First Three Chapters
Here's the whole opening section of Sun of Suns for you to try out
Hayden Griffin was plucking a fish when the gravity bell rang. The dull clang penetrated even the thick wooden walls of the corporation inn; it was designed to be heard all over town. Hayden paused, frowned, and experimentally let go of the fish. Four tumbling feathers flashed like candle-flames in an errant beam of sunlight shooting between the floorboards. The fish landed three feet to his left. Hayden watched the feathers dip in a slow arc to settle next to it.
“A bit early for a spin-up, ain’t it?” said Hayden. Miles grunted distractedly. The former soldier, now corporation cook, was busily pouring sauce over a steaming turkey that he’d just rescued from the oven’s minor inferno. “They might need me all the same,” continued Hayden. “I better go see.”
Miles snapped out of his reverie and squinted at Hayden.
“Your Ma left you here,” he said. “You been bad again. Pick up the fish.”
Hayden leaned back against the table, crossing his arms. He was trying to come up with a reply that didn’t sound like whining when the bell rang again, more urgently. “See?” he said. “They need somebody. Nobody in town’s as good with the bikes as I am. Anyway, how you gonna boil this fish if the gravity goes?”
“Gravity ain’t gonna go, boy,” snapped Miles. “It’s solid right now.”
“Then I better go see what else is up.”
“You just want to watch your old lady light the sun,” said Miles.
“Today’s just a test. I’ll wait for tomorrow, then they light it for real.”
“Come on, Miles. I’ll be right back.”
The cook sighed. “Go, then. Set the bikes going. Then come right back.” Hayden bolted for the door and Miles shouted, “Don’t leave that fish on the floor!”
As Hayden walked down the hall to the front of the inn another stray beam of sunlight spiked up around the plank floorboards. That was a bad sign; Mom would have to wait for deep cloud cover before lighting the town’s new sun, lest the Slipstreamers should see it. Slipstream would never tolerate another sun so close to their own. The project was secret—or it had been. By tomorrow the whole world would know about it.
Hayden walked backwards past the well-polished oak bar, waving his lanky arms casually at his side as he said, “Bell rang. Gotta check the bikes.” One of the customers smirked doubtfully at him; Mama Fifty glared at him from her post behind the bar. Before she could reply he was out the front door.
A blustery wind was blowing out here as always, even whistling up between the street boards. Sunlight angled around the edges of the street’s peaked roof, bars and rectangles of light sliding along the planking and up the walls of the buildings that crammed every available space. The streetboards gave like springs under Hayden’s feet as he ran up the steep curve of the avenue, which was nearly empty at this time of day.
Gavin Town came to life at sunshut, when the workers who slept here flooded back from all six directions, laughing and gossiping. Merchants would unshutter their windows for the night market as the gaslights were lit all along the way. The dance hall would throw open its doors for those with the stamina to take a few turns on the floor. Sometimes Hayden picked up some extra bills by lighting the street lights himself. He was good with fire, after all.
If he went to work on the bikes Hayden wouldn’t be able to see the sun, so he took a detour. Slipping down a narrow alleyway between two tall houses, he came to one of the two outer streets of the town—really little more than a narrow covered walkway. Extensions of houses and shops formed a ceiling, their entrances to the left as he stepped into the way. To the right was an uneven board fence, just a crack open at the top. An occasional shuttered window interrupted the surface of the fence, but Hayden didn’t pause at any of them. He was making for an open gallery a quarter of the way up the street.
At moments like this—alone and busy—he either completely forgot himself or drowned in grief. His father’s death still weighed on him, though it had been a year now; was it that long since he and his mother had moved here? Mother kept insisting that it was best this way, that if they’d stayed home in Twenty-two Town they would have been surrounded by reminders of Dad all the time. But was that so bad?
His father wouldn’t be here to see the lighting of the sun, his wife’s completion of his project—their crowning achievement as a family. When Hayden remembered them talking about that, it was his father’s voice he remembered, soaring in tones of enthusiasm and hope. Mother would be quieter, but her pride and love came through in the murmurs that came through the bedroom wall and lulled Hayden to sleep at night. To make your own sun! That was how nations were founded. To light a sun was to be remembered forever.
The gallery was just a stretch of street empty of fence, but with a railing you could look over. Mother called it a “braveway”; Miles used the more interesting term “pukesight.” Hayden stepped up to the rail and clutched it with both hands, staring.
A gigantic mountain of cloud wheeled in front of him, nearly close enough to touch. The new sun must be behind it; the ropes of the road from Gavin Town to the construction site stabbed the heart of the cloud and vanished inside it. Hayden was disappointed; if the sun came on right now he wouldn’t see it.
He laughed. Oh, yes he would. Father had impressed it upon him again and again: when the sun came on, there would be no missing it. “The clouds for miles around will evaporate—poof,” he’d said with a wave of his fingers. “The temperature will instantly shoot up—in fact, everything within a kilometer is going to catch fire. That’s why the sun is situated so far from any towns. That, and security reasons, of course. And the light . . . Hayden, you have to promise not to look at it. It’s going to be brighter than anything you can imagine. Up close, it could burn your skin and dazzle you through your closed eyelids. Never look directly at it, not until we’ve moved the town.”
The cloud turned about Hayden as he gazed at it; Gavin town was a wheel like all towns, after all, and spun to provide its inhabitants with centrifugal gravity. It was the only form of gravity they would ever know, and it was a precious resource, costly and heavily taxed. Grant’s Chance, the next nearest town, lay a dozen miles beyond the sun site, invisible for now behind cloud.
Cloud was why the Griffins had come here. At the edges of the zone lit by Slipstream, the air cooled and condensation began. White mist in all its shapes made a wall here separating the sunlit realm from the vast empty spaces of Winter. This was the frontier. Here you could hide all manner of things—secret projects, for instance.
The town continued to turn and now sky opened out beyond the barrier of mist—sky with no limits, either up, down, or to either side. Two distant suns carved out a sphere of pale air from this endless firmament, a volume defined by thousands upon thousands of clouds in all shapes and sizes, most of them tinged with dusk colors of rose and amber. There were ragged streamers indicating currents and rivers of air; puffballs and many-armed star shapes; and many miles away, its outlines blurred by intervening dust and mist, a mushroom head was forming as some current of cold impacted a mass of moist air. Below and above, walls of white blocked any further view, while whatever lay on the other side of the suns was obscured by dazzle and golden detail.
As it radiated through hundreds of miles of air, that light would fade and redden, or be shadowed by the countless clouds and objects comprising the nation of Aerie. If you traveled inward or up to civilized spaces, the light from other distant suns would begin to brighten before you ran out of light from yours; but if you went down or back, you would eventually reach a point where their light was completely obscured. There, a creeping chill took over. In the dark and cold, nothing grew. There began the volumes of Winter that made up much of the interior of the planet-sized balloon of air, called Virga, where Hayden lived.
Gavin Town hovered at the very edge of civilization, where the filtered light of distant fires could barely keep crops alive. It wasn’t lonely out here, though; above, below, and all about hung the habitations of Man. Three miles up to the left, a farm caught the suns’ light: within a net a hundred feet across, the farmer had gathered pulverized rock and soil, and was growing a crop of yellow canola. Each plant clutched its own little ball of mud and they all tumbled about slowly, catching and losing the light in one another’s shadow. The highway that passed near the farm was busy, a dozen or more small cars sailing along guided by the rope that was the highway itself. The rope extended off into measureless distance, heading for the enemy’s city, Rush. Below and to the right, a sphere of water the size of a house shimmered, its surface momentarily ridged by a passing breeze. Hayden could see a school of wetfish swirling inside the sphere like busy diamonds.
There was way too much to take in with a single glance, so Hayden almost didn’t spot the commotion. Motion out of the corner of his eye alerted him; leaning over the railing and sighting left along the curving wall of the town, he saw an unusually dense tangle of contrails. The trails led back in the direction of the sun and as he watched, three gleaming shapes shot out of the cloud and arrowed in the same direction.
Just as he was wondering what might be happening, the gravity bell rang again. Hayden pushed himself back from the rail and ran for the main street. It wouldn’t do for somebody else to get the bikes running after he’d promised Miles he’d be there.
The stairwell to the gravity engines led off the center of the street. Gravity was a public service and the town fathers had insisted on making its utilities both visible and accessible to everyone. Consequently, Hayden was very surprised when he clattered down the steps into the cold and drafty engine room and found nobody there.
Bike Number Two still hung from its arm above the open hatchway in the floor. It wasn’t a bike in the old gravity-bound sense; the fan-jet was a simple metal barrel, open at both ends, with a fan in one end and an alcohol burner at its center. You spun up the fan with a pair of pedals and then lit the burner, and you were away. Hayden’s own bike lay partly disassembled in the corner. He’d been meaning to get it running tonight.
When started and lowered through the hatch, Bikes one and two would produce enough thrust to spin Gavin Town back up to a respectable five revolutions per minute. This had to be done once or twice a day so normally the engine room would have somebody in it either working, topping up the bike’s tanks, or doing maintenance. Certainly if the gravity bell rang, somebody would always be here in seconds and the bike operational in under a minute.
The wind whistled through the angled walls of the room. Hayden heard no voices, no running feet.
After a few seconds, though, something else came echoing up through the floor. Somewhere within a mile or two, an irregular popping had started.
It was the unmistakable sound of rifle fire.
A cracking roar shook the engine room. Hayden dropped to his stomach to look out the floor hatch, just in time to see a bike shoot by just meters below. It flashed Slipstreamer gold. A second later another that gleamed Aerie green followed it. Then the town had curved up and away and there was nothing out there but empty sky. The firing continued, dulled now by the bulk of the town.
Now he heard pounding footsteps and shouting from overhead. Shots rang out from nearby, making Hayden jump. The volleys were erratic, undisciplined, while in the distance he heard a more even, measured response.
As he ran back up the steps something whistled past his ear and hit the wall with a spang. Splinters flew and Hayden ducked down to his hands and knees, knowing full well that it wouldn’t do any good when this section of the town rotated into full view of whoever was firing. The bullets would come straight up through the decking.
He emerged onto the still-empty street and ran to the right, where he’d heard people firing. A narrow alley led to the town’s other outer street. He skidded around the corner to face the braveway—and saw bodies.
Six men had taken up firing positions at the rail. All were now slumped there or sprawled on the planks, their rifles carelessly flung away. The wood of the rail and flooring was splintered in dozens of places. And for the first time in his life, Hayden saw blood.
Something glided into view beyond the railing, and he blinked at it in astonishment. The red and gold sails of a Slipstream warship spun majestically there, not two hundred yards below. Hayden could make out the figures of men moving inside the open hatches of the thing. Beyond it, partly eclipsed, lay another ship, and another. Contrails laced the air between and around them.
Hayden took a step toward the braveway and stopped. He looked at the bodies and at the warships, and took another step.
Something shot past the town and he heard a shout from the empty air outside. Gunshots sounded from below his feet and now a wavering contrail dissipated in the air not ten feet past the railing.
He ran to the braveway and took one of the rifles from the nerveless fingers of its former owner. He vaguely recognized the man as someone who’d visited the inn on occasion.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Hayden whirled, to find Miles bearing down on him. The cook’s mouth was set in a grim line. “If you poke your head out they’re gonna shoot it off.”
“But we have to do something!”
Miles shook his head. “It’s too late for that. Take it from somebody who’s been there. Nothing we can do now except get killed, or wait this out.”
“But my mother’s at the sun!”
Miles jammed his hands in his pockets and looked away. The sun was the Slipstreamers’ target, of course. The secret project had been discovered. If Aerie could field its own sun, it would no longer be dependent on Slipstream for light and heat. Right now, Slipstream could choke out Aerie’s agriculture by shading their side of the sun; all the gains that Hayden’s nation had made in recent years—admittedly the result of Slipstream patronage—would be lost. But the instant that his parents’ sun came on the situation would change. Aerie’s neighbors to the up and down, left and right would suddenly find a reason to switch allegiances. Aerie could never defend its sun by itself, but by building it out here, on the edge of darkness, they stood to open up huge volumes of barren air to settlement. That real estate would be a tremendous incentive to their neighbors to intercede. That, at least, had been the plan.
But if the sun were destroyed before it could even be proven to work . . . It didn’t matter to Hayden, not right now. All he could think was that his mother was out there, probably at the focus of the attack.
“I’m the best flyer in town,” Hayden pointed out. “These guys made good targets ’cause they weren’t moving. Right now we need all the riflemen we can get in the air.”
Miles shook his head. “Listen, kid,” he said, “there’s too many Slipstreamers out there to fight. You have to pick your battles. It ain’t cowardice to do that. If you throw your life away now, you won’t be there to help when the chance comes later on.”
“Yeah,” said Hayden as he backed away from the braveway.
“Drop the rifle,” said Miles.
Hayden spun and raced down the alley, back to main street. Miles shouted and came after him.
Hayden clattered down the stairs to the engine room, but only realized as he got there that his bike was still in pieces all over the floor. He’d planned to roll it out the open hatch and fire it up when he was in the air. The spin of the town meant he would leave it at over a hundred miles an hour anyway; plenty of airflow to get the thing running, if it had been operable.
He was sitting astride the hoist that held Bike Number Two when Miles arrived. “What do you think you’re doing? Get down!”
Glaring at him, Hayden made another attempt to pull the pins that held the engine to the hoist. “She needs me!”
“She needs you alive! And anyway, how are you gonna steer—”
The pin came loose, and the bike fell. Hayden barely kept his hold on it, and in doing so he dropped the rifle.
Wind burst around him, blinding him and taking his breath away. Fighting it, he managed to wrap his legs around the barrel-shape of the bike and used his own body as a fin to turn it so that the engine faced into the airstream. Then he grabbed the handlebars and hit the firing solenoid.
The engine caught under him and suddenly Hayden had a new sense of up and down: down was behind the bike, up ahead of it—and it was all he could do to dangle from its side as it accelerated straight into the nearby cloud.
His nose banged painfully against the bike’s saddle. Icy mist roared down his body, threatening to strip his clothes away. A second later he was in clear air again. He squinted up over the nose of the jet, trying to get a sense of where he was.
Glittering arcs of crystal flickered in the light of rocket-trails: Aerie’s new sun loomed dead ahead. Jet contrails had spun a thick web around the translucent sphere and its flanks were already holed in several places. Its delicate central machinery could not be replaced; those systems came from the principalities of Candesce, thousands of miles away, and used technologies that no one alive could replicate. Yet two Slipstream cruisers had stopped directly over the sun and were veiling themselves in smoke as they launched broadside after broadside into it.
Mother would have been topping up the fuel preparatory to evacuating her team. Nobody could enter the sun while it was running; you had to give it just enough fuel for its prescribed burn. The engineers had planned a two minute test for today, providing there was enough cloud to block the light in the direction of Slipstream.
A body tumbled past Hayden, red spheres of blood following it. He noticed abstractly that the man wore the now-banned, green uniform of Aerie. That was all he had time for, because any second now he was going to hit the sun himself.
Bike Number Two had never been designed to operate in open air. It was a heavy-duty fanjet, powerful enough to pull the whole town into a faster spin. It had handlebars because they were required by law, not because anybody had ever expected to use them. And it was quickly accelerating to a point where Hayden was going to be ripped off of it by the airstream.
He kicked out his legs, using them to turn his whole body in the pounding wind. That in turn ratcheted the handlebars a notch to the left; then another. Inside the bike, vanes turned in the exhaust stream. The bike began—slowly—to bank.
The flashing geodesics of the sun shot past close enough to touch. He had a momentary glimpse of faces, green uniforms and rifles, and then he looked up past the bike again and saw the formation of Slipstream jets even as he shot straight through them. A few belated shots followed him but he barely heard them over the roar of the engine.
And now dead ahead was another obstacle, a spindle-shaped battleship this time. Behind it was another bank of clouds, then the indigo depths of Winter that lurked beyond all civilization.
Hayden couldn’t hold on any longer. That was all right, though, he realized. He made sure the jet was aimed directly at the battleship, then pulled up his legs and kicked away from it.
He spun in clear air, weightless again but traveling too fast to breathe the air that tore past his lips. As his vision darkened he turned and saw Bike Number Two impact the side of the battleship, crumpling its hull and spreading a mushroom of flame against the metal plates. He couldn’t tell whether it had penetrated the ship’s armor.
With the last of his strength Hayden went spread-eagled to maximize his wind resistance. The world disappeared in silvery gray as he punched his way into the cloud behind the battleship. A flock of surprised fish flapped away from his plummeting fall. He waited to freeze, lose consciousness from lack of air, or hit something.
None of that happened, though his fingers and toes were going numb as he gradually slowed. The problem now was that he was soon going to be stranded inside a cloud, where nobody could see him. With the din of the battle going on, nobody would hear him either. People had been known to die of thirst after being stranded in empty air. If he’d been thinking, he’d have brought a pair of flapper fins at least.
He was just realizing that anything like that would have been torn off his body by the airstream, when the cloud lit up like the inside of a flame.
He put a hand up and spun away from the light but it was everywhere, diffused through the whole cloud. In seconds a pulse of intense heat welled up and to Hayden’s astonishment, the cloud simply vanished, rolling away like a finished dream.
The heat continued to mount. Hayden peered past his fingers, glimpsing a silhouetted shape between him and a blaze of impossible light. The Slipstream battleship was dissolving, the flames enfolding it too dim to be seen next to the light of Aerie’s new sun.
Though he was slowing, Hayden was still falling away from the battle. This fact saved his life, as everything else in the vicinity of the sun was immolated in the next few seconds. That wouldn’t matter to his mother: she and all the other defenders were already dead, killed in the first seconds of the sun’s new light. They must have lit the sun rather than let Slipstream have it as a prize.
The light reached a peak of agony and abruptly faded. Hayden had time to realize that the spherical blur flicking out of the orange afterglow was a shockwave, before it hit him like a wall.
As he blacked out he spun away into the blue-gray infinity of Winter, beyond all civilization or hope.
How miserable, how abandoned.
The feelings lit again as Lady Venera Fanning entered the tiled gallery separating her chambers from the offices of Slipstream’s admiralty. The headache wasn’t so bad today but her fingers still sought out the small scar on her jaw as she entered the echoing room. A lofty, pillared space, the hall ran almost the entire width of the palace townwheel; she couldn’t avoid traversing it several times a day. Every time she did she relived the endless time after the bullet hit, when she’d lain here on the floor expecting to die. How miserable, how abandoned.
This was a cold place. The moaning of the wind from outside was the only sound except for her clicking footsteps, and that of the man behind her.
She would never enter the hall alone again. She knew it signaled weakness to everyone around her, but she needed to hear the servant’s footsteps behind her here, even if she wouldn’t look him in the eye and admit her feelings.
While that damnable hall brought back the memories whenever she entered it, Venera hadn’t had the place demolished and replaced as her sisters would have. At least, she would not do that until the pain that radiated up her temples morning, noon, and night was ended. And the doctors merely exchanged their heavy-lidded glances whenever she demanded to know when that would be.
Venera flung back the double doors to the admiralty and was assailed by noise and the smells of tobacco, sweat, and leather. Right in the doorway four pages of mixed gender were rifling a file cabinet, their ceremonial swords thrust out and clashing in unconscious battle. Venera stepped adroitly around them and sidled past two red-faced officers who were bellowing at one another over a limp sheet of paper. She dodged a book trolley, its driver invisible behind the stacks of volumes teetering atop it, and in three more steps she entered the admiralty’s antechamber, there to behold the bedlam of an office gearing up for war.
The antechamber was separated into two domains by a low wooden barrier. On the left was a waiting area, bare except for several armchairs reserved for elderly patrons. On the right, rows of polished wooden tables were manned by clerks who processed incoming reports. The clerks passed updates to a small army of pages engaged in rolling steep ladders up and down between the desks. They would periodically stop, crane their necks upwards, then one would clamber up a ladder to adjust the height or relative position of one of the models that hung like a frozen flock of fish over the clerks’ heads. Two ship’s captains and an admiral stood among the clerks, as immobile as if stranded by the hazard of the whizzing ladders.
Venera strolled up to the rail and rapped on it smartly. It took a while before she was noticed, but when she was, a page abandoned his ladder and raced over to bow.
“May I have the key to the lady’s lounge, please?” she asked. The page ducked his head and ran to a nearby cabinet, returning with a large and ornate key.
Venera smiled sweetly at him; the smile slipped as a pulse of agony shot up from her jaw to wrap around her eyes. Turning quickly, she stalked past the crowding couriers and down a rosewood-paneled corridor that led off the far side of the antechamber. At its end stood an oak door carved with bluejays and finches, heavily polished but its silver door-handle tarnished with disuse.
The servant made to follow her as she unlocked the door. “Do you mind?” she asked with a glower. He flushed a deep pink, and only now did Venera really notice him; he was quite young, and handsome. But, a servant.
She shut the door in his face and turned with her hands on her hips. “Well?” she said to the three men who awaited her, “what have you learned?”
“It seems you were right,” said one. “Capper, show the mistress the photos.”
The lounge’s floors were smothered in deep crimson carpet, its walls of paneled oak so deeply varnished as to be almost black. There were no windows, only gaslights in peach-colored sconces here and there. While there were enough chairs and benches for a dozen ladies to wait in while others used the two privies, Venera had never encountered another here. It seemed she was the only wife in the admiralty who ever visited her husband at work.
The place smelled of blood. A high-backed chair had been dragged into the center of the room and in it a young man in flying leathers was now weakly rifling through an inner pocket of his jacket. His right leg was thickly bandaged, but blood was seeping through and dripping on the carpet, where it disappeared in the red pile.
“That looks like a main line you’ve cut there,” said Venera with a professional narrowing of the eyes. The youth grinned weakly at her. The second man scowled as he tightened a tourniquet high on the flyer’s thigh. The third man watched this all indifferently. He was a mild-looking fellow with a balding head and the slightly pursed lips of someone more used to facing down sheets of paper than other people. When he smiled at all, Venera knew, Lyle Carrier lifted his lips and eyebrows in a manner that suggested bewilderment more than humor. She had decided that this was because other people’s emotions were meaningless abstractions to him.
Carrier was a deeply dangerous man. He was as close to a kindred spirit as she’d been able to find in this forsaken country. He was, in fact, the one man Venera could never completely trust. She liked that about him.
The young man hauled a sheaf of prints out of his jacket with a grimace. He held it up for Venera to take, his hand trembling as though it were lead weights he was handing her and not paper. Venera snatched up the pictures eagerly and held them to the light one by one.
“Ah . . .” The fifth photo was the one she’d been waiting to see. It showed a cloudy volume of air filled with spidery wooden dock armatures. Tied up to the docks was a row of stubby metal cylinders bristling with jets. Venera recognized the design: they were heavy cruisers, each bearing dozens of rocket ports and crewed by no less than three hundred men.
“They built the docks in a sargasso, just like you said,” said the young spy. “The bottled air let me breathe on the way through. They’re pumping oxygen to the work site using these big hoses . . .”
Venera nodded absently. “It was one of your colleagues who discovered that. He saw the pumps being installed outside the sargasso, and put two and two together.” She riffled through rest of the pictures to see if there was a better shot of the cruisers.
“Clearly another secret project,” murmured Carrier with prim disapproval. “It seems nobody learned from the lesson we gave Aerie.”
“That was eight years ago,” said Venera as she held up a picture. “People forget . . . What’s this?”
Capper jerked awake in his chair and with a visible effort, sat up to look. “Ah, that . . . I don’t know.”
The image showed a misty, dim silhouette partly obscured behind the wheel of a town. The gray spindle shape suggested a ship, but that was impossible: the thing dwarfed the town. Venera held the print up to her nose under one of the gaslights. Now she could see little dots scattered around the gray shape. “What are these specks?”
“Bikes,” whispered the spy. “See the contrails?”
Now she did, and with that the picture seemed to open out for a second, like a window. Venera glimpsed a vast chamber of air, walled by cloud and full of dock complexes, towns, and ships. Lurking at its edge was a monstrous whale, a ship so big that it could swallow the pinwheels of Rush.
But it must be a trick of the light. “How big is this thing? Did you get a good look at it? How long were you there?”
“Not long . . .” The spy waved his hand indifferently. “Took another shot . . .”
“He’s not going to last if I don’t get him to the doctor,” said the man who was tending the spy’s leg. “He needs blood.”
Venera found the other photo and held it up beside the first. They were almost identical, evidently taken seconds apart. The only difference was in the length of some of the contrails.
“It’s not enough.” Frustration made hot waves of pain radiate up from her jaw and she unconsciously snarled. Venera turned to find only Carrier looking at her; his face expressed nothing, as always. The leather-suited spy was unconscious and his attendant was looking worried.
“Get him out of here,” she said, gesturing to the servant’s door at the back of the lounge. “We’ll need to get a full deposition from him later.” Capper was roused enough to lean on the shoulder of his attendant and they staggered out of the room. Venera perched on one of the benches and scowled at Carrier.
“This dispute with the Pilot of Mavery is a distraction,” she said. “It’s intended to draw the bulk of our navy away from Rush. Then, these cruisers and that . . . thing, whatever it is, will invade from Falcon Formation. The Formation must have made a pact of some kind with Mavery.”
Carrier nodded. “It seems likely. That is—it seems likely to me, my lady. The difficulty is going to be convincing your husband and the Pilot that the threat is real.”
“I’ll worry about my husband,” she said. “But the Pilot . . . could be a problem.”
“I will of course do whatever is in the best interest of the nation,” said Carrier. Venera almost laughed.
“It won’t come to that,” she said. “All right. Go. I need to take these to my husband.”
Carrier raised an eyebrow. “You’re going to tell him about the organization?”
“It’s time he knew we have extra resources,” she said with a shrug. “But I have no intention of revealing our extent just yet . . . or that it’s my organization. Nor will I be telling him about you.”
Carrier bowed, and retreated to the servants’ door. Venera remained standing in the center of the room for a long time after he left.
A thousand miles away, it would be night right now around her father’s sun. Doubtless the Pilot of Hale would be sleeping uneasily, as he always did under the wrought-iron canopy of his heavily guarded bed. His royal intuition told him that the governing principle of the world was conspiracy—his subjects were conspiring against him, their farm animals conspired against them, and even the very atoms of the air must have some plan or other. It was inconceivable to him that anyone should act from motives of true loyalty or love and he ran the country accordingly. He had raised his three daughters by this theory. Venera had fully expected that she would be disposed of by being married off to some inbred lout; at sixteen she had taken matters into her own hands and extorted a better match from her father. Her first attempt at blackmail had been wildly successful, and had netted her the man of her choice, a young admiral of powerful Slipstream. Of course, Slipstream was moving away from Hale, rapidly enough that by the time she consolidated her position here she would be no threat to the old man.
She hated it here in Rush, Slipstream’s capital. The people were friendly, cordial, and blandly superior. Scheming was not in fashion. The young nobles insulted one another directly by pulling hat-feathers or making outrageous accusations in public. They fought their duels immediately, letting no insult fester for more than a day. Everything political was done in bright halls or council chambers and if there were darker entanglements in the shadows, she couldn’t find them. Even now, with war approaching, the Pilot of Slipstream refused to beef up the secret service in any way.
It was intolerable. So Venera had taken it upon herself to correct the situation. These photos were the first concrete validation of her own deliberately cultivated paranoia.
She resolutely jammed the pictures into her belt purse—they stuck out conspicuously but who would look?—and left by the front door.
Her servant waited innocently a good yard from the door. Venera was instantly suspicious that he’d been peering through the keyhole. She shot him a nasty look. “I don’t believe I’ve used you before.”
“No, ma’am. I’m new.”
“You’ve had a background check, I trust?”
“Well, you’re going to have another.” She stalked back to the admiralty with him following silently.
Bedlam continued in the admiralty antechamber, but it all seemed a bit silly to her now—they were in a fever of anticipation over a tiny border dispute with Mavery, while farther out a much bigger threat loomed. Nobody liked migratory nations, least of all Slipstream. They should be ready for this sort of thing. They should be more professional.
A page jostled Venera and the photos fell out of her purse. She laid a back-handed slap across the boy’s head and stooped to grab them—to find that her servant had already picked them up.
He glanced at two that he held, apparently by accident, then did a double-take. Venera wondered whether he’d tripped the page behind her back just so he could do this.
“Give me those!” She snatched them back, noting as she did that it was the mysterious photos of the great, dim gray object that he’d looked at. She decided on the spot to have him arrested on some sort of trumped-up charge as soon as she reached the Fanning estate.
Blazing with anger, Venera elbowed her way through the crowd of couriers and minor functionaries, and took a side way towards the stairs. Cold air wafted down from the stairs leading up to the cable-cars connecting the other towns in this quartet. Fury and cold made her jaw flare with pain so that she wanted to turn and strike the insolent young man. With a great effort she restrained herself, and gradually calmed down. She was pleased at her own forbearance. I can be a good person, she reminded herself.
“Fifteen hundred feet,” murmured the servant, almost inaudibly.
Venera whirled. He was trailing a few yards behind her, his expression distracted and wondering. “What did you say?” she hissed.
“That ship in the picture . . . was fifteen hundred feet long,” he said, looking apologetic.
“How do you know that? Tell me!”
“By the contrails, ma’am.”
She stared at him for a few seconds. The man was either far more cunning than she’d given him credit for, or he was an idiot.
Or, she reluctantly admitted to herself, maybe he really had no idea that she’d met with someone in the lady’s room, and didn’t expect a lady like herself to be carrying sensitive information. In which case the photos, to him, were just photos.
“Show me.” She fished out the two shots of the behemoth and handed them to him.
Now he looked doubtful. “I can’t be sure.”
“Just show me how you reached that conclusion!”
He pointed to the first picture. “You see in the near space here, there’s a bike passing. That’s a standard Grey 45, and it’s running at optimum speed, which is a hundred twenty-five knots. See the shape of its contrail? It only gets that feathered look under optimum burn. It’s passing close by the docks so you can tell . . .” he flipped to the second picture, “that here it’s gone about six hundred feet, if that dock is the size it looks to be. The means the second picture was taken about two seconds after the first.
“Now look at the contrails around the big ship. Lady, I can’t see any bikes that aren’t Grey 45s in the picture. So if we assume that the ones in the distance are Greys too, and that they’re going at optimum speed, then these ones skimming the surface of the big ship have traveled a little less than half its length since the first picture. That makes it a bit over twelve hundred feet long.”
“Mother of Virga.” Venera stared at the picture, then at him. She noticed now that he was missing the tips of several fingers: frostbite, in all likelihood. And his young face was red and wind-burned, except around the eyes.
She took back the pictures. “You’re a flyer.”
“Then what are you doing working as a body servant in my household?”
“Flying bikes is a dead-end career,” he said with a shrug.
They resumed walking. Venera was mulling things over. As they reached the broad clattering galleries of the cable car station, she nodded sharply and said, “Don’t tell anybody about these, if you value your job. They’re sensitive.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He looked past her. “Uh-oh.”
Venera followed his gaze, and frowned. The long cable car gallery was full of people, all of whom were crowding in a grumbling mass under the rusty cable stays and iron-work beams of the town that formed the chamber’s ceiling. Six green cable cars hung swaying and empty in the midst of the throng. “What’s the hold-up?” she demanded of a nearby naval officer.
“Cable snapped,” he said with a sigh. “Wind shear pulled the towns apart and the springs couldn’t compensate.”
“Don’t drown me in details. When will it be fixed?”
“You’d have to ask the cable monkeys, and they’re all out there now.”
“I have to get to the palace!”
“I’m sure the monkeys sympathize, ma’am.”
She was about to erupt in a tirade against the man, when the servant touched her arm. “This way,” he murmured.
With a furious hmmph, Venera followed him out of the crowd. He was heading for an innocuous side entrance. “What’s down there?” she asked.
“Bike berths,” he said as he opened the door to another windy gallery. This one was nearly empty. It curved up and out of sight, its right wall full of small offices with frosted-glass doors, its left wall opening out in a series of floor-to-ceiling arched windows. Beyond the windows was a braveway and then open turning air.
The gallery floor was full of hatches. About half of them had bikes suspended over them. The place smelled of engine oil, a masculine smell Venera found simultaneously rank and intriguing. Men in coveralls were rebuilding a bike nearby. Its parts were laid out in a neat line across a tarpaulin, their clean order betraying the apparent chaos of the opened chassis.
She was in a place of men; she liked that. “You have your own bike?” she asked the servant.
“Yes. It’s right over there.” He took a chit to the dock master and traded it in for a key and a worn leather jacket. They went over to the bike and he knelt to unlock the hatch beneath the gently swaying bike.
“Let me guess,” she said. “A Grey 45?”
He laughed. “Those are work-haulers. This is a racer. It’s a Canfield Arrow, Model 14. I bought it with my first paycheck from your household.”
“There’s a passenger seat,” she said, suddenly thrilled at the prospect of riding the thing.
He squinted at her. “Have you never flown a bike, Lady?”
“No. Does that surprise you?”
“I guess it’s always been nice covered taxis for you,” he said with a shrug. “Makes sense.” He winched open the hatch and she took an apprehensive step back. Venera had no fear of the open air; it was speed that frightened her. Right now the air below the hatch was whipping by at gale force.
“We’ll get blown off!”
He shook his head. “The dock master’s lowering a shield ahead of the hatch. It’ll give us several seconds of slipstream to cruise in. Just hunker down behind me—the windscreen’s big—and you’ll be fine. Besides, I won’t take us flat out; too dangerous inside city limits.”
He straddled the bike and held out his hand. Venera suppressed her grin until she was seated behind him. There were foot straps, but she had nothing to hold onto with her hands except him. She wrapped her arms tightly around his waist.
He pushed the starter and she felt the engine rumble into life beneath her. Then he said, “All set?” and reached up to unclip the winch.
They fell into the air and for a few seconds the curve of the town’s undersurface formed a ceiling. There was the shield, a long tongue of metal hanging down but pulling up quickly. “Head down!” he shouted and she buried her face in his back. Then the engine was roaring to drown all thought, the vibration rattling up through her spine, and they were free in the air between the city cylinders. The wind wasn’t tearing her from this man’s grasp, so Venera cautiously leaned back and looked around. She gave an involuntary gasp of delight.
Contrails like spikes and ropes stood still in the air around them. Tethers with gay flags on them slung here and there, and everywhere taxies, winged humans, and other bikes shot through the air. The quartet of towns that included the admiralty was already receding behind them; she turned to look back and saw that the cable-car system, whose independent loop touched the axle of the vast spinning cylinder, was indeed slack. Men floated in open air around the break, their tools arrayed in constellations about them as they argued over what to do. Venera turned forward again, laughing giddily at the sensation of power that pulled her up and up towards the next quartet.
They passed heavy steel cables and then the broad cross-shaped spokes of a town’s pinwheel. Up close the brightly colored sails were torn and patched. In far too little time the bike was rising under another town, the long slot of a jet entrance visible overhead. Venera’s flyer expertly inched them into a perfect tangent course, and it seemed as if the town’s curving underside simply reached out and settled around them. Her flyer shut down the engine and held up a hook, clipping it to an overhead cable just as they began to fall again. And there they were, hanging in a gallery almost identical to the one they just left. A palace footman ran up and began winching them away from the slot. They had arrived.
Venera dismounted and staggered back a few steps. Her legs had turned to jelly. Her servant swung off the back of the bike as though nothing had just happened. He grinned happily at her. “It’s a good beast,” he said.
“Well.” She cast about for something to say. “I’m glad we’re paying you enough that you can afford it.”
“Oh, I never said I could afford it.”
She frowned, and led the way out of the gallery. From here she knew the stairs and corridors to take to reach Slipstream’s strategic command office. Her husband, Admiral Fanning, was tied up in meetings there, but he would see her, she knew. She thought about how much she would tell him regarding her spy network. As little as possible, she decided.
At the entrance to the office she turned and looked frankly at the servant. “This is as far as you can go. Wait down at the docks—you can run me back home the same way you brought me.”
He looked disappointed. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Hmm. What’s your name, anyway?”
“Griffin, ma’am. Hayden Griffin.”
“All right. Remember what I said, Griffin. Don’t talk about the photos to anyone.” She waggled a finger at him, but even though her head was pounding, she couldn’t summon any anger at the moment. She turned and gestured for the armed palace guard to open the giant teak doors.
As she walked away she thought of the beautiful freedom Griffin must have in those moments when he flew alone. She’d caught a glimpse of it when she rode with him. But entangled as she was in a life of obligation and conspiracy, it could never be hers.
How miserable. How abandoned.
Hayden watched her go in frustration. So close! He’d gotten to within a few yards of his target today. And then to be thwarted at the very entrance to the command center. He eyed the palace guard, but he knew he couldn’t take the man and the guard was eyeing him back. Reluctantly, Hayden turned and headed back towards the docks.
He’d nearly blown it picking up those pictures. Obviously he’d underestimated Lady Fanning. He wouldn’t do it again. But since he had been assigned to her, he hadn’t been able to get anywhere near Fanning himself. If she liked him, though . . .
It was only a matter of time, he decided. Admiral Fanning would come within arm’s reach one day soon.
And then Hayden would kill him.
A flock of fish had wandered into the airspace inside Quartet One, Cylinder Two. Disoriented by the city lights spinning around them and caught in the cyclone of air that Rush’s rooftops swept up, they foundered lower and lower in a quickening spiral, until with fatal suddenness they shot between the eaves of two close-leaning, gargoyle-coigned apartments. They banged off window and ledge, flagpole and fire escape, to end flapping and dying in a narrow street along which they’d scattered like a blast of buckshot.
Hayden ignored the cheering locals who ran out to scoop up the unexpected windfall. He paced on through the darkened alleys of Rush’s night market, noticing nothing, but instinctively avoiding the grifters and thieves who also drifted through the crowds of out-country rubes. He felt slightly nauseous, and twitched at every loud laugh or thud of crate on cement.
The market was stuffed into a warren of small streets. Hayden loved walking through the mobs; even after living here for two years, the very fact that the city comprised more than one cylinder amazed him. The rusting wheels of the city provided gravity for over thirty thousand souls. Throw in the many outlying towns and countless estates that hung in the nearby air like sprays of tossed seed, and the population must push a hundred thousand. The anonymity this afforded was a heady experience for an unhappy young man. Hayden could be with people yet aloof and he liked it this way.
He was dead tired after another long day at the Fanning estate; but if he went back to the boarding house now, he would just pace until his downstairs neighbors complained. He would pull at his hair, and mutter to himself as if he were mad. He didn’t want to do that.
It was all stress, of course—a result of spending his days so close to his goal. He walked through the Fanning household like a dutiful servant for hours while his mind raced through scenarios: Fanning walking by distracted in a hallway; Hayden slipping into the admiralty unnoticed by the omnipresent security police . . . It was all useless. He was paralyzed by indecision and he knew it. But he would be patient, and his chance would come.
He paused to buy a sticky bun at a vendor he favored, and continued on down a twisting run sided with fading clapboard. Slipstream’s sun was on its maintenance cycle, and darkness and chill had settled over the city. Here and there in the alleys, homeless people kept barrel fires going and charged a penny or two to anyone who stopped to warm their hands. Hayden sometimes stopped to talk to these men, whose faces he knew only as red sketches lit from below. They could be valuable sources of information, but he never revealed anything about himself to them, least of all his name.
He’d driven Venera Fanning again today—unnecessarily, for she could easily have taken a cable car. He wondered at her motives in riding with him. When he’d returned to his room he’d discovered that a faint scent of her perfume still hovered on his jacket. It was alluring, as she was with her porcelain complexion—marred only by the scar on her chin—and her hair the color of Winter skies. Attractive she might be, but she was also without doubt the most callous human being he’d ever met. And she traded on her beauty.
Considering his lonely existence and his reasons for being here, it was painfully ironic to think that she was the first woman he’d given a ride to since arriving in Rush.
Halfway down the alley was a cul de sac. A knife seller had set up his table across its entrance, and had mounted targets on the blank wall at the dead end. Hayden stopped to balance a sleek dart knife on his finger. He held it out facing away from him, then at right angles to that.
“It’s good in all the directions of gravity,” said the vendor, who in this light was visible only as a black cut-out shape with a swath of distant lamp-light revealing his beige shirt collar. The black silhouette of an arm rose in an indistinct gesture. “Try it out.”
Hayden balanced the knife for a second more, then flipped it and caught it behind the guard fins. He threw it with a single twitch of his wrist and it buried itself in the center of a target with a satisfying thump. The vendor murmured appreciatively.
“That’s not our best, you know,” he said as he waddled back to retrieve the knife. His mottled hand momentarily became visible as he pulled the knife from the wall. “Try this.” Back at the table, he fished in a case and drew out a long arrow-shape. Hayden took it from him and turned it over with a professional eye. Triangular cross-section to the blade, guards that doubled as fins for throwing, and a long tang behind that with another fin on its end. Its heft was definitely better than the last one.
He thought of Admiral Fanning, who had led the attack on Aerie’s secret sun and blew Gavin Town to smithereens on the way by. Without even thinking he spun and let fly the knife. It sank dead center in the smallest target.
“Son, you should be in the circus,” said the vendor. Hayden heard the admiration in his voice, but it didn’t matter. “Say, do you want to hang around a while and throw for the crowd? Could bring in some business.”
Hayden shook his head. He wasn’t supposed to have skills like knife throwing. “Just dumb luck,” he said. “I guess your knives are just so good that even an idiot can hit the bulls-eye with one.” Ducking his head and aware of the lameness of his excuse, he backed away and then paced hurriedly down the alley.
“That wasn’t smart,” said a shadow at his elbow.
Hayden shrugged and kept going. “What’s it to you?”
The other fell into step beside him. Hayden glimpsed a tall, rangy figure in the dim light. “Somebody you owe a favor, Hayden.”
He stepped away involuntarily. “Who the—”
The man in the shadows laughed and moved into a pale lozenge of candle light that squeezed out between the cracks of a low window. He presented his profile to Hayden. “Don’tcha recognize me, Hayden? Last time I saw you, you were dropping out of Gavin Town on a runaway bike!”
“Miles?” Hayden just stood there, painfully aware of how meetings like this were supposed to go: the prodigal and the old soldier, laughing and slapping each other’s backs in surprise and delight. They would head for a bar or something, and regale each other with stories of their exploits, only to stagger out again singing at three the next morning. Or so it went. But he’d never much liked Miles, and what did it matter, really, to find out now that one other person had survived the attack on the sun? It didn’t change anything.
“What are you doing here?” he asked after the silence between them had stretched too long.
“Looking after you, boy,” said the ex-soldier. “You’re not happy to see me?”
“It’s not that,” he said with a shrug. “It’s . . . been a long time.”
“Well, long or not, I’m here now. What do you say?”
“It’s . . . good to see you.”
Miles laughed humorlessly. “Right. But you’ll be thanking me before long, believe me.” He started walking. “Come on. We need to find a place to talk.”
Here it came, thought Hayden: the bar, the war stories, the laughing. He hesitated, and Miles sighed heavily. “Kid, what if I told you that I’d saved your ass today? That if it weren’t for me, you’d be on your way out of Rush by now with a permanent deport order issued against you?”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Suit yourself.” Miles started walking. After a moment Hayden ran after him.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“‘It’s so good to see you, Miles. How are you doing, Miles? How did you survive Gavin Town?’” The ex-soldier glared at Hayden as they crossed a busy and well-lit thoroughfare. “Jeez, you were always a surly little runt, but let me tell you, I’m wondering whether I should have bothered faking the docs for your background check.”
“Background check? What background check?” He’d had two of them already, he knew, a cursory one when he first applied for Rush residency, and a more thorough check after he answered the call for work at the Fanning residence. It seemed all too plausible that somebody somewhere should want to do more digging—and now he realized who. “Venera Fanning. She had me investigated.”
“But not by the legal authorities,” said Miles as he ducked into another alley. This one was empty, and meandered in the general direction of one of the town spokes. The spoke jabbed into the heavens above all rooftops, a tessellation of wrought-iron girders barnacled here and there by shanty huts built by desperate homeless people. Some spokes had municipal elevators in them and were quite well-kept; this one was a rusty derelict unlit from any source.
“It’s just lucky we have a man in Fanning’s network.” Miles had disappeared in the darkness ahead. Hayden followed his voice, idly wondering if he’d been lured in here to be mugged. “This time they weren’t going to just hold your papers up to a light and check the birth registries. Friends, family, co-workers—I had to come up with them all at the last minute.”
“But how did you know about it?”
“Ah, finally the lad asks a sensible question. Here, watch your step.” They had reached the gnarled fist of beam and cable that was the spoke’s base. Someone had built a crude set of stairs by simply jamming boards into the diamond-shaped gaps in the ironwork. Miles plodded up this, wood bending and twanging under his feet.
His voice drifted down from overhead. “I review intercepted dispatches about security checks. It’s my job in the Resistance.”
Hayden raced up the steps after him. “Resistance? It still exists?”
“Hell, Hayden, if you hadn’t pulled a disappearing act after Gavin Town got hit, you’d still be in it. You were born into the Resistance—you were the first baby born of two members, did you know that? We searched for you for days after the attack . . .”
“I didn’t know. I fell into Winter.” He looked down, abstractly thinking how interesting the rooftops looked from just overhead, with their shingled peaks and streamlined eaves. From here you could see the whole circular geometry of the town, its mazes of close-packed buildings, streetlights glowing overhead and on two sides, while the permanent winds of Slipstream whistled from the dark open circles of night to left and right. A gust shook him and he realized that he’d fall hard enough to be killed if he got blown off this precarious vantage point, so Hayden clutched the stanchions more tightly and groped for the next ladder-like step with his free hand. He was starting to weigh less already; they must be a hundred meters in the air by now. “Miles, where are we going?”
“There.” The former cook pointed straight up. The inside of the open-work spoke was blocked by a wood ceiling ten feet further up. The surface was white with strange, broad black bands painted across it. With a start Hayden realized they were intended to look like shadows; this box was supposed to be invisible if looked at from some particular perspective—probably from the direction of the Office of Public Infrastructure.
Miles ascended the last distance by ladder and raising his fist, knocked it against wood. A square of light appeared above his head, and he clambered up. “Come on in, Hayden.”
He cautiously raised his head above the lip of the trapdoor, and then, for the first time in many years, he entered a cell of the Resistance.