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Authors: Eric Brown

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BOOK: Helix
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He
watched the occasional dirigible float over the city, proud that the majority
of the ships were of his own, or his father’s design. There was another airship
company in Agstarn, run by an old rival of his father’s, but their ships were
inferior products, “Full of stale farts and bad technology,” as his father had
joked on more than one occasion.

He
looked across the dim room, to the desk on which stood the black and white
photograph of Rohan Telsa. He was dressed in a severe full-length summer coat,
high white collar and stove-pipe hat, but the formal dress did nothing to
quench the fire of geniality in the old man’s eyes.

Ehrin,
surprisingly, found himself choked with emotion. His father had died fifteen
years ago, and he thought he had overcome his grief. Perhaps he was weeping for
his mother, for the loss of both his parents, for the fact that he was now
alone in the world. How proud his father would have been of him, and how they
would have discussed their latest airships long into the early hours.

He
chastised himself for his self-pity: he was not alone at all, for he had
Sereth, his fiancée—and how she would have remonstrated with him at his display
of piteous emotion.

He
heard the door creak, followed by a discreet clearing of an old throat.

“Kahran,
come in.” He turned and watched the old man, bent almost double now, advance
across the threadbare carpet. Ehrin indicated the second armchair, and beside
it the decanter of spirit, and Kahran smiled at the invitation.

How
age had ambushed his father’s business partner, folding his spine and greying
the fur of his face. His breath came in laboured wheezes as he took his seat
and carefully poured himself a tot of spirit.

“To
the Company,” he said, and raised his glass high. Three fingers of his gnarled
right hand were without nails, stumps that appeared obscenely naked. Ehrin
recalled that his father’s hands also bore testimony to his days on the shop
floor of the foundry—doing the manual work that Ehrin, as the scion of the
Telsa family, had been spared.

Ehrin
smiled and said, “To the Company,” and wondered at asking Kahran about his
father’s letter—and about what his mother had told him on her deathbed: that
his father had defied the Church to his cost.

He
was wondering how to frame the question when Kahran said, “When are you
expecting the word, Ehrin?”

The
question caught him unawares for a second, until realisation came: recent
events, his mother’s death and the discovery of the letter, had pushed from his
mind the tender his company had put in to prospect the plains to the west of
the central mountains.

“Today,”
he replied, “if indeed today is the thirty-third.”

Kahran’s
thin smile hyphenated his sunken cheeks. “It is...” He paused, then said, “And
if you win the tender?”

“If
we
win the tender,” he corrected the old man gently. “Why, what do you
think? We will go ourselves, on the adventure of a lifetime, and make the
company even richer and greater than ever.”

Old
grey eyes watched him with a hint of censure. “And for ever be in the talons of
the Church.”

Ehrin
shook his head. “The Church runs everything, rules everything, knows
everything, Kahran. There’s no getting away from that. Whatever we do, we are inextricably
bound with the Church.”

Kahran
looked away. “How your father would hate to hear you speaking thus,” he said
with bitterness.

“I’m
being realistic, Kahran. Perhaps it was different in my father’s younger days.
Perhaps the Church has gained in power over the past decades. The fact remains,
I’m no pious worshipper at their totalitarian altar. I despise their methods as
much as you do, but I’m in business and responsible for the livelihood of
hundreds of workers, and if the Church sees fit to commission the
expedition...” His shrug eloquently completed his statement.

“You’ll
take the commission, submit to the dictates of the Prelate, no matter what
burdensome stipulations they impose upon the company?”

“Now
you impute that which is not yet stated,” Ehrin began. “What stipulations?”

The
old man shrugged. “The Church will guide with a draconian hand, as is their
way. They will demand an exorbitant share of the profits, or dictate exactly
where you might prospect, and where is out of bounds.”

Ehrin
open his mouth to argue, but thought better. Here was the opening he needed to
question his grizzled business partner.

“Kahran,
years ago—back in 1265—you accompanied my father on an expedition to the
eastern plains. Was this backed by the Church?”

The
question was needless—the Church oversaw all travel beyond the central
mountains.

“Of
course. What of it?”

Ehrin
gestured. “Then you went quite willingly, with no scruples about Church
intervention?”

Kahran
stared into his drink. “It was different, back then.”

“The
Church was less powerful?”

The
silence stretched, and Ehrin sensed something. There was a tension in the air.
It was as if Kahran wanted to tell him something, even though years of
conditioning had taught him the wisdom of keeping quiet.

At
last he said, “No, the Church was just as powerful then as it is now.”

“So
why didn’t you object then?” Ehrin cried.

Bleak
eyes, as grey as old snow, regarded him. “I did,” the old man said in a small
voice.

“And...
?”

“I
voiced my objections to your father, in this very room. In fact, he was seated
in the very chair you occupy now.”

“My
father was never a lover of the Church—but he argued against your objections?”

Kahran
shook his head. “No, he agreed with me.”

“I
don’t understand. In that case, why did he agree to go?”

Kahran
took a mouthful of Spirit, then said, “He didn’t
agree
to go. Your
father had no say in the matter. When the Church wanted to mount an expedition,
they came to him. They requisitioned five ships, your father and myself, and we
could only agree to go along.”

“And
if you hadn’t agreed?”

Kahran
shook his head. “Then it would have been the freezing frames for us, my boy.
And even I, who loathed the Church and everything it stood for, didn’t want my
carcass stripped and lashed to a frame for all my detractors to piss on.”

Ehrin
let the silence stretch. He thought of his father’s letter. At last he said,
“What did you see, out there on the shore of the western plains?”

For
a brief second, it was as if Kahran’s opalescent irises saw not the glass he
was clutching in his claw, but whatever they had beheld out there on the ice,
fifteen years ago. Then he looked up and said sharply, “Who says we saw
anything?”

Ehrin
smiled. He had to tell the old man about the letter. He had come so far, got
Kahran to open up about the Church—which he had been loath to do before now.

“Kahran,
last night I read something in a letter, sent by my father from Sorny.”

Kahran
looked up, animated in way he had not been until now. “What did he say?” he
demanded. “If it was incriminatory, then lose not a second and destroy the
letter.”

The
old man’s vehemence unsettled Ehrin. “My father merely wrote that he had seen
something... something terrible. He mentioned you.”

Kahran’s
eyes penetrated Ehrin like an ice-fisher’s harpoon. “Did he say what he had
seen?”

“No.
That is, he merely said that you had both seen something terrible. He told my
mother that he would tell her more when he returned.”

“And
that was all? No more?”

“No
more. I swear.”

Kahran
nodded. “Good. That’s good. Thank the mountains he was wise enough to keep his
silence.”

“Kahran,
you’re talking in riddles. What did you see that was so terrible?”

The
old man’s eyes time-travelled again, and then looked up and across at Ehrin.
“As if you really think I would risk putting you in danger by telling you,” he
said quietly.

Ehrin
nodded. He knew Kahran well enough to realise when he had pitched up against
the oldster’s stubbornness. He changed tack. “Before my mother died, she told
me something. She said that he had defied the Church to his cost...” He paused,
then asked, “What did she mean, Kahran?”

He
should have known better than to think he could prise the truth from the old
man’s lips. Kahran merely turned on him a defiantly benign gaze, and said, “Who
am I to fathom the dying words of an old and confused woman, my boy?”

Ehrin
smiled to himself, accepting defeat for now, but swearing that he wouldn’t
leave himself in ignorance for long.

“Another
drink, Kahran? We must discuss the plans for the new liner.”

Kahran
smiled, and nodded, and was reaching for the decanter when a tap sounded on the
door.

Ehrin’s
secretary appeared at the far end of the room. “A messenger from the Prelate,
sir. Shall I show him in?”

Ehrin
was aware of his heartbeat, then told himself that a messenger would be sent
irrespective of whether or not the tender had been won.

He
ordered the messenger to be sent in, and a second later a young boy, garbed in
the fanciful livery of the Church, slipped into the room and passed Ehrin a
long envelope sealed with the jagged circle sigil of the High Church.

“Wait
outside. I’ll compose my reply immediately and send it back with you.”

When
they were alone again, Ehrin looked across at Kahran and raised the envelope.
“What do you think?”

“I
think we are the best company in Agstarn, and the Church will know this. They
will offer the tender, but with strings attached.”

“Well,”
Ehrin said, breaking the seal. “We shall see.”

He
read the short paragraph, etched into the parchment with an exquisite hand,
then looked up at Kahran and read the missive aloud. “After brief deliberation,
the Council of Elders of the Agstarn High Church hereby notifies Ehrin Telsa,
Chairman and Director of the Telsa Dirigible Company, that the tender for the
exploration and surveying of the western plains has been found satisfactory.
Ehrin Telsa will present himself at the Church council chambers, at four o’
clock on the 33rd day of St Jerome’s month, for further instruction.”

Kahran
smiled. “Even when imparting news that one might find advantageous, the Church
is parsimonious in its praise.”

“I
will go, Kahran, and learn what crippling provisos the Church requires.”

The
old man looked at him. “But you will assent to do their work whatever.”

Ehrin
smiled. “I am a realist,” he said, and then recalled his father’s words,
I
have neither the space nor the time to describe here the terrible things K and
I have seen today...

 

2

The council chambers
of the High Church were situated at the very hub of the city, from which
radiated long, wide boulevards like the spokes of a cartwheel. It was, so the
city planners of Agstarn had stated long ago, the microcosmic mirroring of the
word itself: a great disc of land, which was the centre of the grey universe.
More practically, Ehrin thought as he skated along the boulevard, turning his
face away from the bitter southern wind, the positioning of the Church
administration at the very centre of things signified the order of the world
according to ecclesiastical edict: the Church was the fulcrum around which
everything turned, whether it be affairs of the spirit or of the state.

That
was the reality, and there was no gainsaying the fact. The Church was
all-powerful, with representatives, both overt and covert, in all strata of
society and in every level of business and administration. Such was the power
of Prelate Hykell and his bishops that opposition was a pathetic affair,
restricted to mutterings in closed drawing rooms, and even those mutterings
circumspect lest servants, or even members of one’s own family, related one’s
apostasy to the authorities. Opponents, those citizens foolish enough to openly
defy the Church, had been known to vanish in the night or succumb to mysterious
accidents, always fatal.

A
palisade of high railings surrounded the council buildings, within which was a
cobbled courtyard. Unlike the other byways of the city, this area was kept free
from ice by a team of workers whose job it was to pick the forming ice from the
cobbles, leaving them pristine and dry for the tender feet of the Church officials.
The ice-pickers stood about, leaning lazily upon their tools, watching the
citizens, come to petition Church Elders, with the superciliousness of the
privileged workers they thought themselves to be.

Ehrin
unfastened his skates, slung them over his shoulder and made his way across the
dry, hard cobbles towards the imposing double doors, each the height of three
men, fashioned from rare ironwood.

Before
citizens reached the massive doors, however, it was necessary to pass down the
approach avenue; at one time in the past, this would have been a journey to
strike fear into the heart of even the most pious citizen. The avenue was
flanked by great timber crosses, set out like so many letter Xs, the freezing
frames upon which many a heretic had met their end. There had been no public
execution for almost fifty years, but even so the time-worn freezing frames
were a grim reminder of the power of the Church, a silent warning that the High
Council would not balk at reinstating capital punishment if they deemed the
circumstances warranted such measures.

BOOK: Helix
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