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The house of power, p.17
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       The House of Power, p.17

           Patrick Carman
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  “You have failed me,” said Lord Phineus. “They have the dust you gathered from the trees.” He coughed ferociously, and a great orange ball of something very nasty flew out of his mouth and dripped from his chin to the ground. He wiped his face with his sleeve.

  Lord Phineus listened to Mr. Ratikan berate the people who worked for him, promising he would soon bring things under control if only he were freed from the tree. But Lord Phineus responded by pointing his sword at Mr. Ratikan. The man begged for mercy, which only served to enflame Lord Phineus’s cruelty.

  I’m afraid we shall not be hearing anything more in this story from mean Mr. Ratikan.

  Sir Emerik’s skill at climbing the ranks of power did not carry over to the battlefield, and he found an instant distaste for the management of men at war. The people in the Village of Rabbits wasted no time in hurling hundreds of poisoned black figs at Sir Emerik and his men. By the time the Highlands crashed into Tabletop, Sir Emerik had grave doubts as to whether he could subdue the people of the village.

  Half of his forty men were already coughing so hard they could barely stay atop their steeds, while the other half seemed completely unsure of what they should do. When Sir Emerik called the charge, he himself turned his horse and bolted for the safety of the House of Power. The rest of his men endured a violent shower of black figs until they felt no choice remained but to retreat.

  There were two, however, who truly were men of violence, and these two rushed into the village between the flying figs with their swords drawn. But two men with swords and horses are no match for a hundred angry villagers. Briney and Maude had instructed everyone not to throw poisoned figs in the village, to protect it from the poison’s effects. Instead, they were to use clubs fashioned from trees in the grove.

  It was a second line of defense, and the moment the two riders met with it, they wished they’d never come so close. They were both overcome by the mob, struck over and over again until they were knocked free from their horses. Once the two men were down, the horses galloped away, leaving them on foot to face a throng of club-wielding men.

  “That’s enough!” said Briney as the men prepared to beat the two until they dropped their swords. He looked at the Highland men. “Leave your weapons and go.”

  The two stood back to back and seemed unwilling to comply.

  “We won’t harm you,” said Briney. “But you must leave those to us.” He pointed to the swords.

  One of the men seemed ready to agree, but the other had always held that those in Tabletop were there to serve. Enraged, he lunged at Briney with his sword. The moment he did was his last, for clubs rained down on his head more quickly than he could have imagined. The second of the two men dropped his weapon and backed away, then ran all the way back to the House of Power.

  Owing to a complete lack of guidance in the absence of Sir Philip, the forty men of the Highlands who presided over the Village of Sheep met with similar results. Having no true experience with warfare only added to their confusion when hundreds of hard black objects laced with poison were thrown in their direction. Still, they did not enjoy the luxury of a man such as Sir Emerik, whose cowardice would have pointed them home sooner than they went. All but three of them were hit at least once, and some as many as three times, by flying figs and orange dust. A tremendous roar of coughing and wheezing increased the clamor of battle as they rode on through a storm of figs, and a heavy engagement ensued.

  It was this battle, along with the one in the grove that we shall speak of next, that set Atherton’s course to violence. Men on both sides fell in the Village of Sheep that day, and when it was over, most of those from the House of Power had sustained injuries of one sort or another. It was the only battle of the three in which the Highland horses were captured and kept, for shepherds are very good with animals and see the beauty and gentleness of them no matter the size.

  When Lord Phineus finally found his way back to his troops, it was quickly apparent the battle hadn’t gone as he’d hoped. Many from his small army had already fallen by the club. He spotted ten men who remained on horses. All the rest had, it seemed, turned back or lay lifeless on the ground.

  One horse and rider had wandered close to the grove, searching for their leader. Both the animal and the man on it seemed uninjured. Lord Phineus broke into a run, which was terribly painful on his heaving chest, and met the man halfway.

  “There you are, Lord!” shouted the man. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you!”

  “Get off that horse!” commanded Lord Phineus. The man hesitated to dismount the steed. If he were left on this side of the opposing forces, how would he make it back alive? He reached his hand down toward his master.

  “We can both ride to safety. Take my hand,” said the man.

  Lord Phineus drew his sword and commanded the man on the horse once more, and then he heard a sound from the grove—snap! A split second later a black fig hit the man on the horse square in the forehead with a loud pop! The man’s head jerked backward and then his whole body flopped forward onto the neck of the horse and he slid off the side to the ground.

  Lord Phineus mounted the horse and kicked it brutally, listening for another snap! from the grove. He heard the sound as he rode off, but the black fig missed its target and whizzed high past his head. Lord Phineus looked over his shoulder and spotted Isabel running toward him.

  That girl! She has been the cause of all my trouble today!

  He turned his horse sharply, but the moment he did Lord Phineus saw that Isabel had loaded her sling once again and was swinging it over her head.

  Lord Phineus knew that he’d been beaten, and the thought of it enraged him. And yet, there was still one way known just to him that would allow him to maintain his power. He needed only to get back to the House of Power.

  With a renewed vigor he sped past his own men without a word, and those who were able fell in behind him amidst a triumphant roar from the people of the grove.




  Dr. Kincaid pushed his chair back from the table and stood up. He was old, but he was in surprisingly good condition. It was true his face was aged, but the rest of him seemed slow to catch up.

  “Let’s go inside out of the sun for a while, shall we?” He helped Edgar out of his chair, though Edgar was feeling a new strength. He had rested a full night, drank like he never had before, and had a belly full of nourishing food. For a boy of Edgar’s background, this was more good fortune all at once than he had ever received.

  When they entered the cave, it was difficult to see. Dr. Kincaid hurried into the darkness as someone who knew his way. There was a single wick lit in the corner, and Dr. Kincaid took it around and lit other wicks. When he was finished, he returned to each one and covered them with a tube of glass—a substance not known to Atherton, or at least not to Edgar. Light flooded the room with a brightness Edgar hadn’t seen before.

  “What are those things?”

  Dr. Kincaid said something about the reflective properties of glass, and Edgar realized asking questions about strange objects in the room would send his companion on long explanations that were beyond Edgar’s understanding. Like the waterfall near the grove, Dr. Kincaid’s voice was a distant, oddly comforting rumble in the background as Edgar looked at the tables in front of him that were covered with all sorts of objects he’d never seen. Edgar couldn’t guess what a single one of them did. He also observed with some unease that there were a great many books and journals lying everywhere.

  “… You were asking about the Cleaners earlier, weren’t you?” asked Dr. Kincaid. The word Cleaners got Edgar’s attention. “The trouble is there are too many things to explain. We must focus on the important items, and Cleaners are very important.”

  Dr. Kincaid motioned Edgar farther into the cave and asked him to sit down on the bed to rest.

  “Cleaners do seem awful, don’t they?” asked Dr. Kincaid.

  “They do,
answered Edgar, surprised that anyone could think differently.

  “I agree we could have prettied them up a bit and made them less dangerous, but they do such a marvelous job of cleaning everything up. That was why we made them—to keep Atherton clean. Everything runs down, Edgar, and when it does, it ends up in the Flatlands. Those creatures will eat just about anything they find in their path. And they leave almost nothing behind, only an odorless trail of bright green excrement wherever they go. Perfectly harmless. Without Cleaners, I’m afraid Atherton wouldn’t be much better than the Dark Planet.”

  “Then why not let them loose there, instead of making this place? Why not let them clean the Dark Planet?”

  “Excellent question! Excellent! Unfortunately, as I’ve already said, they eat everything. On Atherton this is a tolerable situation, so long as they remain contained in the Flatlands. But on the Dark Planet I’m afraid a lot of important things would get eaten, like children.”

  Edgar made a sour face. “Then why haven’t you and Vincent been eaten?”

  “Because the Cleaners stay near the cliffs, where most of the food comes down, and this cave is well away from there. Our home is high off the ground, which protects it. They don’t climb very well with all those bony legs.”

  “And it’s only you and Vincent down here, no one else?”

  “That’s right, just the two of us. Vincent was sent here to protect me; I was sent here for other reasons.”

  Edgar was glad to be leaving the topic of Cleaners for the moment.

  “I know this is all very hard for you to understand,” said Dr. Kincaid. “So I’m going to make it as simple as I can for you. Just listen carefully, all right?”

  Edgar nodded, wanting to know as much as he could but realizing there would probably be much that he couldn’t fully grasp.

  “When Atherton was in its early stage of development—when it had grown to about the size of a house—we could begin to see that levels were forming, and we asked Dr. Harding about this strange occurrence. He said the center would hold water and that the levels would grow apart from one another. The bottom had to be very heavy to get it away from the Dark Planet, in order for it to sit in space the way it would need to once it was launched. It grew its own air supply and began orbiting around the Dark Planet. I have a drawing here that will help you understand,” said Dr. Kincaid. He crossed the room, and he returned with a notebook. Fanning through it, he came to a page and turned it toward Edgar.

  “But if it’s so close, why have I never seen the Dark Planet?” asked Edgar, seeing how big it was in the drawing and wondering how it would be possible for it to hide from view.

  “Because you are always facing away from it, of course. Gravity from the Dark Planet stops Atherton from flying out into space, but it also holds Atherton in one position. In other words, the bottom of Atherton is always facing the Dark Planet. If you leaned over the edge of Atherton here in the Flatlands, you would see the Dark Planet for yourself.”

  Edgar wanted to go there right away. “Will you take me? So I can see the place that I’ve come from?”

  Dr. Kincaid hesitated, thinking now that he’d revealed too much too fast and the boy might wander off on his own and fall off the edge of the world.

  “Let’s wait until Vincent returns and ask if he’ll accompany us. It would be safer.”

  This satisfied Edgar for the moment, and he asked something else that had been on his mind.

  “Dr. Kincaid, where did all the people come from? Why don’t they ever talk about the Dark Planet?”

  “Another excellent question!” said Dr. Kincaid. “You can’t imagine the clamor of people who wanted to go to Atherton. Everyone wanted to go. It was new, light, and clean. There would be trees and grass. You have to remember, the Dark Planet is just that. Dark. It’s dirty. It’s hard to breathe if you’re not inside, where the machines make the air clean.

  “But there was one thing that made it a little undesirable to come to Atherton. To be perfectly honest, it was actually a rather big problem for a lot of people.”

  “What was it?”

  “Well, the thing of it was, if you wanted to come here, you had to go through a period of… shall we say, readiness training.”

  “What’s readiness training? What does it do?”

  “It makes you someone who’s from Atherton, not from the Dark Planet. You remember certain things—some new, some old—but you feel as though Atherton were the only place you’ve ever known. You’re still you, mostly. It’s just that a lot of people felt that if you couldn’t remember experiences and people from your previous life—such as your loved ones, your happiest days or your most painful learning experiences—you wouldn’t really be you anymore. It was for this reason that we chose mostly people who had something of a loose connection with the Dark Planet to begin with. People with no children, very little ties to the community, people who wanted to forget their past, that sort of thing—and so it’s very possible we may have let a few individuals with some character defects slip through our screening. After all, Dr. Harding developed and demanded readiness training, and it was he who decided who would inhabit Atherton. Who can say what a madman’s motives are from one day to the next?”

  Dr. Kincaid added that he himself had not been through readiness training and hoped he never would. He was on Atherton because he helped create it and had been sent to watch over it.

  “While Dr. Harding shared much of what he was doing with everyone—all of the good things—he did not share the wrong things that he was also doing.”

  “What sorts of ‘wrong things’ do you mean?” Edgar asked, though he didn’t know for sure if he wanted to know the whole truth.

  “Atherton is moving, Edgar, because it’s not finished yet. Dr. Harding made us believe it was ready, but it was not. He used us as an experiment. On the Dark Planet we might have said he used us as ‘guinea pigs.’ This is a dangerous place, Edgar, not suitable for people. At least not yet.”

  Dr. Kincaid sat down on the stool in front of the bed, wondering again if he were telling the boy too much.

  “Dr. Kincaid, how old is Atherton?”

  “Thirty-two years last month, but there have only been people here for about twelve of those. It wasn’t inhabitable for the first twenty years, and then there were other complications. I visited here many times—there was a way you could get here that, trust me, you wouldn’t understand—and then I came here with you seven years ago, and I have never gone back.”

  It was impossible to believe. The world that Edgar had assumed was ancient—the only world that existed anywhere—was not much older than he was. By now the questions were multiplying faster than Edgar could keep track of.

  “Why have you never gone back, like you’d done before?”

  For once, Dr. Harding seemed not to know how to answer. There was so much the boy couldn’t comprehend, and he’d only scratched the surface of all that was involved. He chose to answer the question honestly, though he knew it would only bring more questions he wasn’t sure he could answer.

  “I can’t go back,” said Dr. Kincaid, his voice full with a sense of loss only he could understand. “The connection between Atherton and the Dark Planet has been broken, and to my knowledge there is no way to bring the two back together again.”

  Without warning there came a thunderous sound like a great wave on an ocean, a sound Dr. Kincaid knew and could remember from his days on the Dark Planet. Edgar, of course, could not place it in his memory of an oceanless Atherton. It grew in volume, and the glass covers on the lights began to shake until one of them toppled to the floor and shattered.

  “Come! The Highlands must have finished their descent into Tabletop. Now you shall see what the last page of the book I left for you said!”

  The two of them ran for the entrance to the cave, and the light of day burned Edgar’s eyes. It took him a moment to see clearly.

  “You see there! The last page of the book that I left for you foret
old of this!” screamed Dr. Kincaid, falling to his knees, for the roar of grinding stone was much louder outside the cave than it had been inside. Edgar fixed his eyes to where Dr. Kincaid was pointing.

  Tabletop was crashing down into the Flatlands.

  They watched and listened as the fall continued for half a minute. Then the sound vanished in the air and everything was still again.

  But the quiet could not calm Edgar, who was overcome with a surge of worry for Isabel and Samuel. He could not have imagined the battles that had broken out far above, the role Isabel had played, or the unexpected victory for those in the villages. The only thing Edgar knew for sure was that the world had changed.

  And it was changing again.

  Two Cleaners were clicking their legs quietly at the base of the cliffs. They had managed to avoid Vincent as they moved all the way across the Flatlands, at last arriving at the cliff leading up to Tabletop. The creatures grated their teeth against the rock, looking for something to eat, when they suddenly reared back on their legs in confusion. They approached the cliff once more and sniffed at the dirt with hideous, wet noses. Then they watched as the rock began to move slowly.

  The movement had startled the beasts at first, but now the Cleaners were curious and clapped their teeth together with a powerful clanging noise. The Cleaners were amused. They seemed to understand the cliffs were descending, and the creatures were excited to think that fresh food might be on its way down.

  I see by your eagerness, and the wonder and hope which your eyes express, my friend, that you expect to be informed of the secret with which I am acquainted. That cannot be.






  “You do realize we’ll never get it back.”

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