The Honcho stood on the balcony, gazing toward the northeast. The day was calm, but he was not. Brutus should have reported in by now. The man could be troublesome, but his loyalty was solid. Why hadn't he rendezvoused with the signalmen who were out there waiting to relay his reports back?
He wished he were out there, out in the field, like the old days, when his father was Honcho. He envied the Runt his time of relative independence before the responsibility of rule was his to bear. But why hadn't they reported in?
He decided to do something about it. Whirling, he strode off the balcony and out the door to the staircase. As he began to descend into the depth of the building, he cursed the Ancients and their stupid shortsighted greed. You contemptible fools! You had it all, an advanced technology, instantaneous communications that circled the planet, machinery to harvest crops, even machines to make the machines. And you threw it away! Threw it away because of your obsession with alien trash. You wanted all your fine machines to be replaced with magic tricks and shortcuts, and what did it buy you? What?
It bought you a world of savages. A world of hunger. A world of disease. A world of tiny countries scrabbling to control dwindling resources, when we could be mining the immense wealth up there over our heads in space. It bought you this.
I want to go to the stars, he thought. But I won't. I'll spend my entire life unifying old scattered pieces, sewing together what should never have fallen apart. Building an empire with enough resources to resume the conquest and exploration of space. Pouring my blood into a shattered flowerpot, coaxing the glory to flower again. And never seeing the bloom. Never to taste the rewards I'm earning. Because of fools who grabbed for magic toys.
He laughed bitterly. Stop feeling sorry for yourself, old man! You're not starving. There's no use grieving for a world long dead. Get back to building the world that will be. If that is all you get to have, the striving, then strive.
He emerged into the sub-basement of the building, where once the trains of the Ancients flew through tunnels devoid of air. There was air in some of them, now – the ones that hadn't collapsed over the years. The ancient pumps that kept them airless to reduce the drag on the supersonic maglevs had been replaced with swizzles, of course, and after the Tourists left and the alien magic began breaking down, it was too late to convert them back, in a world where no one made pumps anymore. He grimaced but made an effort not to fall back into his grumble-cycle.
His grandfather had found a new use for the long-buried rails of metallo-graphene superconductor. It was the main reason the capital of the Lone Star Empire had moved to Dallas from Austin – far more of the maglev tunnels converged here. But nothing human rode them.
“Quintus!” he barked. “Wherever you are, get your ass over here.”
A short man in dirty leathers trotted up to him. “Yes, Excellency?” Quintus was not a handsome man, or a tall man. In fact, thought the Honcho, he was barely any kind of man. But he had his uses. The only thing that distinguished him was his extraordinary sense of hearing. It was said that he could hear the whinny of a horse from half a mile away.
“We both know you heard me coming down the staircase,” said Peter. “Don't make me summon you next time. Why haven't you sent up the latest dispatches from Rado?”
Quintus blinked. “Because there haven't been any,” he said. He led the Honcho over to the maglev rails that used to connect Dallas with Denver. At the end of the rails, where elaborate shock absorbers used to be, to damp out any remaining trace of the train's motion, there was now, instead, a concavity in the floor of the station that housed a desk, with pads of paper and charcoal sticks for writing. The ends of the rails protruded from the edge of the pit into the small ends of enormous trumpet-like blossoms that curved as if trying to meet. The metal had taxed the patience of the smith who had produced them.
The last transmission window was nearly an hour ago,” said Quintus. He shrugged. “Perhaps something will come in in a few minutes.” He turned his head and checked the hourglass. The sand in the upper half was nearly gone. “Won't be long now,” he said.
Peter scowled. Brutus had many faults, but not reporting in wasn't one of them. He knew where the submerged rails in their tunnels had been uncovered by cave-ins and erosion. There were at least two such spots between here and Denver, one on the Texas side of the border and the other nearly within sight of the city. “I'll wait,” he said.
His grandfather had been the one to realize the potential of the ancient rails. The stories told how the Ancients had used trains that floated above them on invisible forces. But Alfonzo Martinez had been the one who had realized that the rails which had not fallen victim to earthquakes could still be used – for communication. Some of the rails had breaks in them, such as the line that went to Angeles, off to the west in Californ. But some of them had been more fortunate. The line to Denver was still unbroken, as was the one that led to Atlanta, in the East, in the heart of the Dixie Emirates
Soon, the last grains of sand tumbled into the lower half of the hourglass. Quintus flipped it over, then went and sat, his head between the two flared and of the metal trumpets.
Peter watched him. Come on, Brutus! Show some signs of life.
Nearly a minute went by, and he was about to look away when Quintus's eyes widened and he reached for paper and a charcoal stick. “Something coming in,” he said.
“What does it say?”
“Nothing yet. They always start with five groups of five before the Morse begins. It's their way of getting my attention.”
Peter paced back and forth as Quintus listened and wrote. After about a minute he pulled his head out of the focus. Peter leaned over to read the marks on the paper.
GANDALF REPORTS SCOUTS CAPTURED STOP RESCUE IN PROGRESS STOP
“Who is Gandalf?” Quintus asked.
“An agent of ours inside the Governor's headquarters,” said Peter. “That's all you need to know.” He turned to head back upstairs. “Let me know if there is any follow up.”
Captured. His mind spun out possible implications. Brutus wouldn't surrender without a fight. Is Jeffrey alive? Damn it, how could this happen? And if he is alive, do they realize they have the Runt? He had to believe that Jeffrey would at least have the sense to pretend to be a common soldier. And then there was that “rescue in progress” bit. He wasn't sure what would be worse – letting his son remain in enemy hands, or risking his life in an escape attempt.
The bottom line was, he could always sire another son. If Angela couldn't bear another child, then she'd just have to accept a surrogate if and when the time came for that.
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