Authors: Karl Schroeder
Tags: #Science Fiction, #General, #Space Opera, #Fiction
THEY HAD PROVIDED
him with two torturers today.
Chaison Fanning put out one hand to stop himself in the doorway, aware that the prison guard behind him would kick him into the room in a second or two. “Gentlemen,” he said in as even a tone as he could muster, “to what do I owe the honor?” Neither answered, but it didn’t matter; just hearing himself speak civilly counted as a victory. With luck, that brief moment might sustain him through whatever was about to follow.
Chaison flew the rest of the way into the interrogation room before the guard could kick him. “Against that wall,” said the man who usually questioned him. Chaison didn’t know this individual’s name, but thought of him as
because of the identification tag clipped to his uniform. The embossed white square announced that its wearer was part of the
. A piece of tape obscured the name. At first Chaison had thought the tag was a joke of some kind; he had learned otherwise.
Curled up in the weightless black of his cell at night, Chaison’s thoughts often turned to killing the reporter. They were fragile, weak fantasies—faint hopes, really, often shattered by panic as he awoke to find that he had drifted into the center of the little chamber. His flailing hands would find no purchase on wall, ceiling, or floor. In such moments there was nothing solid to be touched in any direction, no proof of his own existence but a scream; no face in his mind but that of his nameless torturer.
Yet he refused to scream, though other men in other cells did. Sometimes their voices brought him back to himself. A few nights ago he’d been drifting in the all-consuming dark when suddenly he’d heard a young voice calling out in the night. At first Chaison had thought his mind was playing tricks on him, because he recognized the voice. But he’d shouted in reply, and the other had answered.
That was how Chaison had learned that one of his crewmen was imprisoned with him. The knowledge had spread like fire in him, giving him a new sense of purpose. That knowledge had emboldened him to greet his tormentor just now.
“Put your hands in the cuffs,” said the reporter from his position near the room’s single barred window. Chaison wiped a smear of mold off the palm of his hand. In a building like this that had never known gravity, the stuff accumulated everywhere; this patch stood straight out from the doorjamb like fine white fur, just as it coated the walls of his cell. The new man closed the rusty rings over his wrists and Chaison steeled himself for a sucker punch or something that would soften him up for the coming questions. To his relief, the man just met Chaison’s eyes briefly, then hopped lightly across the cell to position himself behind the desk podium with the pale-faced chief torturer.
The badge on his gray uniform read,
MY NAME IS
. Underneath this somebody had scrawled 2629.
“Here’s the one you wanted to see, Professor,” said the reporter. He seemed a bit nervous. Flipping open a thick dossier, he held it out to the light from the window. “Chaison Fanning, former admiral of the fleet of Slipstream. Our most important guest.”
“Hmmpf.” The visitor took the file carefully and thumbed through it. He glanced at Chaison again, silver cloud light glinting off his wire-frame glasses. He seemed out of place here; he did, in fact, look a bit like a literature professor Chaison had once had.
Chaison cleared his throat. “I don’t understand,” he said, unable to hide the bitterness in his voice. “I’ve given a full deposition. You know everything.”
“No, we don’t!” The reporter glared at him murderously. “Did they clear you to read my articles in the
Intelligence Internal Journal
?” he asked the visitor. “He’s been cooperative up to a point and I’ve been able to make most of my deadlines. But there’s a crucial piece of information he’s holding back. He’s very disciplined, he exercises constantly in his cell, jumping from wall to wall, doing isometrics…Seems willing to die rather than give us this last thing he knows. I’ve had some trouble finishing the last article in the series. I assume that’s why you’re…?”
“Mm, I’m not here to fault your work, you were always a good student,” said the professor in a bland tone. “But let’s start with the basics. It says here you…” He read for a moment, then raised his glasses and looked again. “Did this really happen?”
“Officially, no,” said the reporter with a sigh. He watched in evident disappointment as the other flipped through the dossier with an expression of increasing incredulity. After a minute or so the professor pulled himself together and looked up at Chaison.
“You attacked and crippled our fleet,” he said.
Chaison shrugged modestly. He allowed himself a slight smile.
“How was this accomplished?”
“The better question,” said Chaison, “is why you never heard anything about it.”
The reporter reached behind himself and unclipped some nasty darts from the board next to the window. Chaison tried to swallow past a suddenly dry mouth.
“Hang on,” said the visiting professor, putting a hand on the reporter’s arm. “Let’s all be civil for the moment. I presume that I wasn’t cleared to know about this attack,” he said to Chaison, “because it’s a national embarrassment.”
Chaison eyed the reporter, then said, “Your people launched a sneak attack on my country. I caught your fleet within your own territory and decimated it.”
To put it this way was to sum up a gambit of high desperation, take the exhilaration of battle, the panic, and shouted orders on the bridge of a smoking ship that dripped blood into the sky as it maneuvered in pitch blackness at two hundred miles an hour—to take all of that and reduce it, obscenely, to simple history. Impossible; the remembered sound of bullets hitting the hull, thick as rain, woke Chaison every night. At random times on any given day, some quality of light might easily take him back to that bridge, where men’s faces were lit only by the instruments and the roiling darkness outside the armored windows flashed into incandescence every few seconds, as this or that ship exploded in the night.
“Amazing.” The new man was too absorbed in his reading to notice that Chaison had slipped into a reverie. “It says you used something called ‘radar’ to maneuver your ships at full speed in cloud and darkness. Apparently we recovered several working devices from the wreckage of your ships.” Now he looked puzzled. “So why do we need you at all? Is there some secret to operating this radar that he’s not telling us?”
“Well, no. And yes,” said the reporter. “They work just fine. They just…don’t do anything.”
The professorial visitor sighed and tilted his glasses up to rub his eyes. “Explain, please.”
Chaison had fought every inch against admitting even these details to the reporter, despite the fact that Falcon Formation’s engineers already knew them. They had the wreckage of several of Chaison’s ships to examine, after all; they could put two and two together. Yet even though Chaison had in the end bit the words of admission out one by one, in a blur of delirium and pain, he would gladly fight the questions again. There were still facts for which he would die rather than reveal.
The reporter seemed eager to show his former teacher his investigative skills. “Radar’s a well-known technology,” he said. “It just doesn’t work. It’s like those, what-you-call ‘computers’ and other electrical-onics things. Their operation is permanently jammed by the sun of suns.”
In his life Chaison had met few people who knew that there were higher technologies than the simple steam- and fuel-powered mechanisms they’d grown up with. Fewer still knew that it was Candesce, the vast self-contained fusion sun at the center of the world, whose radiation rendered radar and similar systems inoperable anywhere in Virga. Chaison himself, nobly born and educated at the best schools, had only understood this in an abstract sort of way, until a year ago.
The visitor shook his head and frowned. “You’re saying Candesce makes radar impossible. Then how did
get it to work, unless…” His eyes widened.
“Unless he’s been inside Candesce,” said the reporter with a nod. “Or knows somebody who has. Maybe the home guard…”
“But the home guard’s neutral!” The professorial man shook his head rapidly, rubbing at his balding scalp with one distracted hand. “They exist to defend Virga from outside threats, they don’t intervene in internal affairs!”
always thought,” said the reporter, with the air of a man who’s recently come into possession of a great and secret truth.
Chaison almost laughed. Weren’t interrogators supposed to keep their speculations from their victims? These two shouldn’t even be talking in front of him, much less debating the facts of his case.
“This is what he won’t tell us,” said the reporter. “How did Slipstream get around Candesce’s jamming field? Did they shut it off? Did they find a way to shield the ships from it? You see, I’ve been trying to wrap up my series for months with an appeal to the navy to develop this capability. It was no ordinary attack. If we knew this—if we had this ability—”
“Yes, I see.” The professor met Chaison’s gaze. It was odd, though: Chaison didn’t see the lizard-like coldness in that gaze that he’d come to expect from the faceless apparatchiks of Falcon’s brutal bureaucracy. Was this man here to try a new tactic—kindness, perhaps?—in hopes of prying these last, most crucial facts from Chaison?
It wouldn’t work. If it had been a matter of saving his own life, Chaison might have told them everything. Even if it had been the integrity of his own nation, Slipstream, that was at stake, his will might have failed him; he was starting to hate Slipstream, or at least its government, for abandoning him to Falcon.
But the one whose life would be threatened if Falcon knew his secret was Venera, Chaison’s wife. It was she who had discovered how to gain entrance to the sun of suns, she who knew how to temporarily shut down its suppressive fields. While Chaison had plummeted his ships into Falcon Formation’s skies, Venera had entered Candesce during its night cycle and, at a predetermined moment, flipped whatever switch controlled the fields. Chaison’s ships had one night and one night only to use their radar to ambush and destroy Falcon’s invasion force. As Candesce shrugged itself awake, Venera had thrown the switch again and left.
At least, he assumed she had left. The plan was for them to meet up again at their home in Slipstream. Chaison had been captured after plunging his flagship into Falcon’s new dreadnought like a dagger into the flank of a monster. He only hoped Venera’d had better luck getting out of Candesce.
He was rehearsing the lies and half-truths he would give these men, as he’d been taught in the admiralty, when something flicked past the window. He and the reporter both looked, but whatever it was, was already gone. Probably a bird or one of the thousands of species of flying fish that drifted through the clouds here on the edge of civilization.
Oddly, the visitor’s eyes flicked to the window and then he said, rather loudly, “Well, we’d best get started with the serious questions, then.”
The reporter grunted and turned to the wall of implements and devices behind the podium. The visiting professor chose that moment to grin openly at Chaison.
And then he winked.
“He really hates being burned,” mused the reporter. “Too bad the furnace isn’t working today. We could try…” Somewhere nearby there was a heavy impact, a thump that Chaison felt rather than heard. The building oscillated slightly.
The reporter frowned and turned just as something shot past the window. For an instant a blurred line hung there; then with a
and a snap of dust the blur resolved into a heavy iron chain. It stretched taut across the window, quivering slightly.
The reporter gaped at it. “What is
?” At that moment his mild-looking visitor tossed the dossier aside to reveal a wicked-looking blade in his hand. With well-practiced economy of motion, he plunged it into the reporter’s back.
As the reporter pawed at the tools of his trade, twitching his life out in silence, his killer undid the manacles that bound Chaison to the wall. “He and his kind have debased our profession,” he said to Chaison. “It’s become diabolical, really. I’m told there was a time when we reported what we learned to the
. Can you believe it? So don’t question my motives.—Not that a little cash incentive isn’t a helpful motivator at times.”
“What are you doing?” asked Chaison weakly.
“I should think it was obvious,” said the professor. “Earlier, while I had the room to myself, I weakened your restraints. Let me show you.” He yanked on one of the straps and it came out of the wall. “The story will be that you took advantage of the chaos to kill Kyseman, here. I doubt anyone will question that too much, after everything else that’s going to happen.”
. The name rang in Chaison’s head as he climbed off the rack. He rubbed his wrists. “What’s going to happen?”
The professor just smiled. “Hang on,” he said. Then he wrapped both his arms around the podium.
The unmistakable crackle of gunfire sounded through the window. Chaison jumped over to it and just as he touched the lintel another length of chain whipped past, tightening against the stonework and throwing chips and dust into the air. He looked past it.
A squat, barrel-shaped ship hove into view. It was peeling away from the prison wall, jets straining, as dozens of tracer rounds drew lines in the air around it. Chaison barely had time to say, “Oh—” before the ring of rockets around its waist lit and it jumped away.
The chain flickered out, an iron link between ship and building. The blare of the rockets was insanely loud; in seconds the little ship had disappeared behind billowing smoke and flame. And as the chain hauled on the stonework, the weightless prison began to turn.