Copyright © Ian Irvine, 2001.
Tiaan could hear her foreman’s fury from halfway across the manufactory. Doors were being kicked open, workers cursed out of the way, stools slapped aside with his sword. ‘Where the blazes is Tiaan?’ he roared. ‘She’s really cruelled it this time.’
The urge to hide was overwhelming; also futile. She busied herself at her bench. What had she done wrong? There had never been a problem with her work before.
The door of her cubicle slammed back and Foreman Gryste stood in the opening, his chest heaving. A huge, sweaty man, he reeked of cloves and garlic. Thickets of hair sprouted between the straining buttons of his shirt.
‘What’s the matter with you, Tiaan?’ he bellowed. ‘This hedron doesn’t work!’ He banged a crystal down on the bench. ‘And that means the controller is useless, the clanker doesn’t go and more of our soldiers die!’ He shook a fist the size of a melon in her face.
Letting out a yelp, she sprang out of the way. Tiaan and the foreman did not get on, but she had never seen him in such a rage before. The war must be going worse than ever. She took up the hedron, a piece of crystalline quartz the size of her fist, shaped into twenty-four facets. ‘It was working perfectly when I finished with it. Do you have the controller?’
Gryste set that down gently, for it was a psycho-mechanical construction of some delicacy, a piece of precision craft work even the scrutator’s watchmaker would have been proud of. The controller resembled a metal octopus, its twenty-four arms, radiating from a basket of woven copper and layered glass.
Fitting the hedron into its basket, Tiaan unfurled the segmented arms. She clutched a pendant hanging at her throat and felt a little less overwhelmed. Visualising the required movement, she touched her jewelled probe to one metal arm. The arm flexed, retracted then kicked like a frog.
‘Ah!’ sighed Gryste, leaning over her. ‘That’s better.’
Tiaan moved backwards to escape the fumes. The foreman did not understand. This was not the hundredth part of what the controller was supposed to do in working a battle armoped, or clanker as everyone called them. And the crystal had hardly any aura. Something was badly wrong. She visualised another movement. Again the spasmodic frog kick. Frowning, Tiaan tried a third. This time there was no reaction at all, nor could she gain any from the other arms. The aura faded to nothing.
‘The hedron has gone dead.’ She plucked anxiously at her pendant. A single facet sparkled in the lamplight. ‘I don’t understand. What have they been doing with the clanker? Trying to climb a cliff?’
‘It died not fifteen leagues from Tiksi!’ snapped Gryste, slapping his rusty sword on his thigh. He took pleasure in intimidating. ‘And the last two controllers you made also failed. In the battle lines.’
Her skin crawled. No controller from this manufactory had failed in twenty years. ‘W-what happened?’ Tiaan whispered.
‘No one knows, but two precious clankers were lost and twenty soldiers are dead. Because of your sloppy work, artisan.’
Groping for her stool, Tiaan sat down. Twenty dead. She was numb from the horror of it. She never made mistakes in her work. What had gone wrong? ‘I’ll … have to talk to one of the clanker operators.’
‘One was torn apart a lyrinx, another drowned. Don’t know what happened to the third. What the scrutator will do when he hears …’
She shivered inside. ‘Do you have the other controllers?’ Tiaan asked in a small voice.
‘How could I?’ he snarled. His tongue was stained yellow from chewing nigah, a drug the army used to combat cold and fatigue. That explained the spicy smell. Perhaps the garlic was an attempt to disguise it. ‘The first clanker was taken by the enemy, the second swept down the river. This controller is from the third. We would have lost it too, had it ever reached the battlefront. Gi-Had has gone down to Tiksi to find out what went wrong. The whole manufactory is going to suffer for your incompetence.’
Gi-Had, the overseer of this manufactory, had complete power over the lives of the workers. If she let him down he could send her to labour in the pitch mine until the black dust rotted out her lungs. ‘Is he … angry?’
‘I’ve never seen him so furious!’ said Gryste coldly. ‘He said if the problem isn’t fixed this week, you’re finished! Which brings me to another matter …’
Tiaan knew what the foreman was going to say. Stolid-faced, she endured the lecture, the appeal to duty, the veiled threat.
‘It is the duty of every one of us to mate, artisan. Our country desperately needs more children. The whole world does.’
‘So they can be killed in the war!’ she said with a flash of bitterness.
‘We did not start it, artisan. But without men to fight, without people to work and support them, without women having more children, we will certainly lose. You are clever, Tiaan, despite this failure. You must pass your talents on.’
‘I know my duty, foreman,’ Tiaan said, though she did not like to be reminded of it. There was a serious shortage of men at the manufactory. None of those available appealed to her and she was not inclined to share. ‘I will take a partner. Soon …’
How? Tiaan thought despairingly after he had gone. And who?
Why had her controllers failed? She went through the problem from the beginning. Controllers drew power from the field, a nebulous aura of force about naturally occurring nodes. The field dominated her life. Artisans made controllers but, more importantly, tuned them so they did not resist the field but drew power smoothly from it, to power clankers. If a controller went out of tune, or had to be tuned to a different kind of field, artisans did that too. Their work was vital to the war.
Clankers were groaning, wheezing mechanical monsters, covered in armour and propelled by eight iron legs. Hideously uncomfortable to ride in and a nightmare to the artificers who had to keep them going, they were humanity’s main defence against the enemy. A clanker could carry ten soldiers and their gear, and defend them with catapult and javelard. But without power it was just dead metal, so a controller had to work perfectly, all the time.
Had she made a terrible blunder? Taking its hedron from the controller, Tiaan inspected it carefully. Dark needles of rutile formed a tangled mass inside the crystal. It seemed perfect. There were no visible flaws, nor had it been damaged, yet it had failed. She had no idea why.
There was no one to ask. The old master controller maker, Crafter Barkus, had died last year. What notes he’d made on a lifetime’s work were almost unintelligible, and the rest of his knowledge had died with him. Tiaan had learned everything he’d cared to teach her, and had made small but useful improvements to controllers, some of which had been adopted at other manufactories. However at twenty she was too young to rise from artisan to crafter. She’d have to wait three years for that, at least. The manufactory was sorely in need of someone with greater experience.
Through the door her fellow workers were talking among themselves, no doubt about her. Tiaan felt oppressed by their knowing looks, their unsubtle judgements and pointed jokes about not having done her duty. A twenty-year-old who had never been with a man – there had to be something wrong with her. It was not said meanly, more in puzzlement, but it hurt just the same.
There’s nothing wrong with me! she thought angrily. I just haven’t met the right one. And not likely to, among the misfits and half-wits here.
Two of the prentices sniggered, looked up at her cubicle then guiltily bent over their grinding wheels. Flushing, Tiaan hurried out of the workshop. She wove her way through the warren of clerk’s benches, past the clusters of tiny offices, the library and the washing troughs, then between infirmary and refectory and out through the wall into the main part of the manufactory.
Out here the racket of metal being worked was deafening and everything stank of smoke and tar. She turned left toward the front gate, crossing a bleak yard paved in dolomite in which a warren of buildings had been thrown up as the need required. There were drifts of ash and dust everywhere; the sweepers could not keep up with it. Every surface was covered in a film of oily soot.
‘I’m going down to the mine,’ she said to Nod, gate attendant for the past thirty years.
The old fellow had a white beard so long that he could tuck the end in his belt, and not a hair on his head. He raised the iron grille. One tall gate stood open. Nod held out his hand. No one was supposed to go out without a chit from their foreman, but once again Tiaan had forgotten.
‘Sorry, Nod,’ she said. ‘I forgot.’ Gryste always made a fuss so she was reluctant to ask, even though going to the mine was part of her job.
Nod looked over his shoulder then waved her on. ‘I didn’t see you. Good luck, Tee!’ He patted her on the shoulder.
Tiaan found that rather ominous. He’d not wished her luck before. Shrugging on her overcoat she went out into the wind. The path down to the mine was slushy, the snow on either side brown with soot from furnaces that burned night and day. At the first bend, just before the forest, she looked back.
The manufactory carved an ugly scar across the hillside. From here it comprised a grimy series of scalloped walls ten spans high, with slits high up and battlements above them. Guard towers hung over the corners, though they were seldom manned, for the manufactory was hundreds of leagues from the enemy lines. From the rear a cluster of chimneys belched smoke of various hues – white, orange and greasy black.
Tiaan did not think of the place as ugly. It was just home, and work, the two concepts like joined twins. It had been home since her mother, the pre-eminent breeder in the breeding factory at Tiksi, had sold Tiaan’s indenture to the manufactory at the age of six. She had been here ever since. She occasionally went to Tiksi, three or four hours walk down a steep and stony path, but the rest of the world might not have existed.
There was no time for it. The world was regimented for war and everyone had their place in it. The work was tedious, the hours long, but crime was unheard of. Around here, no one was afraid to walk the streets at night.
To her left, another path tracked the snow under the aqueduct then across the gash of the faultline before winding up the mountain to the tar mine. On rare hot days up there, tar oozed out of the shattered rocks and could be scraped into buckets. Mostly, though, the miners hacked solid tar from the drives or followed erratic seams of brittle pitch though the mountain. It was the worst job in the world, and few survived to old age, but someone had to do it. The furnaces of the manufactory must fed. Its clankers were vital to the war. And the war was being lost.
Her controllers were just as critical. Tiaan could imagine how the soldiers must have felt, attacked by ravening lyrinx and realising they had no protection, because their clankers had stalled. She could not bear to think that it might have been her fault.
She hurried along the path to the lower mine, where the hedron crystals were found. It was twenty minutes’ walk down a steep decline and Tiaan had plenty of time to fret, though she was no closer to a solution by the time she reached the main adit.
‘Mornin’, Tiaan!’ Lex, the day guard, nodded at her from his cavern like a statue in a temple. His ill-fitting false teeth sat on the counter, as usual. Sometimes the miners hid them, sparking a frantic search and emotional outbursts.
‘Morning, Lex. Where’s Joe today, do you know?’
‘Down on fif’ level,’ Lex mumbled. Without his teeth it was hard to make out what he was saying. ‘Take six’ tunnel on right an’ follow to end.’
‘Thanks!’ Selecting a lantern from the shelf, she lit it at Lex’s illegal blaze, a brazier full of fuming pitch shards, and set off. The sides of the tunnel were strewn with broken wheels off ore carts, cracked lifting buckets, tattered strands of rope and all the other equipment that accumulated in a mine as old as this one.
When Tiaan reached the lifting wheel she found it unattended. She rang the bell but it was not answered so she got into a basket, eased off the brake and wound herself down. Level one, level two, level three. The shafts ran deep and dark and old here. It had been a mine for hundreds of years before the value of the crystals was recognised. As she passed the fourth level a blast of air set the basket rocking, almost blowing out her lantern. At least the ventilation system was working. There had been bad air down here the last time she’d come. One of the miners had collapsed and nearly died.
Cranking herself down to the fifth level, Tiaan stepped into the tunnel and made sure the brake was off, otherwise no one could use the lift and the attendant would have to come down on a rope to free it.
It was pleasantly warm on this level, a nice contrast to outside and the manufactory itself. It was always cold there unless you worked near the furnaces, and then it was unpleasantly hot. However the artisan’s workshop was right up the other end of the manufactory, on the frigid south side. Tiaan had been cold for most of her life.
She trudged on. Every chunk of waste rock had to be carried up and out, so the tunnels were no bigger than necessary to gain access to the ore and the veins of crystal. Often she had to go on hands and knees, or slip through a gap sideways with the uneven edges scraping her ribs. The rock here was pink granite, impregnated with veins that writhed like blood vessels in a drunkard’s eyeball. The miners came for gold, platinum, copper, tin and silver, though her old friend Joeyn delved for something much more precious – the crystals from which the magical hedrons were made. Some were as big as her fist, and it was these Joeyn especially sought. Only certain crystals could be used for making hedrons. Few other miners could tell which ones to take and which, apparently identical, to leave behind.
Wriggling around a knob of layered granite glinting with mica, Tiaan saw a light ahead. An old man sat in an egg-shaped space, his lantern, pick and hammer beside him.
‘Joe!’ she yelled. ‘I’ve found you at last.’
‘Didn’t know I was lost,’ grinned the miner, climbing to his feet with many a groan and a clicking of aged joints. Joeyn was a little, wizened, skinny man, at least seventy, with a long sharp face and skin impregnated with mine dust. He was Tiaan’s only true friend. He gave her a hug that made her ribs creak.
They sat down together. Joe offered her a swig from his bottle but Tiaan knew better than to accept. A spirit he distilled from fermented turnips and parsnips, it was strong enough to knock out a bear.
‘Have you eaten today, Tiaan?’
‘Only a crust.’
He passed her a cloth-wrapped bundle, inside which she found three baked sweet potatoes, a boiled egg, a stalk of celery and a ball of sticky rice flavoured with wild saffron and pieces of mountain date. Her mouth watered. She was usually too busy to eat.
Tiaan selected the smallest of the sweet potatoes and said, ‘Are you sure it’s all right?’
‘Stand up, Tiaan. Let me look you over.’
She did so, potato in hand. Tiaan was average in height but slender. She had jet black hair, raggedly hacked off halfway down her neck, almond-shaped eyes of a deep purple-brown, a broad, thoughtful brow and a small though full-lipped mouth. Her skin was like freshly rubbed amber, her eyes a darker shade. She had long fingered, elegant hands, which she liked, and large feet, which she did not.
‘You’re thinner than when I saw you a month ago.’
‘I only get paid when my controllers go into service, and –’
‘But you’re the hardest worker in the entire manufactory, Tiaan, and the cleverest!’
She looked down at her boots, unable to reply to the compliment. ‘My last three controllers failed after they left the manufactory, Joe. Two clankers were lost, and their operators. Twenty soldiers are dead.’ Her chest was heaving in agitation.
He regarded her steadily. ‘Doesn’t mean it’s your fault.’
‘They were my controllers. Of course it’s my fault.’
‘Then you’d better find out what’s gone wrong.’
‘I don’t even know where to start.’
‘Well, you still have to eat.’
‘I only take the basic ration,’ she muttered. ‘I’m saving to buy out my indenture. I’ve only two years to go.’
‘But you’ll stay at the manufactory after you do. It’s not going to change your life. What’s the hurry?’
‘I want to be free! I want to choose to be at the manufactory, rather than being forced to work here because my mother signed my life away when I was six!’ There was a stubborn set to her jaw, an angry light in her eye.
Tiaan had been indentured until the age of twenty-five, and within that time was the property of the manufactory. If she failed at her work, or for any other fit and proper reason, the overseer could sell her indenture to whoever he chose, and there was nothing Tiaan could do about it. Gi-Had was neither cruel nor vindictive, but he was a hard man. He had to be.
The only way out was to become crafter, effectively the master controller maker. In that case her indenture would be cancelled and she would be part of the committee of the manufactory, a position of honour and influence. However that was just a dream. The crafter had to do much more than be good at her trade. Artisans were notoriously tricky to manage and she was not good with people.
‘What’s the matter with your controllers?’
‘I’ve no idea. I only just found out that they’d failed. They’re perfect when I finish with them.’
‘How long since you’ve been paid?’ he asked sternly.
‘Sit down; eat your lunch!’
‘It’s your lunch,’ she said stubbornly, wanting the food but not the charity.
‘It’s yours and I expect you to eat it all.’
‘But …’ she said.
Joeyn patted the bottle. ‘This’ll do me. I’m going home shortly. I’ve already met my quota for the day.’
‘Quota of what? Illegal drink?’ she asked cheekily. Old Joeyn was well known to like a drop.
‘Do what you’re told!’ He tilted the bottle up again.
Tiaan consumed the sweet potatoes and began peeling the shell off the egg. She felt better already.
‘So why the visit, Tiaan? Not that you aren’t welcome any time.’
‘Does there have to be a reason?’
‘No, but I’ll bet there is. And I’m wondering if it’s not about my old stones.’ Even if he had just mined the most perfect crystals in the world Joeyn still referred to them as ‘my old stones’.
‘It is,’ she said. ‘The last three you gave me seemed perfect, but failed after a few weeks in their clankers.’
‘They were a bit different,’ he admitted over another healthy swig. ‘But not unusually so.’
‘Can I see where you got them from?’ she asked, her mouth full of egg. Her belly felt wonderfully full.
‘Back this way!’ He headed off in the direction she’d come from, lantern swinging.
She followed, nibbling on the sticky rice ball. Tiaan was saving the celery stick till last, to freshen her mouth. Beyond the squeeze, Joeyn went down on hands and knees beneath a bulge of shattered granite held together with tiny white veins, and through into a cavern higher than their heads. In the lamplight Tiaan saw threads of native silver shining in the wall, and across the other side, a vein of massive crystals.
‘I love it down here,’ Joeyn said, patting the wall. ‘The wonders of stone. Ever the same yet always different.’
‘You talk as though the rock is your best friend.’
‘Is this a new area?’
‘The miners dug it out last year. One day they’ll be back to follow these seams as far as they go.’
‘Why didn’t they keep going while they were here?’
‘Because they found some interesting old stones and had to call me in to check them. Woe to any miner who smashes up good crystal in search of base silver or gold.’
‘The bloody damn war! Is it ever going to end?’
Joe put down the lantern and began prising at a vein with the point of his pick. ‘Been going for a good bit of the last two hundred years, since the Forbidding was broken and wicked Faelamor opened the void into our world. I don’t see it stopping anytime soon.’
Tiaan knew that story by heart. The twenty-seventh Great Tale, written by the chronicler Garthas, was the most important of the recent Histories and taught to every child in the civilised world. It was based on the final part of the twenty-third Great Tale, the Tale of the Mirror, but that tale was no longer allowed to be told. Many creatures had invaded Santhenar at the time of the Forbidding, though only one had thrived: the winged lyrinx. Intelligent predators with a taste for human flesh and a burning desire for their own world, they had been at war with humanity ever since.
‘We’re never going to defeat the lyrinx, are we, Joe?’
‘I’d say not. They’re too big, too smart and too damn tough. I hear that Thurkad has finally fallen.’
She had heard that too, and that there were a million refugees on the road. Thurkad was the fabulous, ancient city that had dominated the island of Meldorin, and indeed half the known world, for thousands of years. Tiksi was about as far as one could get from Thurkad and lyrinx-infested Meldorin, but the Histories had told Tiaan all about it. If such a powerful place had been overcome, what hope did they have?
Joeyn withdrew a chisel from a loop of his belt, placed it carefully in the vein and gave a gentle tap, then another. Tiaan watched him work, nibbling her celery. She felt more at home here than anywhere, but only because of him. ‘How do you tell which are the right crystals?’
‘Don’t know! When I touch one I get a warm, flowering feeling above my eyes, like a water lily opening in a pond.’
She wondered where he got that image from. It was too cold here for water lilies, or even down the mountain at Tiksi. ‘Were you always like that?’
‘Nope! Happened about ten years ago. I’d just turned sixty-six. Got sick one night after dinner; nearly died. Turned out it was the pork. Been eating it all my life, but since then, even if I just touch a bit of bacon rind, throat swells up and I can hardly breathe. Next time I was down here, mining the silver, I touched a crystal and a flower opened inside my head. Happened every time I touched that crystal, so I took it home and kept it beside my bed.’
‘I liked the feeling it gave me; sort of warm and comforting. Both my boys were killed in the war, and my wife died of grief –’
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t know.’
‘Why would you? She’s been dead thirty-one years, and the boys more than that. Such a long time ago. Life was so lonely.’
‘Why didn’t you take another wife? I would have thought … Well, I’m in trouble because I haven’t mated …’
‘Never met a woman I liked enough.’
Tiaan considered the old man thoughtfully. They had been friends from the day they’d met. ‘I don’t suppose you’d consider –?’
‘Don’t be silly, Tiaan,’ he said gruffly. ‘Anyway, as I was saying, my crystal came along and I wasn’t so lonely after all. Felt I was a bit special. One day I happened to mention it to old Crafter Barkus. He was a widower too; we used to share a jar or two some evenings. He came and looked at it. Next I knew, I wasn’t a silver miner any more – I was paid twice as much to sense out crystal and send the good ones to him. Been doing it ever since.’
‘I wish I knew how,’ she said.
‘I wish I could teach you.’
He had been tapping away with hammer and chisel while he was talking. Now he laid them aside, inserted the point of his pick into the cavity and levered carefully. A crystal wobbled. ‘Want to catch that for me?’
It fell into her hands. ‘You can take it, if you like,’ said the miner.
‘Thanks. But what if it turns out like the others? Have you found a new vein?’
‘No, though there are some promising ones down on the sixth level.’
‘Are you going down there next?’ She looked hopeful.
‘Not if I can help it.’
‘Rock’s rotten there. Roof used to cave all the time, before we sealed it off. A shear zone cuts right through the best area.’
‘Oh well! I dare say you’ll find your old stones somewhere else.’
‘Dare say I will.’ Joeyn stood up, stretched and yawned. ‘Time to go. Air’s not as good as it should be, down this end.’
Tiaan felt drowsy, now that he’d mentioned it, and saw that the lantern flame had burned low. She followed him to the lift, stepped into the basket and allowed him to wind them up to the surface.
Out in the cold and the blustery wind that blew her drowsiness away, she said goodbye.
‘Bye.’ Joe turned down the track to the miner’s village and his lonely hut. ‘Now, you call me if that crystal don’t work,’ he said over his shoulder. ‘I’m sure I can find you a better one, with a bit more time.’
‘Thanks! I will.’ Pulling her thin coat around her shoulders, she set off up the slushy path.
Tiaan shaped the crystal and, taking great care, began to wake it into a hedron. This was done with pendant at her throat, her personal pliance, which enabled her to see the field. Without it she would be psychically blind. The pliance was the badge, almost the soul, of every artisan; making it had proved her worthy of being one. A small hedron of yellow tiger’s eye quartz, set in swirls of laminated glass and silver metal, it hung from a white gold chain. Tiaan had used her pliance every day for the past three years and knew its every idiosyncrasy.
A crystal had to be woken before it could draw power from the field, and not even Tiaan could describe how that was done. It was a visual as well as a psychic tuning of mind and matter, a talent you either had instinctively or not at all. It could be trained but not taught. And it was hazardous; it could bring on crystal fever. Prentice artisans had years of practice with the master, using the merest chips of a crystal, before they were ready to do it themselves. Yet still accidents happened, and the reckless attempted what was forbidden, often with unpleasant results.
Every crystal was different and waking this one proved unusually hard work; it seemed to resist her. She could barely sense its structure through swirling fog. Tiaan concentrated until her head hurt, and slowly something began to resolve. It was a tiny pyramid, vibrating in a blur. Others, identical, lay all around, linked into hexagons that extended to infinity. She lost herself in the pattern, drifting on a sea of regularity. Drifting …
The current was whipping her along now. A long time must have passed. Tiaan had no idea how long she had been lost inside, but she did know that some artisans never came out. However she know knew how to wake this crystal.
Tearing herself free of its spell, she took a mental step backwards, focussing not on the regularity of the crystal but on the tendrils drifting chaotically through it. Selecting just one, she forced it to take the straight path. It resisted but she pressed harder, using the strength of her pliance, and it moved. The first was always the most difficult. First one, then, dozens, then thousands of tendrils aligned and began to stream the same way. Suddenly they vanished, she was looking at the crystal from outside and its aura floated around it like the southern aurora in the night sky. It was awake and meshing beautifully with the field.
Though exhausted, she kept working. There was so much to do. By ten o’clock that night Tiaan knew that the new crystal had the same properties as the last three. Would it fail the same way? She set it down. Her body felt all hot and cold, her arms twitchy. Such were the effects of working with hedrons, and they were not always benign. Artisans had been known to die at their benches, burnt black inside or their brains boiled in their heads. It was called anthracism and everyone lived in terror of it. Tiaan’s head was throbbing. Time to stop.
Depressed and hungry, she blew out her lantern and trudged off through the labyrinth of the manufactory, with its hundreds of compartmentalised work spaces. Each was crammed with workers, mostly women, making the individual pieces of clankers that were so vital to the war. Such colossal labour it was that in a year the manufactory, with its one thousand workers, its tar-fired furnaces going non-stop, could only turn out twelve clankers. If the controller failed, the enemy could destroy a clanker in a few minutes, then wreak bloody havoc on the column of soldiers it escorted.
Tiaan went into her room. It was tiny, but at least she had one. Most of the workers slept in dormitories where privacy was unknown. She climbed into bed but could not stop thinking. The war was delicately poised; it could go either way. At least, so they were told. The failure of a few clankers could lose an entire army, and that could lose the war. And everything depended on controllers and the hedrons that were the core of them, the only way a human mind could shape and focus the power of the field to control such a massive object as a clanker.
The lyrinx were more than the equal of humans, in every respect. Only clankers could make the difference. Without them, humanity was doomed …
Tiaan slept badly and not for long. Her head was full of brilliant, chopped up images – crystal dreams. She always had them after work. These ones were about dead soldiers all lying a row, covered in sheets to conceal their horrible mutilation. Long before a weak autumnal sun skidded over the mountains to blink at the fog and furnace fume, she was back at her bench.
Hunger nipped at her belly. She kept it at bay with sips of tar-flavoured water. The manufactory grew crowded. The artisans worked in their own little building on the cold, southern side, walled away with all the other clean occupations. The workshop had double doors to keep out ash and fumes, but it could not keep out the noise. She closed her door, unable to think with the racket of metal being shaped on a hundred anvils, the shouted conversations, the roars of a score of foremen, and always in the background, the hissing of the bellows and the blast of the furnaces.
The failed hedron was still dead, not a spark left of the potential it’d had when shaped by her hands. It was as if it had been drained dry, all that strange, ethereal, psychic promise withdrawn. Now it was no more than a blank piece of quartz.
Tiaan took her mug to refill it at the barrel outside. On opening the door she was confronted by a dark, wiry man with an eagle beak of a nose. He threw out one arm as if to block her way. His hands were enormous, thin and sinewy, though the rest of him was compact.
‘Overseer Gi-Had!’ She stepped back involuntarily. Though she had been expecting him, his sudden appearance came as a shock.
‘Artisan Tiaan! What progress have you to report?’ Gi-Had’s brows squirmed over those sunken eyes like a pair of hairy grubs. He had a wooden case in his other hand.
‘I –’ she turned back to her bench, where the hedron lay with its spread-out controller apparatus like a disassembled birthday toy. ‘I haven’t found the problem yet. They worked perfectly when I delivered them.’
‘Well, they don’t work now and soldiers are dying!’
‘I know that,’ she said softly, ‘but I can’t tell why. I’ve got to talk to one of the clanker operators.’
‘Ky-Ara is the only one still alive. He should be here tomorrow. He’s been putting a new controller into his clanker. He’s not happy!’
He would not be, Tiaan thought. The bond between operator and machine was intimate. To have a controller fail on him would be like losing a brother. To then train himself to the idiosyncrasies of a different controller would be gruelling, physically, mentally and emotionally.
‘What have you come up with?’ Gi-Had persisted.
‘There are – t-two possibilities. Either the crystals have invisible flaws or the field has somehow burnt them out –’ She broke off as a third, more alarming possibility occurred to her.
‘Or?’ grated Gi-Had. His heavy-lidded eyes narrowed to slits. ‘Or what, artisan?’
‘Or the enemy has found a way to disable the hedrons,’ she whispered.
‘Better hope they haven’t, or we’ll all end up in the belly of a lyrinx.’
‘I’m working as hard as I can.’
‘But are you working as smart as you can?’
‘I’ve got my orders. Now I’m passing them onto you. If you can’t do the job I’ll have to find someone who can, even if I have to bring them a hundred leagues. You’ve got a week to fix this problem, artisan.’
Opening the wooden case he placed two controllers on her bench, beside the one she’d been working on. ‘Twenty soldiers died because these failed. Another three died recovering them. A week, Tiaan.’
‘And if I fail?’ she said slowly.
‘Have you given any thought to your other responsibility?’
She stared at him, white-faced. Tiaan could not think what he meant.
‘Your responsibility to mate!’ he said testily. ‘Your foreman spoke to you about it yesterday.’
Was every single person going to remind her of it? ‘N-not yet!’ she stammered. Just the thought of it made her heart race. ‘But I will soon, I promise.’
‘You’ve been saying that for three years, artisan! I’m sorry, but the scrutator is giving me hell and I can’t defend you any longer. If you can’t do your job, and you won’t do your duty –’
‘What?’ she cried.
‘I might have to send you to the breeding factory.’
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