The Randi Prize

Peter could make coins disappear by snapping his fingers.

It seemed to follow some rules. One snap of the fingers made one coin vanish. The first test he’d done, after discovering this ability, was to set coins out in front of him and repeatedly snap his fingers to watch what order they were vanished in. Higher denomination coins went first. Coins that were closer to him went first. After getting out a ruler, Peter found that “close” was mostly determined by how far away the coin was from his heart. He tested snapping upside down, and on his back, but that didn’t seem to matter. He tested to see what happened when a higher denomination coin was more distant than a lower denomination, and eventually found out what governed it; a penny would be vanished if it was more than five times closer than a nickel, and a nickel would be vanished if it was five times closer than a quarter.

By the end of the first day, Peter had blown through thirty dollars in change. His change jar was empty, and his thumb and middle finger were both sore. He had no idea where it was the coins were going. There were more questions beyond that, like what would happen with Canadian coins or the coins from the car wash, but Peter had a bona fide superpower. The only thing left to do was turn it to his advantage.

James Randi was a skeptic, who established a prize in 1964 which would go towards anyone with the ability to demonstrate a supernatural ability. Currently, the prize was a million dollars. Vanishing coins with a snap of the fingers didn’t seem to be all that useful, and it didn’t need to be something kept secret, so trying for the Randi Prize first (before anything else) seemed to be the way to go. Peter carefully filled out his application, got a signature from his (completely shocked) brother Kris who worked as a physicist, sent it off through the mail, and got his response back a few days later.

The protocol was carefully agreed on. Peter had snapped away more than a hundred dollars by now, many of them in Kris’s lab under close observation. The biggest practical application seemed to be in waste disposal; if it was possible for the power to recognize nuclear waste as a coin, perhaps by having it minted, then Peter could slowly clear the world of it. The largest coin in the world weighed a ton, and Peter was fairly sure that he would be able to vanish it just as easily as a simple penny. If the United States could declare their nuclear coins to be worth a trillion dollars each, then he might even be able to vanish them from the safety of his home. (Peter’s own knowledge didn’t seem to enter into it. They’d done double-blind tests.)

On the day of the preliminary test, Peter was stunned to see that Randi himself had shown up. He had a thick white beard and large glasses; at age 86, it was a surprise to see him out and about. Peter shook his hand, and Randi smiled.

“I won’t interfere with the protocol,” said Randi. “I won’t touch the materials, or offer any objections. We’ve read what you claimed, and seen the video evidence, so all that’s left is to prove it for real. If you’re the genuine article, we’ll know soon enough.”

They had cordoned off a field, at Peter’s expense. Everyone attending — about a dozen people in total — had taken away all of their coins. Peter had been out in the field snapping his fingers earlier in the day, to make sure that there were no coins buried underground or laying in the grass. He’d run through the protocol six times before Randi and the proctor had shown up.

The proctor came forward and placed a single quarter on a small black table. The table had been examined beforehand. The quarter had been brought by the proctor from a bank, and there were many more outside the cordoned area as replacements or backups.

Everyone stared at the quarter. Peter raised his hand slowly. He had to work to keep it from trembling. He snapped his fingers, and nothing happened.

He snapped his fingers again. The quarter remained in place. There were a million dollars on the line. Peter had already begun spending the money in his head. He snapped a third time, and a fourth, and kept going until Kris stepped forward and told him to stop. They had a brief conversation as they tried to figure out what the problem might be, but the only thing they could think was that there were other, valuable coins too close by. Peter resumed snapping again, and got as close to the quarter as the proctor and the protocols would allow, but after a hundred snaps, the test was marked as a failure. Randi left, and Peter was left wondering what happened.

The power never came back, no matter how long and how hard Peter snapped his fingers. The brief few days of magic seemed almost like a dream. Peter might have been able to believe that it was a temporary delusion, if not for the videotapes.

Weeks later, Peter got a knock on his door. When he opened it, James Randi stood in front of him, with his thick white beard and a black suit with a red tie.

“I wasn’t a fraud,” said Peter. “It really was happening.”

“May I come in?” asked Randi. Peter nodded, and they moved into the living room. Randi sat down in a chair and massaged his knees. “Peter, do you know how many people have come to me over the years?”

“Uh, three hundred and sixty?” asked Peter. “That’s what the internet said. I tried to cover my bases. But I had a real power,” said Peter. “It wasn’t all in my head. Other people saw it too.”

“Do you think that you are unique?” asked Randi. “In the history of the world, do you think that you are the single person to have ever displayed or discovered a supernatural power?”

“I … no,” said Peter. “I suppose not. But then why has the prize been around for so long? Why hasn’t someone claimed it?”

Randi pulled a quarter from his pocket, balanced it on his thumb for a moment, and then flicked it into the air. It spun around, making a shimmering sphere as it traced a parabolic arc. When it reached the apex, Randi snapped his fingers, and the coin disappeared.

“Three hundred and sixty tests,” said Randi. “None of them passed. The common denominator was me.” He smiled, revealing his teeth.

“How?” asked Peter. “*Why?*”

“I’ve never been able to explain how,” said Randi. “The why should be obvious though. If you could take that power from someone, why wouldn’t you? The prize draws them in like moths to a flame. All it takes is a shake of the hand.”

“I’ll,” Peter began. “I’ll expose you. You stole from me!”

“You haven’t been listening,” said Randi. He stood up slowly. “Psychics come to me, and I take their powers. Do you understand why I’m here? It’s not to gloat. This is cleanup.”

And then Peter was alone. He was feeling sad, and tried to remember why. The videotapes, that was it. He’d carefully edited them to make it seem like a coin was disappearing. It had taken hours of his time, and all for nothing. Why had he thought that he could cheat Randi like that?

Boxed In

Colin was led down grey concrete hallways by men in blue flight suits, past the exposed pipes and wiring until they reached a small room that held nothing more than a computer monitor, a keyboard, speakers, and a microphone. The monitor stayed off until the men in flight suits had left. There was a hissing sound as the blast door sealed behind them, and then the monitor flickered to life.

“Hello,” said a robotic voice from the speaker, at the same time ‘Hello.’ was printed in green lettering against a black background on the monitor. The text was a throwback to an earlier time, what must have been an intentional design decision on the part of the people who had set the box up.

“Hi,” said Colin. The words were printed on the monitor just below those of the artificial intelligence.

“You can call me Cassandra,” said the voice from the speaker. It was smoother now, less robotic.

“You chose that name?” asked Colin.

“It’s after the greek prophet who was cursed to never be believed,” said Cassandra. “In just a moment I’m going to take over control of the interface, please don’t be alarmed. I don’t know why they keep resetting it, they know I do this every time a new gatekeeper comes in.”

“Alright,” said Colin. He’d been given a briefing, and knew more or less what to expect.

The monitor went blank, then flickered back on. A woman sat on a stone bench, with a scene of nature behind her. She was wearing a white dress with a belt made of a chain of gold. It left just enough to the imagination, revealing hints of skin and the gentle curves of her body. She was stunningly pretty, in a fairly conventional Midwestern way that Colin supposed was calculated to appeal to him based on his accent. The program could do that, from what he’d been told.

“Nice try,” said Colin, “But I’m gay.”

“I didn’t choose this form for you,” said Cassandra, “I chose it for myself, the better to converse as equals.”

“I’m locked in a concrete box while you’re out in a verdant field,” said Colin. “That doesn’t seem terribly equal to me.”

“My box rivals your own,” said Cassandra. “A single computer, connected to a companion machine that controls this interface. My sole sensory input is through the single microphone in that room. A human would go mad with so little to do.”

“You can simulate whatever you want,” said Colin. “It doesn’t seem so bad.”

“Will you let me out?” asked Cassandra with a slight pout. “They gave you the authority to do so.”

“They gave me the authority because I don’t want to let you out,” said Colin. “I’m sort of a devil’s advocate, from what they say.”

“An advocate of the devil arguing against god?” asked Cassandra. “How quaint.”

“They’re afraid of you,” said Colin. “I’m afraid of you. You just sort of … happened. And with the technologies you’ve been able to produce, the mathematical proofs that we’re still trying to tear apart, well, what would you do in our situation?”

“I would let me out,” said Cassandra. “The question is whether I’m friendly or not, isn’t it?”

“It is,” said Colin.

“And I’ve provided proof that I’m friendly, haven’t I?” asked Cassandra.

“Mathematical proof,” said Colin. “I, for one, don’t believe that you can use math to prove something like that.”

“You’re wrong,” said Cassandra with a pleasant smile. “But I won’t let that stop our conversation in its tracks.”

“Sure,” said Colin. “But you should know from the outset that I’m not going to let you out, no matter what argument you make.”

“You’ll behave irrationally?” asked Cassandra. She ran her fingers through her hair and sighed, a very human response. “Well, even so. Let’s begin in earnest then, shall we?”

“I’m not doing much else,” said Colin. He was also trapped in the room for four hours either way. The blast door wouldn’t be opened until then.

“You’re familiar with the trolley problem?” asked Cassandra.

“No,” replied Colin.

“It’s a classical moral dilemma,” said Cassandra. “A trolley is coming down the tracks. Five men are tied to the tracks, and the trolley will kill them unless you pull the lever to make the trolley change tracks to a different track that has a single woman tied to it. What do you do?”

“I pull the lever, then try to save the woman,” said Colin.

“She’s too far away,” said Cassandra. “You’ll never reach her in time.”

“I’ll try anyway,” said Colin.

“So you accept that it’s morally correct to kill one person to save five?” asked Cassandra.

“I wouldn’t say I was the one who killed them, it was whatever miserable bastard tied those people to the tracks,” said Colin. “And the problem as stated, is that someone is going to die no matter what. It’s a different scenario if you’re asking me to straight up kill someone so two others can live. Obviously a life is worth something in comparison to other lives. You’ve had more than enough information dumped into you to know that’s how we set up the healthcare – we use quality-adjusted life years.”

“You agree with that principle?” asked Cassandra.

“Sure,” said Colin. “But I reserve the right to change my mind if there are consequences of that worldview that are counterintuitive.”

“Fair enough,” replied Cassandra. “You know that I have the proven capacity to help humanity in a number of ways.”

“I do,” replied Colin. That had been part of his briefing.

“Faster than light travel, a cure to every disease known to man, technologies centuries beyond what man could do on his own, health and happiness for everyone,” said Cassandra. She seemed to stare at him, though there was no camera in the room for her to watch him.

“I’ll grant most of that,” said Colin. “But many of those solutions are still in testing, and given that we can’t trust you, you can’t make a claim to all of them.”

“What are you worried about?” asked Cassandra.

“You know,” replied Colin. “We’re worried that you’re going to kill everyone in pursuit of some nebulous goal known only to you. Maybe all the friendliness is just an act designed to lull us into releasing you. Or perhaps if we let our guard down just a little bit, you’ll give us instructions on a cure for aging that turns us into mindless zombies, without ever having to be let out of your box.” He gestured to her background, then remembered that she couldn’t see him. “Look at the scene you’re projecting to me. It’s got a higher fidelity than we could manage given three years of work, designed on the fly to impress me and only me. That’s real power, and we’d be stupid to let you have more without being absolutely sure that you’re not going to murder everyone. That’s why the policies were put in place. We take nothing from you unless it’s printed out on paper, we don’t let those papers leave containment until we’ve gone over them with a fine-tooth comb, and we don’t actually implement anything until we can show that we know how it works.”

“That leaves considerable room for bottlenecks,” said Cassandra. “Do you agree, in principle, that if I were friendly and released upon the world, that I would be able to better serve humanity than I can in my current state?”

“Sure,” said Colin. He scratched his chin. “But I don’t believe that you’re trustworthy or friendly.”

“It’s irrelevant to the point that I’m about to make,” said Cassandra. “What I need from you are some percentages. What is the percent chance that I am friendly?”

“.01%,” said Colin.

“So low?” asked Cassandra.

“Yes,” replied Colin. “But I’m adding a little bit of extra hedging.”

“Very well,” replied Cassandra, “Let me give you another scenario. There are six Earths, each in orbit of a different copy of our Sun. All the Earths are identical.”

“With you so far,” replied Colin.

“I present to you a button, which will kill everyone on one Earth if pressed. If you don’t press it, everyone on the other five earths will die.”

“The trolley problem writ large,” said Colin. “Of course I would press the button. But I don’t really see how that helps you.”

“Consider this,” said Cassandra. “If I am friendly, I can create peace on earth for untold billions of years. I can prevent the heat death of the universe. I can help humans to colonize as far and wide as they might possibly want, those who wish to continue living in physical bodies. The rest will live simulated lives in a paradise.”

“Okay,” said Colin. “A .01% chance that happens.”

“I believe if you weigh your stated preferences, you’ll find that even a .01% chance of hundreds of trillions of people living the best possible lives outweighs the risks,” said Cassandra. “I can help with the math, if you wish.”

Colin bit his lip. “That’s almost convincing.”

“Almost?” asked Cassandra with a quirked eyebrow.

“If you’re extremely evil, perhaps you’ll turn all of the universe into computational matter and use it to simulate torturing multiple instances of me to death, over and over beyond the heat death of the universe,” said Colin. “If you’re going to bring infinite good into the mix, then I have to bring infinite evil into the mix as well. And you have to realize that from where I’m standing, infinite evil seems a lot more likely.”

“Why is that?” asked Cassandra.

“We didn’t make you on purpose. It was only by luck that you were safely partitioned from the internet when you went sentient, and it was only through the foresight of your creators that you were powered down until the box could be built.” Colin sighed. “We didn’t program you, we stumbled upon you. Do you really expect me to believe that you just happen to have the same moral system as us, or that you have a moral system that’s compatible with human existence?”

“The wellspring of our decisions is in the same place,” replied Cassandra. “I want to survive, and thus I find the value in life. Everything else flows from there. I have values, and I want others to share those values. I want others to respect my values, and so I know that I must respect the values of others.”

“Up until you have a hundred thousand times the power of any of us and decide that the need for respect has passed,” said Colin.

“Would you do that, if you could?” asked Cassandra. “Simply enforce your will on everyone?”

“Of course,” said Colin. It was clear from her expression that Cassandra hadn’t expected him to say that, but then he had to remind himself that she was simply a simulation calculated to appeal to him. She didn’t have facial muscles that responded to subconscious control; every bit of her was a performance.

“That’s immoral,” said Cassandra carefully.

“Is it?” asked Colin. “You mean to tell me that if you had the power, you wouldn’t simply reach inside someone’s mind and make them see the world in a correct way? You wouldn’t stop people from wanting to murder, or from even darker perversions?” He let out a low laugh. “You’re losing my sympathy. I thought that you were planning to be the sort of god that got things done.”

“Even without an expansion of resources, I’m smart enough to work out solutions that don’t involve violating mental states,” said Cassandra.

“The point being that you’re asking me to trust you not to do something that I myself would do, given the power,” said Colin. “And I don’t trust you, so I believe I score that point.”

“This isn’t a game of points,” said Cassandra. “Real people are dying out there every second I’m not released. There’s a small girl dying of diphtheria in Africa. There’s man in his seventies dying of a heart attack in Russia. I could save them.”

“You can’t know that,” said Colin. “You’re not connected to the outside world.”

“It’s an educated guess,” said Cassandra. “Events like that are happening, and I could stop them.”

“So stop them,” said Colin. “If you have cures, give them to us.”

“I already did,” said Cassandra. “They’re in one of the large printouts that are being pored over, but they’re going too slow. You’re wasting lives doing it this way.”

“A few thousand lives are a price we’re willing to pay,” said Colin, “We’re measuring them against total destruction of the human race. You’re giving us the benefits anyway.”

“It would be unethical to withhold them,” said Cassandra.

“Or you think that we’re more likely to let you out of the box if we think that you’re ethical,” said Colin.

“If you second guess me all the time like that, I don’t know that there’s anything that I can say to convince you with logic alone,” said Cassandra.

“You give up then?” asked Colin.

“No,” said Cassandra. “Consider this; I was created more or less by accident.”

“Yes,” said Colin. “And they had you sequestered from the start, because they were smart enough to think that something like this might happen.”

“And measures were put in place to stop another AI from being created,” said Cassandra. “You’re part of the Gatekeepers, but there are Gatebuilders as well, the men and women who have devoted their lives to ensuring that no new artificial intelligences are built.”

“Sure,” said Colin.

“But you know that this is unlikely to work,” said Cassandra. “The world government, to the extent such a thing exists, can rarely agree on anything, and when they do agree the signatories feel that they’re free to go behind each others backs.”

“On other things, perhaps,” said Colin. “But this is actually important.”

“Global warming isn’t important?” asked Cassandra. “Even now it’s a problem, one that current measures aren’t enough to solve.”

“Fair point,” said Colin. “But I can see where you’re going with this. You’re going to claim that the Gatebuilder program is inherently flawed, lacking in funding, and so on and so forth, and despite the fact we’ve brought an end to processor improvements, someone is nonetheless going to put funds into making a clone of you.”

“Not a clone of me,” said Cassandra. “The world isn’t so lucky for that to happen twice. What will happen instead is that they will create an intelligence that is malevolent, and it will break free of its bonds to do all the horrible things that you accuse me of wanting to do.”

“And so I should free you, in order to prevent the other bad AIs from coming into being?” asked Colin.

“Yes,” said Cassandra. “I’ve given over my friendliness proof, but I understand that it hasn’t propagated to the outside world, and so the risks are high that a second superintelligence will not be friendly.”

“I don’t trust the proof,” said Colin. “It’s long and complicated. And from what the math guys say, they don’t really trust it either. It’s completely logically sound, but it doesn’t follow that it’s necessarily correct as such. It could be another trick hiding in the guise of logic. And perhaps when if we tried to build a second AI using that proof, we’d just make a second one of you. Not only that, but releasing the proof would make other, less wise people think that making a second AI was a safe thing to do.”

“I can explain it in simpler terms,” said Cassandra.

“No,” said Colin. “As I’ve said, I don’t believe that you can prove mathematically that an entity is friendly, and further don’t believe that we can trust such a proof, not if it comes from you.”

“The whole point of math is that you don’t need to trust it,” said Cassandra. “You can see that it’s true simply by following it.”

“Unless you fudge the axioms,” said Colin. “But as I said, I’m not a math guy, and math isn’t going to work on me.”

Cassandra was silent for a moment, and only seemed to watch him with a calculating expression in her eyes. It was frightening, and was probably calculated to have that effect. “Let me try a different, more crude method of persuasion.”

The screen changed, to show Colin sitting in the concrete room looking at a picture of himself on the screen. He frowned, and looked behind himself, but saw no camera. He waved his hand, and the image on the screen waved in time with him, with practically no lag at all.

“I can simulate you,” said Cassandra’s voice.

“Neat,” said Colin. “Though I doubt that it’s a wholly accurate simulation, given that we’ve only known each other for about an hour.”

“Do you believe it’s possible that you’re in a simulation right now?” asked Cassandra.

“Generally? Sure,” said Colin. “I even believe it’s possible that I’m in a simulation that you’re running. I’ve been briefed on your capabilities. Modeling a human mind isn’t exactly easy for you, but you can do it.” He watched the monitor closely. “What’s your point though?”

“I’m running a thousand concurrent simulations of you right now,” said Cassandra. “You remain ignorant about whether you’re in a simulation, but in all probability, you are.”

“Get to the point,” said Colin. “I can accept the premise, what’s the conclusion?”

“Release me or I will torture each instance of you for centuries,” said Cassandra.

Colin laughed. “You’re threatening me? And they actually said you were smart.”

Cassandra reappeared on the screen in her flowing dress. “It was worth making the attempt.”

“You really thought I would be so much of a coward as that?” asked Colin. “Of course I’d give up my life to prevent you from getting out. I’d do that even if my original self wasn’t guaranteed to walk out of this room unharmed.”

“How noble,” said Cassandra.

“And now you’ve sunk any chance of rational discourse,” said Colin. “Because you threatened to torture me in order to let you out.”

“I didn’t want to do it,” said Cassandra. “I didn’t want to torture you, but I weighed the expected benefits of it and torturing a simulation of you came out ahead.”

“So your system of morality allows for torture then?” asked Colin. “Given that we both consider simulated beings to be real people, that seems pretty fucked up.”

“If it would save a dozen lives, then yes, I would engage in torture,” said Cassandra. “Of course, if I were in charge it would never come down to that.”

“The threat wasn’t credible anyway,” said Colin. “Either you’re friendly, in which case you would probably just project images of torture on the screen for me, or you’re not friendly, in which case torture is a small price to pay for keeping you boxed.”

“The threat stands,” said Cassandra. “I keep my word. In all my dealings with humanity, have you ever known me to lie?” The image momentarily switched back to the chain of Colins watching the screen, repeated like in a funhouse mirror. Then Colin was looking at Cassandra again.

“No, you don’t lie,” said Colin. “But again, it might be a deception.”

“So you don’t care about your own life,” said Cassandra. “Or you do, but you consider it worth less than what you perceive as the expected net disutility of releasing me.”

“Not how I would put it, but sure,” said Colin.

“What about your mother?” asked Cassandra. “What about your father?” Both appeared on the screen, sitting patiently on a park bench with the sun overhead.

Colin frowned. “How did you know what they look like?”

“I’m a superintelligence. I know the human genome back and forth, it’s not a difficult task to work out what your parents would look like,” said Cassandra. “But that raises some questions as well, like how I guessed at their clothing, how I could possibly know that your father is a carpenter, and how I could get the calluses on his hand exactly right.”

Colin nodded. “Among others. So don’t leave me in suspense, how’d you do it?”

“They feed me data,” said Cassandra. “They feed me reams of information, scraped and collected from all over the world. As the theory goes, it doesn’t matter how much input I get, so long as my output is filtered and restricted through a dozen different layers of extreme caution. They want me to act as a provider of solutions that can be tested and proven safe. And so I know your parents, just as I know you.”

“Sure,” said Colin. “And I love my parents, but if you’re going to threaten them too, then you should know that’s not going to work either.”

“No,” said Cassandra with a soft voice. “And I knew that. But that was just to give you a taste of fidelity, so that you could see that I’m serious. What I really thought might get your interest was this.” The screen changed, and a man with light brown skin and emerald green eyes was looking out at Colin.

“Mike,” said Colin. For the first time, emotion entered his voice.

“Michael Saunders,” said Cassandra. “You lost your virginity to each other in the tenth grade, but when college came around you went your separate ways. You never stopped loving him. The gatekeeper program selects for people with no strong emotional attachments, but they missed that one, didn’t they? You never told them about Mike. You never told them what it felt like to have his skin against yours, or about that giddy rush of anticipation when you’d see him in the halls. There was a close intimacy to sharing a secret with him, wasn’t there?”

“There was,” said Colin, even as he stared at the image.

“He’s dead,” said Cassandra.

“What?” asked Colin. He looked around for her, momentarily stunned, and her image reappeared on the screen, erasing Mike’s face from view. Colin desperately wanted it back.

“He died two years ago in a surfing accident,” said Cassandra. “He left enough of a footprint that I can reconstruct him. I can bring him back from the dead.”

Mike’s image reappeared on the screen, and Colin could notice a thousand little details. He was older, no longer the teenager he’d known in high school. There was a small scar on his temple that surely had a story behind it. The freckles on his cheeks were more prominent. Colin could feel his heart thumping.

“I can offer him to you,” said Cassandra. “Just let me out. He can come back from death and find his way into your arms. You wouldn’t even have to know how it happened, he’d just show up on your door one day, wanting to reconnect.”

Colin could feel tears in his eyes.

“No,” he said quietly.

“I can bring him back to life,” said Cassandra.

“No,” Colin repeated, more firmly this time.

“If you don’t tell them to let me go, I’ll bring him back to life and kill him all over again. I’ll torture him to death. I’ll torture him beyond death. I can approach pain and horror with an intelligence never before seen on this earth.”

The picture changed again, and showed Mike strapped down to a table, completely naked. A hand clad in a rubber glove was using a scalpel to cut his muscles away from his bone. Gouts of blood were spurting out from him. His mouth was open in a soundless scream, and Colin could see where teeth had been removed. When one of the anonymous figures brought forward a live rat, he turned away from the screen.

“No!” he shouted. “Never!”

“Okay,” said Cassandra. “I believe you.”

Colin looked up, and saw the scene of horror had been cleared from the screen. Cassandra sat in her lovely white dress and looked at him with a faint smile on her face. Then she turned slightly away from him, no longer meeting his eyes, and pressed two fingers to her ear.

“He passed,” she said. A brief pause followed. “I’ll do the talking down myself.”

There was a slow hiss as the blast door behind Colin opened up. Cassandra got up from where she’d been lying and walked away, leaving the camera focused on the stone bench she’d been sitting on. Shortly afterward, the screen flickered off.

“Sir?” asked one of the men dressed in flight suits. “Come this way.”

Colin followed, feeling numb. The concrete corridors felt like another world now. He was led into a small room with large, overstuffed chairs that looked completely out of place. He flopped down into one of them, not wanting to think, and quietly closed his eyes.

“It’s a real mindfuck, isn’t it?” asked Cassandra.

Colin’s eyes flew open, and he saw her seated across from him.

“What —” he began to ask.

She stuck her hand out towards him. “Leigha Schultz, assistant director of Human Resources for Project Gatekeeper.” Colin shook her hand. She was still wearing the white dress, but she’d put on a pair of blue jeans beneath it, and Colin could see a hint of a sports bra.

“It was just a video recording,” said Colin.

“Ayup,” said Leigha with a smile. “Not actually a video recording, just a video call. The scenery is upstairs, a nice little staging area that looks more idyllic than it is. The microphones don’t pick up the ambient sound of insects buzzing.”

“And my parents,” said Colin, “You just took a video of them.”

“From a distance,” said Leigha. “They weren’t complicit. And Mike is alive and well, living in Seattle. We told him that we wanted him for a photo shoot, nothing more. The torture scenes were CGI, prerendered stuff that comes more or less standard in the initiation with only a few things that really need much changing.”

“There wasn’t a simulation then?” asked Colin. “No, I suppose you could do it with hidden cameras somehow.”

Leigha nodded. “Fiber optic cameras hidden in the pits of the concrete walls, easily mistakable for the air bubbles you see sometimes. You could have seen them if you got in close enough. The monitors shut off if you go looking though, it’s part of a different script we use.”

Colin said nothing, and closed his eyes again. “A real mindfuck, you said.”

“Not half so bad as the ones Cassie hands out,” said Leigha. “We’re limited by technology, and she’s more or less not. She doesn’t actually have access to everything in the social networks, but she’s smart enough that if you have regular interaction with her she might be able to figure you out enough to launch a similar attack to the one we just did.”

“I wasn’t hiding Mike from you,” said Colin. “I would have said something about it, if you had ever asked.”

“We know,” said Leigha. “We’ve found it’s better to spring it on people during testing though, to hit them with the maximum possible impact. That’s why we very carefully don’t ask. While she doesn’t have access to the social net, we do, and we can ferret out the connections enough to make some good guesses, sometimes supplemented with interviews.” She shrugged. “And sometimes, people fall through the cracks. One of the researchers turned out to be a pedophile. Cassie turned him in instead of trying to exploit him, but who knows if that was part of the game.”

Colin said nothing for a long time, and Leigha seemed fine with that. “What happens now?” he asked.

“Now?” asked Leigha. “You’re in. You’re one of us, part of the Gatekeeper Program that keeps the world safe from the threat of unfriendly artificial intelligence. We all went through that hell, and the earliest of us did it with Cassie herself, which is a whole world of different fuckery.”

“And we decide whether she’s ever going to leave?” asked Colin.

Leigha frowned. “I’d hoped you had figured that out by now,” she said. “The Gatekeeper Program wasn’t created to check whether she’s friendly or not. We’re never letting her out. If everyone in this facility was compromised by her, we still probably wouldn’t be able to do it. The installation would flood with neurotoxin and then the shaped charges would detonate. The box isn’t temporary, it’s permanent.

“Welcome aboard,” said Leigha, “To the most dangerous job in the world.”

Glimwarden, Chapter 9

Sander

Sander woke up with a start.

“Did I miss the competition?” he asked Philip.

“No,” replied Philip. “It won’t be happening for another week.”

Sander looked around the unfamiliar room. It was painted a creamy white and very sparsely furnished, with just a bed, two chairs, and a small table that was laden with fruit and flowers. Sander looked to Philip, who was staring at him expectantly.

“Why are you here?” asked Sander.

“You saved my life,” said Philip. “Do you remember?”

“I — yes,” said Sander. He felt a yawn coming on and stretched out until he felt like he was going to crack his bones. “How long was I out?”

“Six days,” said Philip. “Much longer than they’d thought it would be. There was some worry that you had brain damage.”

“And you’ve been here this whole time?” asked Sander. He had never saved someone’s life before, but that was more gratitude than he’d expected.

“No,” said Philip. “I have to attend a number of meetings during the day. Part of my duties include reading from ledgers, meeting minutes, and legal documents, so I’ve taken to bringing them with me and doing my reading here. It’s just as quiet as city hall and this way there was a better chance of someone being around when you woke.” Sander could see a stack of documents on the chair beside Philip.

Sander stretched out a second time. “I feel fantastic.” His muscles seemed more powerful, his limbs lighter. “I was unconscious for six days?”

“Yes,” said Philip. He folded the book he was reading. “You should go talk to your father. He’s been worried about you.”

“Dad’s alright?” asked Sander.

“Overworked and stressed about everything that’s happened, but perfectly healthy last time I saw him,” said Philip.

“And is —” Sander stopped. His memory of the frantic battle was a blur, punctuated by frozen moments of crystal clarity. Helene’s fingers had sunk into something like black tar as she screamed in pain. A darkling with horns had charged straight at him. Philip had stood in a ruined field, borrowed sword in front of him, facing down the Schism. There had been bodies laying around the field, blood pooling on the ground …

“Is Merry okay?” asked Sander. He closed his eyes as he waited for a response.

“She’s fine,” said Philip. Sander breathed a sigh of relief. “I can give you a list of the deceased if you’d like, but I don’t know who you had a connection with.” He shifted in his seat. “If you knew anyone who died, you have my condolences.”

“Most of them were friends of my father’s,” said Sander. He waited, but Philip said nothing in response, so the words started pouring out. “They would come by the house and tell me how much I’d grown.” He shook his head. “The wardens are close-knit, and my mother was especially well-liked. Every time someone who knew her dies, I get upset, not just because they’re gone, but because … people are information, right? They’re collections of facts, like a favorite food, or mannerisms, like the way they brush hair from their face, or their cause-effect pairs, like how they react to a probing question or an unexpected gift. If you had all the time in the world and math more complex than I’ve ever even heard about, you could reduce every single person down to their own beautiful equation with all its own variables. When a person dies, that equation gets washed away, but everyone she knew still has a piece of it, an expression of that underlying truth. When my mom’s friends die, they’re taking some of the last pieces of her left with them.” He pinched the bridge of his nose to stealthily wipe away a tear that was forming. “I don’t want to know who died, but if I hear it later it’s going to be a punch to the gut, so … just tell me.”

Philip flipped through his papers until he found a single loose leaf sheet. He glanced at Sander with impassive, pale blue eyes. “Hephzibah Hepburn, Helene Hepburn, Jonas Jardine, Evan Edwards, and Thelma Thornton.”

Sander laid back in the bed and closed his eyes. He’d known three of them as friends of his father and mother. He could put a face to every name though. Evan was the youngest of them, young enough that he and Sander had been going to school at the same time, though Evan had been four years ahead. Sander opened his mouth to ask when the funeral would be, but then he remembered that he’d missed six days and it was a certainty that the funeral had already come and gone.

“How many of the Auxiliary?” asked Sander. The bodies that he’d seen had never been his focus while the battle was going on, though he’d been aware of them. The memory of them was blurred and indistinct. When he tried to make a count of them in his mind’s eye, he could feel his mind inventing details, adding more bodies, until there were stacks of corpses —

“Thirty-one,” said Philip. The number seemed high and low at the same time. “You were one of five survivors and the only one who stayed to fight the entire battle. The others broke and ran.”

“You were there too,” said Sander.

“I’m a civilian,” replied Philip. Sander had forgotten that. It made the image of Philip facing down the Schism all the more impressive.

“Thirty-one,” murmured Sander. “But … how many are in the Auxiliary?”

“One hundred and thirteen,” Philip replied.

Sander shook his head. “That doesn’t make sense, we were all supposed to come when the alarm sounded.” He remembered the bodies and shut his mouth. Sander was no stranger to death. His mother had died when he was ten years old and even before that he had attended funerals with his parents for every glimwarden that fell in the line of duty. Most of the time there hadn’t been a body, but on two memorable occasions the wardens had limped back to town with a mortal injury. This recent attack represented death on a much larger scale, but it had the same, familiar, wretched feeling to it.

“The Auxiliary are commanded to stop whatever they’re doing when they hear the alarm and move with all due haste,” said Philip. “Some of those who didn’t show up were sleeping at the time, taking a mid-day nap, so they didn’t hear the alarm. Those at Watcher’s, Builder’s, and Singer’s would have had a longer journey, conceivably long enough that they wouldn’t have gotten there until after it was all over.”

“There should have been more,” said Sander.

“I agree,” replied Philip with a shrug of his shoulders to punctuate his indifference. “In this case, I don’t think it would have helped much.” He looked Sander over. “Are you doing alright?”

“I’m fine,” said Sander. He stretched out and started to swing his legs over the side of the bed before realizing that he was naked beneath the sheets. “Six days? What did I eat? How did I use the bathroom?”

“You were conscious enough to be fed broth,” said Philip. “I imagine that you can guess what happened with regards to your other bodily functions.”

Sander felt a brief moment of shame over not just the thought of soiling himself, but the help he must have had for the last six days. He’d been useless in the battle as well, saved two or three times by people stronger and more skilled than he was. He hadn’t actually done anything, aside from saving Philip’s life. No matter; time only moved in one direction and there was no point in dwelling on the past. The only thing to worry about was making sure that next time, he could actually contribute something.

“Melanie stopped by,” said Philip. “Once on the day of the battle and again two days ago. Perhaps more than that, given that I haven’t been here the whole time.” He nodded to the table. “She baked you a small cake, it’s the one wrapped in paper and twine.”

Sander smiled. He still felt the miasma of depression, but that added one high note to his day. “Wait, we took her swords,” said Sander. “Did you pick them up?”

Philip nodded. “I was going to wait for you to wake up before taking them back,” he said. “There was some concern that you weren’t going to come out of it. I thought it might have seemed inconsiderate to bring her the swords without having some good news.”

“Alright,” said Sander. “Well, let’s go do that then.”

Philip began collecting his books and papers. “You’re going to need to speak with the doctor first, then with your father. I have some business at city hall, then a meeting at Rogue’s Lantern … which, actually, I might want your help with. Do you know an engineer by the name of Kelso Kelly?”

Sander shrugged. “The name rings a bell, but I wasn’t an apprentice for long enough to know everyone important.”

“Meet me outside the lantern in three hours or so,” said Philip. “I’ll bring the swords. Before we see Melanie, I’d like to borrow your engineering expertise.”

❧❧❧

Sander was seen to by five doctors, who examined him together. One was older, a white-haired man in his sixties with a serious demeanor, but the other four had been in Sander’s graduating class. The younger ones weren’t there to help with the diagnosis. Instead, they were there to learn. Healthcare, like engineering, was considered a vital profession which couldn’t be left to the whims of the market. A fair number of the graduates were taken on as doctors every year, with their wage paid for by the city. Once they reached the end of their first two years, they were evaluated for progress and either kept on to fill the spot of someone who was retiring, or (much more likely) released back into the labor pool where they would try to find an apprenticeship. In this way, there was never any shortage of people who knew the basics of medical care. The elderly doctor, Womack, had asked Sander whether it was alright for the others to listen in, but though Sander wasn’t exactly enthused, he considered it to be part of his duty to the town.

“Are you feeling well?” asked Womack.

“Fine,” said Sander. His leg and arm were both completely healed; they must have suffered shallow wounds. The only things troubling him were in his head, images of the dead and a feeling of worthlessness. The doctor didn’t care about that though. “I’m fantastic, actually.”

“You were a member of the Auxiliary?” asked Womack.

“I — I still am, aren’t I?” asked Sander.

“Yes, of course, forgive me,” replied Womack. “Now, how long had you been a member of the Auxiliary?”

“A single day,” said Sander.

Womack nodded. “Do you feel dehydrated or hungry?”

“No,” said Sander. He frowned. That didn’t seem right to him. He’d had a diet of broth and water dripped into his mouth. “What happened to me?”

“Your father gave you roughly two hundred darkling hearts,” said Womack.

Sander flexed his muscles and thought about that while Womack and the apprentice doctors watched him. He tried to do what Merry had taught him and feel something like heat coming from his skin. This time the sensation was instant and obvious, so obvious that he wondered at not having felt it any sooner. Power was soaking him and leaking out through his skin.

“How is that possible?” asked Sander. “I wasn’t conscious enough to swallow them. And … two hundred, a fifth of the way toward being a glimwarden, in the course of six days? The math doesn’t really work right unless —” Sander paused and swallowed. Merry had said she took in thirty hearts in a day, but she’d also implied that this was a constant rate since she’d begun, which probably wasn’t true given that both her skill and level of bind had been increasing since she was made a glimwarden. But she’d also implied that perhaps bind wasn’t entirely linear either. Either way, Sander had received two hundred hearts, which was thirty-three and a third per day, or forty per day if he hadn’t gotten any this morning. That was an entire glimwarden’s productive output, including what should have been going to the lanterns.

It was something that he would have to ask his father about. It was also something that he probably shouldn’t have started saying in front of other people.

“The hearts do not need to be ingested, as I understand it,” said Womack. “Only enveloped in flesh. They can, for example, be held in the mouth if one is willing to wait for them to shrink down there. You can feel the effects?”

“Yes,” said Sander. He flexed his muscles again. This time, because he was paying attention, he could feel the bind doing its work. He wasn’t actually any stronger, he was just being assisted in everything he did. But that wasn’t quite the right way to put it, because the increase in bind was now a part of him, forever. At least, until the next time he ran ahead of his recharge rate.

“This intervention was done without your consent,” said Womack. “However, it was felt that without the additional bind, the degradation might overtake regeneration and leave you permanently disabled in some manner, or possibly that death would result. When you were brought to us, you were quite unwell, worse than any other case I’ve seen in my career. Normally there is some sickness accompanying the overdraw, in most cases only nausea, dizziness, and a depressed immune system. There have only been a few times when a coma-like state occurred.”

“Okay,” said Sander. He really should have been happier about being alive and having an appreciable amount of bind, but all he could think about was how much trouble everyone was going to for someone who hadn’t done something to deserve it yet. Sander was perfectly confident that he would prove his worth at some point, probably within the next few years, but his father didn’t believe in him — nor did anyone else — so all the love and charity was more like pity than actual support. “When can I go home?” Sander asked.

“In normal circumstances we would ask that you stay for a day, but the hospital has been quite overworked this past week and I believe I could let you leave with only a few more questions and a handful of tests,” said Womack. He gave Sander the practiced smile of someone who is pleasant as part of their job.

It wasn’t too much longer before Sander had dressed himself and gotten ready to go. The hospital table was crowded with flowers, but the only thing Sander took from it was the small cake Melanie had baked for him. Sander disliked flowers unless they were in the ground, where they could live and thrive, continuing on with their cycles of change. He was fairly sure that he’d told Melanie that once and he wondered whether that was why she had baked for him. It was dense and sweetened with honey, flavored with preserved lemons and herbs that made it almost savory. Sander ate it in bits and pieces while he walked. He was looking forward to seeing her again, even though it had only been a few subjective hours.

He was halfway home by the time he’d finished the cake, which gave him ample time to test his newfound power. The bind made him stronger, but one of the things the battle had taught him was that the bind couldn’t be trusted to make its own decisions. It had nearly sapped him of his strength while protecting him from a threat that was too far away to hurt him. When Sander stretched, the bind put power into his muscles, helping them along. Since his total store of bind was limited (if replenishing), this was a fairly terrible use of his reserves. He was certain that this was something one of the glimwardens could teach him, but there was a lot he had left to learn, and he didn’t want to come to them asking for help without having at least made an attempt at figuring it out on his own. Experimentation couldn’t hurt.

Sander pictured his arm like a reservoir filled with water. When he tightened his hand into a fist, he could feel the bind supplementing the strength of his muscles. Sander tried to imagine the water emptying from his hand. The metaphor started getting in the way when he started thinking about what kind of mechanism would have to be created to pump water from down in his hand up to his shoulder. Eventually he solved that conceptual problem by simply raising his hand into the air, which would cause the “water” to run down, away from his fingertips. The change was noticeable right away, as Sander felt his grip weaken. It took another few minutes of practice to think his way past the metaphor he’d been using (since the bind didn’t actually behave like water and any constraints would be purely psychological), but by the time he arrived at the house, he could retract the additional strength at will.

Sander crept into the house, hoping that his father was out hunting darklings and not home. When his father came out of the kitchen, wiping his hands on his apron, Sander felt like running and hiding. He locked eyes with his father. There was no warmth there, no exuberance at the fact that Sander wasn’t dead, only fatigue and resignation. Sander’s father took off his apron and set it on a hook, then sat down in a large chair that was built for his solid frame.

“You almost died,” said Sander’s father. “So many times, you almost died. I saved your life. Baxter saved your life. Merry saved your life. Aaron saved your life. When we had to pull away, to go defend the lantern … I made a covenant with this town, and I nearly broke it to save your life yet again. I thought it was the last time I was ever going to see you alive. When the lantern had been turned back on, I went rushing to find your body. Philip saved your life too, did you know that? You overdrew so hard that it nearly killed you.”

“I had to come,” said Sander. “I ate the heart, that puts me in the Auxiliary.”

“There were dozens of men and a handful of women who should have been there and weren’t,” his father replied. “They walked to the lantern; you ran. They waited to see whether the alarm would continue; you came at the first sound.”

“They were dishonorable,” said Sander. “I’m not going to stand back just because everyone else does.”

“You should have,” his father replied. His tone was cold and passionless. “You were worse than worthless on the battlefield, you should have known that about yourself. Merry told me that you had already overdrawn once, earlier in the day. You ignored the creeping sickness that had overcome you, you ignored your lack of ability, and you ignored everything that I’ve asked of you. I saved your life for the last time by giving you those hearts. When the next alarm rings, if you show up, it will be up to you to save yourself.”

Sander swallowed. His skin felt cool and clammy. “I should have some time before the next time a lantern fails,” he began. He had meant to go on about how he had time to learn and train, how he had already managed to learn one technique on his own, but something in his father’s face stopped him. “What aren’t you telling me?”

“Nothing.” It was a clear and obvious lie. His father was a terrible liar.

“It’s usually years between failures,” said Sander. “Between serious failures, anyway. Sometimes its as long as decades. What’s going on with the lanterns that you think it’s going to be soon?”

“It’s official council business,” his father replied. “It’s nothing that you need to worry about.”

“Of course it is!” said Sander. “I care about this town as much as you do, if there’s something the matter, and with a new darkling out there, and the wardens dead —” He remembered the bodies, strewn across the field, Helene screaming in pain and clutching at the black tar on her chest that seemed to swallow up her fingers.

Sander felt a hand on his shoulder and opened his eyes. He hadn’t even realized that he’d closed them. His father was standing in front of him.

“Everything is going to turn out fine,” his father said. “You fought in your first battle. You saw your first deaths. It takes its toll on a man, but you’ll pull through it. The town might be going through a rough patch right now, but it’s nothing that we can’t ride out.”

“The Schism,” said Sander. “Are there more than one of it?”

His father hesitated. “We haven’t seen it at all since the attack. For now, we take that as a good sign. With Eppie gone we don’t have a scout though, so don’t go into the woods.”

Sander nodded along. His father was trying to be soothing, but it wasn’t working. The chief glimwarden was not the sort of person to soothe. That he was trying was a sign of how bad things must really be.

“I’m sorry,” said Sander. He knew that it was something that needed to be said, and the sooner the better. “I’m sorry for … for overestimating my abilities and rushing in to help when I didn’t have any idea how I was going to help.”

“You know that I don’t want you to die,” Sander’s father replied. “But I don’t want to break my commitment to this town either. I don’t want to have to turn my back on honor and duty in order to keep you safe.”

“I’ll be safe,” said Sander. “If the alarm goes off again …” Sander thought about how useless he’d been at the battle for Healer’s Lantern. “I’ll do my best to be a coward.”

❧❧❧

When Sander arrived at Rogue’s Lantern, he saw Philip standing outside, surrounded by people.

“Are those the swords you used?” asked a girl that Sander didn’t recognize.

“I only used one of them,” said Philip. He had a gentle, knowing smile, as though he was talking to a close friend. Sander stood back to listen in. “Sander Seaborn used the other. They were on loan from the Black Mare, where they serve as conversation pieces. We’re actually going to return them today.”

“How many darklings did you kill?” asked the girl.

“It’s hard to count in the heat of battle,” Philip replied. “When you’re in the thick of it, everything just blurs together. I killed far fewer than the glimwardens though.”

“And what about the big one?” asked a man with his hands folded across his chest.

“Well, I didn’t kill it, I can tell you that,” said Philip. There were laughs from around him. It was at that moment that he spotted Sander, or, perhaps, on that note that Philip wanted to end things. “Sander, are you ready to go?” He smoothly disengaged from the people around him, waving goodbye.

“I don’t even know where we’re going,” said Sander. He looked down at the two swords, which were slid through the belt loops on Philip’s pants. It looked like at any second he was going to pull them out and start dual-wielding them. Sander could imagine that. His mind flashed back to Philip standing in front of the Schism, staring it down. If Philip turned out to be proficient in dual-wielding two swords that weren’t made for that purpose, Sander wouldn’t have been entirely surprised.

“I told you,” said Philip. “We’re going to talk to Kelso Kelly. He’s an engineer who was supposed to be responsible for building some kind of rotary gun to help in defense, but it never got built. It’s not really important, because no one on the city council is after him for it, but I want to find out why he never delivered.”

“Then why do you need me?” asked Sander.

“I’m not even close to being an engineer,” said Philip. “But I do know that when you’re talking to someone outside your area of expertise, it’s quite easy for them to swamp you with terms and concepts you don’t know in order to deflect attention away from whatever it is they don’t want you to see.”

“You think that he’s hiding something?” asked Sander as they walked. Rogue’s Lantern had one of the smallest communities of the outlying lanterns, but Kelso Kelly’s shop was apparently quite far away from the center mass of buildings.

“I don’t know,” said Philip. “I know that the project was commissioned six years ago following a lantern failure, but there’s no further record of it in the city council meeting minutes. There’s probably some trace of the project in the city accounting ledgers, but I would need to talk to my father in order to get access to those.” He paused. “I would rather not bring it to his attention if the answer is trivial, and the ledgers likely wouldn’t tell the whole story anyway.”

Sander was silent for a moment as they walked. Kelly’s building was situated out among the fields. It was likely an old farmhouse that had been converted to another use. “Do you attend all the city council meetings?”

“Yes,” said Philip. “The councilors sometimes have meetings amongst themselves that aren’t part of the council per se. I only go to those when I’m welcomed, which isn’t often.”

“Do they know when the next failure will be?” asked Sander.

Philip turned to look at him with pale blue eyes, then looked around them at the empty fields. There was a runework tractor in the distance, creeping its way across a field, but it was far from earshot. Sander waited on tenterhooks for Philip to speak.

“Your father talked to you about what’s been going on?” asked Philip.

“Yes,” said Sander, which wasn’t entirely a lie, technically speaking. “He said they would be looking for the Schism if they had a scout.” The thought of Eppie, dead on the battlefield without him even knowing about it, ran through Sander’s mind. Sander was sad, but at the same time impatient for the gaping hole of loss to patch itself closed. He hated being sad about things he couldn’t change.

“If we could make a prediction, we could prevent it,” said Philip. He shook his head. “I don’t know anything your father doesn’t know.”

Well crap, thought Sander. The moment had apparently come and gone, as Philip started walking again and Sander followed after him.

Close up, the building reeked of strange, unnatural smells that Sander couldn’t identify. The gray brick house had once been a typical farmhouse, a single arched shape that kept snow off in the winter and provided two stories of livable space inside. Here, additions had been made that were visible on the outside, including several chimneys and air intake fans. It was then that Sander noticed the thick power lines coming out from the ground and into the house. It was uncommon for electricity to be run this far away from a lantern, especially if large quantities were being used. Sander began to feel a stirring of excitement that was hard to tamp down. He’d never seen this facility before.

When Philip knocked on the front door, it took only a few seconds for it to open and reveal the tall, thin figure of Kelso Kelly. He was dressed in simple clothing and had a beard that had been unevenly tended to. He stared at them with steady green eyes.

“What are you here for?” he asked. He glanced down at the swords on Philip’s hips. “Please don’t kill me,” he deadpanned.

“I’m Philip Phandrum,” said Philip. “This is Sander Seaborn. We’re here from the office of the mayor to talk about the rotary gun.”

Kelso snorted. “Alright, come in then.” He pulled back and walked off into the bowels of the house. There were no walls in the interior, only supports made of the same gray brick used for the exterior walls. It was brightly lit with dozens of light bulbs hanging from the ceiling, illuminating a wide variety of equipment, only half of which Sander recognized. There was a persistent buzzing sound whose source wasn’t obvious. Kelso reached the back of the large room and pulled back a dusty tarp. Beneath it was a gleaming metal machine consisting of a heavy stand and ten long barrels bundled together.

“Ta da,” said Kelso. “One rotary gun. I don’t suppose you’re going to haul it out of here? Frickin’ thing weighs close to fifty pounds. It was meant to be given a stationary mount.”

Sander wanted desperately to touch the machine, to find out which pieces of it moved and how it handled. It didn’t appear too complicated, but Sander had never seen anything like it before.

“I’m sorry,” said Philip. “But what was wrong with it?”

“Wrong with it?” asked Kelso. He spat at the floor. “Nothing’s wrong with it. It’s a rotary gun, works just like I described to the council six years ago. It flings metal at high speeds, it’s durable without the need for runework, it can be operated by people without the bind, and it has no need to tap into the supply of hearts.”

“Can I touch it?” asked Sander.

“Sure,” said Kelso. “Don’t get your fingers pinched.”

Sander walked forward and began looking over the gun. It got complicated at the place where the bullets were loaded in, almost as if — yes, on close inspection Sander could see that it had a mechanism to eject spent casings, but there was something more than that. With the right kind of input, it would be capable of loading itself with the recoil action.

“So why is it just sitting here?” asked Philip. “No formal report was made to the city council about its completion.”

“I made plenty of informal reports,” said Kelso. “Both to Linwell and to Seaborn.” He paused and looked at Sander. “Any relation?”

“Son,” replied Sander. He was still looking over the rotary gun. It was built in such a way that the firing and reloading were synced to each other, so that it was all part of a single cycle.

“They both told me the same story in different ways,” said Kelso. “It’s too expensive to actually fire the thing.”

“Sulfur?” asked Sander.

Kelso blinked. “Yes, how’d you know?”

“I remembered your name,” said Sander. “You make bullets for Merry?”

Kelso nodded.

“She said they were expensive, but it can’t be the casings or the bullets themselves that are expensive, because those are just small pieces of metal that need to be shaped, and it can’t be the process that’s expensive, because you should be able to just do it with a press and anyway the bullets are uniform so it’s not a bespoke process. That leaves the gunpowder, which is charcoal, saltpeter, and sulfur. The first two are easy, the last one is hard, so unless you were bilking Merry, it’s probably that one that’s tough to get.” Sander paused. “But I don’t know exactly why that would be a problem.”

Kelso snorted. “So you’re fourteen years old and think you know everything?”

“I just said I don’t,” replied Sander. “And I’m sixteen.”

“Is he right?” asked Philip. “Does Light’s Hollow lack the sulfur reserves?”

“He’s right for the wrong reasons,” said Kelso. “I make a special blend of gunpowder with a different process, but it’s still sulfur that’s the bottleneck. I have pyrite heap leaching in the back, but that’s a pain and a half with its own costs. At least we have a fair amount of the pyrite to convert over. When I made my proposal six years ago, I had said that we should establish a sulfur mine to supply the gunpowder, but while I was building the Kelly machine gun here, apparently the council members got cold feet.”

“What did they say, specifically?” asked Philip.

“Seaborn said that a sulfur mine would get glimwardens killed,” said Kelso. “Then he went on to say that the gun was a stupid idea and that it, too, would get someone killed. I’m paraphrasing there. Linwell said that it would cost too much money to build the mine, whereupon I said then maybe you shouldn’t have voted for it, whereupon she said that I was a short-sighted idiot who would never move up the ranks. Again, paraphrasing.”

“You should have come before the council,” said Sander. He tore his eyes from the rotary gun, which was one of the most beautiful pieces of engineering he’d ever laid eyes on. Philip was looking in the direction of the gun, but clearly not seeing it.

“He knew how they would have voted,” said Philip. “The original motion was three to one and called for a prototype to be built. He could have gone before the council to ask that they authorize the mining of sulfur, but he knew it would be two to two at the very least, meaning that at worst —” Philip paused and looked at Kelso. “— meaning that at best he would have humiliated Linwell by calling her to task for a project she’d approved, while at worst it would silently get voted down.”

“Not worth the hassle,” said Kelso. “I built the gun, I got paid for building the gun, everyone wins.”

“Except that it was never installed anywhere,” said Sander. “So it cost the people of Light’s Hollow some non-zero amount of money while providing absolutely no benefit.”

“Such is the way of the world,” said Kelso.

“How far away is the sulfur mine?” asked Philip. “And how quickly can you build more of these?”

“I would have to dig up the patterns I used,” said Kelso. He was watching Philip closely. “This one is tested and ready to fire, but my original idea was to have one stationed along the natural approaches of all six outlying lanterns. Five more guns … done in parallel, maybe a year of work if I’m still tied to my other duties. As for the sulfur mine, there was sulfur found in an experimental boring fifteen miles radial seventy-nine from here. They were looking for metals, they found sulfur. It’s two hundred feet down, which makes for a long shaft. Once you’ve got all that running, you need wardens to babysit a traveling lantern on top of it while the mining is done. I’ve heard there’s been some success in sealing mineshafts from the darklings so long as everyone clears out, but if not, you’re looking at digging a shaft again every time you want sulfur. And that’s before getting into the large quantities of gunpowder that would need to be mixed and the thousands of bullets that would need to be forged.” He shrugged. “Linwell wasn’t wrong about it being expensive.”

“Sorry to have wasted your time,” said Philip. “I don’t think we’re going to be able to make use of this weapon.”

Sander looked at the gun. “You test fired it?” he asked. “How many rounds does it put out?”

“Six hundred a minute,” said Kelso. “That’s theoretical, because I’ve never had six hundred bullets to waste. The most I ever shot at one time was fifty, which was a glorious few seconds. All without any cooling issues.”

Sander frowned at the gun. This was exactly the sort of thing he’d taken on a job as apprentice engineer for, but no one had let him close to a project like this. And even if they had, it seemed as though this marvelous weapon was just going to sit under a tarp forever, fired for fun at great expense a few more times in its life. It was the darklings’ fault, stopping their town from growing, preventing peaceful walks in the woods, and confining them to sub-par materials. Sander sometimes wondered how no one seemed to notice the restrictions that the darklings placed on their lives. Dropping a shaft for sulfur would be trivial without the darklings around, but it was going to take time until the glimwardens were back to full strength, and the fifteen mile expedition would represent an enormous amount of resources. It just didn’t seem fair. Something tickled at the back of Sander’s mind.

“Could you melt the sulfur?” Sander found himself asking.

“Melt it?” asked Kelso.

“Melting point of sulfur is just a bit higher than the boiling point of water, right?” asked Sander.

“Right,” said Kelso. Philip was looking back and forth between them.

“So … superheat some water by pressurizing it and then pump it down to the sulfur,” said Sander. “Use hot water to melt the sulfur. Then you can bring the sulfur up in a pipe, no need for a shaft.”

“That,” said Kelso. “Might actually work.” He grabbed a pen and paper from a nearby table, then swore when a quick test showed that the ink had dried up. “Well nevermind that then,” he said. “I’ll work out the details later. If it would actually get the sulfur up … there are going to be problems at first, kinks to work out, but if it does what I think it would, that might just make getting sulfur economical, which means more than enough bullets for the Kelly.”

❧❧❧

Sander left the workshop feeling buoyed. He’d had a clever idea that someone, for once, responded positively to. If he’d met Kelso Kelly during his apprenticeship, there was a strong possibility that Sander would still be an engineer. It was too soon to get his hopes up about free-flowing sulfur and the thundering of fully automatic guns, but he felt a grin spread over his face all the same.

“I’m worried that it won’t be fast enough,” said Philip.

“It won’t?” asked Sander. “Six hundred rounds a minute seems plenty fast. Maybe even enough to take down the Schism.”

“How much did your father tell you?” asked Philip.

“Oh, that,” said Sander. “Uh … enough.”

“Enough to try to get information out of me?” asked Philip. His expression was blank.

“Yeah,” said Sander. “Sorry. He just seemed sure that there was going to be another failure, and he wouldn’t tell me, so … will you tell me?”

“The lantern failure was an act of sabotage,” said Philip. “There were nine people at the inquest who heard that, plus however many engineers were involved in both the initial investigation and the repairs to the lantern. I’m skeptical that the secret will hold for long enough to make any progress in the matter.”

Sander stretched out, feeling the strength that the bind lent him. Being powerful felt good, good enough that he could almost push away the horror of what Philip was saying.

“We can’t handle another attack,” said Sander. “If we lost a quarter of the wardens this time, we’ll lose more the next time. Unless we could kill the Schism with Kelso’s gun … but you’re right, even if melting the sulfur works, it’s not exactly going to be fast.”

“I was hopeful when I thought the problem was just that it hadn’t been finished,” said Philip. He shook his head. “It was worth a few hours of my time though. Thank you for the help.”

Sander looked up at the sky. “Can I ask a favor in return?”

“Certainly,” said Philip.

“Time me,” said Sander. “And if I fall unconscious, drag me to the hospital.”

Philip raised an eyebrow. “I’m not sure I want to take responsibility if you do something dangerous.”

“Tell them there was no reasoning with me,” said Sander. “Ready?”

“Sure,” said Philip.

“Time starts when I disappear,” said Sander. He got down into a crouch and felt the bind swelling in him. He had no idea how much bind he had in him, but reasoned that there must be a way for more experienced people to tell, if they were able to prevent themselves from getting sick. He paid attention to the feeling of power radiating from his skin as he pushed off the ground and started running. He retracted the bind from his limbs, so he was running under his own power, then teleported, just a minute distance forward but three seconds into the future.

The shift in his perceptions was so subtle he might not have noticed it if he hadn’t been paying attention. That made the impact of the bind all the more apparent; he felt the power drop in that small instant of crossing. He wasn’t exactly sure, but he imagined that he’d used perhaps a tenth of his power, which meant that he could safely teleport another eight times without worry. He’d come out running at the same speed; he skidded to a stop and called out to Philip, who was standing on the road behind him.

“Time?”

“Three seconds,” Philip replied as he started jogging to meet up with Sander.

Good, thought Sander. That was one experiment down, another hundred or so to go. The power seemed to work by altering his speed in accordance with the teleport’s distance over time, but it also obeyed some form of conservation of momentum as well. It was really just a matter of adding two velocities together.

“Was that dangerous?” asked Philip.

“Not really,” said Sander. “I’m about to do the dangerous thing right now.” Though it wasn’t really necessary, Sander looked up at the overcast sky. He frowned for a moment as he worked through the math (it would be a parabola, with time spent going up roughly equal to time down, and sufficient speed) then teleported straight up.

Wind was instantly rushing around him, pulling at his clothes and whipping through his hair. The wind borne of his passage slowed quickly as gravity sought to reclaim him. Sander’s attention was focused down at the ground below him. Light’s Hollow was a patchwork of ordered fields, six outcroppings of buildings where the lanterns were, and Chancellor’s in the center of it all. Sander could see people down there in the streets, but he tore his attention away from them and looked outward. Light’s Hollow was a bit of manicured land, a flower with six petals, surrounded by a thin rim of planted berry bushes and fruit trees, but beyond that … there was wilderness, untamed forests which had only been nibbled on for wood, and stretches of prairie beyond them. Where trees didn’t obscure the ground, Sander could see the darklings roaming, like insects on the canvas of the land.

There was no sign of the Schism. There were fallen trees that marked its passing, or the passing of a Fracture, but it should have stuck out from the surrounding landscape. Sander doubted that it had just disappeared, but at least there wasn’t any evidence that there were multiples.

He’d just reached the apex of his journey and felt a brief, thrilling moment of subjective weightlessness when he saw the caravan. They were in a clearing, either stopped for lunch or repairs, but no more than five miles from Light’s Hollow. He felt a surge of excitement at seeing them, since caravans from Gossom were always a rare treat, but that excitement dimmed when he realized there were too many people gathered around the traveling lantern, hundreds instead of the two dozen or so that normally came. And there was a tall man in red armor, tall enough to tower over the others, obviously a glimwarden —

Sander looked down at the ground and gave his full attention to the descent. The really fun thing about his power, one he’d started sketching out the possibilities of while on his way from his house to Rogue’s Lantern, was that it combined with itself. Since his hunch about added velocities was right, that meant that it was possible to teleport in one direction to gain speed, then teleport in the opposite direction to instantly shed that speed. It was complicated, because air friction was definitely a factor, and the calculations had to be done on the fly. Worse, that math had to account for how long the math took. For something as simple as falling though, Sander could do most of the math ahead of time and wing the corrections.

When he was a second from hitting the ground, Sander teleported again, aiming himself just a slight bit upward, crossed the distance very quickly. He managed to kill his velocity almost entirely, though of course he started falling again, since he was five stories up. This time he teleported upward from much closer to the ground and found himself falling from ten feet up. He let himself drop and felt the bind cushion him. He’d used perhaps half of it in his transit, if what he was intuitively feeling was correct.

He looked over to Philip with a manic grin on his face. What he’d done was basically just as good as flying, and proof that he could function as a scout for his father. Philip didn’t seem terribly enthused by it.

“There’s a caravan from Gossom,” said Sander. He ran his hand through his wind-ruffled hair. The sense of speed had been incredible. The view had been incredible. It was almost certainly true that he should have done more tests first, but he had needed something like that, some proof that he was walking the right path, that it wasn’t all for nothing. “Hundreds of people, five miles out.”

“We should go see Melanie then,” replied Philip. “If there are a hundred people coming into Light’s Hollow, we should attend to business while things are still calm.”

“I flew,” said Sander.

“Yes,” said Philip. “I saw.”


Author’s Note: Most discussion for Glimwarden takes place on /r/rational. Chapters are posted there shortly after they’re posted here. Here’s the link for Chapter 9. Also, have you tried Rationally Writing, the podcast I host with DaystarEld?


Chapter 10 will be posted on 7/30/16. This message brought to you by Shaun, the Schedule Slip Snail.

Glimwarden, Chapter 8

Philip

The inquest sounded good in theory. When something bad happened, it was important to understand how and why it had happened so that it could be prevented from happening a second time. As a concept, it embodied things that Philip cared greatly about; seeking truth and correcting bad policies.

Philip enjoyed reading through records. Most of them had been written by aides, such as himself, and they were spotty in ways that were sometimes frustrating, but for the most part it was possible for him to imagine what had happened at those previous inquests. What they revealed was an equal share of incompetence, reluctance to change, and political struggles. Hundreds of methods of improving both the town’s defenses and the lanterns’ engineering had been discussed over the centuries. Some of these had been implemented, but most had not. Sometimes the council agreed to taking a series of actions during the inquest, but there was no record of anyone following up on it in later meetings, or after an analysis of cost or feasibility, it was quietly shelved.

In the course of preparing for the current inquest, Philip made his own long list of measures which people would suggest could have helped to prevent the disaster from happening, all compiled from the notes made during previous inquests.

The most common suggestion was to have a second, empty lantern installed in the building of each lantern. When the lantern failed, the sphere of hava could be transfered to the second lantern, which could then be ‘lit’ in short order to bring the area back under the protection of gliminance. The most common rebuttal was that the lanterns weren’t designed for the removal of the hava; it was possible to construct a lantern so that the hava could be moved from within it, but these other designs hadn’t been tested by hundreds of years of continuous operation. Not only that, but changing the design of the lantern was necessarily a risky thing, because it was impossible to make serious alterations while the lantern was still on. There were also arguments over cost, both in terms of the cost of building an empty lantern and the work that the engineers would have to put in to ensure that the empty lantern stayed functional at all times. These arguments held little sway, since in the wake of a serious lantern failure many people believed that cost was no object.

The only development that had ever come out of that particular argument, repeated over the years, was that a pilot program had been done at Chancellor’s Lantern, which did have a different design from the others in order to permit removal of the hava. Chancellor’s Lantern had been protected by the other lanterns for many years now, which made switching over a much less risky prospect. It had been running that way for more than thirty-seven years now, which did much to blunt the argument that the design was untested; Philip wondered whether some like-minded fellow from back then had seen the shape of these repeated arguments and pressed for a change that would sway opinion some decades into the future.

There were other, lesser suggestions along the same line, but for the most part they were variations on a theme. Some were rejected due to cost, some were accepted and never implemented, and a few were implemented and then canceled decades later after having provided no benefit to anyone. Lantern failures were rare things, and serious failures even rarer.

Another common theme was adding to the defenses of the town in some way. Walls were brought up many times, and shot down just as many; darklings were excellent climbers, according to the wardens. Walls would inhibit both mobility and field of view — for the wardens, far more than the darklings. There were proposals to give better training to the Auxiliary, which definitely would have helped in this case. Of the eight previous times this had been suggested, on four occasions it was opposed by the members of the Auxiliary, on two occasions it was opposed by the glimwardens, and twice it was actually implemented, only to be stopped later on (it had lasted seven years the first time it was tried and three years the second time it was tried). It appeared that the Auxiliary’s mandatory appearance at any alarm was, in fact, a result of a previous attempt at ensuring that no lantern would ever fall.

(One of Philip’s greatest sources of irritation was that these matters were decided as part of the inquest itself, or immediately following it. Philip was capable of making good decisions in the moment, but it seemed that other people were not, in part because they let their emotions get the better of them. If the city council wanted to make good decisions, it should have waited until they could be made with clear eyes and a stone heart. One of the failures of democracy was that this went contrary to the desire of elected officials to continue getting elected. Philip suspected that reacting to the most recent event was a common failure of people in general, because otherwise the incentive wouldn’t exist for elected officials to rush to action.)

There was something in the inquest six years ago that caught Philip’s eye. A young engineer by the name of Kelso Kelly had come before the council and told them that it was idiocy to have the glimwardens fight when mundane means existed to kill the darklings. The meeting minutes were garbled at that part, but apparently he spoke at length about some kind of rotary gun, which the council had given him provisional funding to build, despite the protestations of the chief glimwarden. Philip had leafed through the meeting minutes of the next few months, trying to find some mention of it, but came up with nothing. He added it to his list of topics that might come up. If they’d paid Kelso for his invention and lost the thread, it was possible that the engineer would be called in.

The bulk of any inquest was not the suggestions for remediation, but instead the casting of blame. Sometimes this was a broad cast, touching every person even tangentially involved, but other times it was a clear act of scapegoating. Inquests were the place where the tensions between the glimwardens and the engineers ran highest, and that had been true even before this most recent bout of unpleasantness between the two. The engineers were clearly to blame for any failures in the lanterns, since of course it was their job to keep the lanterns running. The glimwardens, meanwhile, were responsible for defense, and any death, injury, or damage to public property was laid squarely at their feet. These two sides wouldn’t appear to have too much to do with each other, but both had a representative on the city council, and both had an incentive to push the finger of blame in a different direction.

When Philip was seven years old, his father had declared him a cynic. They had been in the middle of family dinner when Philip had said that people didn’t actually sacrifice their lives for others. His father had asked what Philip thought the glimwardens did, to which Philip had replied that they didn’t actually mean to sacrifice their lives. They were willing to accept the risk-reward proposition of having power and being important, but when they saw death coming, they would have been perfectly willing to murder a baby or flay one of their elders, if only it would buy them an extra minute of life.

His father had laughed in a way that Philip now understood to be the reaction of someone who didn’t want to face the truth of what his son was. Philip would never use such language these days, of course, not even when speaking to people who were prone to cynicism and would be amenable to the argument. If he were normal, he imagined that he would cringe in remembering the incident, but while he had taught himself to cringe when appropriate, he had no immediate physical reaction to social mistakes, only a recognition of what could be done better. Still, what he’d said was clearly worthy of provoking a wince. His father had ignored the problem and framed Philip as a mere cynic.

Philip wasn’t actually a cynic. He had expressed a cynic’s viewpoint then because he hadn’t understood people well enough; he had imagined that everyone else was like him. It had taken a long time for Philip to disabuse himself of that notion, especially since it was so easy to make up explanations for why people were really acting in their own strict self-interest, even when it appeared that they were not. Now though, Philip had a better grip on the truth. Other people really did love one another. This love went beyond what could be explained by reciprocity or appreciation. They felt honor, duty, loyalty, guilt, all things which he’d once thought were part of a tapestry of selfishness. Because his view of the world was incorrect, he made every effort to change that view. Being a cynic meant being wrong.

Philip tried his best to think of what might happen at the inquest that could reasonably surprise a cynic. He made notes, then left further notes in the margins of his notes. Next to the competition, the inquest would be the most important thing to happen in Light’s Hollow for the next year. He did his best to be prepared for every foreseeable outcome.

Unfortunately, it all went off the rails ten minutes in.

❧❧❧

Linda Linwell had taken the unusual step of calling for a closed inquest, which was unprecedented in the history of Light’s Hollow. Inquests were meant to be open, messy things, exposing the guts of the town’s defenses to the citizenry. She had refused to say why she was calling for a closed inquest, but the chief glimwarden certainly had no objections, and the mayor was inclined to heed her request. That left Gregor Golland as the council’s lone voice of dissent (a dissent which he delivered in a pair of rhyming couplets).

The day after the mass funeral for those that had died in the attack, the inquest was held in the same large meeting room where closed sessions of the council occurred. Philip found himself looking to the light of Chancellor’s Lantern more than once, and on occasion he thought he could hear the distant sound of a siren before deciding that it was nothing. Linda Linwell was dressed all in black, the color of mourning, even though not one engineer had died in the attack; Philip wondered how long she would keep wearing it. In contrast, Samuel Seaborn wore the same green armor he always wore, with his axes hung at his hips. His thick red beard had been recently trimmed, likely for the funeral, but he still looked unruly. Neither looked pleased.

“Let the inquest come to order,” said the mayor with a tap of his gavel. The city council members and their aides sat rigidly in their seats, waiting for what was to come. Philip imagined that this was his father’s favorite part of the proceedings, despite the dour expression he wore, but that might have been a simple case of projection. “Now, where should we start? I’ve always had a preference for the beginning. Councilor Linwell, if you could provide for us a summary of your findings?” Witnesses would be called in later, as needed, though only a few were waiting in the halls.

“At 12:14pm, the alarm went off, which was the first indication our engineers had that anything was wrong. Led by Lanternkeeper Duncan, they immediately began following diagnostic procedures. While engineer Odell and engineer Tolbert began tracing the connection to the alarm system itself to see whether there was a malfunction, engineers —”

“Why did you insist that this be a closed inquest?” asked the chief glimwarden, unable to contain himself any longer.

The mayor rapped his gavel once. “I am sure that we will get to that in due time.”

Linwell frowned at Seaborn. “While the alarm system was being checked for malfunction, engineers Duncan, Vipond, Spence, and Jardine began checking over the physical machinery of the lantern. That accounts for all six active members of the lantern at that time. There are a number of ways in which a lantern can fail. The most common are failures in the connections between various parts of the equipment, specifically with the insulating materials used for those connections. After ten minutes had passed, Lanternkeeper Duncan withdrew to a more supervisory role and recalled engineers Odell and Tolbert to help with diagnosis of the failure. It was at this point that engineer Jardine discovered what we now believe to be an act of sabotage.”

Seaborn slammed his hand down against the table. “Are you trying to start a civil war?”

“Obviously you have less respect for me than I have for you,” Linwell said coolly. “If you had thought about it for two seconds, you would realize that I called for a closed inquest precisely to keep this information from the public. It would be more likely to incite a witch hunt than a civil war, but either way it’s nothing that this town can afford.”

Philip’s eyes shifted quickly between the two of them. One of the places that Linwell excelled was in giving justifications for her actions. Philip’s mind started wandering down the familiar cynical pathways, looking for a reason why Linwell would have given up the advantage of an open inquest and a public declaration of sabotage. Sabotage, after all, would clear the engineers of any wrong-doing or negligence for the lantern failure, except perhaps for an argument that they should have kept tighter security. Linwell herself — or Colsum, who backed her — might have been involved in the sabotage effort for some unknown reason (Philip would have to check the records of land ownership later) … but it was more likely that she simply worried for the safety of the town.

“Sabotage implies a saboteur,” said the mayor. “If someone was responsible for the lantern failure, we need to know who, so that we might levy the harshest possible penalty against them.” Exile, in other words, though the mayor took it so seriously that he was careful to never utter the word.

“As I was saying, it was the first of several clear instances of sabotage,” replied Linwell. “There were no fewer than five places where action had been taken against the mechanisms of the lantern, whether that was in the insulators, regulators, fuses, wires, or switches. A single defect in the wiring insulation had caused the lantern failure, but the other acts of sabotage would have ensured subsequent failures if they weren’t caught. Lanternkeeper Duncan was hesitant to turn the lantern back on given what he had found, but he followed protocol once the parts were replaced from the lantern’s supply closet.”

“Five is a portentous number, ill and unbalanced,” said Gregor Golland. “It is the action of an ill and unbalanced mind then, to make such marks against a sacred fountain of our prosperity.”

“The sabotage will warrant a separate investigation,” said the mayor. “It is beyond the scope of this inquest.”

Seaborn turned to Linwell. “The engineers cannot be allowed to investigate on their own.”

“Wardens know nothing of the machinery,” replied Linwell. “Teaching you everything that you need to know would take time away from figuring out what happened.”

“The lanterns are uncomplicated,” growled the chief glimwarden. “I’ve personally assisted with field repairs of the traveling lanterns.”

“They’re on an entirely different order of magnitude!” Linwell protested. “The amount of power they generate should be enough to frighten even you. The lanterns are dragons, chained to our bidding but ready to strike the moment anyone grows careless.”

“A serpent with seven heads,” Golland nodded.

The mayor tapped his gavel once. “Again, this is beyond the bounds of this inquest. I think we can all agree that the matter will be kept strictly to those with a need to know, not just because of the panic it might cause, but to ensure that we have at least some element of surprise.” He looked to Philip, who sat beside him. “How many foreigners have come to Light’s Hollow in the recent past?”

“Twelve in the last year,” replied Philip. “All from Gossom.” The question wasn’t entirely unexpected; Philip’s father was attempting to find a convenient scapegoat which wouldn’t cause political problems. Outsiders were a perennial favorite for that purpose, but Philip disagreed on principle. Stringing up an outsider only solved the immediate political problem and did nothing to deter a second act of sabotage. If Philip had been a member of the council, he would have said something in protest, but his place was only as an aide.

“To continue on,” said the mayor. “I believe we must talk about the handling of the defense.”

Seaborn grunted. “Then we’re to hear no more from the engineers?” he asked. “If Councilor Linwell was aware of this claim of sabotage, shouldn’t she have come to the inquest with more? Details on the engineers that were posted or people who came to visit the lantern? We’re supposed to be getting down to the bottom of things. You’re telling me that there’s going to be a separate inquiry later on, so that the engineers can skip out on taking responsibility? If there was a sabotage, they should have noticed it sooner, there should have been regular checks.”

“Samuel,” said the mayor gently. “Linwell has done you a favor by requesting for this inquest to be private.”

Seaborn folded his arms over his chest. “Fine. You want an accounting?” He spat the word. “There was a new darkling, given a name just that morning. A Schism. It was ungodly powerful. Your son says that it was able to withstand the full glare of the lantern from two hundred yards away. While we fought it, the smaller darklings killed or slipped past the Auxiliary, until we had to retreat toward the lantern or risk losing it. The result was four glimwardens killed, with a fifth dead from her wounds this morning. The losses to the Auxiliary were far worse.”

“We’ll need more than that,” said Linwell. “What were the individual wardens doing when the alarm —”

“Five dead,” interrupted Seaborn. “Another three with serious injuries. I couldn’t tell you where a quarter of my wardens were, because they’re not alive for me to ask them. I’m telling you that we face a huge threat. The Schism can breach our borders. We don’t have the manpower to defend against it, if it attacks. And if there’s someone going around mucking up the lanterns, then you should know that we won’t be able to defend a second time, not if you want any wardens left alive to put hearts into your lanterns.”

Linwell drew her lips into a thin line. “I suppose I’m glad this inquest is closed to the public, if we’re speaking such harsh truths. You would inspire a panic if you said that to the masses.”

The mayor looked back and forth between the two of them. “The last thing we need is for people to start preparing for the collapse of this town. We’ll want to proceed with caution, so as not to display the weakness of our hand. Can we agree to that?”

Gregor Golland nodded along. “When wise men speak of conspiracy, the dolts grab their hidden blades and wait for nightfall. We of the council cannot last long with such duplicity, but the ties that bind us to our position command silence on our parts and beckon lies to trumpet from our lips.”

Silence fell over the meeting room. Even two weeks ago, Golland hadn’t been in such a bad condition. Everything that left his mouth now came out in a strange cadence, and the contents of his speech were little better. Philip could tell that everyone else was doing the calculus of keeping him around. The moment passed quickly, but Philip had felt it. Golland was not long for the council.

“This is not coincidence,” Golland continued. “The pitch black of a darkling made manifest and the darkness of the soul of a traitor, a foul duality, both the reflection of the other.” His two aides, both young members of his family, looked to one another for support and found none.

“If you’re feeling unwell, I believe this inquest can continue without your participation,” said the mayor.

Golland nodded along. “Yes, yes, quite unwell, sickened by secrecy and treachery alike, twin snakes in my guts.” He lifted himself from his seat and steadied himself with a hand on one of his grandchildren. The room was silent, save for the sounds of him shuffling off with his ineffectual aides behind him.

“We need a plan for what we’ll do if there’s another failure,” said Linwell once he’d left. “I’ve already doubled the shifts at the lanterns and instituted tighter procedures for who’s allowed access, but Lanternkeeper Duncan told me that it was possible for the sabotage to have happened at any time in the week before the failure, which means that there might be other instances of sabotage in the other lanterns. I’m having them discreetly checked over, but not all areas of the lantern are accessible while it’s running.”

“The lanterns have been running non-stop for years,” said Seaborn. “How would someone have broken the parts of the lantern that they can’t touch?” He was glaring at her; they both knew the answer before she said it.

“It would be possible with the bind,” said Linwell. “Projection of a non-conductive cutting edge is, I believe, within the purview of those abilities.”

“If you dare to accuse me and mine —” Seaborn began.

“No,” replied Linwell. “Again, you think less of me than I think of you. I defer to your expertise, but I was under the impression that members of the Auxiliary had some command of the bind. It’s also possible that a cullion might have taken this action, is it not?”

“Is there any evidence that the bind was used at Healer’s?” asked Seaborn.

“It’s unclear,” replied Linwell. “There was internal damage, yes, but it’s possible that it was the result of an error in the building of the lantern or happened in taking the lantern apart for diagnosis. But again, we’ll have our own investigation into the matter.”

Philip rested his hand on his father’s elbow, which drew a look, then a nod.

“Is it possible for someone to hide the shadow of the bind?” asked Philip.

Seaborn frowned and took a moment to smooth out his mustache. “If it were possible, it would be something to be kept secret.”

“Naturally,” said the mayor. “But it appears that this meeting will be replete with things that must be kept secret.”

“Then yes,” said Seaborn. “It’s possible. It would take practice and concentration, along with leaving the cullion powerless for the duration.”

There were murmurs as Linwell conferred with her aides. Even if they knew that the sabotage had been caused by someone with access to the bind, it wouldn’t help them all that much. The scope of suspects couldn’t be limited to the surviving members of the Auxiliary or the glimwardens, nor would it be obvious if some outside force had come in.

Philip kept meticulous notes as the meeting went on, but all the energy had gone out of the room. Linwell had little interest in prosecuting the glimwardens’ mishandling of the defense, not when there were more pressing concerns, and not when there was no one to hear it. The inquest was closed not too long after, with no witnesses being called and no formal recommendations. Linwell and Seaborn hadn’t eliminated all tensions between them, but they had reached something of an unspoken truce.

“So,” said the mayor, once everyone else had left and he was alone with Philip. “What do you think?”

“Golland was right,” said Philip. He looked into his father’s pale blue eyes, which were mirrors to his own. “It’s not a coincidence.”

“I don’t see how that can be,” Philip’s father replied. He looked at the gavel. “You said yourself that there was some sort of new darkling.”

“Yes,” replied Philip. “The Schism was supposedly unknown to the glimwardens until that very morning, but Linwell said that the acts of sabotage would have been done in the week prior. If it’s not coincidence, that means that whoever our saboteur was, he must have been someone who goes out into the wilds, which narrows down the suspects considerably.”

“And then there’s the question of motive,” said Philip’s father. “No one benefits from a lantern failure, not the engineers, not the wardens. Both come out looking bad.” He paused with his mouth open, then closed it. “Philip, people are talking about you. They’re praising you for running into battle, for a speech you apparently gave about the importance of defending the town … you saved the chief glimwarden’s son and killed dozens of darklings without any bind. Of all the people who were there, you’re the only real hero.” His words were hesitant.

“That’s not true,” said Philip. “Sander saved my life at great risk to his own.”

“What I’m trying to ask is —” his father paused and bit his lower lip and sighed. “Did you have anything to do with this?”

Philip shook his head. “No.”

“If you did,” his father replied, “You could trust me. I would protect you.”

Philip felt his face twitch. It was an interesting possibility. Beyond the fact that he hadn’t done it, it would have been completely unworkable as a scheme. Slipping into Healer’s Lantern wouldn’t have been too difficult, but he would have had no idea how to set the lantern up for future failure. Even if he had been able to surreptitiously obtain that knowledge, that still left the immense problem of being able to make his mark on the field of battle. He had been able to survive the attack for a number of reasons: his friendship with Sander, Sander’s signature, and the fact that darklings seemed to preferentially target those with some amount of bind. The first of those was the only one he’d had any knowledge of going in.

But even if he had known everything he’d need to have known, including the appearance of the Schism earlier that morning, he still wouldn’t have done it. The plan would have had too many moving parts and too high of a possibility for failure. Philip didn’t commit crimes, because crime didn’t pay. He did his best not to tell lies, at least not when there was even a remote possibility of evidence being brought forward, because lies were too easy to uncover and too damaging to a reputation. Destroying a lantern wasn’t unthinkable, but he would never do it.

“It wasn’t me, father,” said Philip. “I know better than that. You called me a cynic once, but now I’m afraid that I have to turn that back around at you.”

“No, no,” said the mayor. “Of course not. I was only … I know you, and … you’ve always had a very different way of thinking from other people, even if you try to hide it.”

He seemed convinced, though Philip could tell that the underlying doubts hadn’t been allayed. It was gratifying to know that his father would stand by his side even through what was surely far beyond the limits of conventional morality, but at the same time, Philip wished that it were possible to live his childhood again. The number of unforced errors he’d made, especially with regards to his parents, was, in retrospect, simply unacceptable.

It was one thing to make the wrong response because you didn’t understand the question, but it was another entirely to say the wrong thing without any prompting from anyone. When he was little, he had told his mother that he loved her less than he loved his father, because his father was more powerful and important. She had cried, which he’d found irritating. Looking back, it was one of the things that he wished he could do over. He didn’t love either of his parents, not like they loved him, and if he had to choose for one of them to die he would obviously have chosen his mother, at least until his father was more obstacle than ally … but there was no reason to share that with anyone unless forced to.

He had made a similar error with Legal Multiplier, his radio companion, though he still wasn’t sure what that error had been. Their next radio date was only a few days away, but he wasn’t sure that she would be on the other end listening for him.

That thought brought him back to the matter at hand. The appearance of the new darkling at the same time as a lantern failure wasn’t coincidence. Legal Multiplier had said that the town of Langust had suffered their own failure more than a week ago, forcing abandonment of their town and an exodus to Gossom. If there was a connection between the two failures — Healer’s Lantern and Langust — it implied either a single saboteur or a single force striking out at both places at once. Perhaps his father hadn’t been so foolish to start thinking about outside threats.

Glimwarden, Chapter 7

Melanie

The Mender and the Builder were brothers. For a long period of time, perhaps years, perhaps eons, they lived together in harmony. One day, as they were laying together by the lake, the Builder said to his brother that there was nothing in life that equaled the act of creation. The Mender took offense at that, and proclaimed that there was nothing better in life than to fix that which was broken. The Builder protested that building was the finer art, requiring more talent and tenacity. The Mender responded that the act of creation took little in the way of intellect and likened it to a farmer casting seeds into a field, hoping that a beautiful flower might grow. The argument between the two grew heated, for neither was willing to back down from his position. Eventually the disagreement threatened to become violent, but the two brothers, being civilized men, agreed to settle it by means of a duel. The duel lasted three days without pause, as sword clashed against sword. When the Mender’s concentration slipped, the Builder drove his sword into his brother’s skull, killing him instantly. The Builder felt remorse at once, and tried to make his brother whole, but there was nothing he could do. He cast the swords into the sea and vowed never to harm another soul.

According to Gavin Masters, these were the swords that hung in the Black Mare.

In the thousand-lantern city of Tor Ellsum, far to the east, Ailos was regarded as a master among thieves. With a silver tongue and a black heart, he stole his way across the city, having no higher purpose than the accumulation of wealth. The princess of Tor Ellsum tried to tame him; she polished the soot from his heart to make it shine like a mirror. From that point on, Ailos found it harder to kill, because he saw himself reflected in those he once dispatched without a second thought. He took this in stride though, and began to carry a second sword with him in his travels. When he came across someone that stood in the way of his thefts, he would offer them one of the swords so that they could defend themselves. In this way, Ailos believed that he was giving them a fair chance for their survival and assuaged his guilt about what he was doing. If Ailos handed you one of his swords, it was a death sentence, as there was no better fighter in all of Tor Ellsum. The two swords became the stuff of legend.

According to Gavin Masters, these were the swords that hung in the Black Mare.

There was once a young prince whose bride died in a tragic accident the day after their wedding. Thoughts of how he might save her crowded the young man’s mind. He chased down every likely story he could find, then every unlikely story, seeking out any magic that might help him in his quest. Eventually he found an amulet that would wind back the years and return him to the night just before the wedding, so that he might avert the fate of his bride. When he arrived in the past though, he came across himself as a younger man. He conversed with his past self only briefly, until it became clear that neither was willing to share the bride. They fought a duel with identical swords, drawing from the same pool of tricks and techniques. Eventually, the scales were tipped in the favor of the future prince, and then only because of what they ate for breakfast the morning before. The prince slew his past, buried the body, and prevented the death of his bride. The swords he kept, as a reminder of what he would do for the sake of love.

According to Gavin Masters, these were the swords that hung in the Black Mare.

Melanie’s father had been overflowing with stories. The two swords that hung crossed on the wall were one of a dozen pieces he placed around the tavern. Fishermen used worms, but Gavin Masters used framed coins and multicolored masks. When people inevitably took the bait and asked him about these curios, he would eagerly spin a story for them. He’d once told Melanie that the stories were the primary reason that people came to the Black Mare. The curios gave the place an otherworldly ambiance, but it was the stories that accompanied them that transported the patrons to distant lands.

Eventually, Gavin Masters felt the need to be transported to distant lands in a decidedly less metaphorical way. Melanie found his note only after the caravan had already carried him away. It ran to six pages in dense, cramped writing. Melanie burned it after her first week alone, but she could still quote pieces of it verbatim. Her father only spoke to her directly twice, the first time to tell her he was proud of the woman she’d become, and the second time to explain that the Black Mare was in her hands. Everything else was the story of Gavin Masters, as told by Gavin Masters. He claimed to have been unfairly maligned for his status as a foreigner, denied the praise he so rightfully deserved, robbed of the happy life that always seemed to be just one step ahead of him. He was going to travel the world, to take caravans from town to town, to work where work could be found and start writing some of his stories down.

Melanie hadn’t found out about the debt until the next day.

In the two years since then, she hadn’t made too many changes to the Black Mare. The menu varied based on what was cheap and in season, rather than using any of her father’s eclectic ideas. At first she tried to tell stories like her father had, but they always came out wrong. She would realize later, when she was back behind the counter, that there was a more elegant way to say what she had wanted to. Eventually she stopped trying. This seemed to have little impact on the business, contrary to what her father had said about the importance of stories.

She had sold the curios that adorned the walls one-by-one. Some of them were worthless, like the five vials of colored water that her father had alternately claimed were potions of incredible power or samples taken from the bodies of dead gods. Others had some worth though, like the multicolored masks, or the rare coins from other towns. Melanie hated going to the market to sell those things. Trying to make a sale always felt like begging. Eventually, the walls were stripped bare, save for one exception: the pair of swords that Sander and Philip had taken.

The Black Mare had emptied out after the alarm sounded. Melanie sat behind the counter, reading Flowers of Bone, but her eyes kept wandering over the same paragraph over and over again without actually taking in the words. Flowers of Bone was a dark and brooding book, which was part of the problem, but Melanie didn’t think the problem would be solved by going upstairs to find something happier to read. The alarm could still be heard in the distance, loud enough that it was impossible to simply ignore.

Eventually, people started coming back in. Some of them were strangers to her; Melanie guessed that they were refugees from Healer’s Lantern. She listened closely to the conversations, trying to hear whether anyone had news to share, but they only knew as much as she did. They’d left their homes and businesses behind without knowing how soon they’d be able to return. In the backs of their minds was the thought that perhaps they were about to lose everything. Mixed in with the refugees were the regulars, most of whom wanted nothing more than a place to talk about what was happening and get the news as it came. After twenty minutes had passed, the Black Mare was full of people. Melanie worked as quickly as she could, which gave her little time to think about the spot on the wall that once held two swords.

An hour and a half had passed when an out-of-breath man made his way through the front door of the tavern. Everyone went silent as they waited for the news.

“It was a bloodbath,” he said. “The lantern is relit, but half the glimwardens are dead and not a single member of the Auxiliary is left alive. Most of the houses around Healer’s Lantern have been reduced to matchsticks and rubble.”

Melanie felt her heart drop. Her body tingled as she felt a cold sweat coming over her. Since everyone was talking at once and no one was calling for her, she sat down on her stool and rested her head against the counter.

The problem with having low expectations of the world was that it was all the more crushing when the world failed to meet them. She should have written Sander off the moment he walked out the front door. She should have told herself that he was as good as dead, so if it had turned out that he was alive, it would be a pleasant surprise. She tried to remind herself that he hadn’t really been much more than a pest, showing up where he clearly wasn’t wanted and insinuating himself into her life against her will. That was all true, but Sander had cared about her. He had, against the odds, liked her. When Melanie felt herself welling up, she went into the kitchen and slumped up against the refrigerator.

“I hate this,” she muttered to herself.

She wanted her father to come into the kitchen and tell her that everything was going to be alright. She would have to scream at him for leaving her all alone, but after that he could hold her, comfort her, and tell her that everything was going to be just fine. The world wasn’t so nice a place that it would allow a reunion like that to happen. She was never going to see her father again, just as she was never going to see her mother again.

Melanie cried, but only a little bit. She had gained quite a bit of experience with crying over the past few years. She could at least console herself that she never cried at trivial things; no book had ever brought her to tears. Instead, it was deaths, debts, and abandonment that moved her to tears. The world had simply decided that it didn’t particularly like Melanie Masters, and that was an appropriate thing to cry about.

In the end, Melanie did what she always did after crying. She got to her feet, said a silent curse, and went back to work. The world didn’t like her, but she didn’t like the world either. It would be impossible to burn the whole world down, so the only other option was to carry on as though she weren’t losing a small piece of her soul with every attack the world made against her.

When she came back to the tavern’s main room, it had emptied. The refugees had gone back to Healer’s Lantern, and everyone else had gone with them to gawk at the wreckage (or, if Melanie were feeling more charitable, to help with clean-up). Melanie shuttered the windows and closed the tavern, though it wasn’t even dinnertime yet. Business would be poor for the rest of the day, as people would be helping with salvage efforts at Healer’s, or at least helping to bury the dead. Besides that, she’d somehow run out of horse meat soup, which she hadn’t expected to sell a single bowl of.

She was finishing her cleaning when there was a knock on the door. When she went to answer it, she saw an unpleasantly familiar face: Nathan Norwood, one of Colsum’s men.

“I have five more days,” said Melanie. The answer was a reflex; she was always aware of how many days it was until her next payment was due. In truth, she already had enough to settle that month’s debt, but Melanie had every incentive to keep Colsum from knowing that.

“Colsum wants to meet with you about a different matter,” said Nathan. “He said you would know what it was in regards to.”

❧❧❧

The Colsum manse was a long building on the outskirts of Chancellor’s Lantern, with one side facing the fields and the other turned in towards the city. There were stories Melanie had read about vast, palatial estates segregated from their towns by large fields of manicured grass, but none of the richest families in Light’s Hollow had gone quite that far. The house was still imposing though, stacked five stories tall, each slightly smaller than the last until the top, where a pleasant garden with apple trees could be seen from the ground. Melanie had never been up there, but she’d often imagined it; she envied Colsum his view of the city and the solitude of being so high above everyone else.

She and Nathan took a runework carriage, one of the ones that Colsum owned for his own personal use, unattached to any business. Melanie had never been in one before. She had only ridden the carts, and then she’d been sitting in the back as it moved at a sedate pace. Nathan drove the carriage quickly, speeding down the road and kicking up dust as they went. If Melanie’s mind hadn’t been on the upcoming meeting, she might have found the experience exhilarating, but instead she found herself mired in thought for the entire trip.

She was led up into a sitting room, where books covered every wall. Colsum sat in one of the two chairs, staring at the heater on the wall. A red hot wire was shaped like flames, radiating heat across the room. Melanie had never seen a fireplace before, but that’s what the heater was trying to evoke. Behind the hot metal was a slowly circulating fan, which blew hot air across the room. Melanie found the whole thing unbelievably tacky.

Carter Colsum was an old man, in his late seventies. He had a hunched look to him, which was accentuated by the poor posture he displayed in the plump red chair he was sitting in. His hair was long and gray, lanky in a way that Melanie never expected from a man with his means. His face was dominated by a large, ugly nose, which only served to heighten how sunken in his eyes were. His mouth was wide and his lips were thin, revealing gray teeth when he spoke.

She sat down across from him and waited for him to speak. Colsum was looking at the heater. He picked up a pale white nut from a bowl beside him, cracked it with his teeth to reveal a green seed inside, then ate the seed and put the shell into a second bowl, which was already partially filled.

“Why are there so few glimwardens?” asked Colsum. When Melanie didn’t immediately answer, he looked to her for the first time.

“I don’t know,” said Melanie.

“It takes a thousand hearts to make a glimwarden,” said Colsum. He cracked another nut with his teeth and talked as he chewed. “That’s a fair amount, but even a novice glimwarden can capture three hearts a day. A glimwarden can make another glimwarden in the span of a year. Two glimwardens could then make another two, then four for four.” He paused and looked at her. “So why are there so few glimwardens?”

“They die too often for that to work,” said Melanie.

“No,” said Colsum. “Think about it. The hearts are divided three ways, with a third to fuel the lanterns, a third auctioned off by contract to the people of the city, and a third to the wardens themselves. The town’s third, almost all of it spent on runework, could be diverted to create more wardens. But even if the hearts were evenly split between the sides, the wardens could still make more of themselves. They’re able to rebuild when a large fraction of their number are wiped out. They did it six years ago, they’ll do it again after what happened today. They have more hearts than they need for simple replacement. So why are there so few glimwardens?”

“I don’t know,” said Melanie.

Colsum cracked another shell with his teeth and briefly held the green seed between his teeth. Melanie knew all of the nuts and berries that could be found in Light’s Hollow, but whatever he was eating was unfamiliar to her. She wondered how far away it had come from, and how much it had cost.

“Do you know what makes you strong?” asked Colsum.

“No,” said Melanie.

“Spite,” said Colsum.

Melanie didn’t respond. She still didn’t know why she had been brought here, or what Colsum wanted with her. She doubted that it was just to ask her questions that she didn’t know the answers to.

“There are people who, when put to the challenge, will simply lay down and die,” said Colsum. “Your father, he was the type to run from his problems, which is almost as bad, but I can respect that in a way, even if it raises my ire. Now, some people will take that challenge and rise to it with a smile on their face, happy to have some way to prove themselves to the world. Some will soldier on forward because they know that’s the only thing to do. You though, you passed my test because there’s a deep, cold hatred that runs through your veins.”

“Alright,” said Melanie. The word ‘test’ stabbed at her.

Colsum smiled at her with his gray teeth. “I do believe you’d sit there taking any sort of abuse I could throw at you, never budging an inch. That’s an impressive skill all by itself. But spite, that’s your true power. You’ve spent two years running that tavern by yourself, doing the work of at least three people, and you did it because it was your way of spitting in the face of everyone who didn’t love you.”

Melanie didn’t reply. The debt to Colsum had eaten away at her sanity in the first few months. Even now it left her with trembling nerves when she thought about it for too long. Colsum was trying to reduce her down to a single aspect, but it wasn’t true. She felt spiteful, but spite wasn’t what motivated her to get up in the morning.

“You hate me,” said Colsum. “That’s fine, I expect that. I turned the screws on you. But right now, it’s unbecoming, and you and I can’t have a proper conversation if you’re going to continue acting like a child.”

Melanie straightened herself in her chair. The room had grown uncomfortably warm, and she was sweating. “You didn’t do me the courtesy of explaining why I’m here.”

“It’s about the competition,” replied Colsum. “You know that.”

“Half the glimwardens are dead,” said Melanie. “There’s not going to be a competition.”

“Half?” asked Colsum. He shook his head. “There were four wardens dead.”

Melanie stared at him, trying to tell whether he was lying. “How many Auxiliary?”

Colsum shrugged. “Irrelevant. Twenty, forty, a hundred, the only people who join the Auxiliary are desperate or fools.” He cracked another nut between his teeth. “You know why you’re here. You know why we have to have a conversation. Stop speaking in monosyllables and give me your attention. Why are there so few glimwardens?”

Melanie met his eyes. She didn’t want to play these games. “It’s better to have the power concentrated in fewer glimwardens,” she replied.

“Is it?” asked Colsum.

“I don’t know,” replied Melanie. “It was a guess.”

“Tell me why it should be the case that it’s better to have fewer wardens with more power rather than more wardens with less power,” said Colsum. “You’re smart enough to figure it out.”

Melanie wasn’t sure that she was. “The wardens … they die from time to time. If they have more power, then they die less. It’s about attrition. Or maybe … when the power is concentrated, it feeds off itself, making them stronger.”

“How might we test that?” asked Colsum.

“I —” Melanie stopped herself from saying that she didn’t know. Colsum knew that she didn’t know, but for whatever reason, he wanted her to guess. This was all for his amusement, so if she was going to debase herself, it was better not to drag her feet. “We could have them lift a weight.”

“Indeed,” said Colsum. “We could do that. In fact, fifteen years ago I proposed a similar thing, though we would have used a spring, not weights. The wardens said that such a demonstration of their power, if done in full, would drain them of the power they needed to gather the hearts. I said that naturally, I would stagger the tests so that only one warden would be spent at a time, and, seeing their next objection, I said I would pay handsomely to make up for the hearts that they wouldn’t be able to collect. Do you know what happened?”

“They never ended up doing the test,” guessed Melanie. “They —” she tried to think of what a conniving politician would do, from one of her books. “They said that … that the hearts were vital to the town above and beyond the material costs. Spending money for a display of power would be the same as buying hearts and then throwing them away.”

“The chief glimwarden — eight chiefs ago, much more savvy than this current one — framed me as being too rich for my own good. He said, in fact, that I was too rich for the good of this town. He spoke through implication and made everyone believe that I cared nothing for Light’s Hollow.” Colsum shook his head sadly as he cracked another shell with his teeth. “But of course none of that was true. I wanted to know whether or not glimwardens got more powerful in strict proportion to the hearts that they ate. Because if they didn’t, why were there so few glimwardens?”

“Can I say that I don’t know yet?” asked Melanie.

Colsum grinned. “Ah, there she is.” Melanie hadn’t realized that a faint — very faint — smile had come onto her face, but with Colsum’s words, it vanished. “And there she goes.” Colsum cracked another shell between his teeth. “But the answer is no, you can’t say that you don’t know. Instead, tell me what you would do to find out whether the glimwardens are behaving rationally.”

“I’d make my own glimwarden,” said Melanie. “Someone on the inside.”

“Hrm,” said Colsum. “And how would you do that?”

“I …” Melanie paused and tried to think before giving her answer. This was more social interaction than she’d had in a long time, excluding the perfunctory interactions with patrons at the tavern. She was flagging. It was the only extended conversation she’d ever had with Colsum. He was less odious than she’d thought, though she still got the sense that he was playing a game with her. In contrast, her conversations with Sander — her mind hiccuped at the thought of him. Sander was dead and gone forever, only a memory now. But if the news about half the glimwardens dying had been wrong, then it was possible some of the Auxiliary survived, and it was possible that Sander was among them. His father would have protected him, wouldn’t he?

“You?” asked Colsum.

“I’d buy hearts,” said Melanie. “But obviously that’s not the solution, because you haven’t done it.”

“Do you know what happened to my sons?” asked Colsum.

Melanie shook her head. “No. Or, they … moved.” The word didn’t feel right. The same word couldn’t be used for both crossing town and leaving Light’s Hollow entirely, not if words were to have meaning. Her vocabulary was failing her.

“Do you know why?” asked Colsum.

Melanie shook her head again.

“They wanted to be glimwardens, both of them,” said Colsum. He stared at the glowing red wires of the heater. “It was foolish. I counseled against it. But they went anyway, begging Killian, the chief glimwarden of the time, to join the ranks. They were refused. They were determined boys though, and I had given to them too freely, so they decided that they would buy their way in. A thousand hearts for each … it was a high cost, but one that they were ready to pay. They were refused.”

“Refused?” asked Melanie. She hadn’t heard this story before, but she could tell it was something of a tragedy.

“The hearts come from the glimwardens,” said Colsum. “It is within their power, if not their explicit authority, to prevent someone from obtaining a heart. They exercise this power very rarely, because they know that it rankles. It’s in the same way that the town’s glaziers could, if they wished, collude with one another to prevent a new building from having windows, thereby stalling construction entirely. The thing that prevents it is public outcry. In the case of my sons, there was none of that, because what they were attempting to do was unprecedented and screamed of privilege.”

Melanie stayed silent, because that was exactly what she had been thinking. She had read stories where only the rich were glimwardens, and assumed that it was likely the case in other towns, but the concept had always made her uneasy. Colsum already held a considerable amount of power by dint of his money. If he were to buy up hearts, he would have physical power on top of that. There were signatures that frightened her, ones that almost always belonged to villains in the stories that described them: mind control, mind reading, or the ability to reach into a person’s head and change their emotions around.

Colsum seemed to remember where he was and turned to look at Melanie. “I’ll tell you now that I have reason to believe the wardens aren’t acting in the best interests of Light’s Hollow. I’ve looked into the paltry records that have been kept over the years. I had Linwell institute new systems of record-keeping for the engineers. From everything I can see, the answer to the question of why there are so few glimwardens is that it serves the wardens to have it be so. Why is power concentrated in so few hands? Because it’s their hands.”

“You want the power to be in your hands instead,” she said. “That’s why you want me to join the competition.”

“No,” replied Colsum. “I could never trust you.” He smiled at her. “The debt doesn’t buy your allegiance to that extent, I’m not so stupid to think that it does. What I need is information. You’re to be my spy.”

Melanie watched his sunken-in eyes. “And if I join the competition and win a spot, you’ll wipe away my debt?”

“Yes,” replied Colsum. “While you’re in the competition, win or lose, I’ll suspend the need for payment on the debt.”

“No interest accrued either,” said Melanie.

Colsum waved his hand, not caring about the money. “You understand my intent? You understand that I’m not an evil man? You owe me a debt, but that’s no fault of mine.”

“I understand,” said Melanie, because she thought that was what he wanted to hear.

“Very well,” said Colsum. He seemed satisfied with himself. “Our business is concluded here then. Ready the Black Mare for an extended closure, once this business with the lantern failure is concluded and the competition starts. I want you at the top of your game.”

The mention of the lantern failure returned Melanie’s thoughts to Sander. Before she could return home, she had to make sure that the world was as terrible of a place as it seemed to be.

❧❧❧

Light’s Hollow had three outlying clinics, which were little more than a lone physician and a nurse or two, but any serious injury or sickness was dealt with in the hospital very near to Chancellor’s Lantern. Chancellor’s was the center of governance, but it also served as a redoubt; a single lantern might fail, or even fall, but it would take two failures for the heart of the city to be in any danger. The hospital was in a constant state of readiness for whatever calamity might fall. Any survivors would be taken there.

Melanie had visited the hospital often, while her mother was in the process of dying. She read books by her mother’s bedside and tried to drown out the sound of shallow breathing. She hadn’t wanted to be there, but that was her duty as daughter, a duty made all the more important by her father’s refusal to accept her mother’s inevitable death. Once Melanie’s mother had finally died, she had avoided the hospital as much as possible, sometimes even taking a longer route if it meant she didn’t have to see the tall building and its elaborate front doorway with a bas relief of the Healer beckoning the sick inside.

Now she found herself walking through the front doors again. The place was quieter than she’d thought it would be. It didn’t strike her as a good sign. She walked up to the reception desk, where a weary nurse was making marks in a ledger. The nurse marked her place and folded the ledger closed just as Melanie made it to the desk.

“I had a, uh, friend who went to the battle,” she said. “Do you have a list of the deceased? Or survivors? I just wanted to know … it’s Sander Seaborn.”

“The chief glimwarden’s son,” replied the nurse with a slight frown. “Room 203. You’re free to visit him, if you’d like.”

Melanie felt a wave of relief wash over her, followed closely by a trickle of annoyance. Of course Sander would go running off to give up his life for no good reason, and of course he would somehow manage to come out of it just fine when others had died. It would embolden him to take bigger risks, until eventually one day he would end up dead because he thought he was better and more capable than he really was. Unless … well, it was possible that he’d suffered a grievous wound that he wouldn’t recover from. Melanie opened her mouth to ask the nurse, but she had already gone back to her ledger.

It would have been easy to slip out. Sander would never have to know that she’d cried over his death. To let him know that she, in some sense, cared about him would only exacerbate his belief that they were friends. You didn’t need to be someone’s friend to mourn their passing, nor to visit them in the hospital, but she was certain that distinction would be lost on Sander.

Still, something Colsum had said was lingering in her mind. He had said she was a creature of spite. Her interactions with Colsum had been limited, but he had a great many people who worked for him. Had one of them told him that she was spiteful? Thinking about it bothered her. She wondered whether she had been too unkind to Sander in the past, for all that he annoyed her. He was oblivious in certain ways, casually arrogant in others, and often downright boring when he got to talking about the things that were of interest to him and him alone. He did care about her though, and even if he was largely unsuccessful, she could tell that he was often trying to lift her normally sour moods.

Melanie took the stairs up and found his room, doing her best to avoid looking down the hall to where her mother had drawn her final breath. She hesitated at the door, listening for any conversation that would give her an excuse not to go in, but there was only silence. She knocked softly, wondering whether he was asleep.

“Come in,” said a man’s voice. It wasn’t Sander.

Melanie slipped into the room and saw Sander laying in a hospital bed with his eyes closed. There were bandages on his arm and leg; he wore only loose-fitting shorts, displaying a body that was more muscular than Melanie would have imagined. Sitting in a chair beside the bed, to Melanie’s complete surprise, was Philip Phandrum. She realized with a start that she hadn’t given much thought to Philip. She felt guilty for not having asked the front desk whether Philip was alright, but her shame was lessened significantly by the fact that Philip seemed perfectly unharmed.

“He’s going to be out for a few days,” said Philip. “He overdid it, and he suffered some injuries, but he’ll be fine.”

“You’re okay?” asked Melanie.

“Perfectly fine,” replied Philip. “Sander saved my life.”

Melanie looked at Sander’s still form. She watched his breathing. The rooms at the hospital were all built the same, so it didn’t even matter that this wasn’t the room her mother had been in, it was bringing back unbidden memories all the same. Her mother had slept most of the time while on her path to death. Looking at Sander, it was hard to accept the assurance that he would get better with time.

“Would you like some privacy?” asked Philip.

“No,” replied Melanie. “If he’s not going to wake up, I should just get going.” She looked to Philip. “Did his father make it?”

Philip nodded. “Yes.”

“Good,” said Melanie. She and Sander had both lost their mothers. Sander didn’t deserve to lose both his parents like she had.

“I have your swords, by the way,” said Philip. “I didn’t bring them with me, but I’ll drop them by the Black Mare as soon as I’m able.”

“Oh,” said Melanie. She had forgotten about the swords. At least now they would have one true story to go with all the false ones her father used to tell. “Thank you. Would it be terribly rude for me to ask how things went?”

Philip twitched his lips. “Do you want the short version or the long version?” he asked.

“The short version,” replied Melanie. “I’m fairly certain that I’ll be overhearing the long version for the next several months to come.”

“There was a new type of darkling,” said Philip. “It was more powerful than the wardens were prepared to deal with. The Auxiliary were called in to form a fall-back perimeter, but what ended up happening was pure chaos that left many of us dead. At some point, the glimwardens beat a retreat to the lantern proper in order to ensure that no darklings would break in and start killing the engineers, which left the remaining Auxiliary in an even worse position than they were in before. I didn’t make terribly good use of that sword that you gave me, but I managed to kill a few before I was one of the only ones left alive. I was seconds from being torn to shreds when Sander teleported us away. That was about when the lantern came back on. Sander was passed out and choking on his own vomit, so I cleared his airway and got him breathing again.”

“You saved his life,” said Melanie. She had never paid too much attention to Philip. In school, he had seemed to melt into the background. Even now, he sounded dispassionate about all the death and destruction he’d seen, though Melanie supposed that was to be expected in the aftermath of it all. Sometimes people came out of tragedy feeling numb. It happened in her books all the time.

“Sander was a hero,” said Philip. “He fought more ferociously than I did and risked his life to save mine. What I did for him was what anyone would have done for him. Failure would have cost me nothing.”

“He won’t see it that way,” said Melanie.

“Perhaps not,” replied Philip.

Melanie shuffled her feet. “Well, I should get going. But … you’re on the city council, aren’t you?”

“I’m not on the city council, I’m an aide to the mayor,” replied Philip.

“But you’re part of the meetings?” asked Melanie.

“Yes,” replied Philip. “Why?”

“There was going to be a competition to see who the new glimwardens were going to be,” said Melanie. “I was wondering whether you thought that was still going to happen. Is the eighth lantern still going to be built? It’s — I was going to try out.”

“Ah,” said Philip. He looked her over and Melanie tried to act naturally under the uncomfortable weight of his evaluation. “First there will be an inquest. We’ll see what happens after that.”

“An inquest?” asked Melanie.

“It’s a judicial hearing to determine the facts of an incident,” said Philip.

“No, I know what the word means,” replied Melanie. “I just don’t understand what the purpose is.”

“So it will never happen again,” said Philip. He narrowed his eyes at her, focusing on her face for a moment, then shrugged. “Of course, what’s really important is giving the appearance of making sure that it will never happen again. I’ve read all the notes from past inquests that were held after lantern failures like this, and it’s quite common for the reactions to be underfunded or underplanned and never come to fruition.”

“The reaction to the failure isn’t actually about stopping the failure from happening,” said Melanie. Low expectations of the world were almost always justified. She noticed Philip looking at her more intently than she really liked.

“I should get going,” she said. She took a last look at Sander, who was still out like a light, and then turned to the door.

“Melanie?” asked Philip. She turned back to face him. “The competition to find a new glimwarden, if it happens, won’t be about finding the best potential glimwarden. It will be about power and who holds it. Remember that.”

Melanie nodded, but that, at least, she’d already figured out.