The teenager stood in the middle of the road, shaking with both fear and cold, his clothes barely adequate for a night in the mountains even in late summer. Straight ahead, shiny eyes stared at him from the pre-dawn gloom; a long, low building blocked his way to the right, and the forest to the left was darker than his darkest dreams. But it was what lay behind him that scared him the most: the castle wall with its open gate, a patch of light in which floated robed and hooded silhouettes. He was trapped, and it was his own damned fault too.
He had jumped at the chance, of course. What teenager would pass up the opportunity to visit another planet? Especially now that the magic of hyperdrive had cut down the trip to no more than a few weeks. And his father had money; it wasn't like they were going to travel packed like sardines in economy class.
There were plenty of reasons for people to travel between Earth and its extra-solar colonies: tourism, science, cultural exchanges, visiting relatives or simply emigration. The boy's father had yet another. Common wisdom maintained that there was no way to make interstellar commerce profitable -- basically anything you could manufacture, you could manufacture in any star system. And if any man could prove everyone wrong, that was the most illustrious business administrator in the world. So, after the extensive research that was his modus operandi, he had loaded his son and wife on a starliner bound for Mir. It was going to be a long stay.
Now, Mir wasn't just any colony; one of the original three founded before faster than light travel had become possible, it was also one founded on the ideal of freely embraced cooperation, and it showed. Even NuShan, the oldest and most straight-laced polity on the planet, was a libertarian paradise compared to Western Europe, something the teenager's new friends insisted on demonstrating.
Oh, it had been exhilarating to climb on top of the city's geodesic dome -- useless now that the terraforming process was in its final stage -- and the police hadn't even seem very angry when they brought everyone back down. A mad speeder race around the base of the same dome had resulted in a mere warning when it turned out nobody had actually been hurt in the multiple collisions. But he should have known they were pushing their luck when the little island they had discovered right off the coast turned out to house a disused military base. The explosion of whatever was left in those fuel tanks had nearly sunk several boats and downed an unlucky tourist shuttle.
At least he had been alive to hear the dreaded words: "Patrick Lee El-Sabra, you are under arrest for trespassing, destruction and criminal negligence."
Oh, his father's influence had been enough to ensure a discreet and speedy trial. But the sentence was another story. Patrick had been in a daze as the judge announced his decision: five years in a work camp on the yet unpopulated eastern subcontinent. Five years?! His parents were going to be on Mir for six months! His ears were buzzing; he saw his father's Mirian partner conferring with the judge, and when the latter asked him something about accepting a deal, the boy nodded automatically, head swimming.
The same night, a small police suborbital dropped him on a small plateau, high in what his mobile indicated as the MonShaar mountains, about six timezones to the west. He looked up... up at the fortress that seemed to grow out of sheer rock, and his heart sank. A gate opened, through which people in uniform-like robes filed out to meet Patrick's escort. They led him in with few words; his father had been too tired to come, as for his mother, she had refused to even see him since the arrest. For the first time in his life, the boy was alone.
Patrick stood in the middle of the road clutching his little backpack, while above him Mir's distant moons paled. No, not moons, he corrected himself; siblings. His feet were freezing on the cobblestones, but he didn't dare move: from further down the road, half a dozen huge dogs watched him. On the right was a kind of long house, with a high-pitched roof and a porch all along its side. From the left drifted in the smell of pine needles and the call of an owl. And... there was someone there, too.
He nearly jumped out of his skin when a feminine shape peeled off from the shadows and came very close to him. She was about his age, with short slick hair and big eyes, wearing a necklace made of tiny daggers over a rough, airy tunic and matching skirt. She carried a heavy cleaver in a hand with thick, pointed fingernails, and her sandal-clad feet sported toes that were unusually long... and webbed. Her eyebrows were nearly invisible; her nostrils, he realized, could close.
Then she grinned, revealing two rows of small pointy teeth.
"Come with me if you want to live," she said.
He turned. The suborbital was just taking off again, its positioning lights shooting off into the sky, and the robed people were coming their way, faces still hidden. The girl turned on her heels and ran into the forest, Patrick stumbling and tripping after her like a puppy.
It was a chalet build on sloping terrain, under a cliff that loomed darkly over the treetops. The light was still growing when the girl led Patrick in through a side door, directly into a kitchen adjoining a small dining room. The floor was cement, and exposed pipes coiled around each other like ugly snakes just waiting for him to come close.
"So... what's your name?" he asked, dropping his backpack on a chair. "What is this place?" He ducked under a low beam in the nick of time. The aroma of fresh vegetables reached his nostrils, and his stomach growled. "What's for breakfast?"
She swirled and poked him in the chest with the cleaver. "You are, if you keep asking stupid questions. Now shut up and help me with these."
He took a step back, then another. One more, and he bumped into a wall that hadn't been there on the way in.
It was a young man, about as tall and wide as the door leading deeper into the house, dressed similarly to the girl and with random patches of skin on the left side of his body covered in big, golden reptilian scales.
"Caught yourself a new one, Carmen?" he asked in a deep voice. "Kinda scrawny." He towered over Patrick, staring down into the boy's eyes. "You do what she says. I'm Naran, by the way."
"P... Rick," stammered the teenager and tiptoed back to Carmen's side. "Tell me what to do," he said meekly.
He had expected to peel potatoes for hours, but it turned out there was in fact an autocook -- a clunky contraption that filled a corner of the kitchen, looking more Art Deco than interstellar age, complete with blinkenlights and puffs of steam, like a mechanical idol waiting to be fed. More people came in while Patrick cleaned up. A short, hairy guy growled at him and went straight for the coffee pot. Then twin younger boys with shaven heads, brightly colored tunics contrasting with their brown skin, stopped in the door, oblivious to his presence.
"I have got to finish the machine by tomorrow," whispered the one on the left, "or Master Rune will have my skin for sure."
"Fat chance," retorted the other, "you would need a blood sacrifice."
"That can be arranged. You know that black rooster who has it in for me?"
They clamped up and peered suspiciously at Patrick, then shuffled off to the far corner of the room, leaving him to sweat. He was almost done when the outside door slammed open and three cloaked figures entered. The new girls all had their hair in a different color, but the same bluish complexion to their skin, and a circuit-like network of silvery lines tattooed on their forearms, with a metallic sheen to it. The teenager blinked. Were they... cyborgs? But the practice was banned... surely on any civilized world?
"New guy," chuckled the first one.
"Yesss..." added the second.
"I'm hungry," stated the third. Right on cue, the autocook opened its iron maw, letting out a hiss and a blast of heat.
To his mild surprise, Patrick was still alive an hour later. Well fed, too. He even knew the names of everyone in the room, and it hadn't driven him insane. Yet.
Across the table from him, Carmen set her chopsticks on a paper towel.
"All right. The first order of business for today is to get Rick here a place to sleep. We're going to reopen the old cabin over by the stream -- this hovel is packed to the rafters already."
The hairy guy grumbled, and Carmen shot him a look that could saw bones. "Unless you want to bunk with me?" He squeaked and shrunk even smaller than he already was.
Like any disused building, the cabin in question had accumulated thick layers of dust, cobwebs and clutter. It was almost noon before Patrick could sit on a boulder, muscles trembling from the effort. No, not noon, he remembered; mid-morning. He still wasn't used to the length of the Mirian day. The stream gurgled happily at his feet, catching the sunlight that filtered through the trees and throwing it back into his eyes. Off in the distance, he could hear the sound of a waterfall... and footsteps.
Naran sat heavily on the ground next to him. "Can I ask you a question?"
The teenager nodded briskly.
"You're from off-world." It wasn't a question. "Let me guess, Earth?"
"H... how do you know?"
The giant pinched his biceps. "Hardly any muscle on you. Lower gravity and all that."
"O... okay. Yes, it's true."
Naran nodded. "So, how did you end up here? You're a long way from home."
"I... er..." What was he supposed to say? I nearly killed scores of innocents? The words stuck in his throat. "I don't even know what 'here' is..." he managed to say.
"You don't?!" Naran scratched his head. "Well, we call it..."
He cut off. Someone was coming towards them from the other side of the stream, dressed in a robe that was equal parts monk's cloth, military uniform and badass longcoat, with a hood draped over his back. Patrick watched frozenly as the newcomer crossed the water on a log no wider than his foot without even slowing down.
It was a man, resembling an angel from a Renaissance painting, only less androgynous and with deep lines on his otherwise youthful face. Naran stood up as he approached. "Master Rune," he greeted.
The man nodded in response and looked at Patrick. The giant took the hint and walked back towards the cabin with big heavy steps.
"How are you holding up, Patrick?"
The teenager stood up, wringing his hands. "I... didn't have time to think about it."
"Good. That was the idea." The man smiled. "Called your parents yet?"
"I... I can do that?"
"Of course. You still have your mobile, don't you?"
Patrick patted his pocket instinctively and nodded.
"Look, I don't know how much they told you over in NuShan, but this isn't a prison."
The boy didn't say anything.
"No, seriously." Master Rune pointed with a thumb back over his shoulder. "You can walk right out that gate and no-one will try to stop you."
"And the next thing I know, they put me in work camp for violating my parole," Patrick said bitterly. "Gee, thanks. I feel so free right now."
"Oh? And what are we supposed to do?" asked the older man mildly.
"I don't know... refuse to take part in this masquerade?"
"And let you toil for five long years out in the wastes?" He cocked his head, as if listening to a distant call. "I'm needed elsewhere. But my door is open if you want to talk."
He went back across the stream in a hurry.
"Hey!" Patrick yelled after him. "What is this place anyway?" But the man had already vanished among the trees. The teenager sighed and turned back towards the cabin, only to find himself staring into Carmen's grin.
"Break's over," she said, and led the way.
The call animation stayed on screen for a long time.
"Patrick," his father said abruptly the moment he picked up. He looked really, really tired. And sad.
"How... how are you? Is there anything you need? I'm sorry, I should have..."
"Never mind, dad. How is mom?"
"She'll forgive you."
They looked at each other in silence for a long while.
"Listen, son... I talked to our lawyer. The authorities might agree to let you go free after just one year."
The Mirian year was four hundred days long, minus some change. Not that the difference mattered much at this point.
"So? You'll only be here for half that long."
"No. We're extending our stay. It's better for the new business anyway."
"Really? That's... thanks, dad." He touched the little screen with a few fingers, and his father did the same on his side. There was more silence.
"Patrick... take care. We'll come visit as soon as we can."
The teenager nodded. "Thanks, dad. Tell mom I love her."
Patrick looked at the sun that was now leaning westwards, and got up from the little cabin's porch. It was very, very quiet, and he needed to be around someone... anyone.
Between the stream and the impassable cliffs at the back of the natural fortification there was a relatively flat stretch of land, with rare trees and tall grass. Behind a disused shed were strewn worn out pieces of carved stone. A few looked disquetingly like funerary monuments. Patrick passed by them as fast as he could, and that was when he noticed the small clearing.
It was no more than ten meters across, bathed in sunlight and with the grass all trampled around the hideous machine in the center. Spindly articulated legs supported a metal frame inside which gears turned hypnotically. Pedipalp-like limbs moved up and down with the grinding tick-tock noise, but otherwise there was no sign anyone was there. Morbid fascination pushed Patrick forward; as there was no reaction, he leaned closer to better examine the back of the machine, where several dials and hands turned, slowly but inexorably converging towards some mysterious alignment. At the highest point of the frame, an urn held a reddish liquid which dripped through a maze of channels that reached all the moving parts, before collecting in a tray at the bottom. There was a pit under the mechanism, and Patrick leaned just a little further.
"Now, what in the world should we do with you?" asked a youthful voice. It was the twins, standing between him and the relative safety of the forest with serious faces.
"You have found our secret. This cannot be," added the other brother.
"Now you will have to join us."
"If Master Rune allows it."
Patrick blanched. "You... you're kidding, right?"
"Oh no," said the older man, coming from behind to stand in front of him, hands on his hips. "They are quite serious."
The teenager felt dizzy all of a sudden, and then he was kneeling in the grass, the twins laughing their heads off in stereo.
"You remind me of a very good friend," Rune began. "He was also from Earth, and afraid of everything. The retreat wasn't even as scary back then, but still he cried for days after he arrived."
They were sitting on a bench not far from the gate, watching what seemed to be a martial arts lesson right where the road bent around the longhouse. Patrick noted that every master's robe was in fact different. One of the dogs ventured by, tail wagging slowly, and Rune petted him. After some hesitation, the teenager did, too.
"So... why didn't he just leave?" he asked.
"He was a refugee from the Second Corporate War. Nothing to go back to, no ship to take him there... He had literally nowhere to go. Stuck here, just like you are now."
"It's not the same thing!"
"Isn't it? If he couldn't leave any more than you can, was he any less of a prisoner?"
Patrick fell silent for a while. "What happened to him?"
"Well, in the end he came to terms with himself. Learned enough skills to go out into the world, and never looked back." The older man sighed.
"What kind of skills?" The boy looked meaningfully towards the open air class.
"Carmen still hasn't told you? I swear, that girl... Anyway, we're Dhiira. It means wise, learned, steadfast, brave -- all the ideals to which we aspire."
"You're warrior-monks." Patrick snapped his fingers. "I've read about that on the 'net. Should've guessed."
The master chuckled. "Most people see us that way, yes. But what we really are is hackers."
"Hackers? Isn't that, like, illegal?"
"Hrm. Only on Earth, Patrick. But even here, most people don't like being reminded how fragile their world really is. So we've learned to mostly stay away from society unless society asks for our help."
The teenager nodded. "Don't you feel lonely?"
"Sometimes, a little." Master Rune smiled. "But now you're here."
Patrick stared at him in surprise. The setting sun gave the older man's face a golden sheen. "Oh no! It's almost dinner time! Carmen will have me as the main course if I'm not there to help!"
He ran away among the trees, followed by a friendly gaze.
It took Patrick another week to give up his self-cleaning spandex for an apprentice's tunic. But he wasn't even wearing as much while he sat with Naran on a house-sized rock, watching Carmen dive into the little waterfall's pool five meters below. To his mild disappointment, she was wearing a fairly modest bathing suit -- and in all honesty, he was grateful to have shorts on right now.
"So, what's the deal with her?" he asked the bigger boy.
"What do you mean?... Oh."
"Yeah, that. She's no alien -- there's no such thing as aliens -- but she can't be human either... can she?"
"Think about it. She's a hacker. And nowadays we can tweak genes or perform surgery from within with nanobots."
"So... she hacked her own body? But why? The whole reason we're on another planet at all is that Homo Sapiens is flexible."
"Indeed. Jacks of all trades, masters of none. Sometimes that's more constraining than liberating."
Carmen had resurfaced behind the curtain of water, and was swimming back their way.
"I just wish I could hack her attitude as well." quipped Patrick.
"You and me both, pal. You and me both."
Autumn was coming by the time Patrick's parents made time to visit.
He waited for them outside the gate, dressed in the cloak younger Dhiira usually wore away from the retreat. They weren't as cool as a master's robe, but the latter created much higher expectations. As it was, the farmers down in the valley were always happy to see them, and so were the unfortunates stuck with guard duty at that military listening post nobody was supposed to know about. After all, it was only reachable from the air. Unless you were Dhiira, that is.
Movement among the trees made him alert. A steel scarab trundled up the sweeping curves of the road, regularly going in and out of view. With its eight independent wheels, the truck could have ignored the road entirely, but today it had passengers. Patrick wondered why his parents hadn't simply chartered a suborbital. Maybe they wanted to visit the nearby metropolis of ValShaar while they were in the area. He certainly understood the attraction, but the terms of his parole didn't allow him to go that far even with supervision.
His had been a small world as of late, and he could only spend so much time online until that, too, became trite.
The visitor helped his wife climb down from the cab, and they stood aside for a moment, wind howling around them, while the truck eased in through the gate. Someone was coming to meet them, a local by all appearances, strong sunburnt arms covered in cuts and scrapes. He took off his hood as they turned to face him.
"Mom, dad," said Patrick simply.
"Hello, Patrick," his father greeted. His mother didn't say anything.
The teenager examined them lovingly. They seemed older than last time he had seen them, and shorter too. His father had on one of his usual business suits which looked so quaint here on Mir. As for his mother, her attire amounted to grieving clothes.
And then she was smothering him with hugs, sobbing loudly. "My boy! What have they done to you?"
He squeezed her awkwardly. "Mom... mom? I'm fine. Look at me!"
"I think your mother is trying to say that you've changed, son."
Patrick wiped a tear of his own. "So have you. Come inside, it's going to rain."
Several dogs gathered around them on the way in, sniffing and snorting, until the teenager called each of them by name and rubbed their ears.
"What a dump," muttered Patrick's mother as they sat down in the chalet's cramped dining room, bowls of hot soup steaming on the table. "I've seen better equipped prisons."
"Good thing Carmen isn't around to hear you."
"Never mind. How've you been? Dad never tells me anything on video."
His father coughed. "Where is everyone, anyway? Are we even supposed to be here?"
"They're busy giving us personal space.", Patrick grinned. "And it's highly irregular, but that's exactly how we like things around here."
"We?" His mother peered at him suspiciously.
The teenager choked. "Uh... anyway, how's business?"
"Bad." His father's mood darkened. "Tensions have been rising between Mir and Earth. People on both sides are afraid to trade with each other." He sighed. "Between legal expenses and plain old losses, we're really strapped for cash now."
"I'm so sorry..." Patrick whispered, staring at his boots.
"Well, it can't be helped. Eat your soup, it's going cold."
He focused on his bowl, and didn't seem to notice when his wife pulled their son into the adjoining kitchen.
"What is it, mom?"
"I know my boy. You would never complain to your father. But I made friends of my own in NuShan these past few months. Whatever you need, I can pull strings for it. You can tell your mother."
Patrick's shoulder's slumped. For a moment, it looked like he would cry again. "All I want is to go home..."
She hugged him tight and didn't say another word until he led them back to the truck a few hours later.
Carmen was arguing with the little hippie again.
At least Patrick assumed that was the look Robert was aiming for, with his big hair and torn clothes, but as the girl bluntly put it, the end result was closer to a caveman. Especially with his short, stout body.
"Why do I have to work? We have machines to cook for us, clean after us, build homes for us! Why should I have to lift a finger?" he roared, stomping his foot.
"And how do you propose to put food into the autocook?"
"I could build a machine for that too."
"So, build one."
"That would be more work," grumbled Robert.
A few meters away, Patrick loaded one last shovel of rubble into a mulebot about as big as a pair of oxen and tapped its hood twice. The machine awoke and tromped away through the forest, flashing its headlights. The retreat had been growing in population lately, and older structures had to be torn down to balance out the new ones. Increasing the land area was not an option. Worse, the whole thing had to be done before the first snow, and the retreat's handful of construction robots were more needed elsewhere.
He set the shovel aside, wiping his forehead as he walked towards the rest of the group.
"We work because there's work to be done, Robert," he said. "Or do you want to live like an animal?"
"Nobody asked you, convict!" snarled the hippie.
There was a stunned silence. They all knew, of course. Had known ever since a miscalculation trapped them in a small grotto higher up the mountain, while the mother of a storm raged outside. They had never seen him with the same eyes again, but none of them had been so rude about it.
"That's right," answered Patrick quietly. "I'm a convict. I'm forced to live here. What's your excuse?"
"I've been wondering myself," said Luna. Or maybe Venus. The three cyborg sisters talked the same and walked the same. "You don't like us, you don't like it here... no offense, but maybe you should just, you know."
Robert glowered at each of them in turn, then slumped to the ground. "I can't," he groaned. "I lied to my parents. Didn't want to go to college, you see."
"That's your problem?" asked Naran incredulously. "Why don't you talk to Master Rune about it?"
"Are you kidding? He'd throw me out on my ear!"
"No he wouldn't. Now, Master Shing on the other hand just might."
"You're wasting your time, Naran," fumed Carmen. Clanking steps were signaling the return of the mulebot. "Let him sit there if that's what he wants." She grabbed a sledgehammer and headed back to the demolished building. The others followed her one by one. Robert sat alone for a while, then got up and joined them.
The rising sun hadn't yet reached the rocky crags surrounding the retreat, but the fresh snow on the slopes already shone brilliantly. A bird, barely visible against the sky, swooped down among the naked tree trunks in absolute silence. The only other movement was a telecom laser tracking something unseen from the roof of a chalet, which it shared with a small weather station and other paraphernalia.
Then something stirred in the shadow of the first story balcony. A shovel dropped into the snowdrift below, followed by someone in a billowing gray cloak. Patrick picked himself up from the hole he had made and proceeded to remove the build-up against the ground floor wall, muttering choice words about whoever had the bright idea to place a door facing the prevailing winds.
He was breathing heavily by the time he got the door to open, exhaling miniature clouds into the morning air. He checked the wrist computer he had built around what was left of his mobile after that training accident; Sister Thetys' electronics lessons had paid off. "Truck's already in!" he said to nobody in particular, eyeing the barely visible road in the distance. The forest trail leading there was covered in knee-high snow, but a row of wooden poles spaced about an arm length apart still poked out, their flat tops swept clean by the night's wind. The young man chuckled inwardly, remembering how he used to puzzle over their purpose. Now he jumped on top of the first pole and easily ran down the slope, using them for a staircase.
The truck was in all right, painted red to stand out in the snowy landscape and with a new snowthrower attachment at the front. People milled about it, while hydraulic arms loaded and unloaded robotic carts. Patrick cut through the crowd, aiming for the porch of the longhouse. His parents made a point of meeting his guardians on each visit, and there weren't many places where they could do that.
Master Shing got up as Patrick entered the small lounge. He was a small man with a round face and a severe expression, who moved precisely and with purpose.
"We'll leave you, then," he told the visitors.
"Once again, thank you for taking care of our son."
Master Shing bowed his head. "I was opposed to his staying here initially. I was wrong." He walked out the door, followed by a quiet Rune, who stopped for a moment to pat the young man's shoulder with a faint smile.
"That's high praise coming from him, you know," said Patrick as he crossed the room. He stopped to check out the kettle on the stovetop. "Mulled wine, mmm."
"You seem well at ease here," quipped his mother.
"Might as well, mom. I have another half a year before I can go home." He slumped in a chair, holding his mug. "Who am I kidding? The judge will probably change his mind at the last moment."
"I promise you'll walk free on schedule," his father said. "That's the good news."
"What do you mean?"
"It's my other promise to you I can't keep, son." He sighed. "We're out of money."
Patrick understood. "You have to return home early after all."
"We'll be back for you. In half a year."
"I'll live." The young man drank from his mug. "I'll live..."
The lounge was quiet for a while, apart from the buzzing of appliances and the activity right outside the door.
"So," he asked, "what's the latest gossip? Any news from back home?"
People fear and hate technology. Even as they enjoy all the comforts of modern life, they demonize the source of those comforts. See, you can't blame the hammer when you hit your finger with it. Or the nail, bad luck, somebody else... A tool forces you to take responsibility for your own actions, and most people fear responsibility more than death. Worse, proper use of a tool requires you to know how things work, and learning about the world around them scares people even more, if anything. So somewhere along the line, telling people to learn the first thing about the stuff that makes their lives so easy has become socially unacceptable. Engineers have been forced to make technology ever more unobtrusive, to the point of blending invisibly into everyday items. Out of sight, out of mind.
Which of course only makes people increasingly helpless when something inevitably goes wrong.
Patrick could see the superstitious respect in the farmer's eyes as he watched the Dhiira at work. He was the resident mechanic, but that meant little more than a technician who could ask the computer for a diagnostic and follow the instructions. If the machine couldn't give him a clear series of steps to follow, he was lost. And in all honesty, the young man could remember a time less than a year ago when he even relied on the speeder to call the emergency services by itself if it broke down. Peeking under the hood was part of a secret ritual reserved for the manufacturer's priesthood. Dealerships as temples...
Sister Luna stood off to a side, looking dignified in her cloak, which was more ornate than his to show higher rank. It was strictly for show, of course, but the rest of the world didn't need to know that. She also had fingerless gloves on, elbow-length to mask her tattoos and covered in interlocking bits of metal and plastic.
"Try it now!" he said as he crawled out of the micro-jungle in the hardware cabinet and recovered his own cloak.
In response, she raised a hand and the imposing computer console nearby sprung to life, windows with scrolling text popping into and out of existence all over the panoramic monitor. Beyond the bay windows behind it, the vast glasshouse was awakening, lights coming on as drones took to the air, sprinklers started up and bridge cranes whirred into motion.
"Do us a favor," Patrick told the stunned farmer. "When they come for the spring revision? Don't tell them it was us."
The man nodded, and that's when Luna grabbed Patrick's arm. "Look." It was hard to see with all the plant life, but outside the building people were running.
"Something's wrong," he answered, and they all but flew down the stairs. Behind them, the mechanic scratched his head and sat down to watch his miraculously revived machinery.
The bridge over the river was a thing of beauty, with sweeping arches made of transparent materials, which made it blend into the landscape like something out of a dream -- ghostly offspring of the surrounding hills, perched high above the rapid waters.
It was also a century old by now, and likely under-maintained. Which did not mesh well with the rapidly-melting snow from upstream making the river swell to several times its normal flow.
By the time Patrick got there, the ends of the bridge had already collapsed, trapping two little children on the better-supported middle section. One of the farmers, secured with a cable, was inching along a surviving support beam towards them, while a dozen others watched.
Then that beam gave up as well, throwing the rescuer against the riverbank, while the kids slid off the suddenly leaning bridge and into the frothing water. Somehow, one of them managed to grab a rock, and they held on for dear life while the crowd above stared in horror.
"Somebody jump after them!" shouted a thick masculine voice.
"Are you nuts?" replied a similar one. "Nobody can survive for long down there!"
"I can," said Carmen, a haunted look in her eyes. Nobody had seen her coming, and they didn't make a move while she took off most of her clothes. She dove just as the little boy lost his grip and disappeared under the waves along with his sister.
Naran was running towards the group with a second roll of cable.
"The other bridge!" Patrick shouted at him. "Past the bend!" and ran that way along with everyone else.
"I saw her jump," puffed Naran while he dropped an end of the cable into the water and wrapped it around a guardrail. The second bridge was smaller, but that meant it never needed to touch the water. "If we don't catch them here..."
"How do you know they'll be able to grab that thing?" asked Patrick.
"They won't be." The giant handed him the rest of the cable. "Hang on to this."
"What... Wait. I can't hold that much weight!"
"But I can," somebody said behind them. It was a middle-aged woman in coveralls, almost as big as Naran, with a square face and sandy hair tied in a bun. She wrapped the cable around one of her arms and motioned Patrick to do the same. "We've got your back, young man."
The giant nodded, then with a single motion wrapped the dangling part of the cable around his own body before easing himself down alongside it, head first, using his legs for traction. Foam whirled around his outstretched fingers, while the river roared between its banks. For a long moment, he thought it was in fact too late.
Clawed hands emerged from the madness below, one grabbing his wrist, the other grasping for the cable. It took all his strength not to let go when Carmen pulled herself up, the two children clinging to her. But he held on while half a dozen people hoisted all of them back up.
The girl was still hugging the kids while they huddled together on solid ground, shivering and coughing.
"What's she saying?" somebody asked from the crowd, and Patrick leaned down to better hear what she was murmuring through clenched teeth.
"I've got you this time, baby. I've got you this time..."
It had been a tumultous spring, and news from Earth only added fuel to the fire. First there had been that diplomatic incident involving the World Council ambassador to the Mirian union of city states. (Patrick still had trouble wrapping his head around the local political system.) Then rumors that the same World Council had been taken over by the North Pacific powers. After that, communications had become spotty. Patrick's videos remained unanswered, save for one message from his parents that had been edited to pieces.
The retreat was changing as well. Robert had been gone since winter, of course, but now Carmen was leaving as well, on a long pilgrimage to her home in the Harra mountains. One of the new apprentices, barely a year younger than Patrick, was looking up to him with admiration normally given a father figure, which was a bit much for someone who wouldn't even have been considered an adult back home. But this was another world...
Compared to that, summer had dragged on like a snail laboring up a well-polished slide. Against all odds, life was struggling to settle into a new normal. And that made Patrick afraid all over again. Why was it sometimes so hard to remember what came before?
He was standing outside the gate one early morning, like so many times in recent months, while the twins' astronomical clock tick-tocked the seconds away from its niche in the wall above. The twins themselves had long moved on to other hobbies. Knowing them, it was something equally outrageous, such as building a practical transforming mecha -- the eternal chimera of engineering.
Behind him there was a barely audible shuffling noise. "Good morning, Master Rune," he said without turning.
"Good morning, Patrick." He hesitated. "The judge's office just called. You're officially free to go."
The young man nodded. "And they couldn't come. So much for promises."
"Who knows what's keeping them..."
"Starliners are never late," Patrick interrupted. "It doesn't work that way."
"We'll call the spaceport. Worst case, we'll all chip in for your return ticket."
"My father's partner took care of that. Besides, you've done so much for me already."
"It's what we do, Patrick. Helping people in need. And you've earned all of it."
Embarassed silence descended between them. But it didn't last long.
Shouting and running broke the peace of the retreat, echoing through the gate tunnel behind them. Rune raised his eyebrows and turned to head back in. He was stopped by a hand waved from a second story window.
"Hey! Hey! Tune in on the news."
"Which channel?" Patrick shouted back.
They spent longer than necessary leaning together over the small screen, flipping through channels and bringing up searches.
"Broken diplomatic relations... Closed borders..." Rune groaned. "That means war is imminent."
"Will you go?"
"Many of us will. Our abilities will be needed. Not on the front lines, mind you. I'm too old for that kind of thing anyway."
Patrick took a few faltering steps before his knees felt too weak, and he slid to the ground, leaning against the massive stone wall.
"All I wanted was to go home... Was it so much to ask?"
"Your father's partner can take care of you. Failing that, there's a support center for off-world immigrants down in..."
"What's the point?" Patrick raged. "B... besides... once you're gone, someone will have to stay behind and hold the fort."
He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to fight back tears. It didn't work.
Bucharest, 29 August 2013