Astrasphere

A whole world existed outside the Towers of Stone and Metal. A world filled with salvagers, goblinmen, elves and ruins left by the Progenitors.

Clifton Walther loved his parents’ bookstore but wanted more than life as a bookseller in the safety behind the wall around the Towers. Apprenticing with his eccentric uncle gave him a chance at a different future.

Except his uncle had strange Andromen working for him — building something that rivaled the Towers themselves.

Readers who enjoy a blend of fantasy and science fiction will enjoy this new Towers story, set in the world introduced in “Death in Hathaway Tower.”

The cart driver reined in the huge, dirty oxen and pointed off into the distance. Farm buildings rose out of the grasslands. Their long shadows stretched out across the grass. Most striking was the odd spherical structure that rose up behind the house and barns. It was as tall as the Towers of Stone and Metal, which Clifton had left behind when his parents had banished him out here to live on the frontier with Uncle Floyd.

“There’s the place,” the driver said. He was an older man, stubble gone gray and what was left of his hair hidden under a floppy, sweat-stained hat.

“That’s the Walther ranch?”

One of the oxen out front farted and the hot grassy stink of it blew in Clifton’s face.

“Yep. That’s the place.”

Most of the buildings were what you’d expect, he’d seen plenty like them in the past three days on the train to get to Grassport. A house, visible off to the right, white, with columns marching along the front. Bright solar panels on the roof faced south. A small army of wind generators surrounded the ranch, more than he’d seen anywhere else. The blades spun lazily, flashing in the sun. Other than those structures, there were barns and silos, surrounded by fields of grain. The narrow dirt road intersecting the main road cut through the fields and ran out to the buildings.

But that other structure, it towered over everything else, even dwarfing the wind generators. It was a ball made up of dark triangles, or at least part of a ball, because the structure on one side was open and revealed the struts and frames within. It looked big enough that all the rest of the farm buildings could have been put inside. Three immense struts rose up around the structure, holding the ball in place. It was incredible, ridiculous, and what was the point?

“What is that?” Clifton pointed at the spherical structure.

The ox-cart driver shrugged. “Don’t know, old Walther doesn’t share. Started building it five years ago.”

“Wait. He’s building it? It wasn’t something left behind, like the Towers?”

“Nope. Took a bunch of land when he started working on it. Pete Welch farms all the land on the ranch, rents it out from your uncle for a split of the earnings, wasn’t too happy about that.”

The driver squinted at him. “You don’t know either? I thought being his nephew, you might.”

Clifton shook his head. “I haven’t seen him since I was little. We lived within the wall around the Towers of Stone and Metal.”

“Tower folk, huh?”

Again Clifton shook his head. “Not us, we didn’t live in the Towers. My family, we have a bookstore within the wall. We — that is my parents — live in the apartment above.”

It was the wealthy families in charge that lived in the Towers. The Hathaways and Watersmiths, all that lot with their servants and old tech squirreled away. Everyone else lived within the city contained by the wall.

The driver nodded at the ranch. “Well, maybe he’ll tell you what crazy thing he’s building. He won’t tell anyone else.”

“I can’t imagine what he’s doing,” Clifton said. Nothing in his uncle’s letters asking his parents to send him had mentioned this. Or clearly said what the reason was for sending Clifton out, except for an apprenticeship.

You don’t want to run the store, Dad had said. This gives you another option. Then you can decide.

It was better than being sent out to work with the salvagers, but a farm? He had imagined that he would end up mucking out stalls and dealing with pigs, that sort of thing. The gigantic sphere behind the farm, that changed things. What was Uncle Walther doing?

“This’ll be where you get down,” the driver said.

Clifton looked at the long dirt road cutting through the fields to the farm. It was at least a kilometer long. “Aren’t you going to take me up to the farm?”

“Naw. The oxen don’t like the metal men. Don’t want to spook ‘em. Leave your bags here, if you like. Your uncle can send someone down to get ‘em for you.”

Clifton had a heavy trunk, and a satchel in the back of the wagon. It wasn’t a lot, but it was all that he had brought with him. He wasn’t about to leave it out here by the side of the road where anyone coming along could take it. Including the driver, after Clifton had gone.

“I’ll take them with me.”

The driver shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

Clifton turned and climbed over the seat into the back of the wagon. He picked up the satchel, brushed off straw stuck to the fabric and put it on top of the trunk. He jumped off the back to the ground and grabbed the rope handles on the trunk and gave it a pull. It scraped and slid along the rough boards, heavier than he remembered. He got it off the back of the wagon and eased it to the ground.

The driver touched his hat and clucked to the oxen. The big beasts grunted and plodded forward. The wagon made a big circle around the intersection, tipping when it rolled partly into the ditch, and then came back around to face toward Grassport. Clifton picked up the satchel, the end of the trunk, and dragged it on up the dirt road leading to the farm.

 

2

 

When Clifton reached the shadow cast by the first wind generator he stopped and dropped the heavy trunk. The thin shadow provided only weak shade from the sun. The taste of the red dust clung to his tongue, mingling with the salty sweat that dripped from his face. He dragged a handkerchief from his vest pocket and mopped the sweat from his face. It left red streaks on the cloth, like blood. He grimaced, folded the handkerchief and returned it to his pocket.

Far above the blades of the wind generator turned in a slow circle. It was amazing that they moved at all. The breeze barely stirred the tall heads of the wheat in the fields on either side of the road. The ditches beside the road were dry. The sun wasn’t even yet overhead, and it was already hot.

This was where his parents had sent him? The middle of nowhere, with an uncle he didn’t know? Life as a bookseller might have seemed dull, but it wasn’t worse than this. Maybe that was the whole point in sending him out here? Maybe they thought that if he got a look at a different life, he’d recognize what he had at the store.

If that was the plan it wasn’t going to work.

It wasn’t that he hated the store, far from it. He loved the books. He enjoyed sitting in his comfortable chair reading. It was just that the thought of that being his whole entire life, it terrified him. Was that all there was to life? Spending most of his days in a small bookstore with his parents, taking over the business when they got older. Getting married himself, having children so that one of them could grow up and do the same thing?

Clifton shook his head and picked up the rope handle on the trunk. The rough rope had already given his hand blisters. Probably not the last blisters, if he was going to be expected to work on the farm. No matter what, this was temporary. He was out beyond the wall now. Eventually he would discover other opportunities and he would pursue them. His life would have more meaning than selling books or farming.

He stepped out of the weak shade and tugged the trunk along the road.

A short distance on a splash of green caught his eye, off in the fields. He stopped and shaded his eyes with his free hand. Waves of heat rose above the dry grass, but through them he saw a girl standing out in the field. She was looking up at the farm buildings ahead, or at the giant sphere behind them. It was hard to see her in the wavering light, but she was pale, with red hair. The green came from a long cape she wore. Then she turned away and was gone from sight.

Clifton searched the surrounding grass and didn’t see her. How could she have vanished like that? Had she fallen down? Maybe she was hurt?

Or an elf.

What were the chances of that? Why would an elf be here looking at Uncle Floyd’s farm?

A high whining noise, and thudding sounds, pulled his attention from the field.

Two man-like shapes were marching down the road. But both were impossibly thin and spindly. Men made of metal rods and cylinders, painted white. The sunlight flashed off them as they walked. Each walked with a tumbling, side-to-side wobble. Metal three-toed feet pounded the dusty road. The red dust coated their legs and feet like dusty socks. Both had arms that were bundles of rods which pistoned back and forth with each step. They didn’t have heads to speak of, nothing but a cluster of rods in different lengths that pointed straight up, except for two on the outside which bent ninety degrees, and swung back and forth like dowsing rods as they got closer.

Andromen. Actual working Andromen! They were supposed to be gone, nothing but stories told by salvagers about broken Andromen found in buried ruins. No one really believed the stories that the Andromen used to work for the Progenitors. They didn’t have any gears or cables when opened up. No circuits. Nothing but gray dust packed inside. The pieces didn’t even stay together. There wasn’t anything to connect them.

According to the salvagers there must be something else that held them together. Maybe magnetism or some other force. Up until now, though, he had always believed it was just stories. Or even that the salvagers manufactured the rods and the Andromen themselves, to pass them off as Progenitor-tech for the rich and deluded. There were probably Andromen wired together on display up in the Towers.

Whining and stomping through the dust, the two Andromen facing him were very real. Clifton dropped the trunk and stepped back, ready to run.

The two machine men came even closer. They were scratched, dented in places. Some sort of black material connected the rods together and capped their fingers. The ends of the two bent rods on top sparkled as they moved back and forth. Eyes? Could these things see him? Understand, even?

Clifton dropped his satchel and held up his hands. “I’m Clifton Walther! I’m here to see my uncle.”

If they understood him at all, they didn’t give any sign. They kept coming closer and he took another step back. It didn’t look like they could run very fast. He could probably get away if he had to.

The Andromen reached his abandoned trunk and each reached down to grab a rope handle. Lifting it between them, their eye-rods swung around to face the other way, their ‘knees’ and ‘elbows’ bent the other direction and just like that they were facing away.

Off they went, wobbling side-to-side, the trunk swaying between them up the road toward the house.

Clifton hesitated, then picked up his satchel and followed.

 

3

 

Up close the house was even weirder than he had imagined back at the road. It was big. Four stories tall, with large white columns along the front. A broad green lawn surrounded the house and there were trimmed hedges and bushes. The two Andromen carrying his trunk went right up around a fountain that was all metal cubes piled and stacked on top of one another, glittering with water in the sun. He saw another of the Andromen off trimming a bush alongside the house with a big pair of shears.

The columns along the front of the house were covered in fabric. There wasn’t much to them at all, not really. In a couple places the fabric had torn, revealing a metal framework beneath. It was nothing but canvas, but painted to look as if it was carved stone, that covered the framework.

Solar panels covered the roof, which wasn’t that odd, but many of the windows looked like they had been replaced with some sort of solar collectors. Beneath the framing there was a sort of black box covering every other window. Solar heaters? But why? A house like this had to have fireplaces.

It was an odd place, obviously, and not at all what he had expected. The Andromen, and he hadn’t gotten over the fact that there were working Andromen, carried the trunk right up to the door. Both of them raised their free hands and knocked.

Another Androman opened the door. For a moment none of them moved, then the two with the trunk proceeded to carry it on inside. Clifton hurried across the porch and followed them in.

Passing the Androman on the door was the closest he’d gotten to the metal men. It was a good half-meter taller than him. The top rods rotated and watched him as he walked inside.

He was in a large foyer. Red dust rained down from the Andromen and his trunk to the marble floor. Small piles of the dust lay drifted along the walls. Overhead, cobwebs hung from a chandelier. The only light came from the windows around the door which gave the whole place a dingy, unused look, as if he had walked into an abandoned house.

“Clifton!”

The cry came from an older man standing up on the balcony above. Obviously not abandoned then. The man was dressed in a faded and patched blue suit. He was skinny, with a messy head of brown hair sprinkled with white, and gaunt cheeks. Even so, Clifton recognized his uncle. He looked a lot like Clifton’s father, if he hadn’t eaten in a month.

Uncle Floyd pointed at the Andromen carrying the trunk. “Yes, yes! Bring that on up to his room, then get back to your other duties.”

With apparent obedience, the two Andromen went to the large staircase and started up with Clifton’s trunk. At the same time Uncle Floyd hurried down. He moved with a jerky sort of motion, almost as clumsily as the Andromen himself. He came down and grabbed Clifton’s shoulders with both hands.

“Boy! You are grown into a man already! The last time I saw you, you could barely catch a ball!”

“You brought me one,” Clifton said. “A baseball from the salvagers.”

“Yes!” Uncle Floyd grinned. “Too bad we couldn’t get some real mitts to go with it! But those winter gloves worked well enough.”

The Androman on the door closed it, and then went off down the corridor from the foyer. Clifton watched it go and then looked back at his uncle.

“You have Andromen! Real, working Andromen! How is that possible?”

Uncle Floyd grinned and clapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t concern yourself with that right now, Nephew. You’ve had a long trip. Why don’t we get you settled in your rooms? You can rest and we’ll talk more at dinner, yes?”

It had been a very long day. Clifton was bursting with questions, but his uncle had a point.

“Okay. That does sound good.”

“Splendid!” Uncle Floyd sprang back to the staircase. “This way! Come along!”

Clifton hoisted his satchel and followed.

 

4

 

The sunset over the fields of grass was as red as the dust on the road. It stretched across the darkening sky outside his windows as if someone had kicked all the dust up into the air. Straight out this window, out in the fields, a wind generator turned in slow turns.

He had a whole suite of rooms. A sitting room, with a small library of books, bedroom and a private bath. The whole thing smelled musty. There had been sheets over the furniture but the Andromen that had delivered his trunk had pulled off the sheets and taken them away. All the dust disturbed hung in the air. He had thrown open the windows, those not covered with solar heaters, in the bedroom and sitting room in an attempt to air it out.

The views out the other side of the house had to be more interesting. The spherical building was on the other side of the house. Uncle Floyd had asked him to stay in his rooms, saying that most of the house was closed off and some of the rooms had weak floor boards. Maybe it was true, or maybe it was just an excuse to keep him in his room.

Clifton leaned on the window sill, leaning out the open window in hopes of cooler air, but if anything the air coming in from outside was hotter. Even though the blades of the wind generator were turning, it hardly felt as if any of the air was moving through the suite.

A dark shape moved on top of the wind generator. Clifton froze, his breath catching in his throat. The shape was a person! Small, moving carefully on top of the metal structure. He’d taken the dark shape to be part of the generator housing, but it was someone wearing a dark outfit and a cape of some sort that billowed around them.

The person turned, and the sun’s fading rays caught her pale skin and red hair. It was the girl! The one that he’d seen in the field earlier. But what was she doing up on top of the generator?

She crouched there at the top of the wind generator. It seemed she was staring straight at him. Clifton almost moved back from the window, but he was transfixed by the sight of the girl on top of the machine. She had to be an elf. No ordinary girl would have climbed up to the top of the structure. It had to be at least 40 meters tall. The top of the machine itself was small, barely bigger than the girl.

The blades spun past her in big lazy circles. Without warning she rose and leaped forward into the air! Clifton’s breath caught in his throat, expecting first that the blades would hit her, and second, that she would plummet to the ground.

Neither of those things happened. She had timed her leap perfectly and passed unscathed through the turning blades. As soon as she was through she spread her arms and legs. The green cape she wore was attached at multiple points to her arms and legs. It spread out between to create a wing shape. Instead of falling straight down she glided through the air, getting closer every second.

With a jolt Clifton realized that she was focused on him. Or at least on his window! He backed away, transfixed by the flying girl. The flight from the tower to his window took only seconds, but it seemed like each one was an eternity, stretching on as he watched her intent face.

Right before she reached the window her legs dropped. She slowed, but not enough to stop. She tucked her arms and came right through the open window! She rolled in a ball, and her bare feet landed hard on the wood.

She stopped. Then she straightened up, and was short, no taller than his shoulder. She dropped her arms down to her sides where her hands rested on the hilts of long knives that she wore.

She was an elf, no doubt about that!

Her green eyes were fixed steadily on his.

“You will take me to the sphere,” she said. “Raising no alarm.”

She wore a green outfit beneath the cape. It covered her from neck to ankles. The cape’s straps passed through loops on the fabric of her outfit. Her red hair was braided, including bits of bone and wood within the braid. Her skin was like milk. He’d never seen anyone so beautiful in his life.

“Just a second,” he said. He held up his hands. “I just got here. You saw me. I don’t know anything about that building! Who are you?”

“My name is Willowsong.” She stayed where she was by the window. “I’ve been watching the farm. Floyd Walther lives here. He came back with two of the Andromen, and now has more than a dozen. I need to know if what he is building violates the treaty.”

The treaty, that was the old agreement between the different people, humans, elves, and trolls. Only the goblinmen weren’t part of the convention and they didn’t have the technology to threaten it anyway. The treaty ensured that all the different people preserved the environment and didn’t repeat the mistakes of the Progenitors.

It was unthinkable that Uncle Floyd was doing anything to violate the treaty. Clifton shook his head. “I’m sure he’s not.”

Her head tilted and her eyes narrowed. “Who are you?”

“Clifton Walther, his nephew.”

“Nephew?”

“Yes. My parents sent me here, to apprentice.”

“Clifton Walther. Where did you come from?”

“Until recently I lived within the wall around the Towers of Stone and Metal. My parents own a bookshop there.”

“Why did they send you here?”

He dared a step closer to the impossible girl. He had never imagined that he would have a chance to meet an elf! They so seldom involved themselves in human affairs. It was said that a man or woman, seeing an elf, could become elf-struck and never be happy loving any normal human again.

Looking at her, he could believe it. Her eyebrows rose and her flushed, realizing that he was staring and hadn’t answered her question.

“They thought it would be a good experience for me, to see life outside the wall. I think they thought some time on a farm would teach me to appreciate what I had.”

A heavy clanking noise came from outside. Clifton turned to the door just as it burst open and two Andromen marched in, Uncle Floyd right behind them. His face was dark, furrowed and his dark eyes swept the room.

Clifton turned around but the room was empty. Willowsong was gone.

“Who were you talking to?” Uncle Floyd demanded.

Clifton looked at his uncle. The two Andromen stood over him on either side. “No one. Just myself, apologies Uncle, if I disturbed you.”

“Why is that window open?” Uncle Floyd thumped the arm of one of the Andromen. “Close it, immediately.”

The Androman crossed the room with its rolling gait and pulled the window closed, and fastened the latch.

“It was the dust,” Clifton said. “After they took away the drop-cloths, there was a lot of dust in the air. I wanted to air the rooms out.”

Uncle Floyd gestured back at the bedroom. “Go close the others.”

The Androman clanked off. Uncle Floyd looked back at Clifton. “You must keep the windows closed. Opening them up lets in the hot air from outside — and more dust than you’ll remove by having them open. We do our best to keep the heat and dust out by keeping the house closed.”

“Yes, Uncle. But wouldn’t it be helpful to open them up at night, to get the cooler night air?”

Uncle Floyd shook his head. “I have a geothermal cooling system that runs beneath the lawn outside, through the columns at the front of the house. It draws out the hot hair from the attic, pulls it down through coils in the cool earth, and returns the air to the basement. Air filters do what they can for the dust, but the house must remain closed for the system to work.”

Finally Uncle Floyd managed a small smile. “I must apologize for being so brusque. I’m not used to having anyone around to talk to.”

He nodded at the two Andromen who had returned from closing windows. “These aren’t much for conversation. What say you to dinner? I think it is about ready now.”

“Of course. Thank you. I’ll remember about the windows.”

“Good lad.” Uncle Floyd clapped his hands together and rubbed them vigorously. “I’m starved! Let’s go eat!”

Uncle headed out of the room and Clifton didn’t have any choice but follow. The two Andromen brought up the rear.

 

5

 

Dinner took place in a long, dark dining hall lit by glowing globes. The light came from fish contained in the globes, each fish tiny and giving off a greenish-yellow sort of glow that wasn’t quite candlelight. Each of the globes sat on thick iron bases above the table and contained at least a half-dozen of the fish. Uncle Floyd caught him looking at the fish.

“I found those on an expedition. A sort of cave fish. I wasn’t sure they would thrive in captivity, but they’re prolific little breeders as long as they have room. Once they’re about six to eight fish in a bowl, they just stop breeding. Each one seems to live a year or two at the most. They’re cannibals, but only after one has died naturally. Efficient little buggers.”

The table was already laid out with a meal and two place settings. A roasted chicken sat in a dish surrounded by potatoes and carrots. A basket held long garlic bread sticks and there was a bottle of white wine breathing on the side. Plus bowls of salad and tall, narrow glasses full of water.

Uncle Floyd sat down and picked up a serving spoon, scooping up potatoes and carrots. He used a knife to carve off a section of the chicken’s breast, then twisted off one of the drumsticks. He added a thick breadstick to his plate and settled back down. He stabbed a fork into the salad.

“Go on, Nephew. Dig in. We won’t waste time on formalities here, just the two of us.”

Clifton followed his lead and served himself. “Who makes all of this?”

“My boys.” Uncle Floyd gestured with the drumstick at one of the Andromen standing by the door. “Clever things. The only working Andromen, precisely what I needed. Like the fish, I found them on an expedition. Two of them, barely functional. Much longer and they’d have been nothing but a collection of metal rods and dust, like the salvagers have found.”

Uncle Floyd paused to fork food into his mouth, and take a sip of wine.

Clifton tried the chicken. The bird was delicious, hot and dripping with seasoned juice. He bit off a piece of the breadstick and found it crisp on the outside, rich with butter and garlic, and soft on the inside. Hard to believe that such things as the Andromen could make food that tasted so good.

“My table improved with them cooking!”

“You have more than two now, don’t you?”

Uncle Floyd nodded. “Clever things, as I said. I fixed up the two enough to get them working and then they made the others. I had to buy up what parts I could from the salvagers, and they made the rest. Twenty-one of them work for me now. I couldn’t do the work I’m doing without them.”

Clifton didn’t want to bring up Willowsong’s visit. He had a feeling that Uncle Floyd wouldn’t be happy to learn about the elf poking around the farm.

“What work is that? The driver said that a Mr. Welch farms the land? And, well, I couldn’t miss the structure out behind the barns.”

Uncle Floyd’s thin face split into a wide grin. He put down his fork and folded his hands together over his plate. He looked like Clifton’s father did when he found a particularly rare book.

“That will take some explaining. The Astrasphere is a special project of mine, a sort of observatory, one that I couldn’t do without the Andromen. It would have just remained ideas on paper, speculations, but they’ve given me the opportunity to find out if it is possible.”

“But what is it for?” Clifton said. “A building so large? The only thing I’ve seen that rivals it are the Towers, and they were built by the Progenitors.”

Uncle Floyd leaned back in his chair. “Yes. And they built the Andromen. How do you think they built things like the Towers or the wall? Or the Chasms? They had the Andromen and other tools to do the work for them, machines to lift and cut, to dig deep and travel at great speeds.”

“What about the treaty?”

Uncle Floyd leaned toward Clifton. “The treaty? Why do you ask about that?”

Clifton shrugged. “It’s just that the Progenitors did a lot of things they probably shouldn’t. If the Andromen were a part of that, I don’t know, wouldn’t that worry someone?”

“The treaty only matters when you’re talking about composting sewage for a town, or the tradeoff of manufacturing solar panels versus damming a river.” Uncle Floyd leaned back. “The treaty doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from the Progenitors’ mistakes. We can do things better.”

Uncle Floyd speared a piece of chicken. He lifted it up and paused before taking the bite. “Don’t worry about it, Clifton. I’ve got plenty for you to learn, but you can’t expect to pick it all up on your first night.”

Clifton took a long drink of water. Uncle Floyd was probably right, but he also hadn’t answered the question. Whatever the big spherical building was, it wasn’t something that he wanted to talk about right now.

 

6

 

After spending the rest of the evening filling Uncle Floyd in on life back in the bookshop, Clifton finally was able to return to his suite. Uncle Floyd seemed lonely. Hardly surprising, all alone out here with the weird Andromen for company. It’d take time before Uncle Floyd trusted him.

Clifton dropped into one of the high-backed chairs in the sitting room. Should he have told Uncle Floyd about Willowsong? He didn’t want to believe that his uncle was doing anything that would violate the treaty. Maybe Willowsong had it wrong? Just because his uncle had brought back the Andromen didn’t mean he was going to do anything to damage the environment. The building on its own, didn’t seem dangerous. And Uncle Floyd had let it slip that the building was a sort of observatory. That didn’t sound like something that would violate the treaty. It’d probably be better if he just told people what he was doing, but Clifton got the feeling that wasn’t his uncle’s strongest talent. Maybe it was better to wait, gain his trust, and then broach the subject.

And when should he tell Uncle Floyd about Willowsong? If he wanted to gain his uncle’s trust, he should have already told him, but he hadn’t. He didn’t believe that Uncle Floyd would take the news well that the elves were looking into what he was doing.

Something thumped against the wall. Clifton rose from the chair and turned to the dark window. He didn’t see anything at first except his own ghostly reflection, dimly lit by the light beside the chair.

Then a flash of white appeared in the window. It was Willowsong! She was right outside, looking in.

He crossed quickly to the window and unfastened the catches. She moved back, somehow clinging to the face of the building beside the window. He swung the windows open and leaned out.

Willowsong hung by one hand, her bare toes pressed against the siding, a knife stuck in the face of the building. “Please let me in.”

Clifton moved back without question. She reached over to the windowsill with one foot, toes gripping the wood and then she pulled herself completely inside, yanking the knife out of the wall. She stepped lightly down to the floor with her green cape billowing out around her. He took another step back but didn’t turn away from her. He never wanted to look away.

She slid the knife back into a sheath at her side. When she spoke her voice was a soft whisper. “I need to see what your Uncle is building. Will you help me?”

“Yes.” His answer was automatic. As much as he wanted Uncle Floyd’s trust, there wasn’t anything that he would deny Willowsong. The realization rocked him, but it was unshakable. He would do anything for her, he was elf-struck.

“He hasn’t told you anything of it?”

Clifton shook his head. “Not yet, except he said it was the Astrasphere and called it an observatory. I don’t think he would do anything to violate the treaty.”

“I’ve been tasked to assess that myself. We should go now.”

“Okay,” he said. He closed the window, just in case anyone looked in.

Then Clifton went to the door and opened it just a crack. The hallway outside was empty and dark. The house was quiet. He didn’t hear any sounds of the Andromen or his uncle moving around. He pushed the door open further and beckoned to Willowsong. Together they went out and down the stairs.

It didn’t take long for them to move through the quiet house, to the rear of the house and a back door off the kitchen downstairs. It was bolted on the inside, but Clifton turned the bolts and unfastened it so they could get out.

Stepping outside into the warm night with Willowsong, he felt a thrill. This was what he had wanted outside the safe, comfortable life in the bookstore. An adventure. He looked at Willowsong, her features strong and beautiful as her eyes drank in the view ahead.

“We have to get closer,” she whispered. “Stay close.”

She moved off, following the shadows of the large oak trees that grew between the house and the strange spherical building. He followed her. At the oak she bounded up into the branches.

“Wait there,” she said.

Clifton was content to keep his feet on the ground, as he peered around the tree at what his uncle was building. Or what the Andromen were building.

Bright spotlights illuminated the entire structure, making it glow in the night. Three curved struts or buttresses rose up and clutched the spherical building. Not simple structures, but massive, constructed of metal beams and plates, they resembled a giant three-fingered hand clutching the ball. Round plates suggested knuckles.

The building itself was made up of many triangles. Most of the surface was covered in dull matte black plates that had a dull sheen from the spotlights. One jagged section was incomplete, lit from the interior, it looked like a bright lightning bolt across the skin of the building. Through the glare the dark shapes of Andromen climbing over the building’s skeletal structure, using a crane to hoist another triangular section up while several Andromen worked together to position yet another into place. What little Clifton could see of the interior made it seem as if the structure was mostly empty space.

It was sufficiently far enough away that he couldn’t make out a lot of the details, except that there were brighter points where each of the triangles met the others.

A shadow passed over him and then Willowsong landed silently beside him.

Clifton turned to face her. She gazed up at him and he reached out instinctively, cupping the side of her face. His heart hammered in his chest. She placed her hand on his and held it for a moment, then stepped away.

He let his arm drop to his side. He tried to figure out what to say, but nothing came.

“I want to get closer,” she said. She pointed. “There.”

She was pointing at one of the barns. It was still some distance from the strange building, but it was much closer than the house. From the loft windows they would have a better view of the building.

“Okay,” he said.

The area between the trees and the barn was open. There was a chance that they’d be seen. It didn’t matter. He wanted to see for himself as much as Willowsong. But maybe there was a way for him to make it easier for her.

“I’ll distract them,” he said. He pointed at the open loft doors at this end of the barn. “Can you fly to there from the tree?”

“Yes. What will you do?”

“I’m his nephew,” Clifton said. “It won’t look suspicious unless they catch me sneaking around. I’ll be fine.”

She leaned close to him, and he smelled a clover smell. Her lips grazed his and she pulled back and smiled. Then she turned and bounded back up into the tree and was out of sight.

Clifton stuck his hands in his pockets and strolled out straight for the big structure. His heart pounded, more from the brief kiss than what was ahead, but the closer he got the more impressive it was. And confounding. What possible reason did his uncle have for creating such a structure? How was it an observatory?

As he passed the barn he called out. “Uncle Floyd? Are you out here? Uncle?”

Clanking and pounding noises from the work the Andromen were doing continued unabated. If any of the metal men were paying attention to his approach, he didn’t see it. He kept walking. Soon he stepped into the light that spilled from the building’s interior. It was an awesome sight. The massive building rose far above like one of the Towers, but it was so much bigger since it was a giant sphere. Through the jagged opening to the interior he could see cross struts stretching across the interior, and metal cabling, all of which surrounded yet another sphere at the heart of the structure. That one was much smaller, and had glass windows and lights inside.

Andromen climbed throughout the structure. Torches flared like bright stars where they welded components. Wires and hoses draped from sections. The bright points at the junctions of the triangles were clusters of nozzles five nozzles, one pointing straight out and the others at right angles to make a cross. There were dozens of these nozzle clusters at points evenly spaced across the sphere.

Clifton didn’t look back at the barn. Willowsong would keep herself hidden in any case. He cupped his hands to his mouth. “Uncle Floyd! Hello? Uncle?”

An Androman lurched out of the shadows beneath the spherical building and clanked toward him with its rolling gait. Clifton stopped, held his ground and waved at the metal man.

“I’m looking for my uncle! Is he out here?” He looked up at the sphere towering above. “That’s sure something!”

The Androman kept coming and two more emerged from beneath the building and started his way. None of them said anything. He didn’t even know if they could talk. Surely they communicated somehow, and had followed Uncle Floyd’s instructions, but that didn’t mean they knew speech.

He refused to move as they drew closer. They wouldn’t hurt him, at least. Surely. Uncle Floyd wouldn’t allow that.

The first one raised its arms as it got closer, reaching out for him.

Now he was scared. Its dowsing rod eyes swung back and forth. The metal fingers spread wide. He refused to give ground. “I’m looking for my uncle! Where is Floyd Walther? I’m his nephew, Clifton.”

“Wait!” Uncle Floyd’s voice called out.

The Andromen halted in their tracks. Clifton looked, but didn’t see his uncle. A moment later Uncle Floyd came out of the shadows beneath the building and hurried across the dusty yard with his own ungainly gait.

When he reached the waiting Andromen he pointed back at the building. “Back to work. I’ll take care of this.”

The Andromen obediently turned and headed back toward the building. Uncle Floyd came forward until he stood in front of Clifton. His frown cast deep shadows across his face.

“What brings you out here? I thought you went to bed?”

“All the excitement of the day,” Clifton said. “I couldn’t sleep and came downstairs. The house was empty, and then I saw the lights out here and thought I would find you. Can I take a look around? It’s sure something.”

Uncle Floyd shook his head. “Not yet. It isn’t safe, not while there’s work going on. But soon, Clifton, I’ll show you everything.”

Clifton thought of Willowsong. She would want something. “How is it an observatory? If you close up the rest of it, how will it observe anything? And what are those nozzles?”

Uncle Floyd stepped closer. He reached out and put a hand on Clifton’s shoulder. “If you’re going to be my apprentice, there’s a lot for you to learn. Let’s go back to the house. I’ll get you a book.”

“A book?” Clifton asked. He had grown up in a bookstore, he loved to read.

“Yes. It’s about the Progenitors who went into space. I think you will find it fascinating.”

Clifton looked up past the strange building. The stars were bright and thick in the sky. “Space? They went up there?”

Uncle Floyd nodded. “Yes, but there is much you must learn before you understand. Come on. If you’re going to work with me, there’s much study to do.”

Clifton couldn’t think of any other excuse to stay outside, so he followed Uncle Floyd back to the house.

 

7

 

A rustle like the wind and Willowsong landed lightly on the open window frame. Clifton looked up from the book that Uncle Floyd had loaned him and then quickly set it aside and hurried to the window.

Willowsong stepped down into the room.

He took her hands and gazed down into her eyes, all brown and golden and green in the light from the lamp.

“Did you see enough?”

She shook her head. “I saw, but I don’t understand what it is that he is building.”

There was only one answer. Clifton drew her closer to the lamp and picked up the book. “I think he means to fly into space.”

“Space above?” Willowsong looked at the book, and back at him.

“I don’t think it will violate the treaty,” Clifton said quickly. “Even with what I’ve read, I think he is planning something different.”

“It isn’t up to me,” she said softly. “I must go back and report what I’ve seen.”

“You’ll come back, won’t you?” Clifton said, hoping that it didn’t sound as desperate as he felt.

Willowsong was silent for a moment. “If I can.”

She rose up on her toes and kissed him again. A brief touch that set his nerves alight.

Then she pulled away, turned and jumped from the window. Clifton rushed to the open window but she was gone. He thought he caught a glimpse of her, just for a moment in the air, but then nothing.

He closed the window and went back to the chair. For a long moment he stood holding the book and then he sat down, turning to his page.

He had wanted to get out of the bookstore, to have adventures. It hadn’t seemed like coming to a farm would be the adventure he sought, but clearly he was wrong.

This was exactly where he belonged.

7,205 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 27th weekly short story release, written in February 2014, set in the same world as Death in Hathaway Tower.

I’m releasing each of these stories, one per week, here on my website. Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next week for another story. Next up is a science fiction story, Strange Babies.

Fantastic Detectives – Death in Hathaway Tower

Today marks the release of Fiction River: Fantastic Detectives. Here’s the table of contents:

“Case Cracked” by Joe Cron
“Living with the Past” by Dayle A. Dermatis
“All She Can Be” by Karen L. Abrahamson
“Under Oregon” by Kara Legend
“Role Model” by Kevin J. Anderson
“Death in Hathaway Tower” by Ryan M. Williams
“Trouble Aboard the Flying Scotsman” by Alistair Kimble
“Containing Patient Zero” by Paul Eckheart
“Canine Agent Rocky Arnold vs. The Evil Alliance” by Juliet Nordeen
“An Incursion of Mice” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
“They’re Back!” by Dean Wesley Smith

See that story, right after Kevin J. Anderson’s (featuring his Dan Shamble zombie detective)? Yep. That’s my story. I’m thrilled to be in this book, with so many fantastic writers like Paul Eckheart, Joe Cron (hilarious story), series editors Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith, and everyone else included. All wonderful writers and it’s great to be included.

Publisher Allyson Longueira posted recently about the new release in, These detectives are fantastic!

Check out the Fiction River blog for more news.

Kickstarter Subscription Drive

There are 7 days left in the Fiction River subscription drive over on Kickstarter. There are still some limited edition rewards packages available, including the print Fantastic Detectives package. That’s a full year of Fiction River in print editions, plus the print edition of Fantastic Detectives. Plus you get print editions of books by authors in this anthology, including: Joe Cron, Karen L. Abrahamson, Juliet Nordeen, and me! My contribution is Goblin Alley: The Bloodied Fang, first book in that series. That’s a lot of reading!

There are also a bunch of other reward packages, both e-book and print, including Fiction River subscriptions and extra e-books and print books from contributors. That also includes Fiction River: Moonscapes, which includes my story “Caressing Charon.”