CUTTING APART A SPORE-FILLED flare while distracted wasn’t the best of ideas—but admittedly Tress hadn’t decided to be distracted. It happened naturally, like a case of the hiccups or the inevitable and relentless entropic decay of the universe.
As she pried the stiff wax-paper cap off the flare, she mulled over the pure joy Fort experienced when negotiating. It had always made her nervous to haggle at the market, as she didn’t want to make the merchants feel that their goods were worthless or their service unvalued. Yet Fort loved the haggling part.
And Ann, shooting the cannon. Tress thought about her while carefully pouring the spores out of the flare. Had Tress ever seen anyone so excited about anything as Ann got? Even Charlie with a freshly cooked pie hadn’t looked so content.
Tress tapped the flare carefully, then glanced at Huck, who had insisted on joining her at the worktable—but hid under a large soup bowl, holding it up an inch or so to peek out. He was mostly afraid of the spores at the moment, though she’d caught him hiding a lot more lately. Even when the cat wasn’t around.
“What’s that?” he asked as a pink stone sphere rolled from the center of the flare.
“The water charge,” she explained, holding it up to the porthole to show light through the pink stone. A shadow of water sloshed inside when she
shook it. “When this breaks, the water floods out and ignites the spores. In this case, sunlight spores that burn with a bright hot light.”
“Oh,” he said, lifting the bowl higher. “So those don’t explode?”
“Nope,” Tress said. “But they could burn us as they create a bright flash and heat.” She set a cannonball on the table with a thump. “Now, one of these is filled with zephyr spores. So it will explode right good.”
Huck pointedly lowered his shield. Tress rolled the little ball of water-filled roseite back and forth on the table. She remembered sermons on the various Moondays, held at the very top of her island. On the Verdant
Moondays, they’d been able to watch the alignment of sun and moon. She had always felt she was missing something at those meetings, since the
alignment—from their side—looked like any other moonshadow, which happened every day. But apparently the sun centered exactly behind the moon only twice a year.
During such an eclipse, the preachers spoke about respecting the moons and about the meaning of life. Except every preacher who visited the island seemed to have a different idea of what the purpose of life was. Even two preachers from the same moonschool would disagree
That part had comforted her. If religion couldn’t get it together, then she could be forgiven for being a mess herself.
But now—as she dug in the remnants of the flare for the timer—she
wondered. Each of those preachers had acted like they had the answer, like there was one purpose in life. All life. She understood the inclination. A
single answer would certainly make things tidier. Two plus two is four.
Water boils at a specific temperature. Also, the purpose of life is to learn to imitate the call of a marmoset. Go.
For Fort, finding a good trade was the purpose of life. While for Ann, the purpose was to learn to fire a cannon without blowing the limbs off her friends by accident. So were there many answers? Or were they all the same answer with different applications?
It should be noted that Tress would have made an excellent philosopher. In fact, she had already determined that philosophy wasn’t as valuable as
she’d assumed—something that takes most great philosophers at least three decades to realize.
She finally pried out the timer, then set it on the table. The flare gun, she noted, worked a lot like an ordinary pistol. You loaded it with a separate
charge for firing.
“So…what are we doing?” Huck asked.
“Look here,” she said, prying a silver bit off the timer. Conical, sharp on one end, like the tip of a pencil. “This is what makes the flare go off. The
silver breaks through the roseite core, which is filled with water.
“What I’m going to do is reverse this. I’m going to put this pointed bit on the top of the flare, but facing backward. So when the flare hits something, the silver will be pushed back, break the roseite ball, and let out the water.”
“I mean, sure,” Huck said. “That sounds like it would work. But why?” “I need to find a way to stop Crow,” Tress explained. “But as we saw
when we attacked those merchants, a normal gun won’t hurt her.” “And you’re hoping a flare will?” Huck said.
“Not exactly,” she said, then began to rebuild the flare. Not only did she put the silver detonator under the cap instead of at the base of the flare, she replaced the sunlight spores with sand and a few grains of verdant spores. She closed the device back up without the timer, then inspected it. “I asked Ulaam earlier today, and he said that the spores living in Crow’s blood will protect her from any weapon that tries to break her skin. So I figure I’ll stop her without hurting her.”
“How on the seas would you do that?”
“Same way we stop ships without sinking them,” she said. “I build a flare that explodes with verdant vines, then use those to stick her to the wall or the floor. If I can make this work, I won’t have to kill—or even hurt—her. I can immobilize her, then let Salay take over the ship.”
“That’s brilliant!” Huck said, peeking out farther from beneath his bowl. “Do you think it will really work?”
Tress loaded the flare—along with some zephyr spores—into the flare gun, which had a stubby, oversized barrel. She sighted down it, but didn’t pull the trigger—which would inject water into the barrel and launch the projectile. Testing this sort of thing in her quarters didn’t seem healthy.
But how could she test it? She needed to be able to hit something solid to break the water cartridge, so she couldn’t simply fire it out the porthole. But she also didn’t want to let Crow know what she was building.
She’d have to find another way. She set the gun down, then glanced to the side as Huck—finally abandoning his hiding spot—came crawling over.
“Hey,” he said, “you look sad. It’s all right, Tress. You’ll find a way out of this. You’re good, and you’re smart. You’ll make it.”
“If I do,” she said softly, “it will mean consigning Crow to death. Her disease will eat her from the inside if she doesn’t make a trade with the dragon.”
Huck wrung his paws, his nose twitching. He didn’t say the obvious thing: that Crow absolutely did not deserve sympathy. Tress knew this already, and he knew that she did.
Unfortunately, sympathy is not a valve, to be turned off when it starts to flood the yard. Indeed, the path to a life without empathy is a long and painful one, full of bartered humanity sold at a steep discount.
To distract herself from what she was planning to do to Crow, Tress inspected the timer that she’d left out in reconstructing the flare. The small device looked exactly like the schematic had described: a bit of verdant vine for a fuse, already grown from spores, and a small glass vial, which—being far more flimsy than the roseite bead—would break upon firing.
She pried out the vine, then—causing Huck to back up in concern— poured a little water on it. The small vine curled and trembled. She watched it for a time, then figured she should practice with her tools.
The vine wiggled a little more vigorously.
Tress hesitated, then leaned down closer. The aether grew steadily, though it was still no longer than her finger. Then the tip—the part that was growing
—turned toward her. The little vine crept in her direction.
Tress scooted to the side. The tip of the vine began growing in that direction instead.
Her confusion deepening, Tress scooted her chair the other direction. Again the vine moved, leaving a zigzag in its expanding length as the tip followed her.
It was running out of water, so she wet it again. Then she got down low, watching it creep toward her. Was it…looking for something? Back home, she’d found some weeds in a dim shed that had somehow survived the salt.
Those weeds had all grown directly toward the single knothole of light in the boards.
“What are you doing?” Huck said, cautiously approaching.
She put out her finger and the tip of the vine grew toward it, then became a little corkscrew as she made a spiraling motion. It responded to her, not
Because he’s a rat? Or…because he’s frightened of it? But she was scared of spores too, wasn’t she?
Except this little vine wasn’t dangerous. So…no, she didn’t feel afraid.
Not at the moment.
When she’d used the midnight spores, she’d been attached to the creation.
Curiously, she felt something similar at that moment with the vine. A Connection. She thought she could feel it searching. It was empty, but looking. Wanting.
I understand, she thought to the vine, letting it touch her finger and coil softly around it. Fort had his trades, and Ann her guns. But what did Tress
have? She wanted to save Charlie, but that wasn’t her purpose. That was her goal.
She glanced toward her cups. While she was still fond of them, she had to acknowledge that she really only looked at them these days because they reminded her of Charlie. The cups themselves didn’t hold the charm they once had for her. She had seen too much of the world now. Not merely the places either.
The vine ran out of water and stilled, leaving her finger wrapped—but not with a menacing grip. A light touch. Curious, not dangerous.
She found it remarkable. How could this be? The entire world interacted with spores—at least dead ones—every day. People feared them with just
cause. Yet this one felt more like a puppy than a deadly force of destruction.
Could the entire world have misjudged something so common? Though it seemed unlikely to Tress, it was true—and not that surprising. People
consistently misjudge common things in their lives. (Other people come to mind.)
Tress wasn’t discovering something completely unknown. Indeed she was realizing why spores and aethers fascinated sprouters. It all had to do with fear.
While a healthy measure of foolhardiness drove our ancestors toward discovery, fear kept them alive. If bravery is the wind that makes us soar like kites, fear is the string that keeps us from going too far. We need it, but the thing is, our heritage taught us to fear some of the wrong things.
For example, to our ancient ancestors, strange and new people often meant new diseases and the occasional spear tossed at our softer bits. Today, the only things new people are likely to toss our way are some interesting
curse words we can use to impress our friends.
Fear of something like the aethers? Well, it’s as natural as nipples, but nearly as vestigial as the male variety. And when one abandons certain fears and assumptions, an entire world opens up.