"Jubilee" is a new story by Karl Schroeder. His new novel, Lockstep, will be published in March 2014.
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.
About the Author
KARL SCHROEDER lives in Toronto, Canada with his wife and daughter. He is the author of New York Times Notable book Ventus as well as the acclaimed Virga steampunk space opera series. A member of the Association of Professional Futurists, Karl consults and speaks about the future as well as writing about it.
Read an Excerpt
By Karl Schroeder, Richard Anderson
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2014 Karl Schroeder
All rights reserved.
Three muttering men stood on the path, not five meters below where Lauren and her companion crouched. It would do no good to tell Malak that she'd been to the wedding of the eldest of the three, or that she had brought candles to the houses of another the week he was born. Their rifles were unslung, their voices low. She knew why they were here.
Malak wasn't watching them, but instead gazed longingly at the near end of a rope bridge that started about fifty meters ahead. The newly cleared path to it wound up the side of a hundred-meter-tall bedrock tower. Thick rain forest coated most of the karst spires in this region; their bases were lost in mist, which transformed them into a crowd of green-hooded giants standing on cloud. The fat domed pillar at the far end of the bridge had sheer vertical sides, making this the only approach. All these men had to do was camp out at the bridge's near end to make it impossible for Lauren and Malak to complete their mission.
Lauren eased back behind the bushes, pulling Malak down gently beside her. "Patience," she murmured. "If they can't catch us alone, they'll have to let us get through when other travelers arrive. If this letter doesn't get delivered, it's as much a disaster for them as for us." She tapped the waterproof courier's pouch slung at her waist.
"It's huge," said Malak, and Lauren realized he hadn't been looking at the bridge at all, but at the lockstep fortress it led to. He was only seventeen, he'd only ever seen sleepers' fortresses in picture books. This one's outlines were veiled by the clouds that drifted among the pillar-landscape. It took up nearly the entire top of the miniature plateau it rested on.
She decided not to point out the even bigger fortress that was just visible seven kilometers to the south. He really should be thinking about those men.
But she heard singing, and presently a group of laborers appeared around the curve of the path. At their left was a sheer vertical rock face, to their right an equally sheer drop-off, but half of them were horsing around while the other half sang. They were carrying planks and other supplies, their powered exoskeletons squeaking and protesting against the weight.
Lauren checked out the three men. They were gone — stepped off the path, or hiding in the bushes, it made no difference. "Time to go," she hissed at Malak, and without waiting for him she began climbing down.
One of the newcomers arched an eyebrow when she plunked onto the road in front of him. "You're an unlikely bandit," he said. "What were you doing up there?"
Lauren adjusted her waistband with dignity. "Would you rather I did it in the road?"
He laughed. "Never mind!" She heard Malak hit the path and, as she turned, made out three sullen bearded faces watching her from the underbrush. Lauren resisted an urge to stick her tongue out at them. Better not push it.
"You're headed for the fortress?" she asked the laborer, who had a hundred or so kilos of plank laid across his machine-augmented shoulders.
"Where else would we be going?"
"Can we walk with you?"
"If you don't mind foul language, bad manners, body odor and the occasional fistfight," he said with a grin.
"It's okay." She sent Malak a sidelong look. "I'm used to boys."
She could feel the eyes of their three purusers on her back as she set out across the swinging bridge, and that prickle warred with the vertiginous fear of crossing a seemingly bottomless chasm with nothing but knotted ropes under her feet. By the time she'd reached the other side the bridge had won, and she collapsed panting for a moment while Malak skipped off the end and the laborers approached deliberately and deadpan. Clearly they did this every day.
Lauren straightened and dusted herself off, staring them down. Then she took Malak's shoulder and turned to confront the fortress.
"You've been here before," said Malak. She nodded.
"Thirty-one years ago for me, one night for the people sleeping in there. I was a little older than you. I practically danced across the bridge that time. And it all went smoothly that time."
"What're they like?"
"Seriously?" She barked a laugh as they started walking. "How many times have we talked about this?"
"Yes, but ..." He rolled his shoulders and splayed out his hands which, like his feet, were too big for him at his age. "None of this has been like anybody said it would be. I mean ... look at that."
Work gangs had been clearing its flanks for months, but the fortress was still half-choked by vines. The traditional plaza in front of the giant building was brush-free, and they'd redone the paths that led around its sides. These, she remembered, led to the landing pads and other spaces the sleepers would need when they awoke in two days. There was even a little village, built on exactly the same plan, and even painted the same colors as the one she'd visited three decades ago. Yet the fortress towered over it all, black, windowless and bleak, as if immune to any cosmetics they might dress it up with. Its stone corners were rounded with erosion, to the point where any given surface looked like natural stone. It was only when you took in the whole that you realized it was a building, and even then, an eerie battle was thenceforth waged between the parts of the mind that recognized objects as being artificial and those that identified them as natural. The fortress trembled between those categories, indecisively alien.
"Just you wait," she said, remembering last time. "In three days this'll be the liveliest part of the country."
"There!" Malak pointed, and only then did Lauren see who was waiting for them. Society master Tamlaine appeared to be alone. The Society was marshaling its resources, she'd heard, another way of saying it had hit hard times. On her first delivery, the master had been waiting with three decoy couriers, two official scribes and three hired guards.
It didn't matter; Tamlaine was grinning his relief. "That's them, right, Master Lauren?" asked Malak.
"Yes," she said. "Go." He ran — or rather staggered — forward, and his knees actually began to buckle just steps from Tamlaine. He'd been far more scared, Lauren suddenly realized, than he'd let on.
Her own steps were steady as she reached the master and shook his hand. "Sir."
"You look good, courier," said Tamlaine, and Lauren smiled. She was just as ready to collapse as Malak, but they weren't home free yet. She wasn't about to let her guard down until the gates to the fortress opened in two days' time, and her letter was finally delivered.
* * *
"It was Niles and Powen," she affirmed that evening as they sat by the fire. "They're pure Westerfenn on their father's side. Of course they'd think they have a claim. The other man I didn't know, but it's a big family."
"But why do they even bother?" With two mulled ciders in him, Malak was half-asleep in a big wing chair. "The Westerfenns haven't been couriers for two hundred years."
"Yes, but son," said Tamlaine, "they were the couriers for six hundred before that. Do you wonder that they feel they have a claim?"
"As far as some people are concerned, courier means Westerfenn," agreed Lauren. "We're the upstarts. Interlopers."
"But who cares what we think?" Malak was still puzzled. "All that matters is that the Authors decided to switch to us."
Tamlaine sent Malak a slightly pitying smile. "Do you really think the Authors care who delivers their letters? Do you think they even know?"
Malak sat up, offended. "They see us once a month!"
"But that's thirty years for the courier. Sometimes it's been the same person twice, and they didn't notice until it was pointed out to them. For his part, I know that Chinen de Conestoga doesn't care as long as his letters get through."
"How can you say that!"
"Well, for one thing, he's barely a year older than you are. Malak, tell me this: Do you know the name of the girl who sells you bread in the mornings?"
He opened his mouth, closed it, and sank sullenly into his chair.
Malak didn't succeed in falling asleep, though; moments later, he sat up, blinking. "What's that?"
It had been so faint Lauren hadn't noticed the faint rumbling until now. Remembering it was something of a shock. Of course it would come, she should have expected it. Yet with so much else going on ... She stood, still not hearing Malak's increasingly worried questions, and moved as if in a trance to the doorway.
She'd been sixteen, carrying the message bag herself on the way across the bridge. The Westerfenns of that generation hadn't made any fuss. Of course, her uncle Despolino would be the one to actually deliver the letter; still, she'd felt a huge sense of importance and responsibility. They'd set up camp in the evening, with the fortress a vast black silhouette against a silver sky. After, they'd entered the village and as she reluctantly prepared to hand the pouch to her uncle, this same vibration had filled the sky. Amazing that she could have forgotten!
Makeshift stages had been set up along the road to the fortress's main gates. These would be taken down before the doors opened. For the next day, various groups would perform stories and allegories from the histories of the locksteps. The first time she'd been here she'd begged to watch them, but Uncle had been all business. Malak didn't seem to care.
She walked to the end of the row of stages and, when Malak appeared at her side, pointed upward. "Look. It's landing."
The orbital transport was all glittery surfaces, chrome and glass and plastic like an insect. The roar came from its engines as it delicately hovered above the fortress. Its long landing legs rose and fell and angled fussily, as if groping for a solid surface. As they watched, the thunder rolling over them in waves, it settled behind the fortress. Moments later the sound cut out — and Malak started running.
"Travelers!" he shouted happily. Lauren set off after him at a jog. Laughing and shaking his head, Tamlaine followed them both at a more dignified saunter.
By the time they reached the landing field, the transport had opened its hatches and a gang of bots was unloading blocky shipping containers from its belly. If Malak had expected live humans at this point he was disappointed; if there were passengers on this flight they were frozen as solid as the rest of the cargo. The bots bounced the crates onto rolling pallets and took them through a heavily guarded set of metal gates into the fortress.
Malak watched it all avidly. "Yesterday — their yesterday — they fell asleep on another world. They'll wake on this one," he said. "I wonder where they've been?"
Lauren shrugged. "Join the lockstep, and find out." She knew he'd never do that; in order to stay inside when they sealed the doors again, you only had to ask — but doing that meant giving up everyone you knew here. Parents, children, friends, family, profession: all would be left behind. Lauren had never once considered doing that, and she knew Malak wouldn't either. It was too drastic a step.
They watched the unloading until it was full night and the crickets were chorusing. When Tamlaine began to walk back, Lauren turned to follow and saw that the little stages along the road were lit. "Malak! Look at this."
He was reluctant until he saw the players, then he raced ahead. Lauren and Tamlaine laughed together, remembering their youths as they followed.
The biggest stage was lavishly decorated and lit. Devotees of the Lord of Time were staging a highly stylized, half ritual performance of the Revelation of Tobias. The actor playing Tobias McGonigal was masked and so heavily swaddled in costume that you couldn't tell if it was a man or a woman. The three couriers watched for a while as McGonigal tried to convince his mother (in mime) that the galaxy would be theirs if they accepted the gift of cold sleep. When she rejected him, a quick set change put Tobias on his legendary ship, and then he began an interminable oratorio about his first and final entry into cold sleep. After it had dragged on for fifteen minutes, Lauren took Malak's shoulder and steered him onward.
There were plays about the founding of the locksteps on this world, plays about distant and legendary Earth. There were stories of kings who took refuge in the locksteps and after thirty years returned, a day older, as beggars to behold the ruin of their kingdoms. There were romances. There were murder mysteries. And there was —
"Hey!" Malak stopped dead, and Lauren almost tripped over him. "That's Powen, isn't it?"
It was indeed, and Niles was beside him. They were standing on a modest stage near the end of the row, along with a girl and a boy dressed in lockstep fashions. Right now the girl was writing furiously at a little desk, and Niles hovered behind her, speaking to the audience.
"One month together! One jubilee, and the two locksteps will not meet again for nine centuries! Three hundred sixty months for her lockstep, three hundred seventy-two for his, their times will diverge and converge over a millennium. To those whose lives follow the rhythm of the fortresses, a mere two and a half years will pass before their rhythms synchronize again. But a boy and a girl who have met and fallen in love — well, they will feel the centuries as much as we!"
"They're telling the story!" Malak hissed. "The story of the Authors!"
Lauren shrugged, though she was uncomfortable. "They have a perfect right to do it."
It wasn't one of the great tales, but it was well-enough known. Of the several locksteps on this planet, there were two so mutually hostile that they hibernated on different frequencies. The frequency of the first was 360 months asleep to one month awake. The other's was 372 to one. As out of phase as they were, they still couldn't completely avoid each other. Every 960 years they came into phase and both were open during the same month. The last time this Jubilee had happened, a girl from the first lockstep had met a boy from the second, and they had fallen in love.
There were popular books on the subject, and Malak had seen the secret ones, too, the Commentaries, that filled the Society's library. He shouldn't be surprised.
The girl onstage was now holding a golden letter up to the one thin spotlight. "Oh, to whom can I entrust my words of love?" she quavered. "For when it leaves my hands, thirty-one years shall pass before my lover's touch shall it awake. Who might dedicate themselves to its preservation, and to bear the fragile wings of my ardor to my heart's desire?"
Tamlaine leaned close. "Not one of the better ones. They could at least have done Gisbon's version. It's in rhyming couplets."
Now Niles was kneeling before her, hand outstretched. "And who are you, sir knight?" sighed the girl.
"I am Atamandius Westerfenn, and I dedicate my life to the transmission of your message."
Despite the crass propaganda of it all, Lauren felt her fingers curl protectively around the pouch hanging at her waist. Malak was muttering about self-serving Westerfenns, and Tamlaine simply stood there watching with his arms crossed. Disgusted, Lauren was about to leave when there was a discreet cough behind her. She turned.
"Lauren Arthen, I believe?" It was the third of the men who'd been following them. Lauren glanced around — two onstage, one here; were there more?
He seemed to sense her anxiety, and bowed slightly, shaking his head. "There's just me. And I would never hurt you."
Malak and Tamlaine were busy watching the clumsy play. Lauren took a step back into the shadows with the man. "I am armed," she lied. "You were waiting with those two to ambush us this morning."
"And they would have, too," he agreed, "if I hadn't intervened. Which I would have."
"And why would you do that?"
Now grimaced, shrugged. There was a suggestion of Westerfenn to his face, which was long and high browed. He seemed more a scholar than a courier. "I was hoping you'd remember me," he said, very quietly.
She looked at him more closely. Where would she have remembered a Westerfenn from? He was about her age, which would mean, if he was a courier ... "Kiel?"
Now he grinned. "You do remember! We spent a few days together, after the Authoress gave you ... that." He nodded at the pouch at her side.
Excerpted from Jubilee by Karl Schroeder, Richard Anderson. Copyright © 2014 Karl Schroeder. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The attempt at a simplistic ending to invoke a deeper human understanding fell flat.