The Floating City - Chapter 15

This is a big chapter for me, because it is, according to my notes / plan, halfway through the story! I want to thank everyone who has been following this story for their support, and I promise you an exciting finish!

The Mountain Village

An explosion shook the small testing chamber. Roshan cursed the stone ceiling above him trembled from the wumph of bursting crystals, covering him in masonry dust. This was the tenth such explosion, after the third, the Don had forbade him from experimenting in the vicinity of the village. He and a few other Resistance researchers had taken up residence in a small cave, high up on the mountain slope. The cave had been cleaned and furnished -- people from Alsce, the hidden mountain village of the Resistance, had previously used it as a hunting camp before the Don appropriated it.

Harshun, one of the Resistance’s Engineers, came up to him, shaking his head. Harshun was a fellow Thesian, with long, dreaded hair wrapped into a dense ponytail that he had covered by a brightly embroidered bandana. Roshan liked the big, brash man. He reminded him of Isa, with his excellent Engineering skills -- and penchant for explosions. “Too much charge, I think,” he told the man.

“WHAT?” Harshun asked, wiggling a finger in his ear. He, too, was covered in dust, and Roshan hoped, not for the first time, that the ceilings were well buttressed.

“Oh, knock it off,” Roshan replied acerbically, “that wasn’t nearly a big enough bang to deafen you through a wall.”

“No, guess not,” Harshun chuckled. “They seem to be getting smaller, actually,” he observed. He sounded mournful.

“That’s a good thing,” Roshan reminded him. “I think. It means that the energy transfer is working.”

“You think.”

“Hey, this is uncharted territory. Three months ago we didn’t think it was possible!” Roshan protested. Soon after his arrival in Alsce, Alistair Gaunt, the Don and leader of the Resistance, had sat him down and interrogated him on his Fòrsic knowledge. It had been an intimidating experience. At the end of their discussion, Roshan understood why so many saw this man as a leader. Angular and bony, the Don lived up to his name, while also exuding an intense energy and compelling charisma. His gravitas was helped by the whitest, bushiest mustache that Roshan had ever seen. The Don had questioned him for what felt like hours, and the end result had set Roshan up with a lab, a few Engineers like Harshun, and carte blanche to research whatever he felt necessary. From his experiences with Isa and Rika, Roshan knew that the Resistance relied heavily on innovative Fòrsic technology to maintain an edge over the Prime’s police and soldiers. However, while simple Forsic devices like lamps and hot-plates could be used by anyone, it took a trained Fòrsic engineer or Theorist to use the more complicated devices. People with that training didn’t exactly grow on trees, and the Resistance needed most of them to be out doing things; the result being that the Don, a former Theorist himself, was overjoyed to have a researcher like Roshan able to stay on site.

Roshan had spent months pouring over theory books in the Don’s surprisingly complete library, finally arriving at what he hoped was a solution to the ongoing catastrophic crystal failure that he had termed the Síosar. Fòrsic crystals were amazing in their flexibility, durability, and power, but all of the extraordinary acts they could perform were wholly reliant on the Fòrsic energy inherent in the crystals. That energy acted as a seed, drawing other energy to it, enabling crystals to give light, call lightning, and heal wounds, among other feats. When crystals reached Fòirceann and that Fòrsic energy dissipated, then the crystals were useless. But it was possible, theoretically, to transfer Fòrsic energy from crystal to crystal, and thereby stave off Fòirceann. According to the theory Roshan had pieced together from his extensive research, he should be able to use a specialized crystal to magnify the energy from a smaller, weaker seed crystal, draining it of Fòrsic energy but allowing him to spread that energy to a range of other crystals, empowering and restoring them in a way that was heretofore considered impossible. Initial experiments showed that his theory was mostly correct, but the energy transfer had so far proved… unstable.

“A point, definitely a point,” Harshun said. “I’ll miss the bangs though, when we finally get it right.”

“I won’t,” Roshan muttered, and Harshun laughed. It took almost half a day to make the long slog up the slope to the cave where they carried out their experiments. Roshan thought the exercise good for him, but he deplored anything that wasted the precious time they had remaining. When it came to stopping the Síosar they were up against a time limit that they knew was coming, but very frustratingly did not know when. Crystals in their current iteration could last another hundred years, or they could all be gone tomorrow. Without this crucial knowledge, each of their days was precious.

A knock sounded on the door to the cave, echoing down the entrance tunnel. Harshun yelled, “come in!”

A tousled brown head poked in around the doorframe and said in a high-piched voice, “sirs? Eithne sent me to tell you that it’ll be supper, soon, and you should come back down.”

Harshun gave Roshan a broad wink. “Oh, if Eithne says so, then I guess we must.”

Roshan sighed. “Fine,” he agreed. He turned towards the village boy who had delivered the message. “Hold up, Elias. We’ve got to close up, and then we can all go down together.”

The boy nodded, cheeks ruddy from the cold. “Can we take the sled?” He asked.

Roshan looked at Harshun, who repeated, “can we?” His tone was uncannily similar to the ten year old at the door.

Shaking his head, Roshan said, “I don’t see why not.” Elias clapped his hands in excitement, and Harshun looked as though he wanted to do the same. “I know why Elias is excited, but aren’t you supposed to be an adult?” Roshan accused.

“Some boys never grow up,” Harshun said, shrugging. “Besides, it’s fun!”

“I guess it is,” Roshan replied, grinning.

The two busied themselves securing the lab, as Elias shuffled back and forth impatiently in the doorway. “Hurry up!” He implored as the two grabbed their coats and headed towards the entrance.

“Patience, young one,” Harshun intoned as they wrapped their scarves and shrugged into their heavy jackets.

Elias ignored him, darting outside the door and into the outer cave. There, resting against the wall, was a toboggan of Roshan’s own make and manufacture. He had thought on his own boyhood in the foothills of these same mountains, although admittedly much further to the south and west of their present location, and he’d remembered how much fun sledding was. He had also remembered how miserable trudging through the snow could be, and so, upon learning that he would have to slog up and down a mountain every day to perform his research, had taken some preventive measures.

The toboggan that Elias was carefully removing from where it leaned up against the wall was long, made of the light but sturdy pine that was indigenous to the region. It had cushioned seats for three, with leather straps and a complex steering system of reins and rigging. The crowning achievement, however, was a low slung, wooden box on the back. Right now the box was latched shut, but when opened, it contained a Fòrsic propulsion system.  At full power it simply burned through crystals, but at lower settings could assist with hauling the sled up the mountain… or give you an extra boost on the way down. Eithne had told him that there was a waiting list of volunteers among the village children to run messages up to him… provided that they got to ride the sled on the way down.

Roshan helped Elias drag the sled out of the cave mouth and to the lip of the flat rise where the cave was situated. The cave squatted on the south side of the valley. The north facing slope meaning that the snow fell here more heavily and the winds blew stronger, leading to more twisted, stunted pine trees than in other parts of the valley. Combined with the dense snow pack, this meant that there was remarkably little separating them form the fields of the village below. From a distance, the curling plumes of smoke gave the village a welcoming look, and he was looking forward to dinner and to being warm. He sat in the rear of the sled, with Harshun in the middle and Elias in the front. Elias was positively vibrating from excitement, as Roshan took the reins in one hand and reached back, activating the crystals.

The sled shot forward, careening down the mountainside, and Roshan mentally patted himself on the back again for taking a crew from the village and banking up snow over the worst of the rocks. The sled fell like an arrow, the wind whistling in his ear and the cold air making his eyes water even behind his workshop goggles. Blinking, he swerved right, and then left, dodging around several copses of trees. The ride seemed to last forever, until he overcorrected on a turn nearly to the village and sent the three of them, laughing, into a soft snow bank.

“Again, Again!” Elias cried, but Roshan only ruffled his hair.

“Maybe tomorrow, kid,” he said. “Let’s get home.”

The main lodge of the village was cozy and warm, kept so by several roaring blazes. To avoid the darkness and solitude of the winter months, the villagers of Alsce had constructed a giant log lodge as a central meeting space. There, they served communal meals and played music to wile away the long winter nights. The Don had claimed this lodge as his own hall, when he had first arrived in the village decades ago. While it remained the heart of the village, it now served as the heart of the Resistance, as well.

After a hearty meal of venison stew, Roshan lounged near one of the fires, reading and trying to stay awake. A light touch on his arm snapped his eyes open, and he smiled as he saw a slim, red-haired woman standing in front of him. She was pale, with a thick braid reaching all the way down to her waist. As always, she had on a severe looking pair of spectacles, but the hazel eyes behind them were warm. “Eithne,” he exclaimed, “I missed you at dinner!”

She smiled back at him, somewhat ruefully. “I got held up in the library. You know how it is.”

“I do, indeed,” Roshan chuckled. The library was never closed, but Eithne kept a sharp eye on all its patrons, and several times she had roused him and sent him off to bed when he had dozed off over one tome or another. “Find anything interesting? Why don’t you take a seat?” He asked hopefully, gesturing at one of the padded leather cushions on the couch beside him.

“I can’t, I’m sorry,” she replied, and then as his face fell she added hurriedly, “Or rather, I can, but you can’t.”

“What?” Roshan asked, confused. Then, thinking, he answered himself. “Oh, the Don wants to see me?”

“Yes, but don’t worry, I’ll save your seat for you,” she said, plopping herself down on the cushion beside him.

“Oh, oh, all right, then,” he stammered, standing up and fighting the urge to sit right back down. “I’ll be back soon. I’m sure he just wants today’s report.” 

Eithne shifted over to his cushion and took a scroll out of a shoulder bag that Roshan had not noticed before. “Hurry back,” she said, making herself comfortable.

“I…right, see you,” and he turned abruptly on his heel and strode off towards the Don’s study in the rear of the building. He found Eithne to be a trifle disconcerting. Although there had been plenty of female scholars at Eolas, Roshan had never quite mastered talking to women on topics beyond Fòrsic research. Rika and Isa treated him like a younger brother, which was comforting and reminded him of home, but he felt differently about Eithne. They had such a good rapport when talking about books, so why…? ‘Phaugh’ he grumped to himself, and tried to focus instead on his imminent report to the Don.

Alistair Gaunt’s study was down a narrow hallway in the back of the meetinghouse, on the second floor. It was a small room. Although the workmanlike desk was bare, the office was made even smaller by the voluminous shelves lining the walls, scrolls and tomes packed into every available space. From this office, the Don managed the Resistance, challenging the might of a realm. The man always retired here after dinner, if he had dined at all. The Don kept himself phenomenally busy, a constant stream of visitors and Resistance members moved through his office, and as far as Roshan could tell, he did not appear to sleep.

The one luxury the Don permitted himself was a padded rocking chair, and he spent much of his time leaning backward in it with his feet up on the bare desk. Every time Roshan came to talk to him, he slammed his legs down and bounded up, his moustache quivering with energy. Today was no exception. “Roshan, Roshan, my dear boy,” the Don exclaimed, coming around the desk to shake his hand vigorously, “so glad you could make it down!”

“You summoned me here, Sir?”

“Quite right, quite right,” the Don said as he returned to sit in his rocking chair. “And why do you insist on calling me sir? Just call me Alistair, like everybody else!”

Roshan smiled. “As I’ve said every time, no one calls you just Alistair. They’d probably lynch me if I tried. Sir,” he added insolently. And then, in a more serious tone, “besides, it’s a mark of respect.”

“Oh, all right. I don’t suppose you’d consider it, even in private?”

“I’ll consider it,” Roshan promised, and Alistair smiled at him for a moment. Then, his expression abruptly turned grave.

“Harshun says you are making progress?” the Don inquired.

“What? Uh, yes,” Roshan responded, caught off balance by the sudden shift in subject. “We haven’t had a breakthrough yet, but we’re making progress,” he paused, then said, “I was going to tell you all this in my weekly report…”

Ignoring him, Alistair pressed the tops of his fingertips together thoughtfully, his steel eyes glinting behind his glasses. “So, we are still on schedule.”

Roshan shrugged mentally; evidently the Don did not want to wait to hear about his progress. “Yes. The energy bleed off is becoming less dramatic. I have a few more glyph combinations to try that should reduce it still further.” Roshan said calmly, although his stomach was flip-flopping around. He’d always hated presenting.

“And you think you will be successful before Syd and her team return with the Foinse-stone?”

“I think so,” Roshan answered, trying to sound confident. “I’ve had to invent a whole new runic symbol structure, but it certainly transfers energy successfully.”

“It just makes the receiving crystals explode?”

“Right,” Roshan shrugged. “Preventing those explosions is what we’re working on now. We don’t actually need the Foinse-stone for that, just for using this technique in a wider setting.”

Alistair seemed to be considering that. He stared at Roshan intensely for several moments and then in a low voice asked, “could you reverse the process, stealing energy from other crystals?”

Roshan shrugged again. “Theoretically, if you inverted the right symbols you could, but you would need somewhere to put the energy,” he paused, thinking more about it, and then said slowly, “Although, I don’t know why you would want to do that. It could be a powerful technique, but completely useless for what we are trying to accomplish here. We want to restore energy to crystals, not take it away!” He stared back at Alistair, trying to ignore the sinking feeling this question had caused. He hadn’t yet considered other applications of his research. It would be madness against the looming threat of the Síosar, but… it could be effective against the Prime and the forces of Alis-Dak. He decided he would have to be careful how he approached this issue, and waited patiently for the Don to respond.

While Roshan was thinking over these options, Alistair had continued to gaze at him intently. Now his whole demeanor shifted back to the jovial man he had seemed when Roshan had first walked in. “Of course, of course,” he said heartily, “it was just a touch of academic curiosity.” He made a show of consulting the Fòrsic-clock on the wall, “It is getting late; I will let you get back to your books. Do not think that giving your report early will allow you to slack off on this week’s update, though,” Alistair said, wagging his finger.

“Thank you, Sir. I won’t,” Roshan responded.

As he opened the door, the Don said, “Goodnight, Roshan. Say hello to Eithne for me, would you?” and winked.

“I, uh, yes, Sir. Uh, Goodnight,” Roshan stammered, and left, feeling thoroughly wrong-footed. The Don’s abrupt shift back to conviviality had not erased Roshan’s earlier misgivings about Alistair’s line of questioning. He had felt safe here, supported, and separated from the messy politics of Eolas and Ater-Volantis. Now he no longer certain felt certain that was the case, and the thought disturbed him. He missed Isa and Rika with a sudden pang. They may also be Resistance members, but they had treated him with honesty and forthrightness. What would they do in this situation? The only thing to do, he decided: move forward with his original research. If the Don wanted to misuse it by turning it into a weapon, well, he’d cross that bridge when he arrived there. The world needed a solution to the Síosar, and he would risk almost anything to be the one to provide it. Roshan nodded his head firmly, his decision made, and headed back down the staircase toward where a warm fire, and Eithne, awaited. 

Chapter 16 can be found here.