Chapter 5

 

Fire is without doubt an advantage on the whole. It sweeps and ventilates the forest floor and makes it clear and clean. I have often remarked with how much more comfort & pleasure I could walk in wood through which a fire had been run the previous year. It is inspiriting to walk amid the fresh green sprouts of grass and shrubbery pushing upward through the charred surface with more vigorous growth.

– Journal, 1850

The man waited impatiently as Spur descended from the train, kit slung over his shoulder. Although he did not turn back to look, Spur knew every passenger on the train was watching them. Was he in trouble? The man’s expression gave away nothing more than annoyance. He looked to be younger than Spur, possibly in his late twenties. He had a pinched face and a nose as stubby as a radish. He was wearing a prissy white shirt buttoned to the neck. There were dark circles under the armpits of his flair jacket.

Prosper Gregory Leung of Littleton, Hamilton County, Northeast?” The man pulled a slip of paper from his pocket and read from it. “You are currently on medical leave from the Ninth Regiment, Corps of Firefighters, and were issued a first-class ticket on this day — ”

I know who I am.” Spur felt as if a needlebug were caught in his throat. “What is this about? Who are you?”

He introduced himself as Constant Ngonda, a deputy with the Cooperative’s Office of Diplomacy. When they shook hands, he noticed that Ngonda’s palm was soft and sweaty. Spur could guess why he had been pulled off the train, but he decided to act surprised.

What does the Office of Diplomacy want with me?”

Just then the engineer blew three short blasts and couplings of the train clattered and jerked as, one by one, they took the weight of the passenger cars. With the groan of metal on metal, the train pulled away from the Wheelwright Memorial.

Spur’s grip on the strap of his kit tightened. “Don’t we want to get back on?”

Constant Ngonda shrugged. “I was never aboard.”

The answer made no sense to Spur, who tensed as he calculated his chances of sprinting to catch the train. Ngonda rested a hand on his arm.

We go this way, Prosper.” He nodded west, away from the tracks.

I don’t understand.” Spur’s chances of making the train were fading as it gained momentum. “What’s out there?”

A clearing. A hover full of upsiders.” He sighed. “Some important people have come a long way to see you.” He pushed a lock of damp hair off his forehead. “The sooner we start, the sooner we get out of this heat.” He let go of Spur and started picking his way across the fireground.

Spur glanced over his shoulder one last time at the departing train. He felt as if his life were pulling away.

Upsiders? From where?”

Ngonda held up an open hand to calm him. “Some questions will be answered soon enough. Others it’s better not to ask.”

What do you mean, better?”

Ngonda walked with an awkward gait, as if he expected the ground to give way beneath him. “I beg your pardon.” He was wearing the wrong shoes for crossing rough terrain. “I misspoke.” They were thin-soled, low-cut and had no laces — little more than slippers. “I meant simpler, not better.”

Just then Spur got a particularly intense whiff of something that was acrid and sooty, but not quite smoke. It was what he had first smelled as the train had pulled into the Memorial. He turned in a complete circle, all senses heightened, trying to pinpoint the source. After fire ran through the litter of leaves and twigs that covered the forest floor, it often sank into the duff, the layer of decomposing organic matter that lay just above the soil level. Since duff was like a sponge, most of the year it was too wet to burn. But in the heat of summer it could dry out and became tinder. Spur had seen a smoldering fire burrow through the layer of duff and emerge dozens of meters away. He sniffed, following his nose to a charred stump.

Prosper!” said Ngonda. “What are you doing?”

Spur heard a soft hiss as he crouched beside the stump. It wasn’t any fire sound that he knew, but he instinctively ran his bare hand across the stump, feeling for hotspots. Something cool and wet sprayed onto his fingers and he jerked them back as if he had been burned. He rubbed a smutty liquid between thumb and forefinger and then smelled it.

It had an evil, manmade odor of extinguished fire. Spur sat back on his heels, puzzled. Why would anyone want to mimic that particular stink? Then he realized that his hand was clean when it ought to have been smudged with soot from the stump. He rubbed hard against the burned wood, but the black refused to come off. He could see now that the stump had a clear finish, as if it had been coated with a preservative.

Spur could sense Ngonda’s shadow loom over him but then he heard the hissing again and was able to pick out the tiny nozzle embedded in the stump. He pressed his finger to it and the noise stopped. Then on an impulse, he sank his hand into the burned forest litter, lifted it and let the coarse mixture sift slowly through his fingers.

It’s hot out, Prosper,” Ngonda said. “Do you really need to be playing in the dirt?”

The litter looked real enough: charred and broken twigs, clumps of leaf mold, wood cinders and a delicate ruined hemlock cone. But it didn’t feel right. He squeezed a scrap of burnt bark, expecting it to crumble. Instead it compacted into an irregular pellet, like day-old bread. When he released it, the pellet slowly resumed its original shape.

It’s not real,” said Spur. “None of it.”

It’s a memorial, Prosper.” The deputy offered Spur a hand and pulled him to his feet. “People need to remember.” He bent over to brush at the fake pine needles stuck to Spur’s knees. “We need to go.”

Spur had never seen a hover so close. Before the burns, hovers had been banned altogether from the Transcendent State. But after the pukpuks had begun their terrorist campaign to halt the spread of forest into their barrens, Chairman Winter had given the Cooperative permission to relax the ban. Generous people from the upside had donated money to build the benevolence parks and provided hovers to assist the Corps in fighting fires. However, Chairman Winter had insisted that only bots were to fly the hovers and that citizen access to them would be closely monitored.

While in the field with Gold Squad, Spur had watched hovers swoop overhead, spraying loads of fire-retardant splash onto burns. And he had studied them for hours through the windows of the hospital, parked in front of their hangars at Benevolence Park Number 5. But even though this one was almost as big as Diligence Cottage and hovered a couple of meters above the ground, it wasn’t quite as impressive as Spur had imagined it.

He decided that this must be because it was so thoroughly camouflaged. The hover’s smooth skin had taken on the discoloration of the fireground, an ugly mottle of gray and brown and black. It looked like the shell of an enormous clam. The hover was elliptical, about five meters tall in front sweeping backward to a tapered edge, but otherwise featureless. If it had windows or doors, Spur couldn’t make them out.

As they approached, the hover rose several meters. They passed into its shadow and Ngonda looked up expectantly. A hatch opened on the underside. A ramp extended to the ground below with a high-pitched warble like birdsong, and a man appeared at the hatch. He was hard to see against the light of the interior of the hover; all Spur could tell for sure was that he was very tall and very skinny. Not someone he would expect to bump into on Jane Powder Street in Littleton. The man turned to speak to someone just inside the hatch. That’s when Spur realized his mistake.

No,” she said, her voice airy and sweet. “We need to speak to him first.”

As she teetered down the ramp, Spur could tell immediately that she was not from Walden. It was the calculation with which she carried herself, as if each step were a risk, although one she was disposed to take. She wore loose-fitting pants of a sheer fabric that might have been spun from clouds. Over them was a blue sleeveless dress that hung to mid-thigh. Her upper arms were decorated with flourishes of phosphorescent body paint and she wore silver and copper rings on each of her fingers.

You’re the Prosper Gregory of Walden?”

She had full lips and midnight hair and her skin was smooth and dark as a plum. She was a head taller than he was and half his weight. He was speechless until Ngonda nudged him.

Yes.”

We’re Memsen.”