hope

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The first thing to do was to ascertain if I was receiving nothing because no signal was being transmitted, or if it was because the signal was being jammed. Turner Goldsmith had guided the airship to its destination, more or less, so it was possible he knew people there. And if he knew people there, they might be as paranoid as he was. There was hope in jamming, I told myself; otherwise there was none at all.

It took some minutes to ascertain that the area around the crash site was indeed under an electromagnetic pall. No unnatural signals went in or out-but the jamming was much more sophisticated than that of the safe-house. Here there was still background variation; here there was no weird dip in the natural ambience of the inhabited Earth. A train line crossed the silent space, and its signals weren't interrupted. Navigation data passed unimpeded. To a casual glance it might have seemed that there was simply nothing civilized in the area.

But that wasn't the case. The vegetation was serried in rows of trees, like orchards. There was a central compound composed of several buildings. There were people-I saw them in the background of snaps taken of the crash site from far above. The Air was aware of the accident and directing its attention to the site, so I was able to pry into the nature of the environment without risking my own disclosure.

No rescue mission was mounted. The official word was that there were no survivors-but how could they know without physically checking? Again, I sensed powerful forces moving in the background. Or nothing at all, just a vast, unnerving incompetence.

What I was certain of was that Clair's chunk of the airship's crew compartment had been snagged by apple trees. Uncannily bright red fruit dotted the autumnal leafscape like dollops of paint. The sun was setting over the scene, casting long shadows under the warm tones of a melting sky. Faintly, I picked out movement around the base of the wreckage. Someone was alive. But was it Clair?

I attacked the wall of silence with everything I had, to no avail. All my finely-tuned senses found it utterly impenetrable.

But that was impossible. Information and people were an almost infinitely volatile combination. Whatever was going on in there, someone outside had to know. And if someone knew that, then they might also know how to get in. I constructed search grids along radiating lines of inquiry. I refused to be daunted by the sheer amount of data I would have to sift through. Giving up meant giving up on Clair. And giving up on Clair meant giving up on myself. What would I do without her? What purpose did I have if she was gone?

The cluster around the wreckage dispersed into smaller groups. Some led in a line to the central compound. Others scattered across the quiet zone, seeking other crash sites. Debris was still falling from the Skylifter, inside and outside the quiet zone. Some fragments descended surprisingly slowly, braked by long sheets of balloon material or by emergency measures I had not been aware of. There might have been other survivors. They didn't concern me.

The sun was long down by the time I found my first reason to hope.

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