*There might be another post later, but right now I’m mid-fixing up/restructuring Darkship Revenge and I’m away at an undisclosed writing-holing-up location, so I don’t have access to my email or most of my online presence, save for here and face book. This is something to hold you until I get home later today.*
When Worlds Collide
A spaceship mechanic has no place in a fairytale, not even when she’s dressed in a flowing gown and being courted by one of Earth’s most powerful men.
I was designed to be able to repair spaceships and to navigate them home safely. I had calluses on my hands from working with heavy tools on delicate machinery. I was strong enough to kill a grown man with a casual blow. And I had burner strapped to my ankle under my ball-gown.
The man courting me was a scoundrel, a dictator, and likely a murderer. And we were dancing at a spun-sugar palace, atop a fairytale island. It was his ballroom, his palace and his island. He was my only protector on Earth and my host for the last six months. He wanted me. He had been gentle and caring and solicitous of me. I wanted to escape the happy-ever-after fairytale ending.
You should be careful what you wish for.
It was a relief when the palace exploded.
We’d been dancing, Simon and I and more than a hundred other couples, twirling on the black polished dimatough floor of his ballroom while the light of massive chandeliers shone from softly glistening white walls.
It used to be the palace of the Good Man of Liberte Seacity. Simon was a Good Man, one of fifty hereditary rulers who, between them, split the vastness and wealth of the Earth. Or at least he had been.
The people gathered in the ballroom sported outfits that seemed to be spun of butterfly wings, and those that defied the shape of the human body. Other clothing harked back to the fantastical age of empires almost seven hundred years before – long, sweeping dresses and molding outfits in materials that were better than velvet and silk. My own dress was made of a form of ceramic. It felt like satin to the touch, but its dull black heft shone with pinpoints of light, as if stars were caught in its depths. Simon, had picked it for me and had it carried in by proud couturiers, its fine, slippery folds wrapped in silk and beribboned, like a fantastic gift, that very morning.
Liberte Seacity had been formed by a bankers’ consortium at the close of the twenty first century, and like the other seacities back then it was created as a refuge from high taxes and excessive government regulation and oversight. Unlike other seacities, it had never been designed to have any industry, any useful output. Instead, it owned other seacities – Shangri-la, Xanadu and, later, after the fish war, several European territories – where the workday business took place. Liberte itself had been designed as a resort for those at the pinnacle of that long-vanished world. It climbed up in terraces, all carefully landscaped gardens and idyllic beaches, like a dream of an Arcadia that never was. Its inevitable utilitarian levels, where valets and maids, law enforcers and garbage collectors lived were hidden, out of sight, by ceilings that formed the ground of the next level.
Approaching Liberte from the air, as I’d first done, one saw it only as a sort of white and green confection, something like an idealized wedding cake.
The palace of the Good Man topped the cake: white and surrounded by columns and terraces, built with an airy grace that would have been impossible without poured dimatough and sculpted ceramite, it might have fit a previous age’s dream of a fairy palace, an immortal fantasy.
The ballroom sat at the very top of it all, and its walls alternated with vast panels of transparent dimatough, through which – as the night fell – you could watch the sea, glistening in every direction, all around us, blue and still like a perfect mirror.
As we twirled to a tune called Liberte and composed for this ball, I faltered, looking through the window at the troop transports moored in that smooth sea. I’d known they were there: a vast, dark menace that encircled us, the much larger forces massed against Simon and the other rebels against the regime of the Good Men that had held the Earth for three hundred years. Simon and the other rebels were, at least in theory, trying to free their particular portions of the world. Even if I had my doubts about Simon’s sincerity.
“Why are you looking out the window?” asked Simon St. Cyr, ci-devant Good Man of Liberty Seacity, who, by a stroke of the pen, had made himself “Protector of the People and Head of the Glorious Revolution.”
He was slightly shorter than I, had brown hair, brown eyes and looked unremarkable. Which I’d come to believe was protective coloration to stop people wondering what he might be plotting. He had been created as the clone of a man once designed as a superspy, and for the last ten years he’d lived a life where his only safety came from acting foolish and shallow. Sometimes I wondered if he knew where the act started. And where it stopped.
His hand rested on my waist, long fingers transmitting an impression of controlled strength through the pliable fabric.
“I’m looking at those troop carriers,” I said concentrating on the music and the movement of my feet. It didn’t take that much effort, because I too had been created, not born in the normal way, and I’d been designed for speed and agility and grace.
Simon looked over my shoulder at the transports, and made a face half dismissal and half amusement. “Oh, that,” he said and shrugged a little, contriving to give the impression the glistening transports, each of them able to carry more than a thousand armed men, were a negligible detail like a spec of dust on the floor of his polished ballroom. “Don’t worry, ma petite.”
I’d not yet decided if Simon’s habit of larding his speech with archaic French words annoyed me or amused me, but calling me “little” pushed it, since I was at least two inches taller than him. Impatience colored my tone, as I said, “But shouldn’t you be worried? These people depend on you for their safety.” And this was true. As far as there was an authority in the seacity, it was Simon, whose predecessors had commanded it form time immemorial, and who had the loyalty of all troops and functionaries. At least in theory. Whether he called himself Good Man or Protector, he reigned here.
He made a sound, not quite a chuckle at the back of his throat. “And they’re perfectly safe,” he said. “Listen, those troop carriers aren’t going to do anything, pour cause.”
“And the cause is?”
“Oh, ma petite. The cause is I have it on good authority they’re mostly empty. The Usaian revolution over in Olympus and Seayork and their territories, is keeping the Good Men fully busy, and costing them more men than they can recruit, unless they start creating people in vats, as they did at the end of the twenty first century. Until they do that, though, the Usaians are giving them more trouble than they can handle. And since people created in vats still have to grow up, I’d say we have a good fifteen years respite.” He looked at me, and his brown eyes danced with unmitigated amusement, like an adult laughing at the preoccupations of a toddler. His body moved seamlessly with the music, even as he smiled at me. “Listen, Zen. I wouldn’t have declared the revolution if I hadn’t thought there were next to no chances of reprisal by the ancien regime, the global might of what used to be the Good Men consortium. I’m a revolutionary, yes, m’amie, but I’m not stupid.”
I gave him a dubious look, but something I’d decided shortly after arriving on Earth was that Simon was not in fact stupid. Truth be told, he might be too smart for his own good. He was certainly very good at keeping Simon safe and sound and at knowing the best means of doing so. And he was completely amoral about it too.
The pressure of his hand on my waist increased fractionally. I let him lead me, as I cast one last glance at the transports on the bronze-gilded sea, bobbing slightly in the current. They’d been there for twenty four hours, and they’d done nothing. Simon had to be right. He had to. Those transports were air-and-surface. Had they been filled with troops enough to overwhelm the Seacity defenses, they’d have flown in, landed and taken over, long ago. They were for show. For intimidation. They weren’t real. I could, at least, trust Simon to see what was a threat to him and what wasn’t.
Though I came from a very different culture, born and raised as I’d been in a small and secret lost colony of Earth, as a guest of the Good Man – oh, pardon me, the Protector – I’d been taught to dance anything that might be played at the ball. This was a waltz, an ancient dance that had once been scandalous. We segued from it to the glide, a modern dance that was considered very difficult. Our bodies moved in unison as though we’d practiced together. Which we hadn’t. We’d simply been created to be good at most things physical. Both of us were made, not conceived, assembled protein by proteins in a lab, and both faster and more coordinated than normal people.
The dance floor filled to repletion with twirling people, as the sun sank completely into the sea. In the darkness that followed, the troop transports became mere black dots on the inky water.
We took a break for drinks and food, then returned to the dance floor. It was in the middle of this dance when Simon said, “Zen, listen, I need to ask you a very important question.”
My whole body tensed, and I stopped, trying to think of a gentle way of refusing his hand in marriage. I owed him so much, and though I wouldn’t marry for such a reason, I also didn’t know what form his displeasure might take if I said no. He was the sole ruler of a vast territory. If he got angry, he might exact terrible vengeance. I looked at him out of the corner of my eye, not sure how to refuse him without hurting him, and, more importantly, without inviting his wrath. I couldn’t accept him. I’d been married once. I didn’t love Simon unreservedly, as one should love one’s husband.
“Don’t be afraid,” he said.
And then an explosion rocked us.
At first, I wasn’t sure it hadn’t been part of the music, then the concussion hit, making the floor shake, and the entire airy palace tremble and resonate, like a platter that’s been struck a blow with a hard object. From somewhere below came an orange reflection, a bloom of light, immediately extinguished.
Simon stopped completely, his hands on my waist, his brow wrinkling and said, “Merde!”
I cast a look at the sea, but it remained unlit and the darker points of the transports still bobbed on the water.
Another explosion, this one more deafening. Above us, a glistening crystal chandelier swayed. Bits of crystal rained down on couples who lurched to a stop. The orchestra struck another tune but it petered out as only half the members even started playing. People screamed.
A third explosion hit. The palace rocked and Simon wrapped an arm around me and leapt, carrying me with him to the edge of the ballroom, up against the wall. I could smell him. Sweat from our exertions on the dance floor had been joined by something sharper that spoke of fear.
He lay on top of me but not crushing me, his body forming a defensive cover over mine, blocking my view, blocking my movement.
“Simon,” I said, half-protest, half entreaty. I twisted to get the burner from my ankle, but he had already grabbed it. He pointed it over my head at the ballroom’s main door. “It’s not the armies of the Good Men,” he said.
“No,” I said. I didn’t say damn it, give me my burner because he was firing it at someone, and I couldn’t really fire with his bulk atop of me. I had no idea why he was protecting me this way. I’d never needed protection. I tried to look around his shoulder, but he put his arm across to hold me in place.
I wasn’t sure if I could knock Simon out. Probably, by sheer force alone. That I knew he wasn’t plate-armored. But he was as fast as I was, and he might stop my attack midway through. Worse, attacking him would distract him from defending himself and I suppose me too. And knocking him out would leave him vulnerable to attackers. We were obviously under attack.
“Damn it,” I said. “Why weren’t you armed?”
He didn’t answer. He was breathing very fast, and he now stank of fear.
“Simon,” I said, “Let me go. I can fight.”
“No,” he said. His voice hoarse. “It’s a mob. They’ll kill you, or worse. It’s my fight.”
A fourth explosion and from outside the ballroom, echoing like it had started somewhere beneath us, came a song. Loud, and inharmonious, it seemed full of threats I only half understood, because it was in the local patois, formed when the city itself had been founded: a mix of archaic French, archaic English, some Spanish words, and a lot of Glaish overlay. Something about setting fire to the world and enjoying the flames. Something about the blood of tyrants.
I felt Simon shake. I won’t say he trembled with fear. It was more like shock, or surprise. “Merde,” he said again. Then in a louder voice, “Alexis. Alexis! Alexis, for the love of God, get her out of here.”
I’d just managed to wriggle upward, to look over Simon’s shoulder. I had no idea who Alexis was, and I’d be damned if I was going to be got out of anywhere. The ballroom as a mess, and I got the impression of violence and blood. The air smelled of burner and flame.
Someone bulky and dark, a stranger, crawled up close to us. He loomed close to us in the darkness, his body a suggestion of the white satin and golden braid constituting the uniform of Simon’s personal guard, and said, “I called my men.”
“Too late. Get her the hell out of here,” Simon said and rolled off me. The stranger reached for me.
“No,” I said sitting up. “Simon, give me my burner back.” I had never needed, would never need some person – much less two persons – who were wholly unrelated to me, to take control. I was the one who should take control and save other people. My foster parents had taught me early on that my gifts should be used for the good of others. There were people in danger. I should protect them.
“Go. I can’t fight while you’re in danger. Go,” Simon said. “Alexis, take her.”
He pushed me upward, and before I could resist, Alexis grabbed me around the waist. He was a large man, muscular. There was no hesitation, no pause. He nodded to Simon and loped along, dragging me with him, even as I scrabbled to free myself and protested, “No, you don’t understand. I’d rather fight. I can fight. I’m stronger than—”
“Can’t do anything,” he said. “Can’t fight a mob.” He looked around. “Even my men can’t.”
I wanted to say he was wrong but then I realized I didn’t even know where the threat was coming from or against whom to retaliate and the damn man was pulling me along too fast to let me get my footing, much less get my bearings.
I ground my teeth, tried ineffectually to stop. “Give me a burner.”
But he just pulled me along amid crowds of fighting people. Burners shot this way and that. Alexis seemed to have the supernatural ability to be where no one was, cutting through the crowd, very fast, avoiding the turmoil, ducking before a burner ray flashed where we’d been. Someone bumped me. Friend or foe I didn’t know and regretted only not having the time to steal their burner.
I could no longer see Simon in the crowd. I smelled blood and fire. I stopped resisting Alexis’ pull. Impossible to fight when I didn’t know whom to fight. I might be able to shoot better than most people, but not when friend and foe rolled over, screaming and fighting. And as for hitting someone, I didn’t have time to identify the people I bumped into, much less to fight all of them. So many people. Fighting all around.
The situation was out of control and I hated being out of control.
Another two explosions, below, getting closer. The nearest dimatough pane cracked, top to bottom. They weren’t supposed to crack. The crystal chandelier fell, bits of crystal flying in all directions.
Alexis said, “Run,” and grabbed my hand and took off. I ran. Nothing else I could do in this. There was nothing to be gained in dying alongside those being killed.
Dead women can’t fight, I thought. First, stay alive, then fight.
Alexis ran into the melee, fast, his arm an iron band around my waist. People careened into me and shot at us. No shot landed. No blow either, beyond the feeling of being bruised and scraped.
He dragged me through what seemed like a concealed door, down a couple of staircases, onto a dark terrace by the seaside, in the middle of Simon’s gardens.
“Come on,” Alexis said, sounding desperate. He pulled at me. “Trust the Good—Trust the protector. He says I should keep you safe. He knows what he’s doing, if we leave his hand free.” As he spoke, explosions sounded, coming ever closer. I could hear the barbarous song from the ballroom, faint, like a haunting echo, but drawing near. It seemed to me the sounds of fighting were more muted which in the circumstances was not a good thing.
“But can Simon defend himself in this? And what about everyone else?” He as a dictator. He might be a murderer. But he had been kind to me. He might have loved me.
“We were taken by surprise,” he said. He panted, and it was good to know our race had rendered him out of breath. “I don’t know who our attackers are. We have to escape and reconnoiter. If I could fight effectively, I’d fight. The protector will take care of himself.” He pulled me down a dark path on the palace grounds and clattered down a set of staircases. His hand was too warm, rough, holding me as though it were the most important thing in the world that he take me along. “We’ll leave the Good Man a free hand. He knows what he’s doing. We’ll live to fight another day.”
We ran across an expanse of lawn and down a brick path and up to a terrace where a row of fliers were parked. Simon’s official fleet for his servants, I thought, since the vehicles all looked alike.
Alexis threw me into the passenger seat, got into the driver’s, closed the doors from the control panel. We took off almost vertically.
At once an explosion rocked us, then another.
Alexis said, “Merde.” It was a popular word.
“There’s more than the mob in the palace. Whoever these people are, they’re organized enough to control the skies. We can’t fly away.” He brought the flier down, almost straight down, but into a massif of trees, well away from the palace. I was impressed. It took training to fly like that. “We won’t be allowed to escape by air. At least… not this easily. And whatever is going on is much bigger than the palace.”
I leaned back on the seat, exhausted, feeling like I should go back and fight, but knowing it was quixotic and not very sane. There was only one of me, even if I felt I should be an army. I couldn’t believe how fast the ball had degenerated into a scene of death and mayhem. And I was starting to think even Simon’s proposal and even accepting it would have been better than this. “Those people who came in. The intruders. Were they carrying heads on poles?” I asked.
“Yes,” Brisbois said.