Ex Machina

By Margaret Ronald

Judith floundered through the snow, her legs burning with cold. "Guide us, One. One who sows, One who cares for," she muttered, taking no comfort in the old prayer. "One who reaps, One who plucks. . . ." Ahead of her, the track dimmed to a bare shadow on the snow, winding around the side of the mountain to disappear into a wall of white.

She'd heard winter came on fast in the mountains. What she hadn't understood was how fast the mountains themselves came on. Before the pilgrims had noticed the drop in temperature, they were on a steep hillside already bearing traces of frost. Storm clouds swirled down to engulf them.

". . . Who cries with the infant, who laughs with the mother . . ."

Stefan was back there somewhere. If Judith had had the sense to halt their pilgrimage and set up a proper camp a day earlier, they could have prepared for this, and someone would have convinced the boy to wear shoes. Instead he was barefoot and frostbitten.

". . . Who races along the lightning's path, who sings upon the waves of light . . ."

A shadow loomed out of the snow, sudden as a stroke. Judith blinked and focused on a startled man in a green uniform. His weapon—

Projectile firing, second-generation trigger mechanism, poorly turned barrel—

She jerked her attention away, even as her techsense told her that he was holding it wrong. He stared at her in disbelief, but didn't move to stop her. Maybe he wasn't real. Surely a real guard would stop her, not just crane forward to look at her stomach as she struggled past.

White rose up on either side of her, and by this point she almost welcomed it. ". . . Who speaks to us through trance and call . . ." She stumbled and fell to her hands, the last words of the prayer erasing themselves just as the snow had erased all else. "Oh One . . . why even call us if we're just going to die?"

A gust of wind blew snow into her mouth, choking her. She spat and cursed, then blinked, staring down at the black metal under her hands. The rutted track had become a flat, paved surface, and she'd tripped over the first step of a staircase.

She turned. The path stopped here and flattened out into a circular cul-de-sac, walled by steep, snow-covered cliffs. Even through the snow she could see the angular lines of a door. The other pilgrims had followed; to Judith's relief, someone had picked up Stefan and handed the three-year-old over to his mother. They all huddled together for warmth, waiting for her to speak.

Shapes coalesced out of the snow, resolving into more men, all in green, all armed. Judith cursed silently. She'd been so concerned with staving off techtrance brought on by the man's weapon—and so mazed by the snow—that it hadn't even occurred to her to consider the man himself a danger. Some of the tinkers stared at the men in fascination, but the more disciplined among them kept their eyes firmly on Judith.

The men parted to let another through, this one shorter but with more ornamentation on his uniform. His hair was gray shot with white, as was his expansive mustache, and the lines around his eyes could have been kindly on another face. "Hollow Base is off limits to civilians," he said.

Judith shook her head. "We are called."

"I don't care who called you; you get off my base right—"

He stopped, and the sentry Judith had first seen hurried up. "Look," the man said, pointing at Judith's body. "It's like you said."

Judith took a step back, then realized her coat had fallen open. Her sash was worn and travel-stained, but it was green with yellow thread, and sufficient to mark her.

"I saw it when they came up," the sentry said. "It's just like the pictures—"

The older man held up his hand, silencing the sentry. "You're tinkers," he said. Judith nodded. "Tinkers. Well, well. Welcome, then. Welcome to Hollow Base."

He bowed to her, and after a moment, she returned it. As she straightened up, he turned back to the men. "Wilson! Potocki! Get those doors open."

The uniformed men saluted and turned to the door. Judith sighed and glanced at her fellow tinkers, who looked as baffled as she felt. "Stefan," she said. "Are you all right?"

"Fine," he said. His gaze was fixed on the weapon of the closest guard, who, misunderstanding, gave the boy a tentative smile.

The men herded them through a wide door and into warmth. To Judith it was as if a large, damp pillow had smacked her in the face; the air here was thick with water vapor and smelled faintly of rotten eggs. Behind her, Stefan complained, but the other tinkers were too glad of the warmth to mind him.

The hall itself was undistinguished: plain and utilitarian, carved from the rock of the mountain itself without thought for design or aesthetics. While the power needed to shape the mountain must have been immense, Judith's awe was muted by the lack of care given to it. Each corridor was plain granite, without even the slightest decoration, as if the makers couldn't be bothered. She found herself mentally tracing the veins in the stone just to have some sense of differentiation between one hallway and the next.

A low roar reached her ears, so deep it seemed to come by way of her feet, an endless thrum of machinery in the earth. Huge turbines, perhaps, continually turning—geothermal power, of course, with at least two sets of monitoring systems by the sound of it—Judith clamped down on her techsense and forced herself not to hear it. But if she wanted to block out all distractions here, then she would have to blindfold herself and stuff cotton in her ears.

Not only did the men carry weapons, but each wore a communicator clipped to his belt—short-range radio, decaying circuitry in at least three out of every four boards, her techsense told her. Every door they passed opened onto some marvel of engineering. They passed two computer terminals set into the wall; Judith stared at the floor.

At last they reached a wide hall, taller than two houses stacked atop each other, wide enough to hold a hundred tinkers or more. The few men who stood at attention along the wall seemed dwarfed by its scale, swallowed up by the great unused expanse of space. A staircase traced an arc along the wall to a mezzanine, likewise empty. Again, the construction had been carried out without beauty; the grandeur it now possessed was wholly due to its emptiness. The mustached man swept an arm toward the hall, as if showing off a panoramic view. "Madam Tinker, if you would be so kind—?" Judith glanced back at her tinkers, but none moved to stop her, and she followed him up the stairs.

Arched openings led off from the balcony in every direction, some shuttered by wooden doors. The mustached man escorted Judith through one of the central doors. "If you will wait here a moment, Madam Tinker, I need to fetch another member of my staff."

Judith risked a glance at the lock; nothing she couldn't handle. "Certainly," she said, keeping the quaver from her voice. He smiled again, the corners of his mustache twitching, and closed the door on her.

The room was as bare as the rest of the base, though there were a few traces of personality. Several stools lined one wall, facing the broad desk and its cushioned chair. A broken base station for the communicators trailed wires over the top of the cabinet. Judith bit her lip. Exhaustion and techtrance gnawed at her, and the urge to take the damn thing down and fix it swelled like hunger in her.

"He could come back at any minute," she muttered aloud. On the other hand, her techsense whispered, better to do it now than succumb in the middle of a conversation. . . .

She could even see where it was broken. . . .

When she looked up from the nearly reassembled communicator, the mustached man had returned, and another man stood in the doorway with him. "I—my apologies—" she stammered, jerking her hands away. "I hoped to have it fixed before you returned."

"Fixing it, eh? So Thomas here was explaining. Any success?"

"Yes." She flipped a switch, and a faint crackle emerged from the speaker, followed by the bored voice of someone who didn't really believe anyone was listening but who was reporting in out of habit.

"I'll be damned." He picked up the communicator, shook it, and set it back on the cabinet. "Hah. I will be damned. That hasn't worked since my predecessor's day; we've had to use the decentralized one-to-one links instead. Amazing. This calls for a drink." He took a bottle from the top shelf of the cabinet. "Would you like some?"

"Thank you, no."

"More for me, then. Well, Madam Tinker," he said, pouring himself a tumblerful of amber liquid, "welcome to Hollow Base. I am Commander Matthew Cortland, and this is Sublieutenant Thomas Tikma, our archivist." The other man nodded as he dragged one of the stools forward. He was a lean man, pale with the passing of some illness, and a number of scars marred the skin of his throat. His eyes, though, were a hawk's, and never wavered from Judith. "And you, Madam Tinker, must have a name of some kind?"

"Judith," she said. "Of the Tharsian tinkers. Or formerly so."

"Judith, Judith," he said. "And your title? I mean, you're in command of this ragtag band, and I can't just go on calling you 'Madam Tinker.' Sister Judith? Arbiter Judith? First Walker Judith?"

Her cheeks flamed. "Not—not really. We all know where we're going; I just tell us how to get there."

"Hah. A better definition of the position I have never heard. It will be a relief, a positive relief, to be able to speak with someone who shares the duties of command."

"I'm not in command," she protested.

Cortland raised a hand. "No need to be modest. Now, the situation as I see it is that you need someplace to stay. We can certainly put you up for a while."

"We won't need to stay long. We can't. We are following the call of One."

Cortland whuffled through his mustache. "You're what for who?"

"Following the call of One," she repeated. "We . . . Most of us are from Tharsia; some are from the surrounding country. In the spring, we—we tinkers—were given a vision. We saw a place, a low building in the center of a valley."

A one-story building, lying like a coin at the bottom of a green basin. She saw it again in memory, though never so vividly as when it had appeared in the flames of her piecework kiln. And above the door, the emblem that all of them had committed to heart: a bird of prey, wings spread, clutching a fish in its talons. The old sign of One, given them in the days of the Before. "We knew we were needed there—that One required our presence. So we left."

"They can't have been happy about it." Both Judith and Cortland looked at Thomas, who ducked away from their gazes. "About all the tinkers leaving, I mean; all their technical expertise walking out of the city."

"They weren't happy, no." There had been more tinkers then; Stefan's grandmother had still been alive, for one—and Stefan's father had been in the crowd of Tharsians blocking the road. As had Piotr, who'd once brought Judith bright feathers from the birds he raised.

"Well, I'm sure this One will understand if you have to stay here a while. Better than freezing, eh? I've ordered the guardians to make ready the south barracks."

"Your pardon, but who are the guardians?"

Cortland opened his mouth, but it was Thomas who spoke. "We are," he said. His voice was rough and saw-edged, a stark contrast to Cortland's round tones. "The towns of the mountains and foothills send their best and brightest to Hollow Base as guardians, to protect the legacy of our ancestors for our descendants." It had the cadence of catechism. Judith wondered if it was only her imagination that heard the barest sardonic edge. She tried to look away, but was drawn back to that scarred, harsh gaze.

"Yes, well, Thomas has summed it up nicely for you. We provide electricity, the towns provide food through the winter—and new recruits every five years to replace those at the end of their shifts. Best and brightest, hmm." He took a swallow of his drink and grimaced appreciatively. "Hollow Base has a long and proud tradition, Madam Judith. In my predecessor's predecessor's time, we had influence over every town you could see on a clear day. Not a village was founded but that the settlers looked to us for approval. Great days, great days."

He was silent a moment, a faraway look in his eyes. Judith waited a moment to see if he'd say more. "Is that still the case?" she asked to prod him on.

Thomas shook his head. "No. Weapons ran out."

Cortland shot a furious glance at him. "Hah. That's a broad oversimplification, Sublieutenant, very broad. Though," he added, "not entirely without merit. Hollow Base did have a number of weapons of the Before, and my predecessor's predecessor instituted a tradition of diplomacy in the surrounding towns by, hmm, judiciously choosing which side to supply. Nothing for you to worry about, my dear; those days are long behind us. Though if your band feels any inspiration to, ah, design anything, do let me know."

"We won't be staying long," she said again, knowing the storm outside gave the lie to her words.

"Well, then, I won't keep you. I'll have Murcheson show you to the south barracks; the rest of your troop should be there by now. Stay as long as you like; I'm sure we can use some extra technical help around the place."

I'm sure you could. She forced a smile. Cortland crinkled his mustache at her again.

The guardian at the door escorted her down one of the indistinguishable halls. Every place can use some help when the tinkers come through. Even the innocent requests delayed them, and charming as Cortland was, she wouldn't describe him or this place as innocent.

The passage Murcheson led her down was even more drab than the entry hall. Years of use had smoothed a trail down the center of the hall, but to either side dust lay in strata, and though someone had made a halfhearted attempt to brush down cobwebs, gray shadows hung in every corner, home to generations of spiders. If the hall hadn't been brightly lit at intervals, it could have been scary; as it was, Judith felt the pressure of techtrance and the mountain's weight more than any fear.

At least, she believed so until a gravelly voice broke into her thoughts. "I can escort her from here, Murcheson." A shadow unfolded out of a side passage, recognizable as Thomas only when he came into the light. Judith stepped back, her heart beating unaccountably fast.

The guardian looked dubious. "Cortland's orders—"

"I'll take your kitchen shift."

Murcheson grinned. "You got it." He nodded in acknowledgment to Judith and wandered off, whistling.

Thomas walked with her in silence till the whistling faded, then cleared his throat and grimaced. "You should know something."

I should know a lot of things, Judith thought.

"You're not the first tinkers through here."

Her breath caught. "You've seen them? When? How many?"

Thomas shook his head. "I don't mean recently. None of us had even seen a tinker until you came along. I mean that the archives hold records of tinkers passing through this way. Through Hollow Base, in fact. It's not clear what they did, but the base changed hands soon after." Thomas stopped to cough again; it seemed to be a permanent affliction. "I made the mistake of telling Cortland about them, and he demanded more research. That's how he recognized you."

"You're a historian?"

He shook his head. "I was looking for old plans of the station, hoping to find something we could use to repair our systems." He cast a sidelong glance at Judith. "Those of us without your talent have to resort to the archives."

Archives—not for history, but for technical knowledge. It was a foreign concept to Judith, though she could see the point. When it came to techsense, all tinkers had access to the relevant knowledge, but for someone not a tinker, finding the right document must have been like—like digging through sand. "I see. Thank you." She smiled wanly. "It's good to know I wasn't leading us completely wrong, then."

"Yes—and no." He rubbed at his throat, and she guessed something of how much it hurt him to talk for this long. "This isn't a good place for you to be."

"I had gathered that already."

"Had you?" He stopped at the edge of an arch and ran a hand along its worn edges. From past him came the voices of her tinkers, the words as yet indistinguishable. "Cut off your own hand before you trust Cortland. It will be less painful in the long run."

Before she could ask more, he turned and walked down one of the passages, leaving Judith to stare after him.

A whiff of savory scent drifted past, and her mouth watered. When had they last eaten? Before the snow, that was certain. Before the mountains, maybe.

The voices quieted as she drew near. Cortland's word had been good; the south barracks were clean and warm, though they'd have settled for just plain warm at the moment. Bunks lined the walls, many more than could be used by the guardians, and the cobwebs were less in evidence here.

At the far end of the barracks the tinkers had made their own huddled colony, dwarfed by the lines of bunks to either side. Faded cloth had been strung up to give the illusion of privacy. From this end it had the look of a wreck of colored windmills. Still, it was indoors, and that was a luxury they hadn't had for a long time.

Milla was dishing out portions from a stewpot over a hastily rigged burner; her belly made the whole process difficult. Judith gazed at her, drumming her fingers against her thigh; this was another reason they had to reach the valley soon. Milla had claimed she was only seven months along, but even that put a strain on her, especially after walking all day, every day for the last few months.

Those with food were seated in a semicircle facing Evram, who stood with the records of their history open before him. He noted Judith's arrival but did not greet her just yet. Instead he held the scrolls aloft. "The day's reading."

The assembled tinkers murmured assent, the hungrier and less devout among them snatching bites of Milla's stew. Evram glared at them, closed his eyes, and theatrically twirled the spindles of the scrolls, unspooling them to a random selection. Judith, who'd long known his readings were anything but random, braced herself.

"Of the Selection of One's People." Of course. "'And the people said, We fear that our knowledge may be lost. And One said, Do not fear, for I will choose among you certain of your folk, and give unto them machines of the blood, that they may know the lightning's path, and the mysteries of light, and the knowledge to heal that which was made and not born. For learning fails, and inscriptions weather away, and records molder, but the blood carries on.'"

Judith accepted a bowl of stew from Milla, thanked her, and went to sit next to Zakial.

"'But upon these people shall be placed My call, that they may aid me when healing is needed, for even I am not eternal.'"

A claim that had always baffled Judith. If One was not eternal, how could it be watching over them? She knew why Evram had chosen the passage, though: to remind them what had brought them this far and draw them away from this den of temptation.

Some had already succumbed to the lures of Hollow Base. Those who weren't eating were crouched over repairs, all tech she'd seen the guardians carrying. Two of them were even working on what looked like a computer's motherboard. Cortland had wanted the tinkers to make themselves useful; well, they were certainly doing that. Too much tech—and despite Evram's admonitions, the vision of the valley was months in the past.

It sometimes bothered Judith that One had chosen a people, given them the gift of techsense, and then imposed his call on them. Even if the call came only once in a generation—less, since Judith's parents had never mentioned it—it was still impractical, and conflicted with techsense to such a degree that they might have been meant as opponents. Techsense could distract them from the call so easily, and they had no way to shut it off. Machines of the blood, so the scrolls said, but tinkers' blood was as red as any man's—as they had seen outside Tharsia. And yet, the techsense was invaluable, if annoying when you didn't have leisure to exercise it.

Evram had finished and was looking at her expectantly. She sighed, set aside the bowl, and got to her feet. The murmurs that had started back up at reading's end ebbed, and she waited till most were silent.

"First of all, is anyone hurt?" Most shook their heads. "Nothing bad? Good. Second, I've talked to Commander Cortland, the man who runs this place. He's offered us their hospitality as long as we want." She paused a moment to let all the meanings of that sink in. "I don't have to tell you that that's a gift with a sting in it, at least for us." A few of those with repairs in their laps turned scarlet. No shame, she wanted to tell them; I failed as well. "But at the moment, we need that hospitality, because it's either that or freeze. Tonight we rest. Tomorrow we work on what we'll need." She glanced at Milla and smiled. "And take comfort, all of you. It's another evening, we're still alive, and we're still following the call."

That brought a light back into the foggiest eyes. She returned to Zakial, who handed her the bowl of stew. "Are you sure we'll be all right?" he murmured.

"Cortland's harmless. Or seems so." She paused, thinking of Thomas's words, then shook her head; if they left soon, they could stay out of whatever quarrel the guardians had. "It's this place, Uncle. The tech for one, the guardians themselves for another. Either could keep us here."

"You need to rest. You're driving yourself too hard."

She thought of what Cortland had said about "the duties of command." "I'll get used to it."

None of them slept well that night; most of them had gotten so used to sleeping on the ground that even plain bunks felt strange. Judith dreamed again of the valley, and the building marked with a bird of prey, and woke in a foul mood.

Thankfully, others weren't as irritable as she, and some had begun construction of the necessary devices. Evram and Aushe had a long argument about insulation, Binah put together a rudimentary device for monitoring one's own body heat, and Stefan threw a tantrum when forced to wear boots. Judith spent the morning, or tried to spend it, sliding in and out of techtrance and modulating their portable heaters. The tinkers worked more slowly than they had in Tharsia; most of their tools for really fine work—repairs so small they couldn't be seen—had been too bulky to carry.

Three times Cortland called her up to his office. Each time he required little conversation of her, seemingly content to pour her a drink and ramble about the proud tradition of Hollow Base. Judith watched the liquid in her untouched glass as her senses dulled. Maybe the man wasn't entirely harmless, she thought; he could probably bore someone to death at twenty paces.

On her return from the third meeting she saw Thomas and two other guardians talking with Milla and Aushe at the close end of the barracks. They were discussing tech, though it wasn't going well; the tinkers had a difficult time explaining what for them was instinctive.

She let her gaze rest on Thomas. He glanced up and met her eyes, and she felt a flicker of something—not techsense or call, and certainly not reason. Something that could be dangerous here. Milla, too, gave the guardian she was teaching more smiles than his progress warranted. Well, her husband was back in Tharsia; he'd been one of those who tried to stop the tinkers. Many of the women in her band had left lovers or husbands behind, and here all the guardians were male, and most were young, strong, and attentive. . . .

She touched the two long rods that held her braids in place. Both were tools, made as part of her coming-of-age ceremony, one with a beam that could solder or slice, the other a manipulator meant for finework. Now that she was away from Tharsia, she could admit that she'd intentionally made them small and inoffensive in order to downplay her status as a tinker. Piotr had complimented her hair, but never her repairs.

Her thoughts didn't quiet any, and she evaded Thomas later on, going so far as to duck behind Binah's curtains. It's for the best, she told herself; better just to stay out of it.

At length most of the guardians left, and she was able to put her head down and try to think. Even this moment of peace was broken by another guardian with yet another summons from Cortland.

Zakial cast a worried glance at her. "It's almost dinner. You want me to hold some for you?"

"No," Judith muttered, stabbing her hairsticks through her braids. "Just make sure Stefan doesn't lose his boots again."

By now she could almost find her own way to Cortland's office—which was good, since the guardian who led her kept turning back to stare at her in superstitious awe. Word of the repairs had made it through Hollow Base. She wondered what mix of myth and rumor had come to this particular guardian. He made a little bow to her at the door of Cortland's office.

"Ah, Madam Judith. Delighted to see you again." Cortland rose and grasped her hand. "I thought I'd take you on a tour of Hollow Base."

She forced a smile. "It would be an honor, Commander."

"Splendid." He bowed and opened the door for her. "There's something I wondered when I first came to Hollow Base," he said as they followed a passage leading off the mezzanine. "I'm sure you have, too. Why are we called guardians? What are we guarding?"

"I was curious," she admitted.

"Common wisdom has it," he continued, "that it's the power plant. Poetic, certainly, but hardly convincing: there are several plants within a week's travel, and, while our generator is certainly the oldest and most reliable, it's not the only one."

He paused. "Here's our first stop." He reached across Judith to open a door—steel instead of wood, she noticed just before sulfurous air assailed her. Cortland motioned her inside, and she stepped into a room—

A room as long as a house, walled with computers, with control panels, with tech and tech and tech—

She clamped her hands over her ears and screwed her eyes shut. Cut off your hand before you trust Cortland, she thought. Fool. Foolish girl.

He waited a moment, standing squarely in the doorway, then carefully shut the door behind him. Judith drew a deep breath, opened her eyes, focused on his feet, and followed them up till she reached his face. "This is our control room," he said calmly, as if this were still a simple tour. "We can divert some of the turbines' power from here, control some of what we produce. You can hear the generators from here, too, and Madam Judith, I wouldn't put it past you to deduce their number just from the sound." He smiled, his eyes twinkling. "Did you wonder why there are so many?"

Judith's lips parted. She had been careful not to pay attention to the sound, but it had been in the back of her mind the whole time. Some part of her, some machine of her blood had recognized it. The towns for miles around wouldn't use this much power. How much of her perception of Hollow Base had been tempered by that knowledge? Were the rooms really too large for those within them, or had her techsense been trying to tell her something? "I think the power's being diverted somewhere else," she managed, trying to sound in control of herself.

"You think it, Madam Judith. I know it. Anyone who works this room knows it—or guesses it soon enough." He laid a hand on one console, and Judith winced away from the sight of it. "We have access to a bare minimum of these controls; more than two-thirds of them are locked—locked, against us, who should reap the benefits of our station! The power that goes out is more than adequate, and yet it is a tenth of our output."

It took no techsense to see where that led. "And you want me to tell you where it goes."

"A more relevant question, Madam Judith, is what do you want. I would guess that you want to continue your pilgrimage. Tell me, what would happen if you did not go?"

"I—suppose the others would go on without me—"

"Not you individually. What if none of your band went any farther than Hollow Base?"

None of her band? It was unthinkable; they would go on, they had to go on. "Other bands—there are other tinkers—"

"You're sure of that? But I suppose what I really want to know is what if that 'call' went unanswered."

"I—I don't know." She managed a weak smile. "It's not something I've ever really thought—"

The last word died from her lips as the wall behind Cortland blurred into grainy color—as her kiln had, when the call of One came. And as before, the colors separated to form images, pictures that burned into her brain.

Vats of poison, far beneath the earth. Vials containing plague, stacked by the millions in rooms wider than a town plaza. Huge vaults that held only metal—but metal that was poison in its nature. And machines, thousands of them, each marked by the bird and fish, working to keep these toxins sealed away, purifying them scrap by scrap.

Then the scene changed, as if some blight had been called down from heaven, and the machines failed, rusted away, unable to repair themselves. The vats slowly cracked. The vaults were left open. Contamination. Death.

The vision shimmered to rainbow-flecked nothingness, and she caught herself against a console. Her heart was pounding, as if her blood had thickened—as if the machines of the blood had rebelled at the very thought of the call being ignored. She raised her head to stare at Cortland. "Death," she rasped. "We would all die—the world would wither."

"Really." He smiled. "Well, that will make things much easier."

"You can't—you can't possibly want that to happen."

Cortland shook his head, like a teacher correcting a dim pupil. "Let me restate that. This death will happen if you don't go on, right? Well, if you don't do as I ask, Madam Judith, you won't leave Hollow Base. None of you will. And therefore, logically, if you don't do as I ask, you'll be responsible for the world withering, as you so nicely put it." Lazily, he unclipped his weapon from his belt, checked the ammunition, and raised it. "After all, you won't be able to go anywhere if your people are hurt. It wouldn't take much—hobbling pegs, snipped tendons, simple broken bones." He smiled again. "Who knows? I might even be able to start up my predecessor's predecessor's diplomacy again—and with the added generators, who knows how far Hollow Base could extend its influence? Great days again, great days."

Judith backed away until her hands brushed the console behind her, then jumped as someone pounded on the door. Swearing, Cortland shifted his aim—to Thomas, who flung the door open so hard it banged against the wall. "Sublieutenant. Do come in. Kindly shut the door behind you."

Thomas glanced at her, taking in the situation. His lip curled as he met Cortland's gaze, but he did as the commander said. "You're an utter bastard, Cortland," he growled. "The first people at Hollow Base that aren't under your control, and you immediately try to claim them—"

"That's rather overstating it, Thomas, don't you think?" Cortland's pink cheeks darkened to red. "Don't think I don't know how many of my guardians you've corrupted with your whole 'best and brightest' dung. All of them willing to turn their backs on our proud tradition, willing to settle for being maintenance workers, janitors for a glorified power plant—"

"Your proud tradition apparently means that you use the first tool that comes to hand to plunder Hollow Base—"

"We tinkers are not a tool!" Judith snapped. "Not yours, not his, not anyone's!" Both men turned to stare at her, and she realized that they'd almost forgotten her presence. "Commander, do you swear to let me and my band go if I do this for you?"

Cortland bowed. "You have my word."

"Judith, no, you can't trust him—"

"It's that or death," she murmured, knowing he wouldn't understand. Cortland smiled.

Forcing her techsense away, she turned to examine the controls. They were locked by something more than just password or key; there were a number of medical sensors linked to it, including one that seemed meant for a blood sample. Very difficult to crack. And yet she could see why Cortland wanted them; the power from Hollow Base wasn't going unused. Something—something big and nearby—used it as its primary power source.

Her tracing figures found a mark on the underside of the console. It took on—not quite familiarity, but some kind of meaning—under her touch. Frowning, she leaned down for a better look. The mark was in low relief, and the light here was at the wrong angle, but her eyes followed her fingers to an image stamped by the console's makers: a bird of prey clutching a fish.

And Judith understood. It wasn't a revelation from One, or forgotten wisdom from the scrolls, but simple reason and experience. All she had seen explained it—why they were here, why she'd led them into the mountains, even why Hollow Base was guarded.

Imagine a machine, a machine many times beyond what even Zakial had ever constructed, meant to keep the poisons of the Before quarantined. A machine that did more than that, that held a repository of all the technical knowledge of the Before, that disseminated it to thousands of other machines in the blood of tinkers. But it would need to be repaired—and it would need people to make those repairs. For even it was not eternal. She laughed in wonder and delight.

Cortland snarled. Still laughing, Judith turned to face him, but something shoved her hard in the back. The weapon went off as she hit the floor, and behind her Thomas choked out a sudden cry. She rolled on her side to see him sprawled on the floor, one hand pressed to a spreading bloodstain over his left hip. Cortland stood over him, the gun shaking. "Very gallant, Sublieutenant. But you can't push them all out of the way."

Thomas croaked an obscenity, and Cortland raised the gun again. "No!" Judith cried, climbing to her knees. "No. I cannot—cannot give you an answer tonight, Cortland. Please—I am weary, and I have been visited by One, and the vision—"

Cortland glared at her, then shifted his gaze to Thomas. "Is this usual?"

"The religious stuff?" Thomas's already harsh voice was roughened and angry with pain. "For most of them, yes . . . Judith, I didn't think you were so—"

"I cannot think," she stated, hoping to convince Cortland of just that. "I must pray to One for guidance."

He snorted and lowered his weapon. "Thomas, get up. Madam Judith, I think perhaps the best thing would be to leave you here to think. If nothing else, perhaps your, hmm, better instincts will take over and solve this little problem for us."

Meaning that I'll sink into techtrance and do what you want without thinking about it. Not if I can help it. Judith kept her smile bland and simple. When Cortland shook his head in disgust, she knelt down to help Thomas. "It's not bad," he whispered. "His aim's terrible."

"You're lying," she whispered back. "Go to my uncle; he's a healer."

Thomas would have said more, but Cortland opened the door and stood impatiently by. "Do think about what's been said, Madam Judith," he said. "I'll come for my answer in the morning."

You'll have your damn answer. She bowed her head and tried to look like the witless mystic he thought her to be. Cortland's lip curled, and he shoved Thomas out. The last click of the lock echoed behind them.

Judith drew a deep breath and looked back at the sensors above the locked controls. If she was right, this could change everything. If she was wrong . . . well, Evram or Zakial would think of something. Techtrance roared at her, but she pushed it aside and tugged at her hairsticks. The left-hand stick's cutting beam was enough to nick her finger without cauterizing the wound. She began a prayer to One, the words strangely appropriate now, as she pressed her bloodied finger against the sensor lock.

And the room exploded into light.

It must have been dawn when the guardians entered to escort her out onto the mezzanine. Below them, the rest of Judith's band awaited, most barely awake. Thomas, too, was there, though ghostly white and leaning on a cane. Judith tried to stay alert; she'd spent the whole night searching, learning . . . even now, knowing what she knew, her techsense was just barely under control. Her hair hung down in its braids almost to her waist; she hadn't walked with it down like this since she was a child.

Cortland entered, polishing the bars on his uniform. "Well, Madam Judith, do you have an answer for me?"

"I do." She touched her sash—pitiful thing that it was—and bowed. "You asked if I would lay bare all the secrets of Hollow Base for you. And you threatened to imprison us if I did not."

She smiled. "My answer is that I would rather sleep with a corpse than give you the secrets of Hollow Base."

Cortland struck her across the face. She rocked with the blow but held her ground. "That's your answer. Hope your One forgives you."

He unclipped his weapon and pointed it straight at her forehead. Judith smiled beatifically and closed her eyes. "Hollow Base inner defense activate," she announced. "Verification: Judith of Tharsia."

And a voice responded, echoing from every corner of the great hall. "ACTIVATED," it boomed, androgynous as an angel and omnipresent as air. "THREAT PINPOINTED. REMOVE?"

The guardians stared up at the ceiling, as if the speaker would suddenly manifest itself there. Milla stifled a scream, and tinkers and guardians alike huddled together in terror. Only Thomas stood, swaying on his cane, his eyes wide.

Cortland cringed away from the sound. "What have you done? What is— How did you steal my base?"

"It was never yours," Judith said.

He spat, and his finger tightened on the trigger. White light filled the hall, and through her tears Judith saw a blazing fire streaking down from the ceiling—augmented plasma beam, using the internal targeting system, her techsense told her.

The light died away, and Cortland—or what was left of him—fell backward, bits crumbling to dust. "THREAT REMOVED PREEMPTIVELY BASED ON PROBABILITY OF IMMINENT VIOLENCE," the voice stated. "CONTINUE?"

"No," Judith said, and her voice shook only a little. "Deactivate inner defense—for now." She glanced at Cortland's guardians, who looked from her to the corpse that had been their commander. One halfheartedly raised his weapon. "I wouldn't," she said.

"Judith, what the hell have you done?" Evram demanded from below.

"Claimed our birthright." She turned away from the guardians and descended the stairs. "This place belongs to One—One has marked it and claimed its power for its own use. Any of tinker blood has more claim to it than Cortland ever did." She gazed at Thomas, then at the other guardians. "But we will not stay here. We are called, and we have delayed too long. The winter will keep us from going overland."

"And the alternative is?" This from Zakial; even he looked at her with awe and horror. It hurt to see that, but she had to go on.

"Through Hollow Base." The protests began, and she calmed them with a gesture. "Hollow Base's secrets are open to any of tinker blood. Anything I have done today, you can do—and more. I have searched, and I now know that we can follow the tunnels to the valley, and to the home of One. And when we have gone," she added, turning back to Thomas and the guardians, "this place will be dormant once more.

"Listen to me. You are guardians. You cannot know how precious that which you guard is. But if you fall, if you are prey to greed as Cortland was, the world will fall in your wake."

Thomas looked from her to the ceiling and back. "You really believe your One is here?"

She smiled at him. It would take too much to explain. "Take that any way you like, Thomas. If you want to know more, come to me in the spring. Find the valley with the fish and bird. Find One, and find me."

Margaret Ronald's fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Realms of Fantasy, Fantasy Magazine, and Ideomancer. She is an alum of the Viable Paradise workshop and a member of the Boston Area Science Fiction Writers' Group. Originally from rural Indiana, she now lives outside Boston.