“I guess that’s it,” Slate said with a shrug, after having been lost in thought as he and Arianna walked alongside the road to Morai. “That’s the end conclusion of technological process. Power so incredible that it can destroy the world.”
“It’s not the only way things could have gone, though,” Arianna countered, though she didn’t sound as if she believed her own words.
“Maybe. But now that it has? What can the rest of the world do?”
“You don’t really think they’d use that in war, do you?”
“I think that they’ll use its existence to dominate, while they can, while the rest of the world rushes to make bombs of their own. And then Opal Pools will make something even more atrocious, and the cycle will obliviate us all.”
A choke caught in Arianna’s throat. “Oh, Slate, that sounds so awful. It can’t be the only way, it can’t.”
“I’m sure I’m being pessimistic, but I can’t help but think that’s just the course of things.” Slate sighed. “The future seems so out of our hands, so inevitable. I hate that we have to live in a world where that sort of power to destroy exists. We should just burn them.”
“Burn these stupid books we’ve been lugging around since we left Aurora Falls. Burn them so there’s one less opportunity for maniacs to profit off knowledge they haven’t done the work to understand and so don’t respect.”
“I don’t know if that’s the answer, Slate,” Arianna said.
“We’ll see. It’s going to take everything in me to keep them from the campfire tonight, I’ll tell you that much.”
News of the horrible new weapon followed Slate and Arianna as they made their way up the Protersian continent. It was met with almost universal disbelief, the stories of the column it formed, of the trees it leveled, of the plain it destroyed. And even though they had been there to see it themselves, Slate and Arianna started to wonder if it could only have been a nightmare. And always with the talk of the weapon came new reports of military drafts and brewing discontent, as the world rushed to meet their new reality with fear and anger.
The tall walls of the little kingdom of Morai came into view early on the fifth day of travel. Upon reaching the gate, Slate gave his name to a guard, and the party was soon admitted and shown to the castle. Prince Dahzi greeted them in the throne room.
“Friends, it is so good to see you,” he exclaimed from across the modestly decorated space, throwing his arms open. “And so much sooner than I thought I would! Slate, who is this beautiful woman you are with?”
“This is Arianna Falls, Dahzi. Er. Prince? Prince Dahzi? I told you about her.”
“Yes, Arianna, from Aelioanei. And to meet you here, in Morai, what fortunate circumstance. You can just call me Dahzi, though, we aren’t that sort of kingdom.”
“It’s good to meet you, Dahzi,” Arianna said, trying her best to smile.
“What are these frowning faces?” Dahzi asked. “Why are we so sad?”
“I’m sorry to reunite in such poor spirits,” said Slate. “But have you heard about the weapon Opal Pools tested on the Crescent Plain, just five days ago?”
“I’ve heard some rumor, but I never take rumor seriously. A full report is due in this morning,” the prince answered. “Our own envoy has yet to return… I take it you have knowledge of the event?”
“We saw the test ourselves,” Slate said. “It was horrible, Dahzi. Like nothing imaginable. This thing they’ve built… It was like a bomb, but so much more terrible. It ate up an entire valley, and poisoned the sky. There’s no hope in a world where an enemy has such a weapon.”
“This is very troubling indeed,” said Dahzi, the mirth falling from his face. “My parents have just sent a team of our few soldiers to Chreopoint, to join a resistance force heading to Opal Pools. We were under the impression that this would be mainly for show, however. We had no idea that their alleged particle weapon was real, much less operational.”
“It’s finished, for sure, and no army of any size stands a chance against it,” said Arianna. “Not that we believe Opal Pools is going to use it aggressively, but…”
“Who’s that?” called a voice from across the room. “Is that Slate Ahn?”
Ertajj came rushing over to where the others stood hanging their heads.
“Hello, Ertajj,” Slate said, offering a weak hug. “Good to see you.”
“Really? You wouldn’t know it from that look on your face. What happened?”
“I feel like I’ve just seen the end of the world,” Slate answered. “Arianna and I have come from the Crescent Mountains, where we saw Opal Pools test their new weapon. It’s… it’s a real-life apocalypse, Ertajj.”
“Really? I’ve been out at the hunting lodge, I had no idea anything had changed,” looking to Dahzi for his opinion on the situation.
“I fear it has,” the prince said gravely.
“Sorry to have to tell you,” said Slate.
“Hey, someone had to.” Ertajj shifted nervously. “Sorry to meet you like this, Arianna. Slate told me lots of good things about you.”
“I’m happy to meet you, Ertajj,” Arianna said. “And I, too, wish it were under happier circumstances.”
“I have to tell my father and mother at once,” said Dahzi. “Though I don’t know what they could possibly do other than recall our troops. We are not a warring nation. But all leaders, everyone, must know the truth about what has happened. Please, wait here, and I’ll be back shortly.”
“Well that really throws a wrench in things, doesn’t it?” Ertajj asked, watching Dahzi leave. “Celebrating being back together seems wrong, somehow.”
“No. I don’t have the energy for it, anyways. We’re incredibly tired after our trip. It was five days, from Grails Wharf, walking every waking minute,” said Slate. “I think maybe Arianna and I should get some sleep.”
“Sure, if you can,” Ertajj said. “Until Dahzi can figure out where you’ll stay, why don’t the two of you take my room and rest?”
“That would be very kind of you,” said Slate. “I’m sorry for my mood, Ertajj. It is good to be together again so soon.”
“Of course it is,” said Ertajj. “Now come on, let’s get you rested up so I can hear all about what’s happened.”
Ertajj had a small room off a back street near the town square. Slate and Arianna drew the curtains and drank a whole pot of drowsyroot steep, but they couldn’t sleep, despite being exhausted. To distract themselves, they sorted through the items in their bags.
“This pack has made it all the way around the world with me,” Slate said, running his fingers over the small tears and scuffs the bag from Mrs. Falls had acquired. “The one your mom gave me.”
“She’ll be so happy to see you again,” said Arianna.
“I can’t wait until we’re back on Aelioanei,” said Slate. “I know we can’t run away from reality, but home still seems so far from this madness.”
“I hope so. I hope it still feels like that.”
Slate turned his attention to the green sack Guh had hoisted on him in Aurora Falls.
“What are you going to do with them?” Arianna asked as she refolded her socks.
Slate sighed. “I wish I knew. Mostly I just want to rip them apart. But I know that’s childish.”
“Opal Pools will have them if we do or don’t. I know it sounds trite, but it’s just so… unfair. For things to be so unbalanced. The rest of the world won’t be able to do a thing. Maybe we’ll catch up eventually, but not for years. If ever.”
“It’s like they’ve got the only quickshot.”
“What does that mean?”
“Oh, when I was with the pirates, in the Passage Islands,” Slate explained, “Only one of them had a quickshot, like, a hand-held blastporter, of sorts. Hatty, the man I told you about, who helped me steal the Jean Bea.”
“I know what a quickshot is.”
“Well, because it was the only one, he held all the power with it.”
“I get it.”
Slate’s eyes flashed. He jumped up with excitement.
“Arianna, do you remember how we translated that bit of the Books outside Aurora Falls?”
“Do you think we could translate the whole thing?”
“That would be a lot of work, but, yes. Why?”
Slate’s thoughts raced as he rolled ideas between his fingers.
“Everyone gets a quickshot!”
“We need a printing press. Do you think there’s one here? In town?”
“Maybe,” Arianna said. “Why? Slate, what are you thinking?”
“We have to get the information from the Books into the hands of as many people as possible. As fast as possible. It’s the only way to level the playing field. To keep Opal Pools or anyone else from trampling over the world.”
“To everyone?” Arianna gasped.
Slate nodded. “To every last person on Alm.”