I paused, looking up to the sails of Tower One. Two small figures moved slowly up the curve of one leg, climbing on spider filaments of mylar line. Aaron and Jason. I squinted and made out the small rip in a sail. They must be climbing to replace it.
I could almost feel the rush of wind up there, the transformed perspective as the wheel stopped spinning around you, and you were the center of the complex motions of sky and earth whirling around your high vantage. I could feel the song of the tremor humming up through my legs, and the way it would harmonize with the rush of the high wind. I envied them up there, riding the cycles within cycles while I was anchored by the Rules to the ground.
It didn’t hit me until I was nearly back to the house. What had Aaron been doing in the cellar at that time of day? He must have gone back for that frayed climbing line.
A dark, sickening suspicion swelled in me. It couldn’t be. But all I could see was that frayed climbing line. And Aaron following Jason with his smoldering eyes as the younger frateros reached with that slow, gentle smile to help Helen lift a heavy pot from the stove this morning, Helen’s hand lingering on his. And years ago, Aaron glaring in just the same way at Isaac when the older frateros had silenced one of his righteous tirades with a few wry words. The morning before Isaac had mysteriously fallen . . .
I was racing down the track, Ela leaping beside me, alarm screaming as I gasped in burning air and my legs flailed at the skirts.
But I was too late. By the time I reached the clearing beneath the tower, they were only two tiny shapes climbing the gleaming lines to the hub of the wheel. I shouted, “Jason!” and waved my arms, but there was no way he would hear me over the roar of the wind in the sails.
I tried to quiet my pounding heart. I squinted past the curve of the nearest leg, up the tapering spire, and I could see that Aaron was ahead, almost to the platform beneath the extension that held the wheel hub. Jason climbed behind him, the extra weight of the new sail in a bulky webbed carrier on his back, his feet braced against the spire as he pulled himself up the thin line winding back onto the takeup reel on his harness.
I took a deep breath. Maybe I’d panicked for no reason. He was almost to the top, and his line had held. I held my breath until Jason reached the platform and the small figures disengaged their lines from the reel mounted there.
But I couldn’t shake the uneasiness shivering through me. I squinted against the bright, silver-blue gleam of sunlight on the sails as Aaron led the way across the massive extensor shaft that held the wheel away from the spire. Mounted on a ring that allowed the entire wheel to shift around the tower with the wind, it transferred the wheel’s spin to a system of gimballed synthadamantine gears. They spun the hollow generator rod and powered the frequency modulators for the tremor rod inside it.
I could see the doll figure that was Aaron reach out an arm to help Jason with the awkward carrier onto the hub. Now they climbed up, outward, down, clinging to the raised grips as the wheel turned them, slowly there at the center, but faster as they climbed outward onto the thick base arm bearing the damaged sail.
There was a wind change coming. I could feel it eddy, then swirl, then shift. The great wheel rolled above me, roaring in the hot wind, shifting around the tower on the extension’s ring as the sails fluttered in a dazzling shimmer of light. The spinner arms on each of the eight wings rotated around the stable base arms as the wheel turned, settling the sails into a new position.
The eddy tremored beneath my feet, smoothing out into ripples as the sails realigned on the slip-ring mountings of the spinner arms.
But something was wrong. There was again the odd flux imbalance I’d felt the morning I’d visited the tower. The sails weren’t readjusting properly. The balance was off.
I squinted upward again and found the two men. There, edging outward on the grips running down—up—the sail arm, stretching the new sail over the damaged one, working outward to the racing rim of the wheel. After that, they would loosen the grommets of the old sail and roll it toward the hub. Jason was inching his way out the narrow spinner arm, ducking beneath the offset sail carriage.
The spinner arm was less stable during a wind shift than the thicker base arm. With the flux out of balance this way—
I cast a last look upward, then ran to the control room, slapping the light panel and hurrying down the stairs. I caught a quick glimpse of blinking indicators and tools scattered from a box as I hurried to check the seismic readouts. They were within stable range. The imbalance wasn’t emanating from below. Anyway, the cybernetic alarms would have indicated a potential earthquake.
I moved around to the controls for the sail arms. The tension on the slip rings was cybernetically monitored here and kept within limits. The slip rings held the sails at different angles to compensate for changes in wind velocity, so the wheel would turn at the required rate to produce the proper stress needed on the tremor rod to regulate seismic tremor. It was too complicated for me to explain in the cybers’ terms, but when you were riding the sails, you could feel when it was all balanced. That was why Isaac and I used to manually fine-tune the slip rings up there, for a smoother ride.
But of course Aaron had always mocked us for that, insisting you only needed the control panel dials. I checked them now, but the test button for each arm moved the gauge into satisfactory range for the cybernetically calculated wind factors.
I shook my head. I could really feel the flux imbalance now, pulsing through me in the roar of the generator-rod, a jagged extra thrust instead of a smooth hum.
I ran over to check the generator voltages. It took me a moment to orient myself to a new readout system Aaron must have installed. I didn’t understand the purpose of some of the indicators. But the important ones were clear enough.
The small feed to the house was steady. So was utility voltage. The fraction siphoned from this tower for the village line was in the right range. But the voltage to the tremor- modulator units connected to the rod was way low.
It didn’t make sense. The total power output indicated a normal figure. But the drains didn’t add up to the total. Something was siphoning power.
A lot of power.
It was throwing off the tremor. And that would throw off the action of the sails, which were adjusted to compensate for tremor and wind. It could be dangerous to Jason and Aaron up there. I wondered why they hadn’t felt it. Maybe it had started after they’d gotten up there.
I stood staring at the indicators, wanting to do something but not knowing what. I couldn’t figure why the cybernetic monitors hadn’t triggered an alarm. I didn’t know the function of a couple of the new controls. But it didn’t feel right. I hurried over to take another look at the sail controls and seismic indicators, but they still wavered in the satisfactory range.
“Fireblood and thorns!” I shook my head.
The jarring tremor drummed and shook through me now. The whirring rod roared, deafening. It was making me jumpy. My nerves were screaming, “Do something!” I shot a last look at the controls and ran back outside.
Were the sails shivering more than usual, the mylar not quite filling? The tremor still jarred me. I craned my neck back and saw that they’d nearly finished. The new sail stretched between base and spin arms, and they were unfastening the last grommets on the old sail. Jason reached up—down, now—for a new grip as he climbed from spin arm to base arm across the bulk of the rolled-up sail. He slipped, lost his balance.
“Jason!” The wing swept down to the bottom of the cycle, hiding him.
“Founder and guardians protect—” I broke off in relief. The wing rose again and I could see him, grasping a rung. I watched as they grappled the bulky sail, pulling it toward the hub where they could drop it through free space to the ground. They were moving awkwardly, using the handles more than usual. The imbalance must have been bothering them.
On the hub now, Aaron reached for a better grip on the slippery mylar to toss it down. I could see him wave an arm and shout something to Jason. Jason shifted back to another handhold on the hub. Aaron leaned forward.
It all happened too fast. Aaron shoved the rolled sail toward Jason, leaning down over the hub, and must have seen me on the ground. He jerked back and thrust an accusing arm in my direction, twisting to shout something at Jason. He tore angrily at the roll of mylar, and Jason was pulled off balance. He fell, flailing across the slippery mylar, reaching for handholds that weren’t there.
I was too shocked to cry out. I could only stare helplessly as he slipped faster.
The bulky sail glared blinding sunlight and fell toward the edge of the hub. Jason scrambled across it toward Aaron, who was clinging at the edge. Jason was moving fast, he could make it. He surged toward Aaron as the sail flashed silver-blue and tumbled free. He twisted to reach an arm toward Aaron. All Aaron had to do was reach out his hand.
The heavy mass of mylar fell toward me, blocking my sight. I jumped out of the way as it crashed to the ground in an explosion of dust. I squinted through it.
Jason was falling, past the hub, his hand still stretched up to where Aaron clung to his circling grip.
“Jason! Founder, no! No!”
I stared, horrified, as he fell. He struck one of the dropping sails and slithered helplessly, rolling, across the slick mylar. He hit the base arm with what must have been a stunning blow, but I could see his hands scrabbling frantically to grab one of the climbing rungs. He almost caught hold. His hands slipped across the metal as he was thrown down the arm. The momentum of his fall was broken, but he couldn’t grasp on. He tumbled partway along the arm. Then the sail dropped toward the bottom of the cycle and he was thrown the rest of the way to the ground.
“Oh, no! No!” I ran past the crumpled sail to where he lay, twisted on his back, staring glassily up at the spinning wheel and empty, glaring sky. He was dead.
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