk that bounced his head off his headrest. The stranger leapt out, flung the rear door open and dragged Joenie off the back seat before marching her up to the hut and disappearing inside.

Kicking the front door closed behind them, he pulled Joenie into the sleep room and flung her onto the nearest bed before shoving her head into a leaf cluster.

Obrinn sensed the kerbal under his leaves, brightening as he recognised her as Joenie. Then the leaf connection solidified and a torrent of fright and incomprehensible images battered at the young Kerm’s mind instead of the friendly presence he was expecting. His response was swift and instinctive.

Mallas heard a scream as he pelted into the sleep room and into a tableau of frozen Kerm vines, their needle teeth splayed behind motionless inner tendrils. He saw Joenie lying on the bed, her abductor leaning over her, one hand holding a knife to her throat, the other…

Oh Kerm. Oh Kerm, oh Kerm, oh Kerm….

“Don’t move.” A fist jerked the leaf cluster wrapped around Joenie’s head, making her cry out. “Or I rip these out of her. Where is the Sage?”

“I…I don’t know.”

Joenie screamed again. For an instant, Mallas saw a haze of leaf hairs stretched taut between her skull and Obrinn’s leaves.

“I don’t know! He was behind us, he’ll have gone for help, or broken into a car, or… I don’t know! Just don’t pull out the leaves! Please!”

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

Her mental link to Obrinn flickered. The mindscape heaved, jagged forks of lightning slamming to earth all around her. A wave of lashing vines swept towards her and she sensed him gathering himself.

No, Obrinn, no!

A distant part of her brain wanted to cry out for help. Ignoring it, she focused all her attention on Obrinn, frantically trying to calm the raging Kerm.

I’m alright – I’m not hurt!

The link flickered again, more sharply this time, and she felt herself hurled high above the suddenly fading mindscape, the bright skein of thoughts linking her to Joenie beginning to unravel. Twisting round, she grabbed at the skein, sobbing in fear as it slithered out of her grasp. She felt herself falling, tumbling, the mindscape an insubstantial blur as it rushed up to meet her. Then all turned to whiteness.  

A distant part of… someone… erupted down the failing link and stormed past her, hunting for anyone – or anything – to save it.

And from out of the whiteness, a single overwhelming command screamed out to the Kerm telegraph. Overloaded, Obrinn’s interface unit had time to transmit one incoherent blast of noise before its sensors shut down.

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

Elton’s branches smashed through the roof in a cascade of shingles and broken battens. He flung a query at the telegraph systems, scanning the blast of noise for any hidden words or sense codes, but finding nothing. Then a line of, instantly familiar, codes appeared in his mind.

Obrinn…

Along one section of Elton’s fibres, vesicles burst open in quick succession, the signal from one drowned out by the next. The saturated soil triggered an automatic purge sequence from the telegraph systems but not before he sensed his message being sent. The response was so fast as to be almost illegible.

<Joenie!>  <danger!>

The ceiling creaked under the strain, the smaller beams beginning to splinter along their edges. The ground around Jonton’s hut began to bulge and ripple, vines which had not seen the sun for millennia bursting free before being whisked underground again. Images tore across Elton’s mindscape as the Kerm thought furiously. Then the mindscape turned pitch black.

I am sorry, Jonton.

Elton turned his full attention to the telegraph systems.

<be calm, Obrinn. What danger?>

<danger!>

<listen to me, Obrinn! You must not kill! Not even for Joenie>

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

She lay in the eye of the storm.  

A line of pulsating red slashed across the whiteness and suddenly the storm collapsed in on itself, becoming a tornado hurling her upwards. Unbidden, her hands reached out, clutching for the red line; her fingers spasming then holding, pain shooting through them.

She glimpsed a string of alien telegraph codes stretched across the whiteness and sensed someone, or something, focusing on them. Another line of codes flashed into view and the whiteness began to fade, a bright tangle of threads uncoiling towards her.

Another awareness brushed against hers in a burst of confusion and towering rage. She felt the awareness circling back as yet another line of alien codes stitched their way across her mind’s eye, followed by ones that she recognised as kerbal letters.

<Joenie? This is Elton. You must let Obrinn use your eyes!>

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

The door crashed open and Jonton raced in, Erlin hard on his heels. He spared one horrified look for the frozen vines surrounding the bed before a flicker of movement caught his eye. His head snapped round to see Joenie slumping against her pillows, a figure standing over her holding a fistful of Kerm leaves. He heard a hoarse yell as Mallas threw himself forward…

And the vines rose.

A wall of writhing green lashed out at Joenie’s abductor, one vine whipping around his wrist, the others twisting him round and hurling him away from the bed. Jonton heard a sudden, wet, crack and a knife clattered to the floor. More vines lashed out, coiling around ankles and wrists. Mallas kicked the knife away and sprang back, staring in revulsion at the screaming figure spreadeagled in front of him. Another vine uncurled towards it, needle teeth fully extended, tendrils probing blindly at his open mouth. The screaming stopped abruptly.

“I have a message from Elton, Dad.”

Jonton spun round before sagging against the wall in unutterable relief, barely noticing as he slid down it and thumped onto the floor.

Joenie sat up; shoulders hunched to avoid disturbing the Kerm leaves re-wrapped around her head. She wiped a finger across her throat and stared, shuddering, at its bloodied tip, before looking up at her father. At her feet, the vines stilled, teeth retracting as their inner tendrils retreated from sight.

“It’s important.” Joenie’s lips moved soundlessly for a moment, then she began to speak.

“Professor Erlin, Dr Mallas, First of my Keepers.

“Although he has caused much suffering, this one before you shall be allowed to live. You will bear this message to your Council of Twelve Pillars.

“We are Kerm. We will not seek vengeance.”

 

<< Chapter 112     Chapter 114>>

Edited by KSK

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Posted (edited)

I think pointing at my signature should make crystal clear what I would've done to Joenie's attacker if I was Jonton.

                                                                                                  |

                                                                                                  |

                                                                                                 V

Edited by DualDesertEagle

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Whew. :o  Now that’s what you call knocking it outta the park— via a line drive just over the pitcher’s head, right past the shortstop, and through the backboard. Then beaning the shady hotdog guy for good measure. Thought this foo was about to get his dang arm ripped off for a moment. 

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Thanks both! :) 

The next chapter is up. For anyone catching up on the thread today, there's a chapter from yesterday to read too.

Blackout

The bunker doors rumbled open amidst a deep thrum of buried machinery, followed by a metallic clanking as the barriers around the freight elevator unfolded. A pair of headlights lit up the darkness, accompanied by the whine of electric motors starting up. Then, with a rumble of heavy tyres over textured steel, a truck emerged and drove onto the concrete apron surrounding the bunker.

A row of heavy steel bollards sank into the road and the truck lumbered forward, towing a flatbed trailer behind it. A half cradle, supporting a rocket engine of unusual design, was bolted to the trailer, both the engine and the trailer sporting the distinctive logo of the Kerbin Nuclear Standards Agency alongside numerous warning symbols denoting nuclear materials and radiation hazards.

A figure pushed a set of wheeled steps up the trailer and locked them in place before stepping back to let a group of figures gather round. One by one, watched by the hundreds of others lining the roadside, they climbed onto the trailer to inspect a stamped golden foil attached to the engine turbopump casing, before rejoining their colleagues. Finally, Wernher Kerman, rocket engineer and veteran kerbonaut, climbed the steps and examined the foil for himself.

It was printed with a simple list of names, headed by Dr Hading Kerman, Dr Macbus Kerman and Dr Desden Kerman.

Wernher bowed his head, lips moving silently as he recited the list from memory. Then he turned and walked down the steps to join the other Site D survivors.

The truck rolled forward and stopped behind a double white line painted on the road, its trailer coming to a halt beneath a gantry crane. The crowd watched as the second half of the cradle was lowered into place and made secure. A team of construction workers attached steel panels to the completed cradle, forming an armoured crate around the rocket engine. The panels were also stencilled with warning symbols and the KNSA logo.

Two pipers struck up the Lament for the Lost Explorer as the truck drove away towards the compound gates, a convoy of Kolan Border Security vehicles falling in behind it. With a farewell blast on its horn, it cleared the gates and turned onto the main road, heading south towards the Foxham Space Centre.

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

“President Obrick to see you, sir.”

Donman looked up from the pile of papers on his desk and saw his aide standing in the doorway. “Thank you, Corsen. Please show him in.” He waited for Obrick to take a seat and for the door to close behind him before raising his eyebrows.

“The blackout just went into effect. The last of the Telegraph operators signed off as of twenty minutes ago. We’re monitoring the consumables in the interface units in case we need to replenish them, but that’s it.”

Donman swept his papers into a pile and rested his forearms on his desk, head bowed. “And now we wait.”

“And now we wait,” Obrick agreed.

“At least nobody can say we that we hid anything.”

“No. I have my differences of opinion with both Aldwell and Enemone but they stood up when the time came. Aldwell always did make a pretty speech on television and when the insider crowd around the Capital found them working together in earnest…?” Obrick raised his hands, palms upward. “As I said, they stood up when the time came.”

“A pity they couldn’t have seen fit to stand up any earlier,” Donman muttered.

Obrick sighed. “Not helpful, Don.”

“Sorry. Blame it on having to stand on a metaphorical cliff edge until the One-Twenty make up their collective minds.”

Obrick waved his apology away. “You and me both. He rested an elbow on the corner of Donman’s desk. “At least we’ve got one advocate in there.”

“Guardian Elton? He certainly seems to be an advocate for Starseed and that last message about not seeking vengeance was encouraging. Beyond that?” Donman shrugged. “He’s one voice. Or vote, if Kerm decide anything by voting.”

“Indeed.” Obrick’s expression turned bleak. “And the One-Twenty’s verdict on that… other Kerm was not encouraging.” He looked at the Chief Ambassador. “Is there any news from Veidd?”

“Burned to the ground. The rescue team pulled those poor kerblets out first but in truth there was nothing left of them to rescue. Half of them were dead on arrival at the medical centre and the other half died shortly after. Their parents are still awaiting trial, mostly because we still haven’t found a competent defence brief willing to take their case.”

Obrick closed his eyes. “Kerm trees burned to the ground because of the hubris of kerbals. It seems your metaphorical cliff edge overlooks a new Age of Madness.”

“The thought had occurred. And all we can do is wait.”

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

“Wernher, Richlin, Lucan and Gene should be arriving for lunch. We figured Lucan and Gene would probably enjoy the chance to take a close-up look at a Mainsail, so we’ll leave the VAB tour until this afternoon if that’s okay?”

Jeb smiled. “Not a problem, Bob. No need for the VIP treatment either, if you and Bill have things to be doing.”

Bob gave him a mock-indignant look. “Please. Give us some credit for planning and organising.”

“And we’re due a day off anyway,” Bill said. “Besides, I think the official KSA ambassador to the One-Twenty counts as a VIP.”

“Who needs to be shown around by such senior KSA managers as befits his exalted position,” finished Bob. “Not least because he hasn’t set foot inside a VAB for Kerm knows how long and might break something.”

Jeb laughed. “I’ve missed you guys.”

Bob squeezed his friend’s shoulder. “It hasn’t been the same without you either.” He looked at Jeb. “Ambassador jokes aside though, is there any news you can share from the One-Twenty?”

Jeb shook his head. “Not really. Even before the last of them were awakened, the Telegraph operators were run off their feet keeping the interface units replenished, so we know they were doing a lot of talking about something, even before the blackout.” He cocked an eyebrow at Bob. “Kerm don’t go in for small-talk as a rule, so they were probably talking business and if I know Guardian Elton, his idea of business is Starseed. So, I’m guessing we’ll get a decision sooner rather than later but a guess is all it is.” He looked at Bill. “Those interface units are nice pieces of kit by the way – I think you’d find them interesting. If you ever fancied a trip out to the Berelgan, I gather they’re already working on a Mark 5 version.”

“In my spare time,” Bill said dryly.

Bob drummed his fingers on the edge of his filing cabinet. “I just wish we had some idea...” He shook his head in frustration. “I get why the Council insisted on the blackout, strict neutrality and all that but it’s been weeks now. I just wish we knew something!”

“We’d probably be none the wiser if we were listening in,” Jeb told him. “The interfaces are pretty slow so the Kerm started making up their own shorthand almost as soon as the first Telegraph links were laid, and they’ve been growing it ever since.”

“A second major language on Kerbin is going to take some time to get used to,” Bill noted.

“Yep. Complete with codes for mood signifiers and probably a whole collection of other codes for Kerm talk – soil conditions and what have you – that won’t translate well into any kerbal language. The diplomatic team – the proper diplomats that is,” Jeb added, “think we’ll probably be able to work with the One-Twenty in time, to develop a simplified version for kerbal use.”

Bob shook his head again and checked his watch. “Speaking of time, we’ve got plenty of that to go before lunch.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “We could go and get a coffee or something while we’re waiting, unless there was anything you particularly wanted to see?”

“Actually there is.” Jeb gave them an embarrassed half-grin. “I was thinking on the way over that I haven’t actually seen any flight-ready Starseed hardware, just photos and drawings and training mock-ups.” He scratched his head. “I think that Roncott’s prototype inflatables or Communing with Wernher was about as close as I ever got to the real thing.”

“Well that’s not a problem anyway. We’ll take a cart out to the payload integration facility and you can take a proper look at the Bridge.”

“Sounds good. Lead on, Bobcat!”

Bob rolled his eyes. “If the ambassador would care to follow me?” He checked that his desk drawers and filing cabinet were locked before waving Jeb and Bill out of his office and closing the door behind them.

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

The little electric cart purred through the Foxham space centre grounds; Bob at the wheel, Jeb in the back nodding intently as Bill pointed out the various newly-built facilities for Type 7 manufacture and operations. They pulled up outside the Payload Integration Facility and Bob was unsurprised to see a knot of kerbals already gathered outside the doors, waiting to greet them. As they crossed the reception area, he watched Jeb working the room; offering a quick word here, a smile or a handshake there, and was reminded of a long-ago trip to KSA’s Alpha Site. Which worked out pretty well, he added to himself. Seeing that the crowd showed no sign of dispersing, he caught Jeb’s eye, tapping his watch meaningfully.

Jeb nodded and raised his arms for silence. “Thank you all for the welcome, folks – I don’t know what to say.”

“That’s a first!” somebody called out, to general laughter. Jeb smiled.

“I’ve got a couple of things to see right now but I’ll be around after the launch so hopefully we’ll get a bit more time to catch up then, okay? If I can still hear you that is – I’ve been told those Type 7s are pretty loud off the pad.” He waited for the politer laughter to die away. “Seriously though, folks – it’s great to be back. Thank you!” Jeb made his way over to Bill and Bob and let them usher him out of the room towards the cleanroom changing facilities.

After donning gowns, dust caps and overshoes, the three kerbonauts stepped out onto the main assembly floor. A fully assembled bridge module rested on its dollies, nestled within the test bay scaffolding and already attached to its forward hub module. Skeins of cables emerged from the airlocks at either end of the spacecraft and from various access points on its hull, snaking across the floor and into the back of a line of test consoles. Groups of engineers clambered over the scaffolding, running tests on the module exterior systems and occasionally one engineer would leave his or her place behind the consoles and climb inside the larger of the two airlocks, clipboard in hand.

Bill watched a grin of pure delight slowly spreading over Jeb’s face as he studied the colony ship bridge, circling around the scaffold to get a better look at the hub module. Bob walked over to the consoles, waving at the engineers as they looked up and recognised him.

“Afternoon Ribory, afternoon James. I brought someone in to have a look at the ship - Bill’s over there keeping an eye on him to make sure he doesn’t touch anything.”

James frowned and opened his mouth to speak, before catching sight of Jeb standing at a respectful distance from the test bay, still staring at the two spacecraft sections. “Great Kerm above – look who’s back.” He raised his voice. “Afternoon, Jeb! You want to come over here and take a proper look rather than standing there cluttering the place up?”

Jeb grinned and came over to join them. “Afternoon, James. Afternoon all.” A glint of reflected light caught his eye and he glanced up. Then, to the bewilderment of the younger engineers, he stepped back from the consoles and took a longer look up, eyes resting briefly on the open petals of the docking port cover, before watching the test crew at work through the bridge windows. He frowned, tipping his head to one side, before walking back to the test stand.

“What’s with the missing panel under the windows?”

“That’s for the nameplate,” James answered. “Once a name’s been decided.”

“We’ve had plenty of good suggestions,” Ribory said, “but none of them have really stuck yet.”

“Not even the Jebediah Kerman,” James added blandly.

Jeb raised his eyebrows. “I would have thought there’s one obvious name.” He spoke two words, watching as James thought them over.

“That works for me,” Bob said quietly.

“And me,” Ribory agreed.

One by one, the other engineers nodded.

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

Jeb pushed his plate away with a contented sigh. “Now that was a real treat. Can’t remember the last time I had a good old fashioned creva stew.” He grinned at Lucan. “I know beans and mushrooms never hurt a kerbal but even in Doren, there are only so many ways to cook them.”

“And no greenleaf soup either,” Lucan answered, mopping up the last of his stew with a hunk of cornbread.

Jeb laughed. “Nope.” He turned to Wernher. “And now that we’re done with lunch, what’s the plan for the afternoon. Do they need you over at the pad?”

“Not unless they need to scrub or recycle the count,” Wernher pushed his own plate away. “Or there’s a problem starting the LV-N for TMI.”

 “What about you, Genie?”

“I did offer but Nelton’s got everything covered. If I can find enough to do in the meantime, I think I’ll be watching from the gallery on day seven though.”

“Kerbin orbit insertion.” Lucan’s eyes were bright. “I think I’ll be joining you, Gene.”

“Refuelling at OPTA-2, rendezvous and docking with the Doreni shuttle, and then onwards to Duna. That’s a beast of an all-up test.” Jeb grinned. “Sounds like a beer and sunset plan from the old KIS days except I don’t think we were crazy enough to factor in nuclear rockets.”

“It does cover most of the critical mission points, “ Bill noted. “On-orbit refuelling, a good shakedown flight for the LV-N, and the moment of truth for the landing craft test programme.”

“And a real confidence boost to the whole Starseed programme if it goes to plan,” Bob said quietly. He looked at Jeb. “Bigger than the Pioneer 4 boost, I’d say.”

“No question,” Jeb agreed. “Getting Tenacity finished up was a pretty big step too but once I see that shuttle on the ground at Duna, I’ll be starting to think we’ve got a flight plan.” He helped himself to a redfruit from the fruit bowl in the middle of the table and bit into it, wiping the juice off his chin. “Mmmm, haven’t had one of these for a while either.” He looked at Geneney, “I don’t suppose we could skip coffee?”

 “Not a hope.” Geneney snagged his own redfruit. “I’m pretty sure the rocket will still be there if we leave it another half hour.”

 Conversation around the table turned to reminisces and after the half hour drew out to nearly an hour, Bob abandoned his plan of an after-lunch walk to VAB-2 and quietly left the room to reserve two electric carts.

 By the time they arrived, on the dot of two, Danfen was waiting by the staff entrance. As he watched the seven kerbonauts approaching – even Geneney, he remembered, had flown on Kerbal 2 – he couldn’t help the shiver that ran down his back. Knowing and working with seven individuals, he thought, was not at all the same as watching the entire Kerbal 1 team – the kerbals who had launched and flown the very first crewed rocket ship – walking towards him.

Their response to the Type 7 though, was everything he could have asked for, even if work across the VAB came to a complete halt as every engineer, technician and machinist on the assembly floor came over to pose in front of the mammoth rocket with Kerbin’s original kerbonauts. Overhearing a slightly awestruck comment from Jeb, Danfen went back to his office and, after rummaging around in the very back of his filing cabinets, pulled out an old and slightly faded project folder. Flipping through it, he studied one of the cutaway drawings for a moment, eyebrows lifting in surprise. Hmm - if your capsule was about the same size as our old R1, then yeah. It would just about fit into the Mainsail engine bell. Probably wouldn’t be much room to spare though.

Jeb watched the chief engineer disappear into his office, shrugged minutely, and turned back to Geneney and Wernher, glancing round to check whether Richlin was in earshot.

“It’s a shame we’re one short today,” he offered quietly.

 Geneney looked at him warily.

 “But,” Jeb continued, “I think we’ve done him proud.” He smiled at Wernher. “I still remember your eulogy. Learn, move on, never give up. Find out what went wrong and make sure it never happens again. I think we did exactly that.”

 Wernher nodded. “Ornie would have expected nothing less. And I agree. I think we have honoured the memory of one of the finest kerbals that I ever knew.”

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

 “T minus twenty. Gantry retract sequence initiated. We have launch commit.”

 “T minus twelve… eleven… ten… nine… synchro is green…”

 “…six…five…four…three…we have ignition…and we have a lift-off!”

Seven members of the former Kerbin Interplanetary Society watched the Type 7 booster thunder off the pad. The sound of five SK2-M Mainsail engines in full cry was everything that Jeb had been promised and more.

They watched the rocket arc out over the sea, lighting up the sky with a torrent of fire. Minutes later, Rockomax Mission Control reported a successful separation and second stage ignition and Wernher’s shoulders relaxed. “We did it, old friend,” he murmured to himself. “We made it all worthwhile.”

Lucan shook his head to clear his ears. “Sorry, Wernher. What was that?”

For a moment, Wernher watched the plume of rocket fire disappearing into the sky. “The last conversation I ever had with Hading,” he said at last. “We had the prototype LV-N working by then and before he went out to his death, he made me promise to see it fly. Told me that would make it all worthwhile.” He smiled at Lucan. “I’m glad I was finally able to keep that promise.”

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

Val flipped a set of switches on her instrument panel. “RCS armed, guidance locked in. Initiating phase three climb-out.”

“We copy, Starhawk.”

“Tank pressures nominal. Opening pre-feed to LOX-INT.” Val’s hand closed around her control stick, thumb resting against a caged button set into its top. She flipped open the cage and a row of green lights lit up on her instrument panel. “Intake vents primed; auto-igniters armed; MACE sequencer showing five by five. Transitioning to LOX-INT.” She eased the throttle back to rated power, feeling a faint queasiness in the pit of her stomach as her Starhawk’s ramjets shut off and the spaceplane coasted onward under its own momentum. Then her thumb came down.

She barely had time to register the thump of the air intake slamming shut somewhere underneath her cockpit, before the MACE rocket engine exploded into life behind her. Immediately she pulled back on her control stick, eyes locked on the flight-path indicator projected on her heads-up display, feeling the weight build up against her chest. Shadows swept across her cockpit canopy, the bright glow of Kerbin’s atmosphere from under her wings replaced by utter blackness as the Starhawk pointed its nose towards space.

“Transition complete. Burning for orbit.”

“Punch a hole in the sky, Commander. That’s an order.”

“I hear you, Control.”

The airspeed indicator on the instrument panel fell to zero and a numerical display lit up beneath it, driven by the inertial guidance unit. Val flicked a glance at it before returning her attention to the heads-up display, the data projected on her canopy now crisp and green against the blackness. She eased her control stick forward, dipping the Starhawks nose below the horizon. “Guidance mode orbital. Projected apoapsis is two hundred kilometres. Propellant consumption on the curve.”

“Copy that, Starhawk. You’re looking good.”

A light glowed on the instrument panel and another, rapidly climbing, number appeared below the apoapsis readout on the HUD. Val slid her throttle to idle. “I have a periapsis, Control. MACE auto-shutdown initiated.” Her instrument panel displays shifted and then the vibrations coming through her seat stopped. “Engine stop. Stable orbit achieved, two-zero-two by one-niner-six”

“Welcome to space, Commander. We’re patching through to the KSA network now.”

“Copy.” Val flipped a switch, feeling her control stick tighten up in response. She waited for her instrument panel to confirm manual RCS control, then nudged the stick to one side, setting her craft into a slow roll. Only long training made her cancel it again as Kerbin spun into view.

Val stared out of her cockpit, breath catching in her throat, a crackling radio transmission from a long-ago documentary playing through her mind.

…just Kerbin…Only not quite and all of it at once…

Control seemed to read her thoughts. “That’s got to be some view, Starhawk.”

 “You can say that again, Control.” Val shook her head as if to clear it. “What’s the word on our rendezvous sequence?”

“KSA have cleared our flight plan and given us a Go for approach to Tenacity.”

Val untwisted her helmet from the neck ring on her pressure suit and stowed it under her seat. “That’s good to hear.” She pulled out a keyboard from its receptacle under her instrument panel. “Bringing up the orbit raise program and requesting status check.”

“We’re ready when you are.”

Several hours later, Val looked up from her radar display, grabbed a squeeze bottle from the side of her seat and took a mouthful of water, swilling the floating globules around her mouth before swallowing them. “Okay, Control. Holding at approach point beta. Thrusters safed.”

“Good wor…” The line went silent for a minute before Control came back on the air, an odd tone in his voice. “Hold that, Commander. We’ve just received word of a message coming in over the Kerm telegraph. Patching in now – I think we’re all going to want to give this one our full attention.”

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

“It’s time.” President Obrick dipped his head to Jonton. “After you, Keeper.”

Jonton gave him a tight nod in reply before settling back on his bed and lifting his head towards Elton’s leaf cluster. He saw Obrick, Donman and their two witnesses sit down on their own beds before everything became light.

He emerged above an empty mindscape surrounded by slowly churning veils of mist. His link to Elton shrank down to a hair’s breadth, the Kerm’s mental voice sounding oddly toneless. He sensed Donman’s presence appear alongside his, followed by Obrick and then two presences whom he didn’t recognise but took to be their witnesses. To avoid any appearance of collusion, one witness had been chosen from Firesvar and the other from Doren, both of them strangers to Obrick and Donman. In another five Groves across Kerbin he knew that similarly anonymous witnesses would be accompanying the Presidents and Chief Ambassadors of the other Regionalities.

His thoughts were interrupted by a discreet flicker of thought from Elton.

<Mr President, Chief Ambassador, honoured witnesses, First of my Keepers. I bring a message from the One-Twenty>

Donman’s presence came forward. On behalf of both the Conclave and the Ruling Council of Kolus, I thank you, Guardian. Before these witnesses and your Keeper I, Chief Ambassador Donman Kermol, and President Obrick Kerman, stand ready to receive your message. Jonton felt ripples of tightly controlled emotions curling out from behind the formal language.

<very well> Elton’s mental voice seemed to deepen. <Kerbals of Doren. Kerbals of Firesvar, Kolus, and the Spierkan-Forseti Confederacy. Kerbals of Veiid and Wakira. You charged us, the One-Twenty, to make a decision for all Kerbin and a decision we have made>

The mists swirled around them, subtly damping the waves of tension radiating from all five kerbals.

<since the beginning, kerbals have carried our seeds to new lands. You have cared for your Kerm and, in return, our children have cared for you. Now the ancient cycle shall begin anew on another world>

<Our children shall sleep, preserved in cold and darkness. You will guard them well. You will carry them with you to the deserts of Duna. And there, in the fullness of time, you will Awaken them>

The mists lifted, burned away by the sudden sunrise over the mindscape.

<and as it shall be on Duna, so shall it be on Kerbin. We charge you, our kerbals, with another great task. The Awakenings will continue. The One-Twenty shall become many. And in time we, the Kerm, may learn to accept our children and allow them to grow amongst us>

<Since the Age of Madness, we have been beholden to the Law of Territory and the Law of Thirty-Seven. Now, in this Age of Fire, they shall hold us no more>

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

In a lone cockpit, high above Kerbin, there was absolute silence.

Val nudged her thruster controls, turning the Starhawk cabin away from Kerbin before flicking off the cabin lights. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she stared at the stars coming out around her, trying to take in the Message and all it implied. Then, with a scant few puffs of vapour from the reaction control system, she rotated her craft back into the standard, nose-forward configuration, gazing anew at her home as it spun into view.

Snowy mountains decked in dark green forest. The regular chequerboard of towns and Groves and fields standing out in geometric contrast to the sinuous coastlines separating them from azure ocean waters, all spattered with a froth of gleaming cloud.

And set against them all, like a diamond on a field of turquoise, the Tenacity station floated in space, the octagonal edge of its great wheel discernible even from this distance. An international hub for kerbonauts from across the world to meet and train before being assigned to the colony ship construction sites or one of the many other programs now coming together under Project Starseed. Soaring from sunrise to sunset over the seas and continents of Kerbin; an eternally circling symbol of hope for all the kerman, kermol and Kerm below.

One world.

No borders.

United at last.

 

<< Chapter 113     Chapter 115>>

Edited by KSK

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I picked one hell of a time to come back to reading this after a couple-month break...

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Posted (edited)

That you did - and thank you for coming back! :)

I've been wanting to share this next one for quite a while.

It's been a long time coming and we still have the epilogue to go, but now, for better or for worse, the final chapter is up.

 

Now – and Forever

I'm the king of my own land.
Facing tempests of dust, I'll fight until the end.
Creatures of my dreams, raise up and dance with me.
Now and forever...I’m your king.

M83 - Outro

 

The SK1G “Poodle” engine shut down as smoothly as the Rockomax engineers responsible for building it could have wished. Even so, the crew of the Kerbin class orbital transport were thrown forward against their harnesses like every kerbonaut before them. Wilford sneaked a look at the zero-G indicator mounted on the upper instrument panel but the sight of Commander Kerbiman Kerman bobbling at the end of his tether merely confirmed what the familiar lightness of limb and fleeting queasiness in the pit of his stomach were already telling him. He smiled at Barrie’s old mascot and keyed his microphone.

“Second stage shutdown confirmed, Flight. Standing by for separation.”

Wilford felt the gentle thump of the Roncott actuators against his back as they pushed his spacecraft away from the nearly-spent booster stage, before the service module thrusters fired a short burst to complete the separation manoeuvre. Beside him, at the pilot’s station, Jondun had already called up the orbital flight readouts on her main multifunction display. The numbers on the screen shifted fractionally as the computer recalculated their trajectory. 

“We’re tracking you at two-one-nine by two-twenty-one, Wilford. Please confirm?”

“Wilford confirms two-one-nine by two-twenty-one dot four,” Jondun replied, checking the radar display. “Second stage clear for disposal burn.”

Although the test flights - uncrewed and crewed - of the Kerbin spacecraft had adhered to the same numbering convention used by every KIS rocket since Kerbal 1, the sheer number of flights: construction crew transfers, logistics and supply runs, and finally prime crew launches, required for Project Starseed, quickly rendered that convention too cumbersome for routine air-to-ground communications. Wilford himself couldn’t remember the production number of his spacecraft, although the Barkton Rocket-Spotters almost certainly could, he thought. Instead, the Kerbin Space Agency had borrowed the Pioneer and Prospector convention of using the spacecraft commander’s name as its radio call sign.

Cold gas thrusters pulsed in the vacuum, slowly rotating the booster stage end-over-end until the gaping maw of the SK1G engine bell pointed forward along its direction of flight. Residual vapours provided just enough pressure to force the last litres of propellant into the combustion chamber. An ignition cartridge flared green and the engine thundered to life for the last time, pushing the now empty rocket stage safely out of orbit and on its way to a fiery but harmless demise in Kerbin’s upper atmosphere.

“Disposal burn complete, Wilford. Guidance is standing by to verify your transfer.”

“Got the numbers right here, Flight,” said Jondun, reading them off her display. “Do you concur?”

“We concur.  FD tells me you should have a good sun angle for the rendezvous.”

Wilford glanced at the silent third member of his crew. “Good to hear, Flight,” he said. “It’s a small dark target against a big dark background after all. We’ll have plenty of time to suit up before the intercept.”

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

The cabin pressure gauge fell to zero and the mini-thrusters arrayed around Wilford’s nose fired in short, jolting bursts as Jondun made the final compensations to their velocity. Down by the open airlock hatch, under the twin decks of couches, Wilford felt the spacecraft jerk under his feet and then steady. He turned to his companion, the concern on his face hidden by his mirrored spacesuit visor.

“Are you sure you’ll be alright?” he asked. “I can solo the EVA if you’d prefer?”

Richlin’s faint smile was hidden behind his own visor. “I’ll be fine but it’s good of you to ask. Go on - I’ll see you out there.”

Wilford patted him awkwardly on the shoulder before pulling himself through the airlock and out into space. He clipped his safety line to the nearest tether point and hooked his feet under a conveniently placed pair of restraining bars. “Flight, EVA-1. Egress complete.”

“Copy EVA-1.”

Wilford watched two helmet lamps appeared over the airlock rim, followed by Richlin’s head. As soon as his crewmate was clipped and clear, he leaned forward to check his tethers. The two kerbonauts inspected each other’s suit readouts then, as if by some unspoken agreement, turned to face the other spacecraft that they had come to find.

The old Mark 1 Moho capsule floated off Wilford’s nose, reaction control module still attached, ablative hull panels pocked with micrometeorite damage and faded by long exposure to sunlight and vacuum. So far as Wilford could see, the cabin was intact not, he knew, that it mattered. “Flight, EVA-1. Rendezvous complete; target within tether range.”

“Flight copies, EVA-1,” came the solemn reply. “How does she look since the last maintenance flight?” 

“A little faded but still going strong, Flight,” Wilford said. “We built this one to last.”

“That we did. Please confirm EVAs 1 and 2 at safe distance?”

“Restrained and tethered, Flight. Go for remote access.”

There was a long pause. Wilford shifted in his restraints, playing his helmet lights across the end of the Moho capsule. A crack appeared in its hull and then the entire nose assembly swung outward, revealing a glinting shape inside. He bowed his head and clicked his radio over to the crew’s private channel.  “After you, Richlin,” he said quietly.

There was no reply. Richlin braced himself against Wilford’s hull, bending awkwardly in his EVA suit. Wilford clipped the buddy loop on the other kerbonaut’s safety line to his own belt and wedged his own boots more deeply into their restraints.

“Braced.”

Richlin propelled himself across the gap between the two spacecraft, safety line and tethers flapping stiffly behind him. He caught hold of the nose assembly, bending his arms to absorb his momentum before swinging his boots down onto the capsule sill. Wilford watched him working, unclipping two of his tethers and attaching them to something inside before heaving it free.

“Secured.”

Working hand over hand, Wilford reeled in Richlin’s safety line, letting him drift the last few metres before reaching out with both arms to catch him. He waited until his crewmate’s feet were safely restrained before the kerbonauts each took hold of a tether and, at Richlin’s signal, began to pull. In the privacy of his suit helmet, Wilford swallowed hard as a gleaming aluminium casket slipped out from the shadow of the Moho capsule and drifted towards them.

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

“Flight, EVA-2. Outer hatch sealed.”

Richlin emerged from the airlock to find the casket secured to the capsule floor and both Wilford and Jondun floating beside it in respectful silence. He bent over and slid back a panel at one end, staring at the face inside for a long moment. “We made it, old friend,” he murmured. “Just one last adventure to go for the both of us.”

Wilford cleared his throat. “Flight, Wilford actual. Four kerbonauts aboard.”

“Copy, Wilford,” came the solemn reply. “Timing on the next transfer burn is non-critical so…” The radio clicked over to another channel. “…I’m gonna lock the doors down here. Once you’re repressurised, we can take it easy for an orbit or two. Maybe remember some of the good times.”

“I’d like that, Flight,” said Richlin. “Reckon Ornie would have approved too.”

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

“Pop-up manoeuvre complete, Flight,” Jondun reported. “Leading target by two hundred kilometres.”

“Good burn, Wilford. Target orientation confirmed for CTC approach.”

“We have them on visual, Flight,” said Richlin. “Although that’s really not difficult. Docking cameras have them dead ahead.”

“Understood. Please proceed to one hundred kilometres and stand by for hand-off.”

“Copy, Flight.” Jondun nudged her thruster controls. “Proceeding to hand-off distance, inbound at five dot two.”

Richlin stared out of the rendezvous window. Already the gleaming star in the distance was expanding, becoming ever brighter as it did so. He squinted, trying to make out more detail. “Can’t see the rings yet,” he said. “Just a bigger blob.”

“You’d be doing well to see anything else from here,” said Wilford. “Take a look at the camera feed though.”

“Oh wow!”

Behind them the thrusters rattled briefly. “Holding at one hundred,” Jondun called. “Ready for hand-over, Flight.”

“Handing over now, Wilford.”

A familar Wakiran accent filled the cabin. “Wilford, Starseed Control. We see you at one hundred, cabin-to-cabin. Please close to ten kilometres and prepare for final approach.” 

The former Moho pilots turned to one another and grinned. Jondun rolled her eyes at them before toggling her headset. “And a peaceful morning to you, Sigbin. Wilford proceeding to ten.”

The blob in Richlin’s rendezvous window grew steadily larger, acquiring shape and definition as it drew closer. At one kilometre the colony ship was impressive, at point one kilometre it was simply immense. The bridge module loomed in front of them; the four symmetrical petals of the docking port cover already open, strips of running lights on their undersides glowing brightly. Above the port, the ship’s name was stencilled across one of the hull plates in neat Kerba script:
 

KSV 0001
Lodan Kerman

 

Richlin stared at the bridge crew silhouetted behind their windows and shook his head in amazement. “It still seems unbelievable. From kerbal-in-a-can Moho capsules to that!”

“It’s something,” Wilford agreed. 

The edges of the Forward Crew Shelter were visible behind the bridge, hub for the eight great pressurised spokes linking it to the main habitation and cargo modules which ran the length of the ship. Amidships, the Rearward Crew Shelter and its spokes provided a second supporting hub, both shelters threaded on the great main truss that formed the spine of the ship and supported the propellant tanks and other vital systems. Aft of the shelters, a lattice of open girders secured the far ends of the habitation and cargo modules to the spine. Beyond that, at a carefully calculated distance from the rest of the ship, a convex disk blotted out the stars, the shadow shield slicing a dark oval from the blue glow of Kerbin's horizon.

And beyond the shadow shield...Wilford shivered. Wernher's masterpieces.

The LV-Ns. 

As far from the bridge and crew compartments as the KSA engineers could put them and the reason why all docking operations with a colony ship were undertaken from a strictly cabin-to-cabin approach.

A muffled clang interrupted his thoughts followed by the familiar ripple-bang of docking latches snapping shut. Wilford unstrapped from his couch and picked up his helmet. Jondun tapped him on the shoulder. "I'll pass that through in a minute along with your EVA suit. Time you two were aboard." To Wilford's surprise she threw her arms around himself and Richlin. "Good luck boys - and for Kerm's sake be careful out there!"

"We will," said Wilford, hugging her back. "Keep an eye on Sherf for me - and don't let Jeb do anything that James wouldn't do."

Jondun snorted. "I'll let Gene take care of that. Now go on - or do I have to kick you through that hatch myself?" 

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

The ring of lights turned green and the airlock door swung inward, settling into its wall recess with a soft thud. Richlin emerged, nodded at the waiting bridge crew lining the corridor and turned away. The airlock cycled. The airlock cycled again.

Wilford and Richlin drifted past their respectfully silent comrades in single file, carrying Ornie's casket between them. They stopped at the far end of the gangway where a grave-faced Camrie awaited them, a kerbal sized flag-of-all-Kerbin folded over her arm which she draped over the casket. "Welcome aboard, Commander. I'll take it from here."

Wilford looked at his partner and colony administrator. "Thank you," he said simply. "Richlin would like to lend you a hand." He nodded at his two crew-members, turned away and pushed off for the access way to the bridge.

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

The next morning Wilford floated out from the sanitation compartment and began making his way back to the bridge, listening to the sounds of the forward shelter crew stirring behind him. He pulled himself up the access tube, the lack of perspective change as he emerged still disorienting after the ingrained habits acquired from Prospector and Pioneer flights.

Shaking his head he eased himself over to the command station to find Camrie already strapped into her couch. He clasped her hand briefly, before turning to the bridge windows himself, both kerbals staring out at the blue sky and white clouds of home.

The last blue sky I’ll be seeing for a long time.

The rest of the command crew began to file onto the bridge behind him, amidst the metallic clicks of restraint harnesses snapping into place and the tapping of keyboards. Out of the corners of his eyes he saw the shifting blurs of screens coming to life, displaying final system reports. Automatically, he glanced at the advisory panels, set just so by the arm of his acceleration couch, before strapping in himself. Outside, the familiar coastline of southern Kolus rolled past, the dusky western shores of the Great Tranquil Sea just coming into view. It seemed like a good omen. 

Time to go. 

He leaned forward and clicked a switch on the arm of his acceleration couch. “Barkton, Starseed. Requesting proximity check.”

“Copy, Starseed. Your orbit is clear.”

For a moment, Wilford stared at his comms panel, gathering himself. He glanced at Camrie, receiving a reassuring nod in reply. Then he cut in the ship-wide channel.  "This is Wilford. All crew, secure for departure.” 

A frisson of anticipation rippled around the bridge, the command crew sitting ramrod straight at their stations. 

"Bridge secure and ready, sir.”

"Forward shelter ready.”

"Rearward shelter ready!"

Wilford turned his head to one side and checked his advisory panels. “Systems?”

“Self-tests complete, Commander. Our board is green.”

“Guidance?”

RCS pressures right between the lines. SAS is in auto-one. Full thrust vector authority on all LV-Ns." 

“Helm?”

“Orienting to departure attitude, sir. Burn program loaded for trans-Duna injection.

“Engineering?”

“We're all Go, Commander.” 

A trickle of sweat rolled down the back of his neck. “Very well. Take us out.”

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

“Copy that, Commander!”

A cheer ran around the C7 ready room, now packed wall-to-wall with test pilots and engineers. Al Kerman stood by the door, the Special Projects director’s eyes locked on the television screen and its view across the colony ship bridge as the camera zoomed in on The Book mounted in its receptacle above the forward windows; its pages containing the names of all the thousands of kerbals, past and present, who had made – and continued to make – Project Starseed a reality.

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

“Safety interlocks and thermal failsafes, Go.”

“Locks and blocks are Go. Ejecting neutron dampers.”

“Ejected.”

At the flight director’s console, Geneney sat upright, hands gripping the arms of his chair, Jeb, Lucan and Wernher standing behind him. The space around the other consoles was jammed with engineers and backup flight controllers, eyes locked on the flight readouts for their own particular speciality.

On the main screen, a cluster of rods drifted out from behind the shadow shield, gleaming in the setting sun; shrinking to mere pinpricks as the camera slowly zoomed out to keep them in view. The pinpricks flared brightly for a second, small solid rocket motors firing to push them out of orbit.

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

“Opening coolant valves to shadow shield.”

“Open.”

“Control drums to start-up.”

“Confirmed. Initiating bootstrap sequence on secondary loops…”

A deadly silence descended in every conference room, meeting room and breakout room across the KNSA’s manufacturing site. More than one of the hundreds of kerbals working on the LV-N production line crossed their fingers behind their backs; their moment of truth fast approaching.

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

“Secondary loops are stable. Starting generators…”

“Generators online. Shield temperature holding, radiation output on the curve. We are Go for main engine start…”

Beyond Munar orbit, aboard Prospector 5, four kerbals floated by their habitation module windows aboard watching a dwindling blue dot and listening to their colleagues making the final preparations for the burn that would send them far beyond Kerbin and its moons.

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

“Synchronising control drums to primary turbopumps. Go for throttle-up on your mark, sir.”

Wernher clenched his jaw, Hading’s words racing round and round his head. Thermal gradients…neutron moderator…interestingly non-linear feedback…He shoved his suddenly trembling hands deep into his pockets.

At the back of the Barkton Mission Control Centre, Leland Kerman stood with his cameraman Don, the veteran broadcasters surrounded by a throng of senior KSA staff, all watching the view from the Lodan Kerman on the main display screen. Leland spotted Director Lodan himself standing off to one side, accompanied by Sambus Kerman, personal aide to President Obrick.

Someone behind him coughed, making Don jump. He glanced across at the KSA director, whose fists were balled by his sides. Sambus stared unseeingly at the main screen.

Trickles of sweat ran down Geneney’s forehead, Jeb’s hand squeezing his shoulder in a vice-like grip. Beside them, Lucan’s eyes were screwed shut.

“Three…two…one…mark.”

The image on the main screen shifted, replaced by a screenful of numbers before flicking back to a view along the colony ship. As Leland watched, a glowing fringe appeared around the shadow shield, like Kerbol eclipsed by the Mün. He crossed his fingers behind his back.

“LV-Ns at rated thrust, Commander. All drive cores stable.”

Mission Control broke into a wild storm of applause. Leland saw Wernher mop his brow and turn to say something to Jeb. Lodan and Sambus made their way down to the flight director’s console, the crowd of KSA managers parting around them. Geneney lifted his hands for silence and the applause abruptly died away, letting the steady stream of status reports from the Lodan Kerman fill the room.

“Approaching transfer velocity. Stand by for shutdown sequence…”

The jargon dense checklist rattled out of the control room speakers. There was a long silence and then Wilford’s measured tones washed over them all. 

“Barkton, this is Starseed. We’re on our way. Repeat, we are on our way.”

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

Don smiled up at the sky, only half-listening to Leland’s broadcast. Crickets chirped in the warm night, the murmur of voices still drifted out of the Barkton Mission Control Centre behind him and all the lights shining from the Space Centre buildings couldn’t obscure the constellations scattered across the velvet night. One of those constellations, he knew, was the colony ship and its attendant flotilla of shuttles and tanker craft, all setting out on the long voyage to Duna.

It would not be the last.

“And so the KSV Lodan Kerman - call sign Starseed I - sets out for Duna, its crew carrying with them the hopes and fears of our entire world. All we can do now is to wish them the strength to follow their course and the wisdom of the Awakened Kerm to guide them on their way.”

Leland paused. 

“We’ll be back in the morning to report on the spin-up manoeuvre but for now we bid you all, Kerm and kerbal alike, a peaceful night. I am Leland Kerman and this is KBS News signing off.”

 

 

<< Chapter 114     Epilogue>>

Edited by KSK

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