Authors: Karl Schroeder
Tags: #Science Fiction, #General, #Space Opera, #Fiction
“But we were still watching. Having passed through the center of the world, Ogils was now due to leave the world altogether. When it reached Virga’s skin, it would keep on straight through it—and this meant it was going to tear a hole a mile wide in the world itself.
“The home guard gathered, helpless. We had ridden our bikes and dolphins along the iceberg-shrouded skin of our world, keeping that jagged landscape in view to orient ourselves, shivering in the terrible cold that radiates from deep space beyond. After weeks of shouting matches and quieter arguments about how to minimize the effect of having a mile-sized hole punched into vacuum, we had cobbled together an inadequate plan. We were going to try to deflect Ogils by peeling icebergs off the skin and towing them into its path. But imagine our surprise when, a hundred miles from the spot where Ogils was supposed to hit the skin, we ran out of bergs!”
Chaison cocked his head, remembering the seemingly endless plain of rounded and pointed white shapes, millions of them huddling in the dark, that he’d seen when his own ship, the
, had visited Virga’s skin. They had been so densely packed that nothing could be seen of the surface they were stuck to.
“Along a vast line—like the mythical ‘shore’ of a gravity-bound ocean—the icebergs simply stopped,” said Ergez. “We rode up to the black, iridescent surface of the skin. It looked like smooth charcoal. I touched it and it was cool—but not cold.
“Nobody knew what this meant, but we had counted on there being local icebergs for us to harvest. It was while we waited helplessly that I met Antaea.
“We had orders to stay well back from the expected storm of suction that would follow the breaking of the skin. When Ogils went through, it was expected that a hurricane would be born, sucking everything into space and inexorably emptying Virga of its air, though that might take centuries. But as the asteroid approached a cold fog had begun to form, and soon we couldn’t see anything. When it became clear that we were standing off too far to see what was happening, Antaea called for new orders. The word came down: hold fast.
“I still remember Antaea’s voice,” said Ergez, “as she said, ‘fuck that, I’m going in.’ She held out her hand to me. ‘Coming?’”
“What did you do?” asked Chaison. He glanced around the courtyard. The water balls had stopped falling; curiously, Antaea herself had not made an appearance during the commotion.
“I went along,” said Ergez with a painful shrug. “She was my ride. We skidded in alongside Ogil’s great, scarred black side just as it reached the equally dark wall that separated air and life from vacuum and absolute zero. And Antaea—damn her—flew us right up to the contact-point to watch.”
He held up his hands, shaping something in the air. “Here’s what happened: Virga’s skin stretched, and stretched some more. The air trembled with a powerful vibration that was not quite a sound. And then it snapped, with a sound like the loudest gunshot you could imagine, sharp, startling even though we were expecting it.
“Ogils had cracked in half, but it massed so much it kept on going, peeling back the black skin and grinding loose stones and boulders that flew backward in a cloud. It took a few minutes, because Ogils was moving so slowly, but then it was through.”
He said nothing. “So?” asked Chaison. “What happened next?”
“There it sat, a vast puncture wound a thousand feet across, dented in and utter blackness on the other side. And just a faint puff of air
coming from it,
where we’d expected a hurricane flowing into it.” Ergez shook his head ruefully. “We just looked at each other. And then Antaea said, ‘Let’s see,’ and flew at the hole.”
He laughed. “I bailed out that time! While I tumbled in the air, waiting to get picked up by the dolphins, I watched her bike disappear into that black cavern and then, after a few minutes, reappear. She was frowning. ‘What did you see?’ we asked her.
“‘Nothing,’ she said. ‘Nothing at all, as far as the eye can see.’”
“That’s strange,” said Chaison for lack of anything better. Ergez laughed again.
“Yes, and I never found out what it meant. The guard put Antaea’s superior officer, Gonlin, in charge of the investigation, but I didn’t hear the results of it before I took this duty. And nowadays they don’t tell me anything.”
Chaison thought again about the brief time he had spent at the skin of the world; his own memories were chiefly of a surreal wall of ice lit by flashing explosions and the green sparks of drifting flares. His expeditionary force had battled pirates there, dodging in and out of clouds and dark. Only Venera’s driver, Hayden Griffin, had come close to the skin, as he blew away the points where the bergs adhered to the wall. Griffin had sent a slow rain of icebergs into the path of the arrogant pirates, destroying at least two of their ships.
Funny thing; he’d thought about that battle many times over the past months. Until this moment he had never considered what a rousing tale it would make. “So,” he said to Ergez, “does that mean you’re no longer a member of the guard? Did you muster out?”
Ergez shook his head. “Once you join, you’re in it for life. But you’re not always going to be active.”
“How does one do that? Join the guard, I mean?”
“We have no recruiting stations, if that’s what you’re asking,” said Ergez. “Some of our people are exiles or the insatiably curious who’ve left Virga altogether, but decide to return. They find it hard to integrate after what they’ve seen in the wider universe. Some hear legends of us, and go on great quests to find us. And some are plucked out of dire circumstances by home guard members, and are invited to join.” He gave Chaison a shrewd look.
Did Ergez think Antaea was recruiting Chaison and his men? This might be a misapprehension worth encouraging. Ergez had told Chaison that Antaea’s mission was not his concern, but it seemed more and more as though he didn’t know what it was. Perhaps Antaea’s reticence was standard procedure, a secrecy intended to protect the network of operatives from traitors or torture. Or there could be more to it.
Chaison and Ergez chatted until it became clear that no more water missiles were going to hit. Then Chaison walked back to the servant’s quarters. He found Darius and Richard Reiss sitting at a little table in Richard’s room, talking in low voices. Darius waved him inside.
“It seems our Antaea has a history of being reckless, and of not following orders,” said Chaison.
“Ah, a woman after your own heart!” said Richard.
Chaison let that comment slide. He retold Ergez’s story, filling in some details about what the edge of the world looked like for Richard, who had never been there. He added his suspicion that Antaea hadn’t explained her mission to Ergez.
When Chaison finished Darius leaned back, hooking an arm over the back of his chair (he had to reach up a bit to do this). He was frowning. “That just don’t sound trustworthy.”
“If Ergez told me that story in hopes I’d reciprocate, that would mean he’s curious but can’t or won’t ask Antaea himself,” agreed Chaison. “We should think about what her real agenda might be.”
Richard looked from man to boy. “I can talk to her,” he said. “In my younger days,” he pretended to examine his fingernails, “I was really quite good at pumping people for information.”
“You can try,” said Chaison, “but I have a more important task for you, if you’re up for it.”
The ambassador looked up eagerly. “Yes?”
Chaison relished their looks of confusion for a full five seconds before he said, “You seemed to hit it off with those boys the other day. Knowing what Antaea is up to is actually less important than knowing how we can give her the slip. Agreed?” They nodded. “The home guard—according to Antaea—is offering to ship us home through their secret network. Very kind of them, but I don’t like the price they’re asking: information about the key to Candesce and what we got up to in the sun of suns. Richard, I’d like you to find anything you can about alternate routes home. Small-time smugglers, revolutionary cells—anyone who might be able to help us.”
Richard stared off into space. “They’ll take me for a spy for the secret police,” he said. “I think I know how to convince them otherwise…”
“Good. Darius, you and I will—” He stopped at the sound of footsteps in the hall. After a moment Antaea poked her head in the doorway.
“Ah, there you are!” She sauntered in. “Cowering from the storm, are we?”
“And where have you been?” asked Darius indignantly.
“Home guard business,” she said. “Very interesting too; would you like to see?” Without waiting she dragged over the clothes chest which was the only piece of furniture in the little room other than the bed, table, and already-occupied chairs. Sitting with her knees high on either side of her, she laid a folded piece of cloth on the tabletop. She withdrew her hands and smiled around at the men.
Taking the bait, Richard flipped the cloth back to reveal several paper bills. It looked like ordinary money, complete with the image of a half-familiar, regal woman adorning one side. He picked up one of the crisp new bills and examined it.
Above the woman’s head were the words
RIGHT TO ASSEMBLY
. On the other side was a paragraph of dense text, very fine and small. “It seems to say what you can do,” he said, reading the fine print. “Organize meetings…rent out halls…it’s like a teacher’s permission slip,” he glanced at Antaea, “like for a day-trip or special project.”
She nodded. “Except that these bills describe very adult projects—I’m told there’s even a right-to-kill bill, but nobody’s actually seen it.”
“It looks like money,” said Darius, fingering another bill. “Very high-quality printing…hard to counterfeit. This some kind of…initiative,” he said, savoring the word, “by Falcon’s government?”
Antaea shook her head. “It’s illicit. But very, very weird, don’t you think? I take it you’ve never seen anything like it before?”
“People trading rights like money?” Chaison shook his head. “These bills look new. I never saw anything like it before our capture. Who’s trading these?”
“People in the lower classes,” she said. “Day laborers, indigents, petty criminals, it seems. But there’s hints that others are starting to use it too—there seems to be a pipeline feeding it into the country, but for what purpose…” She shrugged, obviously intrigued.
“You know,” said Chaison speculatively, “we were just talking about how frustrating it is to sit around here idle. So we’re going to move about the town a bit…make inquiries.”
She shook her head. “We’re trying to keep you out of sight, not parade you in front of everybody.”
“But for how long?” Chaison jabbed a thumb at the blank wall beyond which fog and water swirled. “As long as this weather lasts we can’t go anywhere. And believe me, we can be discreet. We just want something to do. I’m betting they need extra hands to fix the town’s rigging after today’s unexpected turn, right? I’ve rigged town-wheels. I’ll volunteer—”
Again she shook her head. “It’s a good idea, but there’s an extra fly in the soup. The last ship in brought some sort of special investigative team. Secret policemen.
ones. You want to risk going out with them around? They may be here to find you.”
Chaison didn’t like the fact that she’d held back this information until now. Either it wasn’t true, or she was metering out what she knew in order to keep a tight leash on him and his men.
“Who are you to forbid us from going about the town?” he asked. “Are we your prisoners?”
“It’s not me who’s likely to imprison you,” she shot back.
“Thank you for your concern but my mind is made up,” he said. “Anyway, people already know we’re here; don’t you think it’s just as suspicious if we’re
seen on the street?”
She made a face. “All right.”
Chaison picked up one of the mysterious bills and waggled it. “Ergez’s men can introduce us around, to build some trust with the locals. We can do some odd jobs. And while we do we will keep an eye out for more of these. Deal?”
She smiled slyly, taking back the bill. “Deal. But don’t stick your heads out too far. I’d hate to have to rescue you again.”
After she left Chaison smiled at the others. “Let’s hope the weather doesn’t clear in the next few days.”
ANTAEA SLUMPED AGAINST
the town’s railing. She was impossibly weary, but wouldn’t let herself rest yet. Memory and nightmares were lurking in the corners of her mind, ready to pounce the instant she stopped moving. Better to collapse than rest.
Her official task for the guard was to investigate the rights currency. So, she’d been dividing her time between that and attempts to pry information out of Chaison Fanning. She had to admit she wasn’t very good at that sort of thing; her attempts to make the Slipstreamers trust her came across as false, and she had nothing credible to threaten them with. She’d look weak if she just hung around, so she had been spending more and more time out of Ergez’s. It was intensely frustrating that she was getting nowhere with him, and that just added to her exhaustion.
The skies reminded her of home today. Pacquaea was a winter nation and its airs were frosty; warm fronts regularly sailed in from places like Meridian, and as they cooled they condensed. The droplets got bigger and bigger until they were gigantic. Unlike here, the water balls back home often developed a crust of ice on them, making them doubly dangerous. When these crystalline orbs drifted too close to the town they were dynamited—a bang, the puff of spray like black fireworks against the inky sky. But they were never as numerous as the torrent of drops, big and small, that filled Antaea’s sight now.
Pacquaea’s weather was just a hint of what you’d experience if you followed the slow drift of cooling air to the wall of the world. As she leaned against the wooden rail, the calm, the turning air, and her own exhaustion made Antaea’s mind drift. Unbidden, memories came to her of half the sky paved with jagged white fangs—millions upon millions of icebergs, stretching from the infinite dark below to the infinity above and equally to each side. Luckily dark, for they would be blinding in the light of a sun, and might drive you mad if you understood the sheer scale of the sight.
“It’s been six hours.” Antaea started; the memory of Gonlin’s voice was so vivid he might have been standing next to her. But no, that vast wall of ice had been his backdrop. They had clustered in a rough star pattern in the weightless air, Antaea and sixty others, listening with growing apprehension to Gonlin’s report.
“Six hours. All across Virga, ancient devices that’ve been dormant for millennia are waking up. The field that suppresses transcendent technologies has collapsed. Something’s happened to Candesce.”
“Has it gone out?” someone asked, voicing the nightmarish thought on everyone’s minds. If the sun of suns died, the heat it supplied to the entire world would stop flowing. It would get much colder out here—cold enough to freeze the air itself—and that cold would soon begin to work its way inward. Without Candesce, all Virga would die.
Gonlin had shrugged. Antaea could picture him clearly, his indigo uniform limned in purple by the arc lights behind him, his face lit sharply from the side. She couldn’t see his eyes, just the curve of his cheek, the worry lines cutting sharply across his profile.
“The sun of suns went into night-mode normally, as far as we know,” he said. “Then, several hours later, the suppressor field it produces shut down. As of right now, Virga is wide open to
Antaea had shivered, glancing at Telen. Her sister’s face was pale in the unforgiving light. “Have they penetrated the skin?” she asked.
Gonlin hesitated. Then he ducked his head. “Yes,” he said. There was a collective gasp from those assembled around him.
“There are things awaking out there in the dark. Uncoiling and on the move. Some have pierced the wall. Others appear to have been…here all along.” He bit his lip. “Eggs, you might call them. They seem to have been scattered throughout Virga long ago. They’re hatching now. We have to destroy them.”
Antaea had heard a distant sound, then—cracking thunder, distinctive and sharp. Somewhere, an iceberg was breaking.
The sound came again, from a different direction. Suddenly everybody was turning, staring at the distant wall of the world where little puffs of white were appearing.
Antaea heard screams, shouts. Dimly she was aware of Telen clutching her shoulder and pointing. Over it all Gonlin’s amplified voice repeating, “Calm down, calm down!
Those are ours
All across the measureless vertical plain, glittering, mirror-bright things were crawling out of broken cocoons of ice. They shook themselves, sending man-sized splinters flying, then unfurled diaphanous, metal-ribbed wings.
Gradually Gonlin’s words penetrated Antaea’s superstitious terror. She looked at him, then back at the wall. The others were falling silent as well, waiting for an explanation—or any kind of reassurance.
“These are Virga’s defenders,” said Gonlin. “We’ve always known they were there; you may even have heard legends about them. Where I grew up, we called them the
Telen gasped and turned to Antaea. She nodded. As children they had shared a wonderful storybook filled with fanciful illustrations. One was a drawing of a precipice moth, portrayed as a dragon-like sentry guarding the gates of the world. She had always suspected that it was this particular storybook that had inspired Telen to study archaeology. But, even with all the wonders they had seen since leaving home, Antaea had never dreamed that the moths might be real.
“As of now the moths are under our command,” continued Gonlin. “Our ancient mandate to protect Virga isn’t just words. It is backed up by power—power many of you doubtless never guessed we had. What you’re witnessing now is something I’ve never seen, nor has any of our people going back centuries. But the leadership has always known it was there, waiting in case we needed it. I’m sorry it had to be under these circumstances, but as of this moment you are each entrusted with a portion of that power. To repulse our enemies.”
As he continued to speak, explaining the capabilities of these unexpected new allies, the precipice moths hummed close and began to circle. Then Gonlin was saying, “Telen, take Flight twelve. Antaea, Flight thirteen.” And rearing out of the night had come a nightmare of living metal, its limbs terminating in the snouts of massive guns, its head a scarred steel ball. Its skin still smoked with sub-zero cold from its long slumber in the glacial wall of the world.
The giant head twitched one way, then another. Then:
“Who here is Telen Argyre?”
It was as if the glacier itself spoke, a voice ancient, cold, and deep as thunder. Antaea’s sister shrank against her, and Antaea held her tightly. Gradually, though, Telen began to push against her, until Antaea let her go and Telen drifted through the air to the monster. “I am she,” she said in an almost inaudible voice.
“We are Flight twelve.” The precipice moth reached out, scooping her into one weapon-fingered hand. Then with a flip of its wings that made a small hurricane around the watchers, it was gone into the night. Hundreds, then thousands of other moths followed its lead into the black.
Yet more thousands were waiting in the shadows of the world’s edge. One of them was sliding forward on the air, majestic and silent. Antaea remembered the fatal tone of its voice as it shouted,
“Who here is Antaea Argyre?”
Antaea came to herself with a start. She had nearly fallen asleep against the rail. Maybe she should return to Ergez’s.
Maybe tonight she would sleep without dreams.
THREE AFTERNOONS LATER
, Chaison found himself standing on a thin, deeply bowed cross-rope, holding onto a vertical line with his left hand while he repeatedly swung his body out into the open air. He was trying to catch the handle of a winch that hung tantalizingly out of reach.
It looked as if all there was in the universe was himself and these ropes. They faded into the gray above, below, and to both sides. The mist was moving past him quite quickly—actually, he was moving through the mist, since he was perched on one of the town-wheel’s rope spokes. He could see the movement only as swirls and trembles of gray, but when he turned his face into the headwind, the mist soon soaked his cheeks and made him blink wild droplets into the air.
Faint shouts from the other riggers drifted to him. They were trying to determine, without benefit of clear sight lines, just how far off round the town-wheel had become. It was maddening, slow work, made even more dangerous by the threat of lightning from the swiftly churning clouds.
Maybe it was the isolation of the mist, but Chaison was feeling indifferent to the hazards, had in fact lapsed into a pensive mood. He had always expected a violent death, shot or stabbed or cut or blown to smithereens with some ship under his command; or to die in bed, surrounded by family, doctors, and officials waiting to announce his end to the press. Those deaths came with the role, they were the natural capstone to the persona he had constructed as admiral of Slipstream. And then, in the last few months, he had imagined dying of neglect in prison, which was also within his role: this time, as prisoner of war, nobly sacrificing himself for his people.
Instead of any of those things, his story seemed to be ending with him becoming just one of the crowd. He was a laborer, winching ropes to keep a town-wheel round. And if he made it back to Slipstream, what of his old self would await him there? Just days ago, he had been confident that he could call on his old friends and allies in the government, to salvage something of his old life.
But he’d thought further about his old acquaintances as he worked anonymously on the rigging gang. Had the men ever been loyal to him, or was it his position they respected? And his friends…was it him they had liked? Or his power and respectability?
For the moment Darius seemed to accept his authority, but there was no reason for this to last. Darius had every reason to resent Chaison, because Chaison was the man ultimately responsible for the tragic arc of Darius Martor’s life. Press-ganged into the navy at a ridiculously young age, Darius barely remembered any other life. Now that he was out of prison and able to glimpse (however dimly in a dystopia like Falcon) what ordinary life might be like, he must soon awaken to how mean and downtrodden his own life had been. And he would look for the cause of it.
Chaison would see him safely home anyway; that ambition was practically all he had now.
Another shout came from below, this one closer than the rest. Chaison looked down between his feet and saw the head and shoulders of a man emerging from the mist about fifteen feet below him. It was Sanson. He quickly hauled himself up to a position just below Chaison, blinked at him for a moment, and said, “You’d best make yourself scarce.”
“What do you mean?” He clambered down to hang next to Sanson. Momentarily, the gray silhouetting of the rigger was stripped away, revealing a vista of rooftops and rope spokes below him. Then more lacey clouds moved in and they were once again alone.
Sanson wiped black, matted hair out of his eyes. “It’s the pols. They’ve called us down for inspection. This new man they have with them wants to see us all. Maybe he’s looking for you.”
“Why would he be looking for me?” asked Chaison innocently.
Sanson began to climb down again. “He has your accent.”
Chaison watched him fade into insubstantiality. His heart was pounding; what did this mean? Why would an inspector of Falcon’s secret police speak with a Slipstream accent?
A brief horn blat sounded the call-in. Above him he could hear other riggers grumbling over their unfinished work. Chaison hung there for a while, thinking. Then he began to climb down.
For days he’d been trying to pick up trustworthy news about events back home. Something was happening in Rush, the capital of Slipstream, but nobody seemed clear on just what. He’d heard rumors of a siege, but who was besieging whom? No one had suggested that the government was in trouble. It was one more mystery to add to an already confusing situation.
He had no intention of revealing himself to this inspector, but he had to see him. So after descending a few dozen feet Chaison found a pair of cross-ropes and left the main line. He would find another way down and come up on the secret policemen from behind.
The town emerged as he descended, a silver sketch. He had been about a hundred feet up, a fraction of the way up the rope spoke. The highest buildings rose less than fifty feet above the ring of planking that was the town’s official ground level—but that didn’t mean that there weren’t other structures in the heights. At different times entrepreneurs or town officials had hung smaller constructs from the rigging itself, everything from storage hutches to guest rooms accessible only by ladder. The pols had their perches up here too, crow’s nests from which they could watch the street below. These were empty today, and it was simple for Chaison to half-open his wings and jump from the terminus of his rope bridge to one of these. He landed just as lightning jittered through the clouds along with the strangled choking of distant thunder. He stepped to the opening in the center of the round platform and quickly took the rope ladder down to the street.
The secret police had lined up his work gang in an alley that ran from the street to a high wooden wall that blocked any exit. There was only rushing air on the other side of that. Chaison saw eight policemen as he peeked around the corner; their backs were to him as they menaced the riggers.
“Where is he?” The voice was like a whip-crack, contemptuous and impatient. But it was true—the accent was familiar. Taking a chance, Chaison leaned out farther to see if he could identify the speaker.
He stood tall in the middle of the press of policemen, obviously different now that Chaison had spotted him because he wore a different uniform than they. In fact—Chaison swore quietly—it was the livery of Slipstream’s royal service. What was such a high-ranking official doing here?
Maybe he hadn’t been abandoned after all. Chaison leaned against the wall, blinking rapidly. Was Slipstream looking for him? Did they want him back enough to send officials to liaise with Falcon’s most sinister institutions? It seemed strange, but what if it were true?