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Authors: Karl Schroeder

Tags: #Science Fiction, #General, #Space Opera, #Fiction

Pirate Sun (10 page)

BOOK: Pirate Sun
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“I—”

The town siren interrupted her. Chaison realized with a start that for some seconds he’d been hearing a distant pounding, like the impact of faraway rocket fire. But it was getting closer, and now the floor shuddered. He turned to make sure that Darius and Richard were behind him, in time to see a writhing torso of water twice his size hit the courtyard’s roofline. Something dark and many-limbed seemed to be flailing in the sky beyond.

The warning keen stopped. They all looked at one another for a long moment, and then came a sound Chaison had only heard once before in his life. It was the bone-rattling wail of an evacuation siren.

The floor slid beneath him, then dropped away for a second. They all fell over and he heard furniture sliding. The gaslight flickered and went out. From upstairs came the confused shouts of the servants who had been tossed from their beds.

“The braking engines are on full!” Ergez’s silhouette loped toward the front door. The others followed as best they could across the strangely animate floor. “What could make them—” Blackness gave way to a rectangle of gray as he flung open the door.

Gravity was gradually slackening, but it might not be in time to prevent the breakup of the town. Some huge force seemed to have seized it—but when Chaison reached the street with the others, he felt no appreciable wind. If it wasn’t a hurricane tossing the structure, what could it be?

Lightning washed everything white; a fierce crash came seconds later. Richard Reiss’s voice boomed into the dying echoes: “Did you see that? Did you
see
that?” He was pointing at the sky above the street.

Chaison didn’t look—he was transfixed by the sight of Songly’s people staggering and running out of their homes and into the single street. The mist had cleared; everything had a terrible clarity to it. More lightning banged across the sky, freezing instants here and there of frightened faces, fingers pointed at the sky.

Who was in charge here?

Richard grabbed his shoulder, was yelling something. Annoyed, Chaison shrugged him off—but then looked up.

Spasmodic flashes lit up a gigantic hand, bigger than the town-wheel, that was reaching down to crush the town.

Chaison gaped, lost for a moment in uncanny dread. Then the lightning flickered again, lighting blue and green depths in the sky, and he made out the one word Richard was saying over and over:

“Flood!”

Up until now the storm had been moving air, mixed with cloud and water drops in all sizes. Such dense storms were rare, but they did happen; gradually the vast cloud would pass, the droplets become smaller and less frequent. Normality would be restored. He’d thought that was what was happening in the past few hours.

It had just been a lull. Something must have stalled part of the storm, and the part behind had caught up. Huge drops had hit, merged, and become bigger still. And then more crowded in.

At some point the ratio had flipped: what Chaison saw approaching the town was not myriad shapes of water in air, but hollows and cavities of air in water.

He grabbed Darius’s arm and pointed. “The main mass of the flood hasn’t caught us yet. Can you see? Just a few arms have hit the wheel and knocked it off-round.”

Darius gave himself a shake and visibly tried to focus on Chaison’s words. He squinted up the curve of the wheel, then nodded. “Aye. Aye—but it won’t be long before that big wall of water hits, and then the stuck part will slow—”

—And the parts behind would ravel into it while those ahead tore away. Gravity would fail catastrophically well before the town’s engines could stop the wheel.

Tactically, this was perfect. The chaos would be so great that their escape was assured—provided they left in the next few minutes. So said the military planner in Chaison.

The man saw something else: people milling in helpless confusion, no one coming to their aid. No one in sight seemed familiar with command, nor did anyone seem to know what to do. If seconds counted for the escape of Chaison and his compatriots, they counted even more to save the lives of the people of Songly.

Chaison hesitated—and cursed himself for it. A real gentleman would see no dilemma here.

He ran though the crowd, heedless of the ache in his legs and back, until he spotted the rigger Sanson, who was hurrying his pregnant wife and young son into the street. “Who’s in charge of evacuation?” he shouted as he reached them.

Sanson shook his head. “It’s all under government control. I think…I think it’s somebody in the political offices. But they don’t tell us workers details like that. Security reasons.”

Chaison shook his head in disgust. Even if the bureaucracy wasn’t corrupt, the nearest official who knew the plan was probably a mile up the curve of the wheel.

“Sanson, we have to get the riggers together.” Chaison pointed straight up. “The docks are at the axis. Everybody’s boats—”

The rigger shook his head. “We can’t get the whole population up there!”

“We have to get the boats down
here
. Cut them loose and lower them. The riggers will have to do it. Gravity’s low enough we should be able to guide them to a soft landing in the street. Then get people into them.”

Sanson sent an agonized look at his wife. She smiled. “We’ll be all right,” she said. “You have to do this.”

Antaea, Darius, and Richard arrived. “What are you doing?” demanded Darius. “We gotta go.” Chaison shook his head; to his surprise, though Darius and Antaea glared at him, Richard Reiss smiled.

“I think our admiral has wrestled with honor and lost,” said the ambassador. “What are you thinking, sir?”

“I’m thinking that someone has to take responsibility for these people.” He described the evacuation plan. Antaea scowled, but Darius reluctantly nodded.

“Come, then.” They ran on, looking for the other riggers and anyone else able enough to help. Richard rounded up some of the boys he’d gotten to know and told them to relay the plan both directions around the wheel. “And if the pols try to stop you, kick ’em in the shins,” he told them. “Their opinion doesn’t count right now.”

The town was about to be engulfed in what could only be described as
froth
. It was similar to any thick, bubbly mass of water, except that the bubbles were dozens to thousands of feet across, and the film of water between them was equally thick. Scattered through it all were smaller droplets, filaments, and clouds, and increasingly, debris. Chaison watched two riggers scamper up ropes as a full-sized tree sailed by little more than ten feet from them. The whole scene was lit in fragments by savage lightning that roared through the dark cavities of the flood.

While they waited for the riggers to lower the boats, Chaison, Ergez, and Antaea and his men organized the townspeople into groups. Each group would take a boat. It quickly became clear that there wouldn’t be nearly enough vessels to evacuate all the thousands of people who lived here. Some would have to ride it out in their houses; many were unwilling to leave their homes in any case. Chaison shouted instructions on how to batten down the doors and windows to keep the water out in case they became inundated. “You’ll have to wait for things to calm down before swimming out. The currents could drown you ten feet from an air pocket.”

At one point Sanson put a hand on his arm and shouted something. The rigger was holding a small bundle of wax paper. “What?” Chaison put his hand to his ear.

“This is to thank you for your help,” shouted Sanson. “Introductions! To the right people…” Then he pressed the package into Chaison’s hands and hurried on.

Antaea stopped next to Chaison during a momentary lull.

Everyone had scattered to execute their parts of the plan. “What did Ergez do with your bike?” he asked her. She nodded.

“Still in his workshop. There’s a floor hatch there, we can launch—” She started in the direction of Ergez’s estate.

“Not yet! We haven’t finished here.”

She looked him in the eye. That hint of humor that was always present in her face looked more like superiority–or contempt—right now. Then her lips quirked into a half-smile, a kind of ironic compassion. She came up to Chaison and put a hand on his arm. “You’ve done it—the riggers know the plan, they’ll take things from here. I know you’re not used to letting go of a command, but this time, you have to.”

He pressed his lips together so as not to yell at her. For a few minutes he had been the admiral again, coordinating an urgent action. Men had been running to obey, and lives hung in the balance.

But Antaea was right. This was not a ship. The townspeople were moving to save themselves. It was time for him to do the same.

“All right,” he said, “let’s find Darius and Richard and—”

She tackled him.

In the reduced gravity their fall was slow, but it was still fast enough that the sword-thrust missed. Chaison landed on his back and found himself staring up at Kestrel, who stood above him, lightning framing his drifting hair, a wild look in his eyes.

“Was this part of the plan?” Kestrel demanded as he raised his sword again. Chaison rolled, barely evading another blow.

He felt more than saw Antaea do a foot-sweep and topple Kestrel. Then he had regained his own feet. Chaison drew his sword as more silhouetted figures appeared from among the jumble of running people: the pols, coming to assist the seneschal of Slipstream.

Chaison grimaced. “I don’t know what you think, Antonin. But somehow you’ve made me more than I am.”

Kestrel made a sort of half-laugh of disgust. “Oh, really? And what about the spies you placed in the ministry—even in the palace itself? Are they a figment of my imagination?”

“Ah, as to that…”
They weren’t actually my spies,
he wanted to say—but how could he even begin to explain that it was his wife who had created the network, and had run it for several years without even telling Chaison? Anyone who knew Venera well would believe it; but to Kestrel she was merely a casual acquaintance. She had always played the empty-headed court lady in his presence.

Damn her
. “It’s not what it looks like.”

Kestrel shook his head in apparent disappointment, as his men arrayed themselves behind him. “Next you’ll be telling me you’ve had no hand in the
Severance
fiasco.”

Chaison stared at him slack-jawed. He was dimly aware that he was leaving himself open to attack but was having too much trouble absorbing Kestrel’s words. “The
Severance
…survived?”

Seven ships had gone with him into winter, but one, the
Tormentor,
had been lost to attacking pirates near the iceberg-choked outer wall of Virga. Six vessels made it to the vast sargasso of Leaf’s Choir, and six had participated in their ambush of Falcon Formation’s fleet. As far as Chaison was aware until this moment, all six had been destroyed in the attack.

“It was clever of you to use that ship as a symbol for the people,” Kestrel was saying. Chaison shook his head and fell back a step, trying to understand what the man was saying. “So publically besieged,” Kestrel continued, “the pilot can’t simply destroy it—he has to
take
it. And your friends in the navy have stalemated that. The
Severance
is a festering wound in the heart of Rush. Your supporters are waiting for your return. If you enter Rush as a free man, half the city will rally to your side. But if you enter it in chains—or dead—”

He attacked and Chaison had no more time to think. He and Kestrel fought beneath lightning and a collapsing sky of shimmering water, among shouting people and the splintering facades of twisting houses—but echoing through Chaison’s mind were Kestrel’s words. He retreated over popping boards and up a twisting street that fell away with each step, as Kestrel and his thugs shouted and tried to surround him and Antaea. Chaison killed a man with a thrust to the neck, but didn’t see him fall; instead, lightning painted a dozen miraculous flowers that were fluttering slowly down to the street. The boats had arrived.

Far up the curve of the town, a wall of water touched the turning buildings. Planks flew—an entire roof flipped away—and the rope-and-wood wheel snapped. A long ripple whip-cracked down the surface of the street, ejecting houses, street boards, and citizens as it came. Antaea exchanged a glance with Chaison. As the hump reared behind Kestrel and his men, they both jumped. With a barking roar the street planks leapt up after them. Kestrel’s squad were tossed up with broken boards and popped nails.

The street was missing half its planks as Chaison landed again. The broken wheel was toppling into free-fall, a wrenching collapse that followed the ripple by a few seconds. “Come on!” He grabbed Antaea’s hand. Hopping over gaps in the street—glimpsing boiling cloud and surging water beneath their feet as they jumped—they made it to Ergez’s door just as gravity failed completely.

Chaison clawed his way through Ergez’s entrance into blackness, and for a horrible moment he was back in the blockhouse cell again. There was nothing to see, nothing to touch.

“This way!” Antaea’s voice anchored him. He shook off the panic and climbed along the ceiling joists after her. In some ways it was easier now; he was used to free-fall and as part of the flood’s jetsam, the house was no longer jostled as fiercely. But there was a bit of weight—a pressure that told him the building, maybe the whole street, was being pushed by the water.

They crawled like spiders along the walls of a pitch-black hallway. “In here!” Antaea had another door open, and he followed her into more darkness. Something brushed his cheek and he shouted reflexively. Reaching out, his fingers found the head of a hammer. He swung his hand cautiously and found the air filled with drifting saws, bolts, and bundles of wire. “Why here?” he said, hearing his words swallowed by thunder and nearby smashing sounds.

“Look for a lantern,” she said. For several minutes they made slow swimming motions, touching this or that object, grasping it long enough to find out what it was—or in many cases, long enough to know only that it wasn’t a lamp—and then letting it go. Things drifted away, came back. Chaison was about to say that it was useless when the back of his hand brushed glass. He snatched at the unseen form, came up with the spindle-shape of a windup lantern. “Got it!”

BOOK: Pirate Sun
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