Under the Empyrean Sky (The Heartland Trilogy), page 1
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Text copyright © 2013 by Chuck Wendig
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The lyrics on page 1 and page 67 are from “Harvest-Home Song” by John Davidson. Stedman, Edmund Clarence, ed. A Victorian Anthology, 1837–1895. Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1895. The lyrics on page 149 are from “John Barleycorn” collected by Robert Burns in 1782. The lyrics on page 287 are from “The Big Rock Candy Mountains” by Harry “Haywire Mac” McClintock, written in 1895 and first recorded as a song in 1928.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available upon request.
ISBN-13: 9781477817209 (hardcover)
ISBN-10: 1477817204 (hardcover)
ISBN-13: 9781477867204 (eBook)
ISBN-10: 1477867201 (eBook)
Book design by Sammy Yuen
Editor: Marilyn Brigham
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
For Ben and Michelle, who are my Heartland
PART ONE THE DISCOVERY
1 THE RACE
2 ABOVE AND BELOW
3 GODSDAMN YOU, BOYLAND BARNES, JR.
4 THE SHUCK RAT’S LITTLE SECRET
5 THE BOXELDER BLUES
6 PISS AND WISHES, BROKEN DISHES
PART TWO THE HARVEST
8 TAKE THE STAGE
9 ALL WET
10 THE HOWLING POLLEN
11 THE BLACK ORCHARD
12 THE GARDEN TRAIL
13 OF BLIGHT AND BOUNTY
PART THREE THE GARDEN
14 THIS LITTLE SQUEALER WENT TO MARKET
15 A PROPOSITION, THICK AND FOUL
16 LANCING THE BLISTER
17 THE BURROW
18 THE LORD AND LADY’S GARDEN
19 UNEXPECTED GUESTS
20 GAMES OF CHANCE
PART FOUR THE NOOSE
21 THE LORD AND LADY BLESS US AND FREE US FROM OUR BONDS
22 THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE CORN
23 OLD OBLIGATIONS
24 THE TRAILHEAD
The pleasure of a king
Is tasteless to the mirth
Of peasants when they bring
The harvest of the earth.
With pipe and tabor hither roam
All ye who love our Harvest-home.
—“Harvest-Home Song,” John Davidson
THE CORN REACHES for the land-boat above it, but the corn is slow and the cat-maran is fast. The stretching, yearning stalks hiss against the boat’s bottom, making a white noise that sounds like pollen coming out of a piss-blizzard.
Betty, which is what Cael and his crew have nicknamed the long and lean cat-maran, sails buoyed by a pair of crackling hover-panels. Cael stands at the boat’s fore, leaning on one knee, staring out at the line where blue sky and green corn merge.
Fifty yards to their left is Cael’s opponent—a front-heavy, fat-chested yacht with a quartet of billowing red sails pregnant with wind. At the fore of the boat stands Boyland Barnes Jr., the captain of the Boxelder Butchers. They’re the number one scavenger crew in Boxelder.
Cael’s crew, the Big Sky Scavengers, is number two.
But not anymore.
Boyland looks over, offers a dismissive shrug before making a jerk-off motion with his hand. His land-yacht eases forward yard by yard, outpacing Betty slowly but surely. Boyland’s got a pair of small propellers in chrome cages posed at the back of his yacht—not cheap, but they give him a boost. Boyland’s money always gives him the boost.
Cocky prick, Cael thinks.
Boyland laughs, a pissy squeal that doesn’t match Boyland’s broad chest or bucket-shaped head. Cael just waves. Then he takes the pair of blue-lensed goggles from atop his head and snaps them tight over his eyes to protect against the coming wind.
The Butchers have propellers. Wind power. Fine.
The Big Sky Scavengers have something else. Something better.
Cael gives Lane the signal.
Lane Moreau. Tall, lean, like a reedy tree shaken of leaves. Lane is Betty’s helmsman. Knows every inch of her. He plucks the pinched ditchweed cigarette from between his lips, pitches it over the side of the boat in a pinwheel of embers, and then reaches down and yanks hard on a newly installed lever sticking up next to the control panel. Cael feels Betty’s belly vibrate. The sound of the hissing corn is lost beneath the grinding of gears as his brand-new hover-panels tilt down and back—
A coruscating ripple of light bursts from beneath Betty, and she suddenly leaps forth like a horse with a nettle screwed hard in its ass.
Lane holds the ship’s wheel with white knuckles. He howls like a hound. Awoooooo.
Rigo, the third mate in their crew of four—though today they’re one light, what with Gwennie off getting ready for tomorrow’s Harvest Home festival and the Obligation Day ceremony—hunkers down in the middle of the boat with a tube of maps under one arm, looking ashen and queasy.
Cael can already see, in the distance, the prize glinting in the sun: a defunct motorvator. Now just a flinty, metallic mote far off—but getting closer.
They heard the rumor this morning: someone spotted a rogue thresher out there, dead in the corn. Off its program. Off the grid. Didn’t belong to anybody in Boxelder, either—must have come a long way from another town before its battery finally took a shit. That means it’s ripe for the picking.
That’s what Cael and his crew do. They pick. They scavenge.
That motorvator, they’ll butcher it for spare parts, sell what they find. Provided they get there first—and Cael’s pretty sure they’re going to beat the corn off Boyland’s cob on this one. Getting there first means getting first pick—same way the strongest, biggest vulture gets to have first bite of whatever dead thing it might find.
You get to the junk, you get the prize. You get the prize, you earn the ace notes from the Mercado maven. Easy peasy, cool and breezy.
It won’t be long now. They’ll be there in no time. Ten minutes. Maybe less.
Betty pulls ahead. Faster, faster.
And Boyland’s land-yacht drifts farther behind.
Cael’s heart leaps in his chest. They’re going to beat the Boxelder Butchers. Beat them like disobedient urchins. He throws a glance back at Boyland, who stands at the fore of his boat, big, meaty fists on his hips. But something ain’t right.
Boyland is smiling.
He gives a signal of his own: a fat thumb thrust up.
Felicity, his first mate, whips out a box with a long silver antenna. She pulls her conductor’s cap tight over her tangled mane and then stabs a button on the box.
Atop the land-yacht’s crow’s nest, the third in their crew—a little towheaded ragamuffin way too young to be doing this gig—claps and laughs so hard his pale cheeks go red.
A flush of cold saline ices Cael’s blood. Something’s up.
He realizes too late: he shouldn’t be looking at them. He should be looki
Rigo sees before any of them. He cries out, “Bounce it!”
Cael turns heel-to-toe and sees a rusty thresher bar from a defunct motorvator suddenly spring up out of the corn, rising over the stalk-tops. Lane hears Rigo’s command and slaps a button on the side of the console, and the hover-panels shudder and emit a hard pulse, giving Betty a boost meant to carry them up and over.
But they’re too late.
Betty runs fast over the threshing blades.
Then comes the sound of shearing metal and shattering glass as Cael’s world goes ass over chin.
ABOVE AND BELOW
CAEL MCAVOY DREAMS of flying.
It’s the same dream every night. He flies low over the endless corn, the stalks swaying not with the wind but because that’s how the corn is: it drifts and shifts and twitches, leaves whispering against leaves, tassels like reaching hands. The sky above is a blue so pale it looks as though someone squeezed the color out of it, like a rag sitting too long in the sun, bleached by the light.
Cael has no hover-pads beneath his feet, no skiff beneath him, no wings. His body is unadorned; it flies free, without cause, without reason.
He wears no shoes in the dream. His toes can feel the wind prying between them like cold fingers.
Down below, a motorvator as big as a barn churns a diagonal line through the corn. It’s an older model—a Straw-Walker 909—and it’s gone off its program, the program that keeps it on the grid. But nobody’s watching as it slices a hard line from corner to corner, its toothy metal maw chewing up the cornstalks. Cael can hear the growling of the rasp bars, the grinding of the augur, the loud bangs as cobs of corn punch into the back of the open box-bed.
Behind the motorvator lies a wake of dead straw.
Cael flies over it, past it. He opens his mouth, lets the air inflate his cheeks like balloons, and he tucks his arms flat against his body as he speeds up. The air stings his eyes, makes them tear up, and he blinks it away. Higher, he thinks. We can always go higher.
A shadow passes over him, a vulture’s darkness.
Above, one of the Empyrean flotillas drifts out of the harsh light of the white sun. It’s too far up to see which one it is—not that Cael would ever know that, but dream logic is a logic all its own. Maybe it’s the Woodwick Miranda Mader-Atcha, he thinks, or the Gravenost Ernesto Oshadagea. The flotilla—a never-ending series of ships and homes and platforms strung together with chains fatter and rounder than the average grain elevator, comprising an area as big as a hundred towns—bobs lazily across the sky. Cael turns his head just so and can hear the hum of the engines, can see the contrails of white smoke.
He looks away, tucks his chin to his chest, and keeps flying. Up there they don’t give a rat’s right foot about him. They don’t even know he exists. So he offers them the same courtesy and pretends they’re not even there. But he wonders what it’s like to live up on one of those great floating beasts among the lucky and the privileged. He tries to imagine winning the Lottery.
At that moment he hates everyone on the flotillas. Hates how much they have. Hates how they always fly above the Heartland—as if they’re so much better.
But then in the next moment he wants to be one of them. Rich. Superior. Impossible.
Cael flies like this for a while. Sky above. Corn below. Always and forever.
But it doesn’t last. He hears a pop, and across the flat plain of cornstalks the loud report tumbles over the rows and fields. Something hits him; it feels like a ball bearing cracking him in the breastbone. He touches his hand to his chest, and it comes away wet and sticky—his blood bright red, too red—and a surge of anger and regret churns through him.
He’s angry because now he remembers; now it hits him: He remembers that the dream always begins and ends the same way.
It begins with him flying.
And it ends with him falling.
Toward the reaching corn.
The endless corn.
The everything corn.
Cael dies, and with him the dream.
GODSDAMN YOU, BOYLAND BARNES, JR.
CAEL THINKS, I’m flying! Holy shit, I’m actually flying!
Then he hits the ground, his ass coming up over his head. He crashes through the cornstalks, the razor edges of the leaves slicing his skin like a dozen paper cuts. His back smashes flat against the hard earth. The air escapes his lungs in a gasp.
His ears are ringing: eeeeeeeeeeeeeeooooeeeee.
His first attempt to get up fails. Cael can’t get a breath. Instead, he rolls over on his side, curling up around himself, trying to figure out what the hell just happened.
All around him, the cornstalks twitch and shift. Bending toward him. Shuddering suddenly, as though excited.
Somewhere, he hears Rigo moaning. But Lane, Lane doesn’t make a peep.
Cael’s pancaked lungs suddenly inflate, sucking in a reflexive draw of air. He coughs. Rolls over on his hands and knees.
When he lifts his head, he sees the wreckage.
Betty is stuck in the ground, her aft thrust up in the air like a big middle finger. The mast is snapped, the sails barely attached—and as Cael watches, one pale sail blows free and drifts over the corn-tops, billowing out of sight.
But the worst is the hover-panels. Those two panels—round and big like the lids of an old trash bin—now sit skewered on the rusty blades of a thresher bar likely stolen from a busted motorvator. A thresher bar that looks to be rigged up on a pair of remotely triggered hydraulic jacks.
A trap. A trap set by the Boxelder Butchers.
Cael spent every last ace note they had on those panels. An investment, he told the others, to give them the edge on the Butchers.
And now here he stands. Arms slick with blood from tiny cuts. Ears still ringing.
Whatever edge they had, gone with the sail, dead in the dirt.
For a moment Cael feels a twist of hope. One of the panels is hopelessly borked, its tempered glass bottom shattered, the coils crumpled. But the other still glows and pulses with faint power. But then—bzzt—the panel flashes with purple light that leaves a seared spiral swirl in Cael’s vision, and the panel shatters in a spray of sparks.
Cael wipes blood off his arms and swats away a stalk of corn that has bent down toward him. They say the corn can’t smell blood, but Cael doesn’t buy it. He kicks past stalks heavy and pregnant with cobs. He zeroes in on Rigo’s moans and finds his pudgy buddy lying on his back. Rigo’s got a knee pulled up to his belly, and he’s holding it.
“What happened?” Rigo asks, wincing.
“Boyland happened,” Cael says, and spits. More corn drifts down toward him, like a nag’s head dipping toward a puddle of water. He swats it away, careful not to get another cut. “He borked us. Rigged a trap, that sonofabitch.”
“That means he knew. About the panels.”
“Damn right he knew.”
Cael cranes his head back, looks into the bright sun. Growls. Of course the maven. She’s in the mayor’s pocket. Boyland is the mayor’s son. It adds up to such an easy equation, he’s pissed at himself for missing it. Maybe he didn’t miss it. Maybe he just didn’t want to admit it.
Rigo sits up, jerking his head away from a leaf of corn that’s seeking out his ear hole.
“You know what I’m going to do?” Rigo’s eyes narrow. “I’m gonna kick Boyland’s crap-can. I’ll break bad on him. I’ll break bad on him; on that girl, Felicity; and that little rigger rat-bastard they got running around with them. What’s his name? Mouse?”
“Mole! I don’t care that he’s a little kid. I’ll fight him. They gotta learn respect, Cael. That whole crew, every last Boxelder Butcher, is going down. I’m going to punch them so hard, they’ll piss their pants. Way I hit ’em, they can’t not piss their pants.”
Rigo. Imagining him “break bad” on Bo
“Just… stay there for a minute,” Cael says. “I’ll go find Lane. And don’t go to sleep! That corn will be all over you by the time I get back, and I don’t feel like cutting you free.”
Cael heads off to find Lane. He passes the wreckage of Betty again. It breaks his heart.
He finds Lane on the opposite side of the cat-maran. His friend’s just sitting there. Lane has a cob of corn in his hands, one he’s wrenched off the nearest stalk. With nimble fingers and long nails, he pops kernels out of their mooring and thumb-flicks them away.
“Lane,” Cael says. “You okay?”
Lane turns. He’s got a cut across his brow. Not a serious one, and it’s already crusting over. But a grim trickle has frosted his right eyelid with a rime of darkening blood. “Oh, sure.”
“You don’t look fine.”
“I’m just tired of it,” he says, screwing a stubby cigarette between his lips and lighting it with a red-top match. “This is how they get you, Cael. This is how they keep us down.”
“The Empyrean. They make us fight each other over scavenged scraps while they…” His voice trails off. “Whatever. Assholes.”
“Rigo’s hurt,” Cael says.
“Yeah. I heard him moaning.”
“Long walk back to town. We better get him.”
“Guess we better.”
It’s then they hear the sounds that crawl inside Cael’s ears like a family of weevils: the hiss of the corn-tops, the buzz of propellers in their wire cages, the cocky piggish laugh.
The Butchers’ yacht slides up over the corn about ten yards off.
Boyland fake-pouts. “Uh-oh. Did widdle Cael’s boat fall down and go boom?”
Cael sneers. “You did this, you dirty shit-britches.”
Mole clings to the mast like a possum, giggling. Along the back, Felicity just stands, arms crossed, mean scowl plastered across her mug.