Authors: Karl Schroeder
Tags: #Science Fiction, #General, #Space Opera, #Fiction
THE TRANSITION TO
winter wasn’t well-defined—at least in most countries. Light from the several suns dimmed as the catamaran accelerated on a tangent to Stonecloud and the Gretels’ border. Initially the Gretels’ two suns were off to starboard, Falcon Formation’s to port. Gradually, they fell behind and reddened with distance. In nations like Slipstream, people would still sometimes set up farms or manufacturing in this permanent dusk; those raised out here often moved back, claiming a love for the subtlety of color that played on the clouds here. Crops wouldn’t grow when the light became too dim but most governments would let their people homestead as far away as they were able.
Falcon Formation had strict laws about such things. “There’s no more houses,” Richard Reiss commented suddenly, after they had been flying for several hours. Chaison glanced out a porthole and saw nothing but an endless abyss of royal purple air dotted here and there with peach-colored clouds. Richard was right; a few beads of light glittered far back where the catamaran’s contrail curled into turquoise skies, but to the sides and ahead there was nothing.
“They’re not allowed to build out here,” said Antaea. She and Chaison had not exchanged a word since Kestrel began his story. She had been sitting quietly, repairing her boots for the past hour. Now she leaned over to look out the porthole as well. “It’s a pretty distinctive sign that you’re approaching Falcon. You can
the regimentation from here.”
Chaison looked ahead, into the azure of winter air. Keeping his voice carefully neutral, he said, “I take it, then, that the spaces ahead will be empty?”
empty,” she said. She still wouldn’t meet his gaze. “Falcon patrols a zone at least fifty miles deep, and they shoot anything on sight unless it’s between the channel buoys. And anything flying in a channel gets boarded.”
“So we should hurry.”
She shrugged. “We can safely assume they’re distracted right now.”
Chaison went forward anyway and strapped himself into the copilot’s seat. Darius appeared to be enjoying flying the cat; watching the boy, Chaison saw a hint of what the grown man would be like. It made him smile. “We’re actually going home,” he said.
Darius yawned and stretched luxuriously. Ahead of them there was nothing but deepening blue. “’Long as we don’t get lost,” he said.
“We’re not going all the way into winter.” Then Chaison sat up straight. “Are we?”
“No no.” Darius shook his head with a laugh. “Antaea said to keep Falcon’s suns on our port side ’til we find ours, then make a straight run for it. After all, we haven’t got Gridde to navigate for us.”
Chaison grinned, remembering the old man, so passionate about his map boxes with their fine jewels, strung on finer hair, that represented the cities and suns of Meridian. Gridde had died of natural causes hours after his greatest triumph: he had guided Chaison’s flagship to the legendary treasure trove of the pirate Anetene. The effort had cost him his last reserves of strength, but Gridde had died happy, and fiercely proud.
Chaison and Darius shared a sad glance. Then Chaison said, “Falcon sweeps this area for pirates and smugglers. We should have clear air ahead of us, if you’d like to open the throttle a bit.”
“Sure,” said Darius, “but I’ll need someone to spell me in an hour or so.”
“I’ll go take a nap, then.” Chaison started to get out of the seat, then said, “First though, you have to tell me how you found me. And how you escaped Songly, and how you captured Kestrel.”
Darius laughed. “Just that? Nothing else you want me to talk about?” He smiled at the infinite blue outside the canopy. “But it’s simple enough to tell. We didn’t catch Kestrel. He caught us.”
The fight with Kestrel and his thugs had ended as Songly came apart under them. Darius and Richard had become separated from the pols, and barely made it in time to one of the boats.
The impromptu gang of riggers, boat pilots, and laborers cast off their flower boats just as Songly disintegrated. Buildings and streets, ropes and houses had tumbled every which way, some smashing against huge water drops that themselves burst into showers of rain. As dark walls of water began closing in, the boat pilots threw lines back and forth, lashing themselves together. Women, children, and the elderly huddled in the bowl of Darius’s boat as it twirled like a mobile in the wind; he had hung onto a belaying pin and watched as sheeting water separated them from their neighbors, snapping one of the ropes.
“Row, damn you,” their pilot screamed over the giant slamming sounds of colliding water-mountains. Darius braced his back against the inside curve of the boat and pushed against an oar shaft alongside three other men. He’d felt the oar’s big wing slap the water, shoving it back and turning the boat into a dark cavity of relatively free air. Four other boats followed, tugging one another at the ends of their ropes. It was a tiny fraction of the town’s population, but there were many other avenues of escape from the town; he was, he told Chaison, “pretty sure most people got out.”
Lightning, refracted into shards of blue and green through the tissues of the flood, showed a long sinuous cave stretching ahead of them. The boats surged ahead, frantic to find an escape from the water. Darius pushed against the oar until his legs ached and his back was rubbed raw. Then, by luck as much as the skill of their pilots, they found a chink in the flood and popped out into open air.
The boats hung amid cloud banks, their oarsmen exhausted, nobody speaking. Then, still without speaking, the boatmen on all five vessels tugged their ropes, and the boats drifted together.
Four of the flower boats were crowded with townspeople. The fifth was nearly empty, except for a dozen secret policemen—and Kestrel. They had ejected the men and women who had taken refuge in it, and hadn’t been rowing at all for the past hour. They had let the other boats do all the work. Now, at gunpoint and with drawn swords, they asserted their authority over the tired, distraught people who had saved them.
“They found Richard and me right away, of course,” said Darius as he steered the catamaran around a medusoid cloud. “Since we had plenty of rope Kestrel used some to tie us up. Then they proceeded to lord it over everybody else. I don’t think Kestrel much liked what his pals were doing, but he didn’t try to stop them.”
“He was a foreigner,” shrugged Chaison. “What could he have done?”
“He could have
something.” Darius scowled blackly at the controls. “Anyway, they got us rowing again. They wanted to run for the inner cities where they could be safe from the Gretels.”
Now he grinned. “But the Gretels found us first.”
As evening fell the sky filled with ships. The Gretel invasion force was huge, a navy easily capable of conquering Slipstream had they turned their attention that way. The ships were bizarre, of course, like everything Gretel—festooned with decorations, banners, and paintings depicting scenes from the ancient fairy tales that the Gretels used to make sense of their lives. An iron cruiser covered with images of half-mythological beasts called
hove to and demanded that the flower boats surrender. None of the thugs was inclined to argue with the behemoth.
“They’d taken a good long look at us before they swept us up,” said Darius, smiling at the memory. “The captain was quite sympathetic. ‘Got no quarrel with ordinary folk,’ he told us. ‘But
are a different matter.’
being the pols, of course.”
The secret policemen surrendered with that air of martyred happiness men adopt when they feel they’re fulfilling some noble destiny. Kestrel wasn’t having any of it, though. “Pardon,” he told his captors, “I’m a foreigner here. I was extraditing these criminals back to Slipstream when I became caught up in your war.” He pointed to Richard and me.
The Gretel captain had mused, tugging his beard as he looked from Kestrel to us and back. “Criminals, are they?” Then he turned to the rest of the refugees.
There was a resounding “No!” in response.
That was how Kestrel came to be Darius and Richard’s prisoner. The Gretels kept the pols but let the rest of the refugees go, and the flower boats had trawled their slow way through crowded airs to Stonecloud, arriving just in time for the city’s battle with Neverland.
CHAISON BASKED IN
the light of home. Every sun had its own, subtly different spectrum, and this was the light he had grown up under, that had shone into his childhood bedroom, on his boyhood schoolbooks, his first love’s face. It was ineffably familiar, even reddened and smeared with distance as it was.
He paused for a moment on the little ladder that led between the catamaran’s hulls. They had pushed the boat’s single engine hard throughout the night as they followed the faint distant specks of navigation beacons. Early in the morning the radiance of Mavery’s sun had lit the far distance, fully a quarter of the sky fading to purple, a brighter zone obscured by clouds at its center. Mavery’s day was slightly out of phase with Slipstream’s, and when that far glow appeared Chaison had, for the first time, begun to feel real anticipation.
Now they hovered on the edge of home, and he was faced with a number of hard decisions. Most of them had to do with the political situation back home, but what weighed most heavily on him was the question of what to do with Antaea.
He tapped on the hatch of the catamaran’s second nacelle. “Come in,” she said from inside it.
He had watched her climb here eight hours before, the headwind tearing at her clothes and pack as she clutched the rungs of the ladder. Chaison had nearly ordered Darius to cut their speed, but they were shooting between cloud banks that totally obscured the navigation beacons, and were relying on momentum to keep them going in a straight line. If they slowed now they risked turning without knowing it, and then when they started again they might fly straight into winter. Nothing was easier on the edges of civilization than getting lost.
With Slipstream in sight, they could afford to relax, so the headwind was light as Chaison climbed into the second nacelle. Antaea had one foot hooked around a crossbeam and was sewing feathers into one of the bullet holes in her wings. Little fluffs of white ringed her head like inquisitive pixies.
“Admiral,” she said neutrally. “Are we there?”
“Slipstream?” He held his hand up to the familiar light streaming in the portholes. “Nearly. I spotted some mushroom farms a ways back.” She nodded; there was a little pause, then he said, “You knew all along.”
“I knew about the
, and the riots.” She nodded. “I knew somebody was on their way to break you out of jail, though I swear I don’t know who it was. Your loyal staffers, probably. That’s how I happened to be in the area.”
He nodded. Chaison had long since figured out that Antaea was traveling alone, and it would have taken the resources of more than one person to pull off such a spectacular jailbreak. He’d been hoping she could verify who it was, but he didn’t think she was lying about not knowing that.
She grimaced. “Chaison, is it really necessary for me to tell you why I kept those facts from you?”
“No,” he said. “I’m just disappointed.”
“Why?” Irritably, she threw her darning into a knit bag. “You’ve kept our relationship adversarial from the start. I came to you for information and you’ve refused to give it to me. Why should I give you any?”
He hesitated, then said, “Antaea, everything changes from here on in.” Outside, he heard the jet whine into a higher pitch.
She looked at her wings glumly. “We had a little holiday from being enemies, you mean,” she said. “And now it’s over.”
“Enemies?” He raised an eyebrow. “Is it that bad?”
“No, no, I don’t mean…” She shook her head. “Did you come over here to kick me off the ship? Or just to tie me up like Kestrel?”
“I came to be reasonable,” he said. “The key to Candesce will still exist tomorrow, and next week. It’s not like your dream will cease to be possible in a month, or a year. I’m asking you to give this mission of yours a break. Let me return home and do what I have to do and then, when it’s all over, we can talk about what’s to be done with the key. You, your people, and me.”
“Ah,” she said. Her eyes were wet and she wiped at them furiously. “If it were that simple…” For a while she looked around at everything but him, seeming to be on the verge of speaking yet saying nothing. Then: “It was quite a little holiday, wasn’t it?”
He had to smile. “You’re pretty good in a tight spot.” As he said this he realized the possibilities for innuendo in that phrase; now she looked him in the eye and her mouth quirked into a smile—she’d clearly had the same thought.
He heard himself say, “We’re not home yet.”
Antaea’s huge eyes widened even further. “We’re not, are we.” She examined him thoughtfully. “You know, Chaison, there
moments in your life when you can act solely for yourself—be just yourself.”
“Back at the dormitory,” he said, “you were planning to seduce me.” She shrugged. “Yet you didn’t. Was that one of those moments?”
“You know it was.” She hesitated. “It was the one time we were honest with each other, wasn’t it?”
“You said it yourself. We have a couple of hours.”
Her gaze was direct, and intense.
Chaison reached for her.
AFTER THEY MADE
love, Chaison slept. He was exhausted, not just physically, but emotionally. His sleep was pervaded by the thrum of the catamaran’s engine, and the gentle swaying motion of its path through the clouds. At times he thought he was back on the
, expecting to wake to the sounds of a warship in full flight; at other moments he feared he was back in the cell, and clung to the engine noise as a lifeline.
Then it stopped, and he was immersed in cold choppy air. Reflexively, he threw out his arm as he had often done in the cell when he drifted away from the wall during sleep.—That is, he tried; his hands were behind his back and wouldn’t move, though wind flittered through his fingers.