Case OUVERTURE

With shaky hands, Snorri carved the final line onto the device.

"Is that it? Did it work?"

Gurni pressed the first rune. The device gave out a crackle of static electricity and rose shakily into the air.

"Aye, lad, it did."


On the cramped, noisy bridge of the AEDFS Aura, a bored signal technician read while the Earth spun by. They were on a polar orbit, high above Iceland and heading south. It was the dead of the night watch, the ship's fusion drive was shut down for maintenance, and the vast majority of the crew was asleep. He was halfway through the first chapter of Triumph of the Empirical on a battered e-reader, his eyes half glazed-over. The events going on in Scotland had their impact even here in orbit; Randolph Gowering had become required reading, or so it seemed. He yawned, unimpressed.

And then part of the passive sensor monitoring console lit up with a soft click. His eyes widened slightly and he secured the reader to a patch of velcro on the wall. He'd only ever used this particular section of console a handful of times before- it was the oldest piece of equipment on the bridge, a shoddily-built metal box that got alarmingly hot and smelled of burnt hair every time it was activated. The label on the dial, written in slightly-askew embossed plastic tape, read "NULL-G FIELD".


The space station's walls resonate with the constant background hum of fans and coolant pumps. An officer and a scientist are sitting in the comfortable acceleration couches at the edge of the gravity ring. The scientist seems nervous, and the officer can tell.

"You wouldn't have asked me here if it wasn't something important, and you wouldn't have asked me to sit if it wasn't something that was going to piss me off. Spit it out."

The scientist clears her throat, lets out a nervous laugh, and hands over a tablet computer.

"The Fleet confirms it- someone on Cair Aisling has an active Null-gravity Generator."

"You've gotta be fucking kidding."


Deep beneath the Antarctic pack ice, Site-017's Communications Center was a hive of activity, huge banks of computers humming as they were swarmed over by dozens of technicians. From the isolated booths in the room's cavelike walls came the babble of conversation in a myriad of languages, the clatter of fax and teletype machines, and the din of an endless variety of coding and decoding devices. The section of computers reserved for Containment-specific use dominated the center of the chamber- fully half of the Authority's satellite traffic passed through this single room on a daily basis.

On one of the largest terminals, a bar of text appeared, accompanied by an ominous warning tone.

INFLT MAXPRI CASE OUVERTURE COORDINATES FOLLOW

The engineer working the terminal choked on her coffee and a horrified silence descended over the room. No one had ever, ever received a CASE OUVERTURE message, much less one at MAX Priority. Theoretically, it meant dropping everything and going on the warpath, because someone, somewhere, had just activated a very dangerous and very, very anomalous piece of technology.

"Uh, Director Goodwall? Ma'am? Do we issue a mobilization order?"


Elvi Silvergleam was finding it very difficult to concentrate. It wasn't that his office was filled with humans- he dealt with them all the time, fine people, many of his friends were human- but rather the bag full of thousands of uncut diamonds they'd just placed in front of him.

"Well," he said, suddenly aware of just how sweaty he'd become, "I think a, uh, donation of this magnitude absolutely merits the cooperation of the Masons. Tell me more about this… machine you're looking for."

The leader of the small band of human "merchants"- they looked about as mercantile as a slag pile to Silvergleam- leaned forward, the peculiar triangular patch on his roughly-sewn overcoat catching the light.

"What do you know," he inquired in bizarrely-accented Common Speech, "about gravity?"


Gurni Helmcleft announced his resignation with a pickaxe through the Guildmaster's desk. Gurni had prepared a speech, a list of grievances, of insults done to his honour as a craftsman and as a dues-paying member of the Guild of Masons, but found it all subsumed under a rising wave of bile.

"YOU VERMINOUS, BACKBITING CUR. That for your leadership and your policies! May the Fire Giants take you in your sleep, you despicable whoreson gravel-digger! It's incompetent human-lovers like you who are destroying the Underguilds, and ruining the magnificence that our ancestors wore their fingers to the bone to create!"

The Guildmaster, his effete and barely-bearded face white with shock, began to respond, but Gurni had found his stride now.

"For seven hundred years- four generations- the House of Helmcleft have worked as Masons for this Guild, upholding the craftsmanship passed down since time immemorial- and you, with your trimmed beard and your effeminate Elven ways, simpering about the rights of Empiricals and knife-ears to share in the proceeds of honest Underguild craftsmanship- you come in here and spit on my honour, and the honour of my father, his father, and his father before him. In the name of the House of Helmcleft I curse you to penury, you slack-jawed Elf-loving waste of metal."

And then, not stopping to retrieve his axe, he turned on his heels and stomped out of the office.

"Good riddance."

The guildhall was deadly quiet, but Gurni knew it wouldn't erupt into violence. For each mason with their hands on an axe or a hammer- and it was always the ones who wore Elven fashion or who employed Humans, he noted- there were two or three who met his gaze and gave some slightly gesture of approval- the faintest of nods, a stroke of the beard. A small group of darkly-clad Human merchants lurking in the back of the hall watched him pass, apparently cowed into silence. He left the Guildhall feeling vindicated- he'd suspected the Guildmaster wasn't popular, and this confirmed it.

He walked home in a storm of emotions- triumph, yes, but also more regret than he might have cared to admit. He'd secured a lucrative private contract building a new Hold beneath Szagorn's Peak, one which would keep him in the money for at least the next 50 years, but he'd grown up as part of the Mason's Guild- he'd held his first hammer there, met Brusel at their annual festival…

Gurni sighed, hastily wiping a bitte tear from his eye. He couldn't let nostalgia get the better of him- that stone seam had been cracked, and there was no repairing it.

He turned down the cutting towards his home tunnel, passing a newsman from the Guild of Callers. The cutting was unusually quiet for this time of day.

"..From the Ashwoods confirm that the so-called Legendary Hero, Hasan Mazza, has indeed been killed in a duel with Sebelet Vivath, Marquis of Poisonmouth. The House of Vivath has refused comment, but the results of the duel have stirred rioting and unrest across the Ashen Lands, as the Hero and his entourage were present as ambassadors of the Spirelands. In other news, increasing numbers of strangely-attired Humans unaffiliated with any of the Empirical remnant have been spotted…"

The voice faded behind him as he descended the tunnel, coming to his front door and opening it with a wave of his rune-gloved hand. He found Snorri playing in the yard, his whispy beard-hairs crackling with static electricity as he bounced his new favorite toy from one wall to the other.

"Poppa! If I cast the gnurr rune to the left, I can make it float!"

He picked his son up and swung him around, the child's happy giggling wiping away whatever doubts he'd had. Snorri was a precocious, clever little seed crystal- and he deserved somewhere new and exciting to grow.

"I knew my little runecraft prodigy would have something to surprise me! Well done, lad!"

Snorri wriggled from his arms and grabbed the floating sphere of battered tin, showing him the runes lightly etched into its surface.

"And poppa, poppa, if I turn the blouc upside-down it gets really hot and really cold again! Why?"

Gurni frowned, elementary runecraft lessons running through his head.

"My boy, remind me to explain the Seventh Law of Thaumic Equivalency later."

"Later? What about now?"

He gave his son another pat on the head, turning to head inside.

"Because if I did, we'd be out here all night and you'd never get any supper! Run along now, I need to talk to Brusel."

The child had already turned away, giving the floating rune-sphere a mighty whack and chortling uproariously as it whizzed through the air, crackling and spitting sparks. Gurni ducked into the vestibule, kicking off his heavy mason's boots and stomping down the short staircase to the den. The low-ceilinged space was packed full of half-full chests and crates- they were almost finished packing for the move. Brusel was elbow-deep in the hearth, hammering together some bauxite cakes.

"Well?", he said, not looking away from the molten stone. "He clearly didn't kill you, but did you kill him?"

Gurni sat heavily on one of the kitchen stools.

"No, I didn't kill the Guildmaster. Gave him a piece of my mind, though. I think I can safely consider myself resigned from my Mason's Guild membership."

Brusel glanced back over his shoulder.

"And you're not worried about reprisals? The Guildmaster's a powerful man, for all that he is an effete little bleater."

Gurni scoffed, leaning back against the wall of the den.

"From what I saw? All he's going to do is bleat. The Szagorn Company is wealthy and has their picks in many seams- if he tries anything, Director Szagorn and his men will crack some skulls and that'll be the end of it. We've nothing to worry about."

"Well, if you say so, but remember that-"

There was a yelp of pain from outside. Gurni frowned, half-standing, when the door was kicked down. The stooping figure- a human, wielding a crossbow, fell with a yelp as Brusel reflexively hurled a still-glowing lump of bauxite cake at him- but then there were two more humans in the doorway, with more behind them, and one was holding Snorri.

"Freeze, or the child dies," one of them cried- and with a shock Gurni realized that they were the humans he'd seen skulking around the Guildhall. All of them wore dark, nondescript clothing, but marked with a faintly reflective triangular badge. Their accents were truly bizarre, unlike anything he'd ever heard.

"Let him go!"

"Brusel!"

Gurni raised his empty hands, barely daring to breathe.

"So the Guildmaster sends Human stooges to do his dirty work, then? If you have even the slightest honour, you pigs, leave the child. I'm the one you want."

The lead human- or so Gurni guessed, judging by the way he held himself- seemed to hesitate.

"Guildmaster? Wh- No, we're here for whatever you've made. A machine that does not fall when dropped. We know you've built one, and we're here to destroy it."

Snorri wriggled, whimpering as the human squeezed him closer. Brusel made an angry, animalistic sound, and Gurni saw his hand inching towards one of the fire pokers. Gurni frowned, trying to wrap his head around the situation.

"I haven't the faintest idea what you're talking about. What would the Guildmaster want with a- a machine that does not fall? Surely you're here to resolve our vendetta- or die trying."

One of the humans in the back seemed distracted by a clicking contraption of springs and counterweights.

"Um, captain?", it piped up- a female, to judge by the squeaking voice- "Sir, I don't think Silvergleam was being entirely honest with us. I found the NG, sir."

The human stooped, standing back up with Snorri's toy in hand. The lead human made a sort of strangled coughing sound.

"I think," it said, "there has been a slight misunderstanding."


It's night on the space station- relatively speaking, anyways. The sun will rise in 15 minutes, then set just as quickly. The officer and the scientist are both pouring through scans of documents originally written on rough, handmade paper. The constant whir of the fans is interspersed with occasional snorts of derision and disbelief.

"Jesus Christ," the officer proclaims dully. "They held a fucking child hostage? If I'd known this was the kind of response OUVERTURE merited…"

The scientist sighs and rubs her eyes.

"Uncontrolled discovery or usage of null-gravity would be like someone building a hydrogen bomb in their backyard- the Directorate had to act quickly, and the guys on Cair Aisling weren't put there for their tact or delicacy- not the Protection units, anyways. No one was hurt, and the, uh, dwarf family involved have been cooperative and far, far more understanding than anyone expected."


Gurni laughed until tears ran from his eyes and he could barely keep himself on his seat. The human captain seemed nonplussed. Finally he caught his breath, resettling himself on the stool. Snorri and several of the other humans were outside, playing "keep-ups" with the toy.

"If it's a question of ownership rights, I have bad news for you- even if your people did, ah, 'invent' it one hundred and twenty or so years ago- the rune patterns on that ball were first created by my great-grandfather, Legmo Helmcleft, nearly 700 years ago. The rights to the pattern have remained in the family ever since- and anyone who wants to copy them would have to pay a pretty nugget of gold, let me tell you."

"So there's no risk that any other dwarf knows how to create an NG?"

"There's always a risk a dwarf might know about it, certainly! But to create that pattern- that En-Gee, well, they'd risk the wrath of the Guild of Property Rights. I know you're a human so your Undertongue is likely terrible, but I'll tell you this- our words for 'Intellectual property theft litigation' and 'massacre' are one and the same. Besides, the pattern isn't of much use anyways- there are far simpler and more efficient runes of levitation out there."

There was a long pause at that, punctuated by the dull metallic sound of Snorri's toy bouncing off the door, accompanied by a peal of childish laughter. The human spoke carefully, obviously choosing his words- Brusel glowering at him from across the den obviously wasn't helping matters.

"Exactly, uh, how much gold would you want in exchange for the permanent rights for this… this rune pattern?"

Snorri smiled deeply.

"Oh, a few thousand ingots would do nicely. But more importantly, you can repay me for the disruption you've caused to my home with… let's call it a favour."


The officer scans the concluding paragraph, then sits back in disbelief.

"So you're telling me that null-gravity technology- the stuff we built the entire AEDF with- one of the most carefully guarded and dangerous secrets in the entire goddamn Authority… is a magical children's toy made by dwarfs."

"Fictional dwarfs, seven hundred years ago, yes."


The tunnel home was closed and shuttered. Its inhabitants, plus their substantial new supply of gold, had moved to the new hold at Szagorn's Peak several days prior. In the common cutting outside, the newsman from the Guild of Callers continued to read the news to passers-by.

"…disgraced former head of the Guild of Masons Elvi Silvergleam was ordered into permanent exile today by the Grand Guild Council after it was discovered that he had purchased the services of human mercenaries to resolve a workplace grievance for which he was responsible. He was cited on charges of breaking the Code of Civil Violence, and the rarely-used Offence Likely to Result in Dishonouring of a Guild. Grand Guild Undersecretary Deepknurl has called Silvergleam's actions 'the most reprehensible violation of Underguild workplace violence laws in nearly a century,' and…"

tagnone

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