Thursday, July 31, 2014

48 - Launch

“Cabin lockdowns engaged,” Mom said out loud.  Terence took a deep breath.  He could hear Alissa’s indrawn breath and a gasp as she found that she was as immobilized as he was.

“I didn’t want that!” She snapped.  “Mom, I don’t like this!”

“You insisted on coming.  If you cannot abide then we will abort and…”

“I’m all right!” She whined.  “I just don’t like it.”
He closed his eyes.

“All ready, Mom.” He said.  They’d gone over every possible variation in miniature before.  The time to do this, the attempt on Station, was now.  Agador’s bubble of code was on the moon.  They’d be able to aim for that.

Once they were actually up and stationary, they would be able to tiptoe around Station and see if Alissa’s codes were still valid. There was no way to tell, from the planetary surface, except through Xanadu, whether the ancient old codes had been changed.  Prime tended not to change things very often, even when presented with compelling reason to.

“If Station hasn’t been manned since I left,” Terry said, as Mom scuttled out to the canyon rim, above and away from the reservoirs.  “Then they’ll be behind in updates from outside.  That might be our chance.”

“Prepare for launch.”  The screen Mom called up showed them the edge of the canyon and the whole flock of FireDrakes, grey-blue and each with a corona of heat and white fire, flickering with every slow wingbeat.  The sling they held looked far too gossamer to hold Mom’s weight, though he knew that it was much stronger than it looked.  Like stone-spider webs, Hara had said.  “It’s hard as rock but not brittle at all.”  Terry found that even in Mom his hindbrain wasn’t listening and he’d broken out into a sweat.  This wasn’t like a shuttle where you walked on, put your bag into the clips under your seat, locked your own harness, then sat back and let the pilot and the machine take you down as smoothly and calmly as if you were in an elevator.

“We’re ready, Mom.” Alissa swallowed loudly enough for him to hear.

Mom crouched, then leapt, flung herself out into the netting that Eight, Fifty-three and Four were all supporting, with brand new feet.  Eight kept accidentally ripping his off because he didn’t want to fold them out of sight, but he’d promised to be careful of these.

Her leap was at least as impressive as when she’d arrowed in to land with a screeching crunch on the stone column under the city.  One of the boys had either jumped or fallen and she’d caught him with one limb as he hurtled past her.  Every other street rat had, very sensibly, gone completely still.  Mom had opened her hatch, tucked the rescued boy inside and anesthetized him, while Kyrus and Terry had stepped inside under their own power.

The rest of the rats were gathered up just as easily, though they stank of incontinence.  Emilien had been last, and Kyrus had let go the rock pinning his arm.  He’d jumped rather than tamely get rounded up like the rest of his boys, and had been caught and shut down as well.

Mom landed in the net, curled into a ball and rolled around for a few moments, even her internal dampers not able to keep Terry and Alissa from being shaken up.

*Catch made, * One said.  *Gaining altitude. *

Rather than row up into the atmosphere with their wings, they folded them and locked straight, their scales going from a mild rumble to a full out roar as they fought both friction and gravity.  *500 metres* … *5 kilometres* *10 kilometres*

The sound grew thin and faint as they rose out of the air.  “I don’t like this,” Alissa said, in a whisper.  “I don’t like trusting other people. They’re too unpredictable.”

“Don’t worry on that account, princess,” Terry said, using his own word rather than the Lainz.  “You’re trusting machines and their precision.”

“Oh, that’s all right then.”  She didn’t sound terribly reassured but looked less green.

*Coming up on snap* Mom and One said, simultaneously.  There was no way they could brace themselves any more than they were.  Terry closed his eyes then popped them open.  He had to see.

The FireDrakes began their spin, up here at the very limit of where they could go, the outer edge of atmosphere where their scales would burn, and the  long, strand of net began its enormous swing.

Terry could hear his breath thundering in his ears. If anything broke here there were hundreds of ways it could go horribly wrong.  Horribly wrong in ways that neither Mom, nor the FireDrakes could save them from.

*SNAP* The Drakes announced, and the sling snapped open, spinning Mom up an out of the atmosphere, perfectly on trajectory to the Moon.

Things went from wild to completely silent, and completely smooth. *We now have two point four five days before we will be caught in the moon’s gravity * Mom said.  *On track*

47 - At Your Discretion, Perrin

On Xanadu Prime was fuming.  He thumped his fist on the arm of his chair, broke two of his fingers, before his medical support suppressed the pain and began trying to rebuild the fragile old bones.  He sneered out over the ball being held by Baron Oberley, First Class.  The season was winding down and the Immoderates had not managed to find his missing son and the chit, his daughter.  They HAD to be on the planet still.  No shuttles had risen out of the atmosphere since Perrin the Fourth had disappeared.

The music played on without a hitch, his Third Class performers trained to a high point where even a riot on the ballroom floor would make them stumble.  He was blessed.  Anyone else on the Galactic Board would pay as much as an Anderson Spine Engine was worth for live human music, played on the ancient wood and brass instruments.  The First Class circled and laughed and chatted as if he hadn’t snarled a foul word along with the thump of his fist.

“Are we tiresome, Oh Font?” The Baron leaned over in a half-bow.  “Shall I dismiss the rabble?”

“No, no, Oberley. I was just thinking.  Let us withdraw for a bit, let the festivities go on for the lesser folk, hmm?  One needs to let them preen themselves and play pretty politics even if it has no bearing on the real world.  They think it does.” He waved at the glittering ballroom, his body support armour showing only as a faint gold sheen on his skin.  “You and I and the two other Barons know what’s going on.”

“Yes, Oh Font.  Roleigh and Jackson and I are most honoured among men, to be in your personal confidence.”

Prime snorted.  “Flattery will get you nowhere, Oberley, but you may keep trying.” He rose and the music checked, as did the dancers.  “Pray, continue your amusement,” he called and turned his back on them all, strolling out beside the Baron to his library.

The library was the symbol of power here, and Oberly was allowed the same galactic information that Prime was, except for the owner codes of course.  So the walls soared up to the lofty ceiling, covered in rank and row of leather bound volumes.  Antique flat screens flickered through data and pictures.  Quiescent holograms showed the 'ready' cascade. A veer booth stood off to one side, door open.

A row of globes marched up the centre of the room, each showing a different planet in the solar system, with Chishiki given pride of place, of course.  That globe was a hologram that spun on its own, suspended above them, showing the terminator as it rotated.  A pause and it swirled and transformed into what it would look like, once the oceans had filled enough… then back to current reality.  Orange and maroon and blinding white, with Xanadu showing a green bright enough to almost look like a toxic spatter of mold on the side of the globe.

“How is Chancey doing off planet?” Prime settled into the Baron’s own float chair and waved a hand at the second spinning globe, showing the planet Artemis.  “Fother’s Tech is good enough though it’s almost as liberal as anything on bloody Steinpeltz.”

“Nowhere is as liberal as Steinpelz,” the Baron agreed.  “I was astonished that they passed that law.”

Prime snarled.  “Aliens aren’t people.  How could they just declare them unhumanoid people?”  They’re monkeys.  We should have the right to come in and terraform any planet we want.”

“Of course, Prime.  May I ask how the new settlement on Hinnemon is coming?  I can send you another village or two of Illiterate boys if you need the manpower.”

“I’ll think on it, Jason.  Thank you.  The wildlife is proving somewhat vexatious.  We’ve got a dozen men down with injuries and rumblings of complaint that it’s too dangerous for their wives and… would you believe it… that they WANT their wives with them… all at the same time.  Madness.  Of course they breed like rabbits, and are feeling the want.”

“Send in some sex techs… they won’t get pregnant, or fall in love with an Illiterate.”  The Baron stepped over to pour a pair of brandy snifters full of Coalred Special Old.  “Here’s to successful ventures, Perrin.”

Prime grunted.  “Suck up.”

“Of course.  It’s part of my charm.  Besides, my share of the new settlement will pay for a great many things I have been wanting.”

“Like what?” Prime sipped his brandy and stared at his youngest Baron.

“I have two more sons to get off planet to various universities.”

Like an aggressive dog, calmed, Perrin let his suspicious hackles down.  “Of course.  You know, Jason, when the time comes I have enough contacts with the Board to pull some strings…”

The Baron stood, smiling into his snifter and waved a dismissive hand.  “Oh, I would never be in your debt, Perrin, not when I can pay.  By the way… are we actually starting to get oceans anywhere on the planet?”

“In the trenches.  Everything else is sand slurry.”

“Pity.  I look forward to sailing here at home one day.”

“You went to school at…” He stopped, thinking.

“On Aqua Regis.  All sailing,” Oberley supplied helpfully.

“Ah, yes.” Prime sipped his brandy again.  “Jason, you haven’t made any progress in the program that would let me kill my damn treasonous brat and his offspring yet, have you?”

“Not without endangering you, personally, Perrin.  My lab just cannot seem to refine it, even with your wife’s DNA.”

“It should have given you enough markers of difference.”

“It’s more complicated than that, I’m afraid.” Oberley looked solemn.  “I’m sorry he didn’t work out as your Heir.”

“I was thinking of offering for your Melinda, Jason.  Do you think she’d be a good breeder?”

“Could be, though she’s a bit young.” Behind his back, unseen, the Baron’s hand clenched hard, even as he kept his tone light.

“Oh, not immediately.  I’d certainly wait a year or two after mourning my poor, deluded son.”

“At your discretion, Perrin.”

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

46 - Mom, Come Now

A thin stone wall mandered up in front of Terry, between the ledge and ladder.  “Hey-‘milian!” Kyrus’s voice was full of lie, a comrade well-met tone. “High bench, no stench, huh?  What happened tah Bo?”

The young man, who hung from the ladder by one hand, and stood on one foot so he could peer over the rock wall that Kyrus had thrown up, tapped his knife against it.  It obviously kept him from climbing onto their ledge. Terry had the odd idea that they'd ruined his entrance.  It didn't make him any less frightened.  He eased up to his feet and pressed back hard against the city column.  The scarred young man in ragged breeches and pale-bleached sarband didn't pay him any attention, his eyes locked on Kyrus.

“Chillin’. Ye kin call me Bo now,” he said, edge of his veil fluttering and fringed.

“See yah, know yah, Ee-milian.  You loaf a bread ‘im?”

Terry could just see Emilian’s cheeks, flushed with rage. Seamed with knife scars.  “Nah.  Nasty of tha, but then ye nasty fasty all ‘round, worm-shit, fakin bait.”

“Ye same oyuk slime as always, Emilian,” Kyrus said, standing up slowly, beginning to drop the Basin cant, drawing on the language he’d paid so much to learn, his hand on the sword-hilt at his belt.  Terence looked around wildly.  There was no way off this ledge except the ladder and while Emilian had been talking to Kyrus other boys had come down the ladder and were spread out on the ledges to either side above, like some strange fringe of audience. From this height a metre of water wouldn't stop a jump.

*Shall I come fetch you?* Mom asked.

*Yes please,* Terry said.  *I think you should be quick but not destructive…*


“Whatchoo mean, Dirt? Worm-boy?”

“I’m not going to accept any part of you in my body, you endarkened moron.  Just like last time when you said you were going to cut me up and fak me sick, dead or 'live.” He eased around Terry, changing places with him on the ledge, staring at Emilian over his wall.

Emilian laughed and spat on the stone, though careful not to foul the water below.  “Ye deserved all I’d give ye.”

“How long did it take you to recover when I cut you?  A full month?”

The boys watching drew in their breaths, hissing.  “I never b’lieved the LIN fairy story borey…" Emilian spat. "Ye’re no Bo-heir, nuthin’. Don' b'lieve yeh got a name same game lame. Not a man, got no name, all-ah same… come outen yer hidey holey open yer boley draculi holey, Dirt!”

Terence didn’t need Agador’s calm translation.  He swallowed hard and inquired of Mom where she was, just as Kyrus moved.

He reached straight through the shielding stone, grabbed the knife that Emilian had been tapping against it, somehow it didn't cut his fingers. Somehow he'd hardened his grip. He grabbed and pulled Emilian's arm straight through the stone, till his cheek smacked hard into the rock.  All Terry could see was his arm held straight and tight in the suddenly hardened rock. “OW OW OW, FAKIN’ DRACULI FAK…" Kyrus plucked the knife out of his hand and put it in his belt.

"OW DRACULYU PIECE OF ENDARKENED WORMSHIT..." He wiggled and struggled and squealed and then suddenly went quiet when a voice from up above plaintively called “Ladder no madder, Bo.  We’re muck.”

Terry could hear Emilian’s harsh breathing echoing all around them, though he couldn't see any more of him than his arm stuck in the rock.  Kyrus dropped his hand away from the sword hilt and drew a deep breath.

“My name is Kyrus Talain, the youngest of the line, Emilian, no name. Bo of the Bait Muck Rats.  You and these Rats are going to be speaking to the Rasheem.  I’m siwion and kraghanz. I am not, never was, and will never be ‘Dirt’ as you tried to name me.”

That was when Mom came scrambling up over the lip of the Basin and bounded over to the central core-rock in one long, flattened out jump.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

45 - Ye clackin' Fer a Chillin'?

Terry found himself standing in a strange, dim blue space, with the odd white flickers all above his head, reflecting off the thin skiff of water far below.  The harsh white sun was a blinding arc of light before him and he could barely see a ring of boats silhouetted against that, but they were curiously still for boats.

“What is this?” The air was astonishingly moist and he drew in a deep breath, hard enough to pull his veil against his nose and lips.  He could feel his skin relaxing from its dry, tight pull across the bones of his face.

Kyrus was steadily climbing down toward the water.  “The Basin.  Come on.  The pumps can only keep this much water in’t from the river.  When the rains come, spring and fall, it fills up to nearly the ceiling and is clean enough to swim in." He waved a hand at the scum of water below. "Dry season pumped crud, maybe a metre deep. Maybe.  The floor of the city is domed to catch the rains and usually people don’t lose their boats against the ceiling or washed over the edge.  But we try tah cram as much water in under here as we can.”

“I… can see that.”

The central column of the city had a ribbed appearance, with striations running all away around, as well as all kinds of ladders hanging from the ceiling above like insect tails. The siwion settled on a ledge off to one side of the ladder.

“This is where we can talk privately.  If I’m going to be telling you all kinds of ranno , sorry, that means guano… I figured this would be the best place.”  Terry settled down on the cool stone that was surprisingly clean.  No mud or grit or dirt at all.  He wasn’t sure what he should say, so did the thing that had saved his life - kept his mouth shut.

“You being all ‘Hive Lord’ staring down your nose at us, insulting the lot of us as those who can’t read…” Kyrus sighed.  “I was a basin rat hangin’ round down here to not fry in the sun, sold my body to an old man, to earn enough money to see my mother safe, to pay for me to learn how to read and to speak properly. Money to travel to Milar, though most of my way there I walked."

"I was lowest of the low and now I’m struggling to learn everything I need to be a help to my father in this war, to be the best warrior I can be, to be the man of integrity like my father and my father by marriage.” His voice hissed and echoed around them as he spoke, quietly, intensely, clearly forcing every word. Terence could barely feel the rumble of the city pumps deep inside, fighting the weight of every drop pumped from so far below.

“With my grandfather’s laws about that… men and men… if they’d a’ caught me I’d have been ‘exposed’ for a day for a first offense… that’s hung in one of them cages on t’ bridge.”  His breath caught.  “Day and a night for second offense… and sent to be ‘retrained’… locked up and used as hard labour basically till you'd paid the oath that you’d been reformed.  Third time they’d put you out for three days.  Nobody lives longer than that, once you’ve been shaved top and tail and put in the sun.”

“That’s hideous!” Terry had been biting his tongue but that burst out of him.

Kyrus’s smile flashed.  “I’m glad you think so… and I’m glad the law was changed so Da and Pa could marry… I had a right horror of myself and them too.  Hara helped me with that… in fact the Milar attitude helped me with that.  Zon Elemfias’d kick my ass should I profess such prejudice…” His language had shifted again, to what the Milari teachers had wanted of him.  Mom had been translating in Terry’s head and had actually programmed Lainz into him, but when Kyrus shifted to Milari, Terry had lost the first few words.

“I…” Terry gulped.  “Are you sure this is what your father meant? Tis raw, Kyrus.  I shouldn’t know this of you!”

“You can’t unknow it.  But you’ll know not to casually call me or anyone Illiterate.  We all paid a great deal to learn… my Da’s and Granda’s lin has made it not only possible for everyone to be literate but required to be literate.  To be illiterate is now the worst curse.”

“I… was raised as the second son of a Second Class Citizen.  I have only the knowledge that Prime allowed… until I rebelled and  acquired Agador… I… I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t treat anyone badly, and I’m…” he shrugged helplessly.  “I don’t know how not to be…” he checked and said out loud indignantly to Mom’s suggestion in his head.  “I am not an arrogant snot!”  He coughed and glanced over at Kyrus.  “…am I?”

“I said you act like a Hive Lord.  Sometimes you sneer down your nose at Hara so hard ye could bounce a rock ofn that curve and hit orbit!”

“But I but… well… I…” He wound down into silence. A distance clicking noise and a plink.

“Ye… excuse me.  You have Mom, you have knowledge that we’ve all lost in our flight out here.  You are a valuable person, Terence.  You’ve just not given us much cause to like you.”

“Oh.” Terry felt as if he’d been hit over the head with a mandered board, though Kyrus had done no such thing.  “I’m… sorry.  Your people… both… all of them… have been so strange that I’ve been reeling ever since I got here.  No excuses.  I’ve been saying ‘What have I done,” every waking minute, though I had no other choice that I could see.  My brother flung me into Mom and away we went, bringing your young spies back… and I have no idea if Prime has killed them all or blamed them for the explosions and fires he set to cover my escape.” He threw his hands up and nearly lost his balance, clutching at the edge of the ledge he sat on.  “It’s all excuses.”

“Reasons, maybe.  I understand reasons.” *Intruders,* Mom said.

“Reasons?” A slick voice said from above them on the ladder.  “Heya, Ky-ry-ry, yah clackin’ fer a chillin’? Thet why you back sack rack?”

*Hello Kyrus,* Mom translated in Terence’s head. *Have you come back to get yourself killed?*