Authors: Karl Schroeder
Tags: #Science Fiction, #General, #Space Opera, #Fiction
“Do they have a toy called a yo-yo in your country?” asked the visitor. Chaison caught the windowsill as it began to move away from him. “It’s very simple,” continued the visitor. “You wrap a string around something and when you pull the string, the thing spins. It’s a principle you can apply to anything, really…”
Chaison turned to him, grinning. “This place! It’s not one building, it’s five or six—”
The visitor was laughing now. “Make that eight. Various blockhouses and small jails that were towed here and nailed together to make a bigger structure. Not very stable. Prone to coming separated in strong winds—did you know that? Probably not, they don’t advertise it to the prisoners. But your rescuers,” he nodded to the window, “they found out.”
The sky was spinning past, the little ship fast disappearing past the building’s corner. Chaison craned his neck to watch it. “Who are you?” he asked. “And who are they if you’re not one of them?”
“I told you,” said the interrogator with a shrug, “I’m merely upholding the sanctity of my calling. I received a request to attend an interview, and at first I thought it came through official channels; by the time I learned otherwise, the cash incentives attached to it had…convinced me to do the right thing.
“As to who
are,” he added, jabbing a thumb at the window, “I really don’t know. All I know is that they were very specific about who they wanted broken out of this hellhole.” From the hallway came shouts and the thud of men bouncing off the walls. Chaison and the professor both turned to look, but nobody opened the door.
Chaison turned back to him. “What do I do?”
“Just stay here. Your people will send someone along in a few minutes—when they circle back. This room is in one of the least well-secured blocks. We calculated it’ll be the first to go.”
Chaison nodded—then thought of something. “Wait—one of my countrymen is here too. One of my original crew. I can’t leave without him.”
The professor shook his head. “Oh, no. Absolutely not. I forbid it. You’re to stay here, otherwise the plan won’t work.”
Chaison glared at him. “You don’t understand. He’s just a boy, and it’s my fault that he’s here. I can’t leave him.”
The clouds outside were moving past with startling speed now, and Chaison felt centrifugal force pushing him against the window. Creaks and groans sang through the prison’s structure.
Chaison jumped to the door. He pulled it open. “Are you coming?”
The professor grimaced and shook his head. “That would be suicide. You broke out of your bonds, remember. I had nothing to do with it.”
Admiral Chaison Fanning turned to go, then glanced back. “I suppose I should be grateful,” he said, gesturing at the lifeless body of the chief torturer. The visitor smiled, but he hadn’t caught Chaison’s meaning; much of the satisfaction Chaison might have felt at his torturer’s death had drained away the moment that the professor had said his name.
No longer a monster but a man, dead Kyseman rolled over in the air, seemingly to sneer at Chaison one last time. Chaison turned away and climbed into the slowly tilting hall.
CHAIN HISSED ACROSS
stone and with a final twitch, let go. With grand gestures the whirling prison began to come apart: first its spidery docking arm flung itself out, piers grasping at cloud before it detached and sailed away; then hundreds of barrels and crates broke free of the simple twine that had tied them next to the service entrance. They flew scattershot, two smacking into the warden’s catamaran just as a mob of outraged prison guards was trying to board it. One barrel shattered the windshield and the other knocked off an engine.
Chaison Fanning flinched at a sound like machine-gun fire, which seemed to be coming from all around him. It started at the far end of the building and raced toward him through the structure. It was the sound of nails exploding free of wood and cement. The place was creaking and groaning like some fevered giant, and the hexagonal corridor was visibly twisting as Chaison bounced down it. He knew every turn and straightaway of these institution-green passages and quailed at the thought of retracing the path to his cell. Only the giddiness of possible escape gave him the strength to climb up, hang on and turn over, then climb down, then hang on, then leap across twenty feet of air to the next junction. The centrifugal gravity wasn’t much, but it was more than zero and zero was all he’d dealt with for months. Every day, Chaison had exercised single-mindedly for as long as his meager diet would let him, but even so he couldn’t keep this up for long.
His little cell block was a bit more solid than the rest of the structure. Here the stone was silent, only the circular swing of weight indicating that something was wrong. Chaison bounded along, rounded the corner to his hallway—and ran right into an obese jailer who was having trouble with his footing.
The jailer sputtered for a second. “L-loose!” he shouted as the wall behind him became a floor. He flailed and sat down.
“I’ll have those keys,” said Chaison, leaning in. The jailer swung his baton wildly, rapping the former admiral on the elbow. He jumped back again, hissing.
“Help!” The jailer scrambled to his feet but kept going into the air as with a wrenching
the cell block separated from the rest of the structure. Daylight suddenly washed around the corner.
Chaison tackled him while he was gaping and managed to grab the baton out of his hand. He swung it two-handed and knocked the man’s head into the wall. The jailer groaned and curled into a ball.
“Here! What are you doing?” Two more officers appeared silhouetted against the new sunlight. They had swords.
Chaison grabbed the jailer’s keys and bounded away. The other two shouted and followed.
Now that the cell block had left the rest of the building it was weightless again. This might have given the jailers an advantage, but they hesitated at the pandemonium of enraged and excited shouting that had erupted from the cells. Chaison made it to the doors before they could catch him. He found the one he was looking for and slammed the master key into its lock, twisting it hard. Before he could get out of the way the door exploded open and someone shot out into the corridor. Chaison threw the keys to the slight figure who’d emerged from the cell, and turned to meet the two officers.
Both lunged, swords flashing. Chaison had rehearsed a moment like this for months—fantasies of escape had helped keep him sane—and was ready. He used the baton like a dagger in a hand-and-a-half duel, sliding it along the first man’s blade and twisting, then doubling in midair and kicking him in the face. In a moment he had the man’s sword in his own hand. He turned, too late as the other raised his hand and chopped—
—And missed as a ragged boy, no more than twelve years old, jumped him from the side. Before the jailer could turn his sword on the boy, Chaison leaped after him and stabbed, pinning his forearm to the wall.
As the jailer howled the boy turned, and Chaison was able to properly see him for the first time in months.
A scrawny gargoyle of a kid, cheeks sunken, eyes black beads in well-defined sockets, all framed by a wreath of oily black hair—for a second Chaison hesitated, sure that he must have opened the wrong cell. Then the apparition spoke in a familiar wheeze. “Sir! You look a sight, if’n I can say so.”
Chaison laughed. “You should talk, Martor! Are you strong enough to handle a sword? There might be more.”
Martor grinned hideously. “They been letting me out to run laps in the hamster-wheel, the fools. I’m good.” He jabbed a thumb at the row of cell doors. “What about that lot?”
“Let a few out, I suppose. They’ll make a good distraction while we get away.”
“We? Who’s this
you’re talking about?”
Martor exchanged a wide-eyed look with Chaison. The voice had come from one of the cells, and it was familiar. Chaison went to the blank iron door and rapped it. “Excuse me?”
“Am I part of your distraction?” said the voice. It held overtones of power, as if the speaker had once been an orator or singer—but it was thin now, and desperate. “After all this time, is that the only role I can play in your escapade?”
Chaison blinked. “A-ambassador?”
“Who do you think I am, you ninny? I am the very Richard Reiss whom you kidnapped from a life of privilege and luxury to aid you in your suicidal little expedition. I’ll have you open the door this instant, unless you fear my quite-justified wrath at your theft of my life and reputation. Open up, sir, if you love your country and countrymen!”
“Sheesh, that’s him all right,” said Martor. He flung back the door, and they were greeted with a vision of bushy gray hair and wild eyes. Only the wine-colored birthmark on his cheek was familiar.
“…Or were you just going to abandon me after all this time?” Reiss, it seemed, was nearly in tears.
Chaison tossed him the baton and he caught it clumsily. “Never,” said the admiral. “I gave up a guaranteed escape to return for you. Now come with me if you ever want to see your home again.”
The two men and the boy turned and leaped toward the light.
THE LITTLE TUG
hove next to the window of the interrogation cell. While men stood on the hull and laid down suppressing fire against the few officers still in the building, Venera threw a grapple across the short space and hooked the bars of the window. At her order, a spring-loaded winch whirred into action and the bars cracked, squealed, and then burst outward.
She stuck the barrels of two pistols into the room, and then her head. She glared at the body of the chief interrogator, then raised an eyebrow to the other man, who was still clutching the table stand. He shrugged.
“Not here,” he said. “But free, last I saw.”
She cursed and withdrew. Seconds later the tug’s engines howled into life and it shot away. The visiting interrogator watched from the window as it vanished in the mist.
He looked around at the thousand and one clouds that dotted the free air here at the edge of Falcon Formation. “Good luck with that,” he said with a short laugh. Then he returned to his table to wait for his own rescue, and in the meantime thought about how he was going to spend the money the mysterious woman had paid him.
CHAISON AND HIS
men spent the night huddled within the tenuous, lacy heart of a vast cloud. On their way out of the prison the boy Martor had nabbed a little pedal-fan used by the jail’s gardener. The fan had a pair of straps that went over the shoulders, a seat on a short pole, and a pair of pedals mounted above a three-foot-wide propeller. To anyone watching they would have seemed a strange and pathetic sight: three prisoners inching their way between clouds the size of cities, one pedaling madly while the other two held onto his shoulders. To the left, the clouds were gray silhouettes framed by a bright blue sky that cradled a distant sun. Parades and banners of white vapor dotted the blue in swirls and walls that receded to infinity. On the right the clouds were white with reflected light, but their backdrop was a fathomless indigo. No artificial sun shone within those depths; there were no habitations within the daunting abyss known as winter.
They had argued about whether to go that way. “We ain’t gonna get caught!” Martor had insisted. “We can sneak ‘round the skirts of civilization, sticking to the twilight, until we reach the edge of Slipstream. Then…” He’d been interrupted by Richard Reiss’s cynical laugh.
“We three, weak, starving prisoners, in our thin rags? You propose, lad, to consign us to the cold and the dark, where we will pedal this little contraption,” he shook the fan’s strap, “four or five hundred miles to safety? What will we eat? Hope?”
They had glared at each other and Chaison Fanning had to smile at the contrast between them. No one could have mistaken the wide cheekbones, broad brow, and august nose that Richard presented to the world for the compact cleverness of Martor’s face. Being half-starved and begrimed seemed to make Martor more resemble himself—apprentice card-cheat, confidence man, and barracks trickster that he was. It was a standoff between a dignified if filthy Poseidon and every mother’s nightmare child.
He let them bicker for a while because the activity seemed to be bringing them back to life. Eventually, however, Chaison said, “I have to agree with Richard. We need food and better clothing.—Besides, the police sharks will find us whether it’s bright or dark, and they can range farther and faster than we can.”
So as Falcon Formation’s three suns flickered and dimmed, they whirred cautiously into a gray cocoon of vapor and prepared to sleep. They ripped their sleeves and tied the loose ends together; Martor, ironically the strongest of them, kept the straps of the fan over his shoulder. All made automatic checks in their pockets for anything that might drift away, though they had inventoried the stolen prison guard uniforms numerous times throughout the day.
Breaks in the haze showed shadowing clouds casting vast shafts of rose-colored light across the sky. The sight was familiar and reassuring; all three of these men had been born and raised in this world of air. The only gravity they knew was man-made in the rotating wheel-shaped towns that dotted the bright spaces around Virga’s artificial suns. Chaison was acutely aware that these were not the skies of Slipstream, though, because he’d been raised in the city of Rush whose sky was crowded. No town-wheels lit as the light ebbed in this place; the air wasn’t peppered with house-sized balls of water, the diaphanous nets of farms with their drifting galaxies of plant life, or the thousand-and-one vehicles and apparatuses of thriving commerce. There was no firm dividing line between civilization and winter, but if there had been he was pretty sure they’d be on the wrong side of it right now.
When full dark came, they tried to sleep. Quite unsuccessfully.
“What an irony!” Richard Reiss said after a while. Chaison started, and a tug at his shirtsleeve indicated Martor had done the same. “What?” he asked testily. He’d thought, just maybe, that he was drifting off.
Richard sighed heavily. “Months I spent dreaming about getting out of that damned hellhole. Months spent imagining what my first free night would be like. Oh, my fantasies were elaborate, gentlemen! Satin sheets, gentle gravity, warm candlelight. How I miss gravity! And yet, here we are, enshrouded in a directionless dark even more complete than the cells we left. If not for the fact that I can hear you breathing, and you, Martor, incessantly scratching—why, I would think I was still back there. These last hours…seem like a dream.”
Chaison nodded. During nights in his cell he had sometimes lost the line between dream and hallucination. It was easy to do in weightlessness and dark.
Martor was lucky to have been allowed to use the prison’s little centrifuge. Without gravity to struggle against even the most iron-willed inmates were doomed to weaken over time. Your bones would become brittle after a few months, your limbs barely able to move much less resist when the guards came for you. The simple omission of weight guaranteed Falcon Formation a quiet, riot-free institution.
Chaison had refused to succumb to that weakness. Every morning, as light returned the world to him, he would start bouncing gently from wall to wall, stretching out his limbs. The fingers of his left hand would touch concrete and push off, then, moments later, his right hand would touch the opposite wall. He would push with one foot, then the other. He would gradually increase the pace until he was kicking off with both feet and stopping himself with both hands—or failing to stop himself, and rolling into the impact with his shoulder. He had found every conceivable method for exercising against those walls and in the course of doing so had learned the contour of every knob and ridge left by the builders.
None of this exercise had helped the one part of him whose strength had been sapped over the months: his sense of purpose. Chaison’s life had always been structured around duty and suddenly he had none. Without it, he had been dying inside.
Now he found himself clinging to these two men not for protection or companionship, but because they gave him a reason to be here.
He would see them safely home.
“Tomorrow should be eventful,” he said. Richard scoffed, and Martor growled something at him.
Then the boy laughed. “Listen to me, complaining! I should be grateful.”
“And who would have thought,” said Richard, “that you would be grateful to be cold, shivering, and stranded in a cloud in the dark?”
For some reason this seemed hysterically funny, and they all laughed, a little bit too long.
“So, Martor,” said Chaison after a while. Then he hesitated. “This is going to seem terribly inconsiderate, after all we’ve been through. Since I’m pretty sure I’m not an admiral anymore, I’d like you to call me Chaison. And I’d be honored if I could address you by your first name…but I’m ashamed to say I don’t know what it is.”
Martor snorted. “You been busy—and hey, you were the admiral and I’m just a press-ganged go-fer.”
“Maybe so, but we shared an adventure few men could boast of. And I sent you—”
on a suicide mission,
he didn’t say. But Martor had known it at the time, and had gone anyway.
“I got out okay,” chuckled Martor, and a strange sense of relief flooded Chaison. Here was someone who had been there, who had experienced the battle just as he had. Small matter that Martor was the least significant crewman in the fleet, and Chaison its admiral. They had shared something.
After a few moments, though, he had to say, “I can’t help but notice that you haven’t answered me.”
Martor shifted uncomfortably. “I don’t like my first name,” he said after a moment. “I always used to get jibed about it.”
Richard Reiss guffawed. “We promise not to ‘jibe’ you. Well, don’t keep us in suspense, lad. What is it?”
Another short pause. “Darius.”
“But that’s a fine name,” said Chaison.
“Yeah?” Darius Martor sounded hopeful.
“Your name is a device, sir,” said Richard in a lecturing tone. “You need to ensure that all your tools are appropriate and well kept up.—If you really think it doesn’t suit you, you should change your name.”
“Change it? But my father named me!”
“Ah…sentimentality.” Chaison pictured Richard nodding in the darkness.
“Darius is damned well my name and I’m keeping it. And, and what about you?” asked Martor hotly. “Is that birthmark on your face a tool? Or just something you live with?”
“Now that you bring it up, actually I do find it useful. It makes it easy for people to remember me,” said the former ambassador to Gehellen. “When I was a boy it was a great source of grief to me. The other children would mock me and I was beaten a few times. I learned to negotiate my way out of potential trouble, a talent that has taken me far. Perhaps I owe my career to this mark. As I said, you must employ all your devices.”
It wasn’t lost on Chaison that Richard had neatly deflected Darius’s anxieties about his name while simultaneously bringing the conversation around to the subject of Reiss’s own virtues. He added this datum to his mental fact book.
The following silence was a bit more companionable, though. Chaison actually smiled and (though he was sure there was nothing to see) looked around himself. To his surprise, he saw a faint red blur far below his feet.
“Do either of you see that?”
“Well, I’d point, but that’s kind of useless right now…. I see a red light.”
There was a pause, then the other two said, “Oh!” simultaneously.
“Not a town light,” said Richard.
“Not a ship neither,” added Darius.
“Nor a sun. I—”
“Shh!” Chaison waved a hand. “Listen!”
He had mistaken it for distant thunder—otherwise, he might have heard the thing’s approach half an hour before. From the direction of the glow there came a deep, steadily modulated rumble, a ululation in the lowest register the human ear could discern. It rose and fell very slowly, but it was growing, and so was the light.
“That wouldn’t be our mysterious benefactor, would it,” said Richard Reiss nervously. Chaison had told them how the jail had been destroyed, giving what little description he could of the tug whose chain had spun the place to pieces.
“Whatever this is, it’s much larger,” he said unnecessarily. The red glow was beginning to permeate the cloud now; Chaison raised his hand before his face. He could make out his fingers against the umber light.
Now two vast crimson patches appeared, slowly turning in the night. They must be separated by a hundred yards at least, but were clearly part of one thing. What monstrous body lay invisible behind them?
Suddenly Richard laughed. “Oh,” he said. “
all it is.”
Darius glared at him. “What? What’s all it is?”
The foundry emerged from the mist like a photographic image appearing on paper. First to fade in were the platforms where men were working. Silhouetted against hellish flame, the figures were using long metal rakes to roil the chondritic coal in two giant kilns. The kilns were mounted upside-down with respect to one another, and the whole structure slowly spun to provide the gravity that the rendering process required. Now that the platforms were clear, the twenty-foot-wide scoops below the working platforms faded into focus. These were sucking in fresh air and causing one note of the foundry’s continuous low roar.
Chaison shook out his clenched fists, willing himself to relax. Of course it was just industry, no monster: foundries and factories used prodigious amounts of oxygen, so they had to keep moving. This one was like a huge propellor blade—jet engines below the scoops kept the whole thing spinning—which hove through the clouds at a walking pace, harvesting air and spewing yellow smog behind it.
“That may be just what we need,” he said, pointing to the clot of shacks and storage lockers at the foundry’s central point. Ladders led from there past the angled stacks to various levels. Aside from allowing the scoops to bring in air, the furnaces’ rotation gave a direction to the flame inside. In zero gravity, fire would otherwise expand briefly in a sphere then choke on its own smoke.
The shacks would contain supplies—spare overalls, maybe even something that flew better than this damnable fan.
“Is this a wise course of action?” Richard was frowning at the little human silhouettes that were slowly rotating around them. “What if we’re seen?—Caught?”
Chaison looked at him levelly. “What if we’re not? Besides, Ambassador, the men at those furnaces can’t see anything beyond their own hands. They’re flooded with firelight.”
“Ah. Good point. But what if there’s—” He didn’t finish, because Darius was already pedaling madly. The little fan made a farting whir in the air below his feet, and they drifted slowly toward the flame-gouting behemoth.
Not the most dramatic charge I’ve ever led,
Chaison thought wryly.
Something flickered at the edge of his vision. He whirled, just in time to see a slim gray shape vanish into the darkness behind them.
shark, at least. If it had smelled them, the thing would be well on its way back to its pen in some police cutter. No way they could catch it, even if they’d had proper foot-fins or wings. The things were demoniacally fast. Sometime during the near-mythical creation of this world, their DNA had been sprinkled with genes from bees; even now the little bastard could be doing its directional dance in front of a police inspector. Writhing out how many people it had seen, their direction, distance, and speed.
The boy redoubled his pedaling. Chaison was afraid he was going to break the frail little contraption, but soon they were gliding up to the rope-and-beam tangle at the weightless center of the foundry. Chaison strained, fingers grasping at a rope—not necessary, they would get there no matter what now, but he was desperate for the touch of something solid. Then he had it and was hauling himself onto the hexagonal plank platform that fronted the shacks. He yanked his sleeve free of Richard’s and drew his sword.
The foundry was basically a shaft of girders a quarter mile long, spun around its center. The smokestacks that topped the furnaces tipped back and vented into the air behind the foundry’s direction of motion; they helped propel it through the air. At the very center of the beam, nestled among the shacks, was an unlit pilot house. Chaison flung open its door and entered, sword-first. There was no one inside.