As some of you know, I’ve engaged on the occasional fiction-writing project. I’ve had another story idea bouncing around in my head for oh, five or six years now, and I’ve decided to take a stab at beginning on it. This is a more young-adult type story (which you’ll probably pick up in the language style), along the lines of the White Mountains (Tripods) Trilogy. It’s sci-fi. I’m mainly curious whether you find the story, as little as there is of it, interesting or not. I’m not sure how deeply committed I am to it, and am just looking for some “alpha reader” feedback, I suppose.
If you’ve got a kid in the 9-13 range, it might even be worth seeing what they think. I promise, it’s family-friendly.
Feel free to drop a comment, but please, be kind!
When humanity first came to the Achillios, it was in the form of drones, sent by the Alliance to scout for resources. Rare minerals topped the list of things to look for, but the the planet contained no appreciable amount. It had the usual makeup of iron, copper, lead, and the like, but those elements were more easily obtained from asteroids, and so the probe simply noted their presence and moved on. The world also had ample surface water, but again, celestial bodies like comets provided easy access to water without the nuisance of a gravity well, and so the water was noted but not appreciated. Oh, and the world was eminently habitable by humans. That last bit deserved an actual flag in the probe’s report, and in due time resulted in the arrival of colony ships. A name was randomly assigned from a list, and the planet was cleared for eventual colonization.
The colonization of Achillios went about like you’d expect. Humans landed, began setting up encampments, encountered various snags, overcame said snags, and tried to breed like rodents. They engaged in agriculture, animal husbandry, and eventually city building. The various pieces of heavy terraforming equipment–all designed to last centuries, so long as the overly evolved monkeys didn’t tamper with their mechanisms– eventually became distributed between those cities, helping correct for the last few local inconveniences like heavy water, poor soil, and the like. The operation of these machines, not incidentally, became the province of small, insular groups in each city who maintained their technical knowledge more or less the same way religions maintain their origin myths.
Also as you might expect, different cities wound up with different strengths and weaknesses. This one had bountiful crop lands that produced far more than its residents needed; this other one was rich in iron and other ores. One city might farm lumber more successfully, while another might be more successful with aquaculture. Initially, of course, the various cities balanced these surpluses and shortages through amicable trade, and a reasonably robust network of reasonably navigable roads and waterways supported that trade. And again, as you might expect, some city or another eventually decided to forgo the politeness of trade and to instead simply try and take whatever they wanted from the other cities. War, it seemed, was inevitable on human planets where resource distribution wasn’t carefully governed by advanced AIs.
As with most Alliance colonies, the Achillios expedition was forbidden access to advanced technology other than the terraforming gear, which was essentially immobile once fully deployed, and carefully designed to be all but useless for any kind of large-scale aggression. And also as with most Alliance colonies, lack of access to advanced technology didn’t slow humanity down one iota when it came to inflicting damage on their brethren. Iron swords may not have been as efficient as plasma cannons, but they got the job done eventually. And so, as on most Alliance colonies, the cities were quickly fortified, becoming armed and armored citadels, often of substantial size. The Alliance, of course, didn’t care a jot, because any humans backward enough to want to live on the actual surface of an actual planet were considered regressive and deserved whatever happened to them. Colonies weren’t so much an attempt to expand the human race as they were a place to dump unwanted troublemakers who engaged in some sort of unfounded nostalgia for “pastoral lives.” Colonists would round themselves up in various Alliance sectors, form a coalition, and bid on worlds deemed unsuitable for other Alliance uses.
A few hundred years in, Achillios resembled nothing so much as a large-scale medieval Europe. Fortified city-states formed nexuses around which trade, commerce, and battles were conducted. In most cases, the wealthy and strong ruled, while the less-wealthy and less-strong served. Some cities operated on systems almost indistinguishable from Europe’s feudal models, while others achieved something that was somewhat more egalitarian and democratic. One city in particular managed to strike a balance where most citizens were safe and comfortable, if not luxuriating in some kind of colonial paradise, and where the ruling class wasn’t so much set above everyone as they were cheerleading to keep everyone moving in the same direction. While far from a perfect situation, it was perhaps the closest any city on Achillios was able to come to the “pastoral lifestyle” the original nostalgic colonists had envisioned. Of course, the city was also graced with poor land for farming, a near-equatorial overexposure to UV rays from Achillios‘ over-exuberent sun, ready access to iron ore and several precious metals, the usual complement of aggressive neighbors, and a larger-than-usual complement of now-ancient terraforming equipment.
That city was called Alabaster.
Damian awoke with a jolt, sitting upright and blinking in the weak predawn light. Today was the Test, and his mother would be relying on Damian to help corral and comfort his little brother, Kristof. They’d need to leave for the Tower just as the sun rose over the Eastern mountain if they wanted to make it in time. Damian knew Kristof would be nervous, but didn’t know himself what to expect at the Tower. Damian’s own eighth birthday, and his own Selection, had been five years ago. On his own Test Day, however, he’d been seriously ill and sporting a fever, so the Healer his mother had hired signed a temporary waiver. Selection had gone well for the Tower that year, and they’d later confirmed the waiver and not required Damian to appear. None of that would be any help or comfort to Kristof or their mother, though, and so Damian rousted himself from his small bed and shook Kristof awake.
Kristof always woke slowly, yawning and blinking his eyes in the slowly brightening light that came from the sole tiny window in their tiny attic room. At Damian’s urging, he rolled out of bed and began dressing himself. As special a day as Testing was, the Tower prescribed that only simple, everyday work clothing be worn, and so Damian helped Kristof dress himself in one of the worn, gray homespun coveralls that he usually wore around the tavern. As they clambered down the stairs into the main room, they found their mother already awake and drinking a cup of bark tea. She smiled at them. “Good morning, boys.” The boys mumbled a response. “We should be going soon. Damian, don’t forget to bring the scraps bag from the kitchen. We can drop it for recycling on the way.” Damian nodded, and made his way to the kitchen at the back of the tavern’s main room. All households in Alabaster were required to bring their food scraps and waste for recycling at least once a week; the tavern did enough business that the scraps bag was usually full after two or three days, and it was usually Damian’s task to lug it to the nearest recycling point. They’d walk right past that point on their way to the Tower this morning, so it made sense to go ahead and lug it now. Damian hefted the bag and returned to the main room, where his mother had finished her tea. She stood, tried to straighten Kristof’s naturally unruly brown hair, and ushered both boys out the tavern’s front door.
Damian had spent the previous evening, as he had spent most recent evenings, strumming his lute in the tavern’s main room, keeping their guests entertained and thirsty. Alternating between quiet, calming music that let the patrons carry on conversations, and rousing, sing-a-long songs that made them drink more, had proven a perfect combination for the business. Their previous lutist had left three years ago, and Damian, who’d always had a fondness for music, had taken over, making the tavern a truly family business. During one of his breaks last night, several of the regulars had spoken about the next day’s Testing.
“Aw, ’tis nothing,” old Graf had said. “Why, my own brats were in and out in an hour their year. They just sits them down in a chair, tells them no thanks, and offs you go.”
“Our Treesa was picked four years past,” Karla said. “Did me no good for losing her hands in the bakery, but the chit let me finally buy out the deed on the place.” Parents whose children were selected for Service in the Tower, Damian had gathered, received financial compensation. It was apparently pretty significant. Damian wondered if Mother would purchase the deed to the tavern, if Kristof was selected.
“Let’s go, Kristof,” his mother said quietly, interrupting his reverie. “Sun’s almost up and they’ll be starting soon.” The three of them set out into the still-gray morning, the first rays of light just beginning to peek over the sheer cliffs that protected Alabaster’s Eastern side. The tavern was located near the center of the city’s Third Ring, where most of the population lives, and where most craftspeople kept their shops. Alabaster was laid out more or less as a circle, and the streets leading inward and outward were called the Spokes. These Spokes never ran for more than four blocks before you had to cut one way or another on a Radius. Kristof found it deeply inconvenient, as the nearest recycling point was inward, on one of the main Spokes that led to the Second Ring, requiring him to cut over-and-in, over-and-in several times with the heavy bag of food scraps. This morning, they took the walk somewhat more slowly, in deference to Kristof’s shorter stride. The air was cool, but already heavy with the humidity that promised another hot, muggy day.
As they made their way Inward, a few other families emerged from their dwellings and joined them to form a very loose parade. Most sent a single parent along with the child being Tested; a few were accompanied by an older child. Before long, they neared the Gate in the enormous wall that separated the Second Ring from the Third. Alongside one wall, adjacent to the Gate itself, was the large trough where food scraps were dumped. Kristof nodded to the worker who tended to the trough, emptying their bag and then folding it up. The worker smiled, and used his long-handled paddle to push the contents of the trough into a hole at its end. Kristof knew that the recycled food was used for important things, like creating fertilizers for Alabaster’s perpetually challenged farming operations, but he was glad he didn’t have to stand there all day shoving things around in the trough.
The Second Ring housed the buildings of Alabaster’s government, craft Guilds, and foreign Embassies. There were only a few residences, and those were set aside for the working heads of the government, who tended to work long hours. Second Ring also contained Alabaster’s largest squares, where regular markets, fairs, and festivals could be held. It was also the Ring where the entire population of the city could retreat in the event of an attack. The enormous Eastern cliffs formed roughly half of the Second Ring, and those cliffs tapered down to cover all but a quarter of the Ring, making it more protected and easier to defend. The remaining quarter was protected by the wall that Damian, Kristof, and their mother now passed through. The wall itself was twenty or more feet thick, and massive iron gates could be closed to seal it off if needed.
The Second Ring was thinner than the Third, although its Spokes still ran only three or four blocks, requiring them to cut in-and-over a few times before nearing the wall of the First Circle.
First Circle occupied the absolute center of Alabaster, and consisted of an enormous, open space, filled at the center by the Tower itself. Only the Tower Gate provided access to the First Circle, and today it stood half-open, admitting the many families who’d come today to see their eight year-old children through the Test.
The three of them joined the line of families, who were directed through the Gate, and Westward along the inside of the wall. Families kept the wall on their right side, with the Tower looming above on the left, following the wall and being tested in turn. Damian could see the front of the line, and it moved quickly. Old Graf had been right–most families’ children sat down in a blocky, high-backed seat, with one of the Tower’s Servants standing behind it. The child would sit, and after a moment the Servant would nod and say something. Most children were dismissed, and they and their family would return the way they’d come to exit out the Gate and back to their homes or shops. A few were selected, and other Servant would exchange a few words with the parent, and pass them what Damian supposed was the chit he’d heard about. The parent would hug the child, who would then be led away in the opposite direction. The parent, usually with tears trickling down their cheek, made their way back out the Gate.
It only took twenty or so minutes for them to make their way to the front of the line. A short, friendly-looking man in the simple, tan robes of a Tower Servant, smiled at Kristof. “Right this way, young man,” he said in a friendly voice. “Just have a seat right there and lean back a bit.” Kristof looked up at Mother, who smiled and have him a gentle push toward the chair. Damian could see the tears starting to well up in her own eyes. Kristof sat down.
The Servant standing behind the chair seemed to be looking at the back of it, and both of his gray, bushy eyebrows shot up. “Um, Father Ambrose? Would you mind?”
The shorter Servant who’d been at the front of the line frowned, and walked over to the back of the chair. His own eyebrows rose. He looked up at Mother, and walked over. “Ma’am, your son has been called into the Tower’s Service,” he said quietly. “But… well, I must say he shows a stronger potential than we ordinarily see. Is this–” and here, he gestured to Damian, “–is this your other son?”
“Yes,” Mother answered. “This is Damian.”
“And was he not tested in his eighth year?” The Servant asked.
“Oh!” Mother exclaimed, holding a hand over her mouth. “Oh, he was terribly ill, and a Healer wrote a waiver. I should have brought it! It was confirmed later, but I didn’t think–”
“No, no, madam, I’m sure everything is in order,” the Servant said, raising his hands in a calming gesture. “May I ask if your family is originally from Alabaster?”
“No,” she answered, “my first husband was a Road Trader. But he fell ill on the Road on our way here, and died shortly after we arrived.” She placed a hand on Damian’s shoulder, and Damian was struck with the realization that, in the past year, he’d grown to match her height. “Damian was only four at the time, and the Road is no place for a single woman and a child. So I applied to settle here. I remarried a couple of years later, and we had Kristof.”
“And is Kristof’s father still alive?”
“No,” she said, shaking her head quietly. “The attacks three years ago–”
“I understand,” he said, placing a hand on her arm. “It’s fine. It’s just that–well, potential tends to run in families. How old are you, young man?” he looked now at Damian.
“Thirteen,” Damian said.
“And are you apprenticed?”
Damian nodded. “Master Thorvald has agreed to take me on. I’m to start next week.”
“Ah! I know Master Thorvald well, he makes some of the finest musical instruments in the city. On the entire continent, I daresay. But you say you’re to start next week?” Damian nodded. “Then you’re currently considered unattached, by city law,” he said. “So, if you please, we’d like you to take the Test now.” He gestured to the chair. Another Servant had come over and helped Kristof out, and was holding his hand while watching the proceedings.
Damian swallowed hard. This isn’t how he’d imagined his day going. He walked slowly to the chair. It was white, and seemed to be made out of the same material as the Tower itself, a sort of hard-looking, pure-white stone. It had been slightly worn over the years from all the young children getting in and out of it. Damian turned, and lowered himself onto the seat.”
“Lean back, please,” said the Servant standing behind him. Damian leaned back. There was a moment of silence. “Five, Father Ambrose,” the voice said again, tinged with astonishment.
“Five,” Father Ambrose breathed. “Madam,” he said, turning almost reverentially to Mother, “I’m sure this will be hard for you, and it will certainly vex Master Thorvald, but today both of your sons are called into the Tower’s Service.” He passed mother two strips of leather. “Please accept this as compensation, along with the gratitude of the entire city. We will send word to the Master that his apprentice has passed the Test.”
“You can stand, my boy,” said the Servant who’d been holding Kristof’s hand. He held a hand now to Damian, who took it and stood. The man smiled kindly, his eyes crinkling at their edges. “You should say goodbye to your mother. You’ll see her again, but not for quite some time.”