Zero: Scientific Method

He experimented with dogs first. Not the giant, feral mechs that roamed the ruins, but real, flesh-and-bone animals that were too wild to recognize humans as anything but danger or an easy meal, depending on how many of them were in the pack. It was difficult to catch them; they were swift and filled with a sort of crazed anger that impressed him. In the end, he snared and killed a rabbit and left it dangling under a carefully poised mech rhino shell. It took two days, but a half-starved mongrel finally found the smell too tempting, and the thunderclap and ring of the shell slamming down told him that he finally had work to do.

The headbands had weathered the last year without Pyramid surprisingly well. Even without a signal, they drew power from the scorching sun and waited, dormant, for someone or something to compel. He thought he'd got the basics of the programming right, but it was only him, alone in the depth of the ravine, and he wasn't so confident as to clamp it over his own skull for the preliminary tests. There was no need, with hungry dogs still roaming the wilderness.

Language was the biggest problem. First, the dog had to learn what stay meant before it could be commanded to do so. Some residual breeding gave him the proof he needed when, after three weeks of carefully correlated commands to stay and strips of rabbit hide as reward, the mutt finally caught on, and would stay in one place for nearly two minutes, wriggling in hungry anticipation.

The headband proved to fit well enough around the top of the dog's skull, tight enough to keep it from pawing it off, but not so tight as to interfere with the test itself. He kept up the training until he could be confident that the mutt would understand what it was meant to do, and could do so with a clear understanding of the consequences if it failed. The day the dog sat for ten minutes, without so much as whining, he took it out to the grassy area near the cliff face that he'd designated as the testing area.

The experiment was not exactly a success. The dog died convulsing horribly, its tongue lolled out and coated in thick pink foam. The simple command to leave the roasted squirrel he'd set out proved impossible, and the dog managed scarcely a minute before taking half a dozen steps forward. The band went off in the instant the animal's snout touched the squirrel's scorched fur, and the shock itself only lasted a second. But the death took much longer, almost comically so. By the end, he wondered if it was so violent because he'd missed something in his programming, or simply because the dog was too simple-minded and stubborn to die.

He waited for the spasms to taper off before prying the headband from the dog's skull, and held it in his hand, thinking.

Few animals large enough for the bands wandered this far into the ravine, and never any people. Each trip out meant time that could have been better spent on experiments, but it might finally be a necessary delay.

He waited for the first scavengers to scurry over and inspect the dog, prodding its flesh for signs of resistance. When the rats mouthed at the dog's soft belly and felt nothing but warmth, he turned his back on them and started home.

There wasn't any way around it: he'd have to find a person to fine-tune the programming on, and soon. Dust storms were burying Pyramid further into the past almost daily, and soon nothing in the world would help him find it again.

And once that happened, there wouldn't be a way home at all.

One: The Storm

Trip was determined to catch those last, powerful gales turning the wind turbine before the storm truly rolled in. She timed it to the last minute, perched at the top of the tower and watching the dark clouds boil toward her.

Mark waited below, his hands restless at the controls. "Now?" he called again, uneasily, and she tightened her grip on the safety rail without answering.

Three minutes of swiftly turning blades could power the town for an hour; long enough to pump up nearly a day's worth of water. The clouds carried a darkness in their underbellies that blotted out the late afternoon sun, but Trip still waited, even as the first raindrops stung her face. Mark's voice drifted up again, nearly lost in the undercurrent of the thunderclaps, but she waited just a little longer.

Trip didn't move until the lightning was visible in the valley, sawing through the clouds like cracks in tinted glass.

"Now!" she screamed, and it suddenly had to be a scream in the wind. "Hit it!"

Mark slammed the brakes, and the blades began to slow. Metal screeched in terror, but Trip couldn't cover her ears and keep her grip on the rail. The raindrops turned to sharp pinpricks that scattered on her skin.

"It's not stopping!" Mark shouted. "It's too late!"

The next blade passed by Trip, still dangerously fast this close. "Emergency release!"

Mark peered up at her, blinded by the rain. "You sure?"

Trip gauged the speed of the blades against the oncoming storm. "Do it!"

The first latch snapped open as Mark flipped the switch, and the sail furled much too fast. The entire turbine swayed, and Trip gripped the safety rail instinctively. "Next!"

Mark flipped the next switch, and the second sail shuddered, then snapped shut. Trip could see the lightning ground strikes now, bright as day. "Last one!"

Nothing happened. Trip leaned over the rail. "Mark, the last one!"

She could see him pounding at it ineffectively. "It's open! The sail is jammed!"

Trip swore and snatched the safety harness from its hook. The storm was overhead, roiling in the sky. Her fingers fumbled at the buckles. "Mark, get up here! I need you!"

"It's too late! Leave it!" Mark shouted back. When Trip ignored him, he jammed a stopper under the last lever and started the hand-over-hand climb up the rear tower.

Trip had just finished snapping her harness into place and attaching one end of the safety line when Mark's head popped up over the last railing, his hair plastered to his forehead. She shoved the other end of the line at him. "Pull me back in when I'm done, okay?"

"Done with what?" he asked.

Trip blinked rainwater out of her eyes and pointed at the rotating blade. "Fail-safe release midway down the blade. I'll jump, kick it free, and you haul me back in." She had to shout at him from mere inches, the storm was so deafening.

"Are you insane?" Mark yelled back, but Trip was done with him, and she leapt at the blade as it charged past.

The edge of the sail caught her in the side, and the air left her in one breath. She scrambled to find the handholds on the edge, but her vision filled with water, and the holds flickered and vanished in front of her. Mark was yelling something patently useless, and Trip blocked out the distant racket of his voice.

Trip's hands were slippery with rain. Each time she thought she had a good hold, the metal shifted under her and she slid back. Trip shook rainwater from her face as she fought her way down the sail, stopping to hold tight as the blade made its rotation. The safety line grew taut as she hung upside-down, then slackened again as the blade righted. She bit her fingers into the hold, hard, and kicked out at the spring-loaded emergency release.

The latch didn't budge. She wedged her foot under its handle, and pulled against it with her whole weight. The mechanism stayed firmly locked, even after the sail made its fourth rotation and Trip was starting to feel nauseated panic well up in her throat. The sky burbled angrily at her.

The next time the blade started to spin upward, she screamed at a terrified Mark, who seemed poised to flee the tower. "Clip the line to the rail! Hurry!"

He stared at the end in his hand. "It's too short!"

"Wait for me to get close, then do it!" Trip pressed the release button on her harness and waited. "Count to five!"

Mark timed it just a bit early, and Trip felt the line nearly rip from her hand. She held on with dogged determination, then waited until the line had just enough slack to hook over the emergency release. As the blade pulled down, the line tightened, and the rail strained under the weight. The turbine slowed considerably, but the blade still inched forward.

"Come on!" Trip screamed at the latch, at the storm.

The tower groaned, Mark shouted, and the latch held on for dear life.

Monkey could have done this. Monkey could have coaxed the latch open with no effort at all, or ripped it from its hinges if it was too rusted. He could have torn the turbine down with his bare hands, if Trip asked him to.

The turbine made a horrible, low-pitched moan, and Trip grabbed the safety line with one hand and hauled upward. Monkey couldn't do everything. Some things she had to do herself.

In the next heartbeat, the latch finally gave way, the rail overhead strained too far and tore free, and Trip lost her hold on the sail as it snapped shut. She reached out blindly to find another handhold, but it was too late, and her fingers clamped down on nothing as she began to fall.

Even halfway up the lowest blade, Trip was still fifteen feet off the ground. She miraculously missed the base of the tower and slammed straight into the patch of drenched earth near the controls. She breathed hard, spitting rainwater at the ground, and rolled onto her side.

"Get out of the way!" Mark screamed, and she craned her neck to look up at the tower.

The mangled rail swung from the platform edge. Mark made a pointless grab for it; the rail was six feet long and more than he could hope to lift. The metal whined and twisted in the wind, and Trip felt the sort of disconnected interest that comes with watching an unavoidable disaster.

"It's going to fall!" Mark shouted. "Trip, move!"

The rail groaned loudly and snapped free. It bounced off the scaffolding and crashed into the turbine blade with an ear-piercing ring.

Trip pushed herself out of the mud and dove under the lower platform. She landed with a wet slap as the rail plowed into the ground at the base of the tower.

For a full minute, Trip huddled under the platform like a wounded animal, hugging her bruised ribs and waiting for her ears to stop ringing.

Mark's hands found her before Trip wanted them to. It was only when he tugged her wrists to guide her from the tower that she realized her elbow was too badly injured to straighten, and Mark crouched under the platform to help her out.

Dazed, she allowed him to pull her to her feet and guide her away from the damaged turbine. He caught her once as her feet slid different directions in the slick mud. With an arm wrapped around her back and his hand cupping her injured elbow, Mark led her back to the place that had been her father's house and shut the door behind them.

Trip blew warm air on her fingers and wrung them in each hand in turn as Mark moved around the house as if it were his, turning up lights and starting a kettle of water boiling. She felt half-drowned and imagined rain still pelting her face, sliding down her nose and mouth and choking her senseless. Her ribs were a confused mess of pain and numbness, and she resisted the urge to press her fingers along the bone to search for fractures. Her elbow, either badly bruised or broken, kept her arm at a rigid right angle.

And she'd seriously damaged the town's main wind turbine.

Mark didn't say a thing until he had a cup of warm black tea to press into her hands and a towel to drape over her shoulders. Trip nuzzled her face into the towel and was none too surprised when it was immediately bloody.

"Shouldn't we do something about that?" Mark asked at last.

Trip ignored him, but found herself prodding the gash on her cheek unconsciously.

Mark had poured himself a cup of tea as well, but he merely twisted the mug back and forth in his hand without even pretending to drink. "I'm sorry," he said. "I shouldn't have let you do that. I should have..."

Trip didn't have an opinion on that, and Mark cleared his throat. "Ben is going to kill us," he said. "He warned us about cutting it too close. He always said—"

"I don't care what Ben always says," Trip said. The words slurred and tumbled. "Ben wouldn't know an opportunity if it knocked him on his ass."

"Coming from someone who was ass-deep in mud a minute ago."

She stared past Mark dully for a minute longer, then forced herself to look at him. He looked pathetic, his hair in wet clumps that pressed against his pale face. Trip had to imagine she looked about the same, but bloodier.

"Go home," she said. "I'm going to sleep for a while."

"You really need someone to look at that arm," Mark said.

"I'll just go easy on it," she said, just barely registering the horror on Mark's face. "And the bleeding will stop."

"Yeah, but..." Mark said, but trailed off when Trip's gaze slid off him again.

"I'm going to sleep for a bit," she said, "then I'm going to start figuring out how we can fix the turbine."

"It can wait for tomorrow," Mark said. "Let me get someone to look at your arm, or your face. You're a mess."

Trip finally glanced back at him. "Shouldn't you be on watch, anyway?" she said. "You're up on rotation."

Mark looked wounded. "I got Geoff to cover for me."

"If Geoff's there, it means Wren's up, too. Go take over."

"No, you need someone to—"

Trip stood. The towel slipped from her shoulders, and she and Mark could both see the patches of fresh blood. He drew back from it slightly.

"You want to be helpful?" she said, the nastiness in her voice striking and foreign. "Go tell Ben what happened so we can start fixing this mess first thing tomorrow. Relieve Geoff at the lookout tower and send Wren home so she can get something to eat."

She forced herself to stop and rein in some of the venom. "Just…please."

"Okay," Mark said reluctantly. "But first thing tomorrow, all right?"

Trip would have agreed to anything that wouldn't happen until tomorrow. She nodded. "And I need a fresh charger for the next batch of dragonflies. Can you get those?"

"Dragonflies? We don't need him just to—"

"Would you please go already?" Trip asked, and Mark had the sense to do it.

She waited for the door to close after him, and to imagine the squelch of his footsteps fading away. It was barely nighttime, but the ferocity of the storm had left a sort of dangerous heaviness in the air that would keep most of the town indoors for the rest of the night. Trip stumbled toward the door and threw herself against it to slide the deadbolt into place. It was only when the rest of the world was safely locked outside that she began to breathe a little easier.

She leaned in the direction of her chair at the kitchen table and let the momentum carry her there. She picked up the bloody towel, buried her wounded cheek in it, and padded blindly to her bed in the small alcove in the next room.

Trip hit the mattress only half-sensible and expected to pass out immediately, but her thoughts careened. They had to find scrap to repair the broken parts of the turbine, and the time to shape them. She had to reallocate power for the next few days to cover the basics until they could get the main turbine up and running again. That meant no hot showers or vids—strictly defense and the essentials until they could fix this mess.

Trip prodded the gash on her cheek with a fingertip, vaguely alarmed that she still couldn't feel it. She had to hope Geoff had at least one dragonfly in working condition for her to send a message to the scrapyard, or else they'd have to waste time catching and modding one from scratch.

The clock on her databand flashed at her, and she estimated another half an hour until Ben got the message and could decide that his fury was worth the soaking walk to her house on the other side of the Liberty. Trip pushed her face into her pillow, not caring that it would be stained beyond repair by morning.

She wanted to sleep for a year.