Phoenix Afire, book 1

chapter 1

Twilight deepened. Desti crouched beneath the dense boughs of a cypress, her gaze fixed on the wall of the Vault. In the wan light of Hacen, the little moon, the barrier gleamed a ghostly white, its smooth surface broken only by sideposts framing the point of entrance. The gateway always gaped open during daylight hours, but now, after curfew, it looked to be just another solid stretch of wall.

Two of the three Factors had left the Vault and headed for their dorm some time ago. Desti flicked a spider off the hem of her mantle and waited for the third old woman to depart. Through the sprigs and ferns of undergrowth wafted a breeze rich with the scents of a woodland summer night.

Stars appeared overhead where sky showed through the evergreen canopy. At last there came a flicker of movement at the gateway. A vertical crack appeared, rising halfway up the five-meter height of the wall. The gate parted silently, giving a brief glimpse of the courtyard inside. Factor Tesk emerged, and the gate slid shut behind her, solid and blank as before.

The old woman shuffled down the path to the Commons, oblivious to the watching sixteen-year-old. Desti held motion-less, as still as a tree stump -- but inside she thrummed like a hive of wild bees. Tonight she meant to break more than curfew. But she did not move, not yet.

Slow as a snail, Hacen crawled down the dome of sky and sank behind the forest palisade. Only then, in full darkness, did the girl crawl out from hiding, brushing needles from the rough wullen weave of her mantle as she faced the gate.

By starlight Desti could just make out the faint seams of the gateway. It arched more than two meters from the ground, high enough for even the Gentry to pass through without ducking a regal head. Or so the Aunts said.

Partway down one of the gate's sideposts was an eyescanner, and below it, the crisscross pattern where Factors tap a greeting to the Vault before entering. Desti knew better than to try that route. If she didn't want to spend a week or more in isolation, she had to find another way in, some way other than this well-guarded portal.

Desti picked up a fir cone, stepped back a few paces and lobbed it over the barrier. She heard a faint plop. If not through the wall, then over.

The girl slipped out of her mantle then stashed the homespun garment and her sandals behind the trunk of a towering dugglesfir. She leaped for the lowest bough, almost out of reach, and with a bit of scrambling hauled herself into the branches. By fingertip and toetip she felt her way up the rough-skinned ladder until the tapering trunk swayed beneath her weight. She clung by thumb and forefinger and nimble toes and looked over the barrier.

Behind the wall appeared a circular courtyard roomy enough to set down a flyer. That's how the Gentry came, of course, sailing down from the mountains in the west to land in the privacy of the Vault. Desti glanced warily toward the dark western horizon -- then shook herself. Not yet. The mountain Castle was still empty.

Beyond the wide courtyard rose the Vault itself, one large featureless building. Nothing but a single entryway broke the smooth face of its walls. Would the portal into the Vault be locked as tight as the gate?

"I must get inside," Desti whispered into the breeze. She had to find answers, and everyday sources told her nothing. All the Voxes at the Hall gave the same idiotic responses, no better than the nonsense spouted by most of the Aunts. But here at the Vault, the domain of the Factors -- surely the Vox of the Vault would tell her more.

She tossed another cone to judge the distance, then climbed higher. Back braced against the trunk, toes gripping two angling branches, Desti focused her gaze on the crest of the wall below. The balmy night breeze teased her underyoke, cotton flaps whispering down her torso front and back. Starlight gleamed pale on bare arms, wiry thumbs and forefingers, and on her other fingers, too -- long slender fingers, tucked away through most of her waking hours, useless for anything but escapades like this night's venture. Now fanned out in readiness, they doubled her arm span. She drew a deep breath, crouched, then threw herself forward.

Arms flung out, hands spread wide, Desti caught the air. The wind of her flight filled the membrane that stretched from finger to finger, and rippled in the webbing between arm and side like the fabric of a kite. She glided over the wall, dipped one arm to carve a tight circle, then with a twist of wrists pulled into a stall. She landed as light on her feet as a wild cat, her underyoke brushing her knees as it settled back into place. Fingers and webbing folded out of the way, she stepped up to the portal into the Vault.

This was a voice-command door. She had been through it often enough, but always in the tow of one medic Aunt or another. If it worked differently after hours, if it refused her entry and summoned the Factors-- Desti squared her shoulders. "Open," she said.

The door parted, and interior lights blinked on. "So!" Desti grinned in relief and exultation. "You count on the walls and gateway to keep out the curious." Up until tonight, that had been good enough.

A short corridor led to the waiting room. Desti paused a moment in the doorway and checked the ceiling. No recording lens. Good.

A flicker of movement caught her eye and her breath. "Just the murals, silly," she scolded herself as she wound her way through a clutter of benches and stools and hassocks, heading for the Vox stand against the far wall, hungry for answers and explanations. "A question, please," she said to Vox. Not a question, a whole long list of questions, roiling and surging inside like a horde of bees ready to swarm--

Vox did not answer.

"Information, please," she tried.

Still nothing.

The thrill of anticipation turned sour. "Begin. Respond. Help me."

Vox made no response to any form of petition.

Desti swallowed a sudden bitter taste in her mouth. To make it all the way to her goal without getting caught, then have it slip out of reach again--

She paced in front of Vox. It looked the same as the ones at the Hall and in the dorms. A small grey cube resting on an ornate stand. On the floor before it sat a large shallow dish. Nothing appeared above the dish, not a glimmer, not a gleam.

The other Voxes of the Commons never ignored a petitioner. Desti halted and frowned at the thing. It had no eyescanner, no crisscross punchpad. "There must be some secret to make you work," she told it. "Factors and medics talk with you all the time. How will I ever find out? Hide and spy on the Factors in the morning?"

She shivered. No, not tonight. She wasn't ready for such a vigil. It had taken long enough just to build up the nerve to break in. Desti sighed and glanced around. "Where would I hide, anyway?"

The only breaks in the wall were the arched portals that marked the exit and the hallway to the labs. The hallway was no place to lurk and spy on Factors. Maybe behind a bench.

She walked around the room. The low-slung furniture offered little cover. No large fixtures. No dark corners. Desti tried scrunching down behind the bench furthest from the Vox stand. "No good," she growled and shifted her weight to stand up again.

The floor quivered under her bare foot.

Desti leaped up onto the bench and stared at the floor. A seam creased the floor where none had been a moment before, responding to the touch of bare skin just like drawer openings did in the workroom walls. She arched a brow. If she'd been wearing sandals she never would have triggered the hidden compartment to reveal itself.

Desti traced the crack with one toe, and a finger hole appeared beside it, again behaving like a workroom drawer. She slid the panel aside, revealing an unlit crawlspace beneath the floor. She grinned. A hiding place. Arms braced on either side, she hung her head down into the hole, long black braid of hair dangling, and let her eyes adapt to the dark.

A cushioned stool sat close by, and other furniture shapes appeared further off. Storage, she guessed. She dropped into the crawlway, then stood with eyes at floor level. "Move this bench to the right," Desti said to herself, "and that hassock to the left. A clear view of Vox. Close enough to hear any Factor's petition."

She brushed a cobweb from her bangs, climbed out and slid the hatchway shut. She tried to shift furniture to clear the line of sight.

The furniture wanted to stay in place. The hassock slid back to its original position.

Desti moved it again. Again it inched back into place. She got down on knuckles and knees and looked underneath. Something anchored it to its assigned spot. She sat up on her haunches and sucked her cheeks in thought. Bizarre.

She swiveled the hassock. This time it stayed put. "Crazy place," she muttered. "What, are they afraid someone will steal a stool?" She rotated the bench to clear the line of sight. All set.

Desti looked around the room, watching the murals shift and change, fade in and out, living pictures of the people of Pitera at work and at leisure, in the fields and in the great hall of the Commons -- not true to life miniatures such as Vox displayed, not whimsical flat designs like old Nigma painted, but a graceful, stylized art.

A Mother rocked infant twins to sleep. An elderly Aunt nodded on a sunny porch. In a strawberry patch knelt women of all sizes and shapes, each one robed in a billowy cloak brighter than real life.

Desti had never had much chance to watch the murals before. Other people might sit and wait their turn for advice or medical help, but if Desti showed her face-- Down swooped Aunts, Factors, and medics to hustle her off to the restricted labs.

Desti wrinkled her nose in disgust and glared at the lifeless Vox. "Why won't you answer?" she asked it in frustration. "I got so many questions, but, Lady May! No one'll tell me anything." She aimed a kick at the basin. "Do it, do it," she growled, then sighed. "No, won't do no good."

She scowled and nudged the dish with her toe. Vox wasn't really alive. Most of the others thought it was. It acted like an Aunt. Gave lots of advice. Answered when you spoke. Showed how to do things.

But it was just a machine, like the grain-grinders and fans and wagons. Desti shook her head. You could see how to make a grain-grinder, but how did the Gentry ever build a Vox?

Desti glanced at the portal to the labs. She had no desire to pry in that direction. She knew those rooms far too well.

The dental care lab with picks and buzzers for cleaning teeth.

The chamber where you lay on a table and hold still for five minutes while the walls hum.

The injury care room, with its patient reposers and supply columns and lingering smell of salves and ointments, with medics clustering and fussing over the least of scratches, wrapping a barely sprained ankle, slapping paste on insect bites and poison ivy rashes. Getting stitches was the worst. Not because of the pain -- which was usually worth whatever antic caused the gash -- but because she always fainted at the prick of the suture needle.

And the fourth room. Desti shuddered. That chamber awoke no memories of pain. Worse. That was where you take off your clothes and let the medic check you everywhere while lenses watched from all sides. More than embarrassing. Humiliating.

"It's wrong." Her whisper sounded loud in the silence of the waiting room. "All wrong. Nonsense and silly stories, never the simple truth, and someone always watching, watching."

A tingle crept up her spine. Desti glanced at the ceiling again. Still no snooping lens. Just imagination, then, that she was being observed?

More likely, a sense that she was running out of time. The Factors would soon realize she was missing from her dorm, and go out looking. The walls seemed to close in. Desti felt her heartbeat speed up, and a bead of sweat form on her lip. "Get out," she said under her breath, and lurched for the exit.

Lights winked off and doors snicked shut behind her as Desti hurried into the courtyard. Cool night air caressed her cheeks. She halted, forcing herself to breathe slowly. "Tomorrow night, maybe," she told herself, "time to try again." She took a deep breath and one step toward the gate.

Voices sounded, right outside the wall.

Desti's guts clenched. The Factors.

Not enough time to dash back inside the Vault. Nowhere to hide in the barren courtyard. No way to climb the wall.

The wall. Desti darted to the barrier, to one side of the gateway, and flattened her back against it.

No moons shining. Only starlight. White wall. Her underyoke, white. Her skin, pale. Her hair--

She gulped.

Her hair -- black.

The gate seam whisked open and two thin beams of light appeared, tracing a path ahead of the Factors.

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