Authors: Karl Schroeder
Tags: #Science Fiction, #General, #Space Opera, #Fiction
The pilot house was a simple wooden box, eight feet square, that stank of smoke and iron. Under the open window at the front were a set of levers that controlled the foundry’s speed and direction. For an absurd moment Chaison thought about using the foundry itself as their getaway vehicle. It was at least as fast as the foot-fin.
But the fact that there was nobody in here made him uneasy. “Surely they’d still want to watch out for lakes or boulders, even if there are no towns nearby,” he shouted over the incessant rumble. “I would have thought a man would be on duty here at all times.”
“You’d be right,” said a gravelly voice. “—Careful,” it went on as Chaison made to turn, “I’ve got a bead on your head.”
Slowly, Chaison turned and looked behind him. Fitted into a shadowed corner of the pilot house was half a man; he was missing his legs, and in their place wore some kind of harness. But the wide-barreled scattergun in his hands made any other details unimportant. It was aimed now at the center of Chaison’s chest.
“Get your two companions in here,” said the man. Chaison could see Darius’s face faintly lit in the doorway. He half-smiled.
“I don’t actually control them,” he said with a shrug. “If they decide to leave me here with you, there’s nothing I can do about it.”
“Tempting though that might be, sir, I at least am a man of honor,” said Richard Reiss. He glided into the pilot house with as much dignity as his ragged appearance would allow. A moment later Darius followed.
“Ha!” The man with the gun edged forward a bit. In the ruddy light of the twin infernos Chaison saw that where his lower legs had once been, now he sprouted a three-foot metal spike, which was strapped to the stubs of his upper thighs. In freefall he would have no need for legs anyway, so Chaison did not make the mistake of assuming that he would be any less maneuverable or strong than the three men he faced. He had a leathery face and as he grinned displayed numerous gaps in his teeth.
“The secret police are looking for you three,” he said with satisfaction. “Also some other escapees, but three Slipstreamers in particular. Now, lest you think you might be able to take me, you’d better know that I rang the emergency bell before I bundled myself into that corner there. The boys’ll be up any second now to see what the fuss is about.”
He might have been bluffing. He wasn’t. A few minutes later Chaison and his companions found themselves being shoved into a windowless locker by four sweaty, heavily muscled men. The foundry workers laughed and clapped the pilot on the back, and spat on their new prisoners for good measure before slamming the door shut.
Richard glared at Chaison. “Now was this a wise course of—”
“Shut up!” snapped Darius. “We had to try.”
Chaison ran his hands over the back wall of the locker, looking for weak planks. “We have to keep thinking,” he said. The workers had taken their two swords and Richard’s baton. Without some means of locomotion, they were stranded here even if they did get the weapons back. “Did you spot any boats on the way in here?”
“Two,” said Darius. He cocked his head. “I think I hear one of them leaving right now.”
“Off to fetch our jailers,” said Richard. “Wonderful! A short holiday this has turned out to be.”
This made Chaison laugh. “Would you rather have spent the day in your cell? Pardon me for interrupting your valuable routine.”
“It’s not that,” said the former ambassador sullenly. “It’s just that…”
Richard looked uncomfortable. “They’re bound to punish us for this,” he said, almost inaudibly.
“Don’t get all schoolyard girly on us,” Darius shot back.
“I haven’t seen Richard act the coward yet,” said Chaison. “Seems to me he has a healthy sense of caution, and there’s no shame in fearing a beating. The question is whether that fear stops you from acting.”
“He didn’t want to come here,” Darius pointed out.
“Well, he was right, wasn’t he? It was my call, Darius.”
Darius had no answer to that.
They passed the next hour in silence. The locker was small and uncomfortable; light entered it only through chinks between the stout planks. The faint illumination was occasionally blocked, indicating that there were men right outside the box.
There was little the three escapees could say to each other. They had been through a lot together, prior to their first imprisonment. All three had been aboard Chaison’s cruiser when it attacked Falcon Formation’s new dreadnought. They were taken separately from the wreckage, and it was only recently that Chaison found out that Darius Martor had survived and was imprisoned down the hall from him. Richard Reiss’s presence was a surprise, and he wondered if there had been other survivors from the
in the prison. He would probably never know.
And what would happen now? Doubtless they would be separated. They might even be executed, though it was hard to anticipate the logic of Falcon’s byzantine legal system. Certainly these few minutes together were likely to be the last they would ever see of each other.
The silence stretched.
The door banged and then opened a crack. It was the legless pilot, grinning at them through the gap. “Police ship’s on its way,” he said. “Just thought you might want to know.”
“I didn’t actually, but thanks,” said Darius.
“Hey…sorry, you know?” said the pilot. “It’s the fortunes of war—there’s a reward for you and I’ll be collecting it. Good for me.”
He glanced around himself and then leaned closer to the door. “But I wanted to ask you fellows. Is it true? Did Slipstream really blow away half our fleet? Stop an invasion of your country?”
Chaison lifted his chin. “We did, and we did.”
“Well…” The pilot rubbed his chin. “That’s something. Good for you, I say. Don’t hold with the government just stealing another sun. Wrong, is what it is.”
Richard Reiss cleared his throat. “Sounds like you have a civilized sense of justice, sir. Why then are you turning us in?”
Chaison half-saw the shrug around the crack of the door. “Like I said, I need the money. Anyway, how was I to know how you would be?—Three starving prisoners with swords and me all alone on my bridge? I wasn’t going to take the chance. Still won’t.”
“I assure you,” said Richard, “we are men of honor.”
“Too late for that.”
“Then why in hell’s name are you talking to us?”
There was a pause. “No reason, I guess,” said the pilot gruffly. Chaison half-saw him jab his thumb in the direction of a light that had appeared over his shoulder. “Come on out. It’s time.” The pilot moved back and the door swung open.
Feathered sharks circled a knife-shaped police cutter with Falcon’s bird-of-prey sigil on its side. The cutter was wingless, relying entirely on four barrel-shaped jets at its stern for motion and guidance. Both sides of its hull had windscreens and a seating area; a rectangular hole in the hull joined these two areas. Each side swarmed with black-uniformed men.
The cutter’s spotlight slewed over the foundry until it caught Chaison and his companions. Then it fixed on them. Someone shouted, “Prepare to be boarded!” through a bullhorn.
The legless pilot glanced at Chaison nervously. Men like him often had reasons to work and live far from well-policed areas. Had some run-in with the law driven him here, to perch on this metal monster at the very limit of Falcon’s sunlight? If so, it would have been useful to know that sooner. Chaison grimaced. It was too late to look for leverage on any of these men.
Someone threw a line out to the cutter, and several policemen started hauling on it. It bobbed closer while the sharks dove in and out of the spotlight’s beam. Nobody spoke, and Chaison knew the strange paralysis that leads sane men to allow themselves to be led to execution.
Then there was a
and one of the sharks was suddenly an expanding pink cloud. Drops of cool blood sprinkled past Chaison. He blinked, and another shark exploded. A little white contrail led away from it, wavering into the dark.
He heard the tearing growl of a jet. It was headed away—no, it was coming back. The men on the cutter were scrambling for weapons, shouting and pointing. Something dove out of the cloud bank and suddenly everybody was shooting.
“Damn!” The pilot cringed back and the men holding Chaison’s arms let go. The foundry workers were jumping behind whatever metal object was closest. Yet Chaison found himself still centered in the spotlight’s glare.
Another bang and the light jerked to one side. Chaison and Darius dove for cover. Seconds later, Richard Reiss appeared to realize that he was the one remaining target on the foundry’s superstructure. With a yelp he too scrambled for a hiding place.
An expanding oval of fire had appeared at the back of the cutter. Some of the policemen were squirting dead air into it from the ship’s tanks while others fired blindly into the red-lit clouds.
“Over here!” That was a woman’s voice. Chaison looked behind him and spotted a dark figure in the air behind the foundry. The figure waved an arm. “Come on! What are you waiting for?”
“This is that moment I’m told you’re supposed to seize,” said Richard Reiss. He leaped clumsily past the spiraling smoke spumes of the foundry. Chaison glanced at Darius, who shrugged. They hauled themselves hand over hand past the shacks at the foundry’s center then launched themselves off the structure.
The dark shape became clearer: it was a slim figure dressed in black, sitting on a cloud-gray jet bike. The bike, a simple wingless jet engine with a saddle, was whining and spinning in a tight circle. Evidently it wanted to be moving. The woman kept her feet in its stirrups as she stretched out to catch Richard’s hand. She drew him in then grabbed the handlebar of the bike and steered it over to collect the other two men.
“I shot one of their engines but it won’t slow them down for long.” The voice was definitely female, but Chaison barely had time to glance at her before she gunned the engine. He grabbed for something to hold onto, caught a metal ring on the side of the barrel-shaped bike and then found himself hanging off it by one hand as the jet opened up with a roar and they shot away from the foundry.
They shot through clouds and jet-black air for ten long minutes while Chaison did nothing but try to keep his grip against the battering headwind. Little lights glinted in the distant skies, some solitary, some in the glittering circles of wheel-shaped towns. The night would have been beautiful were it not that Chaison was wrapped in exhaustion, anxiety, and pain from his strained muscles.
Dawn was coming, an irregular pulse of red somewhere far below, when Richard Reiss finally let go and fell behind them. Instantly their unknown pilot throttled back. Idling, she circled them around to where Richard stood on the air, arms crossed indignantly.
“See here,” he said. “How much of this abuse are we to endure in the name of liberty?” Faint rose light was touching the limbs of the clouds behind him, making him look incongruously angelic. “I demand a rest!” he continued. “And an explanation! Who are you? Did you break our prison?”
Chaison climbed up the side of the now-drifting bike. The pilot was slim, dressed in a sharkskin leather coat with a flying helmet on her head. She reached up now to slide this off. Chaison heard Darius grunt in surprise.
Her eyes were startling: huge blue ovals above a very tiny nose and mouth. Her hair was a black pageboy frame for this extraordinary face.
Darius swore. “A winter wraith!”
The woman showed white teeth in a wide grin. “I’m so much more than that.” She laughed. Her voice was a strong and confident alto.
The bike was close enough to Richard now that he could reach out and grab Chaison’s hand. The admiral drew him in until he could get a grip on the bike again.
“Surely you weren’t the one in that tugboat?” he asked her.
She hesitated, then smiled broadly and nodded. “Pretty neat trick, huh? But then I lost you again in the chaos. Took this bike out ’cause it’s faster.”
Richard and Darius looked openly skeptical, but Chaison put out his hand for her to shake. “Then, accept my thanks for taking such risks on our behalf. I am Chaison Fanning, admiral of Slipstream. These, my companions, are Darius Martor and Richard Reiss.”
She might be lying—but he’d seen his wife perform greater feats. He wasn’t going to take the chance—yet—that she wasn’t what she claimed to be.
“Well met,” she said, shaking his hand firmly.
“But why would you risk yourself for us?” asked Darius bluntly.
“Because,” she said as she gunned the engine again, “I am Antaea Argyre, and I am a scout for the Virga home guard.”
Before Chaison could say another word she had opened the throttle, and away they shot.
“QUESTIONS, QUESTIONS,” LAUGHED
their rescuer when they finally stopped, an hour later. It was full day now but Chaison had no idea where they were. The hazy sky was dotted with farms like green clouds and spherical groves of fruit trees, punctuated with the occasional blocky building and crisscrossed by the miles-long ropes that served as roads between town-wheels. They had fled farther into Falcon Formation, rather than to sunless—and empty—winter. That fact was surprising.
Antaea Argyre had a leather-clad toe hooked through one of the bike’s foot straps; that was her only contact with the machine. They hovered near the white wall of a cloud, miles from the nearest solid object. Chaison and Darius had joined her in weightless postures next to the bike, but Richard Reiss stubbornly clung to its solidity.
“First,” said the long-limbed winter wraith, “you’ve all asked whether your nation remains safe. I can say that it does. You’ve won your border dispute with your neighbor Mavery. There is some unrest in your capital, Rush, but I really don’t know the details of that so don’t ask me.
question, young master Martor, we are going deeper into Falcon because they are searching for you in winter—the other direction.” Darius nodded grudgingly.
“As for what you muttered under your breath earlier, Mr. Ambassador, yes, winter wraiths are real and not mythical.—And we’re perfectly human, though the ancient anime-mods that make us look different from you make us shunned and persecuted by all. I am a Pacquaen, just as you are Slipstreamers.” She gazed coolly at Richard until he nodded.
“Have you any food?” interrupted Darius. She smiled, and reached for one of the bike’s saddlebags.
“I was wondering when you’d ask
. But as to
question, Admiral, I truly am a member of the home guard. I’m surprised that you’ve heard of us.”
Chaison wanted to snatch the bread from her fingers. Instead, he let the other two take theirs first. It was the duty of a commander to eat last.
“I met one of the guard in the Virga tourist station,” he said. “Some months ago.”
Her eyes widened. “You’ve been there? You’re a remarkably well-traveled man.”
Chaison examined her discreetly as she spoke to the other two. He was trying to make the sort of assessment of her that he routinely did with men under his command. The first thing he noticed was that her eyes were the most exotic thing about her. The rest of her face, though strangely childlike, wasn’t entirely outside the norm. Her flying leathers were of a typically Meridian design and could have been bought anywhere in Slipstream, Falcon, or Mavery. Ditto for the flying helmet, the bike, and its panniers. She did have a faint accent, but he couldn’t place it.
The one striking exception were her split-toed, high-heeled leather boots. They laced up to just above the knee, and both were heavily scarred and scraped. The six-inch heels were blue steel, sharpened to a point. These weren’t shoes. They were weapons, and well-used ones.
Antaea was nearly six feet tall but had the slenderness of someone raised under lower than standard gravity—or of someone who had spent a considerable part of her youth in freefall. Those long limbs were strongly muscled. Her breasts were not so large that her loose jacket had to visibly accommodate them.
She glanced at him and he found himself looking away quickly before he could help himself. Damn.
“Tell me about this home guard,” he said as what remained of the bread finally made its way to him. “I was told you were defenders of Virga—of the whole world. Defenders against what?”
She grinned. It made the sides of her oval eyes rise, creating for an almost demonic expression. “You know, I couldn’t even convince most people that we exist. Your average farmer or city boy believes that Virga is infinite. They think this,” she waved around at the skies, “is all there is. It’s so nice to meet people who know differently.”
“Any civilized man could tell you that the world of Virga is an artificial construct,” sniffed Richard. “It is a vast balloon, adrift in empty space.”
She eyed him. “That just tells us all that I spend very little time around civilized people.”
“That’s not what I—”
“No matter.” She shrugged. “The thing is, our world is very small. It’s—what, five or six thousand miles in diameter? Would it surprise you to learn that our ancestors built far larger structures elsewhere in the universe? Or to learn that most of those structures are still inhabited?”
“You defend us against people from other worlds?” Darius’s voice fairly dripped skepticism.
“You describe my job most precisely, sir.”
Darius stared at her in disbelief, but Chaison frowned for a different reason. “Have you traveled outside our world, Antaea?”
She hesitated, then shook her head. “Those who have, do not recommend it.”
She didn’t elaborate on that. Chaison wondered which of several lines of questioning he could pursue with this strange representative of an unknown power. He decided to venture one that had been eating at him ever since he’d heard of the guard. “Just how can the guard defend us against powers capable of building whole worlds? Surely not with guns and swords.”
“Ah, Admiral! Such professional curiosity.” She waggled a finger at him. “My masters have decreed that such knowledge is not fit for the ears of Virga’s citizenry.”
“Really? Why not?”
She hesitated again. He watched her carefully, trying to read her subtle expressions. Was she doubtful of what she was saying now? “Because of the potential for harm such knowledge brings,” she said at last. Then she smiled, in a rather cunning way. “I could give you an example.”
“Please do,” said Richard before he saw Chaison’s warning glance. The admiral already knew where this was going.
“Something happened some months ago,” said Antaea. She pretended to examine a distant flock of fish that was nosing around the outskirts of the cloud. “We call it
. The outage hit the guard like a lightning bolt—shocked us out of our complacency. We’d come to rely on Virga’s built-in defenses rather too much, and then one day, those defenses simply
. The outage lasted less than twelve hours, but it threw my masters into a panic that has yet to subside.”
Now Darius was trying to catch Chaison’s eye. The admiral kept his face as neutral as he could, merely nodding politely for Antaea to continue.
“I had been enjoying a much-needed vacation in the skin of the world,” said the Pacquaean. “I was flying with dolphins when the base sirens went off. When I got back to the installation the whole place was in an uproar. The protective field produced by the sun of suns had
. And in the frozen vacuum outside the world, some things were uncoiling from a very long slumber.
“There was a battle. I was mercifully not involved—but we lost a lot of people that night. When the field was restored just as unexpectedly, we took stock. Many members of the guard had lost their lives trying to prevent the engines of the enemy from piercing Virga’s skin and entering the world. Most had succeeded—but some of the enemy’s devices had gotten in.”
Chaison was thunderstruck. Had he known that his actions would have such dire consequences—threatening the very world—he would not have embarked on his desperate mission to save Slipstream. He would have found another way.
Antaea eyed him. “Mmm. Some of our agents were dispatched to locate the infiltrators; they’re still searching. My team and I were sent in for another reason: to find the cause of the outage, and ensure that there isn’t another.”
“And did you find it?” he asked.
“Not yet.” She looked him in the eye. “But I’m close.”
“Well, the best of luck in that,” said Richard jovially. “But we have more pressing concerns than your ‘outage,’ I think.” Richard reached for the bread. “Lady, my companions may be graceless, but I appreciate a good rescue and therefore, thank you from the bottom of my heart. Sadly, however, I find myself compelled to hurry our little party along. As in, where can we find some less incriminating clothing, a decent meal, and beds to sleep in?”
Antaea was obviously not sure how to take Richard’s trumped-up charm. She looked down her diminutive nose at him. “Is it not enough for one day that you be rescued, you need some luxury items to be satisfied?”
“One man’s luxury is another man’s necessity,” he said mildly.
Chaison watched this exchange, smiling. “Richard is right, though,” he said. “We’re of no use in these stolen uniforms. And without some gravity to condition our muscles, we’ll be of no use in a fair fight either.”
“Gravity I can give you,” said Antaea.
SHE MADE GOOD
on that promise later in the afternoon, when they stopped at an out-of-the-way farm. While deep inside Falcon, near enough its suns to bask in good growing light, the place was far from any town. Its owners were the perfect customer for an itinerant gravity seller, and Antaea just happened to have an official-looking work permit that said she was one. Nothing happened in Falcon without a permit, “So,” she said, “I carry a good supply.” All forged, as it turned out.
The three men hid in a nearby cloud while Antaea rode the bike over to the farm. The place consisted of a cubic house tethered to a heavy water tank and several carefully managed crop balls. Each ball was woven from the stalks of a thin but stiff vine, and was about two hundred feet in diameter. Thousands of clods of earth floated free inside the loose structures, each one invisible within a sphere of leaves. This farmer was growing soy.
Gravity selling was a good cover for an agent like Antaea. As the owner of a bike, she could travel freely to the more remote corners of the nation without causing comment. The more remote the area, the more welcome a seller was; after a few minutes of negotiation, she received enthusiastic consent from this particular farmer to give him some weight. The two could be observed testing the chains that tied the house to the water tank, then they let these out until the two objects had a few hundred yards of line between them. Next, Antaea flew out to pick up the Slipstream fugitives.
“Turns out he’s hoping to make a trip to one of the towns in a few days, and wants to get into shape,” she said. “He’s willing to look the other way if you keep to the tank. You’ve got weight for the day. Use the time well.”
She dropped the three men off at the rust-painted water tank, then returned to lash her bike to the side of the house opposite the chain mount, and at right angles to it. She settled into the saddle and gunned the engine. As the jet strained and pulled, the house began to drift away, the chain unraveling behind it. A few minutes later it snapped taut, and then because her bike was pulling at right angles to the line joining house and water tank, the whole assembly began to rotate.
For a few hours, the farmer would enjoy the centrifugal gravity allowed by the rotation. He had weight as long as he didn’t step out his front door; Chaison, Darius, and Richard would have to stay atop the windblown surface of the water tank to gain the same benefit.
It was worth it. As the headwind from their rapid spin grew to a gale, Chaison felt a sensation he hadn’t had in months. His head drooped, his shoulders slumped as he sat on the tank. After a few minutes Antaea had reached the safe rotation rate for the chains, which provided more than half a gravity. Up in the house, the farmer would be testing his legs; Chaison needed to do the same. He stood, carefully keeping a grip on the chain.
“Oh, that hurts!” The other two were also standing up. They grimaced and laughed as the deficiencies of their weightless exercise made themselves apparent. There were muscles essential to walking that Chaison had not been able to tone in all his cell-bound bouncing and isometrics. He wobbled on his feet.
Richard had it worst. Apparently his discipline had broken down early in their incarceration; he would need extensive rehabilitation to regain his gravity legs. Aside from the weakness, there was the little problem that the authorities would be looking for three Slipstream men crippled by chronic weightlessness. If they could spend a week or two in a town, he would at least be able to stand up and walk a straight line; the irony was that they couldn’t visit a town
he could walk. The police knew this. If Richard could get his legs before they visited a town, their chances of getting caught might diminish—a little.
Chaison gazed out at the swiftly turning sky. He had no idea where they were relative to their home. Their fates were in the hands of a complete stranger. Almost out of habit, he began to form plans—half-conscious decision-trees like the look-ahead moves in a chess game. What if Antaea was an enemy? What if the guard were friends? Could they commandeer a ship from somewhere? Or could they fly all the way to Slipstream hanging off of Antaea’s little bike?
Darius was frowning into the sky as well. They stood in a small circle all gripping the same chain, and for a few minutes he seemed to be thinking of something clever to say. Finally he said, “Well? When do we give her the slip?”
Chaison glanced up the chain at the upside-down house far overhead. “I’m not sure we do,” he said.
When Darius returned an incredulous look, he shrugged. “Her intentions aren’t clear, but I don’t think she’s our enemy. If she were, she wouldn’t have admitted to being a member of the home guard.”
Richard snorted. “You believe that drivel about her being the one who freed us?” He was trying valiantly to keep his knees from buckling.
“If not her, then who did it?” said Chaison. “As to the home guard…She knows too much to be making it up. The ‘outage’—clearly she’s referring to our shutting-down of Candesce’s defensive systems. It never occurred to me that it would be noticed so easily. But then, it never occurred to me that there might be a real and present threat outside Virga that the system was keeping at bay. If I’d known…”
“If you had known, your wife would still have talked you into it,” said Richard Reiss. Chaison glared at him, but it was true. The plan had been her idea, and she could be very persuasive. In fact, she had committed a minor case of blackmail to guarantee that Chaison would adopt the plan. He hadn’t really had much choice.