Geoffrey rode in silence next to the driver at the top of the coach. It was chillier up here, but he didn’t have to deal with Bartram’s constant chatter. The previous hour had been peaceful, as he watched the scenery crawl by.
“It that it?” The coach had followed the road around a curve, and now a cluster of small houses was visible on a hill up ahead. Geoffrey turned to the coach driver sitting next to him. “Cleig Grijan?”
The driver pulled his eyes of the road and looked at Geoffrey. “Look man, I appreciate you coming up here and keeping me company. But the reason I’m driving the coach is because I enjoy the peace and quiet. If you’re going to be chattering away the whole time, maybe you’d better ride inside on the way back.”
Bartram stuck his head out the window. “What are you two chattering about up there? I’m trying to sleep.”
Geoffrey leaned down over the side. “We’re nearly there,” he said. “We’ll go see the elder, find out the lay of the land, deliver all the messages, then head home.”
“No! I want to go see Qualdir’s temple!”
“Then you can go by yourself.”
“We’re supposed to be becoming a team. Is this your idea of bonding? What kind of friend are you?”
“The kind who’s losing their patience. We’ve got a job to do. And Flame, for one, is depending on me. I don’t want to let her down.”
“But you don’t care about letting me down.”
“No, I care about Flame, and she cares about other people, so I’m going to care about that as well. And puppies. She also cares about puppies.” Geoffrey looked over at the driver. “If you see any small injured animals lying around, let me know.”
“I knew it,” said Bartram. “You’re trying to impress a woman. Fine, I understand that. I’ll back off.”
The three of them rode silently the rest of the way to the village. Just before they pulled up at the village green, the driver turned to Geoffrey. “Be careful if you bring Flame an animal,” he said. “She’s been trying her hand at amateur medicine and she’s very bad at it. Things tend to die. She means well, but I don’t think she knows what she’s doing.”
“Good thing we’re getting a vet,” Geoffrey said.
When the coach rolled to a stop, the driver got down to check on the horses and Geoffrey and Bartram were met by the village elder.
“I’m Quarta Pappa,” she said, shaking their hands. “I was expecting Flame Bunyips.”
Quarta was a tall, strong woman, with a firm handshake, and long hair tied back in a braid.
“You look like you’re a rancher settling the Wild West,” Bartram told her.
She looked around. “It is kind of like the Wild West, isn’t it? We’ve got homesteading, and we’ve got bandits and cattle rustlers.” She shook her head. “It just like something out of the history books. Come on in, there’s soup on the stove.” She took a couple of steps towards the horses. “You, too, Jim,” she told the driver, then turned around and led them into the house.
As Geoffrey passed her in the doorway, he handed her the packet that Flame had given him.
She put a kettle of water on the wood burning stove in the cabin’s small kitchen and began ladling soup into bowls. “What brings you gentlemen out here, anyway?”
“Geoffrey Napadayushyi here is the Duke’s newest advisor,” Bartram said, pointing to Geoffrey. “The Duke wants him to go out, meet everybody, get the lay of the land.”
“And you?” she asked.
“I’m here to make sure that there’s funding for anything you need to grow the community,” Bartram said. “We want to get a gate put up here, and need to hit growth targets in order to do that.”
She sat down across from them and broke a piece of bread off a loaf then pushed the rest of the loaf towards them. “Not everybody’s going to be happy to hear that,” she said. “Butter?”
Geoffrey shook his head and she pulled out a large hunting knife and used it scoop the butter out of its little crockery pot and smear it on her bread.
She pointed the knife at him. “There’s a lot of people who came up here to the northern mountains to get away from civilization and all the tourists,” she said.
“A gate would be good for the local economy,” said Bartram, peering at his soup.
“The people who are already here didn’t come here for the economy,” said Quarta. “They came here to homestead, like I did. Or to be bandits, or sex cultists, or whatever it is they were looking for. Having gate here will change the character of the place.”
“It takes two weeks to get here by coach,” said Geoffrey.
“Exactly. Do you know how many places are out there in the world today that take two weeks to get to? Unless you’re talking about physically traveling between planets, you can get pretty much anywhere within hours. Or instantly, if you teleport. Here, the only way to leave quickly is to kill yourself. And that can backfire quickly, if you mess is up, then lie there for days while you die slowly.”
“Are you saying that people will sabotage the Duke’s plans to grow Heartburgh?” Geoffrey asked.
“Not necessarily. Some people will be happy to see it grow. Others might just move away further.” She noticed Bartram poking at his soup with a spoon. “That soup is bean and skirret,” she said. “A little bacon fat for flavor. It’s good. Everything’s been grown right in this area.”
“This kind of life isn’t for me,” Bartram said. “I prefer a big city. Some excitement. But I can see how you might like it. So what do you guys want out here?”
“That’s easy,” Quarta said. “Children.”
“You’re kidding,” said Bartram. “You want children out here? In the middle of nowhere? With no schools, no medical care, bandits everywhere?”
“Well, I’ve been thinking about that,” she said. “If there was a gate, children could go to school by gate. And get medical care and counseling services and anything else they needed. And maybe we could get rid of the some of the worst bandits. It’s okay if there’s a few cattle rustlers out there. It would be good for children to see some examples of bad behavior, to be prepared and ready for it.”
“I don’t think the Duke can do much about that,” said Bartram. “Or even Krim world administrators, for that matter. That’s something for legislators to decide. Frankly, I’ve never heard of them approving a basic bio grid for children.”
“Are you talking about having children come and visit, like tourists?” Geoffrey asked.
“No,” said Qartas. “Some of us want children that are born and raised here.”
“Funny story,” said Bartram. “Geoffrey here was born and raised on a grid. Not this one, World of Battle. And it was an accident.” He laughed. “Some guy wanted an AI to help him beat the game — this was back in the days before they knew about what causes sentience — and he put it on a brain simulation node. And nobody noticed! Can you believe it? Since he was on World of Warcraft, not out in the real world. Nobody noticed that they had an AI slowly gaining sentience.” He patted Geoffrey on the shoulder. “This guys. Born by accident, raised to create havoc wherever he goes.”
“I’m so sorry,” said Quarta. “I didn’t know.”
“I don’t usually tell everyone I meet.” Geoffrey glared at Bartram.
“I looked him up when we wanted to hire him. The case made all the media. I’d forgotten all about it,” Bartram said. “But this guy was just talking about the court settlement he received when it all came out, and I was reminded about it.”
“That must have been a terrible childhood,” said Quarta.
Geoffrey shrugged. “I didn’t know I was supposed to be a child,” he said. “So it didn’t bother me. Actually, I kind of enjoyed it. Taking down enemies is fun. I can’t wait to get back to it.”
Quarta pursed her lips. “That doesn’t sound like like a healthy approach,” she said. “If you don’t mind me asking, how old are you?”
“Twenty-five,” said Geoffrey.
“My God, you’re just a child,” said Quarta.
“Back in my day, when a man turned twenty-five, he’d already gotten married and had two children,” said Bartram. “And a dog.”
“So you didn’t have a family growing up?” Quarta asked Geoffrey. “Just some gamer who treated you as an AI assistant? That’s terrible.”
Geoffrey shrugged. “Anyway,” he said, “The Duke’s decided to hire a vet, and Flame wants to know what kind of qualifications the farmers out here would want them to have.”
Bartram pushed his chair back from the table. “We can talk about that later. We should get going to the temple before it gets too dark.”
“I told you, I’m not going to the temple.”
“It’ll put some hair on your chest.”
“Are you talking about the Qualdir cult?” Quarta asked. “They’ll peel your skin off and rub salt into your flesh.”
“Pshh,” said Bartram. “That’s just marketing.”
“Ignore him,” Geoffrey told Quartas. “Tell me about the vet. And what the bandits have been like lately.”
“Well, if you’re going to be like that,” said Bartram and stood up. “I’ll see myself…” He was interrupted by a knock on the door.
A second later, it opened and Jim stuck his head inside.
“Jim! Come in!” said Quarta.
“I just wanted to let you know that one of the horses got a rock wedged into her hoof,” he said. “I got it out, but it will be sore for a little bit. I don’t want her to walk on it just yet. Sorry, guys, we’re not going anywhere.”
“Well then, I’ll just walk,” said Bartram. “It’s not too much further. Good day.” He nodded at them all and went outside.