“Descending” First Chapter

CHAPTER ONE

The Histories, Initial Entry (mil 1)

“It is commonly believed that our people originated on another world. A world beyond the suns. The truth of this, or its falsehood, seems now beyond our reach. All we can tell with certainty is that we came to Hamlinas from the fog and muck and disease of the Beneath and that we stayed here for lack of anywhere else to go. To this day, some 300 years later [emendation: 109 mil in the current reckoning], it seems that our options are still much the same. Our Plateau and our City are all that we have.”

(Chronicler’s Note, mil 5, Chronicler Tell Grey: When my father, Tomas Grey, penned the initial History and its first updates, our city still reckoned time according to the traditional “year,” which measured out a seemingly arbitrary 365-day cycle. His use of the term has been amended to reflect the recent adoption of the 1,000-day cycle “mil.”    

—The Chronicler, Tomas Grey

*****

The ground along the edge of the Plateau was dry and cracked, a ring of pale brown surrounding the verdant interior. Charin Melanik stood on the northern rim, his back turned against the twists of dust rising from the ground. There was busyness all around him. A dozen engineers attended to the treadwheel crane and its neighboring tower, tightening winches and checking ropes and oiling the pulleys. Cole’s Order was lined up in a sliver of arced shade next to the great wheel, watching as the axle was fitted with rope. 

It was full-day and both suns were up; the wind was hot and biting. Everyone was miserable. 

Charin watched the constables closely, measuring them, feeling the weight of their fear. He did not know the men from Cole’s Order well—did not really know Lieutenant Hester Cole—but they always performed on their patrols and that was usually a good sign. Right now they looked drawn and tired, boiled over by the suns. The sole Albin in the group was buried within his light blue uniform, the sleeves draped down over his hands and the pant legs overspilling his sandaled feet. His wide straw hat was pulled low, shading his eyes and the scarf that wrapped his pale face against the sunlight. The others, all Sunnies, had rolled their own uniforms up to shoulder and knee, but even this seemed to bring little relief. No one moved or talked; breathing in the full-day swelter seemed to be all they could muster.

Charin didn’t mind their suffering as long as he was seen to share it. Mutual misery engendered respect, built loyalty. It would go a long way towards preserving his authority in the Beneath, especially from Cole, who might balk at a superior officer. Pointedly, Charin wiped the sweat from his face and gave his sleeves one more roll; he allowed his shoulders to droop. They were watching him, of course, off and on, measuring him just as he was measuring them.   

He fought the urge to leave the open and seek cover. Just a bit longer. Let them know your endurance. 

A sudden gust of northwestern wind roared up from beyond the cliff-edge, tearing over the small tower and through the slats in the wheel. The top layer of ground dust lifted in a blanket as the wind threw it away from the edge, into and through the small crowd of onlookers, and onto the green leaves of head-high corn that grew behind them. 

Charin pulled the dirty scarf from his neck and wiped his mouth and eyes; rubbed the dirt from his thick, dark eyebrows. The howl from the wind died down and he took a tentative breath, tasting dirt in the air.

The Scavengers say that there’s no dust in the Beneath. That, at least, will be an improvement. He spat, brown and gritty, and took a drink from the water-bladder at his waist.

It wouldn’t be long now. The preparations had been going on for some time and seemed to be winding down. It had been many mil since so many had been lowered into the Beneath at one time, not since his grandfather’s generation. Despite the miserable heat, Charin willed the engineers to take their time and make sure everything was done correctly. Better to spend a few more moments baking under the suns than for the expedition to arrive below in a heap of shattered bones and bodies. The thought made him shiver, despite the heat. Where was Markus? The Scavenger should give everything a final check; he was used to this.

“You’d think the Council would send you off during half-day, when more would come to wish you luck.” Charin turned to see Renice Jakson approaching from out of the small crowd. His uniform, long and billowing, covered everything from the neck down in pale blue cloth. The red Constabulary insignia—a sword and a stalk of wheat crossed over a drop of water—seemed to be drowning in sweat, and the tunic clung to his chest.

Charin pushed his sleeves up once again and plucked at his own shirt, drawing air in to dry himself. How the Albin could stand being so completely covered he could not imagine. And during full-day? Whatever they were, the Albin were not weaklings. Cursed, maybe, but not weak.

Renice squinted in the sunlight and spoke through the scarf that drooped across his nose and mouth. “It’s unlike the Council to miss an opportunity for making an official scene.”

Charin managed a dust-caked smile and mopped again at his dirty face. “Perhaps that was the point. The less the fanfare, the less the disappointment if things don’t go well. Anyway, Renice, you’re captain of the Constabulary. You should have swung your weight around; gotten things rescheduled to a more convenient time.”

Co-captain.” A smile etched itself just under Renice’s scarf. “You’ve just as much influence with the Council as I do, my friend, and I’m afraid it isn’t much.”

Another gust of wind roared up and over the side of the Plateau and Charin buried his face in the crook of his arm. Renice ducked and pulled down the wide, round brim of his straw hat, pinning it to his head to prevent it from escaping into the cornfield. He stood a full head lower than Charin and the effect was to hide the broad-shouldered man almost completely below the yellow weave.

The wind died down again. Charin pulled the stopper from his water bladder, felt the weight of the remaining liquid—half-gone already—and took another drink. Then he unhooked it from its tether and passed the thick goat’s stomach pouch to Renice, who exposed his face and drank eagerly. The poor man was sweating badly; the dust beneath his feet was damp from dripping perspiration. 

How do they stand it? 

Renice handed the water back and ran a hand across his milky-white face. A darker patch of skin, running from his right eye to his chin, glistened with sweat. “Besides,” he said, “I’m just an Albin. The Council doesn’t often listen to our opinions.”

It was said with a smile, but there was acid in the words, buried deep but bleeding through nonetheless. Charin hesitated, weighing the comment and deciding to ignore it. It was becoming more and more difficult to remain neutral. Impossible really. He could already feel the middle-ground caving away, forcing men to take a side, and the fact made him wary. He was not yet ready to commit himself. There were many factors still to consider, many players not yet revealed. There would be consequences, either way.  

Poor Lisha. Beautiful, kind Lisha. He would regret losing her if it came to that. 

A shout sounded from the top of the tower, and then from the interior of the wheel Charin saw three men begin to walk out a slow rotation. It turned, clicking away through the catches and drawing a long rope through a maze of pulleys and in from the end of a windlass arm that stretched from the top of the tower. A murmur ran through the crowd as a wooden platform emerged from below the Plateau’s edge, swinging and twisting in the wind despite the tethers that bound it to the cliff.

Charin felt a sudden wave of nausea. No time for that. To share the men’s misery was one thing, but fear could not be let in. He coughed and looked away from the platform and the cliff-edge, back toward his co-captain.

Renice turned and surveyed the crowd. “Is Lisha here to see you off? I didn’t see her with the others.”

How to explain? 

“I asked her not to come.”

Renice turned, white eyebrows raised, pale pink eyes squinting in the sun. The question was there, on his sweaty face, even though Charin knew he was trying to hide it. Who could blame him really? Renice’s “unequal” marriage to a Sunward had been a scandal—unofficially, of course—and Charin had heard comments muttered behind the other’s back many times. From Albin and Sunward both. Was it any surprise that Renice gravitated towards those who shared his stigma?  

And it was a stigma. What had Carah Janus called Lisha? An “encumbrance”?

Charin resisted the urge to glance towards the line of faces in the crowd. Cato would be in the back, scowling beneath the shade of his hat brim, sharp eyes taking everything in. His report to Councilwoman Janus would be detailed, and the conspicuous absence of Charin’s romantic interest would be noted. As her presence would have been.

“I knew how this would bother her,” he said finally. He forced himself to meet the smaller man’s gaze. “She’d just worry. Besides, it’s not good for her to be out in the full-day. For anybody.”

Renice nodded and looked away. He took a drink from his own water bladder and then rewrapped his face-scarf. After a moment, he said, “Are you nervous? It’s your first time Beneath.”

“No,” Charin lied. “I’m fine. Just anxious to begin.”

“Cap’n Charin of the esteemed Melanik family …” The voice came from behind them, towards the edge, and Charin turned to find the long, drawn face of one of the city’s best Scavengers. Markus Elias was an Albin, nearly blind, and thin and lanky to the point of emaciation. His melodrama, highlighted by the fact that there were in fact very few Melaniks left on the Plateau, rankled at Charin. He did not like this man.  

Doesn’t he eat? Charin had no idea what Markus’s scavenging income amounted to, but he knew it was far more than his own. Probably three times as much. More than enough to keep fat on the man’s angular limbs. 

The Scavenger was grinning, ear to sun-scarred ear, and staring uncomfortably from beneath a tight leather cap. His uncovered face was scarred badly from too much exposure to the sun, and his eyes were very light, almost transparent. Both his tight-fitting goatskin jacket and matching trousers were browned and slick from an oil that did not complement his smell. The Scavengers said that it kept the rain off down below. Up here, it seemed to repel more than just water. 

There was something off about the Scavengers—all of them—and Charin was never at ease in their presence. Going Beneath so often must do something to a person; alter them in some socially fundamental way. Or perhaps it drew those who were already odd and ungainly, perpetuating a stereotype that seemed as accurate as Markus was awkward.  

He felt Renice shifting uncomfortably behind him and took a subtle step back towards the crowd.

Markus’s steady gaze was off by about ten centimeters, missing Charin’s face to stare just over his right shoulder. Charin wondered if it was his eyesight or if he did it on purpose.

“You and your boys ready?” Markus said finally, still staring inaccurately.

Charin coughed into his hand and nodded. “Cole’s Order is strong. They can bear whatever your Beneath has to throw at them. Is Haley coming?”

Markus raised his head, letting a sliver of sunlight pass the narrow brim of his hat and fall across his eyes. He didn’t blink. “She’s comin’. An’ it’s a good thing. I can’t keep all your boys in line by myself.”

“You don’t have to keep anyone in line,” Charin said flatly. He took a breath; calmed himself. No sense alienating the guide, even if he was a pompous, arrogant … “The constables are well prepared and will follow Lieutenant Cole and myself with no problem. You only need to show us the way.”

The Scavenger chuckled and turned to face the treadwheel. The platform had been drawn in close to the Plateau, and a railed gangway extended to meet it. The line of constables had shifted to stay beneath the swath of light shade. When both suns were in the sky, shade was never very deep or cool, but it was something. A few of them glanced nervously in Charin’s direction. A second Scavenger, a woman who looked just as rugged as Markus, hovered nearby.

Haley wasn’t as unlikable as Markus. She was worse. 

“Well, then, whenever you’re ready, Cap’n,” Markus turned a passing glance over the crowd. “I don’t suppose there will be any official hurrah?”

Charin ignored the question. “Did you check the riggings? The engineers don’t often have to prepare them.”

Markus chuckled again, a raspy, vulgar noise, and turned to the tower. “Haley, girl!” he shouted. “Did you check the ropes and such?” A gust of wind roared up from the Beneath, lifting another cloud of dust into the air and temporarily concealing the tower and wheel from view. It died down to a round of coughing from those who had failed to cover their faces in time. 

The Scavenger stood as he had, facing the tower, a matting of brown dust added to the red and white blotches of his face. 

Charin raised his head and squinted into the light. The woman spat, and shrugged her shoulders.

“That’s about all the confidence you’re likely to get, Cap’n.” Markus smiled and resumed his misdirected stare. “It’s not a safe thing, ya know. No matter how it’s done. Takes a bit of steel in the spine to descend by the platform.”

He was bragging—or taunting—and Charin ignored him to turn back to Renice. “It should take us ten or twenty day-cycles to reach Medlinas. Then some time to scale her and explore the top. Then back down and home.”

“You think half a centidiei? That’s a long time.”

Charin shook his head. Not fifty day-cycles. Not that long.” He looked out over the edge, into the open air, and found the dot of green rising in the distance. Surely not fifty. He certainly hoped not. “I’m hoping for more like thirty. Forty at the most. Don’t let things fall apart while I’m gone.”

Renice smiled and stretched his hand out of its sleeve to grasp Charin’s shoulder. “Be safe. I don’t want my first trip to the Beneath to be a rescue mission.”