Darte’s hall was built on the eastern rise of the valley, among a family of spreading trees. His estate began there and stretched across to the foothills of the west wall’s distant mountains, barely visible in the haze. Over the course of the day, the combined light of the sun and the mirror had transformed the vale into a shimmering yellow oven, mountain-sided. Sun-roasting the driftwheat on the day before harvest was a ritual older than he was, one that ensured the crisp, delicate grain would part easily from the seared husks of the crop.
He watched the visiting technicians playing with his children under the awning behind the main hangar. They were building intricate networks of water channels, rills and dams to guide and trap water piped from the house’s reservoir. One of the technicians had brought a toy version of an industrial trench-digger in their dirigible, and the machine was excavating a canal of its own with a tiny bucket-wheel. Occasional calls of triumph and joy reached Darte as he stood beneath his sunshade.
From his balcony, he could see the entire valley spread out, geometrically arranged water channels defining fields with glittering precision, even as they shrank to trickles in the pitiless heat. The valley floor was flat, nothing standing above the golden fields but tool barns and loading platforms for the farm dirigibles that droned from yard to yard like huge fat insects. Once, the farms had followed the meanders and twists of the river, swirling around the little mud-brick farmhouses of smallholders and the gentle domes of drumlins, the last memories of the glacier that had shaped the valley. But when the war came it had touched everything in some way, even this quiet world among the mountains.
Tomorrow would be harvest. Tomorrow, at the death of the day, the ground would be dried out and barren, scattered with the desiccated stalks of driftwheat plants. The day after tomorrow, almost all of the crop would be carried away in the huge engines moored a little down the valley, out of sight as he had asked. He would open every sluice and the valley would be inundated; the day after that, and for some weeks, his dirigibles would be methodically combing the fields, digging up rocks, dropping fertilising supplements, laying seeds, spreading the ash of the last harvest.
The war had never come to the valley, only its threat and the industrial order of its aftermath. The river was only a story now, dammed far up the valley, grids of irrigation channels patterned into the valley floor with shaped stone. On a clear day, the shapeless white bulk of the dam and power station could be made out from Darte’s manor. He had heard there was a reservoir there, a lake of enough water to supply entire cities, but had never seen it for himself.
When it had been built, said the old diaries in his tower, the remnants of the glacier and the gentle meanders of the river that followed it had been scooped and scraped and blasted away by huge machines. Vast trenches were dug, prefabricated bunkers half-buried in ordered patterns across the entire valley floor. The soil was laid back on top of them, the irrigation channels built and the crops sown again. No hint remained of the buildings beside the well-concealed entrance to the tunnel network near Darte’s hall. It, and the unnaturally flat characteristic the entire valley took on; an artificial air, as though the landscape had been sculpted by an artist who had never seen a real valley.
Tomorrow, not all of the crops would be taken away forever. Some, far more than they really needed, would go to the family’s own storehouse among the trees. Most would be given away rather than eaten, to family friends or visiting engineers. But some – less than a hundredth part of the harvest – would be sealed in the preservation boxes the dirigibles had brought, and locked away under the valley in the great underground warehouses, safe until they were needed. The children enjoyed helping with the sealing of the boxes, and the noises of vacuum seals and computerised code-locks would always bring delighted smiles.
An ancestor of Darte had filled the bunkers to capacity with her crops, long ago, and the dirigibles had stopped bringing their boxes. But that ancestor – he could never remember her name for more than an hour after he read it – had protested. She had worried that the produce might spoil, had not trusted the devices designed to make her grain last forever. So every season, the oldest packages were taken from their underground home and loaded on the dirigible, and replaced by the new harvest.
Sometimes he suspected that the idea had nothing to do with distrust of the mechanisms. He thought the old farmer had herself enjoyed the process of packing and unpacking, the way the children did. He thought it was what he would do.
Darte selected a parasol from a rack and set off towards the fields, flagstones leading into a worn, dusty track. He had taken care never to let the double-strength sunlight at harvest time touch his skin. A visiting pilot working just inside the hangar greeted him with a wave and cheery call, then turned back to painting identification symbols on the hull of her odonopter.
There was always the worry of why enough grain to feed ten thousand people for a year had been stored under the valley. There had never been a call for it before, in all the peaceful years since the bunkers had been built, and he wondered sometimes what terrible circumstance would see stores thrown open. And not all the buried shelters held grain. Farmers long dead had written of slim, warlike shapes lowered into some, sealed from them by codes and computers. He and all his ancestors had thought of the valley as a farm – their farm – with a storehouse buried underneath, but occasionally he worried that those who had had the valley changed all those years ago thought it a storehouse which, quite coincidentally, had a farm on top.
Already, the sun was sinking low, and even with the mirror’s light coming from directly overhead you could start to see faint shadows. Most noticeable were the huge silhouettes of the mountains, slightly darker shapes seeping across the valley, but if you looked hard enough even a shrivelling wheat-stalk would cast a faint, ghostly shadow. With the first sunset, only the mirror would remain, and in a few hours it would change position to bringing light to somewhere else, and the valley would be dark enough to sleep for a few hours before harvest day.
There had been some benefits to the change, he knew, from stories of hard times among the diary stacks. The mirror in the sky, mounted on some station itself meant for war, meant that the sun could be called upon at any time – even night! – and time-honoured practices like the harvest burn or the four-day solstice would not have existed without it. The dam, too, made farming more regular and easier; there was always enough water, always where it was needed. The yields were better. The swarms of light cargo dirigibles that had been left by the builders had perhaps been the most welcome change, their rugged tool frames and oval gasbags now as familiar as the mountains and the sky. All these allowed the farmers to raise more produce for steadily less work, and family by family they had departed for other lives, feeling, like so many others after the war, a creeping sense of futility. So it went, until Darte and his family were the only ones left. And they barely did anything but walk the fields, and occasionally repair a dirigible if it broke beyond its own ability to repair itself.
The dirigibles were humming around busily, long mechanical limbs preparing the ground for inundation with ash and pebbles, their rotors perhaps turning a little faster than usual in the hot, thin air. Every so often one would hover low over an irrigation channel, lower a hose and refill its radiators with water; some of the older ones, with less effective cooling systems, would use the hose to spray water over their bodies and gasbags, a bizarre imitation of trunked animals, and one which the machines’ designers had no doubt taken great pride in. You could ride a farm dirigible, even operate the controls and fly it yourself, but there was no reason to. The machines did their jobs themselves.
Once, he had found a colony of blue ants nestled among his crops, devouring them. He had stopped the dirigibles from burning it, had dug it up himself and had a technician take it away to her institute. They had turned it into a display for children and young scientists, feeding the creatures driftwheat from his own farm, showing how they adapted their small lives with the seasons, how they could seal themselves away against even flood and fire. But he had kept a young queen and a few of the ants himself, let them build in the shade behind his home, and watched them cutting and moulding the crops he gave them with the same mindless industry as the machines that tended his fields.
The sun had fully descended now, and there were again no shadows, just the stark light of the mirror from directly above. It was the same light that the sun gave, from the same source, but it always seemed to him harsher and cruder, a light which provided for the crops but nothing more, as though the people who had built the great station had tainted the light itself with their careless, mechanical way.
Saranai, that was her name. The ancestor who had changed the stores every season. Dead, now, and buried long ago, like the bunkers under the valley or the farmers who had left.
A dirigible droned overhead, raining ash.