A world of endless sky, with no land, no gravity: this is Virga. Beginning in the seminal science fiction novel Sun of Suns, the saga of this striking world has introduced us to the people of stubborn pride and resilience who have made Virga their home; but also, always lurking beyond the walls of the world, to the mysterious threat known only as Artificial Nature. In The Sunless Countries, history tutor Leal Hieronyma Maspeth became the first human in centuries to learn the true nature of this threat. Her reward was exile, but now, in Ashes of Candesce, Artificial Nature makes its final bid to destroy Virga, and it is up to Leal to unite the quarrelling clans of her world to fight the threat.
Karl Schroeder's Ashes of Candesce brings together all the heroes of the Virga series, and draws the diverse threads of the previous storylines together into one climactic conflict. Blending steampunk styling with a far-future setting and meditations on the posthuman condition, Ashes of Candesce mixes high adventure and cutting-edge ideas in a fitting climax to one of science fiction's most innovative series.
About the Author
KARL SCHROEDER lives in Toronto, Ontario. He is the author of Ventus, Permanence, Lady of Mazes, and the Virga Series, beginning with Sun of Suns.
Read an Excerpt
Leal Hieronyma Maspeth took a look back to see how close their pursuer was and felt the scree under her feet give way. Suddenly on her knees and then her side, she began to slide. She heard shouts, and half-visible hands reached for her. Darkness opened below and, in desperation, she grabbed for a half-glimpsed jut of rock.
She swung, suddenly and shockingly, above open air. The gravel made a trickling sound as it sped past her, but she couldn’t hear it land. It just disappeared.
“The rope’s just to your left, Leal, can you see it?”
“No,” said Leal. “That’s okay. I’m going to reach for it now. Tell me if I…” She forgot words as she stretched out her left hand, and felt her right slip another inch. Now she was hanging on by just her fingertips.
She had an awful moment then. The thing that was following them was close. If it caught up to them, if it was the one to rescue her—for she was sure it would neither kill her nor leave her in this predicament—would she regret not having just let go?
Should she let go?
“Leal!” That was Piero Harper’s voice … She blinked; something brushed her face. “Grab the rope!” He was only a few feet away, but above her.
“You’ve got to keep going!” she hissed at him. He shook his head.
“This’ll only take a second. Take hold, ma’am.”
Damn his politeness. She flailed for the rope and met empty air. Her fingers slipped, were about to lose it—
Something tapped her knuckles, and then she felt cool fibers coil around her fingers. With relief Leal let go of the rock, but again there was that damned gravity pulling her straight. Stretched and jolted, she yelped with pain as, in jerks and yanks, she rose rather than fell.
Rock banged her shoulder and she felt herself being dragged over the lip of a rough ledge. “Are you okay?” said Piero as the rope unwound itself from her lacerated hand and slithered back. It was visible now in lantern light and she watched in abstract amusement as it inched and twisted its way back into the body of the large, four-footed creature standing next to Harper.
“I-I’m fine. Thanks,” she said to both of them. Once again the emissary had taken a hand in saving her life. The emissary! She brought up her hands to touch her shoulders. “Are you there—”
“Yes,” said a tiny voice near her ear. She felt little pulls on the cloth of her collar as a small doll regained its accustomed seat on her shoulder. “I fell down your back,” it said, “but hung on.”
“Good.” She wilted with relief. “We’ve lost too much of you as it is…” The doll was made of junk: A coiled wire made up its left arm, a couple of broken pencils its right. Its head was the porcelain knob from some electrical device, with bright screws attached that moved uncannily like eyes. Its mouth was the reed from a ship’s horn.
There was no magical spirit animating these random pieces, but fine, hairlike threads of something the emissary called nanotech. This body—this doll, so unlike the ones Leal had collected back when she lived in Sere—was part of the alien. It was the part that she spoke with, and could cup in her hands and so treat, if only for moments at a time, as a being like herself.
She fully intended to start moving, but for a long moment remained at the edge of the cliff, staring downward. She’d seen faces as she dangled: of poor Dean Porril, huddled in permanent mourning behind his great iron desk in a wind-rattled office deep underneath the university; of Easley Fencher, who could never keep his lanky elbows and knees from sticking out, nor his equally awkward thoughts and attitudes. Of her friend Seana, in the bright metal exoskeleton that kept her upright in the unfamiliar gravity of the city. Of fire, bright and orange and frantic, as it consumed Easley’s home with Easley in it …
“We’d best get going,” said Piero quietly. The rest of the group had already moved on—predictably, with the limping silhouette of Eustace Loll, high official in her country’s government, in the lead.
“For somebody who’s half-lame, he sure moves,” she muttered; Piero saw where she was looking and grinned.
They made to catch up, unspeaking. There was no sound for a while then, but for the muttering of the breeze and the distant crack of glacial ice falling from the wall of the world. Their pursuer had stopped yelling for them to stop, wait, just hold on a minute and talk to it. It must know it was going to catch them now, so why bother talking?
They’d had a seemingly insurmountable lead when they set out this morning. Leal had stood on a promontory and scanned the steep, seemingly infinite slope below their campsite. Far down there, barely visible in the gray light that only indicated a sky, something was heaving itself across the rocks. As usual, somebody had been watching it at all times, as the rest of them slept. She’d taken her turn, and she could see that it hadn’t gotten very far since then.
They’d walked on up the slope, reassured. And then, an hour ago, she’d heard that familiar voice again.
And here it came again, from only a few hundred yards back: “Leal! Wait, please!”
As if in agreement, there came a deep grumble of sound from far above. At first, as they’d toiled their way up steeper and steeper slopes, those occasional bellows of thunder had seemed familiar. Leal had waited to see lightning, but there never was any. Gradually, she’d come to realize that she wasn’t hearing storms. Thunder here meant something different than it did at home.
“Leal, come back! I can help you!”
“Come on, what are you waiting for?” she snapped at the little group of men whose faces were painted by lantern light in shades of worry and doubt. “All we need is a big overhang. We’ll be fine.”
She’d slipped because there was as much ice up here as rock. Generally you could tell the difference, but not always. She’d been careless; now she stalked on, head down, fiercely focused on the uneven tumbled stones ahead of her. Piero walked next to her; in another time and place, he might have gallantly demanded that she rest, but they had no time for that.
Another man had been walking beside her when they’d set out on this journey. He was gone now. He wouldn’t be back, despite her doubts, despite the promise of that distant voice that followed her through her waking hours and even into her dreams. She shuddered and tried to bring her attention back to the tilted, broken slabs of the ancient roadway under her feet.
This worked for a while, but then a series of cracking sounds, like distant gunshots, echoed from far overhead. In the silence that followed, Leal and her men met one another’s eyes; then somebody said, “Move!”
Everything was tilted at an absurdly steep angle here, but luckily gravity had been lessening as they climbed. It was easy to balance on the narrowest of ledges or blades of shattered pavement, and she could jump distances she would never have considered on the daylit plains they’d come from. Like fleas on some vast monster’s back, they popped from stone to stone, trying to get away from what was coming.
The whole slope shuddered and slid down a few feet. Leal stumbled, luckily, as something slashed through the air just above her. Clattering and pattering, splinters of shrapnel ice shot from the point where some glacial mountain had hit the rocks behind them. Distant booms signaled the landing of other house-sized chunks of hail.
“Maybe it’s a seasonal thing.” Piero’s voice sounded very small in the sudden quiet.
Leal shook her head. The icefalls had been increasing in frequency for days. Something was peeling away the great glacial sheets that built up above the rock line. Up there, the world’s wall was black and smooth, a fine weave of carbon nanotubes that was only a meter or two thick. Thin as it was, it transmitted the chill of interstellar vacuum from the other side. Water—and even air—froze to it. The glaciers that resulted would normally split and fall away in their own time, but they were hurrying now, as if they sensed the presence of intruders coming from below.
The only door home from this strange and perilous world was past those glaciers, at the very top of the wall. Leal and her companions had no choice but to come this way if they were ever to see their countries and people again.
She eyed the silhouette of Eustace Loll, who had fallen back from the lead and was watching the skies fearfully. The politician had branded her a traitor, and though he’d promised to lift that accusation if they ever made it home, he couldn’t be trusted. If she ever walked the copper streets of Sere again, she feared it would be as a paraded prisoner, in chains and spat upon by the countrymen she had tried so hard to save.
One foot ahead of the other. Just keep walking … She ignored her pounding headache and the ever-present knot in her stomach. She had a job to do.
They’d gone about a mile when Piero held up his hand. “Wait,” he said. They all stopped, and in the new silence Leal heard it: cracks and pops and splintering sounds, layered over one another in an almost continuous grumble. This was like the sound that presaged the fall of a glacier, but stretched out, as if not just one berg but an entire sky full of bergs was about to come down …
Piero swore, and Loll stumped back to blink at them both. “What do we do?”
The little junk-doll suddenly grabbed her ear. “There!” It stood up, pointing past her eyebrow at something …
Miles above, a little string of lights broke the total darkness. It was impossible for them to be there—Aethyr was an empty world, and nowhere was as desolate as this long treacherous slope—and yet there they were:
* * *
THE SOUND OF children playing faded as Keir Chen took the down stairs three steps at a time. He didn’t have much time; recess would be over in fifteen minutes.
The stairwell was pitch black, and he had no light; to guide him, Keir relied on the little cloud of buzzing dragonflies that accompanied him everywhere. They were his second set of eyes, and they did pretty well in low light. Now they showed him the knapsack he’d stowed here yesterday. It was heavy as he picked it up—stuffed with food, clothing, and other supplies. He’d carefully spent months accumulating it all, taking his time so the others wouldn’t see the pattern.
He wanted to run, but even if the gravity was low here in the city of Brink, he couldn’t risk a fall. Some of these stone stairwells plummeted for miles through the foundations of the city. It took too many seconds to pick his way down, so when he reached the bottom he began pelting at full speed through a succession of dark, empty corridors and chambers where his footsteps were the only sound. His dragonflies had been gamely trying to catch up, and when he reached one particular side chamber and finally stopped, they came to zizz around his head angrily.
This little room had two doors, one leading inside where he’d just come from, the other letting onto a balcony. There was a spot next to the entrance where he’d stood a few times; he went there now and put his back to the wall. Then he knelt and picked up a sharp rock that lay by the door. When he straightened with his back against the wall, he lifted his hand to scratch it behind his head.
Keir lowered the stone, his eyes fixed on the black-on-black doorway that led outside. “Don’t worry about such things,” Maerta had told him when he’d revealed his suspicion to her. “You’re a kid, Keir. Why don’t you just enjoy being a kid?”
He took one more deep breath, squared his shoulders as he’d seen some of the older men do, and stepped away from the wall. He turned around and, summoning his dragonflies, peered at the latest mark he’d made. There was at least a half-centimeter gap between it and the last one he’d made.
There was no doubt about it.
He was getting shorter.
He’d talked to the other kids, and he’d been watching them. They were all growing up; but he wasn’t. They were learning new things every day, a fine layering of knowledge on knowledge that was taking them all to adulthood.
Keir knew that he knew less than he once had, not more.
He stepped out onto the balcony, and turned around to look up.
From this little balcony the city was visible only as black piled up on black, its cornered intricacies lost in permanent shadow—all save for that one ring of windows in one high tower. With the aid of his dragonflies’ eyes, he could see the city’s overall shape, and size. Their vision gave him a little courage, too, when the distant winds sighed like voices from the empty apartments, and when he fancied he saw movement in the blackest shadows of the stone gardens. They let him see and verify that, no, nothing ever spoke here, and nothing ever moved.
—Which was good. He couldn’t afford for anyone to find what he’d been doing on this little parapet, half a mile from the inhabited halls.
He took a deep breath and stepped up to something that sat swaying slightly on the parapet, all folded angles and parchmentlike planes. “Are you ready?” he asked the ornithopter he’d been growing. “Tell me you’re ready.”
“Not ready,” it said in its mindless monotone. “Feed me.”
“You said you’d be ready!” he burst out. “You said you’d be ready to fly!”
“Yes. Can fly. Cannot carry.”
“That’s not what I—!” He punched its wing. It shuffled aside. Keir stepped back, clutching his knapsack and nearly in tears. He couldn’t go through with his plan today, but Gallard was going to catch him for sure if he went back, and then he’d never get another chance. Or maybe he could be extra sneaky; maybe he could pretend to be a dutiful student for another few days. He could hide feedstock for the ornithopter, maybe make it down here one more time to feed it …
With a curse at his own indecision, he stalked back into the tower. He hadn’t brought anything to feed the aircraft, because stealing feedstock was risky and anyway, he’d thought it was ready. But there was another potential source of the stuff here …
He waited for his dragonflies to catch up and when their eyesight supplemented his, he could see what he was after in one corner of the room. He hunkered down and shuffled toward it.
A tiny pinprick of light suddenly glowed there, then another, then a dozen. Little gleaming midges flew up from the experiment he’d begun here a week ago. A pipsqueak voice sounded in his head: “I am the mighty Brick! Tremble before me, mortal!”
“That’s okay, it’s okay,” he said in a soothing tone as he reached slowly for the half-open bag of feedstock lying next to the brick. His fingers were almost touching it when the little midges dove at his hand. “Ow!”
The air was suddenly full of dragonflies, and little dogfight battles erupted all over the room, complete with the pittering sound of minuscule machine guns firing and tiny smoking death spirals. “Do not defy the mighty Brick!” cried the brick. Keir ducked under the aerial battle and snagged the bag of feedstock. Then he ran from the room before the brick was able to bring its little howitzers to bear on him.
He’d had some compelling reason for making a minitech AI think that it was the brick. It had been some sort of reminder to himself, he knew that. But the details … they were gone, like so much of what he’d done and intended lately. All he had left was a terrible feeling of apprehension, a certainty that if he didn’t get out of this place, and soon, something terrible was going to happen.
Shakily, he went out to the balcony again and dumped the bag of feedstock in front of the ornithopter. As it eagerly scarfed down the mixture of metals, silicates, and rare earth elements, Keir leaned on the balustrade, looked out, and sighed.
This world had suns—dozens of them—but they were too far away to provide even a hint of radiance to the sky. The city was as invisible as it ever was, its cornered intricacies lost in permanent shadow. Only that one ring of windows in one high tower betrayed habitation.
Brink crested above that and over itself, in wave after frozen wave whose dark caps faded into obscurity in the heights. The near-infinite wall to which the city clung rose at an eighty-degree angle. Farther down, the angle decreased to a mythically distant, sunlit plain, while above it steepened to the vertical so far away that all gravity would cease by the time you got there.
Giant knuckled slabs of glacier and stone were the city’s only companions at this height. Paths wove from one patch of scree to another, avoiding the perilously slick black skin of the world’s wall whenever possible. Eyeless goats brayed from their rock perches, and fungi and meatshrooms blossomed from cracks in the stone. He could hear booming sounds from distant avalanches; those had increased in frequency lately, sometimes shaking Complication Hall with the power of their passage.
He’d thought about just walking off down that slope, but if he were to try it he’d surely be killed by icefall before he got ten kilometers; and anyway, down led only to the realm of the oaks, who had filled Aethyr with grasslands and forests that were prowled by strange predators, and sometimes by the oaks themselves. He’d hoped his ornithopter would take him high enough that they’d become weightless, and then it would have been easy to cross Aethyr to the wild but free worlds of the arena. Wild, free—and in their own way, far more dangerous than any encounter with the oaks.
If he and the ornithopter sailed off to the arena right now, no one would see him go. Of course, there would be no one to see him crash on the steep slopes below the city, break a leg or a collarbone, and slowly freeze to death. Even if they noticed his absence right away, they wouldn’t know where to look for him.
He should have tried the other door, the one that led to the one world he knew would be safe for his kind. The door to it wasn’t even closed. —No, not closed, merely guarded by monsters.
Keir hugged himself, feeling miserable. He scowled down at the darkness, and one of his dragonflies soared away from the miniature battle in the room, spiraled into the air over his head, and spotted something.
In the dark below the city, a cluster of lights wavered.
They were fantastically small pinpricks, hovering on the very edge of visibility, but now the rest of his dragonflies could see them, too. Kilometers down the gradually decreasing curve of the world’s wall, something had carved a little cave of illumination out of the dark.
“Hey,” he said to the ornithopter, “are you ready to carry me yet?”
“Need to digest,” it said. “Two hours.”
“Hmmpf.” He stared at the little lights. Who could that possibly be? Nobody from the Renaissance ever went out on the slopes; the constant avalanches made it too dangerous. There was nothing down there but blind goats and unstable scree, anyway. Visitors came to Brink occasionally—but they only ever came by air.
Whatever those lights were, he had other priorities.
—Although, if somebody had wanted to sneak up on the city, coming up from below like that would certainly be the way to do it.
“Not my problem,” he said to the ornithopter. It turned its camera eyes to him, then resumed munching the feedstock.
“The grown-ups can take care of it,” he continued.
It said nothing.
He stood for a while looking down at the faint lights.
“Could you fly down there and back?”
“Yes,” it said. It didn’t move.
Keir opened his mouth, closed it, then, cursing his own curiosity, ordered one of his dragonflies to clamp itself to the ornithopter’s foot. “Go on, then,” he said. The mechanical bird dropped the feedstock bag, bunched up its wings, and leaped awkwardly into the air. Startlingly graceful once aloft, it swooped away and disappeared into the gloom.
A minute later it returned, and as it collapsed in some sort of mechanical relief onto the flagstones at his feet, Keir received a download of images from the dragonfly that had ridden with it.
The people down there weren’t part of the Renaissance. Some dozen or so of the climbers looked human, though with them were things that had the unmistakable air of morphonts: artificial life-forms that built bodies for themselves from strands of nanotech. These morphonts walked on legs, and they had heads. They also twined together, forming something like a mobile fence, and they stayed downslope from the humans, a sort of living guardrail.
The humans looked ragged and half-starved, and some of them were limping. The morphonts were clearly friendly, and morphonts meant the sophistication and resource-rich worlds of the arena; but the humans seemed neither sophisticated nor rich. He’d seen photos of people like them—telephoto images taken through kilometers of air. Keir’s recent memories were fuzzy, but he did remember the pictures: of a people who lived in permanent weightlessness, building rotating cities for gravity and flying chemical-powered aircraft in a world where only the most primitive of technologies worked.
But it couldn’t be. They couldn’t be here.
He scowled and barked a laugh and walked to the edge of the balcony to get a look at those lights with his own eyes. They were still there.
He heard the gunshot cracks that signaled an avalanche—they went on and on, signaling a big fall this time. Squinting, he thought he could actually see something way up the wall above the city, like a vast pale hand reaching down. Keir turned all his dragonflies to that view, and now he could make it out: a veritable continent of ice peeling away from the slope ten kilometers or more overhead.
He called up his scry, the collection of processors, communications systems, and interfaces that helped him keep up with the multilayered, surreal world the adults of the Renaissance had built. He tried to call the nannies, then anybody else in Complication Hall; but it was too far away.
This far up the world’s slope, gravity was less than half a standard g. He looked up at the majestically bowing facade of ice, then down at those wavering, faint lights below the city; and he asked his scry how long it would take before the one landed on the other.
The answer came back almost instantly; but then Keir stood there frowning for long seconds, as his breath frosted in front of him.
Then he cursed and ran inside, down two halls, and out to another stairway. His instinct was to hesitate, but he’d set a timer in his scry telling him exactly how long he had before the ice reached the slope below. So he tested the top steps and, when they held him, leaped down the rest recklessly, accompanied by a cloud of watchful eyes. Soon he was standing on the round parapet of a minaret, and in the upper right corner of his visual field, the timer was still ticking down. He went down this next staircase, but in the darkness it took much longer than he’d hoped. When he emerged from an outside doorway to stand on unworked rock, he was sure it was too late.
This slope lay in the shadow of Complication Hall’s lights, but it wasn’t completely dark. A faint red glow permeated the air from the far distance, and this gave just enough light for him to make out tumbled stones and a nearby goat path.
Here he made the mistake of looking up. With the help of the dragonflies he could plainly see a ceiling of white, kilometers wide, lowering toward the city.
He could see the strangers’ lights—they were close at hand now—and, very close by, the entrance to a tunnel that doubtless ran into Brink’s foundations. It was clear the people with the lanterns couldn’t see that archway, because it lay above them and behind some tall boulders, and their little lights could only reach a few meters anyway.
“Heeeyy!” He jumped and waved his arms, but nobody noticed. The strangers were picking their way one step at a time, heads bent and focused on their task. Yet they must have heard the cataclysmic cracking of the ice sheet; must know that even now it was silently bearing down on them.
Now that he was close enough Keir tried to hail the newcomers through his scry. It didn’t register them at all. And according to his timer the ice would be here in a matter of seconds.
He swore and began leaping down the rocks toward them.
Now the orange-lit ovals of their faces turned in his direction. They all stopped walking and he could see them talking—verbally—among themselves; there was a sudden flurry of movement and, just as he half-slid down the last few meters, four of them produced odd, compact handheld devices and pointed them at him. Keir’s scry identified these as weapons—but the idea that they might threaten him more than what was approaching was simply laughable.
“Run!” He pointed in the direction of the entrance he’d spotted, which really was invisible from here. “Ruuuuun! There!”
One of them stepped forward. She was pale-skinned, her features oddly mis-composed, as though she’d never taken the effort to adjust her bone structure or skin type. “Who are you?”
“Never mind! Run!” And, because his timer had about fifteen seconds left to it, he bounded past them, making for that other entrance. “Come on!”
“Why?” she shouted after him. “Is it—”
“The ice!” Belatedly, they began to move. With eight seconds left, Keir made it to the archway. Two blind goats were cowering in the entrance, but beyond them, it ran back into indeterminate blackness.
Eleven seconds, and the first of the strangers reached the arch.
Thirteen, and the strange goat-railing creatures scrabbled up; one was carrying a man on its back.
Fifteen seconds and the rest of them were in. Nothing happened, and the last of the strangers—including the woman—were only meters away.
A new silhouette appeared in the doorway. It looked like a man, but when the woman saw it she screamed. One of the men raised something that looked like a primitive weapon and shouted, “Keep back!”
“Let me in!” shouted the stranger. “I just want to talk.”
Keir jumped at a loud bang and the silhouette staggered back. The woman ducked her face in her hands, the others were standing, shouting, and—
Whump! The stranger disappeared behind a wall of white. The entire slope bowed under the impact of something gigantic. A roar beyond sound, a physical wall of noise, hit Keir. He was tossed about the tunnel, hitting wall and ceiling and floor as the thunder went on and on, and outside the cave mouth all that was visible was a churning chaos of grinding and hammering snow.
Gradually that vast cry, like the thunderous rage of a giant, dwindled to ordinary thunder, then to grumbling and sighs interspersed with pattering and sliding sounds. Though the floor still swayed and dipped beneath him, Keir staggered to the entrance to look out. Towering thunderheads reared to all sides, their bases rooted in the world’s slope. Yet for a dozen or more meters to every side, the rocks were clear of ice.
Keir found he was trembling. He’d known the tunnel would survive the avalanche; the metropoloid that called itself Brink had built itself strong enough to withstand the occasional glacial fall. Yet it was terrifying to be so close to the avalanche that he could feel its wind on his face, and taste the flavor of ancient ice.
His ears were ringing and he was sure the others were half-deaf, too, but a little deafness wouldn’t stop scry. As she picked herself up and dusted herself off, Keir tried pinging the woman again; when there was no response, he tried the others. There was no reply from the humans, but an icon cloud rose from the backs of the strange, trunk-to-tail-entwined guardrail goats. A glyph of men fencing appeared in the upper left corner of Keir’s vision as his scry did a handshake with theirs. The humans remained dark to data; they didn’t even seem to be able to see the data cloud he was emitting.
The shaking subsided; the thunder and hammering echoes rolled away and away, and a great slow sigh of icy air wafted into the tunnel, causing the survivors to huddle together.
“Thank you,” shouted the woman. Keir barely heard her; his ears were still stunned.
He pointed at the entrance. “But why did you shoot that man?”
“That wasn’t a man.” She walked among her people, touching each in turn and speaking to them. Some nodded; some shook their heads. Keir estimated there were about a dozen of them, an impossibly tiny party to deploy for the purposes of scaling a world’s wall.
She returned and now gave Keir a frank, head-to-toe appraisal. He wanted to ask more about the incident with the gun, but she spoke first. “Where did you come from?”
“I—I live here,” he stammered; and in the pale light of the strangers’ lanterns, he took in her archaic, hand-sewn apparel, the tightly drawn-back hair and her intriguing, imperfect features, and knew that his earlier guess had been right. “Are you from Virga?”
She nodded, then shot him a suspicious look. “But you’re not. Who are your people?” Then, in a somewhat dazed tone, “We saw lights.”
“That’s Complication Hall. Where I live.”
Another man, red-faced and mustachioed, came to stand next to the woman. They exchanged a glance, and she shrugged. Behind him, several of the others were moving outside, presumably to look for the one they had shot. Keir knew it would be futile, that the ice would have scoured him away to nothing.
“Do you have water, and a place to sleep?” asked the red-faced man.
Keir shrugged wryly. “A whole city’s worth of guest rooms. None ever slept in. I—”
“I’m not sure we can pay,” she said quickly.
Keir thought through these words, and he had to smile. “Nobody’s ever offered to ‘pay’ me for anything before,” he said. “I think that would be … amazing. What is it you pay with?”
“Forget I mentioned it,” she said, frowning quizzically. She put out her hand and Keir gingerly took it in his own to shake. He’d never actually performed this particular ritual before, but again she didn’t seem to notice.
“I’m Leal Maspeth,” she said. It took him a moment to realize she’d given him her name, since the words were just a garble of sound buried in her accent. She swept an arm to indicate her companions. “We were stranded on the floor of Aethyr, some weeks ago. We’re walking back to the axle of the world, so we can get back to Virga with some important information.”
“Really?” His scry had finished handshaking with the goats’ and subtitles were starting to appear under Maspeth’s chin when she spoke. A sizable cloud of tags hovered over her party now, so Keir no longer needed to pester her with questions, which would be rude. He’d review their records as they walked.
The men who’d gone to look outside returned, shaking their heads grimly. They could all return the way Keir had come, but there might be straggler avalanches; better to take this tunnel back to one of the central stairwells.
Keir commanded his dragonflies to explore the tunnel. They’d been clinging for dear life to his jacket and now wafted off of him in a little cloud. The Virgans looked startled at this sudden motion. After a short sortie the dragonflies reported that the tunnel was clear, and so Keir began walking up it.
“Um…” said Maspeth. After a few moments he heard her and the others following him, whispering among themselves.
According to the scry, Leal Hieronyma Maspeth was from a country called Abyss. These people really were from Virga! Maybe they knew a way back there, and now that he’d saved their lives, maybe …
“Uh,” Maspeth said again, hurrying to catch up to Keir. “What’s this place called?”
“Brink,” said a pipsqueak voice issuing from somewhere around her shoulder. She craned her neck to look at a little doll-shaped figure sitting on the ragged felt of her coat. Keir hadn’t spotted the little man-thing before, but its presence didn’t surprise him; it was obviously a bodily extension like his own dragonflies.
“How do you know what it’s called?” she asked it in irritated surprise.
“Keir Chen has given us guest citizenship in his scry,” said the golden doll. “I’m reading his records now.”
Belatedly, Keir realized that since she herself couldn’t read his scry, his silence might not seem polite to her. “Brink,” he said, spreading his arms to encompass everything above the tunnel’s ceiling. “Looks like a city, but it’s not. We’re the only people living here. Only people who ever lived here.”
She looked puzzled. “How many of you?”
“About a hundred.”
“What do you do here?”
He might have intended to run away today, but even if he had, Keir wouldn’t have told the truth at this point. “We’re trying to find new patterns of meaning in the metropoloid’s architecture,” he said smoothly as his scry supplied him with a plausible story. “They could be the genes for a new urbanoid.”
She gave him a look so eloquently uncomprehending that he almost regretted having lied to her. “We’re city breeders,” he clarified. Maspeth blinked, then shook her head.
She batted distractedly at the air. “Damn bugs,” she said. “Never seen any until now.”
She was actually trying to swat his eyes! Keir ordered the dragonflies to stay away from the Virgans from now on.
“We were following a road, said Maspeth urgently. “Does it continue up past the city?”
Keir shook his head. “I’ve looked, believe me. The slope’s too steep to keep the rock on it up there. It’s bare carbon-nanotube weave, smooth as silk. It’s impossible to climb beyond this point.”
She gave a stifled wail and stopped walking. Keir blinked at her in surprise; she looked for all the world just like he often felt. “Then—” She fought to say or not say something. “Then where does this damned road go?!”
“It goes no farther … but it does come here,” he said gently.
“Yes … yes, it’s not a total loss maybe.” She had fallen in beside him. “You took a huge risk coming down to warn us,” she said suddenly. “I want to thank you on behalf of all of us.”
Suddenly shy, he looked away.
Why had he done it? The whole episode was so totally out of character for him, and yet while he had been racing down here, no other course of action had been conceivable. It was as though some side of himself that had always been in darkness had suddenly lit up; and, in fact, he felt somehow that he’d acted this way before—selflessly, and foolishly.
“Yes, thank you!” Somebody was pushing his way up from the back of the group. He was stumping along using a stick like a third leg. He was lank-haired, with a chin that seemed to have been designed for a larger person, and small darting eyes. The guardrail introduced him as Eustace Loll, a “cabinet minister” in the archaic control system Abyss called its “government.”
Still faintly embarrassed, Keir said, “Think nothing of it, Minister Loll,” and at the sound of his name Loll nearly fell over. Leal Maspeth steadied him, and Keir now saw that one of Loll’s ankles was bundled and bound with pieces of wood and cloth. Keir looked for a tag cloud in his scry but of course he had none—and that was when Keir realized with horror that the man was nursing an untreated injury.
“Tell me, how is it that you spotted us?” asked Loll in an innocent tone. Keir was too shocked at his obvious pain to organize his thoughts; luckily his scry was popping up plausible explanations. After a few awkward seconds he said, “I accidentally dropped something on that path yesterday. I’d finally gotten a chance to come down and look for it when I spotted you.”
They seemed to accept this explanation, so he led them on, to a round chamber from which a spiral stairway led up. As their lights supplemented his dragonflies’ vision, Keir saw that the wall behind the steps was covered with carvings of eyeless goats.
Before he could stop himself he burst out laughing; even to himself, the sound had a slightly hysterical tinge to it. Maspeth looked at him with wide eyes, which just made him laugh more. “Sorry, sorry,” he gasped. “Sometimes I can’t tell whether the city’s just recording what it sees, or whether it has a sense of humor.” He shook his head, embarrassed again, and added, “I’m a little out of myself … after what just happened. I didn’t mean to laugh.”
To his surprise she nodded. “Nobody’s going to fault you,” she said. “We’ve all endured some big shocks lately, and people react … well, however they react. So—do we go up now?”
He nodded. “Yes, up …
“To Complication Hall.”
Copyright © 2012 by Karl Schroeder
Table of Contents
Part 1: The Offer,
Part 2: The Cheetah and the Tree,
Part 3: The Choice,
Tor Books by Karl Schroeder,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews