Authors: Karl Schroeder
Tags: #Science Fiction, #General, #Space Opera, #Fiction
Remembering that made him smile. She was an unstoppable force, that was for sure. But it had been months now that they were separated, and for all she knew he was dead. Venera was nothing if not practical. What if she…
He pushed the thought away. Against all expectation he’d been given a chance to return home; there was no use in speculating on what disasters might befall him when he got there.
Richard groaned and sank to his knees. “This is hell,” he whined. “I need a soft bed.”
“Rusted iron will have to do,” said Chaison. “Be glad that you have that to lie on.”
“I don’t trust her,” said Darius. “She’s led us further into Falcon, not out of it. And she knows we caused the outage! How do you know she’s not bringing us to some hall of justice crammed with home guard judges and lawyers and juries?”
“We don’t,” said Richard from his now prone position. “But the admiral is right. We have no choice but to go with her. She is being very systematic, isn’t she, Fanning?”
“Yes…” He squinted upward again. “She looks childlike, but it’s a dangerous disguise. Her easy manner through all of this suggests that we’re not the first ones she’s rescued from a tight scrape. That may be her job, in fact.”
“I still can’t believe she were the one who freed us,” said Darius. “Maybe it was…” He fell silent.
Chaison thought about it. Who else could have done it? The admiralty?—No, they would never officially sanction an operation like that. And Chaison had been going against direct orders in undertaking his preemptive attack on Falcon. The pilot of Slipstream could not be publicly pleased by Chaison’s gambit, however he might feel privately. But perhaps a cabal of loyal officers…
He shook his head. The officers most loyal to him were all dead, killed in the savage battle that had ended Falcon’s invasion attempt. He had seen their ships destroyed.
This train of thought was as depressing as his speculations about Venera. Shifting from foot to foot, he forced himself to concentrate on the here and now. “Antaea wants information,” he said, “but she’s come to us alone and made no attempt to signal anyone else since she found us. As long as she’s unable to compel us to tell what we know, we have a bargaining position: we know exactly what caused the outage, and if Venera returned safely to Rush, we have the means to cause or prevent another one.”
Provided Venera hasn’t thought up some other plan involving the key to Candesce.
It was the key—an innocuous white wand you could put in a pocket—that had made the outage possible. It had given Chaison’s little fleet access to the interior of Virga’s oldest and most powerful sun, Candesce, which had operated without human intervention for centuries. While the key was in play, another outage was possible. And if Antaea was right about the consequences of even a few hours of defenselessness, Virga itself could be destroyed if Venera chose to use the key again.
They talked more about what to do—how to sneak back into Slipstream and what to do when they got there—but eventually drifted into silence again. There was too much unsaid between them. There was the pain of long isolation and deprivation, of months living with the near-certainty that they would never see their homes and loved ones again. There was their complete ignorance of conditions back home; what had Antaea meant about “unrest” in Rush? Had any of the ships in Chaison’s expeditionary force returned home safely? Did the people even know that Falcon Formation had tried to attack Slipstream? And if and when they returned, would they be hailed as heroes, or hung as traitors?
It wasn’t that he was ungrateful at having escaped, Chaison decided as Falcon’s suns began their evening fade; it was that everything in him had been suspended for months, both joys and, it turned out, worries. Both were returning to him now in equal measure, and he was unused to dealing with either. He was in emotional turmoil, and so must Darius and Richard be.
By evening their gravity began to fail. Unless Antaea ran her jet constantly, air resistance would slow down the rotating bolo of house/tank in just a few hours. As the frantic rush of air slowed to a trickle, and weight became a barely felt tendency, Antaea launched herself through the open air, foot-fins flickering in the golden light, to alight on the tank with elegant grace. “He’s agreed to two more days of weight,” she said without preamble. “You’re going to need every second of it to get yourselves into condition.”
Chaison nodded. “You mean to take us to a town.”
Darius scoffed. “Why not make a straight run for Slipstream?”
She shook her head. “Your border is hundreds of miles from here. The air is thick with habitation and clotted with everything from garbage to trees. I couldn’t get the bike above fifty miles per hour in clear air, ten in a cloud. And there’s a lot of cloud lately, unusual amounts apparently. If we tried to go by night we’d barely crawl, the air is so full of hazards. And we’d be heard for miles.”
“Four people hanging off a bike is bound to cause comment,” added Chaison. “We’re just going to have to be patient, and do things a bit differently.”
She nodded approvingly. “Right. So here.” She held out some bundles of clothing and a rolled-up shaving kit. “Make yourselves presentable. You can use some water from the tank you’re sitting on. Any look that’s different from what you had as officers will do.—But get rid of those beards, for God’s sake.”
Richard Reiss eagerly took the shaving kit from her. “Beards are not common in Falcon, I take it?” he said.
Antaea shrugged. “I don’t know. I just don’t like them.”
She kicked off toward the farmhouse. Chaison couldn’t help but sneak a look at her kicking legs and leather-sheathed backside as she moved off. He noticed Darius noticing and sighed, turning his attention to the pile of clothing, but his visceral reaction to Argyre’s presence made him think of Venera. Was she safe? How had she taken his disappearance? She was as brave as any soldier. She would be all right.
He lay down on the cold metal to sleep, repeating it as a sad mantra: she would be all right. She would be all right without him.
THREE DAYS LATER
they found themselves waiting in a cloud again, this time within sight of a town-wheel that glittered in the distance like a hoop of gold filigree. Antaea had gone ahead with the bike; she was visible for a while but soon became just one dot among dozens buzzing around the axle of the wheel. She disappeared, and time dragged.
“I ache in every possible place,” said Richard. “I seriously doubt I’ll be able to stand when we get there.”
Chaison had been counting how many seconds it took for the great wood-and-rope wheel to make one revolution. “From the place’s size and rate of rotation, I’d say they’re doing a comfortable point-six gee at the rim. Not a full gee, thankfully. You should be fine, Richard.”
The wheel was like a very long plank bridge rolled up so that the two ends connected. Rope spokes crisscrossed the interior circle, suspending a set of buildings at the “axle” as well as a few dozen platforms at varying heights above the rim. Some of these hanging streets held halfway houses of streamlined shingle where people unused to gravity could conduct business and even lodge at lower gravities—point-three, point-one and so on up to zero at the axle. The buildings were connected to the outer rim by stairways and elevators.
Boats, bikes, and cargo nets hung off the rim of the wheel; the nets rippled in the wind from the town’s rotation. Every now and then jets along the rim growled into life, rumbling for a few minutes as they kept the wheel spinning at its standard rate.
Several hours passed, with nothing to do but stare at the town and maintain station with the foot-fins Antaea had provided. Suddenly Darius exclaimed, “Where’s the bike?”
He pointed. Chaison looked and saw a big pair of midnight-black wings cupping the air. The figure was heading in their direction—it was in fact Antaea, wearing a pair of angel’s wings and towing three more pairs. The wings had a span of sixteen feet and were strapped to her shoulders. Foot straps let you kick downward to wind a heavy spring mounted between the shoulders; after a couple of kicks the spring released and the wings would flap once. Angel’s wings varied hugely in quality and efficiency, but these ones were painstakingly handmade using real feathers. They brought Antaea across the half-mile of air between the town and the cloud in only a couple of minutes. She pulled a strap to fan the wings for maximum braking and glided to a stop next to Chaison.
“Here.” She was panting slightly, a thin sheen highlighting the muscled contours of her skin as she handed him the bundle of wings. “There’s day laborers’ clothes, too,” she said, pointing to a smaller bundle amongst the feathers. “You should get into them.”
Darius was indignant. “Where’s the bike?”
“The bike had a bullet hole in it,” said Antaea. “Didn’t you notice that? It was bound to cause questions; plus the policemen I plucked you from knew you were rescued by someone on a bike.”
“What did you do with it?”
“This town is called Songly,” she said, nodding to the wheel. “A member of the home guard lives here. I dropped it off with him and used some of our ready cash to buy these.” Richard and Darius were strapping on the wings. They both seemed familiar with them, but it was Richard who seemed most adept.—That made some sense, as they were rarely used by the military, and Richard had spent twenty years living in a city that was mostly weightless.
Chaison tested his own stirrups, doing a tight loop in the air. The wings made a satisfying
as they flapped. “Ha! I almost feel like a man again.”
“Good.” She was smiling. “Now we should split up. I’ve reserved a suite for the admiral and me at Family Residence 617. You two can bunk in the hostel.”
Darius looked like he wanted to protest, but by this time they had all come to understand the logic of the situation. They couldn’t afford to fit the profile the secret police were looking for: three Slipstream men traveling together possibly with a companion. They would split up and converge upon the wheel at the end of the day, when the workers who had fanned out at dawn returned like bees homing in on a hive. Richard and Darius were going to avoid the lower-gravity buildings and go straight to the rim of the wheel. The police would not expect them to be able to walk yet.
It came as no surprise that Antaea wanted to keep Chaison close. He was her assignment, obviously; the other two men were of little interest to her. She might be trying to split him off from his friends, and maybe she had accomplices waiting to kidnap him in town. But he had no real choice but to trust her—for now.
An hour later he was tottering up the stairs to their suite, the now-folded wings on his back feeling like a bag of rocks. Antaea showed no sign of strain as she pattered ahead of him.
Residence 617 was a government-subsidized hostel for married couples. It was illegal in Falcon—as in most nations—to refuse someone a night’s gravity, so all town-wheels made provision for visitors. Still, the furnishings in the little suite were spare. Once inside Chaison shambled to the window and looked out. They were high up here, in a low gravity zone; the wheel’s rim lay hundreds of feet below. Way down there, the larger itinerant’s hostel where Darius and Richard were staying was a gray rectangle on the thin brown ribbon of the rim. He wondered if they had made it there without collapsing.
“Oooh…” He sank gratefully onto the single bed, only noticing when he flung out his arm how narrow it was. Antaea was stowing their wings in the closet, feet planted wide and swaying slightly. This was the first he’d seen of her in gravity.
He rolled over and pushed himself to his feet. “I guess I’ll take the floor,” he said.
She had her head buried in the closet. “What?”
Chaison cleared his throat. “I said, I guess I’ll take the floor.”
A sly smile played across her face as she leaned back to look. “No you don’t. You’ve been living weightless for months now. A night on wooden planks would put out all your joints, from spine to ribs to knees. Get on the bed.”
“Ah, well. It’s a bit narrow—”
Antaea made a face. “
sleeping on the floor.”
“Yes of course.”
“Your gallantry is going to be the death of you, Admiral.” She pried off her toeless boots.
Chaison allowed gravity to guide him to the mattress. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked, but he wasn’t really listening anymore. The sensation of lying down overwhelmed him. In less than a minute, he was asleep.
ANTAEA WATCHED THE
admiral until she was sure he was asleep. Then she lay down beside him and turned away. She forced her breathing to slow and her limbs to relax, though her mind was buzzing with anxiety and plans, scenarios, disastrous possibilities. She needed this rest, at least as much as the man next to her. She closed her eyes.
Ten minutes later, she sat up and cursed under her breath. She rolled off the bed and went to sit in the room’s only armchair. She sat there for a long time, not moving, not seeing the wall her gaze was aimed at. Then, reluctantly, she dug in her jerkin for her locket. Unclasping it, she held the silver oval up to the shaft of sunlight canting through the window.
She flipped open the locket and gazed at the portrait inside it. Telen Argyre smiled out at her sister with a direct, clear gaze that spoke volumes about their childhood—how it had been spent in free airs, how she and Antaea had been encouraged by their parents to learn and explore as much and as often as they could. How they had learned courage, and when an extraordinary opportunity had presented itself, had jumped at it together.
After a moment Antaea pried at the edge of the portrait, and it swung out of the locket. On its back was another picture, this one a black-and-white photograph.
It would be hard to tell for somebody who didn’t know her, but this was also Telen. She sat in a straight-backed chair, her arms painfully stretched behind it and tied at the wrists. Her feet were similarly bound and there was a cloth gag in her mouth. She stared beseechingly at the camera.