Back then, we liked to scour the docks of Termina Celeste for starships to tag: sleek crafts with hulls like vast canvases and cabins that were mostly unattended because the space-lagged passengers were off in the city somewhere, getting drunk or on business or both.
Blaise Landry was the leader of the crew, being the oldest out of the five of us. I was his lieutenant. That meant whenever Blaise was out, decommissioned–because sick or in deep trouble with his dad or whatever–I got to be in charge that day, which meant I got to choose which ship to tag.
Our evening began like every other: calm and lubricated with a little beer. No hint of the chaos you may’ve read about or seen on holotrope feeds. That all came later.
We were leaning over the cliffside railing in the southeast quadrant of the docks, spitting into the deep canyon beside which Termina Celeste had been built. In my holotrope lectures that week, I’d learned about DNA, and I fancied each little ball of my saliva was bringing down into the River Andalosi a library of tiny blueprints of me. An artist takes whatever legacy he can get. I hocked up a good one and watched the yellow tadpole tumble through four and a half kilometers of space.
“I’ll do you one better, Lucas,” said Hugo Gunfrey. Turning at a slight angle for modesty, he relieved himself over the edge with a sigh that shook his huge belly.
“God that’s revolting,” Robin Vexler said. She guarded her eyes with a flap of her orbital-jumper jacket and scowled. “You and me, Lucas, let’s push him over, how about it?”
“Sounds like a lot of work,” I said.
“Gravity’d do most of it.”
I knew I wasn’t the only one with murderous fantasies whenever we hung out by the abyss. Everybody has dark thoughts now and then. But imagining them behind Robin’s waifish face and big brown eyes was difficult.
“Any word on the boss?” I asked Jacob.
At fourteen, Jacob Landry was younger than his brother Blaise by a year. He was also the tallest and sturdiest of our crew by far. He could’ve passed for a bouncer at one of his father’s mob-front nightclubs, or maybe a truancy officer.
Jacob shook his head as he cast through his wrist holotrope for Blaise’s whereabouts, then shut it off, nixing the dance of holographic minutiae. “With a girl tonight, probably. Doesn’t drop out of the Buzz otherwise.”
“Traitor,” said Hugo.
Robin clipped on her orbital-jumper helmet. Like her jacket, it was several sizes too large and scuffed from the junkyard where she’d found it. “Give that here, Lucas. I wanna hit one of those buzzards.”
I handed her my empty beer bottle, and she chucked it at a sentry drone floating overhead. The bottle burst with a festive crash, a tinkle of falling glass.
By the time the robot spun its floodlights around we were already gone, darting off across the cliffside promenade and laughing.
Bands had struck up in the neon towers of Termina Celeste’s midtown, which clustered like an orthodontic night-terror below the city roof. Music of all kinds, from all places: Jovian blues and heat-death metal, quantum jazz and Horsehead pomp. One strain after another came rolling down off the cool evening air, balled up with smells of fried noodles, potatoplum sauce, koalaroo dumplings, trampagne.
“If Blaise is out, you know what that means,” I said, smiling. I was the first to take out my vaulter. It was long and cold and smooth, a baton of collapsible supercarbon thick as a femur. I kept it in my knapsack with the spray cans and other things.
“Means out with Benito, in with Blackbeard,” said Jacob. His back furrowed as he unsheathed a vaulter of his own. He held it like a gladiator might a pike, with one end balanced on his trapezius muscle.
“That’s right,” I said. “Means I’m in charge. And seeing as I’m in charge, I pick that beauty as our target.”
I pointed my vaulter at the pristine white argosy that’d held my eye all evening, snug and so temptingly secure in its hypersilk moorings. The name Kingfisher was lettered on its hull in old-fashioned silver characters, and from the blue roses running through their gaps I knew the craft belonged to a Delphine merchant prince. The sort of prince, from what I’d glimpsed on holotrope feeds, who needed taking down a few pegs anyway.
“Delphines? They don’t screw around,” said Jacob. “It’s like picking on the uranium mafia.”
“Stuff we’ve been through? Tch,” I said.
“This is different,” said Robin, rubbing her nose through her visor. “This is crazy. You’re crazy, Lucas.”
“Amen,” said Hugo.
“Bunch of cowards, then,” I said. “Guess I’ll have to do it myself.”
They tensed. Getting tagged a coward was no small thing if you ran with a high-wire crew like us. The only worse insult was snitch.
“Screw it,” said Jacob.
“You can’t be serious,” said Robin.
“He’s the boss, and I’m no coward. Are you?”
“These snakes, the Delphines, you said it yourself. They catch you, it’s not exactly a fine.”
“They have to catch you,” I said.
Hugo crossed his pudgy arms. “No way.”
But I’d made my point.
After waiting for a sentry drone to pass, I ran to the edge of the cliff overlooking the docks–faster, faster–and rammed my vaulter into the girders at an angle, letting the energy in the supercarbon whisk me up and fling me over the gulf between platforms. I was rising, flying, and landed on a docked starship with a metal thud, somersaulting once to absorb the impact.
I twirled my vaulter. “Last chance!” I called.
They glanced at each other helplessly. What choice did they have?
We vaulted from starship to starship, from small dhows to great frigates and from solar cruisers to alcubierres, our boots ringing on bright smooth alloys and squeaking over solar tarps drawn taut. A cool breeze strummed the hypersilk moorings, bringing the tang of exhaust and deflector wax. The canyon floor unfurled below us, a faint orange sketch. It used to frighten me, how high it all was. One small slip or bit of false footing, one breeze a little too strong or swig of beer too many, and that was it; that was the end of it; you were less than a memory of a memory.
It used to frighten me. Now it gave me a rush.
A maintenance drone was daddylonglegging down a strand of hypersilk onto a ship, and Robin jabbed her vaulter into the robot in passing, sending it skittering into the abyss.
“You have a drone problem!” I shouted.
“When they take over someday, you will too!” she called back.
“Guys!” Hugo stopped to poke his thumb at a freighter in our midst.
It was a clunker, all scrapes and scratches and stains, with a seal of recommission on its hull. But that wasn’t the interesting thing about it. The interesting thing was the dragon: About ten meters long, with scalloped black wings and gaping jaws, it crawled across the hull on the coat of holospray that’d birthed it, a living mural, lashing its tail and spewing bright red flames that spelled DRAKE.
Bits of our work survived at the edges, as if to remind us of our place. I’d never heard of this Drake, but I hated him already.
“Let’s scrub this jackass and put our tags back on,” said Jacob.
Robin glared at him. “You know that’s not how it works.”
She was right. For as long as our tradition had existed, the Code of the Alley held sway: You could spray over anyone so long as your art was better than theirs. It was the only rule, but breaking it was enough to get you stomped by your own crew.
The black scales of the dragon pulsed with life, their quivering reflections of the flames a feat of delicacy I’d never seen before nor imagined possible, at least with so blunt a medium as holospray or crude an instrument as the human hand. Drake was better; he deserved to be there. His dragon deserved to burn our paltry scrawl down to the last daub of color.
But I didn’t care. I was jealous.
Robin nudged me with her elbow. “You’re supposed to say, ‘At least I can count on you, Robin, to respect the Code, unlike this Neanderthal Jacob over here.’”
“Make that two Neanderthals,” said Hugo. “Code Schmode, that’s an act of war.”
After thinking about it, I gave Robin a guilty shrug.
“Sorry,” I said, taking out my spray can.
With twinkles of glee, Jacob and Hugo did the same.
Robin folded her arms disdainfully while the rest of us sprayed our tags over Drake’s. It felt good, the sight of the dragon dissolving as our names took its place.
I thumbed the color slider up and down while I ran my forefinger over the animation pad at the top of the can, setting down layers of the sticky matrix onto the hull in broad strokes. If I wanted an effect, such as a heat ripple or an icy sheen, all I had to do was tap a rhythm on the animator pad, and the smartchip in the can would tweak the spray to match. Gazillions of tiny computers in the holospray kneaded out all the little defects in my work, compensating here and balancing there like a network of pollen-sized elves.
When I was done, I stood back to judge my tag. It began as a Klein bottle full of dark green fluid, the contours warped enough to pass for a cursive lowercase “L.” As a bullet burst through the bottle in slow-motion, the fluid plumed out in its wake to form the rest of my pseudonym–LUX–the letters kindling into brighter shades of green, then yellow, then orange, until the hologram rewound.
Jacob’s tag was a chrome tree held together by scraps of machinery, the name KROMAGNON appearing in the gaps between branches as they meshed periodically.
Hugo’s tag was a self-portrait with some embellishments: biceps, medieval claymore, bandit’s mask. He liked his anonymity.
When we were done, all that remained of Drake’s dragon was a disembodied tail, still writhing despite the jolt of scattered pixels whenever it ventured too close to our tags.
Robin gave me a scornful look. I offered her a chance to change her mind.
“Blaise wouldn’t’ve done it,” she told me.
“She doesn’t know my brother like I do,” Jacob said.
I told Robin, “When you’re the leader you can make your own calls.”
But she vaulted off in a huff, and that was that.
By the time we reached the Kingfisher, Hugo was there waiting for us on a nearby solar cruiser, eating a hickory-smoked ham sandwich he’d dredged out of his knapsack. He offered some, but no one took him up.
“Suit yourselves,” he said, dropping a slice of provolone down his throat.
Nine times out of ten, Hugo was the first to arrive anywhere. We joked that he had so much mass because he was always flouting relativity. He didn’t care for that much.
The argosy was whiter and smoother than any ship I’d ever seen. Even the windows were shuttered behind white covers, their edges machined to an elegance that verged on fetishism. A ship made for us. My giddiness banished all my bitter feelings toward Drake. Here was a miracle. When I encountered a miracle, I didn’t pause to question its source.
But I should’ve.
As soon as I tried to spray the white surface, the contents of my can dribbled in a rainbowy rivulet down the dolphinlike hull and into the abyss.
“A custom repellant,” explained a voice behind us.
We whirled to find a lean blond man in a jetpack standing on the solar cruiser. He was middle-aged and handsome, with a Faraday rifle strapped to his back.
Jacob, Robin, and Hugo shifted to a defensive stance, clutching their vaulters like weapons. I whispered for them to relax.
“We’re not here to cause trouble, we’ll leave, no harm done,” I said.
The man smiled and flipped the rifle out of its strap. The muzzle flashed blue. The hickory-smoked ham sandwich in Hugo’s hand became a cloud of grey smoke. Hugo jerked in surprise and cursed.
The man said, “You’d be surprised how many sandwiches have almost done me in. Hidden nerve darts, custom pathogens, stuff like that. You’ll pardon my vigilance. Now if you would, please.” With his rifle, he gestured toward a door in the Kingfisher that had noiselessly opened.
We weren’t in a position to refuse him.
The man marched us down a corridor of interlocking black crystals that unmeshed in a wave ahead of us, forming rooms and alcoves that filled in again when we passed them. The ship’s whole interior seemed to consist of these crystals save the pocket of space we made as we traveled through it, like the ripsaw coral on Tarmageddi that’s said to open when tickled by the electric fields of certain jellyfish. Even the furniture–chairs, tables, cabinets–was no more than a brief union of the stuff, though the detail with which these items jumped into existence told me their designs were stored in a memory bank somewhere, like some elaborate subconscious.
A good security system for keeping prisoners, which I supposed we now were.
The man confiscated our knapsacks and Jacob’s wrist holotrope as we entered a crystal kitchen. “A security measure,” he said, with convincing cordiality. “You’ll have it back once we’re done here. Please have a seat.”
“I knew I recognized your face.” Jacob pointed to an old man’s bust at the edge of the room. The face belonged to Jora Hizad, the self-styled Merchant King who ruled the drone trade on Delphos. “So, which of his eighty-five sons are you? Or is it eighty-six?”
The man chuckled, slicking back his blond hair. “A couple of dead ringers, I know, though I like to think I’ve aged better than Father. I’m Hadrian Hizad. And you’re Jacob Landry, Robin Vexler, Hugo Gunfrey, and Lucas Davenport, unless my feedlink deceives me.” He tapped the spot on his temple behind which his feedlink implant was keyed. “Handy little thing. Not that I’d need it, with records like yours.” His eyes flicked back and forth as he read words we couldn’t see. “One of you must have powerful friends to’ve kept you out of the box this long. Powerful indeed.”
“If you’re referring to my father, he does know how to get us out of a tight spot,” said Jacob threateningly.
“Of course. Landry. How slow of me.” The lilt in Hadrian’s voice hinted that he had no fears whatever about the wrath of Jacob’s father, Enoch Landry, one of the High Capos in the Armitage Syndicate that governed the underworld of Termina Celeste.
After all, Hadrian belonged to a deadlier dynasty: a Delphine merchant family.
As if to quell our fears, he said, “I didn’t bring you onboard to harm you if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“Why did you?” asked Robin.
“To make an offer.” The merchant prince stowed his Faraday rifle in a crystal niche, then grabbed five black cups from a cabinet and filled them all with a single flourish of a beer bottle. “I want you to help me with something.” He gave us each a cup.
Robin said, “You couldn’t’ve asked for our help without forcing us onto your freakshow of a ship first?”
“You mean the ship you tried to vandalize? Let’s see.” Hadrian sipped his beer and concentrated on the holotrope data that gushed through his feedlink. “Eight counts of vandalism, nineteen of truancy, three of assault, four of petty larceny, one of grotesque indecency in a public setting–”
“That wasn’t me,” said Hugo.
“–and those are just the ones you got caught doing. I can only imagine the rest.”
“What’s it to you?” I asked.
“I know wasted talent when I see it,” he said. “And wasted courage, wasted youth.” He rubbed his jaw. “Oh, I know. But it doesn’t have to be that way.” He tapped a console, and a small black cylinder rose from its storage port.
While his back was turned, Robin whispered to me, “Let’s rush him, Lucas.”
But the cylinder held me. Even without its color slider or animator pad, I could tell what it was right away.
“Observe,” crooned Hadrian Hizad. He sprayed a cloud of black mist from the cylinder. The particles became a storm of shifting colors, dancing forms. Gradually the mist hardened into the likeness of a hummingbird flittering in midair. Not a hologram, but a hummingbird. Hadrian closed his eyes in concentration. A strand of yellow spooled off the bird’s wing and became the head of a spectacular sunflower, which the bird probed hungrily for nectar.
Hugo crossed his arms.
Jacob leaned forward, dazzled.
Bird and flower rejoined in a painterly whorl, and the colors parted into something new: a moonphoenix and an ice-white full moon. The white bird flew around the heavenly body, absorbing its pale light until it glowed like snow, then burst with a sound like windchimes into a thousand gems that made music as they fell.
Hadrian opened his eyes, and the forms dissolved back into mist and returned to the canister.
“Can Drake do that?” he asked, with a spark of mischief in his grey-blue eyes.
Amazed, I said, “You know?”
The merchant prince tapped his feedlink again like a charm. “I have four other canisters just like this one, and they’re yours….”
“If we help you,” I finished for him. “Doing what?”
“Lucas!” cried Robin.
But Hadrian had me and he knew it. “There’s this fellow–a professional competitor, you might say–who’s been hoarding his trade secrets for longer than anyone should.”
“Then tell the damn Trade Commission,” said Robin, “not us.”
“If only it were that simple.”
Hadrian tapped the console. All the furniture in the room disappeared into the walls in an engulfment of crystals, and a hologram of some asteroids replaced it, turning like a ring of filthy glaciers against a brown-and-green nebula. He tapped again, widened a pair of fingertips across the display screen. An asteroid swelled until its pocked badlands loomed huge and desolate, save for a scattering of tiny red sparkles. These in turn grew until I was looking at a field of red obelisks, widely spaced and identical among so much lonely acreage of light and shadow.
“The Archipelago of Souls,” I said, for I’d seen a holofeed documentary of the place as a child. Only the richest people in the galaxy could afford a crypt on one of the asteroids of the Archipelago, and only a thousand or so of the two million obelisks that studded those asteroids were the crypts themselves; the rest were decoys containing the most extensive maintenance and defense system that mankind in its magnificent vanity had ever made.
“Which one belongs to your rival?” asked Jacob.
“If I knew,” said Hadrian, “I would’ve had his brain drilled out and scanned ages ago. All I know for sure is he’s entombed in this section of the Archipelago. Hence why I’ve brought you all here. Your skills are just the sort I need. With your vaulters you can scour this low-gravity necropolis with ease.” Another few taps of the console overlaid an animation of a man vaulting from one asteroid to another. “And with your flair for artistry…well….”
The man landed on the rim of a crater. A drone scuttled out of the shadows to lase him, and he sprayed himself a mirror shield with one of Hadrian’s black canisters, deflecting the beam into the robot’s energy socket. A second drone swooped down from an outcrop to belch plumes of melting gas at him. His shield morphed into an armor-piercing harpoon gun, which he unloaded into the drone’s hornetlike belly. The drone crashed and skidded, a broken heap.
“You get the idea.” Hadrian tapped the console once more, and the hologram blinked out. “If you can find the crypt, the cans of conjuring spray are yours. I’ll even throw in a set of new vaulters, state-of-the-art. What do you say?”
Robin told him, “We don’t work for hire, Butterlocks. Ours is a strictly nonprofit outfit,” signaling with a sly saccade for me to agree with her.
But I couldn’t. This was the chance I was waiting for. The chance to surpass Drake, to surpass everyone.
Jacob beat me to it: “I’m in.”
“Are you crazy?” Hugo spluttered. “He kidnapped us, he vaporized my lunch, and now you wanna be his space bitch?”
Hadrian beamed. “Good choice, Mr. Landry.”
“I’m in, too,” I said.
“Very good, Mr. Davenport. Born artists, both of you. Willing to do what great art requires. Alas, the same cannot be said for your friends here.”
With that, Robin and Hugo’s chairs swallowed them in a crystal mesh and whisked them down into the ground.
Hadrian raised a hand to fend our horror. “I assure you this ship has passed every safety inspection since its christening. They will be deposited with absolute delicacy, minus a small tax in the form of their spray cans, of course.”
“If you hurt them…” I warned.
“We will kill you,” said Jacob.
The merchant prince forgave this impertinence with a shrug. “Only a fool would hurt friends of Enoch Landry’s son, and I’m no fool.”
Hadrian ushered us into a lower level of the ship, where the matrix of black crystals gave way to a corridor of old-fashioned steel and flexicarbon. Panels of harsh light brought out specks of drone grease in the corrugated floor, streaks of tracked grime.
Hadrian explained how the shabbiness of this part of the ship came down to it being the original fuselage. An heirloom more valuable than all the fancy graftings-on, if we could believe it. “Art and antique collecting, the only two things where bad is sometimes better,” he aphorized.
We waited in the cramped, musty lounge of the fuselage for ten minutes or so before a pair of lank young men with the telltale blond hair and grey-blue eyes of Delphine nobility strolled to us from a rickety stairwell.
Hadrian introduced the men as Nerva and Trajan, not that the distinction mattered much. They were identical down to their dour expressions and dutiful strides.
“Your sons?” I asked.
“Of a sort,” Hadrian said. “They’ll be teaching each of you how to use the conjuring spray.”
“I’m sure we could figure it out for ourselves,” said Jacob. “How much harder could it be than regular holospray?”
Hadrian answered with a laugh.
Neither Nerva nor Trajan spoke, but I could imagine the threads of clairvoyance between all three Delphines by dint of the feedlinks in their skulls.
“Out of curiosity,” I asked, “how many people have attempted this mission before?”
“What does it matter?” asked Jacob. “You’re not scared, I hope. The stuff we’ve been through, and all.”
The merchant prince smiled and patted my shoulder as he left us to the twins. “You have the good fortune to be the first, Mr. Davenport. So take heart. It’s not every day a hoodlum gets to prove himself.”
Nerva’s room was small, comfortless, and lined with strange equipment, including a rack of vaulters sporting every conceivable design: faux-wooden, optic yellow, ventricle red, diamantine. One was even textured in black scales like a headless water moccasin.
Trajan had taken Jacob to a separate room, so I was alone with the Delphine.
Quickly Nerva sealed the rack of vaulters behind a panel labeled SPARES, then motioned for me to lie on an operating bed. Over the bed hung a stalactite of precision tools connected to a gantry.
“Why?” I asked.
He answered in what seemed to me a raspier version of Hadrian’s voice. “Unless we’re mistaken, and His Fruitfulness is rarely mistaken, you do not have a feedlink, Mr. Davenport.”
“That wasn’t part of the agreement.”
“Fret not. The operation takes no more than a minute. Afterwards,” he said, clicking open a box of black canisters, “the spray will slave to you as soon as you touch it, no manual required.”
I refused to get on the operating bed. “Holospray doesn’t take a feedlink to use. Don’t see why this stuff should.”
Nerva sniffed in annoyance. The first sign of emotion I’d seen from him. “This stuff is orders of magnitude more complicated. In any case, the surgery is safe and entirely aboveboard.” He pointed to a Certificate of Elective Neurosurgery on the wall that bore a wax seal from some academy on Delphos. “I’ll even reverse the procedure myself once the mission is complete, should you change your mind about the conjuring spray. But why would you? A little extra hardware in one’s head is a small price to pay–wouldn’t you agree?–for becoming the greatest artist in Termina Celeste.”
Again I thought of Drake, of the joy I’d feel in surpassing him. The fierceness of my jealousy surprised me more than the madness of my bravery.
With reluctance, I laid down on the operating bed, then told Nerva to hurry up before I changed my mind.
Before the Trade Recession, when my father could still find work as a designer of holoaquariums, he’d often wax euphoric over dinner on how effortless each rendering of the day’s fish or sea fern, sand castle or sunken wreck, had come to him, how life had seemed to flow out of his stylus like an effortless dream, to the awe of many a foyer kibitzer or waiting room secretary. Naturals can’t resist bragging, and my father was no exception.
Now I understood why.
Nerva was stunned into silence by how quickly I was mastering the fundamentals of the conjuring spray. While he’d felt compelled to demonstrate with a canister of his own at first, now he was content to gape, like one of my father’s oglers, while I played out each of his lessons with my spray-cloud.
I’d expected to hear the chatter of tiny computers in each particle through my feedlink. Instead I sensed them as an undefined mass, warm with possibility. I knew what I wanted, and the mass shifted. The mist before me swirled from black to green, from vapor to fluid.
I willed a Klein bottle around the fluid to contain it.
Nerva blinked in surprise. “Fluids are hard enough,” he said, “but encasing them in glass so seamlessly–and with that geometry. Even Ariadne didn’t learn this fast. How?”
I laughed. “This stuff is good at recognizing talent, seems to me.”
I grabbed the Klein bottle from its perch in midair. The green liquid sloshed softly, leaving layered sine waves of residue on the glass.
With a hard swing, I smashed the bottle on the side of the operating bed. The fluid splattered all over the room, drenching us both and pooling on the floor like the product of a mutant spleen.
“Impressive,” I said, as the fluid and glass shards dissolved at my beck into the can, leaving every surface as dry as before. “Not even holospray’s that realistic. Who’s Ariadne?”
“No one of importance.” Irritably, Nerva searched his white uniform for stains. “How was I to know that stuff wasn’t dangerous?”
“You weren’t, unless you can read my feedlink,” I said. “Since you didn’t try to stop me, I assume you can.”
“Whatever slander you’ve heard about us Delphines, you’d do well to forget. We have standards. Though I confess even those may not help you, Mr. Davenport, if you take liberties with this spray without my permission again.”
Satisfied he couldn’t read my feedlink, after flitting through a few homicidal fantasies and spotting no tells, I shrugged and said, “Funny, I thought you might’ve been Hadrian’s clone or something, but you’ve got a rod up your ass longer than any in there,” nodding to the cache of vaulters labeled SPARES.
Raising his canister, Nerva sprayed forth a long klinger vine, then snatched my can with its purple tendrils.
“It was a joke,” I protested.
“Best get your laughing done now then, as there’ll be scant opportunity on the Archipelago.” A wisp of menace had crept into his tone.
Something had cut him.
I felt a faint throb in my head–not from the feedlink surgery, it seemed to me, but from some vague connections struggling to form.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I meant no disrespect,” letting my shoulders drop with my voice.
After some hesitation, Nerva held out my can. “Seeing as we don’t have much time, I trust you won’t waste any more of it.”
But I didn’t take the can just yet. “How much time is that?”
“A few hours at most. Once His Fruitfulness is finished with his business here–”
“I need a few minutes, I think. To meditate.”
He squinted. “Beg your pardon?”
“Everything’s just hit me,” I said. “All the stuff I’m about to do. I need to cleanse my thoughts. In peace. If that’s okay.”
Nerva studied me in silence, then said, “Two minutes, Bodhisattva, not a second more,” and left the room.
I grabbed a sharp piece of conjuring spray I’d hidden below the operating bed (a remnant of the bottle I’d smashed; you can never be too prepared) and pried open the vaulter stash panel. I pulled out the vaulter with black scales. I had never seen one like it. It had to be custom-made. I turned it over in my hands. Black scales.
My head throbbed harder as the connections snapped into place.
I returned the vaulter, shut the panel, and hid the shard back under the operating bed. Then I sat on the floor with my eyes closed until Nerva came back.
“Enlightened?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said.
After another three hours of practice, Nerva procured a Delphine meringue from a compartment, which he called my “dinner,” along with a bottle of unbranded alcohol, which he called my “digestif.”
“Taken together, they’ve been known to enhance courage,” said Nerva, “not that you’ll need it.”
Though light as a wiffle ball, the meringue had a payload of sugar packed into its chewy core, and it was shot through with an orange-lemon flavor. One of those foods meant to give energy more than satiation per se, like what longhaulers used to eat in deep space to save on storage.
“How’m I doing?” I asked through a mouthful.
“Truly?” Nerva admired the grindylow I’d made and consigned to brood in a corner, her gilled face smushed between her scaly knees as if looking out of a pillory. “I’ve seen them come and go, supposed wunderkinds, when we were trialing the spray on Delphos. They’ve all disappointed. But you,” he said, shaking his head and smiling faintly, “you could be the real thing.”
Even as I searched his face for dishonesty, I felt a flush of pride.
Maybe his words weren’t cajolery, a means of snaring my allegiance by way of my ego, but a genuine assessment of my skills, which somehow Hadrian’s spray channeled better than every other.
Or maybe I was a chump heading to my doom.
“Well,” I said, “with my Chosen One status, you’d think I’d be able to swing a visit with Jacob by now.”
“In time. Trajan tells me he’s learning slower than you.”
“Just a short one. Just to give him a few tips, you know, and maybe show off a little.”
I sent a brief feedlink signal: Like some fairytale fate, the grindylow dissolved into a cloud of green mist and funneled back into my can.
“Short or not,” said Nerva, “it wouldn’t take long for you to tell him what you found in there,” gesturing with his elbow to the vaulter stash. “Oh please. I’m not that obtuse. Meditate? You?”
I wiped the meringue crumbs off my lips. With all the calm I could muster, I asked, “What happened to Drake?”
Nerva made a drinking gesture. “Some happy juice first.”
“What happened, Nerva?”
Nerva sighed. “His Fruitfulness did advise me to keep quiet, but I was planning to tell you out of respect when I saw what you could do. Just you. No offense to your friend.” He cast around for the words. “Others have attempted the mission, sure. Drake was one. Ariadne, another. All had promise. But not like you. Nothing like you.”
My voice cracked a little. “Tell me they survived, at least.”
Nerva winced. “‘Survive’ is a complicated word. Bodies can last quite a while in vacuum.”
For the first time in my life I felt what must have been vertigo and sat down on the operating bed before it could lay me low. “So that’s it. This is a suicide mission.”
“No, no, no!” Nerva clamped his hands on my shoulders. “You’ll succeed! I’ll stake my life on it. Their destiny is not yours. Listen.” He spoke with conviction. “The spray doesn’t–doesn’t resist you. With a bit more training, the Archipelago of Souls will be no obstacle.”
“And Jacob,” I said acidly, “how do you suppose he’ll fare?”
Nerva gave me the type of shrug that always comes before a lie. “With you by his side I imagine quite well.”
I did the next thing without thinking.
I raised my can and shot a plume of mist at Nerva, aiming to trap his spraying hand in a cast of hypersilk.
But the mist didn’t congeal. And I could no longer sense it through my feedlink.
Nerva flashed a small black button strapped to his wrist. “I understand your emotions might be high right now, so just this once I’m going to forget that.” He cracked his hand across my face, a cherry bomb of hot, bright pain.
My lip fattened, and my cheek burned. I wanted to strike him back, but he held his can like a weapon at the ready. What could I do?
He pushed his wrist button, and my feedlink came online again. Under his hard gaze, I returned the mist to my canister.
“All of it, please,” he said. I returned the shard hidden under the operating bed as well. “Thank you.”
The muffled slam of a hatch reverberated through the ship, followed by the violin-pluck sounds of hypersilk moorings detaching.
We were taking off.
“Now, before we resume,” said Nerva, pointing to the digestif, “I’m afraid I must insist.”
The drink felt like a ball of fire in my throat, a mid-grade nuclear reaction in my stomach. But in my brain, the stuff pushed up against experience and left my wits mostly intact. All those swigs over the years with Jacob, Hugo, and Robin had paid off.
But there was use in pretending to be drunk. With theatrical precision, I swayed slightly, then shook my head as if to refocus on my spray-cloud, which Nerva had ordered me to make into a school of spritefish.
Though the windowless room gave no sense of the ship’s location, the steady drop in g-force told me we were already circumnavigating Celeste’s upper atmosphere. We’d be hitching to the planet’s Nullspace sling in ten minutes–or fewer, if the ship was faster than those I’d taken on vacations to Parnassus in the pre-Recession days.
Once the sling had trebucheted the Kingfisher into Nullspace, it would be too late to turn back.
“Concentrate, Mr. Davenport. The wooziness from the drink will wear off, but a similar sensation may afflict you in the Archipelago’s gravity field. You’ll have to stay focused no matter how your guts behave.”
“Ask Hadrian to take us back. I don’t want to go through with this.”
“You and Jacob made an agreement.”
“I can’t….” I trailed off, letting the school of spritefish dissolve as I slumped onto the operating bed. “I can’t do it, Nerva.” I made my voice brittle, my breathing heavy, as though about to be sick.
“If you wish to malinger,” said Nerva, “you’ll have to pick a different culprit than the digestif. We know you lot aren’t teetotalers, for heaven’s sake.”
“You’ve been watching us,” I said, unable to give up my act.
“Don’t let it get to your head. His Fruitfulness watches everyone. Knows everything.”
“Not everything,” I said. “He doesn’t know you told me about Drake, about the rest of them.”
“Nor will he,” said Nerva confidently.
My feedlink. If Nerva had put in a switch to disable it, what’s to say he hadn’t put in other things? A switch to torture or kill me, perhaps. My greed had gotten in the way of my judgment; I should’ve never agreed to Hadrian’s terms, let alone to the surgery. Hugo and Robin had had the right of it.
Then I realized: If Hadrian had no qualms about ushering young artists to their deaths, surely it was no great twist of his conscience to kill the ones who refused to go with him. Which meant….
I doubled over as warm vomit rose to my lips. I didn’t try to hold it back.
Taking advantage of Nerva’s distraction, I willed a fine thread of conjuring spray into the last third of my digestif.
“Robin and Hugo,” I muttered, wiping my mouth. “Are they…?”
“We Delphines have standards, remember?” Nerva snipped. “They’re fine, both your friends.” He turned the vomit on the floor into a stiff blue gelatin with some sanitation spray, then peeled it off in one motion and tossed it down a garbage flue.
“How do you know?” I asked.
“Because I saw them off myself.” Nerva pursed his lips as though he’d said too much.
In the bottle, the spray and alcohol were mixing at my command. Brewing into something else.
“Hadrian sent them to you?” I asked.
“Just for a talking-to. ‘Don’t say this to anyone, don’t say that.’ The usual protocol. And,” Nerva conceded, “to get a couple of implants, naturally. To make sure they don’t forget.”
More vomit threatened to rise, but I held it back. “You’d better be lying.”
Nerva pinched his nose and sighed. “If it helps, I didn’t code the implants to His Fruitfulness’s precise specifications–which were, of course,” he added, waving a hand, “to kill them if they speak his name. A precautionary measure, you see.” He gave a shrug without meeting my glare. “In my mercy, I instead coded the implants to give them a seizure should they decide to inform on him. It seemed a fair compromise. Not that they’ll need much discouraging, your friends. Snitches carry quite a stigma in your patch of the swamp, do they not?”
“Then you set them free,” I said.
“Free as nightlarks,” he assured me.
So that was that. I couldn’t kill Nerva if I wanted Robin and Hugo’s implants removed.
Nerva gestured to the digestif. “Better finish. Nullspace in five.”
I picked up the bottle, pausing as the cool glass touched my lips.
One more try.
“Jacob’s father,” I said. “Enoch. He’s generous to those who help his kin. I imagine he’d reward you handsomely–”
“You think if that were an option, I wouldn’t have suggested it? I am bound to His Fruitfulness in ways you don’t understand.”
“A slave, then,” I said, tightening my grip on the bottle.
“All creatures are slaves, if only to their nature. Even artists, Mr. Davenport. Even you.”
I smashed the bottle against Nerva’s wrist button, freeing a starburst of foamy yellow acid.
Before he could raise his can, I sprayed a cast of hypersilk around it, then a cord of the stuff around his neck, which I tethered to the wall.
A pipe broke on the feedlink side of my skull, and pain gushed out in a thick slurry, filling every groove and pocket of my head.
Nerva’s wrist button spat and crackled as the acid burned through it.
I loosened Nerva’s neck-cord so he could talk.
“HOW DO I STOP IT?” I howled.
He just seethed and thrashed while his forearm melted.
I sprayed myself an axe to chop off his wrist device, but it slid off his arm on its own, landing in a puddle of acid. I brought the axe down on the button, a sound as harsh as the pain in my head, and hacked at it again and again until it gave a last chirrup of sparks and died, ending my agony.
I hurried to the door and pulled on the latch. Locked.
I molded the axe into a Faraday rifle to blow a hole through the steel, but the weapon had no charge, and I couldn’t give it one no matter how hard I focused.
“Too late,” Nerva hissed. “We’ll be in Null’ in three minutes.”
“Want to do an over-under on that?”
I changed the rifle to a hydraulic bolt cutter, fitted the vise around the latch, and squeezed the handles with a sound like a gunshot. The broken-off metal went clanging and whizzing.
I shoved open the door, peered outside to make sure the hall was clear. Faint footsteps echoed from the bridge, the dull chimes of diagnostics, other sounds. In the other direction hung the iron-maiden silence of the crystal mesh.
Since neither Hadrian nor Trajan had shown up, this much was clear: Either Nerva feared I would kill him too much to signal for help, or he was terrified of the disgrace he’d reap for my escape. His reticence worked to my advantage, in any case.
I sprayed myself a backpack and stuffed the other cans of conjuring spray inside it. Then, with some delicate manipulations of the hypersilk, I edged the last canister out of Nerva’s trapped hand so I could stow it too.
“You think this is the first time someone’s double-crossed us?” Nerva asked.
I advised him to be quiet and hold still while I sprayed his arm a coat of replacement flesh. Then I sculpted his neck-tether into a lithe yellow variolus squid, whose syringe of neurotoxic bone sat against his brainstem should he find himself in need of being pithed.
“Now,” I said, grabbing Drake’s vaulter, “if you’d be so kind as to help me get off this ship.”
Jacob wasn’t amused by my entrance.
He’d been in the middle of a lesson with Trajan when I’d barged into the room and knocked out the Delphine with a blowgun.
“Have you lost your mind?” Jacob asked, pulling the feathered dart out of Trajan’s shoulder and watching it dissolve, along with the blowgun, back into my can. The Delphine lay slack-jawed on the floor.
“Couldn’t risk Trajan sending a feedlink signal,” I said.
I told Jacob what I’d learned, showed him Drake’s vaulter. He glanced at Nerva, whose head was stiff as stone in the variolus squid’s thrall.
“You’re sure about this?” he asked.
This room held a cache of vaulters as well, so I pried it open. “Look for yourself.”
Jacob ran his fingers down the rods in quiet disbelief. “All these artists–gone? I don’t believe it.” But the tremor in his voice told me he did. He selected a vaulter with a chrome veneer and unsheathed it. “Drake’s mural. We should have never….” He shook his head in horror. “If they’re really dead, Lucas, who’s left?”
“We are,” I told him.
Our boots echoed through the fuselage as we hurried to the bridge. Nerva lagged behind us, grunting whenever Jacob smacked him with the chrome vaulter he’d taken from the cache.
I ordered Nerva to unlock the bridge door.
When he hesitated, I made the squid tap its poison bone against his nape.
Nerva swore in some Delphine patois and punched a number on the keypad. The latch clicked. I forced the squid to ball up behind Nerva’s head, then sprayed Jacob and myself a couple of light, round shields. Since the spray couldn’t make energy weapons, apparently, I also fashioned us each an arqueblaster and loaded them with armor-piercing bullets.
We hid in the shadows of the antechamber while Nerva made his way onto the bridge, moving carefully, as I’d commanded, to keep the squid out of Hadrian’s view.
“Done already?” crooned the merchant prince from his padded throne at the controls.
“Yes,” mumbled Nerva.
“Had a feeling the spray would take to that one. You can always tell a natural by that flame in their eye.” The throne, which slid on a railgrid in the floor, squeaked and rumbled as Hadrian kicked his way like a child in an office chair from one task to another. “As for Jacob, well, let’s hope his vaulting’s as good as they say.”
Jacob cocked his arqueblaster with a scowl, but I made a sign to calm him.
Although the floor and walls of the bridge were made of the same rickety steel as the rest of the fuselage, the ceiling had been scrapped to make way for a bristling firmament of the black crystals. Which complicated things.
“This is rather embarrassing, Your Fruitfulness,” said Nerva, clearing his throat, “but after a brief review of our balance sheet, it seems we forgot to make good on one of our enticements.”
“The surveillance commissioner. We should head back to Termina Celeste, settle the issue at once.”
Hadrian snorted. “I’ll pay that hairless gerbil when it suits me, not a moment sooner.”
“He has records of our activity.”
“He will behave. Patience is the daughter of fear. And anyway, you know as well as I that the obelisk is more important than such trifles.”
Hadrian’s refusal left one option.
I sprayed the rest of my can at the roof of black crystals, my head aching from the inrush of data to my feedlink. I took another can out of my backpack and emptied it too. A cumulonimbus of black mist spread beneath the crystals, hardening into the densest material I could will. Jacob watched me with envy and amazement. I cocked my arqueblaster and gave him a nod.
We stormed the bridge with our shields raised, our weapons aimed at Hadrian.
The merchant prince raised an eyebrow.
“Take us back to Termina Celeste,” said Jacob, “or we’ll off you and do it ourselves.”
“The rotten apple doesn’t fall far,” Hadrian mused. He told Nerva to turn around, which Nerva did, and whistled. “Very lifelike,” he said, throwing me a look of betrayal. “Though not something I’d expected of you.”
“This is a suicide mission,” I said. “We won’t ask again.”
Hadrian considered the arqueblasters, shrugged, and flicked a few switches. The takeoff monitors suspended throughout the room showed a curved red horizon–the eastern rim of Celeste, gessoed in clouds–halting its slow roll beneath the stratosphere as the ship began to yaw back around. A destination readout switched from ARCHIPELAGO OF SOULS to TERMINA CELESTE.
I was so focused on Hadrian I didn’t notice Nerva until too late.
A dagger-length horn had emerged from his nape, impaling the variolus squid. Nerva looked as surprised as anyone when the creature plopped to the ground.
Jacob turned to fire, but Nerva dove behind a food cart. The bullet blasted a cloche off a casserole. Rolling the cart alongside him for a shield, Nerva scurried into the shadows at the edge of the room.
Hadrian chuckled. He’d used the distraction to fetch a canister from a hiding-place somewhere, and a pane of mist was already congealing in front of him; Jacob’s bullets bounced off it like rubber. Hadrian whirled his hand as if pardoning insults, and the pane became a folding screen around his body, blue and shimmery as water.
“Your friend’s overstayed his welcome,” he told me. “But I’m still optimistic about you. Won’t you reconsider?”
“That depends on your terms.”
Hadrian called my bluff with a tsk and flung the screen at us with a thrust of his palm. The panes slammed us off our feet and sent us sprawling.
A thunderclap rocked the canopy I’d formed beneath the ceiling.
Hadrian glanced up in puzzlement, frowned. “Clever. But won’t hold for long.”
More thunder. My canopy shuddered as Hadrian’s crystals tried to pierce through; desperate, I freed a layer of it as a shower of spikes, but Hadrian whipped a fresh shield above him to deflect these.
Jacob hauled me to my feet, his nose dripping blood.
I conjured up a beach hydra to defend us. Splayed on four gigantic starfish legs–sleek and brindled, with a mat of stubby tentacles under each–the creature lifted a pair of leonine heads and gnashed at Hadrian with demonic teeth.
The merchant prince laughed and sprayed himself a butcher hawk in answer.
The hawk spread its razor-lined wings and launched at one of the hydra’s jugulars, but the hydra jerked away at the last second, seized the hawk in its jaws, and brought it thrashing to the ground. They wrestled: a tangle of blood and flesh and green spittle.
BOOM! BOOM! The crystals hammered on the canopy harder than ever. Cracks were forming across the dense substance, and I couldn’t seal them and focus on the hydra at the same time.
Jacob tried to conjure a Volta grenade–but the sphere had no light at its core.
“Can’t make energy weapons,” I said, unsheathing Drake’s vaulter.
Jacob cursed. He transformed the grenade into a spiked ball-and-chain and swung it around his head–once, twice, three times–and lobbed into one of the butcher hawk’s wings. The spikes hooked deep into the veiny webbing and pinned the hawk down, allowing the hydra to tear out its jugular.
Hadrian’s laughter faded. He fashioned the hawk’s carcass into something else while I vaulted to the other side of the room. I shot at him with my arqueblaster. His shield rippled and sang. He swiveled to face me, but I vaulted again, firing as I went. The shield was iridescing, weakening.
My eyes filled with water as I leapt. My throat tightened; I lost my balance and fell.
Jacob took up firing at Hadrian’s shield. Hadrian pushed another pane into him, a sound like a mallet against a piece of meat.
“NO!” I cried.
I tried to lift myself, but my body felt impossibly heavy.
Nerva came toward me, clad in a gas mask and clutching a potted purple flower in one hand, a can of conjuring spray in the other. The flower was a Lucretian lullaby, the strongest allergen known.
A patch of my canopy burst open at last. A long spar of crystal rushed down through the gap and skewered my beach hydra.
I could hardly speak or move. When Nerva reached me, he ripped off my backpack of canisters, wrenched the vaulter out of my grasp, kicked aside my arqueblaster and shield. Then he siphoned the Lucretian lullaby back into his can, the gas mask too. “I’ve got him, Your Fruitfulness.”
“This is the last time I mistake talent for usefulness,” said Hadrian. “Now scrap him.”
Nerva sprayed himself an arqueblaster and pressed it to my head.
“You let me escape,” I whispered. “You think your master will forget that?”
“That’s no concern of yours,” said Nerva.
“DON’T!” screamed a voice from the entrance.
A pair of molten golems, one fat and one slim, tromped onto the bridge with a dazed Trajan between them, leaving a trail of brown sludge in their wake that stank of compost and drone grease and a hundred other foul things. The slim one had a Faraday rifle aimed at Trajan’s bruised head, while the fat one kept a rifle trained on Hadrian.
I blinked. It was Robin and Hugo.
“Let them go, Hadrian,” Robin continued, tossing aside her visor, “and I won’t turn your servant’s head to smithereens.”
By now the butcher hawk’s carcass had assumed its new form: a flock of flying basilisks, seven strong, their leathern wings twitching to be freed and yellow venom dripping from their fangs.
“Tell me, Nerva,” said Hadrian, a quaver of anger threatening his calm, “when you rewired these urchins, did you happen to forget that itty-bitty algorithm that kills them if they speak my name?”
Nerva’s arqueblaster trembled against my skull. “Your Fruitfulness…forgive me, I did not think….”
“It would matter? Your brother’s opinion may differ.”
Trajan flashed a look of rage at Nerva, then winced from the heat of Robin’s Faraday rifle.
“Do it,” Hadrian ordered Nerva. “I can always make another.”
Nerva’s grip on the weapon tightened. Any second it would puke hot metal into my brain, put me away forever.
But Nerva hesitated. “Trajan,” he muttered. “Brother.”
“Do it,” snapped Hadrian.
Just then, Hugo caught sight of Jacob’s body, sprawled and bloody at the edge of the room.
“Jacob–he’s not moving,” said Hugo. “WHAT DID YOU DO?”
Hugo unloaded his rifle on Hadrian.
The lightning-storm of blue muzzle flashes made Hadrian’s shield scream, and shatter.
The basilisks swarmed Hugo and Robin, a volley of wings and teeth and tails.
In that instant, Trajan tackled Robin and pinned her to the ground–but before he could grab her Faraday rifle, the muzzle flashed blue, and his head became a cloud of grey smoke.
Nerva howled as Trajan’s headless body slumped into a loose, grotesque sprawl.
Robin twisted away from the corpse and unleashed three bolts at Nerva, but the swarm of flying basilisks took them all.
Now was my chance. I let the canopy collapse to the ground as a thick, dark fog.
Nerva fired at me as I rolled out from under him, his bullets clanging off steel. I snatched up my arqueblaster and shot him twice through the heart.
Nerva dropped with a thud. I ripped my vaulter and backpack off him.
Flashes from Faraday rifles cut through the gloom. A basilisk incandesced as a brief blue skeleton; the others were shadows within shadows, writhing through the air and snapping at the shapes of Robin and Hugo.
I ran to Jacob as the now-freed crystals lanced down. One stabbed the floor an arm’s length ahead of me with a shriek of metal.
Hugo got to Jacob first and hauled him up; I slung my arm beneath Jacob’s other shoulder.
Hugo’s stench made me choke as we dragged Jacob off the bridge together.
“It’s a long story,” Hugo mumbled. “The hell’s she up to?”
Robin was whistling in the darkness somewhere.
An explosion ripped across the controls, and Hadrian roared with anger.
More crystals lanced down frantically as Robin darted out of the fog.
“We’d better find jetpacks,” she said.
“What did you do?” I asked, scared to hear the answer.
“No time, let’s go.”
Since the main door of the ship was cut off from the fuselage by a forest of black crystal, we had no choice but to use the airlock. I wasn’t about to risk a trip through the waste port as Robin and Hugo had done–not with a homicidal Delphine on our tail.
“We’ll asphyxiate, we’re still too high up,” Hugo said, blasting open the jetpack compartment.
“Not for long,” said Robin.
As if on cue, the floor tilted.
Jacob slipped out of our grasp and went sliding into the wall, and Hugo skidded off balance and barreled into him, hard. Jacob lurched back to consciousness with a cry of pain, and Robin and I pulled him out from under Hugo.
“Damn oaf,” Jacob groaned.
“Show some gratitude,” said Robin. “Hugo saved you.”
Jacob touched his broken nose. “Feels like a work in progress to me. How the hell’d you get back here?”
“You don’t want to know,” said Hugo.
To my horror, only two jetpacks remained in the compartment. I told Robin and Hugo to strap them on.
Before Robin could protest, I said, “I’m still the leader, remember? If you two hadn’t snuck back onboard, Jacob and I’d be dead by now.”
Jacob snorted but didn’t bother to argue. We all knew it was true.
There wasn’t enough spray left in the canisters to conjure more jetpacks, but there was enough for two parachutes, so I made these instead.
“God help us,” said Hugo as he pulled the airlock lever.
The airlock door gave an asthmatic wheeze. One moment I was looking at Robin’s anxious brown eyes; the next, a streak of orange cloud against a cruel blue sky, the air suddenly sharp as a riptide of ice water. The sun on the horizon throbbed into view as my head spun perpendicular with the canyon.
We’d jumped right above the River Andalosi.
In my teary periphery, the Kingfisher was plunging toward the docks of Termina Celeste.
I pulled the cord on my parachute, and it wrenched me upright with a hard snap and unfurling. For a moment I thought I’d pulled too soon. No one else was in sight.
Then Robin torpedoed out of the cloud-glare, banking sharply toward me on the flames of her jetpack.
A dark shape moving across a cloud–I’d taken it at first for her shadow–peeled off toward her with a pair of wings spread wide and swooped into her, ripping her into a tangled downward spiral. I thought I’d imagined it, they were gone so fast; but they emerged from the haze a moment later as a filament of jetpack exhaust in the distance, threading down into the shadows of the docks and out of sight.
“Lucas!” Hugo jetpacked out of the clouds to link an arm with mine; he had Jacob attached to the other. The wind was trying to drown out his shouts. “Did you see that?”
I would’ve answered, but the flood of noise and light from the docks overwhelmed us all.
The Kingfisher had exploded on impact.
All the music in Termina Celeste had been buried under sirens and shouts by the time Hugo landed us on the outskirts of the docks; the smells of exhaust and deflector wax, under the reek of burning fuel. In the distance, sentry drone floodlights wreathed the inferno that had been Hadrian’s craft.
“Why her?” Hugo screwed his eyes shut while I washed the brown gunk off him with my conjuring spray. “Why couldn’t they’ve nabbed you instead? Picking that ship was your idea, Lucas.”
“One you went along with,” I said.
“Only ‘cause I’m out of my mind.”
Jacob gazed at the flames of the Kingfisher. “Think Hadrian did it on purpose?”
I shook my head. “It was Robin. That whistling must’ve been her luring Hadrian to break the controls with his crystals.”
“God, she’s even crazier than you,” Hugo said.
“You’re just finding this out?”
Hugo scoured the docks for Robin with his jetpack, while Jacob and I traveled with our vaulters.
I told them to be cautious. The fire had diverted the sentry drones’ patrols, so we were open to an ambush from whatever creature had taken Robin.
Jacob’s leaps lacked their usual grace. He landed hard on an old sublunary dhow crusted in red dirt and seized the rudder for balance, wincing at a pain in his ribs. “My brother’ll regret missing all this.”
The claim was so absurd I would’ve laughed in other circumstances, but there was no denying the truth of it. Blaise would envy us all if we survived intact.
“The thing that took Robin, did you see what it looked like?” Jacob asked.
I cocked the arqueblaster I’d conjured a few minutes ago, then put a finger to my lips. Footsteps, slow and shuffling, echoed from the shadows of a solar cruiser in our midst. I raised my weapon.
The footsteps stopped, and Hugo’s round head lifted into a patch of light.
“Think I saw ‘em go this way,” he said.
I sighed in relief.
“Where’s your jetpack?” Jacob asked.
“Had to ditch it,” said Hugo. “Ran outta fuel.”
Jacob and I followed Hugo on foot to keep quiet.
Evening had become night, and the disc luminaires beneath the city roof had switched on, sickly orange above the smoke of the wreckage.
“I could go for one of your sandwiches,” Jacob whispered to Hugo.
“Now’s not the time,” I said.
“What was that one you had earlier? Tuna on rye?”
“Hell if I remember,” said Hugo. “Right down here. Pick up the pace, huh?”
We came to a long concrete service platform between rows of ships. Old-fashioned mooring hooks from pre-hypersilk days rusted beside dry coolant pumps and out-of-service holofeed booths. At both ends of the platform, switchbacking metal stairs led up to a labyrinth of catwalks.
As we hurried to the closest stairs, a meaty crack rang out.
Hugo shrieked and collapsed, clutching a large, bloody wound on his head.
I spun my arqueblaster on Jacob, who was holding his vaulter above him like a bludgeon. “Hickory-smoked ham,” he said. “You think Hugo would forget that?”
Hugo writhed on the ground, whimpering. Something buzzed and crackled in his wound. The implant?
To my horror, Hugo’s belly began to shrink, and his limbs grew longer, skinnier. His face melted into–
“I had a feeling it was him that grabbed Robin,” said Jacob. “That horn that came out of his neck, killed the squid, did you see it? He’s some kind of shapeshifter.”
Hadrian’s laughter rang high and cold from somewhere above us. “You surprise me, Jacob. I took Lucas for the cleverer one.”
Nerva’s flesh dissolved from his body as a black mist until only a flexicarbon skeleton remained. No. A drone that resembled a skeleton, save for the blue wires that ran through its joints and vertebrae like nerves.
Nerva climbed to his feet. His breastplate still had two bullet holes from my arqueblaster, and the side of his head with the feedlink now had a dent from Jacob’s vaulter. The arm I’d burned with acid was deeply scarred.
Nerva roved a pair of fluorescent pupils from Jacob to me in confusion. “Where am I?” he asked.
“An old model,” Hadrian said. “We Delphines do love our heirlooms.” He descended from an alcubierre in a jetpack and landed on the service platform, his blond hair sooty, his white uniform torn and burnt. “Alas, unlike ships, a drone’s mind sinks without spectacle.”
“Where am I?” Nerva clutched his head. “You overrode me again.”
“Twice today you hesitated to fulfill my orders,” said Hadrian. “Now look what’s happened.” He gestured to the inferno. “I couldn’t risk a third time.”
Nerva choked in anguish. “Trajan…Trajan….”
“Dead, yes,” said Hadrian, “thanks to you.”
Hadrian flicked his hand, and the mist returned to Nerva as a new kind of flesh, jet-black and barbed on the inside like an iron maiden. Nerva screamed and thrashed as the stuff took root. I couldn’t help feeling pity for him.
“Where are they?” I said.
Hadrian summoned a cloud of locusts from the darkness, so dense it might have been a piece of the night itself. The humming swarm dropped Robin and Hugo onto the platform, scratched and bloody and bruised.
I resisted the temptation to shoot Hadrian right there. I knew his swarm could become a shield at any moment, or worse.
“I’m impressed.” Hadrian sounded sincere. “Half the people in this universe have tried to ruin or kill me, and you four came closer than most. A pack of truants and vandals. A good thing my ship was insured, or I might be very mad at you.” He reached out his hand. “Now if you would kindly return my property.”
I hefted the backpack of cans higher up my shoulder. “How do we know you’ll let us go?”
“Because I’m a gentleman,” Hadrian said.
Jacob gave me a cautious look. After a moment, he put his can in my backpack. “You’re the leader, Lucas. You choose.”
Hugo nodded in agreement. Robin watched me intently.
If I were a liar I’d tell you I only cared about them. Not about the power I’d have to give up, the artistic possibilities I would lose forever.
But I’m not a liar, so I’ll leave it at that.
Nervously, I took off the backpack and gave it to Hadrian. His gaze flitted to my arqueblaster. I stowed the weapon in the backpack as well. Then he touched each can inside to slave them to his feedlink, leaving us with nothing but the vaulters.
I expected the cloud of locusts to devour us at any second. But it just hummed overhead, a patient malevolence, while Nerva convulsed on the ground in his cocoon of torture barbs.
A sentry drone’s floodlights flickered between the rows of ships, basking us in whiteness for an instant.
Hadrian’s jaw knotted. The drone was heading our way. He siphoned Nerva’s cocoon back into his can, leaving his servant a bare machine again.
“You want your real flesh,” Hadrian said, tossing him a can from the backpack, “show me you deserve it, and fast.”
The locusts formed a ring around us, blocking our escape.
“Lucas….” Robin grabbed my arm.
“Don’t do it, Nerva,” I said. “You don’t have to be his slave.”
Nerva rubbed the dent in his head, grimacing.
“Maybe Davenport’s right,” Hadrian told him. “Maybe that’s all you are. A slave. A real son of mine wouldn’t hesitate.”
As Hadrian moved to take back Nerva’s can, the robot yanked him into an elbow lock and rammed a torture barb into his chest.
Nerva stabbed him again, exchanging the barb for Hadrian’s can, and kicked him off the service platform. The merchant prince fumbled with his jetpack controls as he fell, smearing them with arterial blood, then rode a burst of fuel in a desperate zigzag before sputtering into a long, silent plunge.
Seizing our chance, we darted through the locust swarm toward the closest catwalk.
I halted halfway up the steps. Our implants.
“Come with us,” I said. “Jacob’s father’ll find a place for you. He can fix your feedlink.”
“No time,” snapped Jacob.
The sentry drone’s floodlights washed over the service platform, so bright they turned the fixtures into ice sculptures and Nerva into a ghost.
Nerva was giving himself a new coat of flesh with Hadrian’s canister. “Can he bring back Trajan?” he asked. “Can he revive my brother?” This flesh had the rough brown ribbing of tree bark and patches of yellow-green down like moss–the flesh of a dryad from a Delphine fable, down to the purple klinger vines entwining his arms. “I didn’t think so.”
My instincts were ahead of me: The second Nerva whipped a vine toward Robin, I had my vaulter up to smack it away, the impact running through me like a tuning fork.
I didn’t need to tell the others to run.
Now in thrall to Nerva, the cloud of locusts engulfed the sentry drone.
The catwalk shuddered as we bolted for the city.
Two of Nerva’s klinger vines ripped the latticed floor out from under us, and we spilled hard onto the roof of a frigate.
Jacob grunted in pain.
Hugo grabbed his vaulter. “Get on my back!”
Nerva came vaulting toward us on the vines unspooling from his arms.
“Give me Robin!” he called. “Give me my brother’s murderer, Lucas!”
Jacob clasped Hugo’s back, and Robin hopped onto mine.
“We’ll lure him to the hypersilk jetty,” I whispered.
“Why?” asked Hugo.
In as few breaths as possible, I sketched my plan.
Just as Nerva landed on the frigate, Hugo and I vaulted to another ship, using every drop of energy in the supercarbon to make the jump. We barely crossed the gap; piggybacking cut our reach in half.
As I’d guessed they would, shards of the Kingfisher’s black crystal began to appear everywhere as we approached the inferno, glittering like demonic hail on service platforms and in the crevices of ships.
Hugo and Jacob veered right while Robin and I went left.
Nerva followed Robin and me, naturally, his half-dozen vines groping through the hazy air. But we were nimble in landing and leaping, ducking behind rudders, skidding down wing-stems. Robin jumped off my back when we had to run and jumped on again when I vaulted, digging her fingers into my ribs for dear life.
We had to stop Nerva without killing him; all of us still had his implants.
Endless, tyrannical flames bellied thick and bright as molten gold up the jagged guts of the Kingfisher, and I felt their heat on my cheeks, my hands.
The shards of crystal we passed were getting longer, some still smoldering from the blast. Many were as long as spears.
Swift as a bolas, a vine whipped around my legs, and I fell splat on the roof of a dhow. Robin leapt off my back, snatched up my vaulter, and made a breakneck dash in time to miss the vines corkscrewing up my legs, waist, chest.
She knew what to do.
Alighting on the dhow, Nerva whipped around, glowering, but Robin had already disappeared into the smoke. A thin shower of sparks gushed from Nerva’s feedlink, and he rubbed his head. My vine-trap tightened as if in sympathy. “Where is she?” he hissed.
“You’re not thinking clearly,” I said. Jacob’s blow had loosened something in Nerva’s personality. “You’re free now. Don’t you see that?”
Nerva pinned my head between dryad fingers as sharp as stakes. “No one is free, Mr. Davenport. Not even you. All creatures are slaves, if only–if only to their nature.”
Robin called through the smoke: “Don’t hurt him, Nerva! He didn’t kill your brother!”
Still holding me in his vine-trap, Nerva followed Robin’s voice to the steel jetty at the end of the dhow and dropped onto it.
Narrow as a footpath, the jetty held bollards of hypersilk, which several maintenance drones were harvesting, their arachnoid legs teasing miles of the stuff into their round, steel bellies.
Robin was crouched at the end of the jetty. She’d traded my vaulter for a long spar of black crystal and held it at a defensive slant.
Nerva charged at her, slamming each drone in his path into the abyss.
In his rage, he failed to notice another spar buried in a ship’s hull–and the strand of hypersilk, invisible but for a few glints, extending from it to the eave of an adjacent solar cruiser.
I braced myself.
Robin tossed me her spar as Nerva’s neck met the hypersilk garrote.
For an instant Nerva was perfectly horizontal.
The collision sent me flying out of his vine-trap.
I stabbed a ship’s wing at my apex with the spar, then kicked off the hull at an angle. I landed halfway onto the jetty with a heavy thud. Breathless, I almost lost my purchase, but Robin grabbed me with both arms, giving me the leverage to claw back onto the platform.
As Nerva climbed back to his feet, oaring the air for balance, Jacob leapt off the solar cruiser, ripping off a solar tarp draped hastily across its hull, and four holospray tags winked to life from under the fabric: my Klein bottle, Jacob’s chrome tree, Hugo’s sword-wielding alter ego, Robin’s tutued sun bear. I couldn’t believe the tags were still there. They were glitchy and faded, among the first we’d ever made. But they were enough to distract Nerva for a moment.
Which was all Hugo needed.
He skewered Nerva from behind with a crystal spar, punching through bark and flexicarbon with an earsplitting crack.
Nerva collapsed to his knees, his guts crackling. His vines wilted into slithery heaps. He shuddered in what sounded like agony, and the can tumbled out of his hand and rolled to the edge of the platform. I caught it.
Then I siphoned up Nerva’s dryad flesh as the others shambled over, reeking of sweat.
“Good thinking with the tags,” I told Jacob. “When Nerva’s throat didn’t stick to the hypersilk, I thought we were dead.”
“It’s a miracle,” said Jacob, shaking his head. “Someone actually saved our work. After all these years.” He laughed, giddy with adrenaline.
The rest of us laughed too. It was all we could do not to hug each other.
“I just realized what that reminds me of,” said Robin, pointing to the scaly black vaulter Jacob had taken off her hands.
Before I could speak, Nerva lunged at me and clamped a flexicarbon hand around my throat, pressing the spar in his chest against my own.
My heart kicked like an animal about to be put down.
“The can,” said Nerva, his voice crackly, distorted. “Give it to me.”
I held the conjuring spray over the River Andalosi. I knew the moment I handed him the spray we’d be finished.
So I said, calmly, “Since you can fly, Nerva, I’m sure you can swim as well,” and tossed the can into the river.
Nerva watched the black cylinder recede to a dot and then to nothing at all. He gaped at me–so baffled, it seemed, by my sacrifice that he forgot to drive the crystal through my heart.
That was good luck. For the second time that night, and with a presence of mind for which I’ll always be grateful, Jacob demonstrated his philosophy for dealing with robots: He smashed Nerva’s feedlink with his vaulter, a sound like a sledgehammer against a circuit breaker.
And this time Nerva didn’t get up.
We didn’t stop running, except to catch our breath or curse our injuries, until we got to Enoch Landry’s safehouse in the Armitage territory of Termina Celeste.
A roomy fortress of duraconcrete and camera-infested bamboo, not to mention half a dozen soldiers loyal to Jacob’s father, the High Capo’s home made a perfect refuge from the drones and gendarmes prowling the city.
Blaise Landry, our leader, opened the towering front door. His black hair was disheveled, his eyes were wild, and he wore a plush blue bathrobe.
“Guys,” he said, “have you seen the…?” His mouth twitched as he took in our wounds. “No.”
“Yeah,” said Jacob, panting. “Yeah.”
Chuckling, I shouldered past Blaise into the safehouse, lay down on the cold concrete floor, and passed out.
One billion spacemarks.
That’s how much damage the Kingfisher’s crash was projected to cost when all was said and done, according to the holotrope feeds that were piped through our recuperation room a few days later. The Kingfisher alone accounted for about half that figure, while the other ships that’d been destroyed–seven in all–represented roughly a quarter. The other two hundred and fifty million spacemarks would come from hospital bills, heightened surveillance, the city government’s investigation, countless other things. But at least holotrope ratings were up; that had to be worth something.
All of us were terrified someone would find evidence of our role in the crash. Maybe a sentry drone had caught a snippet of footage of us entering the Kingfisher, or maybe an occupant of one of the ships in the docks had seen us facing down Hadrian. Enoch could protect us from the city government, perhaps, but could he fend off Hadrian’s father Jora Hizad, the Merchant King? The Delphines had probably commenced an investigation of their own by now, and none of us could be sure all traces of our presence in Hadrian’s argosy had been devoured by the flames.
But what worried me most were the implants. How could we be confident they didn’t have trackers?
We couldn’t. Which was why we’d taken Nerva with us to the safehouse–the part of him that mattered, anyway.
Nerva’s severed flexicarbon head felt cool and heavy in my hands as I sat at the edge of the bed in the recuperation room. Enoch had given it back to us after we’d let him download Nerva’s mind for retooling into a simple neurosurgical drone. We considered it our gift in exchange for his protection, and he was pleased to have such quality software in his repertoire. Since Nerva’s architecture appeared to be of custom make, Enoch had fried the drone’s hardware once the download was complete to ensure he had the only version. We didn’t mind. Enoch Landry could do what he liked, as far as we were concerned.
“Why d’you think Nerva didn’t kill you when he had the chance?” asked Blaise. He was scarfing down a bowl of savory-smelling koalaroo dumplings in front of a holotrope feed at the table.
Since the night we’d arrived, all Blaise had done was wring details about the events involving the Kingfisher out of us, as if to create a mental simulation of them he might insert himself into.
“He told me he respected my skills with the spray,” I said. “But I think it was something else.”
“What’s that?” asked Hugo. He and Jacob were playing a game of bridge on Jacob’s bed, and Robin was watching them with one of Blaise’s blue teacup elephants in her lap; the animal was diligently trying to wrap its trunk around her thumb.
“He pitied me,” I said, “just like I pitied him.”
“He was crazy, no point trying to make sense of it,” said Jacob, waving a dismissive hand. “Butterlocks probably programmed him that way.”
“Or made him that way over the years with his abuse,” said Robin.
I sighed, setting down Nerva’s ghoulish head on a pile of bedsheets. “You guys deserve an apology. A ship that looks that tempting, I should’ve guessed it was a trap. You tried to talk me out of it.”
“Yeah, I wouldn’t have fallen for any of it,” mumbled Blaise through a mouthful of dumplings.
“Shut up, Blaise,” said Robin. “Yes you would’ve.” She shrugged. “We accept your apology, Lucas.”
“Grudgingly,” said Hugo.
“When my nose is healed, maybe,” said Jacob. “And my ribs. And–yeah, whatever, I accept. Just so long as you help me find that spray.”
“It’s at the bottom of the river,” snorted Hugo.
“I guessed that much.”
“Once we get our implants removed,” I told Jacob, “we won’t be able to use the stuff, even if we found it.”
“So we don’t get ‘em removed just yet,” said Jacob.
“They might have trackers.”
“Maybe,” said Blaise. “But maybe not. The Delphines haven’t come knockin’ yet.”
Robin cocked her head at Jacob while the teacup elephant nuzzled her hand. “You are kidding, right? After all the damage that stuff has caused? Besides, the waters of the Andalosi have probably destroyed it by now.”
“Well, we don’t know that,” I admitted. “But it’s best left where it is, either way.”
Part of me hoped the conjuring spray was ruined for good, given how dangerous it was. The other part, though….
Nerva’s skeletal face might have been whispering to me.
All creatures are slaves, if only to their nature. Even artists, Mr. Davenport. Even you.
How hard could it be to find the can?
With one of Enoch’s gadgets, not very. Blaise or Jacob would have to finagle a submersible drone or something off him carefully, as he’d want to keep the spray for himself if he knew about it. But that was doable.
As I considered this, a thin, stoic man in grey scrubs slipped into the room.
“I’m pleased to tell you everything is ready,” the man said softly, without a hint of Nerva’s accent or tone. Enoch’s engineer had done a remarkable job of building a neurosurgical drone with no detectable personality. “Whoever wishes to get their implant removed first, please come with me.”
We looked at each other.
More accurately, everyone looked at me.
“Leaders first,” said Hugo.
Robin waved for me to follow the drone, while Blaise raised an eyebrow expectantly.
Jacob just smiled. He didn’t need to say another word. I could tell by the devilish glint in his eyes that he knew he’d convinced me.
Jordan Chase-Young is an American living in Melbourne, Australia, with his wife and cactus. A copywriter by trade, he loves reading, writing, drawing, hiking, and goofing around on Twitter.