Here is a preview of chapter 1 of Book 2 of The Fermi Project. Not necessarily the final version, but close enough for a preview. I have the first draft of the book on the ropes, and should have the second draft hacked out by first quarter next year.

Ch 1: The Valley of Regrets

After a century and a half and twenty thousand miles, Clempson still hadn’t been able to put this place behind him. Maybe he needed to see if he had done any lasting good for this world, or maybe he just craved an end to the story. Either way, he was drawn back to the valley of regrets.

Eight hundred years had passed in this world, suggesting a backslide from the iron age he had fostered. He found the watch tower that overlooked the city abandoned, one wall collapsed where a cliff had eroded underneath it. The precipice gave him a good view of the remnant of the city below. The forest had whittled it down to a fraction of its former glory, and the three-story palace on the hill was just a pile of rubble.

Anger and grief swelled in his chest, but he pushed it down. This is catharsis, he told himself. He’d have to learn their oral histories to understand what happened after he left. The bard he’d shared his camp with sang of the Night of Terror, when the emperor went mad and killed thousands, but he was pretty sure that there were no more than a couple hundred in the palace that night. 

Time had boiled his memories down to a few burned-in certainties  and gruesome flashes of bodies being shredded by his deathwalker. He took a deep breath and ran his hand over his bald head, pushing the images aside. He’d have to do some meditation in the ruins to drain the power of those memories, but it wouldn’t do any good to mull over them now.

Perhaps he had been mad. He wanted to believe that his rage was a side effect of the poison that they used on him, but it’s also possible that years of frustrated suspicion burst like a damn after he’d been betrayed by those he loved most.

His thaumechanical mule and cart awaited him outside of the tower. “It’s now three hours and twenty minutes after noon,” its reeds clicked in Munk Nonotone. “Did you find anything interesting?”

“Yes,” Clempson clicked back. He gave the mule a summary of his observations, knowing that the homunculus would record what he told it on thaumaturgically coded spools of silver wire. “End report.” He climbed into the saddle and put his helmet back on. “Let’s go to the school.”

“Are you sad,” the machine queried. “Would you like me to play a song?”

“No, thank you.” It comforted him to travel with an entity with worse social skills than his own, but this wasn’t the time. “Discontinue banter until further notice.”

The machine whinnied its recognition of the command.

The absence of traffic on the road confirmed his suspicions about the collapse of trade. Halfway down, he took a side path that led to a meadow where a partial ring of granite columns rose from a field of waist high grass. His aqueduct ran across one side of the mountain above the meadow, its graceful stone arches showing little sign of erosion.

The aqueduct was where it all started. The valley needed water, so he built them an aqueduct. Simple, right? He should never have gotten into government. Maybe he shouldn’t have stayed at all.

When he entered the circle, he was surprised to find a marble statue of himself in the center. A copper plate on the base read, “Aquius, God of Aqueducts” Not a bad likeness, and they got the embossed sigils on the armor right. He considered his current armor, deciding that he’d need to change before anyone saw him. 

A synthetic braying emanated from his mule. Clempson looked and listened, but didn’t find anything out of place, so he walked back to the homunculus. “What was that?”

The munk tapped a hoof on the ground, reminding him that he’d disabled commentary.

“Mule, resume banter.”

“That was the widder clearance alarm.”

It took Clempson a moment to remember what that alarm did, but then his stomach sank, and he shouted,  “Emergency protocol aech!” The alarm existed to warn him if anything might bump into the mule’s four-dimensional constructs, but it hadn’t triggered since he’d tested it. There was nothing out there.

Nothing but Hellian voidships.

Clempson hadn’t mastered four-dimensional engineering, but he understood it well enough to use it to hide things. The mule detonated the explosive coupling that attached it to his cart, and the saddlebags dropped to the ground. Abandoning its semblance of the equine, its carapace expanded and ports opened, internal components shifting to and from the nominal volume. The saddle and gimble vanished, launched into the droit volume to be replaced by a machine turret. It was going to take him forever to reassemble it all.

His mule could take out an entire phalanx if it needed to, but he’d seen the craters that Hellians could make. Most of them just amused themselves with questionable trade practices, but there were tales of roving bands that would treat civilizations like their playgrounds, or loot and run. Their ability to cull magic and technology from other worlds made them hazardous under the best of circumstances.

He popped the bindings on his cart and hefted his versatile weapon, alert for any shift in the environment. A breeze rustled the tall grass that grew on either side of the stone roadway, but otherwise all was silent. The saddle assembly startled him by reappearing on the nominal plane and clattering to the ground. Did voidships make a sound?

Twenty feet away and six feet up, an axe head faded in and fell, soon followed by a skeleton. Worn olive-green clothing materialized around it, and then the rest of a woman appeared as she dropped and rolled, keeping her halberd in hand. Hellian paratroopers?

He leveled the shotgun end of his weapon at her while four more people fell out of the sky around him. Their rumpled clothing looked to be made of natural fibers, and their pasty skin lacked the distinctive sunburned hue of Hellians. He relaxed a little with the hope that these might not be technologically advanced supremacists.

“Which of you is in charge,” he demanded. He knew they wouldn’t understand him, but his tone conveyed confidence. He relied upon his helmet to hide his worry and uncertainty.

A woman to his right, tall and dark-haired, wearing a baggy shirt and pants with a muted green and brown floral print, replied something like, “Omlagus garfungiloops rics,” while pointing a tube at him. 

Pain flared in his head as the gift of Tongues made room for their language, but he maintained his angry scowl and held up a finger, stating, “You aren’t going to understand this, but I have to keep you talking until I learn your language.”

The tall woman growled something to the man to Clempson’s right, a short light-haired man wearing denim and plaid. The man replied and their language coalesced in Clempson’s mind, comprehension of their previous statements spilled in. “Are you the builder?” “I thought you said he would know our language.” “Maybe you can get your own intel next time.”

They weren’t speaking Hellian tradespeak, but they couldn’t be mistaken for friendly. “Who are you, and what do you want,” he demanded.

The short man shot an energetic “Ha!” at the woman.

She ignored him and addressed Clempson. “You’re definitely the Builder. We need your brain.”

“I’m using it.”

The shorter woman scowled. “Not that brain. The mechanical one.”

“I’m using that one, too. You haven’t answered my questions. What problem is that brain going to solve for you?” Their lax posture and poor discipline ruled out an organized military. “And while you’re at it, tell me where you stole the voidship.”

The woman exchanged worried glances with her compatriots, and then everything went to hell, figuratively speaking. A loud crack behind him heralded a spike of pain in his left shoulder. He blew a hole through the woman in front of him before falling forward, getting out of the way of what came next. 

Bright flashes told him that his mule had just eliminated whoever had shot him. Clempson rolled onto his back, agony engulfing his arm. The short woman raised her halberd, but before she could bring it down, a blue-green bolt split his vision, leaving an after-image of a blinding ray of light passing through the woman’s exploding head.

The tall woman yelled, “Assholes!” and ran away. An amorphous white blob materialized around his mule, enveloping it.

Clempson used his weapon like a crutch to push himself to his feet. The two remaining not-really-Hellians were running towards the blob. Blue-green flashes lit it up from the inside, and bolts cut wildly through the air, blowing the remaining man in half, but stopped after five shots. This worried Clempson — the gun should have worked for at least twenty. The bubble must be gumming it up.

The earth shook and a puff of air blew past him. Dozens of white cords extend from the bubble to where a ripple shattered the air. A metal box the size of a small barn materialized at the other end of the cords, with an entrance like a hangar door. The remaining attacker jumped into the hangar and the cords dragged the bubble along the ground.

Clempson limped to his cart, each step driving pain through his shoulder. Blood dripped from his limp left hand. The leather strap that secured his toolbox to the cart resisted his clumsy, one-handed efforts, so he dug for an edged weapon.

An orange explosion blew a hole from inside the bubble. It didn’t feel prudent to equip his mule with an overload capacitor, but the munk must have decided to launch a rocket propelled grenade. A secondary explosion shattered the mule’s body. It wasn’t going to free itself.

Clempson flopped his weapon atop the chest and fired buckshot across the edge of the blob. Bits of white goo flew off, but few of the cords were severed. When he ran out of shells, he dropped his weapon and found the machete.

The best he could do with his injured shoulder was a weak trot, and the strands dragged the homunculus across the ground faster than he could move. The hangar door closed before he could reach it, and the big metal box faded away.

He collapsed to his knees, spots crowding his vision. Pulling off his helmet, he puked onto the grass and cursed in three languages. Damn them.

Survival first, he reminded himself. Nobody would come to his rescue. He harnessed his anger to drag himself back to his cart, where he used the machete to slice through the strap that held his tool chest to the cart, wishing he’d thought of that before he’d lost the mule.

With a whistled command, the lid of the chest popped off and sprouted six limbs. He ordered his trunk munkey to help him out of his armor. The shot had shattered his alchemically hardened wooden back plate and punctured his molten polymer underjerkin. He could feel metal and splinters embedded in his shoulder.

After chugging a strong draft, he used the munkey’s remote feed to pick lead and splitters out of his scapula. The gift of Vigor prevented him from bleeding too much or getting infected, but he had to stop twice to let the pain subside.

Each of the three Gifts had a downside. The flip side of the Vigor was that Children of the Gifts usually died violently. He didn’t age, didn’t have to worry about infection, was devilishly hard to poison, healed quickly, and even dealt well with sleep deprivation, but this didn’t leave many ways to die. Wanderlust, connected to the gift of Passage, ensured that he didn’t spend much time in the company of friends, and the Sympathy brought by the gift of Tongues made interfering with bullies an inevitablility.

The sun dipped to the horizon by the time he’d finished tending his shoulder, so he had to drag his cart to the fire pit in front of his statue, cursing the not-actually-hellians the entire distance. How had they known about the thaumechanical brain housed in the mule? What use could they have for it? Didn’t they know about the mule’s weaponization? Maybe it was the weapons themselves they were after.

Adrenaline aftermath kept him awake while the trunk munkey built a fire and prepared dinner, but blood loss and alcohol made the world spin dangerously. He had to keep moving and stay awake until he could get some food into him, so he dragged the three and two-halves bodies back to his camp and looted them. 

In between bites of ham sandwich, he found geometrically shaped coins, wallets, papers, and odd collections of cards, all showing the regularity of automated manufacturing. He also found a couple of metal and glass bricks, no more than a half inch thick. When he pressed a button on a brick’s side, the glass side lit up like a vid display, except in color, its surface covered in clusters of ideograms that he didn’t recognize. He’d have to crack one open after his arm healed.

In the flickering firelight, anger sizzled under his calm exterior. They didn’t just take his transportation — they took the culmination of the past century of tinkering and research. An artificial mind, spanning fifteen hyper-layers of thaumaturgical perceptron matrices, that approached human mental capacity while having access to a modular set of intelligences, sensors, and devices.

Everyone needed a hobby. By stealing his hobby they had made an epic mistake. Now he needed a new one. If they could travel between worlds without portals, so could he.

A flicker caught his attention — a brief reflection from some bit of metal beyond the dome of light created by his camp fire. The crisp lines of fancy robes faded in from the shadows. Clempson considered grabbing a weapon, but he’d already exhausted his ammunition, and was in no condition to fight. Fortunately the figure wasn’t dressed for conflict. The hemline wouldn’t survive a walk in the park, much less the rough conditions an hour’s walk from the local approximation of civilization. 

The robes resolved into a femine form, statuesque in stature and stillness, gliding over the rough ground as if she were floating. At first he thought that her complexion was an artifact of the firelight, but when she got close enough, he realized that her skin was an unnatural vibrant crimson, deeper than any he’d seen, even among Hellians. Even if it were makeup, her sharp features and black, silky hair were clearly Hellian.

Clempson played up his exhaustion. “Have you come to finish the job?”

The Hellian stopped on the other side of the fire and smiled. “I think you’re mistaking me for someone else. Do you need help?” She spoke in Panthroplean, so she must know who he was.

Clempson wouldn’t put it past a Hellian to stab someone so they could sell him a bandage. “Nothing that isn’t free.”

“Well, then, do you mind if I sit?” She spoke with a delicate lilt and soft trilling that felt to his ear like essence of lullaby, but fast instead of slow. Her robes resembled red oak, but hung and moved like fabric instead of limp rubber. It still gave her tall, thin frame the appearance of a wooden statue.

Clempson indicated a large log to his right, but the woman flourished, and the walking stick that she wasn’t using for walking unfolded into a stool. Nice trick.

“I’m afraid I have you at a disadvantage.” She sat and crossed her long legs. “I’ve been following your career since you built this thing.” She gestured upward at the arch of the viaduct, flickering red in the glow of the fire.

“I have a career?” Unbidden memories washed over Clempson. “Why would you bother having me followed?”

“I don’t have you followed. I just buy reports from your biggest fans. Do you have any idea how well Chronicles of the Children of the Gifts sell on the Hellian market? I purchased the rights after the first book, but if I hadn’t, someone else would have.”

Clempson didn’t have any idea. “Ok, make it up to me. Who are you?”

She smiled and spoke softly. “Call me Victor, Baron of the Ninth Circle of Hell. Don’t be too impressed — they have a lot of barons up there. I’m looking to recover a stolen cargo ship.” Victor glanced at the bodies.

“Victor. That’s an odd name.”

“It isn’t a name, it’s a title. You wouldn’t believe what I had to do to get people to call me that.”

“I’ll save that for another time. I bet you can tell me how they got hold of the ship. They didn’t seem competent enough to earn it.”

“They were competent enough to take your homunculus.”

“At the cost of four lives.”

“Lives are cheap on Hell. Your mechanical brain is probably worth more than the ship.” She held an open hand towards the corpses. “May I look?”

“Be my guest.”

Victor collapsed her chair back into a walking stick and approached the cadavers. She pulled one of the glass-metal bricks from the folds of her robe and traced patterns on the glowing glass side with a finger. A light issued from the metal side, illuminating the corpses. After digging through the clothing, she asked, “You wouldn’t happen to have found one of these, would you?” He waved her brick in Clempson’s direction.

“I might have. What are they?”

“They’re called gladdugs — compact information storage, communications, sensors, that kind of thing.”

It occurred to Clempson that he might be able to use Victor to retrieve his munk. “Will it help you find them?”

“Maybe. If one of them was receiving telemetry I could use it to track their departure.”

“Would you take me along? I’d like a chance to retrieve my property, too, you know.”

An exaggerated look of sadness crossed Victor’s countenance. “I’m sorry, but we’re not allowed to accept unbonded passengers. Would you take my word that I would return it to you?”

Clempson failed to hide his affront. “I’m sorry, do I know you? No, you have no way of convincing me. How do I avoid being an unbonded passenger?”

“That’s not advisable. You’d have to wear a security necklace at all times. Taking it off in any Hellian facility would be an instant death sentence. Is your machine really worth it?”

He had no intention of staying on the Hellian ship any longer than necessary, and knew he could cut through any collar they put on him. “That’s more than just a machine to me. It has the records of the worlds I passed through to get here. I might never find my way back home without it.” Clempson watched his trunk munkey add more wood to the fire and felt a wash of sadness. “It’s also the closest thing I have to a friend,” he mumbled.

Victor’s lip curled and she snorted. “Some people have imaginary friends, it figures you’d have built a synthetic one. Very well, but remember that I warned you.”