In an ocean of weightless air where sunlight has never been seen, only the running lights of the city of Pacquaea glitter in the dark. One woman, Leal Hieronyma Maspeth, lives and dreams of love among the gaslit streets and cafés. And somewhere in the abyss of wind and twisted cloud through which Pacquaea eternally falls, a great voice has begun speaking.
As its cold words reach from space to the city wallsand as outlying towns and travelers' ships start to mysteriously disappearonly Leal has the courage to try to understand the message thundering from the distance. Even the city's most famous and exotic visitor, the sun lighter and hero named Hayden Griffin, refuses to turn aside from his commission to build a new sun for a foreign nation. He will not become the hero that Leal knows the city needs; so it is up to her to listen, and ultimately reply, to the voice of the worldwaspbecause an astonishing disaster threatens Virga.
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The Sunless Countries
Book Four Of Virga
By Karl Schroeder
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2009 Karl Schroeder
All rights reserved.
WHEN LEAL SHUT off the engine the whole world went away. Sight, sound, and touch fled into darkness, leaving only the sighing of her own breath. The touch of the pilot's seat faded as her weightless body drifted away from it. Leal kept her long fingers on the starter key for a few seconds, as if she might never find it again once she let go.
She glanced down at the reassuring radium glow of the instrument panel. Then, hesitantly, she reached out to unseal the pilot's canopy. Straining, she swung it up and back, letting in a puff of cold air scented with ice. There was barely a breeze against her face.
That was not good. According to the gyrocompass, her little cutter should have been making a good twenty knots. She should have felt as much breeze on her face. That she didn't meant either that she had entered a mass of air that was moving that fast itself; or her instruments were wrong.
"Come on," she muttered, leaning out of the canopy and craning her neck for any hint of light. The headlight might be piercing the air for hundreds of feet, yet she saw absolutely nothing — not even a mote of dust sparkling in the dark. "Where are you?"
Her city, Sere, should have appeared by now. Even if its glittering wheel-of-wheels wasn't directly visible, Leal should at least be seeing a red and blue brightening in the air every three seconds or so, as the outlier beacons flashed in their turning. She should hear distant ringing and honking, the grumbling of industry. If the whole city were embedded in cloud, she should at least hear foghorns.
"Damn." It wasn't a long journey from her hometown to the capital — three hours — and she made the round-trip every weekend. This wouldn't be the first journey where Leal had let her eyes drift away from the endless wavering length of rope that stretched between town to city; always in the past, she had come upon the city by sheer inertia and sloppy dead reckoning. It was hard to miss the biggest, noisiest, smelliest mass of humanity for four hundred miles.
Of course, if you did miss it you were, as the dock-boys would say, royally screwed.
The absolute darkness was familiar but unnerving. Leal fished around under her seat and found a gas lantern. She brought it out and the key said zick-zick as she wound it with steady fingers; this was the only sound except for the faint ping of the engine's metal parts cooling. She thumbed the striker plate and the little cascade of sparks lit the wick. The sudden white light was intolerable; she shielded her eyes as she held it out and away from herself.
Leal clipped it to a ring on the open canopy and turned to look at her passenger. "It's okay," she told her. "Just a snag, that's all."
The doll's porcelain features reflected back arcs of highlight from the lantern. Two huge seat belts crisscrossed its torso, pressing it against the cutter's passenger seat.
You're so full of it, she imagined the doll saying. "Yeah, maybe," she muttered, turning back to the empty view.
The cutter was dart-shaped. Leal sat in a fuselage shaped like a seedpod, with a spar sticking out behind that ended in the jet and four big vanes she could turn to steer the vessel. You could tie baggage and extra fuel to the spar, but right now Leal had nothing but a couple of suitcases back there. The cutter had maybe two hours of fuel left. She was quite unprepared for being lost.
She was getting angry — not at herself for her inattention, but at her mother, for obstinately refusing to spend her last days in the city, where she could have gotten decent care. "It's not that I like it here," Mother had said during their last conversation — impossibly, already six months ago. "It's just that that city, with all its sophistication, is what wrecked your father's scavenging business. After all those years of work, he ended with nothing to show for it. And it was that awful man, Eustace Loll, and his policies that did it to Langdon. I couldn't live in Sere knowing I shared the same streets with that man."
Rather than look out upon the expansive parks of the city with their expensive electric lights, Mother preferred to waste money that could have gone to subdue her constant pain on gas for the lanterns that glowed over her little garden box. A substantial amount of Leal's salary went for upkeep on this cutter and for travel costs to and from Taura Two. It hadn't been practical to sell the cutter because the estate still needed settling.
It was done now, though. This might be the last time Leal ever took this route.
Mom would be furious if I told her that. And the darkness weighed heavily today, despite the promise of finally getting things over with. It was as if some new element had been added to the air, an extra cloak of black lowered behind the mere absence of light that prevailed here in the outer precincts of Virga.
No one raised in Abyss should be afraid of the dark, for there were no suns to light this nation. The giant sphere of Virga, a balloon thousands of miles in diameter, could not be lit entirely by any single source, despite the presence of blazing man-made infernos such as Candesce, which itself lit the skies for hundreds of miles in every direction. Even the modest little nuclear-fusion suns of the smallest nation could carve out a sphere of brightness fifty to a hundred miles in diameter.
Leal had never seen sunlight. Out here, those great infernos were long since reddened and dimmed with distance. Clouds absorbed the light; so did the dust in the air and, finally, the air itself. Candesce's heat kept Abyss from freezing, but the so-called sun of suns would never be seen here. Abyss had no sun; and so, it had made friends with the dark.
Leal slammed the canopy with a muttered curse. She stretched her legs down to find the bike pedals below the cockpit saddle, and started pedaling. After a few seconds she yanked on the sparker cord and, fifteen feet behind her, the cutter's little jet engine whined into life.
The gyrocompass told her she was on course, so Leal opened the throttle. Nothing changed outside to indicate that she was moving at all, but she was pressed back into the seat for a few seconds, and the instruments estimated that she had accelerated by sixty miles per hour. But how fast had she been going prior to that? Velocity was relative in a weightless world like Virga. Go too fast, and she might come upon Sere at a differential speed of hundreds of miles per hour. She would splat like a bug on the underside of one of its great iron wheels. So after reassuring herself that she was actually moving, she eased back and let the engine idle.
This was the last straw. She was going to sell this damned cutter as soon as she could, and pay other people to pilot her from now on. She gnawed at a fingernail, running through arguments and anticipating what Mother would say in reply. This took her mind off her situation for a little while, but it was starting to get noticeably colder in the cockpit. Colder than it should be near the city.
Leal unstrapped herself and fished around in the cargo netting behind the backseat. She brought one of her current books back to the pilot's saddle and opened it under the lantern. Oral Traditions of the Winter Wraiths had been written a hundred years ago by a little-known scholar who just happened to also have the last name of Maspeth. They might even be related. She tried to focus on the words, but her possible ancestor turned out to be a terrible writer, one of those with a fatal aversion to coming to the point about anything.
What should happen at this point was that the ghost of Langdon Maspeth should appear and extend its hand, effecting mysterious repairs before topping up her tanks and pointing her in the right direction. Or some handsome airman in a flashy yacht would sweep in and politely ask if she needed help. She'd demure and he would insist, and thus would start an initially adversarial banter that would end with ...
Blinding light blossomed directly ahead. Leal fumbled the book and it hit her in the nose. She batted it aside and hit the brakes.
Twenty feet behind her, the four vanes all flipped sideways. The shuttlecock configuration caught a great chunk of air and Leal was slammed against the instrument panel; she'd forgotten to strap herself in again after getting the book. Pushing back, she looked out the canopy in time to see a dark spindle shape shoot past the cutter.
No, she mustn't stop here. Desperately Leal hauled on the controls and the cutter yawed then banked, barely missing another spindle shape as it swept past. Now she could make out the ropes rising off its back, and she was able to steer to avoid them. Gradually, the cutter came to a stop relative to the giant, silent pendulum.
The pendulum was one of two ships, each the classic finned-rocket shape of most Virgan vessels — but huge, two hundred feet long at least, and joined to its partner by a thousand feet of rope rigging. The ships were facing opposite directions and spinning like a bolo, a common enough maneuver that would provide artificial gravity in them. Leal's cutter had just missed them.
Now she could see curving glimmers in the dark — the faint running lights of other ships, how many she couldn't tell, all lashed together and turning silently in the dark.
Goose bumps were rising on Leal's arms, but not because of the cold. Strangely coincidental, she thought, that she'd been reading about the winter wraiths to pass the time — and here they were in the flesh.
She glanced down; the fuel gauge wasn't reassuring. In braking she'd overwhelmed her little gyrocompass. She had no idea which direction she was facing now, and an encounter with winter wraiths could only mean that she was very, very far from home.
Within the vista of wheeling running lights, faint flickering dots ducked and dove, swirled and turned: a flock of fish or school of birds eating a bounty thrown from the ships. The wraiths supported a whole ecosystem of dependent species, just as Leal's people did. Hidden in the darkness around her would be aerial fungi and shrimp, anemones and tube worms writhing their way through the air; mites hopping between widely separated strands of mold; misty spiderwebs and darting fireflies; fish to snap up these, and bats to snap up those. The winter wraiths were nomadic and secretive, but their economics, at least, weren't entirely alien.
Leal knew a lot more about wraiths than most of her people. Telen Argyre, from the wraith nation of Pacquaea, had been her roommate in college. The good news was that unlike many of her countrymen, she knew these people wouldn't be pirates. She and her ship were not about to be captured or boarded. The bad news was, they were unlikely to help her. They were unlikely to even speak to her.
Why, then, did she seem to be hearing voices?
Leal frowned and cocked her head. — No, not voices, but a voice. She heard someone calling out, a cry whose words, vast and resonant, were nonetheless too faint to understand.
She killed the engine and popped the canopy, letting in chilly air that stank of decay and rust. Echoes from the cutter's engine slapped off the other ships for a few seconds, then dissipated. What was left was a silence so absolute that she shuddered and went to close it again.
But there it was! Someone had spoken. It wasn't a shout, and there was no seeming urgency in the sound. Echoes from it barked faintly from the ships of the wraiths, but whatever it was, it didn't seem to be coming from them. Rather, Leal was drawn to look away from the hypnotic running lights, into a region of air so black that it felt like she had forgotten how to see.
She could not make out the meaning of the words but they were not, she felt, an appeal for help. Rather, it seemed a voice gigantic and cold proclaimed something — an annunciation aimed at no one living, issuing from the very heart of emptiness.
Leal shuddered again, slammed the canopy, and started her engine. As she did she saw that hundreds of windows were coming alight along the wraith ships. Surely that wasn't her fault? It couldn't be, she realized, as the ships began to turn as one, gliding in pairs away from her — and away from that black depth from which had issued the strange voice.
Fish flashed past as she accelerated, then a cloud of bats. They were following the ships, and she debated whether to do so as well. They might be her only safe port in this desert of air. As she turned the cutter's nose in that direction, though, she saw that one wraith ship had hung back. This vessel was not tied to another one, so was not pinwheeling like the rest. Now a hatch on its back opened and a tiny, dark figure swung out onto the gleaming, water-beaded hull.
The man clicked on a bull's-eye lantern and waved it. Leal yawed the cutter to make her own headlight waver. Satisfied, the tiny figure swept the lantern in a series of arcs, always ending with it pointing in one particular direction — away from both the speaking blackness, and the way that the wraith ships had taken. When Leal realized what he was doing she swore under her breath. She lined up the cutter and eased it through the air, past the great dark hull and the half-seen man atop its back. He now held the lantern steady; the air was dirtier here so she could see its shaft of light in the form of faint specks of fungal matter and dust. Leal slid the cutter into the beam and reset her gyrocompass. Then she popped the canopy, leaned out to wave, and started her engine. In seconds she had left the wraith ship behind.
She listened as she cranked the canopy shut again, but the strange distant voice did not speak again, and the engines of the wraith ships were drowned out by her own jet. She slumped back in her seat, breathing a heavy sigh.
After a few minutes she spotted a flash of light in the distance. Leal held her breath: it flashed again.
This was where the winter wraith had directed her: a lighthouse of her own people.
It was all anticlimax from there. Leal brought the cutter up to the little blockhouse and spotted the rope that looped away from it into the distance. That rope was the weightless version of a road; it led (provided it hadn't snapped at some point) to the nearest town. From there she could take her bearing on Sere and, if she tended her engine carefully and didn't let her eyes stray from the rope, she could be home in a couple of hours.
She was not about to let her eyes drift from the rope again.
WHEN THE CITY appeared it did so all at once. The darkness parted, revealing itself to be at least partly due to dense cloud, and light burst upon Leal. She blew out a sigh of relief and actually grinned at the beauty of the place.
Sere was a wheel made of wheels. Each "town" making it up was an iron ring a half-mile in diameter. These town wheels spun in lockstep at exactly one rotation per minute. Their inner surfaces were festooned with the glittering lights of city towers, houses, floodlit greenhouses, and Industry's red tongues of flame. She couldn't see all sixteen of the wheels, just an arc of six or seven of them jabbing into banks of deep gray cloud. They formed a great circle, their positions stabilized by cables and massive jet engines. Hovering around them in attendant swarms were hundreds of lesser lights — buildings, fungus farms, and giant storage nets, foundries and the houses of the rich that twirled in pairs, roped together in bolo configuration.
The whole glittering nebula of shapes was framed by midnight colors — black, bruised blue, indigo, all textured into intricacy by clouds and the reachless vaults between them. Here, darkness was not simple; it hinted at structures and meanings, hidden activity and watchful eyes. Beacons flickered, miles away, then disappeared behind fog banks. Half-glimpsed ropes twisted and contorted their way up, down, and to every side, synapses reaching to contact the outlier towns and factories of Sere's hinterland. One or two of those ropes, if you followed them far enough, would emerge into sunlight at other nations' borders.
Excerpted from The Sunless Countries by Karl Schroeder. Copyright © 2009 Karl Schroeder. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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