Chapter 8


I have lived some thirty-odd years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors.

– Journal, 1852

Spur perched on a stump wondering how to sneak over to the Littleton train station. From where he sat, it looked hopeless. He had just bushwhacked through the forest from the edge of Spot Pond, where the hover had lingered long enough to put him onto the mucky shore. Now he was on the trail that led down Lamana Ridge. Just ahead of him was Blue Valley Road, a rough track that connected a handful of farms to Civic Route 22. cr22 became Broad Street as it passed through Littleton Commons, the village center. If he skulked down Blue Valley, he could hitch a ride on 22. Except who would be out this time of day? Neighbors. Littleton was a small town; his father had no doubt told everyone that his son the hero was due in on the 8:16 train from Heart’s Wall. Of course, he could avoid 22 altogether and skirt around town to the train station. Except it was a good ten kilometers between the stump and the station and he was bone tired.

He decided to sit a little longer.

At least Ngonda had kept most of the upsiders out of Littleton. He could imagine Penny and Kai Thousandfold and little Senator-for-Life Dowm spreading through his bewildered village to gawk at family pix and open closets and ask awkward questions. The High Gregory was all Spur had to worry about. He would be stepping off the hover ramp tomorrow morning at Spot Pond with the deputy. He would pose as Ngonda’s nephew and the deputy would be Spur’s comrade-in-arms from Iron Squad. The High Gregory would spend the day touring Littleton and making whatever luck he could. He would sleep at Spur’s house and the day after tomorrow he and Ngonda would catch the 7:57 southbound.

Spur?” called a familiar voice from up the trail. “Is that Prosper Leung?”

Spur wanted to blurt, “No, not me, not at all.” He wanted to run away. Instead he said, “Hello, Sly.” There were worse citizens he could have run into than Sly Sawatdee.

The big man lumbered down the path. He was wearing cut-off shorts, one leg of which was several centimeters longer than the other. His barrel belly stretched his shirt, which was unbuttoned to his navel. His floppy hat was two-toned: dirty and dirtier. He was carrying a basket filled with gooseberries. His smile was bright as noon.

That is my Prosper, I swear. My lucky little pinecone, all safe. But you’re supposed to be away at the fires. How did you get here, so far from nowhere?”

Fell out of the sky.”

Sly giggled like a little boy. “Go around that again.” Sly was gray as an oak and almost as old as Spur’s father, but his years had never seemed a burden to him. If the Transcendent State truly wanted its citizens simple, then Sly Sawatdee was the most civic-minded person in Hamilton County. “You’re joking me, no?”

All right then, I walked.”

Walked from where?”

Spur pointed west.

Sly turned, as if he expected to see that a highway had been miraculously cut through the forest. “Nothing that way but trees and then mountains and then a hell of a lot more trees. That’s a truckload of walking, green log. You must be tired. Have a gooseberry?” He offered Spur the basket. When Sly harvested the wild fruit, he just broke whole canes off, instead of picking individual berries. Close work he left to his grandnephews at home.

All right then,” said Spur. “I’m not here. I’m on the train from Heart’s Wall. I get in at 8:16.”

Yeah? Then who am I talking to, my own shaggy self? Watch the thorns.”

Spur popped one of the striped pink berries into his mouth. It was still warm from the sun; his teeth crunched the tiny seeds. “You don’t like any of my answers?” He slung his kit over his shoulder.

I’ll nibble almost anything, Spur, but I spit out what doesn’t taste good.” He pressed a stubby forefinger into Spur’s chest. “Your Sly can tell when you’re carrying a secret, happy old shoe. Ease the weight of it off your back and maybe I can help you with it.”

Let’s walk.” Spur set off down the trail. Ahead the trees parted for Blue Valley Road. “How’s my father?”

Well enough for an old man.” Sly fell into step alongside him. “Which is to say not so much of what he was. Said you got burnt when Vic Joerly and those other poor boys got killed.” He peered at Spur. “You don’t look much burnt.”

I was in a hospital in Concord.” They had reached Blue Valley Road, which was nothing more than a couple of dirt ruts separated by a scraggle of weeds. “An upsider doctor saved my life.” Spur headed toward cr22. “They can do things you wouldn’t believe.”

I’ll believe it this very minute if you say so.” His mouth twisted like he’d bit into a wormy apple. “Only I never had much use for upsiders.”

Why? Have you ever met one?”

Not me, but my DiDa used to say how they poke holes in their own brains and cut arms and legs off to sew on parts of bots in their place. Now where’s the sense in a good man turning bot?”

There was no arguing with Sly when he got to remembering things his long-suffering father had told him. “I’m guessing you buried Vic already?”

His body came on the train last Wednesday. The funeral was Friday. Most the village was there, biggest communion in years and just about the saddest day.”

How’s Comfort?”

Hard to say.” He grimaced. “I paid respects, didn’t chitchat. But I heard around that she’s digging herself quite a hole. Wouldn’t take much for her to fall in.” He turned away from Spur and picked a stone up off the road. “What about you two?”

I don’t want to talk about it.”

Yeah.” He lobbed the stone into the woods. “That’s what I heard.”

They were coming up on the Bandaran farmstead, corn stalks nodding in the field nearest the road. Spur could hear the wooden clunk of their windmill turning on the whispered breath of the afternoon. It was bringing water up from a well to splash into a dug pond where ducks gabbled and cropped. He tried to keep Sly between himself and the house as they passed, but whether he was noticed or not, nobody called out to him.

The next farmstead belonged to the Sawatdees, where Sly lived with his nephew Sunny and his family. On an impulse, Spur said, “There is a secret.”

Yeah, I know. I’m old, but I still hear the mosquitoes buzz.”

The thing is, I’m going to need your help. And you can’t tell anyone.”

Sly stepped in front of Spur and blocked his way. “Does anyone know who sat on Gandy Star’s cherry pie? The one that she baked for your DiDa?”

Spur grinned. “I hope not.”

He prodded Spur in the chest with his finger. “Did they ever figure the boy who was with Leaf Benkleman the day she got drunk on the applejack and threw up at the Solstice Day picnic?”

It wasn’t me.” Spur put a hand on Sly’s finger and pushed it away. “I was with you fishing that afternoon.”

Yeah, the fish story.” He stood aside and motioned for Spur to pass. “Remember who told that one? The old citizen you always forget to come visit now that you’re all grown up.” They continued down the road. The Sawatdee farmstead was just around the next bend.

I remember, Sly. Can you help? I need a ride home right now.”

The cottage or your DiDa’s house?”

Diligence Cottage.”

He nodded. “Sunny can take you in the truck.”

No, it has to be you. You’re going to be the only one who knows I’m back. Part of the secret.”

Sly swung the basket of gooseberries in wider arcs as he walked. “Sunny doesn’t want me driving at night anymore.”

Don’t worry, you’ll be back in plenty of time for supper. But then I’ll need you again in the morning. Come get me first thing. I’m meeting someone up at Spot Pond.”

Spot Pond? Nobody there but frogs.”

Spur leaned closer to Sly. “I can tell you, but you have to promise to help, no matter what.” He lowered his voice. “This is a big secret, Sly.”

How big?” Sly looked worried. “Bigger than a barn?”

Bigger than the whole village.” Spur knew Sly would be pleased and flattered to be the only one in Littleton whom Spur had invited into his conspiracy. “In or out, my friend?”

In up to here.” Sly raised a hand over his head. “Ears open, mouth shut.” He giggled.

Good.” Spur didn’t give him time to reconsider. “An upsider is coming to visit Littleton.”

An upsider.” Sly took this for another joke. “And he parks his spaceship where? On Broad Street?”

A hover is going to put him off near Spot Pond. He’s going to stay with me for a day. One day. Nobody is supposed to know he’s from the upside.”

A hover.” Sly glanced over one shoulder and then the other, as if he expected to spot the hover following them. “One of those birdbots in our sky.”

Spur nodded.

And you want this?”

The question caught him off guard, because he realized that sometime in the last few hours he had changed his mind. “I do, Sly.” Spur wanted to spend more time with the High Gregory and it was fine with him if they were together at Diligence Cottage. He just didn’t want to inflict the upsider on the rest of his sleepy village. They wouldn’t understand.

Except Sly was shaking his head. “Nothing good ever came of getting tangled up with space people.”

I’m just curious is all,” said Spur.

Curious can’t sit still, young sprout. Curious always goes for the closer look.” For the first time since Spur had known him, Sly Sawatdee looked his age. “And now I’m thinking what will happen to your DiDa when you leave us. He’s a good man, you know. I’ve known him all my life.”