Sunday, July 26, 2009

One: The Hidden Place

One wet day as we walked north toward Sisnaddi, old Plummer told me that all stories are scraps of one story, one great and nameless tale that winds from world’s beginning to world’s end and catches up everything worth telling on the way. Everybody touches that tale one way or another, or so he said, if only by watching smoke from a distant battle or lending an ear to some rumor in the night. Other folk stray into the one story and then right back out of it again, after carrying a message or a load of firewood on which the fate of kings and dreams will presently depend. Now and then, though, someone no different from these others stumbles into the deep places of the story, and gets swept up and spun around like a leaf in a flood until finally the waters drown him or toss him up gasping and alive on the bank.

He said all this between one mouthful of cheap whiskey and the next, as we waited out a fall rainstorm under the crumbling gray overhang of an old ruin, and I rolled my eyes and thought he was drunk. Now, though, I am less sure. Yesterday, after I arrived at the one place on Earth I least expected ever to come, and nearly died in the process, the thought has occurred to me more than once that this journey of mine is part of something a good deal bigger than the travels of one stray ruinman from Shanuga, bigger than Shanuga or Meriga itself. That something bigger might be Plummer’s one story, for all I know, and if that is the way of it, I know to the day when it caught me up and set me on the road to Star’s Reach.

It was the morning of the sixth of Semba in the thirty-seventh year of Sheren’s time, four hundred twenty-two years after the old world ended and ours began to struggle to life. That was the day I turned twenty and became a ruinman, and nearly got myself reborn in the process.

I was in the Shanuga ruins that morning, down in the underplaces of a big building that must have soared well above its neighbors before storms and the work of scavengers brought it down. Now most of it lay sprawled over two blocks of lesser ruins, blocking one of the old streets in between. Rust streaked the broken masses of concrete and showed where rain liked to pool and flow in the wet season, but there was good metal there as well, and the hope that valuables might have been left in the buildings buried by the old tower’s fall.

Still, that was work for other ruinmen and their prentices. When the guild misters sat together and pulled shards from a pot to determine who got what part of the summer’s diggings, Mister Garman drew the piece that stood for the underplaces of the tower. Gray Garman, we called him, we in this case meaning his apprentices; he was tall and lean and dark, with a head of tightly curled gray hair and a short gray beard and a frown, more often than not, that twisted his mouth to one side and made him look as though he was contemplating someone’s death.

He hadn’t been frowning the morning he told us what the the draw had given us, and for good reason. The underplaces of the old towers are as dangerous as anything a ruinman is likely to face, but there’s no place more likely to yield the sort of find that can pay for a dozen sparse seasons in a single day. Once the rains stopped and the water drained away, then, we went to work with a will, clearing rubble out of the old stairwells and shoring up places where cracks had run through the concrete and threatened to bring masses of it down on our heads. As it turned out, though, Garman might as well have frowned; whether the tower was abandoned and stripped before the old world ended or cleared by scavengers afterwards, we never did figure out, but the room after room was as empty of valuables as it could be.

We spent most of two months making sure we’d been through all of it, every closet and corridor, and finally Garman decided it was time to strip it of metal and leave it for better pickings elsewhere. By this time some of the other teams had much better finds, and made sure we knew about it; Mister Calwel, who was as close to a rival as Garman had, had found a parking garage that collapsed with half a dozen cars still in it, and left off digging for the week to bargain with metalsmiths over the metal of the engine blocks.

Garman told us first thing that morning we would begin stripping the next day. The delay was welcome, since there’s no harder work in the ruinman’s craft than pounding concrete with hammers to break out the metal inside it, and the plain steel girders and iron pipe you get from it bring a scant price at best. Still, I had another reason to want a day’s delay. All through the weeks of searching, I’d been chased by the feeling that we’d missed something, and I wanted another look at the ruin before we went to work with the hammers.

I told Garman as much, not long after he’d announced the day off. I expected him to frown and tell me not to waste my time. He frowned, sure enough, but said nothing for a long moment and then nodded once. “Well,” he said. “Let me know.”

“I’ll do that, Mister,” I told him, and went to get my tools. I was his oldest prentice that year, and so had tools of my own: pry bar, grapplehook, thin-blade knife and wide-blade knife, candle lantern and little electric lamp, and a bag of special things for papers and the like, for Gray Garman did jobs for the scholars in Melumi now and then and knew what they wanted. With a belt full of tools, a steel hat on my head, and ruinman’s leathers already caked with a dry season’s dust, I felt ready for anything, and went from our camp by the river to the stairwell we’d cleared. One of Garman’s other prentices, a boy of thirteen or so named Berry, waved to me as I got to the stairwell; he was up above in the tangled wreck of the tower, pulling wire out of a conduit—that was one of the ways prentices could make a few spare marks in off hours, stripping wire to sell the copper. I had done the same thing the day before and had a big tangle of heavy copper wire in my pocket, nicely stripped of its insulation and ready to sell. I waved back and started down.

Down below the air was cold and still damp. I lit my lantern and tried to get my thoughts clear, emptying out the chattering mind the way the priestesses teach. What had we missed? I let the question sink into silence, waited for a moment, and then headed deeper in, following nothing I could name.

Two levels down and over toward the river side was a big square room with a couple of closets on one side. We’d shored up the ceiling here with timbers, for this side of the building had taken more damage than the others, and a bit of light filtered down through the holes where old ventilation ducts had run. The closets had been empty, like everything else down here, and we’d added to the desolate look by taking off the metal doors and their frames and hauling them away to sell. For all I could see, the room and its closets had nothing more to offer than the rest of the ruin, but something would not let me pass them by.

So I went around the room a senamee at a time, checking the walls and the floor for any sign of an opening that had been sealed up or hidden. When I found nothing, I went to the closets. The first had nothing better to offer, but as I crossed to the second I felt the little prickle of knowledge that said I’d been right. There on the floor, where the door frame had covered it, a seam split the concrete; the closet’s floor had been poured at a different time than the room’s, and though it was hard to tell in the dim light from the lantern, the floor of the closet looked more recent: a little coarser and visibly more cracked.

If Nature had given me the brains she gave geese, I would have stopped then, gone back up to the surface and found a half dozen prentices to help. Instead, I went into the closet, set the lantern down in the doorway, and started to crouch down so I could get a better look at the floor. I was maybe halfway there when the floor creaked, lurched beneath my feet, and fell away.

I jumped for the door, but the floor dropped too fast, and the best I could do was catch myself on a couple of pieces of broken rebar below the doorway as a crash and a great choking cloud of dust came up from below. The lantern teetered and then fell, just missing my head; I got a brief glimpse of a little square room below me, and then the lantern struck a piece of fallen concrete. I heard glass break, and the light went out, but the body of it bounced or rolled onto the floor. Light flared again, brief and blue-white, like lightning, and the lightning-scent the scholars call ozone tinged the air.

That was when I knew just how close I was to getting reborn.

The ancients did a thing, clever and brutal, with certain places here and there among their ruins. They took big cylinders that turn out a steady trickle of electricity—nobody knows how they work any more, but if you cut one open your radiation detectors go crazy and everyone who's too close will be dead in a few days, so it's got to be something nuclear—wired them up to banks of metal plates that are shielded from one another so they hold a charge. Wires from those plates went to strips in the floor of the entrances to the places I mentioned. It’s almost impossible to see the strips unless you know what to look for, and if you step on the wrong two of them at the same time, the charge goes through you and you die.

There are one or two of these places in most of the old cities, and sometimes many more. The scholars in Melumi think they were built as shelters for soldiers and rulers in the last days of the old world, and they may be right, for certainly it’s common enough to find the bones of people who hid there, in among old machines and cabinets full of papers. There are tools that ruinmen use to drain the charge out of such a trap, but I didn’t have any of them with me. I knew that if I lost my grip and fell my chance of landing on concrete was not good, and if I touched the floor my chance of taking another breath afterwards was small enough not to worry about.

I truly expected to die. If old Plummer had come shuffling along just then with his staff in his handand told me that instead I was about to go looking for a place that probably didn’t exist, I’d have thought he was mad. Still, he’d have been right. Though I had no way of knowing it, I’d just set foot on a path that would lead me all the way to Star’s Reach.

(To be continued...)