“The problem with rune-tech, a problem exacerbated by our reluctance to acknowledge it as a problem, is that despite twenty-eight years of research, development, application, and deployment, it remains indistinguishable from magic.”–Saadiq Sebastian DuChamps, RUNExpo Chicago, 2055
“Captain Tamrielle Surinam.” I give my name to my medicine band, a shiny bracelet on my right wrist. “Sanity is nothing more than consensus of perception.”
My passphrase. It’s not strictly true, but I like it. Dad used to say that.
The band flashes green and scrolls my vitals. Looks like I’m going to have a good day. The medicine band monitors all kinds of things from its vantage point on my wrist, but every so often I’m required to talk to it directly. Presortie is one of those times—last-minute assurance that my head is on straight. My brush with insanity eighteen months ago notwithstanding, I’m still the best runecracker that Runewrought Ampersand Dynamics has.
Sometimes I wonder whether my value to R&D went up after I touched the crazy place. Not that it matters. They’ve invested ten years of education and training in me, not to mention whatever it cost them when they bought my commission from the army. And then there was the soulbone surgery. I’m an expensive asset.
“Tasty drugs today, ma’am?” Milholland shouts over the roaring engines. He’s a big white guy with an easy smile.
“I’m too high to taste ’em,” I shout back. “You’d better ask me how many fingers I’m holding up.” And then I flip him off.
Laughter. We’re not nervous. No more so than usual, anyway. The six of us—me, Milholland, White, Betts, Nguyen, and Groberg—are flying from Vegas to Delta, Utah, where a power station has gone dark. There was no 911 call, there were no calls at all, and now nobody picks up. Whatever happened, it was big, it was bad, and it was fast.
That probably means it swept in from another world and needs to be put down or put back. Or both. R&D dispatched us with two fire teams and three trucks of support to troubleshoot.
“This one’s kind of spooky, Cap’n,” says Nguyen over the group channel, his voice clear over the now-muted engine noise. “I think we may want the rest of the trucks to hang further back, just in case.”
“I’m with Nguyen,” says Milholland. “Those folks have families to go home to tonight. We need to be the canaries in the coal mine on this one.”
“You do know that the canary-in-the-coal-mine thing only works if the miners can watch ’em die,” says White, his pale, skinny hands pantomiming a fluttering bird suddenly dropping dead.
“Nice try,” says Groberg with a frown that nicely complements his mustache. “They’ve got our telemetry. They can watch us die from Wales. I say keep ’em back.”
“What do you think, Betts?” I ask. Me, I don’t want to risk hauling forty-eight people into a death trap if six will accomplish the same senseless waste.
“They should stay the hell back,” she says. “I want to be able to shoot indiscriminately.”
Betts has a pig iron, just like Nguyen. People with magic bullets are allowed to shoot indiscriminately.
“Milholland, call dispatch,” I say. “Keep ’em two klicks out, south side, between the plant and town.”
We’re AFTT. It’s short for “Angels Fear to Tread,” the name we selected over “Fools Rush In.” Same difference. We go in first. We never know what we’re in for, but we’re the team that expects the unexpected and delivers the impossible. Maybe we’re heroes. Maybe we’re the canaries in the coal mine.
From above, the Intermountain Power station in Delta looks like giant stacks of white concrete boxes in the middle of a vast, verdant pasture marked with a pair of radiating streaks of brown. Our response truck circles above the facility, banking to give us a better view of the site. No smoke, which is a good sign for a power plant. Canaries haven’t been used in coal mines in a hundred years, and coal hasn’t been burnt for power in a decade. Intermountain Power is all rune-tech these days. It’s efficient, clean, and reliable. Except right now, when it’s not. At any rate, nothing is supposed to be burning here, and nothing is.
I don’t see any structural damage, but there are some star-like dots…
“I make out four bodies in the quad,” says Nguyen.
Yup. That’s what those are. Damn.
“Confirmed,” I say. “What else?”
“Are those brown swaths normal?” Milholland asks.
I look where he’s pointing. The station is surrounded by rich pasture, but there are two dry, dead streaks running through it for maybe a thousand meters, with several smaller streaks branching off of them. The station itself has no green amid it.
“I don’t know,” I answer. “Driver, swing us over that.”
The truck responds with a fresh whine atop the engine roar. It’s unsettling. Most vehicles are silent, but we’re not flying on rune power. If something has gone crooked with the rune-banks here in Delta, we’re better off avoiding possible interference. We’re aloft on jet fuel and Tesla turbines—conventional engines delivering ordinary, air-driven lift. Loud, smelly, and very unlikely to fail.
Or, at least, unlikely to fail here. I know of several rune combinations that could shut down internal combustion, weld moving metal into a solid block, suck a battery dry, or just swat us out of the sky. In fact, I can do all of that with my soulbone. But weapon-words like those don’t belong in a power plant.
“I think the brown is new,” says Nguyen. “The whole plant is brown like that. There should be some landscaping in the quad.”
“Pulling it up now,” says White, swiping his finger back and forth across his tablet. “Green, green green, yeah. Apple, Bing, Google, Glyphi, and NASA agree. The site should be green all the way to the concrete. Muddy on the driving path, but green everywhere else.”
Five sources. White’s thorough, if skittish. I like him. Not enough to date him, even if that were something that HR allowed, but he’s solid.
I consider the brown streaks again. They’re wide where they meet the facility, curving and tapering to crisp points out amid the green a kilometer away. The smaller intersecting streaks make it look almost like a rune of some—
“SHIT!” I hit the panic button on the left side of my goggles, and the left eyepiece goes black. So do five other left eyepieces—the panic buttons work for the whole team…
["Fall of the Runewrought" by Howard Tayler is part of SPACE ELDRITCH II, anthology of Lovecraftian pulp space opera, on sale now!]