The Birth of an Ironclad
Part 1: Drogen
If Iâ€™d wanted to be a scientist instead of a soldier, this would be my dream come true. Well, almost.
The curious mix of metal, ammonia, and whatever other chemicals were floating around in the lab today were well on their way to giving Drogen a headache. Even worse than the hangover heâ€™d had last weekend, but with none of the fun. Not, he admitted to himself, that heâ€™d had all that much fun getting the hangover anyway. Drowning his sorrows didnâ€™t seem to be a particularly productive use of his time. He made a note: no more drinking.
In the meantime his job was to get the lab floor as clean as possible, as quickly as possible. The whole place would be covered by volcanic ash by the end of the day. And it was always his job to clean it. The joy of the summer season. Once it was clean, though, he could get out of here and away from the headache inducing miasma. Somewhere I can brood in private, he mocked himself. Why did I ever believe I had a chance to get into the marines?
â€œDrogen! Drogen!â€ one of the scientists called out. Drogenâ€™s shoulders tensed until he recognized Scientist Arven Ghoâ€™s limp as the old man lurched towards him. Unlike pretty much everybody else in the military, Gho didnâ€™t pay attention to caste at all. Drogen didnâ€™t doubt that the old man knew that his father was servant caste. Gho knew nearly everything. He just didnâ€™t seem to care.
â€œYou really must come see this! The alloy is just beautiful!â€ Ghoâ€™s eyes peered up at him over the older manâ€™s mask. â€œShogarâ€™s blessings, why arenâ€™t you wearing your mask?â€
â€œScientist Rhega said I wouldnâ€™t need it today. None of the compounds are toxic.â€ He kept his tone even and as uncritical as possible. He didnâ€™t want the old man thinking he was complaining.
â€œPah! What nonsense! Thereâ€™s no need to skimp on masks. Weâ€™re fully funded. No point making our lab assistants pass out from needless exposures! Theyâ€™re preventative. To prevent accidents! Why she insists on being so miserlyâ€¦â€ Gho rambled on, leading him towards the mask dispensary.Â Drogen refrained from pointing out that all the other lab assistants had masks. There were three others there that day, and each one had a mask on. But when it came to him, Rhega refused to key in approval.
â€œAll right. Now that you have your mask, would you like to operate the laser?â€
Drogen looked down at the old man in surprise. â€œOperate the laser?â€
â€œOf course! Youâ€™ve been here long enough, youâ€™re more than capable. Come now, no dawdling.â€
Drogen found himself following the old man, a bemused smile on his face. Thankfully, no one else could see it because of the mask. He knew heâ€™d been there long enough. But none of the other scientists considered him anything more than a glorified janitor. They assumed he was as dumb as he was large. And heâ€¦ he was too busy being disappointed about not getting into marine training to really care all that much. It was all one big ball of misery. Except for a few moments, like this one, when Gho was in the lab. As the oldest scientist, he wasnâ€™t there all that often.
â€œHere, here.â€ Gho patted him on the arm. â€œTake the controls! And thereâ€™s the ship siding!â€
Indeed, there was a portion of a spaceship hull, coated in the latest version of the alloy. It was the most important project in the lab, and the reason Drogen was supposed to clean everything up today. Tomorrow several of the highest ranking admirals were coming in to see the alloy at work.
Drogen took sight with the laser and ratcheted it up to its minimum level and let fly a laser bolt. Nothing happened. That he expected. Nodding, he set the dial one higher and let loose again. Still nothing.
â€œOh, you can hit it harder than that, my boy!â€ the old scientist crowed.
Higher? All right. Heâ€™d set it higher. Still nothing. This was clearly a stronger alloy than the last one heâ€™d seen tested. At level three, the laser had burned right through the prior version of the alloy.
He looked at the old man, who was cackling in glee, and then back to the laser. He felt himself begin to grin. The military may not have made him a soldier, but at least for right now, he was still getting to shoot lasers! He thumbed the dial all the way to the highest setting, shot again, and waited for the ship siding to disintegrate.
For a moment, the sheet of metal glowed a dull red where the laser had hit it. And then it faded back into a cool metallic gray.
Drogen just stared.
â€œYou see, you see?!â€ Gho nearly danced a circle in glee.
â€œIâ€™ve never seen anything resist even a level 6 strike. Much less an 11! Howâ€¦â€ he trailed off, just trying to comprehend the immensity of it.
Any ship equipped with this alloy was going to be near invincible. Theyâ€™d already proven it could resist heavy impact with meteorite showers. And now this. He swallowed. What he would give to serve on such a ship as that.
He was startled when he felt a hand on his arm.
He looked down at Gho, who was no longer dancing. Who, in fact, was looking at him quite somberly.
â€œYou are a good man, Drogen Lar. And someday you will make a fine soldier. Remember your patience, and hold to it. Ours is a culture that does not readily accept change. Remember, too, what you value.â€
He swallowed again, and barely managed to say, â€œI didnâ€™t realize you knewâ€¦â€
â€œKnew you dreamt of serving with glory, instead of cleaning lab floors? Drogen, you burn so brilliantly, even a blind man would have to know.â€
â€œI was not born into the soldier caste.â€
â€œPah!â€ Gho slapped his arm. â€œDonâ€™t defeat yourself before youâ€™ve begun to fight. I was not born into the scientist caste, either. No. Soldier caste was my birthright. And I found my way where I belonged.â€ He paused, his eyes very intent on Drogenâ€™s face. â€œIt will not be easy. It will be even harder for you than it was for me. I apologize for that. I have done my best by you. Remember that, too.â€
â€œOf course, sir,â€ Drogen bowed his head, still shocked.
â€œScientist Gho!â€ Rhegaâ€™s acid voice rang out. â€œThe Admirals have arrived! Your presence is expected at the dinner!â€
A frown knit Ghoâ€™s brow and was gone so quickly, Drogen thought he must have imagined that momentary annoyance.
â€œI am on my way, Marvi.â€ He patted Drogen on the arm one last time before limping off, muttering to himself.
Which left Drogen facing Rhega on his own.
Her eyes narrowed. â€œWhy havenâ€™t you finished cleaning the floors?â€
â€œI was assisting Scientist Gho,â€ he told her, keeping his voice carefully neutral.
She sniffed. â€œFinish your duties. Then you may join the dinner.â€
It was a sign of how shaken he was by Ghoâ€™s words that he didnâ€™t even resent being denied dinner with the Admirals. All of the other lab assistants were putting away their gear and going to the dinner. While he would be left behind to clean up after everyone. Again. He just nodded. In his head, he replayed Ghoâ€™s words. â€œSomeday, you will make a fine soldier.â€
He hoped so. He hoped so more than he could ever say, but he didnâ€™t see any way for it to happen. He had been foolish to believe that his talent could overcome his caste in the eyes of the military council. That he had gotten even this far was more than his father could believe. â€œYouâ€™ve done so well, Drogen!â€ the older man had told him the last time they spoke. His rheumy eyes were wet and shining, â€œTo be among the scientists! Who would ever have dreamt it?â€
He found the broom, where heâ€™d left it leaning against the wall, and began sweeping more vigorously than necessary. There were curled slivers of metal on the floor, and flakes of what looked like Ormean leaves (a stimulant that was strictly outlawed), and shining black powder near where Rhegaâ€™s group had been sawing away at Malvan glass. He snorted. He ought to report the leaves, but there was no way to prove who had been using them. Nasty business, and likely to kill the user eventually.Â He swept it all up off the floor and made a note: Tell Gho. The old man would keep an eye out for it.
The lab was as clean as he could get it, without disturbing the various projects strewn about the place. He went through, turning off harmonic measuring devices that one group had left going. Turning on the coolant that another group had forgotten â€“ theyâ€™d lose three months of work if they let the Tarkanian eggs come up to hatching temperature.
Last, he checked Ghoâ€™s smelting equipment. Everything was pristinely put away, as always. Except, and that was odd, there were three blinking red lights going off on the console.
â€œWhat, by the Three Ladies, is this?â€ He checked the main control system. Everything looked right. The containment system was working fine. The power was set to stand by, as opposed to active.
â€œBetter run a scan,â€ he muttered. He ran his fingers over the controls, punching in his personal code before initiating the scan. Immediately, those blinking red lights became steady and the welder began to hiss. â€œWhat the-â€œ
That was when the world exploded. He had one brief glimpse of the welder shattering into pieces and shining arcs of alloy fountaining up out of it. Then his skin was burning. His mask burnt away in less than an instant. He felt his skin crisp and split.
â€œShogar!â€ he tried to scream. God of fire and magma! But nothing came out. Instead his mouth filled with liquid fire. Fire travelled down his throat, pooling in his gut and burning him hollow. He had time to think, Iâ€™m dying and then, Iâ€™ll never be a soldier now. And then there was nothing left but fire and pain.