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The Wellstone

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The Wellstone

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Author: Wil McCarthy
Publisher: Bantam Spectra, 2003
Series: The Queendom of Sol: Book 2
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Immortality
Hard SF
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(12 reads / 5 ratings)


For the children of immortal parents, growing up can be hard to do. A prince will forever be a prince--leaving no chance for Bascal Edward de Towaji Lutui to inherit his parents' throne. So what is an angry young blue blood to do? Punch a hole in the shadow he's been living in by rallying his equally disgruntled companions to make an improbable spaceship, busting out of the so-called summer camp in which their parents have stowed them and making a daring escape across the vastness of space. Ne'er-do-well Conrad Mursk is just along for the joyride--until he realizes this is no typical display of teenage angst. The children are rising up in an honest-to-gods revolution. And, boyo, things are going to get raw.


Chapter one

The spheres of heav'n

One man in a sphere of brass.

One man alone in the vacuum of space.

One man hurtling toward solid rock at forty meters per second--fast enough to kill him, to end his mission here and now, to cap a damnfool end on a long and decidedly damnfool life. To leave his children defenseless.

In the porthole ahead is the planette Varna, his destination, swathed in white clouds and shining seas, in grasslands, in forests whose vertical dimension is already apparent against the dinner-bowl curve of horizon. Not planet: planette. It looks small because it is small, barely twelve hundred meters across. Condensed matter core, fifteen hundred neubles--very nice. The surface workmanship is exquisite; he sees continents, islands, majestic little mountain ranges jutting up above the trees. Telescopes, he realizes, don't do justice to this remotest of Lune's satellites.

The man's name is Radmer, or Conrad Mursk if you're old enough. Very few people are old enough. Radmer's own age would be difficult to guess--his hair is still partly blond, his weathered skin not really all that wrinkled. He still has his teeth, although they're worn down, and a few of them are cracked or broken. But even in zero gravity, as he kicks and kicks the potter's wheel that winds the gyroscopes which keep the sphere from tumbling, there's a kind of weight or weariness to his movements that might make you wonder. Older?

To be fair, the air inside the three-meter sphere isn't very good. Cold and damp, it smells of carbon dioxide, wet brass, and the chloride tang of spent oxygen candles. Old breath and new--the only way to refresh the air is to dump it overboard, but after two and a half days he's out of candles and out of time, and there's a healthy fear stealing upon him as the moment of truth approaches. Opening the purge valve would be a highly risky stunt right now.

Giving the winding mechanism a final kick, he ratchets his chair back a few notches and unfolds the sextant. This takes several seconds--it's a complicated instrument with a great many appendages. When it's locked into the appropriate sockets on the arms of his chair, and then properly sighted in, he takes a series of readings spaced five clock-ticks apart, and adjusts a pair of dials until the little brass arrow stops moving. Then, sighing worriedly, he folds the thing up again, stows it carefully in its rack, and clicks the chair forward again to kick the potter's wheel a few more times. Course correction needs a stable platform, you bet.

When he's satisfied the gyros are fully wound, he takes up the course-correction chains, winces in anticipation, and jerks out the sequence the sextant has indicated. Wham! Wham! The sphere is kicked--hard--by explosive charges on its hull. Caps, caps, fore, starboard, starboard . . . It's quite a pummeling, like throwing himself under a team of horses, but before his head has even stopped ringing he's setting the sextant up again and retaking those critical measurements.

The planette's atmosphere is as miniature as the rest of it, and there's the problem: from wispy stratosphere to stony lithosphere is less than half a second's travel, if he comes straight in. That's not long enough for the parachute to inflate, even if his timing is perfect. To survive the impact, he has to graze the planette's edge, to cut through the atmosphere horizontally. Shooting an apple is easy; shooting its skin off cleanly is rather more difficult, especially when you're the bullet.

Could he have sent a message in a bottle? A dozen messages in a dozen bottles, to shower every planette from here to murdered Earth? That would be an empty gesture, albeit an easier one. God knows he's needed elsewhere, has been demanded in a dozen different elsewheres as the world of Lune comes slowly unraveled. But somehow this dubious errand has captured his imagination. No, more than that: his hope. Can a man live without hope? Can a world?

Alas, the sextant's news is less than ideal: he's overcorrected on two of three axes. Sighing again more heavily, he stows the thing and gets set up for the next course correction, gathering the chains up from their moorings. When he jerks on the first one, though, no team of horses runs him over. Nothing happens at all.

With a stab of alarm, he realizes he's been squandering correction charges, not thinking about it, not thinking to save a few kicks on each axis for terminal approach. Can he recover? By reorienting the ship, which he needs to do for landing anyway? Yes, certainly, unless he's been really unlucky and run out of charges simultaneously on all six of the sphere's ordinal faces.

Outside the forward porthole, there is nothing but Varna: individual trees beneath a swirl of cloud, growing visibly. There is, to put it mildly, little time to waste.

Attitude control is strictly manual; Radmer throws off his safety harness and hurls himself at a set of handles mounted on the hull's interior. They're cold, barely above freezing, and damp enough that his fingers will slip if he doesn't grip with all his might, which, fortunately, he does.

There's a metallic screech and groan, brass against brass, as the outer hull begins to roll against the bearings connecting it to the inner cage, where his feet are braced. The potter's wheel and gyros hold a fixed orientation in space while the three-meter sphere, complete with chair and storage racks, is rotated around them. Sunlight flashes briefly through one porthole; through the other, the green-white face of Lune, from whence he came.

Like most men his age, Radmer is a good deal stronger than he looks. Still, the hull's rotation is as difficult to stop as it is to start. It's his own strength he's fighting, the momentum he himself has imparted. Despite the cold, the effort makes him sweat inside his coat and leathers.

He'd like to move the hull so his chair is facing backward, to serve as a crash couch. Because yes, even the best landing is going to be rough. But with the starboard charges expended, that would still leave him with one uncorrectable axis. Instead, he points the chair in the "caps" direction, ninety degrees from where he wants it, fires two charges in perpendicular directions, then points the chair forward again and quickly straps in, so he can take another sextant reading on the planette.

Perfect? Close enough? No, he's off again, drifting somehow from an ideal ballistic trajectory. He starts dialing for another correction, realizes he's out of time, and hurriedly stows the sextant instead, to keep it from becoming a projectile in its own right.

He's about to unstrap again, to face the chair aft for impact, but he's really out of time, the hull already singing with atmospheric contact. So he grabs an armrest with one hand and the parachute's ripcord with the other, and prepares to be thrown hard against the straps.

There are prayers he could utter right now, battle hymns he could sing, but perhaps thinking of them is enough. Quicker, anyway; he runs through several in the blink of an eye. And then the sphere slaps into denser air--more gently than he's expecting. Which could be bad, which could mean he's cut too high, his angle too shallow. Will he skip off the planette's atmosphere to tumble back Luneward in disgrace?

Air is squealing all around him, and for a moment, he sees Varna through three separate portholes, and hazy blue-black sky through a fourth. He sees individual blades of grass, no fooling, and then the ground is retreating again and it's time, slightly past time, to pop the chute. The sudden weight of his arm seems to help as he yanks the lanyard; he's looking "down" across the sphere, decelerating hard. He hears the chute deploy with a clanging of brass doors, and suddenly he is facing the right way as air drag pulls it around behind the vehicle and jerks its lines taut.

And then disaster strikes, in the form of a treetop's spreading arms. He doesn't hit them hard, but for an instant there are actual acacia leaves snapping across the porthole glass, and the contact is enough to set the sphere rolling around its inner cage. Which is bad, because the chute, which hasn't fully opened, is fouling--he can see it behind him, an orange-and-white streamer, its hemp lines twirling together in an inextricable mess.

And then the blue of atmosphere is fading to black again, and after three long seconds of deceleration he's back, suddenly, in zero gee. Having missed the planette. Having actually missed the damn planette. Through the portholes, the slowly tumbling view is clear enough: Varna shrinking away behind him.

Varna moving laterally?

Varna approaching again? More slowly, yes, but definitely approaching. Because he's cut through a swath of thick atmosphere, because he's hit a tree, because he's deployed a streamer chute that, while it couldn't quite stop him, could at least slow him down below the planette's escape velocity.

The air doesn't whistle this time, barely puffs, barely makes a sound at all as he falls back through it. What does create sound and sensation is the water beneath the air, which he slaps into hard, and the solid surface a couple of meters beneath that. He crashes against it and rolls; through the portholes he sees foam, blue water, blue sky, brown sand or silt kicking off the bottom in his wake.

The sphere tumbles around the screeching gyro platform for a few moments, but the platform is overwhelmed and starts to tumble along as well, its bearings frozen against the spinning hull. His chair goes with it, tumbling, and he loses his sense of direction almost immediately. Then, with a jerk, all movement stops. He's looking upward: sky only.

He has landed on the planette. His mad scheme has become, retroactively, a perfectly reasonable idea.

To his sides he sees fish and waving grasses, sunlight filtering down in rays through the shallow water. One side of the sphere is higher, its porthole only half-submerged. The shores are hidden behind the knife-edge of water against the glass, but he does see treetops in the distance, perhaps the very ones he struck. The porthole between his legs shows a sandy bottom, a few crushed reeds.

He takes a few moments to gather himself--it was a rough landing, and he remains quite reasonably terrified--but time is short, and his business urgent. He finds the buckles of his seat harness: damp brass, warmed by his body. He's unbuckled it a hundred times today; the action is as automatic as coughing.

Being a sphere, his carriage-sized spaceship was expected to roll a bit on landing, coming to rest in an unknown orientation. For this reason, the sphere has two exit hatches, one presently underwater, the other above it, pointing skyward at a cockeyed angle. He climbs to this one, using the potter's wheel and gyro assembly for a staircase.

He moves carefully; it's a small world, yes, but thanks to the planette's superdense neutronium core, gravity here is "gee," or about the same as at the surface of Lune. Or, reaching back a ways into the mists of time, Earth. With one hand he grasps a slick handle on the hull; with the other, the locking wheel on the hatch itself. It spins easily--no screeching or sticking--and he's abstractly relieved by this.

Like many wise men, Radmer worries a lot, and this errand has given his imagination more than the usual to work with. But while the sphere was built in a hurry, he has to give a nod to the smiths and armorers and watchmakers of Highrock, who clearly knew their business well enough.

Having landed in one piece, this craft has every chance of taking him home again. Compared to this planette, Lune is a huge target, virtually impossible to miss; so as long as the motors ignite and the parachute opens cleanly, he should be back in the war by next Friday at the latest.

Back in the death, the misery, the collapse of nations. The people of Lune are not Radmer's children per se, although a great many of them are, in one way or another, his descendants. And the world itself is his, or was long ago. How gladly he would die to protect it!

His hatch flips inward, clanks against the hull, then hangs down, swinging back and forth, while Radmer works out his handholds on the outer hull and, finally, lifts himself through.

It's like climbing up into a pleasant dream. It's warm out here, and the bright sky and brighter sun cast brilliant reflections on the lapping waters of the sea, which, spanning eighty meters at its widest, stretches nearly from horizon to horizon. The shoreline is a few meters of pristine beach, fading back into palm trees and elephant grass. The breeze smells sweetly pungent, like ice cream and salt somehow. Like fresh beer and flowers.

Farther back, behind the planette's round edge, rise a pair of low hills, green with pine and acacia, and on one of these hills is exactly what Radmer has come here to find, what the astronomer Rigby has claimed to see from his mountain observatory on the clearest of nights: a little white cottage of wellstone marble.

Silently, on some great universal scorecard, Radmer's obsession ticks over from "reasonable" to "downright sensible." So like any dutiful soldier, he strips off his coat and riding leathers, then hops in the water and swims for it.

It isn't far. Soon he is dripping on the white sands of the beach, strolling in his felt johnnysuit beneath the shade of palms, on a course for the not-so-distant hills. The air is hazy, perhaps by design; it enhances the illusion of distance, of space. He loses sight of the cottage as he plunges into the chest-high wall of grass, then is startled at how quickly it reappears again, immediately before him.

Overgrown, yes, overshadowed by vegetation. But certainly not a ruin, sitting here in this little glade or clearing on the hillside. Nor has it been abandoned. Kneeling in the dirt before it is the figure of a naked man, white hair frizzed and trailing to his waist.

You know that feeling, when you see something at once ancient and familiar, when your neck prickles and your stomach flutters and all your little hairs stand at attention? This is how Radmer feels as he approaches the cottage, as he eyeballs the naked man kneeling there in front of it.

He considers kneeling himself, but rejects the idea.

"Bruno," he says instead, from ten meters away. "Bruno de Towaji." A whole string of titles could be appended to the name, both fore and aft, but applying them to this dismal figure seems inappropriate. Still, there is no question in Radmer's voice, or in his mind. There is no mistaking that face. True, the ravages of time are apparent; the Olders age in slow but very particular ways. Hair and beard faded yellow-white, yes, and grown out to a length past which it simply frays and abrades. The skin smooth, but deeply freckled and tanned with the weary brown of accumulated melanin, sharply creased in its various corners and crannies. Teeth worn to chalky nubs in that slack, hanging jaw.

Copyright © 2003 by Wil McCarthy


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