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Authors: Karl Schroeder

Tags: #Science Fiction, #General, #Space Opera, #Fiction

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BOOK: Pirate Sun
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The door was opened by a lean man with sunken cheeks and a buzz-cut. He wore livery, and behind him the space opened out into an airy vista of green fronds and polished stone pillars. “Come in,” said the servant. Then he glanced down, and saw Antaea’s footware. “I’ll have to ask you to remove those. For the sake of the floors…” She grimaced, but complied.

The first storey of the estate was one open chamber that wrapped around a courtyard garden. The tall arches surrounding the garden let plenty of light into the rest of the space; there were no outside windows. It was clear why the doorman had been leery of Antaea’s heels: the floor was inlaid with mosaics, a sensible decoration for a surface that tended to flex with the town’s rotation. There were stone statues here and there—all tastefully painted. The bustle of the street was completely extinguished.

The servant didn’t bother to lead them, merely pointing to the garden. A man leaned on one of the pillars, his hands jammed in the pockets of a loose robe. The robe hung over a more conventional manager’s outfit of tan suede.

He stepped forward as Chaison approached, holding out his hand. “Admiral, welcome. I’m Hugo Ergez. Have no worries, I’m a friend.” He looked drawn and tired, as if he hadn’t slept—and Chaison could see deep lines scored around his eyes and the sides of his mouth, indicators of someone who bore up under a great deal of physical pain. Indeed, as they moved past him Ergez picked up an ornate cane and walked not more than ten feet before easing himself into a high-backed wicker chair.

“It is useful,” said Ergez as he placed the cane carefully to one side, “for allies of the home guard to be wealthy men and women. We are better placed to use our resources than the poor.”

Antaea sat near him. Her expression was oddly neutral, as though she felt she needed to not comment on Ergez’s statement.

“Thanks for the identity papers,” said Chaison. He and the other two men found some benches on the other side of a low drinks table. He sat with relief. “You do know that all we seek is to return to our homes?”

“So Antaea told me.” Ergez pointed to some cups on the table. “Please…. In truth, your mission, whatever it is, is not my concern. I am merely here to assist.”

“Can you assist with answers to some questions?”

Ergez exchanged a minute glance with Antaea. “Insofar as I can, yes.”

“Is Falcon Formation going to war with Slipstream?”

Ergez looked surprised, then laughed out loud. “Slipstream? On the contrary! Falcon and Slipstream are fast friends these days. It’s a, oh, what’s the phrase—a ‘new era of cooperation between our two peoples.’ I believe that’s how your pilot put it in the newspaper article…. Which is around here somewhere…”

Darius frowned, looking from Ergez to Chaison. “Yeah but I saw all those recruiting posters. The market’s full of them.”

“Quite.” Ergez lost his smile. Having offered drinks to his guests, he proceeded to take up a cup himself and lean back in the enfolding wings of the chair. He pursed his lips above the cup. “It’s the Gretels that’s the threat, Admiral—our largest neighbor, happily for you on the far side of our country from your own border.”

“Ah…” This was news. It answered many questions—not least being why Falcon Formation had put together a secret force to invade Slipstream in the first place.

Darius squinted at him. “Ah, what?”

Chaison smiled sadly at him. “I’m afraid the attack on us was a sideshow, Darius. They simply wanted to secure their flank before dealing with the Gretels.”

Darius sat for a while, absorbing this information. “So,” he said eventually, “now that one way of doing it’s failed, they’re trying the other.”

“I’m afraid that it makes it all the more likely that you and I were sacrificed as pawns. We were never traded back to Slipstream because asking would have been…impolite.”

Even as he said this, Chaison knew he was playing into Antaea’s hands. She must have known he would see the recruiting posters and have questions, and now he saw how this interview with Ergez was supposed to go. Too late; he had walked right into her trap.

Darius was scowling off into space. “We can’t go home again, is what you’re saying.”

“Certainly not under your old names,” said Antaea smoothly.

Chaison nodded to himself. “But the home guard could help us,” he said. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Richard Reiss glance sharply at him. Richard had also seen the vise Antaea was applying.

She thought that he had only two choices: slip back to his home anonymously and build a new life there under an assumed name; or take whatever deal she would propose. That deal would have something to do with his revealing the whereabouts of the key to Candesce. Wherever she was, Venera had it, but Chaison was not about to let anyone know that—not only to keep her safe, but because he knew nothing of this home guard’s real integrity or mission. He believed Antaea was who she said she was, but beyond that all was suspect.

Chaison had a third alternative, however, and the fact that Antaea didn’t see it marked her as someone whose origin was the lower strata of society. It hadn’t occurred to her that Chaison could publically fight to regain his position. He had allies in the admiralty.

He would play for time. “We would be grateful for any help you could give us in returning home. As to what we can do for you—”

A shout interrupted him. The door to the street was open and several men were piling in. One slammed it behind himself and leaned on it, cursing. He was holding his elbow, and Chaison saw blood welling between his fingers.

Ergez levered himself halfway to his feet. “Sanson! What happened?”

The man winced. He was short but lean and wiry, the perfect musculature for a town rigger—which he probably was, judging by his toeless shoes and the utility belt around his waist. “So sorry to disturb you, Mr. Ergez, it’s just that you did say, if any of us ever had any trouble with the pols that we should…”

“Yes, yes, and I meant it.” Ergez made it the rest of the way to his feet. “I just want to know if you’re seriously injured.”

Sanson shook his head. “Just a cut on my arm and a rap on my head,” he said.

Ergez turned back to Chaison and the others. “Sanson and his men have my confidence,” he said. “You can speak in front of them.”

Chaison stood and walked over to the injured man. “Hold it out,” he said in a commanding tone. The rigger obeyed automatically, then started to pull away. “Who’s—”

“You can trust him,” said Ergez. He was watching Chaison with frank curiosity. Chaison probed the arm carefully, turned the wrist, and examined the cut, which was deep but hadn’t hit any main lines.

“We can sew that up,” he said, “but you’ll be on light duty for a few days. That’s your left arm,” he commented.

“What of it?” said the rigger, who was clearly deciding whether to be sullen at Chaison’s manner.

“It’s a defensive wound,” said the admiral. He raised his arm in a blocking motion. “You did this. Not wise. You could have lost the arm if he’d been of a mind to really hurt you. You’re clearly not a trained fighter.”

Sanson glared at him. “It’s illegal for a plain citizen to train at fighting.”

Chaison reached out, taking Sanson’s reluctant arm again. He leaned forward and said quietly, “Does that mean you won’t let me teach you?”

The man’s eyes widened. He glanced at his still-bleeding arm, then shook his head.

Satisfied, Chaison stepped back and turned to Ergez and Antaea. “We’d be grateful if you helped us return to our country,” he said again. “In return, we will teach these men how to defend themselves. We need to get back into shape anyway; it’s a perfect arrangement all around.”

Ergez smiled, and so did Antaea; but her smile looked more than a little wooden and he suspected she was seething inside.

5

CHAISON HAD BEEN
standing at the window of his office one night seven months ago, and so by pure chance he witnessed the rocket attack that set so many events in motion. Lurid red lines had flicked out of the darkness beyond the glitter of the city of Rush—once, twice, three-four-five in quick succession. He stood stock-still, coffee cup forgotten in his hand, as blossoms of sudden fire swelled on the inner surface of one of the biggest town-wheels. Those were the houses of Slipstream’s rich middle-class, not the neighborhood he’d grown up in but one just like it. More rockets shot out of the night. Chaison walked unhurriedly to the corner of the little book-strewn room and tugged on the bell-rope. He could hear shouts of alarm ringing through the house.

He returned to the window, but the rocket attack had already ended. Fires leaned into the Coriolis-winds among the buildings lining the inner surface of Rush’s open-ended, can-shaped town-wheels. Searchlights sprang to life, their long pale cones darting everywhere, and the town-wheels dumped vehicles into the air. Many of those were converging on the admiralty. Chaison watched their firefly glows approach, mentally inventorying them. Doubtless one or two of those approaching visitors weren’t coming to see Chaison, but were Venera’s spies on their way to report to her. Of the rest, though, some would be delegations from the town fathers, outraged that the admiralty hadn’t protected them; policemen with reports for the military branch of the Exchequer; members of parliament desperate to appear proactive in the eyes of their constituents; naval captains on their way to him for orders; and of course, there would be someone from the pilot’s palace, come to let him know whose head would roll for their failure to foresee this attack.

Only this last visitor worried him—not because Chaison had not foreseen the attack, but because, vocally and publically, he had.

“So, do you think it
was
Mavery?” He turned to find Venera standing hipshot in the doorway. She was dressed in a crimson evening gown but one strap had fallen carelessly off her white shoulder. He walked over to straighten it.

“Mavery’s afraid of us,” he said. “Why would they invite defeat and humiliation at our hands?” He shook his head. “Your spies were right. I just didn’t want to admit it to you.”

Venera smiled and reached past his waist, the action causing her thinly covered breasts to brush across his uniform. “I do so love to hear you say that,” she murmured. “That I was right, I mean.” Then she stepped back, holding up the photograph she’d retrieved from his desk. “Does this seem more real to you now?”

The black-and-white photo was grainy and blurred. He hadn’t believed what it showed when Venera first brought it to him. Gradually he had been persuaded that Falcon’s new dreadnought was real, was nearly assembled in their secret shipyard, and was more than capable of taking on the entire Slipstream navy. If it wasn’t real, then tonight’s attack was an insane provocation. If it was, then everything that was happening made a sinister kind of sense.

He shrugged. “So you’re willing to admit that
this
is real,” she continued, waggling the photo between them. “What about the rest of it?”

He shook his head. “This preposterous tale of a pirate’s treasure trove that holds the last remaining key to Candesce? This
radar
technology that your pet armorer believes she can build? You know, it’s not about the evidence, Venera; how can I
afford
to believe it? There’s just too much at stake.”

She stood there for a few seconds, idly tapping the photo against her cheek. Then she shrugged. “It may be,” she said as she turned to go, “that soon you’ll find there’s too much at stake
not
to believe in it.”

Venera swept out of the room, and a succession of frantic, outraged, and brisk bureaucrats swept in. War was being declared, the navy mobilized; the admiralty were agreed that Mavery was behind this attack and that an expedition should be mounted against it. Chaison sat behind his desk and listened to them all, nodded, made suggestions, and waited for someone to drop the proverbial other shoe. It didn’t happen.

Finally, much too late in the evening, the pilot’s seneschal arrived. Antonin Kestrel strode in unannounced, his dark brows beetled in a scowl. “He’s not happy,” he said without preamble.

“Good evening to you, too, Antonin.” Chaison smiled at his old friend; grudgingly, after a moment Kestrel smiled back.

“I need something to tell him,” he said after a moment. “You understand. How could they have attacked us like this, so easily? Why were we caught with our pants down?”


He
was caught with his pants down because this attack doesn’t fit his neat picture of the world.” Chaison leaned back in his chair, folding his hands behind his neck. “I told him this was possible, but he insisted on preparing for an attack that fit his preconceptions, and now he’s got something else instead. It’s that simple.”

Kestrel crossed his arms and glowered. “This is not a good time for your rebellious side to surface, Chaison.”

Chaison guffawed. “You had that ‘side’ back at the academy too, if I recall. But in those days, we didn’t call it rebellious. We called it common sense. And patriotic.”

“I’m not here to listen to another of your accusations about our sovereign’s supposed dereliction of duty,” said Kestrel. “And as to your theory that someone else is pulling Mavery’s strings…” He hesitated, then very carefully sat down in the chair in front of Chaison’s desk. “You’ve made no secret of your dissatisfaction, ever since the pacification of Aerie. That operation—”

“—Was a pogrom, and totally uncalled for,” snapped Chaison. “And he made me the scapegoat for it!”

“Hero of it, you mean. You owe all this,” Kestrel gestured around at the room, “to the fame you deservedly received for that mission. Why can’t you be happy with it?”

Chaison snorted. “Be happy with a reputation as a ruthless butcher? The orders were all his, Antonin. He should have the reputation, not me.”

Kestrel looked pained. “I’m telling you, as a friend now, that you need to watch your step. You can’t publically disagree with his policies. Especially not when so much power is being thrust on you, so unexpectedly.” He leaned back and waited.

“Power?” Chaison let a half-smile play across his face. “So he’s okayed the mobilization, has he?”

“Against
Mavery
. You have no other target, not even a target of opportunity.” Kestrel stood up, and cast Chaison the sort of severe look—guaranteed to freeze the blood of any civilian or lesser officer—that he and Chaison had once practiced together at barracks. “I’m not playing around, Chaison. This is serious. You have too much power and trust in your hands to be able to afford another slip up.”

Chaison stared at him. “You mean I can’t get away with being right?”

Kestrel brushed a stray hair off his coal-black sleeve. “Not if it means that he is wrong,” he said as he stood to go. “Anyway, he isn’t, not this time. This claim of yours that Falcon Formation is behind Mavery…” He eyed Chaison, then shook his head. “It’s puzzling.” He sounded disappointed, but that was all he said and he didn’t wait for Chaison to explain.

Chaison sat in silence, perfectly still, for a long time after Kestrel had gone. Then he wrote seven names on a sheet of paper, and rose to tug the bellpull again. When a junior officer appeared he handed him the paper. “Summon these captains to me. Now. Tell them to come alone.”

After the officer had left Chaison sat down and steepled his hands, scowling at the disordered piles of papers and books strewn across the desk.

The pilot’s deliberate blindness was criminal. All of Slipstream was at stake now, and so quite unexpectedly, he found that he would have to believe in something unlikely—risky, even, if he were totally unlucky, preposterous.

Venera had been right so far. This time, though…

This time she had to be.

 

CHAISON WAS WAKENED
by a loud crash. He sat up quickly, wrenching the long muscles of his back. Another crash came, then a series of thuds. Belatedly, the town’s collision alarm began wailing.

For nearly two weeks he and the others had stayed out of sight, mostly hiding in a set of windowless servants’ quarters on the manor’s second floor. Officially they were part of a team renovating Ergez’s home and so they could come and go as they pleased, but so far they had stayed inside the manor. After prison, it seemed luxuriously vast.

This noise was new; Chaison dressed quickly and ran down the hall, finding Darius already out of his room and Richard peeking around his own doorjamb.

“What’s going on?” asked the ambassador peevishly. “The sun’s not even on yet.”

More thuds. Now Chaison could hear men shouting in the distance. “I don’t know,” he said, “but stay here and keep quiet. I’ll investigate.”

“Sir?” Darius was bouncing on his toes. Chaison nodded for him to follow.

On the way down the stairs Chaison stumbled. “I hurt all over,” he said; Darius grunted in acknowledgment. They hadn’t been idle over the past days. In fact, they had spent every instant trying to regain fighting trim. Yesterday they had sparred in the courtyard, to Ergez’s vast enjoyment. When they weren’t exercising they were eating.

The stairs let out next to the courtyard. The square space was lit brightly by gaslight and Ergez stood under its white illumination along with several servants. They were staring up hectically. Suddenly one of them pointed and all of them let out a shout. The servants bolted for the archways leaving Ergez tottering next to the fountain. He put his hands over his head and ducked just as Chaison reached him.

“What—” Chaison started to look up just as something bright flashed in his peripheral vision. There was a tremendous
whack!
, a slap of noise, and then he and Ergez were drenched with a spray of cold water.

“Oh hell,” laughed Darius from the wings, “it’s only a
storm!

Another ball of water shot into the courtyard. This one was as big as a table. It took out one of the statues, exploding into white mist and ricocheting droplets.

The tiled floor undulated and the whole building shifted, some pillars rising a bit, others lowering. Ergez frowned, watching. “About time,” he said. Someone had gotten to the town’s engines and was cumbersomely turning the giant wheel so that it cut into the oncoming cloud of water balls. “Why didn’t they see it coming?”

Chaison shrugged. It had been damnably misty ever since he’d arrived; a strange phenomenon this far from winter. His flyer’s instincts helped him picture a vast soft pillow of moisture, squashing its way slowly through Falcon Formation, origin and destination unknown. As long as that moisture was dispersed as cloud and mist, everything was fine. Something was making it condense, however, and the result was first raindrop-sized, then head-sized, and eventually house-sized balls of water. The less frequent but bigger spheres were a navigational hazard, for towns as well as ships.

“Nobody’s going to be moving in this,” he said. “At least not very quickly.”

“I guess you’ll be staying with us a little longer, then,” said Ergez. He let Chaison help him over to a chair—one well sheltered near the manor’s inner wall.

Ergez had some sort of wasting disease. He was fighting it by remaining under gravity as long as possible. Had he taken to flight he would have left the pain behind, but he was obstinate. Chaison liked and admired him for that.

“Every day we stay puts you at risk,” he said. “Your hospitality has literally been a life-saver—but if I had my way we’d have left already.”

Ergez shook his head. “You wouldn’t have gotten far, weak as you were. Anyway, all I’ve done was put a roof over your head. It was Antaea who snatched you from the jaws of our so-called justice system.”

They were silent together for a short while, both listening to the distant shouting and occasional smacking noise of a water ball hitting the town. Hopefully the yelling didn’t imply any bigger objects headed their way.

“How is it that you know her?” Chaison asked eventually. “Or is she merely one of your many contacts in the home guard?”

Ergez chuckled. He stretched out one leg, helping it move with his hands. Then he did the other. “Antaea and I go way back,” he said. “I met her the day the world was supposed to end.”

Chaison barked a laugh. “You
have
to tell me more than that.”

Ergez looked innocent. “It’s not that we don’t want to tell people our stories,” he said. “It’s simply that most people won’t believe us. We get branded liars, heretics, or lunatics—and sometimes all three.

“The world was due to end. Everybody in the guard knew it. A good many citizens of the principalities of Candesce knew it too. They had been forced to move en masse when Mount Ogils plowed its indifferent way through their nations about ten years ago. Ogils is an asteroid much like the one your people have tied their capital city to. The difference is that Ogils is more trouble than it’s worth. For centuries now it’s unreeled its long orbit around Candesce in an inconvenient spiral, slowly inching its way farther out and farther in with every turn. It had been coming closer to Candesce on its inward swing, and nearer the outer skin of the world on its outward leg. We were afraid it was going to hit the sun of suns—but when the day came, Candesce picked itself up and daintily scampered out of the way.”

He laughed at Chaison’s expression. “Never heard about that, did you? That’s because the sun of suns made its move during the night. Ogils sauntered by and Candesce returned to its place, flicked itself on in the morning and no one was wiser.—Well, except that the vast shadow Ogils cast over the whole world had switched sides, but few understood what that meant. All the principalities knew was that they’d been saved. And we,” he smirked, “made sure they thought it was our doing.”

Ogils had pushed its way through the crowding principalities, and they chipped and hacked away at it as it passed, harvesting as much of its rock and iron ore as they could. Then it left, and they forgot about it.

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