Ventus
by
Karl Schroeder

Author's note:

The edition of Ventus that you are looking at is my own, and is not a product of Tor Books. As such, only I am responsible for the inevitable typos and other differences between this and the published text. This eBook version is free and cannot be sold.

Printed editions of this book are available for sale from Tor Books (in English) and under license in translated editions. The English mass market paperback edition is

ISBN 0-812-57635-7.


Karl Schroeder

karl@kschroeder.com

www.kschroeder.com


Sept. 1, 2007

...Frankenstein's monster speaks: the computer. But where are its words coming from? Is the wisdom on those cold lips our own, merely repeated at our request? Or is something else speaking? — A voice we have always dreamed of hearing?

— from The Successor to Science, by Marjorie Cadille, March, 2076

Part One
The Heaven hooks

1

The manor house of Salt Inspector Castor lay across the top of the hill like a sleeping cat. Its ivied walls had never been attacked; the towers that rose behind them had softened their edges over the centuries, and become home to lichen and birds' nests. Next to his parents, this place was the greatest constant in Jordan Mason's life, and his second-earliest memory was of sitting under its walls, watching his father work.

On a limpid morning in early autumn, he found himself eight meters above a reflecting pool, balanced precariously on the edge of a scaffold and staring through a hole in the curtain wall, that hadn't been there last week. Jordan traced a seam of mortar with his finger; it was dark and grainy, the same consistency as that used by an ancestor of his to repair the rectory after a lightning storm, two hundred years ago. If Tyler Mason was the last to have patched here, that meant this part of the wall was overdue for some work.

"It looks bad!" he shouted down to his men. Their faces were an arc of sunburnt ovals from this perspective. "But I think we've got enough for the job."

Jordan began to climb down to them. His heart was pounding, but not because of the height. Until a week ago, he had been the most junior member of the work gang. Any of the laborers could order him around, and they all did, often with curses and threats. That had all changed upon his seventeenth birthday. Jordan's father was the hereditary master mason of the estate, his title extending even to the family name. Jordan had spent his youth helping his father work, and now he was in charge.

For the first four days, Father had hung about, watching his son critically, but not interfering. Today, for the first time, he had stayed home. Jordan was on his own. He wasn't all together happy about that, because he hadn't slept well. Nightmares had prowled his mind.

"The stones around the breach are loose. We'll need to widen the hole before we can patch it. Ryman, Chester, move the scaffold over two meters and then haul a bag of tools up there. We'll start removing the stones around the hole."

"Yes sir, oh of course, mighty sir," exclaimed Ryman sarcastically. A week ago the bald and sunburnt laborer had been happy to order Jordan around. Now the tables were turned, but Ryman kept making it clear that he didn't approve. Jordan wasn't quite sure what he'd do if Ryman balked at something. One more thing to worry about.

The other men variously grinned, grunted or spat. They didn't care who gave them their orders. Jordan clambered back up the scaffold and started hammering at the mortar around the hole with a spike. It was flaky, as he'd suspected—but not flaky enough to account for the sudden outward collapse of stones on both sides of the wall. It was almost as if something had dug its way through here.

That raised dire possibilities. He flipped black hair back from his eyes and looked through the hole at the vista of treetops beyond. The mansion perched on the highest ground for miles around and butted right up against the forest. Jordan didn't like to spend too much time on the forest-side of the walls, preferring jobs as far as possible inside the yards. The forest was the home of monsters, morphs and other lesser Winds.

The inspector who built this place had been hoping his proximity to the wilderness would win him favor with the Winds. He used to stand on the forest-ward wall, sipping coffee and staring out at the treetops, waiting for a sign. Jordan had stood in the same spot and imagined he was the inspector, but he was never able to imagine how you would have to think to not be scared by those green shadowed mazeways. That old man must not have had bad dreams.

Bad dreams... Jordan was reminded of the strange nightmare he'd had last night. It had begun with something creeping in thorugh his window, dark and shapeless. Then, as morning drifted in, he had seemed to awake in a far distant hilltop, at dawn, to witness the beginning of a battle between two armies, which was cut short by a horror that had fallen from the sky, and leapt from the ground itself. It had been so vivid...

He shook himself and returned his attention to the moment. The others arrived and now began setting up. Jordan had scraped away the top layer of mortar around the stones he wanted cleared. Now he swung back along the edge of the scaffold, to let the brawnier men do their work. Below him the reflecting pool imaged puffy clouds and the white crescent of a distant vagabond moon. Ten minutes ago the moon had been on the eastern horizon; now it was in the south, and quickly receding.

He looked out over the courtyard. Behind him, dark forest strangled the landscape all the way to the horizon. Before him, past the courtyard, a line of trees ran along the three hilltops that lay between his village and the manor. To the right, the countryside had been cultivated in squares and rectangles. He could see the trapezoid shape of the Teoves's homestead, the long strip of Shandler's, and many more, and if he squinted could imagine the dividing line which separated these farms from those of the Neighbor.

All of this was familiar, and ultimately uninteresting. What he really wanted to look at—up close—was sitting right in the center of the courtyard, with a half-circle of nervous horses staring at it. It was a steam car.

The carriage sat in front, separated by a card-shaped wooden wall from the onion-shaped copper boiler. A smokestack angled off behind the boiler. The tall, thin-spoked wheels made it necessary to board the carriage from the front, and the gilded doors there had been painted with miniatures showing maids and plowsmen frolicking in some idealized pastoral setting.

When the thing ran it belched smoke and hissed like some fantastical beast. Its owner, Controller General of Books Turcaret, referred to it as a machine, which seemed pretty strange. It didn't look like any machine Jordan had ever heard about or seen. After all, if you weren't putting logs under the boiler it just sat there. And last year, on Turcaret's first visit, Jordan had watched the boiler being heated up. It had seemed to work just like any ordinary stove. Nothing mechal there; only when the driver began pulling levers was there any change.

"Uh oh, there he goes again," grunted Ryman. The other men laughed.

Jordan turned to find them all grinning at him. Willam, a scarred redhead in his thirties, laughed and reached to pull Jordan back from the edge of the platform. "Trying to figure out Master Turcaret's steam car again, are we?"

"Winds save us from Inventors," said Ryman darkly. "We should destroy that abomination, for safety's sake. ...And anyone who looks at it too much."

They all laughed. Jordan fumed, trying to think of a retort. Willam glanced at him, and shook his head. Jordan might have enyoyed a little verbal sparring before, when he was just one of the work gang. Now that he was leader, Willam was saying, he should no longer do that.

He took one more glance at the steam car. All the village kids had found excuses to be in the courtyard today; he could see boys he'd played with two weeks ago. He couldn't even acknowledge them now. He was an adult, they were children. It was an unbreachable gulf.

Behind him Chester swore colorfully, as he always did when things went well. The men began heaving stones onto the rickety scaffold. Jordan grabbed an upright; for a moment he felt dizzy, and remembered last night's dream—something about swirling leaves and dust kicking into the air under the wingbeats of ten thousand screaming birds.

A group of brightly dressed women swirled across the courtyard, giving the steam car a wide berth. His older sister was among them; she looked in Jordan's direction, shading her eyes, then waved.

Emmy seemed in better spirits than earlier this morning. When Jordan arrived at the manor she was already there, having been in the kitchens since before dawn. "There you are!" she'd said as he entered the courtyard. Jordan had debated whether to tell her about his nightmare, but before he could decide, she bent close. "Jordan," she said in a whisper. "Help me out, okay?"

"What do you want?"

She looked around herself in a melodramatic way. "He's here."

"He?"

"You know... the Controller General. See?" She stepped aside, revealing a view of the fountain, pool, and Turcaret's steam car.

Jordan remembered Emmy crying at some point during Turcaret's visit last summer. She had refused to say what made her cry, only that it had to do with the visiting Controller General. "I'll be all right," she'd said. "He'll go away soon, and I'll be fine."

Jordan still wasn't sure what that had been about. Turcaret was from a great family and also a government appointed official, and as father said constantly, the great families were better than common folk. He had assumed Emmy had done something to anger or upset Turcaret. Only recently had other possibilities occurred to him.

"Surely he won't remember you after all this time," he said now.

"How can you be so stupid!" she snapped. "It's just going to be worse!"

"Well, what are we going to do?" Turcaret was a powerful man. He could do what he liked.

"Why don't you find some excuse to get me out of the kitchens? He comes by there, ogling all the girls."

Jordan looked up past the scaffold at the angle of the sun. He wiped a skeen of sweat from his forehead. It was going to be a hot day; that gave him an idea.

He put his hand on Willam's shoulder. "I'm going to fetch us some water and bread," he said.

"Good idea," grunted Willam as he levered another stone out of the wall. "But don't dawdle."

Jordan swung out and down, smiling. He would get Emmy out here for the morning, and keep his men happy with a bucket or two of well water in the face. It was a good solution.

He was halfway down when a scream ripped the air overhead. Jordan let go reflexively and fell the last several meters, landing in a puff of dust next to the reflecting pool.

Surprisingly, Willam was lying next to him. "How did you—?" Jordan started to say; but Willam was grimacing and clutching his calf. There was huge and swelling bruise there, and the angle of the leg looked wrong.

Everybody was shouting. Flipping on his back, Jordan found the rest of his men plummeting to the ground all around him.

"—Thing in the wall," somebody yelled. And someone else said, "It took Ryman!"

Jordan stood up. The scaffold was shaking. The men were scattering for the four corners of the courtyard now. "What is it?" Jordan shouted in panic.

Then he saw, where the men had been working, a bright silver hand reach out to grab one of the scaffold's uprights. Another hand appeared, flailing blindly. Bright highlights of sunlight flashed off it.

"A stone mother," gasped Willam. "There's a stone mother in the wall. That's what made the hole."

Jordan swore. Stone mothers were rare, but he knew they weren't supernatural, like the Winds. They were mechal life, like stove beetles.

"Ryman reached into a hole and the silver stuff covered him," said Willam. "He'll smother."

The second hand found the upright and clutched it. Jordan caught a glimpse of Ryman's head, a perfect mirrored sphere.

Jordan knew what was happening. "It's trying to protect itself!" he shouted to the scattered men. "Ryman was sweating—it's trying to seal off the water!"

They stood there dumbly.

Ryman would be dead in seconds if somebody didn't do something. Jordan turned to look at the open doors of the manor, twenty meters away. Clouds floated passively in the rectangle of the reflecting pool.

Jordan decided. He reached down, splashed water from the pool over his head and shoulders, then started up the scaffold. He could hear shouting behind him; people were running out of the manor.

He pulled himself onto the planks next to Ryman. Jordan's heart was hammering. Ryman's head, arms, and upper torso were encased in a shimmering white liquid, like quicksilver. He was on his knees now, but his grip on the upright remained strong.

Ryman was stubborn and strong; Jordan knew he would never be able to break the man's grip. So he reached out a dripping hand and laid it on the oval brightness of the man's covered head.

With a hiss the liquid poured over Jordan's fingers and up his arm. He yelled and tried to pull back, but now the rest of the white stuff beaded up and leapt at him.

He had time to see Ryman's blue face emerge from beneath the cold liquid before it had swarmed up and over his own mouth, nose and eyes.

Jordan nearly lost his head; he flailed about blindly for a moment, feeling the coiling liquid metal trying to penetrate his ears and nostrils. Then his foot felt the edge of the platform.

He jumped. For a second there was nothing but darkness, free falling giddyness and the shudder of quicksilver against his eyelids. Then he hit a greater coldness, and soft clay.

Suddenly his mouth was full of water and his vision cleared, then clouded with muddy water. Jordan thrashed and sat up. He'd landed where he intended: in the reflecting pool. The silver stuff was fleeing off his body now. It formed a big flat oval on the water's surface, and skittered back and forth between the edges of the pool. When he caromed back in his direction, Jordan jumped without thinking straight out of the pool.

He heard laughter—then applause. Turning, Jordan found the whole manor, apparently, standing in the courtyard, shouting and pointing at him. Among them as a woman he had not seen before. She must be travelling with Turcaret. She was slim and striking, with a wreath of black hair framing an oval face and piercing eyes.

When he looked at her, she nodded slowly and gravely, and turned to go back inside.

Weird. He glanced up at the scaffold; Ryman was sitting up, a hand at his throat, still breathing heavily. He caught Jordan's eye, and raised a hand, nodding.

Then Chester and the others were around him, hoisting Jordan in the air. "Three cheers for the hero of the hour!" shouted Chester.

"Put me down, you oafs! Willam's broke his leg."

They lowered him, and all rushed over to Willam, who grinned weakly up at Jordan. "Get him to the surgeon," said Jordan. "Then we'll figure out what to do about the stone mother."