Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Trouble Leaves a Scent Trail

Peacekeeper Gimel 300254 CitrusPeel was doing routine crowd control down at the shellfish market when a Tav Messenger scuttled up to her. “Urgent, urgent!” the Messenger blasted, enveloping Peel in the scent. “Your boss wants you back at the station right away. Hope you’re not in trouble!”

Peel struggled not to exude annoyance as she pushed the Messenger’s raised tail back down to the ground. “Thanks, cousin. Tell FreshPrawn I’ll be right there, as soon as I inform my team.” These new, high-initiative Messengers were far too cocky, Peel grumped to herself as she watched the sleek, quick-stepping form scurry away. Give her the old-fashioned, completely literal Messenger genotype any time.

Of course, she was biased, being an antiquated type herself. There weren’t many Gimel Peacekeepers being hatched anymore. The Governors had decided many generations ago that smaller ammets with thinner, more streamlined carapaces were generally more appropriate for modern city life.

They might be right, Peel admitted as she lumbered through the pungent bustle of the market, sensewhiskers waving as she tried to find her less bulky colleagues. Most Peacekeepers nowadays were flexible, narrow-shouldered Zayins, slipping easily through the crowds, standing out far less than Peel among most other types of ammet.

Just this morning, though, Peel had quelled a dispute between a mussel dealer and a refectory purchasing agent by merely approaching them and looming nearby, forearms flexed. No, the Adapters wouldn’t discontinue Gimel Peacekeepers any time soon, Peel reassured herself.

The shellfish market was dense with the odors of crab and shrimp, mussel and lobster, mingling with the sweetness of sales pitches and the sharpness of dickering ammets. Vendors and Buyers were known for being contentious, since they considered harsh haggling to be part of their jobs. Peel couldn’t even imagine what the atmosphere would be like if the market weren’t held in the open air.

“I don’t think that mussel vendor will give any more trouble, but keep a whisker pointed in her direction,” Peel instructed the other two Peacekeepers on duty. “Remember, this is a market. Don’t break up an argument unless it gets so strong that folks nearby can’t communicate.”

Peel left the daylit marketplace and ducked into Broad Burrow, placing her feet carefully in the jostling stream of busy ammets. Stolid Transports, bent down onto all six feet under their loads, nudged skillfully around her, carrying baskets of farm produce and seafood, bundles of Recorders, or crates of tools. Messengers bumped heedlessly off Peel’s frontplates, scrabbled across her armored back, or crouched and zipped between the columns of her legs. The occasional Cleaner trundled by, eating detritus that had fallen from the Transports as well as the usual ammet waste.

Peel stopped abruptly. Where was that scent coming from? It was prominent even above the babble of the surrounding traffic. Peel edged over to the side of the burrow and read the graffiti scrawled acridly onto the smoothed earth wall. “No to the Long Bridge! Keep Foreigners out!” The message was so fresh that the writer might be only a few steps away.

Rubbing her thick foredigits together uneasily, Peel swung her length back into the center stream of ammets and continued toward the station.

Peacekeeper Zayin 746 FreshPrawn was an experienced ammet some seasons older than CitrusPeel. She had lost several digits off one midfoot as a junior while climbing Cloud Mountain one winter, and walked with a slight limp. Her shelves were crammed with Recorders of every age and type. Peel could not even imagine her scent without the faint tang from the copper badge that hung against her skin.

Prawn ushered Peel into her office and sealed the door so none of their conversation could escape, even halting the Fan in the airshaft above.

“Thanks for coming so promptly, Peel. I’ve got a new assignment for you—an investigation. Think you can handle it?”

Peel fought to keep her scents neutral, but she was sure Prawn could detect her excitement. “May I know the details, cousin?”

“I thought you’d be interested.” Prawn’s sensewhiskers waved in amusement. “Ever heard of Architect Tsadi 27? Her usename was SweetGum.”

“Was?”

“Yes. She died this morning. Seems like an accident.”

“The name does seem familiar—”

“You should read the newsboards more carefully, Peel. Gum’s been in the news twice lately. The first time was ten days ago, when the Governors chose her design for the Oceanic Bridge. You must remember that.”

“Of course I do. We had to patrol in the Plaza of News all day. The No-Bridgers were running around and spewing out their slogans so strongly I could hardly breathe. I thought for sure there was going to be a riot. But I didn’t remember the Architect’s name.”

“Well, that was her. Kind of a surprising choice. She was still young, and her type is relatively untried—they’ve only hatched three dozen so far. But the Governors liked her plans, said they were the most innovative they’d received. That’s why we need to investigate her death so carefully—in case it’s really suicide.”

“Suicide?”

“I’m afraid it might be. It’s a sad business, Peel. Most ammets are so well suited for their jobs, there’s no reason for them to be unhappy with themselves. We only get one or two suicides per season, Continent-wide. But when it does happen, it’s taken very seriously. Sometimes the entire type comes under scrutiny.”

Peel shifted her feet. “Oh. And since Gum’s type is so new—”

“Right. All 36 clones—well, 35 now—might be recalled.”

To lose not only your own life, but all your clone sisters and all the clone juniors who might come after you—a recall was the ultimate ammet nightmare. Not that all ammets got to raise a junior, anyway . . .

Peel pushed away the old resentment. She had three sisters in the Salt City district alone. There were still plenty of Gimels left.

“So you understand why this needs careful handling, Peel.”

“Yes, cousin. But—”

“Is there a problem?”

“I was just wondering—why me? I’ve only handled a few investigations so far, and they were just small stuff—overeating, rowdy juniors. And since you say this case is so sensitive—”

“Ah. Well, Peel, you must appreciate that it’s politically sensitive as well. Here we have the chosen Architect for the Oceanic Bridge—the biggest engineering project ever attempted. If Gum’s proved unstable, it casts a cloud over the entire bridge decision. So there’s going to be a lot of public attention focused on this case.”

“I know how to be discreet, cousin.”

“I know you do, and it’s part of the reason I chose you. The other part is that you’re a Soldier.”

Peel pulled her whiskers back in dismay, and it was a moment before she could reply. “I don’t really like that term, cousin.”

“I’m sorry, Peel, I shouldn’t have used it. You’re a Peacekeeper, just like me. But you know what I mean. If you do find suicide, no one will say that the finding was politically motivated.”

Peel emitted reluctant agreement. She had tried to stay nonpolitical about the Long Bridge, as it was popularly known. She wasn’t like some Gimel Peacekeepers, vocal members of the Go-Bridge faction who called themselves by the archaic name of Soldiers, and talked eagerly about the need for more of their type to protect the settlements once the New Continent was opened up. But it was true—no one would think of a Gimel as anti-Bridge.

“Cousin—you said it seemed like an accident? Why is there a suicide investigation at all?”

“Because of this.” FreshPrawn reached back and plucked a Recorder off the shelf. She issued a brusque command and a news story started to waft from the stubby ammet’s tail. It concerned a bridge collapse in the Canyon District that had killed over sixty ammets—mostly agricultural workers such as Plows, Planters, and Transports, but also a few Cleaners and Recorders. They had tumbled to their deaths in a deep gorge when a crucial truss in the Cold Canyon Bridge suddenly buckled and gave way. Commerce in the area would be disrupted for many seasons until the missing spans could be replaced.

“This happened just yesterday,” Prawn explained. “And yes—I’m afraid SweetGum was the Architect for that bridge.”

 

***

SweetGum’s body had not been disturbed, and in fact would take considerable effort to move. The fellow Architect who had found the corpse had thoughtfully restrained the studio’s Cleaner in a corner behind a stack of stone blocks, so that the small ammet would not continue to exhaust herself. Judging by the Cleaner’s fatigue, she had been trying to remove the new refuse for many hours—probably ever since SweetGum’s death, though of course utility ammets were too single-minded to notice anything beyond their work.

The top two plates of Gum’s body lay crushed under a mound of cut stone. Even Peel’s armor could not have withstood that much weight. Peel ran her short foredigits over the pile of blocks, which seemed to have toppled down from a shelf full of sample materials.

“It does seem like an accident, doesn’t it, cousin?” said WetSand, the junior Peacekeeper that FreshPrawn had assigned to help Peel. Sand had only recently started going out in the field, and she shifted nervously, back-plates sliding loosely against each other.

“Well, let’s hope it is, but we’re here to find the truth.” Peel turned to the young Architect who was hunched desolately before the body. “I’m sorry, cousin, but I need to ask you some questions. WetSand, handle the Recorder, would you? Right. Now, you’re Architect Tsadi 15, known as CedarWood, is that correct?”

It was obvious that CedarWood was SweetGum’s clone sister. The resemblance was unmistakable, even though Gum’s body already whiffed of decay, and Wood’s scent was harsh with shock and grief.

“It wasn’t suicide, cousin.” Wood curled her tail upward in emphasis. In the dim light from the airshaft, Peel could see that her scenters were worn at the tip from seasons of making drawings and notes on a woodtable before committing them to the memory of a Recorder. “Gum would never do that, never!”

“Even after she read about the Cold Canyon Bridge?” Peel couldn’t blame Wood for not mentioning the bridge collapse. After all, if Gum really had killed herself, Wood might be recalled.

“I should’ve known you’d find out about the bridge.” Wood failed to suppress a bitter overtone. “Yes, she was upset. She sent me a Messenger right after she read the newsboard. That’s why I came by this morning.”

“So you were close, then?”

“I’m her only sister in Salt City. Of course we were close. She couldn’t wait to get out there and study the wreckage and figure out what went wrong. Flawed materials, maybe, or some mistake during the construction. Maybe some Builder misinterpreted the plans.”

“Could she have believed her design was faulty? Even if she didn’t say so?”

“Maybe,” Wood admitted. “But even if it was her fault, why would she kill herself before finding out for sure?”

“Good point.” Peel pondered a moment. “Where can I find you, if I need to talk to you again?”

“I work in the West Burrows by Airshaft 3. What are you going to do now, cousin?”

Peel swung her body around. “I’m going to visit a bridge. Or what’s left of it.”

 

***

“Wow, we’re going almost as fast as a Messenger!” WetSand exclaimed, clinging to the handholds as their Scooter darted along the causeway. CitrusPeel tried to enjoy the young Zayin’s enthusiasm, but she was too preoccupied. What if Gum’s death was neither accident nor suicide?

Most ammets thought of death by violence as a vanished horror of the ancient wars, when the cities of the Foreigners still dotted the Continent and hordes of ammets died defending their territory. But Peacekeeper training taught otherwise. Now that all ammets were cousins, murder was rarer even than suicide. But it was not extinct.

The Long Bridge controversy had stirred up the populace more than any issue in generations. On their way to check out the Scooter, Peel and Sand had passed two more fervent wall-scribbles. The first said: “We developed irrigation. We invented meat ranching. We discovered the ocean. Now we’re going to the New Continent! Go-Bridge!” The other was more astringent and simply said: “Don’t invite war into our home!”

Could a No-Bridger have hurt Architect SweetGum, if she sincerely thought she was saving her fellow ammets from danger?

However, the only unusual scent Peel had detected in the Architect’s studio was that of CedarWood, who had arrived that morning. The other odors were the usual background of Recorders, Fans, and other everyday ammets. CedarWood had less motive than anyone for killing Gum, and it was hard to believe she could have faked her chemical reactions to her sister’s death.

CitrusPeel and WetSand arrived at the ruins of the Cold Canyon Bridge well before dewfall. There was no wind, and a miasma of horror tinged with avid curiosity hung over the site from the thick groups of milling ammets.

Unable to stop themselves, Peel and WetSand went and leaned over the edge of the gorge. The rain-smoothed sandstone draped away in folds beneath them, blurring with distance into an indistinct jumble of water and boulders at the bottom. “Oh—I think I can smell the corpses!” WetSand blurted, scampering back from the cliff and curling almost into a ball.

Peel felt her own backplates slide against each other as she unconsciously hunched for defense. “It’s just your imagination, Sand. No scent could drift up from that far down. Come on, let’s find someone to talk to.”

Only a few Peacekeepers remained at the scene. “We’re here mostly to keep the juniors from falling over the edge,” Peacekeeper Zayin 688 AniseSeed explained. “There are also a few Builders who keep trying to climb out on the remains of the bridge, but we’re not letting anyone up there till we’re sure it’s safe. The district’s sending a couple of Climbers for each side.”

“Any strange scents or debris around the top of the bridge?”

“No, just the usual—Transports, Messengers, Cleaners, and a lot of farm types. Totally normal for this area.” AniseSeed’s body drooped tiredly. “Just one of those things, I guess. Sometimes technology lets us down.”

“Thanks for your time, cousin.” Peel turned away.

“Are we going home now? I’m getting hungry.” Sand dropped down to all sixes beside the roadway.

“A little longer, okay? You can help me out. Just circulate through the crowd, and come back and tell me what they’re saying. They’ll talk more freely in front of a junior than they would in front of me.”

Peel picked up her Recorder and approached a blocky, rugged ammet who was pacing by the stub of the broken bridge. AniseSeed had pointed her out as Builder Vav 12093 PineBark, leader of the bridge’s construction crew.

“I’ve got to at least check out the damage,” she told Peel truculently. “My team’s reputation is at stake. They’re saying we chose defective materials! I tell you, Peacekeeper, every beam of that bridge was prime hardwood, approved by at least three top Builders. And the fittings were from Fog Mountain Smiths. Real quality.” She stumped up to the intact portion of the bridge and clonked a muscly midfoot against the flooring.

“Let’s step back a bit, cousin,” said Peel nervously. “Thank you. Now, I don’t know much about wood, but this wasn’t a brand new bridge, was it? Could there have been weather damage, woodborer holes, something like that?”

“Not a chance. The district inspects all major structures every season, and the Climbers gave this one a clean report less than forty-two days ago.”

“A design flaw, maybe?”

“Nothing wrong with the design.” PineBark flared her whiskers. “In fact, it had a lot of safety improvements in it. Sturdiest bridge in the district, I would’ve said. Planned by SweetGum herself.”

Peel decided not to tell the Builder about Gum’s death if she wasn’t aware of it yet. “So, cousin, in your professional opinion, why did this bridge fail?”

“I don’t know!” The Builder’s scent was caustic with frustration. “I’ve never dealt with anything like it, even in earthquake areas, which this is not. That’s why I have to get out there on the structure and examine it myself.”

On the way back to the station, WetSand told Peel what she’d found out. “They’re scared, cousin! They’re saying, if a bridge this good can just fall down, what could happen to the Oceanic Bridge? It’s going to be millions of paces long, and if it gave way, think how many ammets could die! They’re saying, no way will you get me out on the Long Bridge, emigration grants or not.”

The junior Peacekeeper curled her tail close under her body and spoke in tiny whiffs—not that any of the other road traffic could catch more than a word, with the speed their Scooter was going. “They’re even saying maybe the Governors made a mistake deciding to build the Oceanic Bridge. Some of them were telling old stories about pred—, about predators, which are animals that eat ammets! And there was a Scout who’d been out surveying in the North Snowies, and she said there might be more use for her type once Foreigners started coming in over the Long Bridge. She said it like she was joking, but I don’t know if she was.”

Sand’s head curled down further. “Also, there was one Farmer who said that Salt City Governors don’t know what’s right for inland ammets. She said living by the ocean wasn’t natural and it would drive anyone crazy.” WetSand clutched the Scooter’s handholds tight. “I was glad they didn’t know my name.”

 

***

Back at the station, FreshPrawn pulled Peel immediately into her office. “I’m sorry, Peel, I seem to have wasted your day. SweetGum’s death was definitely suicide.”

“What? But—”

“New evidence came up. One of the top city Governors got a Messenger from SweetGum late last night. Well, you know how busy Governors are—she didn’t get around to that message until a few hours ago. It said, ah—” Prawn activated a Recorder. “SweetGum’s letter, please.”

As the scents issued from the Recorder’s angled tail, Peel’s frontplates contracted as she realized she was experiencing the words of a dead ammet. Of course, it wasn’t the first time—all historical Recorders held nothing but the stored knowledge of the ancients, passed down through the generations. But having examined Gum’s body just that morning made the message unbearably poignant. “Dear Governor RoseHip, I’m sorry to let you down this way. I know the Oceanic Bridge was a cherished dream of yours, but I can’t go on any longer, knowing my plans might be unsafe. I hope you can forgive me for abandoning my duty. Your cousin, Architect Tsadi 27 SweetGum.”

FreshPrawn returned the Recorder to her shelf. “I’m sorry, Peel. You have to smell some ugly scents in this profession sometimes. I thought you’d want to know right away. It’ll be up on the newsboards by first moonrise.”

“Thanks, cousin.” Peel shifted her weight indecisively between her midlegs. “Would you mind if I went back to Gum’s studio one more time?”

“Why?”

Peel recounted her findings at Cold Canyon Bridge. “There’s some doubt about why the bridge collapsed, and it’s only a matter of time before someone wants to examine Gum’s original plans and notes. What with the public feeling about all this—I’d rather have those Recorders safe in custody here at the station.”

“Good thinking, Peel. Go ahead. You don’t have to take WetSand if you don’t want. I know juniors can be trying sometimes.”

“Thanks, cousin. But I think I will take her along, if she wants to come.”

 

***

WetSand, fed and happy now, bounded into the studio as soon as Peel unsealed the door. “Hey, cousin! This poor Cleaner has been shut up all day. Can I let her out?”

“Might as well,” Peel agreed. “Put her up off the floor for now, okay?” A team from the station had collected Gum’s body earlier that day, but Peel had no desire to watch the Cleaner tackling the sticky spot that remained on the floor.

Peel stirred the air with her sensewhiskers. “Huh. I would have expected someone like Gum to have shelves and shelves of Recorders, with all the projects she’s worked on. But there’s only a faint scent.”

“Maybe that’s because the Fan is working so hard.” Sand tried to curl her tail up to speak toward the ceiling airshaft, but her junior height was not enough to reach. Meanwhile Peel searched the room, feeling each wall and shelf with her stubby foredigits and extending her whiskers in all directions. “No, there aren’t any Recorders here at all. Does that seem strange to you, Sand?”

“Maybe she kept them somewhere else. Cousin, could you tell the Fan she can stop?”

“Oh, of course.” Peel walked under the shaft and felt a wash of fresh air. “Fan, you can take a rest now.”

“Thank you, cousin. Tired.” The Fan, sitting on her platform in the airvent, exuded gratitude as she stopped pedaling her wide flipper-digits.

“Now, who set you working so hard?” Peel mused. “Surely an Architect doesn’t need that much fresh air.” The Fan, uncomprehending, did not reply. She stank of exhaustion, as if she’d been working at double speed all day long. Peel wished fleetingly that utility ammets were not so oblivious to everything outside their jobs. “Is the Cleaner all right, at least?”

The Cleaner was bumbling along a bare shelf, releasing a happy aroma as she licked up the dust. “Are you all right, cousin?” said Sand, putting her tail close up to the diminutive ammet and enunciating in clear, simple words.

“Happy,” replied the Cleaner after a moment. “Job easier now.”

Peel’s whiskers quirked in interest. “Why is it easier?”

“Easier to clean shelf with ammets gone,” the Cleaner explained after a moment’s thought. “Easier to reach dust.”

“What kind of ammets? Recorders?”

“Yes. Recorder ammets gone,” the Cleaner said obligingly.

 

***

Refectory 33 was only a few turnings from SweetGum’s studio, and still teeming with hungry ammets. The air held savory hints of the fish stew and chopped greens which Chefs were serving from the hatches around the perimeter of the chamber. A glow of moon- and starlight dappled down through the six-Fan airshaft in the center of the room.

“What’s wrong, Sand? I thought you’d be happy to eat again so soon.”

“I feel weird,” the junior confessed. “We’re the only Peacekeepers here. I feel like everyone’s whiskers are pointed at me.”

It was far more likely, Peel thought wryly, that she was the center of attention. Sand at least was no taller than the rest of the crowd, while Peel’s head nearly touched the roof. “That’s something you’ll have to get used to, being a Peacekeeper,” she told Sand gently. “And besides, that means we found the right place. Look how many Architects are here.”

Sure enough, this seemed to be the place where ammets in the building trades gathered for their meals. It stood to reason, since it was close to the masonry and lumber market, and also near the Governors’ wing of the city where most building commissions originated. Peel could detect Builders, Architects, a group of Vendors and Buyers who probably specialized in construction materials, and even a few Governors. Here and there around the room were single ammets of different types, most of whom seemed to be catching a quick meal before heading somewhere else.

Peel began sifting through the conversations around her, taking a bite at this hatch and at that, trying to find Architects who had known Gum. It became clear that the suicide letter had gone public already, and many were reluctant to admit that they had ever worked with someone so unstable. “She didn’t talk to us other Architects a whole lot,” one languid young ammet claimed. “She was a new type, you know. Into the cross-disciplinary thing. Yeah, you’d find Gum with Builders, Scouts, Adapters—even Governors sometimes, though that did work out for her.” The ammet ground her jaws derisively. “Lead planner for the Oceanic Bridge project, would you believe it?”

“Is there anyone here she did talk to?”

“Well, she spent a lot of time with her sister, but I think CedarWood is working late tonight. But hey, that Adapter over there? SpearMint, I think she’s called. They met a lot. Talk to her if you want to know about SweetGum. Ta now.”

Adapter Mem 92833 SpearMint was glad to talk. “Flooding shame what happened to SweetGum,” she said gruffly. “And now everyone’s acting like they never knew her. Well, she was my friend, and I don’t think for a moment that she was to blame for that accident over in Cold Canyon.”

“Were you surprised when you learned about her suicide?”

“I still don’t really believe it.” Mint’s scenters wafted puzzlement along with her sorrow. “She was a genius. Lots of new ideas, some of them crazy, some of them brilliant. But unstable? I would never have guessed it, and I worked with her more closely than most.”

Peel gathered her thoughts. “Then, cousin,” she said carefully, “would you happen to know anything about her design for the Oceanic Bridge?”

SpearMint’s whiskers wavered, and she drew her forearms closer in to her belly plates. Then she relaxed them. “I suppose I can tell you, since I doubt it’ll ever happen now. It was supposed to be a secret. She kept all the Recorders at her studio, didn’t share them with anyone. Except me.”

“Why you? I mean, I know you were friends, but you’re an Adapter.”

“That was exactly it, though. I was helping her with the project. She wanted to build the Oceanic Bridge out of ammets.”

Peel’s mind reeled at the sheer extravagance, the presumption of the idea. Ammets could plow immense fields and drain vast tracts of swampland. They could ventilate huge cities. They could control meat animals twice their size. But ammets were ammets, with jobs to do, and building materials were things like wood and iron and stone that stayed where they were put.

“I know,” Mint said. “That was my reaction, too. But after Gum talked to me awhile, it made more and more sense. One of the biggest problems in designing the Oceanic Bridge is that wood rots. For most bridges, the wood is high up, out of the water, but of course the bottom of the ocean is way too deep to sink pilings the way we’d normally do. So right away we’re looking at a pontoon bridge, basically a floating road. But how long until the floats rot away? Also, where on the Continent are we going to get that much wood?”

The Adapter’s earlier distress had been drowned out now by enthusiasm. “Ammets are the perfect solution. Since they’ll be literally on the water, they can feed themselves by just sifting out algae and other nutrients. They won’t need to move much, so their energy needs will be low. They’ll be self-repairing—even if a storm comes up and breaks the bridge, the Bridgers, as we call them, will eventually be able to locate each other, paddle back together, and seal the gap.” Mint paused a moment. “It’s great to actually talk about this,” she confided.

“How hard would it be to design this, this Bridger?”

“Not hard at all,” Mint said proudly. “Adaptation is our most advanced science, you know. In fact, the design Gum submitted to the Governors even mentions my prototype. We’ll need a long, slender body, of course, with highly developed gripping ability and great strength. Flotation chambers, probably in the lower abdomen. The upper carapace, which will form the roadway, should be rough for traction in wet weather—”

“Wait a minute, cousin.” Peel rubbed her chestplates absentmindedly. “This is all fascinating, but what are these Bridgers going to do all day, when there’s no storm damage to repair? They’d wither away and die, if all they did was sit and eat. Every ammet needs a job.”

“Oh, they wouldn’t be idle. That’s one of the best parts. They’d be transmitting information, back and forth along the length of the bridge! Imagine it: One ammet speaks directly to the one behind, tailscenters to sensewhiskers. That ammet passes on the sequence to the next, and so on. Of course, the bridge would be many ammets wide, so we’d have room for multiple transmissions. Midlegs linked for additional stability—and naturally we’d alternate the directions of the strings of Bridgers, so information could flow both ways. Just the traffic reduction alone makes it worthwhile!”

“And this is the design the Governors chose?”

“Yes, cousin. It was the best.”

Peel reared up to her full height. “WetSand!” she blasted. “Have you stuffed yourself too full to run?”

“No, cousin!” The junior came bounding up.

“Good! I need you to get down to the station as fast as you can. Gather up every Peacekeeper you can find—tell FreshPrawn I take full responsibility. Then bring them all to the West Burrows, Airshaft 3.”

“Yes, cousin. Uh, where exactly around Airshaft 3? What chamber?”

“You’ll know when you get there,” said Peel. “Tell them to just follow my scent.”

Peel whipped her tail around to point toward the astonished SpearMint. “Mint, you just stay here. Stay in the refectory, with lots of ammets around you. Don’t go anywhere alone, do you understand? I’ll explain later. Sand, why are you still here?”

“Uh, I was just thinking, cousin—if this is so urgent, wouldn’t it be better to send a Messenger? There are probably lots in the corridor outside, and they can run a lot quicker than me.”

“No, Sand.” Peel clamped her jaws grimly. “I’d much rather send you.”

CedarWood’s scent had been laid down in a lasting trail over many seasons. It led from the main burrow by the airshaft up to a modest door in a row of Architect’s workspaces. The door was closed and sealed, but Peel could feel the vibration of a Fan turning inside when she put her whiskers up against the roughness of the wood.

She hesitated. If she was wrong, it would mean disciplinary action against her in the department. Worse, FreshPrawn might never think of her the same way again. But there was really no choice. She had to warn CedarWood, immediately. Gripping the edge of the door in her foredigits and powerful midleg claws, Peel bunched her muscles and wrenched the plug of wood out of the frame, scattering clumps of earth where the swivel-pins tore out of their sockets. The air clouded with the taste of dust. She sprang inside, shoulders filling the doorway, and confronted a scene she would never forget.

Four gangly Messengers, heavy blocks clutched in their elongated foredigits, flailed their arms wildly in a cacophony of aggression, landing heavy blows on the bruised frontplates of CedarWood, who had wedged herself into a storage nook in the side of her studio. Wood defended herself valiantly with a short length of shelf planking, but the Messengers with their longer limbs found it easy to stay out of reach of her increasingly feeble swings. Although violence was clearly new to them, they seemed to be learning fast. The room was a maelstrom of stenches, brute anger and vicious excitement blended with fear and desperation.

CitrusPeel felt as if the room wasn’t big enough for her. She raised herself up taller than she’d ever been before, splayed her forearms out to either side, and advanced on the Messengers, clashing her jaws. Her tail lashed from side to side, frothing with combat scents so primal they made the Messengers’ necks arch reflexively toward the ground. One Messenger cowered back against the wall, dropping her weapon stones.

“As a duly authorized Peacekeeper of Salt City,” Peel blared menacingly, “I order you to stand back and desist. My colleagues are only a few paces away.”

“Don’t you understand her?” called out the Messenger by the wall, curling her length downward. Peel turned her attention to the other three. They seemed confused, arms hanging limp at their sides.

Then a gust of rage came from behind Peel as the first ammet continued, “She’s the only Peacekeeper here! We’ve still got time!” A stone block, flung with surprising force, crashed into the back of Peel’s head.

It might have killed a Zayin Peacekeeper. But for CitrusPeel, the blow thudded off head-armor as thick as a cast-iron bridge fitting. She whipped around, forearm shooting out, and pinned the Messengers’ leader against the wall. “Any attempts to escape custody,” she told the other three, “will be prevented.”

They didn’t try to escape. They all attacked CitrusPeel.

As a junior Peacekeeper, Peel had learned several methods for immobilizing an unruly ammet. They mostly involved pinioning both the forearms and midlegs in a complex tangle, and assumed one Peacekeeper per troublemaker. When FreshPrawn arrived at the studio leading a team of six Peacekeepers, she was astounded at what she found.

“Unconventional, but effective,” she told Peel approvingly, as her workers trussed the Messengers for carrying. “Ha! Not everyone could do that, you know. Holding each of them by the throat—and two of them with midfeet! I’ve always known that you’re more coordinated than you let on.”

“Thanks, cousin.” Peel swept her foredigits searchingly across her frontplates.

“I saw they were using chunks of stone against you. With their long limbs, I’m surprised you managed to keep out of their reach.”

“Actually,” said Peel, “I didn’t.” She brushed stone dust proudly off her chestplates and her armored skull.

 

***

Back at the station WetSand stood awkwardly, all agog, next to Peel in FreshPrawn’s office. Peel had insisted that she be present. The young ammet’s sensewhiskers stretched admiringly toward Peel as she gave her report.

“Well, cousin, I felt uneasy when you showed me that suicide message from SweetGum,” Peel explained. “I’d talked to Gum’s sister, I’d been out to the wreck at Cold Canyon Bridge, and something smelled rotten. But of course I didn’t imagine that a Messenger would actually fabricate a letter.”

“Quite understandable, Peel. First time it’s ever happened, as far as I know. It’s only recently that Messenger types have had enough initiative to even think of it.”

“I suppose. So anyway, I thought of a reason for going back to Gum’s studio one more time, just so I could try to put my mind at ease. WetSand here—” the junior’s body stiffened with pride, “noticed that the Fan was working at high speed. It made me a little suspicious. I realize now that the Messengers who killed SweetGum last night must have commanded her Fan to clear their scents from the room. She’s a good Fan all right, because she nearly succeeded. There were only background traces of Messengers, as you’d expect in any Architect’s studio.

“The other thing was the Cleaner. CedarWood had restrained her earlier, and when we released her she was delighted that all the Recorders in the studio had been recently removed.” Peel weighted the statement with an ominous tang. “That made me wonder. Some of those Recorders must have held SweetGum’s plans for the Oceanic Bridge. Someone wanted those plans to be lost.”

“I hope we find them,” FreshPrawn said grimly. “And that’s when you went looking for other Architects to question?”

“Yes, cousin. I went to the refectory I guessed Gum had used, and asked around until I found a friend of hers. A friend and colleague, as it turned out.”

WetSand couldn’t restrain herself any longer. “And that’s when she figured it all out! Right, cousin?” The junior bounced eagerly on her hindlegs.

“Well, it took me a little while, Sand. The Adapter—SpearMint—described Gum’s bridge design to me. It was revolutionary, using specially modified ammets as building materials. These Bridgers wouldn’t just be structural elements, they’d transmit messages along the length of the bridge.”

“Aha.”

“Yes. But I didn’t make the connection until Mint mentioned that this feature would reduce traffic on the bridge. She meant Messenger traffic, of course. You know how, nowadays, almost half the ammets on any road will probably be Messengers.”

“Oh, yes. That’s why that new type was given more independence of mind, I think—so they could be more creative in choosing alternate routes.”

“That would make sense. Anyway, thinking about a bridge without Messengers made me remember that in the Cold Canyon tragedy, no Messengers were listed as being killed. Not what you’d expect, given the high volume of traffic on that bridge. But perfectly understandable, if it was the Messengers themselves who engineered the disaster.”

FreshPrawn radiated discomfort. “It’s still hard to imagine, Peel. Even the most reeking No-Bridger wouldn’t go that far just to discredit one Architect.”

“Yes, but these Messengers weren’t exactly No-Bridgers. They faced a much more specific threat.” Peel gestured toward her boss. “You taught me yourself, cousin: The only drive stronger than the will to do one’s job, is the need to protect one’s genes. That operates at the species level, but also at the level of a type. Once the Oceanic Bridge was in place, how much longer before the Governors ordered chains of land-adapted Bridgers to be laid along each road? Think of walking down Broad Burrow without Messengers crawling over you at every step.”

“Spring floods, I’d love that!” Prawn exclaimed. “It would make our job so much easier.”

“Exactly. Before the season was out, lines of these new Transmitter ammets would be everywhere, and Messengers would be almost obsolete. As soon as one of the new Messenger types—probably in the Governors’ complex—caught wind of the plans for the new bridge, she must have figured that out. As Messengers, it was easy for them to spread the word about the danger, and devise a plan to disgrace the bridge’s main Architect and all her sisters. The sabotage at Cold Canyon also helped stir up public feeling against the Oceanic Bridge project, and our Governors pay attention to that sort of thing.”

“So that must have been when you realized CedarWood could be in danger?”

“Wood, and her sisters, and SpearMint too,” Peel agreed. “But especially Wood. She was closest to Gum, and the most likely to protest a suicide verdict. She was probably also familiar with Gum’s plans for the bridge.”

“But they’re all safe now, aren’t they, cousin?” WetSand’s whiskers twitched anxiously.

“Yes, Sand, we’ve sent Peacekeepers out to guard every Tsadi Architect on the Continent, and it won’t be long before all the Tav-type Messengers are recalled.” FreshPrawn exuded sadness. “It’s a real pity to lose so many workers, but they just can’t be trusted any more. We’ll have to make do with the older Messenger types for awhile.”

“Older types aren’t always so bad,” Peel agreed, flexing her forearms.

“Indeed. Indeed. You certainly proved that tonight.” Prawn flavored the air with pleasure and pride. “In fact, Peel, I’m going to request another Gimel for the department. What with recent events, I don’t think the Governors can really refuse. And I’d like you to be in charge of training this new junior—that is, if you’re willing.”

“If I’m willing—cousin, I don’t even know what to say.” Peel had almost given up hope of ever raising a junior of her own. “You know I’ve never trained anyone before—but I’ll do my best.”

“Be sure that you do, then. Our department has a high standard to maintain.” Prawn looked over at WetSand, who squirmed shyly. “I’d have assigned you a junior before this if I could, Peel, but Gimels aren’t in high demand, I’m sorry to say.”

“I understand, cousin.”

But as Peel settled down to sleep in her neighborhood dormitory later that night, she wondered.

The Governors had decided to build the Oceanic Bridge based on reports from the intrepid Scouts who had floated across and explored the New Continent. They had brought back descriptions of a fertile, peaceful land, free of predators or hostile ammets. But if Messengers could lie, so could they.

Few Scouts were needed here on the tame Home Continent, but it would be different in the lands across the ocean. There’d be an immediate need for thousands of new Scouts to fan out over the unfamiliar landscape, doing mapping and reconnaissance. It was in the Scout type’s best interest for the Oceanic Bridge to be built, wasn’t it? Even if the New Continent was roiling with horrors. Even if Foreigners were waiting on the far shore, ready to surge across the bridge into the heart of home civilization. Especially then. The ancients had first created Scouts for war.

Peel’s heavy plating did not allow her to curl into a ball, but she tensed and hunched forward into the floor pad, armor creaking. Should she tell FreshPrawn her fears?

No, there was no evidence. And besides, even if she was right—well. Peel folded her burly forearms and gradually relaxed. She was a Soldier, after all. If war came over the bridge, the Governors would need her type. They’d need every Soldier on the Continent—yes, and millions more.

© 2005 by Constance Cooper.
Originally published in
Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

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Constance Cooper

constance_cooper

Constance Cooper’s short fiction has appeared in publications such as Asimov’s, Strange HorizonsBlack Gate, and Brian Youmans’ Best of the Rest. Her SF poetry has twice been nominated for the Rhysling Award. Constance has worked as a linguistic researcher, balloon twister, and software engineer. She grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, but spent several years in Philadelphia, PA and Edinburgh, Scotland before returning to the Bay Area, where she lives with her husband and two children. Find her online at constancecooper.com.

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