A low beamed ceiling swam into focus. Venera Fanning frowned at it, then winced as pain shot through her jaw. She was definitely alive, she decided ruefully.
She was—but was Chaison Fanning also among the living, or was Venera now a widow? That was it, she had been trying to get back to her husband, Chaison Fanning. Trying to get home—
Sitting up proved impossible. The slightest motion sent waves of pain through her; she felt like she’d been skinned. She moaned involuntarily.
“You’re awake?” The thickly accented words had the crackle of age to them. She turned her head gingerly and made out a dim form moving to sit next to her. She was lying on a bed—probably—and he was on a stool or something. She blinked, trying to take in more of the long low room.
“Don’t try to move,” said the old man. “You’ve got severe sunburn and sunstroke too. Plus a few cuts and bruises. I’ve been wetting down the sheets to give you some relief. Gave you water too. Don’t know what else to do.”
“Th-thanks.” She looked down at herself. “Where are my clothes?”
His face cracked in a smile and for a second he looked much younger. He had slablike features with prominent cheekbones and piercing gray eyes. Eyes like that could send chills through you, and from his confident grin he seemed to know it. But as he shifted in the firelight she saw that lines of care and disappointment had cut away much of his handsomeness.
“Your clothes are here,” he said, patting a chair or table nearby. “Don’t worry, I’ve done nothing to you. Not out of virtue, mind; I’m not a big fan of virtue, mine or anyone else’s. No, you can thank arthritis, old wounds, and age for your safety.” He grinned again. “I’m Garth Diamandis. And you are a foreigner.”
Venera sighed listlessly. “Probably. What does that mean around here?”
Diamandis leaned back, crossing his arms. “Much, or nothing, depending.”
“And here is . . . ?”
“Spyre,” he said.
“Spyre . . .” She thought she should remember that name. But Venera was already falling asleep. She let herself do it; after all, it was so cool here. . . .
When she awoke again it was to find herself propped half-upright in a chair. Her forehead, upper body, and arms were draped with moist sheets. Blankets swaddled her below that.
Venera was facing a leaded-glass window. Outside, green foliage made a sunlit screen. She heard birds. That suggested the kind of garden you only got in the bigger towns—a gravity-bound garden where trees grew short and squat and soil stayed in one place. Such things were rare—and that, in turn, implied wealth.
But this room . . . As she turned her head her hopes faded. This was a hovel, for all that it too seemed built for gravity. The floor was the relentless iron of a town foundation, though surprisingly she could feel no vibration from engines or slipstream vanes through her feet. The silence was uncanny, in fact. The chamber itself was oddly cantilevered, as though hollowed out of the foundations of some much larger structure. Boxes, chests, and empty bird cages were jammed or piled everywhere, a few narrow paths worn between them. The only clear area was the spot where her overstuffed armchair sat. She located the bed to her left, some tables, and a fireplace that looked like it had been clumsily dug into the wall by the window. There were several tables here and the clutter had infected them as well; they were covered with framed pictures.
Venera leaned forward, catching up the sheet at her throat. A sizzle of pain went through her arms and shoulders and she extended her left arm, snarling. She was sunburned a deep brick red that was already starting to peel. How long had she been here?
The pictures. Gingerly, she reached out to turn one in the light. It was of a young lady holding a pair of collapsible wrist-fins. She wore a strange stiff-looking black bodice, and her backdrop was indistinct but might have been clouds.
All the portraits were of women, some two dozen by her estimation. Some were young, some older; all the ladies seemed well-off, judging from their various elaborate hairdos. Their clothes were outlandish, though, made of sweeping chrome and leather, clearly heavy and doubtless uncomfortable. There was, she realized, a complete absence of cloth in these photos.
“Ah, you’re awake!” Diamandis shuffled his way through the towering stacks of junk. He was holding a limp bird by the neck; now he waved it cheerfully. “Lunch!”
“I demand to know where I am.” She started to stand and found herself propelled nearly to the ceiling. Gravity was very low here. Recovering with a wince, she coiled the damp sheet around her for modesty. It didn’t help; Diamandis frankly admired her form anyway, and probably would have stared even if she’d been sheathed in plate armor. It seemed to be his way, and there was, strangely, nothing offensive about it.
“You are a guest of the principality of Spyre,” said Diamandis. He sat down at a low table and began plucking the bird. “But I regret to have to inform you that you’ve landed on the wrong part of our illustrious nation. This is Greater Spyre, where I’ve lived now for, oh . . . twenty-odd years.”
She held up the picture she had been looking at. “You were a busy man, I see.”
He looked over and laughed in delight. “Very! And why not? The world is full of wonders, and I wanted to meet them all.”
Venera touched the stone wall and now felt a faint thrum. “You say this is a town? An old one . . . and you’ve turned gravity way down.” Then she turned to look at Diamandis. “What did you mean, ‘regret to inform me’? What’s wrong with this Greater Spyre?”
He looked over at her and now he seemed very old. “Come. If you can walk, I’ll show you your new home.”
Venera bit back a sharp retort. Instead, she sullenly followed him through the stacks. “My temporary residence, you mean,” she said to the cracked leather back of his coat. “I am making my way back to the court at Slipstream. If ransom is required, you will be paid handsomely for my safe return . . .”
He laughed, somewhat sadly. “Ah, but that it were possible to do that,” he murmured. He exited up a low flight of steps into bright light. She followed, feeling the old scar on her jaw starting to throb.
The roofless square building had been built of stone and steel I-beams, perhaps centuries ago. Now devoid of top and floors, it had become a kind of open box, thirty feet on a side. Wild plants grew in profusion throughout the rubble-strewn interior. The hole leading to Diamandis’s home was in one corner of the place; there was no other way in or out as far as she could see.
Venera stared at the grass. She’d never seen wild plants under gravity before. Every square foot was accounted for in the rotating ring-shaped structures she called towns. They were seldom more than a mile in diameter, after all, often built of mere rope and planking. There was no other way to feel gravity than to visit a town.
She scanned the sky past the stone walls. In some ways it looked right: the endless vistas of Virga were blocked by some sort of structure. But the perspective seemed all wrong.
“Come.” Diamandis was gesturing to her from a nearly invisible set of steps that ran up one wall. She scowled, but followed him up to a level area just below the top of the wall. If she stood on tiptoe, she could look over. So she did.
Venera had never known one could feel so small. Spyre was a rotating habitat like those she had grown up in. But that was all she could have said to connect it to the worlds she had known. Diamandis’s little tower sat among forlorn trees and scrub grass in an empty plain that stretched to trees a mile or more in each direction. In any sane world this much land under gravity would have been crammed with buildings; those empty plazas and tumbled-down villas should have been awash with humanity.
Past the trees, the landscape became a maze of walls, towers, open fields, and sharp-edged forests. And it went on and on to a dizzying, impossible distance. Diamandis’s tower was one tiny mote on the inside surface of a cylinder that must have been ten or twelve miles in diameter and half again as long.
Sunlight angled in from somewhere behind her; Venera turned quickly, needing the reassurance of something familiar. Beyond the open ends of the great cylinder, the reassuring cloudscapes of the normal world turned slowly; she had not left all sense and reason behind. But the scale of this town wheel was impossible for any engineering she knew. The energy needed to keep it turning in the unstable airs of Virga would beggar any normal nation. Yet the place looked ancient, as evidenced by the many overgrown ruins and furzes of wild forest. In fact, she could see gaps in the surface here and there through which she could glimpse distant flickers of cloud and sky.
“Are those holes?” she asked, pointing at a nearby crater. Leaves, twigs, and grit fogged the air above it, and all the topsoil for yards around had been stripped away, revealing a stained metal skin that must underlie everything here.
Garth scowled as if she’d committed some indiscretion by pointing out the hole. “Yes,” he said grudgingly. “Spyre is ancient and decaying, and it’s under an awful strain. Tears like that open up all the time. It’s everyone’s nightmare that one day, such a rip might not stop. If the world should ever come to an end, it will start with a tear like that one.”
Faintly alarmed, Venera looked around at the many other holes that dotted the landscape. Garth laughed. “Don’t worry, if it’s serious the patch gangs will be here in a day or two to fix it—dodging bullets from the local gentry all the while. They were out doing just that when I picked you up.”
Venera looked straight up. “I suppose if this is Greater Spyre,” she said, pointing, “then that is Lesser Spyre?”
The empty space that the cylinder rotated around was filled with conventional town wheels. Uncoupled from the larger structure, these rings spun grandly in midair, miles above her. Some were “geared” towns whose rims touched, while others turned in solitary majesty. A puff of smaller buildings surrounded the towns.
The wheels weren’t entirely disconnected from Greater Spyre. Venera saw cables standing up at various angles every mile or so throughout the giant cylinder. Some angled across the world to anchor in the ground again far up Spyre’s curve. Some went straight past the axis and down to an opposite point; if you climbed one of these lines you could get to the city that hung like an iron cloud half a dozen miles above.
She didn’t see any elevator traffic on the nearest cables. Most were tethered inside the mazelike grounds of the estates that dotted the land. Would anyone have a right to use those cables but the owners?
When Diamandis didn’t reply, Venera glanced over at him. He was gazing up at the distant towns, his expression shifting between empty adoration and anger. He seemed lost in memory.
Then he blinked and looked down at her. “Lesser Spyre, yes. My home, from which I am exiled for life. Always visible, never to be achieved again.” He shook his head. “Unlucky you to have landed here, Lady.”
“My name,” she said, “is Venera Fanning.” She looked out again. The nearer end of the great cylinder began to curve upward less than a mile away. It rose for a mile or two then ended in open air. “I don’t understand,” she said. “What’s to prevent me—or you—from leaving? Just step off that rim yonder and you’ll be in free flight in the skies of Virga. You could go anywhere.”
Diamandis looked where she was pointing. Now his smile was condescending. “Ejected at four hundred miles per hour, Lady Fanning, you’ll be unconscious in seconds for lack of breath. Before you slow enough to awake you’ll either suffocate or be eaten alive by the piranhawks. Or be shot by the sentries. Or be eviscerated by the razor-wire clouds, or hit a mine. . . .
“No, it was a miracle that you drifted unconscious through all of that, to land here. A once-in-a-million feat.
“Now that you’re among us, you will never leave again.”
Diamandis’s words might have alarmed Venera had she not recently survived a number of impossible situations. Not only that, he was manifestly wrong about the threat the piranhawks represented; after all, hadn’t she sailed blithely through them all? These things in mind, she followed him down to his hovel where he began to prepare a meal.
The bird was pathetically small; they would each get a couple of mouthfuls out of it if they were lucky. “I’m grateful for your help,” Venera said as she lowered herself painfully back into the armchair. “But you obviously don’t have very much. What do you get out of helping me?”
“The warmth of your gratitude,” said Diamandis. In the shadow of the stone fireplace it was impossible to make out his expression.
Venera chose to laugh. “Is that all? What if I’d been a man?”
“I’d have left you without a second thought.”
“I see.” She reached over to her piled clothes and rummaged through them. “As I suspected. I’ve not come through unscathed, have I?” The jewelry that had filled her flight jacket’s inner pockets was gone. She looked under the table and immediately spotted something: it looked like a metal door in the floor, with a rope loop as its handle. Her feet had been resting on it earlier.
“No, it’s not down there,” said Diamandis with a smile.
Venera shrugged. The two most important objects in her possession were still inside her jacket. She could feel the spent bullet through the lining. As to the other—Venera slipped her hand in to touch the scuffed white cylinder that she and her husband had fought their way across half the world to collect. It didn’t look like it was worth anything, so Diamandis had apparently ignored it. Venera left it where it was and straightened to find Diamandis watching her.
“Consider those trinkets to be payment for my rescuing you,” he said. “I can live for years on what you had in your pockets.”
“So could I,” she said levelly. “In fact, I was counting on using those valuables to barter my way home, if I had to.”
“I’ve left you a pair of earrings and a bracelet,” he said, pointing. There they were, sitting on the table next to her toeless deck shoes. “The rest is hidden, so don’t bother looking.”
Seething but too tired to fight, Venera leaned back, carefully draping the moist sheet over herself. “If I felt better, old man, I’d whip you for your impudence.”
He laughed out loud. “Spoken like a true aristocrat! I knew you were a woman of quality by the softness of your hands. So what were you doing floating alone in the skies of Virga? Was your ship beset by pirates? Or did you fall overboard?”
She grimaced. “Either one makes a good story. Take your pick. Oh, don’t look at me like that, I’ll tell you, but first you have to tell me where we are. What is Spyre? How could such a place exist? From the heat outside I’d say we’re still near the sun of suns. Is this place one of the principalities of Candesce?”
Diamandis shrugged. He bent over his dinner pot for a minute, then straightened and said, “Spyre’s the whole world to those of us who live here. I’m told there’s no other place like it in all of Virga. We were here at the founding of the world, and most people think we’ll be here at its end. But I’ve also heard that once, there were dozens of Spyres, and that all the rest crumbled and spun apart over the ages. . . . So I believe we live in a mortal world. Like me, Spyre is showing its age.”
He brought two plates. Venera was impressed: he’d added some cooked roots and a handful of boiled grains and made a passable meal of the bird. She was ravenous and dug in; he watched in amusement.
“As to what Spyre is . . .” He thought for a moment. “In the cold-blooded language of the engineers, you could say that we live on an open-ended rotating cylinder made of metal and miraculously strong cables. About six miles from here there’s a giant engine that powers the electric jets. It is the same kind of engine that runs the suns. Once, we had hundreds of jets to keep us spinning, and Spyre’s outer skin was smooth and didn’t catch the wind. Gravity was stronger then. The jets are failing, one by one, and wind resistance pulls at the skin like the fingers of a demon. The old aristocrats refuse to see the decay that surrounds them, even when pieces of Spyre fall away and the whole world becomes unbalanced in its turning. When that happens, the Preservationist Society’s rail engines start up and they haul as many tons as needed around the circle of the world to reestablish the balance.
“The nobles fought a civil war against the creation of the Preservation Society. That was a hundred years ago, but some of them are still fighting. The rest have been hunkered down on their estates for five centuries now, slowly breeding heritable insanities in the quiet of their shuttered parlors. They’re so isolated that they hardly speak the same language anymore. They’ll shoot anyone who crosses their land, yet they continue to live, because they can export objects and creatures that can only be made here.”
Venera frowned at him. “You must not be one of them. You’re making sense as far as I can tell.”
“Me? I’m from the city.” He pointed upward. “Up there, we still trade with the rest of the principalities. We have to; we’ve got no agriculture of our own. But the hereditary nobles own us because they control the industries down here.” The bitterness in his voice was plain.
“So, Garth Diamandis, if you’re a city person, what are you doing living in a hole in the ground in Greater Spyre?” She said it lightly, though she was aware the question must cause him more pain.
He did look away before smiling ruefully at her. “I made the cardinal mistake of all gigolos: I cultivated popularity among women only. I bedded one too many princesses, you see. I was kindly not killed nor castrated for it, but I was sent here.”
“But I don’t understand,” she said. “Why is it impossible to leave? You said something about defenses . . . but why are they there?”
Diamandis guffawed. “Spyre is a treasure! At its height, this place was the equal of any nation in Virga, with gravity for all and wonders you couldn’t get anywhere else. Why, we had horses! Have you heard of horses? And dogs and cats. You understand? We had here all the plants and animals that were brought from Earth at the very beginning of the world. Animals that were never altered to live in weightlessness. Even now, a breeding pair of house cats costs a king’s ransom. An orange is worth its weight in platinum. We had to defend ourselves and prevent our treasures being stolen. So, for centuries now, Spyre has been ringed with razors and bombs to prevent attack—and to prevent anyone smuggling anything out. And believe me, when all else has descended to madness and decadence, that is the one policy that will remain in place.” He hung his head.
“But surely one person, traveling alone—”
”Could carry a cargo of swallowed seeds. Or a dormant infant animal in a capsule sewn under the skin. Both have been tried. Oh, travel is still possible for nobles of Lesser Spyre and their attendants, but there are body scans and examinations, interrogations and quarantines. And anyone who’s recently been on Greater Spyre comes under even more suspicion.”
“I . . . see.” Venera decided not to believe him. She would be more cheerful that way. She did her best to shrug off the black mood his words had inspired, and focused on her meal.
They ate in silence for a while, then he said, “And you? Pirates or a fall overboard?”
“Both and neither,” said Venera. How much should she tell? There was no question that lying would be necessary, but one must always strike the right balance. The best lies were built of pieces of truth woven together in the right way. Also, it would do her no good to deny her status or origins; after all, if the paranoid rulers of Spyre needed money then Venera Fanning herself could fetch a good price. Her husband would buy her back or reduce this strange wheel to metal flinders. She had only to get word back to him.
“I was a princess of the kingdom of Hale,” she told Diamandis. “I married at a young age—he is Chaison Fanning, the admiral of the migratory nation of Slipstream. Our countries lie far from here—hundreds or thousands of miles, I don’t know—far from the light of Candesce. We have our own suns, which light a few hundred miles of open air that we farm. Our civilizations are bounded by darkness, unlike you who bask in the permanent glory of the Sun of Suns . . .”
Some audiences would need more—not all people knew that the whole vast world of Virga was artificial, a balloon thousands of miles in diameter that hung alone in the cosmos. Lacking any gravity save that made by its own inner air, Virga was a weightless environment whose extent could easily seem infinite to those who lived within it. Heat and light were provided not by any outside star but by artificial suns, of which Candesce was the oldest and brightest.
Even the ignorant knew it was a man-made sun that warmed their faces and lit the crops they grew on millions of slowly tumbling clods of earth. But the world itself? One glance up from your own drudge-work might encompass vast, cloud-wreathed spheres of water, miles in extent, their surfaces scaled with mirror-bright ripples; thunderheads the size of nations, which made no rain because rain required gravity but rather condensed balls of water the size of houses, of cities, then threw them at you; and a glance down would reveal depths of air painted every delicate shade by the absorption and attenuation of the light of a dozen distant suns. How could such a place have an end? How could it have been made by people?
Venera had seen the outer skin of the world, watched icebergs calve off its cold black surface. She had visited the region of machine-life and incandescent heat that was Candesce. The world was an artifact, and fragile. In her coat pocket was something that could destroy it all, if you but knew what it was and how to use it.
There were things she could tell no one.
A thing she could tell was that her adopted home of Slipstream had been attacked by a neighboring power, Mavery. Missiles had flashed out of the night, blossoming like red flowers on the inner surface of the town-wheels of Rush. The city had been shocked into action, a punitive expedition mounted with her husband leading it.
She explained to Diamandis that Mavery’s assault had been a feint. He listened in mesmerized silence as she described the brittle dystopia known as Falcon Formation, another neighbor of Slipstream. Falcon had conspired with Mavery to draw Slipstream’s navy away from Rush. Once the capital was undefended, Falcon Formation was to move in and crush it.
The true story was that Venera’s own spy network had alerted them to this plot. Chaison and Venera Fanning had taken seven ships from the fleet and left on a secret mission to find a weapon powerful enough to stop Falcon. The story she told Diamandis now was that her flagship and its escort were pursued by Falcon raiders, chased right out of the lit air of civilization into the darkness of permanent winter that permeated most of Virga.
That had been a month ago.
After that, more things she could tell: a battle with pirates, being captured by same; escape, and more adventures near the skin of the world. She told Diamandis that they had sailed toward Candesce in search of help for their beleaguered country. She did not tell him that their goal was not any of the ancient principalities that ringed the sun. They were after a pirate’s treasure, in particular the one seemingly insignificant piece of it that now rested in Venera’s jacket. They had come seeking the key to Candesce itself.
In Venera’s version, the Slipstream expedition had been met with hostility and chased into the furnace-like regions around Candesce. Her ships had been set upon and half of them destroyed by treacherous marauders of the nation of Gehellen.
In fact, she and her husband had orchestrated the theft of the pirate’s treasure from under the noses of the Gehellens and then fled with it—he back to Slipstream and she into the Sun of Suns. There she had temporarily disabled one of Candesce’s systems. While it was down, Chaison Fanning was to lead a surprise attack on the fleet of Falcon Formation.
Slipstream’s little expeditionary force was no match for the might of Falcon—normally. For one night, the tables should have been turned.
Venera had no idea whether the whole gambit had been successful or not. She would not tell Diamandis—would not have told anyone—that she feared her husband was dead, the force destroyed, and that Falcon cruisers ringed the Pilot’s palace at Rush.
“I was lost overboard when the Gehellens attacked,” she said. “Like much of the crew. We were close to the Sun of Suns and as dawn came, we burned. . . . I had foot-fins, and at first I was able to fly away but I lost one fin, then the other. I don’t remember anything after that.”
Diamandis nodded. “You drifted here. Luckily the winds were in your favor. Had you circulated back into Candesce you’d have been incinerated.”
That much, at least, was true. Venera suppressed a shudder and sank back in her chair. She was infinitely weary all of a sudden. “I need to sleep.”
“By all means. Here, we’ll get you to the bed.” He touched her arm and she hissed in pain. Diamandis stepped back, concern eloquent on his face.
“There are treatments—creams, salves . . . I’m going to go out and see what I can get for you. For now you have to rest. You’ve been through a lot.”
Venera was not about to argue. She eased herself down on the bed and, despite being awash in burning soreness, fell asleep before hearing him leave.
Copyright © 2007 by Karl Schroeder. All rights reserved.