This is the third novel, after Sun of Suns and Queen of Candesce, to be set in Virga, a bubble universe artificially separated from our own future universe. "Schroeder's Virga series is highly reminiscent of the Golden Age of SF, when A. E. van Vogt
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November 01, 2010
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Excerpt from Pirate Sun by Karl Schroeder
THEY HAD PROVIDED him with two torturers today.
Chaison Fanning put out one hand to stop himself in the doorway, aware that the prison guard behind him would kick him into the room in a second or two. "Gentlemen," he said in as even a tone as he could muster, "to what do I owe the honor?" Neither answered, but it didn't matter; just hearing himself speak civilly counted as a victory. With luck, that brief moment might sustain him through what ever was about to follow.
Chaison flew the rest of the way into the interrogation room before the guard could kick him. "Against that wall," said the man who usually questioned him. Chaison didn't know this individ-ual's name, but thought of him as the reporter because of the identification tag clipped to his uniform. The embossed white square announced that its wearer was part of the JOURNALISM DIVISION. A piece of tape obscured the name. At first Chaison had thought the tag was a joke of some kind; he had learned otherwise.
Curled up in the weightless black of his cell at night, Chaison's thoughts often turned to killing the reporter. They were fragile, weak fantasies--faint hopes, really, often shattered by panic as he awoke to find that he had drifted into the center of the little chamber. His fiailing hands would find no purchase on wall, ceiling, or floor. In such moments there was nothing solid to be touched in any direction, no proof of his own existence but a scream; no face in his mind but that of his nameless torturer.
Yet he refused to scream, though other men in other cells did. Sometimes their voices brought him back to himself. A few nights ago he'd been drifting in the all- consuming dark when suddenly he'd heard a young voice calling out in the night. At first Chaison had thought his mind was playing tricks on him, because he recognized the voice. But he'd shouted in reply, and the other had answered.
That was how Chaison had learned that one of his crewmen was imprisoned with him. The knowledge had spread like fire in him, giving him a new sense of purpose. That knowledge had emboldened him to greet his tormentor just now.
"Put your hands in the cuffs," said the reporter from his position near the room's single barred window. Chaison wiped a smear of mold off the palm of his hand. In a building like this that had never known gravity, the stuff accumulated everywhere; this patch stood straight out from the doorjamb like fine white fur, just as it coated the walls of his cell. The new man closed the rusty rings over his wrists and Chaison steeled himself for a sucker punch or something that would soften him up for the coming questions. To his relief, the man just met Chaison's eyes briefly, then hopped lightly across the cell to position himself behind the desk podium with the pale- faced chief torturer.
The badge on his gray uniform read, HELLO, MY NAME IS. Underneath this somebody had scrawled 2629.
"Here's the one you wanted to see, Professor," said the reporter. He seemed a bit nervous. Flipping open a thick dossier, he held it out to the light from the window. "Chaison Fanning, former ad miral of the fieet of Slipstream. Our most important guest."
"Hmmpf." The visitor took the file carefully and thumbed through it. He glanced at Chaison again, silver cloud light glinting off his wire- frame glasses. He seemed out of place here; he did, in fact, look a bit like a literature professor Chaison had once had.
Chaison cleared his throat. "I don't understand," he said, unable to hide the bitterness in his voice. "I've given a full deposition. You know everything."
"No, we don't!" The reporter glared at him murderously. "Did they clear you to read my articles in the Intelligence Internal Journal?" he asked the visitor. "He's been cooperative up to a point and I've been able to make most of my deadlines. But there's a crucial piece of information he's holding back. He's very disciplined, he exercises constantly in his cell, jumping from wall to wall, doing isometrics... Seems willing to die rather than give us this last thing he knows. I've had some trouble finishing the last article in the series. I assume that's why you're ...?"
"Mm, I'm not here to fault your work, you were always a good student," said the professor in a bland tone. "But let's start with the basics. It says here you..." He read for a moment, then raised his glasses and looked again. "Did this really happen?"
"Officially, no," said the reporter with a sigh. He watched in evident disappointment as the other flipped through the dossier with an expression of increasing incredulity. After a minute or so the professor pulled himself together and looked up at Chaison.
"You attacked and crippled our fleet," he said.
"With six ships?"
Chaison shrugged modestly. He allowed himself a slight smile.
"How was this accomplished?"
"The better question," said Chaison, "is why you never heard anything about it."
The reporter reached behind himself and unclipped some nasty darts from the board next to the window. Chaison tried to swallow past a suddenly dry mouth.
"Hang on," said the visiting professor, putting a hand on the reporter's arm. "Let's all be civil for the moment. I presume that I wasn't cleared to know about this attack," he said to Chaison, "because it's a national embarrassment."
Chaison eyed the reporter, then said, "Your people launched a sneak attack on my country. I caught your fleet within your own territory and decimated it."
To put it this way was to sum up a gambit of high desperation, take the exhilaration of battle, the panic, and shouted orders on the bridge of a smoking ship that dripped blood into the sky as it maneuvered in pitch blackness at two hundred miles an hour--to take all of that and reduceit, obscenely, to simple history. Impossible; the remembered sound of bullets hitting the hull, thick as rain, woke Chaison every night. At random times on any given day, some quality of light might easily take him back to that bridge, where men's faces were lit only by the instruments and the roiling darkness outside the armored windows flashed into incandescence every few seconds, as this or that ship exploded in the night.
"Amazing." The new man was too absorbed in his reading to notice that Chaison had slipped into a reverie. "It says you used something called 'radar' to maneuver your ships at full speed in cloud and darkness. Apparently we recovered several working devices from the wreckage of your ships." Now he looked puzzled. "So why do we need you at all? Is there some secret to operating this radar that he's not telling us?"
"Well, no. And yes," said the reporter. "They work just fine. They just . . . don't do anything."
The professorial visitor sighed and tilted his glasses up to rub his eyes. "Explain, please."
Chaison had fought every inch against admitting even these details to the reporter, despite the fact that Falcon Formation's engineers already knew them. They had the wreckage of several of Chaison's ships to examine, after all; they could put two and two together. Yet even though Chaison had in the end bit the words of admission out one by one, in a blur of delirium and pain, he would gladly fight the questions again. There were still facts for which he would die rather than reveal.
The reporter seemed eager to show his former teacher his investigative skills. "Radar's a well- known technology," he said. "It just doesn't work. It's like those, what- you- call 'computers' and other electrical- onics things. Their operation is permanently jammed by thesun of suns."
In his life Chaison had met few people who knew that there were higher technologies than the simple steam- and fuel- powered mechanisms they'd grown up with. Fewer still knew that it was Candesce, the vast self- contained fusion sun at the center of the world, whose radiation rendered radar and similar systems inoperable anywhere in Virga. Chaison himself, nobly born and educated at the best schools, had only understood this in an abstract sort of way, until a year ago.
The visitor shook his head and frowned. "You're saying Candesce makes radar impossible.Thenhow did he get it to work, unless..." His eyes widened.
"Unless he's been inside Candesce," said the reporter with a nod. "Or knows somebody who has. Maybe the home guard . . ."
"But the home guard's neutral!" The professorial man shook his head rapidly, rubbing at his balding scalp with one distracted hand. "They exist to defend Virga from outside threats, they don't intervene in internal affairs!"
"That's what I always thought," said the reporter, with the air of a man who's recently come into possession of a great and secret truth.
Chaison almost laughed. Weren't interrogators supposed to keep their speculations from their victims? These two shouldn't even be talking in front of him, much less debating the facts of his case.
"This is what he won't tell us," said the reporter. "How did Slipstream get around Candesce's jamming field? Did they shut it off? Did they find a way to shield the ships from it? You see, I've been trying to wrap up my series for months with an appeal to the navy to develop this capability. It was no ordinary attack. If we knew this--if we had this ability--"
"Yes, I see." The professor met Chaison's gaze. It was odd, though: Chaison didn't see the lizard- like coldness in that gaze that he'd come to expect from the faceless apparatchiks of Falcon's brutal bureaucracy. Was this man here to try a new tactic-- kindness, perhaps?--in hopes of prying these last, most crucial facts from Chaison?
It wouldn't work. If it had been a matter of saving his own life, Chaison might have told them everything. Even if it had been the integrity of his own nation, Slipstream, that was at stake,his will might have failed him; he was starting to hate Slipstream, or at least its government, for abandoning him to Falcon.
But the one whose life would be threatened if Falcon knew his secret was Venera, Chaison's wife. It was she who had discovered how to gain entrance to the sun of suns, she who knew how to temporarily shut down its suppressive fields. While Chaison had plummeted his ships into Falcon Formation's skies, Venera had entered Candesce during its night cycle and, at a predetermined moment, flipped what ever switch controlled the fields. Chaison's ships had one night and one night only to use their radar to ambush and destroy Falcon's invasion force. As Candesce shrugged itself awake, Venera had thrown the switch again and left.
At least, he assumed she had left. The plan was for them to meet up again at their home in Slipstream. Chaison had been captured after plunging his flagship into Falcon's new dreadnought likea dagger into the flank of a monster. He only hoped Venera'd had better luck getting out of Candesce.
He was rehearsing the lies and half- truths he would give these men, as he'd been taught in the admiralty, when something flicked past the window. He and the reporter both looked, but what ever it was, was already gone. Probably a bird or one of the thousands of species of flying fish that drifted through the clouds here on the edge of civilization.
Oddly, the visitor's eyes flicked to the window and then he said, rather loudly, "Well, we'd best get started with the serious questions, then."
The reporter grunted and turned to the wall of implements and devices behind the podium. The visiting professor chose that moment to grin openly at Chaison.
And then he winked.
"He really hates being burned," mused the reporter. "Too bad the furnace isn't working today. We could try..." Somewhere nearby there was a heavy impact, a thump that Chaison felt rather than heard. The building oscillated slightly.
The reporter frowned and turned just as something shot past the window. For an instant a blurred line hung there; then with a crunch and a snap of dust the blur resolved into a heavy iron chain. It stretched taut across the window, quivering slightly.
The reporter gaped at it. "What is that?" At that moment his mild- looking visitor tossed the dossier aside to reveal a wicked-looking blade in his hand. With well- practiced economy of motion, he plunged it into the reporter's back.
As the reporter pawed at the tools of his trade, twitching his life out in silence, his killer undid the manacles that bound Chai-son to the wall. "He and his kind have debased our profession," he said to Chaison. "It's become diabolical, really. I'm told there was a time when we reported what we learned to the people. Can you believe it? So don't question my motives. --Not that a little cash incentive isn't a helpful motivator at times."
"What are you doing?" asked Chaison weakly.
"I should think it was obvious," said the professor. "Earlier, while I had the room to myself, I weakened your restraints. Let me show you." He yanked on one of the straps andit came out of the wall. "The story will be that you took advantage of the chaos to kill Kyseman, here. I doubt anyone will question that too much, after everything else that's going to happen."
Kyseman. The name rang in Chaison's head as he climbed off the rack. He rubbed his wrists. "What's going to happen?"
The professor just smiled. "Hang on," he said. Then he wrapped both his arms around the podium.
The unmistakable crackle of gunfire sounded through the window. Chaison jumped over to it and just as he touched the lintel another length of chain whipped past, tightening against the stonework and throwing chips and dust into the air. He looked past it.
A squat, barrel- shaped ship hove into view. It was peeling away from the prison wall, jets straining, as dozens of tracer rounds drew lines in the air around it. Chaison barely had time to say, "Oh--" before the ring of rockets around its waist lit and it jumped away.
The chain flickered out, an iron link between ship and building. The blare of the rockets was insanely loud; in seconds the little ship had disappeared behind billowing smoke and flame. And as the chain hauled on the stonework, the weightless prison began to turn.
"Do they have a toy called a yo- yo in your country?" asked the visitor. Chaison caught the windowsill as it began to move away from him. "It's very simple," continued the visitor. "You wrap a string around something and when you pull the string, the thing spins. It's a principle you can apply to anything, really..."
Chaison turned to him, grinning. "This place! It's not one building, it's five or six--"
The visitor was laughing now. "Make that eight. Various block houses and small jails that were towed here and nailed together to make a bigger structure. Not very stable. Prone to coming separated in strong winds--did you know that? Probably not, they don't advertise it to the prisoners. But your rescuers," he nodded to the window, "they found out."
The sky was spinning past, the little ship fast disappearing past the building's corner. Chaison craned his neck to watch it. "Who are you?" he asked. "And who are they if you're not one of them?"
"I told you," said the interrogator with a shrug, "I'm merely upholding the sanctity of my calling. I received a request to attend an interview, and at first I thought it came through official channels; by the time I learned otherwise, the cash incentives attached to it had . . . convinced me to do the right thing.
"As to who they are," he added, jabbing a thumb at the window, "I really don't know. All I know is that they were very specific about who they wanted broken out of this hellhole." From the hallway came shouts and the thud of men bouncing off the walls. Chaison and the professor both turned to look, but nobody opened the door.
Chaison turned back to him. "What do I do?"
"Just stay here. Your people will send someone along in a few minutes--when they circle back. This room is in one of the least well- secured blocks. We calculated it'll be the first to go."
Chaison nodded--then thought of something. "Wait--one of my countrymen is here too. One of my original crew. I can't leave without him."
The professor shook his head. "Oh, no. Absolutely not. I forbid it. You're to stay here, otherwise the plan won't work."
Chaison glared at him. "You don't understand. He's just a boy, and it's my fault that he's here. I can't leave him."
The clouds outside were moving past with startling speed now, and Chaison felt centrifugal force pushing him against the window. Creaks and groans sang through the prison's structure.
Chaison jumped to the door. He pulled it open. "Are you coming?"
The professor grimaced and shook his head. "That would be suicide. You broke out of your bonds, remember. I had nothing to do with it."
Admiral Chaison Fanning turned to go, then glanced back. "I suppose I should be grateful," he said, gesturing at the lifeless body of the chief torturer. The visitor smiled, but he hadn't caught Chaison's meaning; much of the satisfaction Chaison might have felt at his torturer's death had drained away the moment that the professor had said his name.
No longer a monster but a man, dead Kyseman rolled over in the air, seemingly to sneer at Chaison one last time. Chaison turned away and climbed into the slowly tilting hall.
CHAIN HISSED ACROSS stone and with a final twitch, let go. With grand gestures the whirling prison began to come apart: first its spidery docking arm flung itself out, piers grasping at cloud before it detached and sailed away; then hundreds of barrels and crates broke free of the simple twine that had tied them next to the service entrance. They flew scattershot, two smacking into the warden's catamaran just as a mob of outraged prison guards was trying to board it. One barrel shattered the windshield and the other knocked off an engine.
Chaison Fanning flinched at a sound like machine- gun fire, which seemed to be coming from all around him. It started at the far end of the building and raced toward him through the structure. It was the sound of nails exploding free of wood and cement. The place was creaking and groaning like some fevered giant, and the hexagonal corridor was visibly twisting as Chaison bounced down it. He knew every turn and straightaway of these institution-green passages and quailed at the thought of retracing the path to his cell. Only the giddiness of possible escape gave him the strength to climb up, hang on and turn over, then climb down, then hang on, then leap across twenty feet of air to the next junction. The centrifugal gravity wasn't much, but it was more than zero and zero was all he'd dealt with for months. Every day, Chaison had exercised single- mindedly for as long as his meager diet would let him, but even so he couldn't keep this up for long.
His little cell block was a bit more solid than the rest of the structure. Here the stone was silent, only the circular swing of weight indicating that something was wrong. Chaison bounded along, rounded the corner to his hallway--and ran right into an obese jailer who was having trouble with his footing.
The jailer sputtered for a second. "L-loose!" he shouted as the wall behind him became a floor. He flailed and sat down.
"I'll have those keys," said Chaison, leaning in. The jailer swung his baton wildly, rapping the former admiral on the elbow. He jumped back again, hissing.
"Help!" The jailer scrambled to his feet but kept going into the air as with a wrenching bang! the cell block separated from the rest of the structure. Daylight suddenly washed around the corner.
Chaison tackled him while he was gaping and managed to grab the baton out of his hand. He swung it two- handed and knocked the man's head into the wall. The jailer groaned and curled into a ball.
"Here! What are you doing?" Two more officers appeared silhouetted against the new sunlight. They had swords.
Chaison grabbed the jailer's keys and bounded away. The other two shouted and followed.
Now that the cell block had left the rest of the building it was weightless again. This might have given the jailers an advantage, but they hesitated at the pandemonium of enraged and excited shouting that had erupted from the cells. Chaison made it to the doors before they could catch him. He found the one he was looking for and slammed the master key into its lock, twisting it hard. Before he could get out of the way the door exploded open and someone shot out into the corridor. Chaison threw the keys to the slight figure who'd emerged from the cell, and turned to meet the two officers.
Both lunged, swords flashing.
Chaison had rehearsed a moment like this for months--fantasies of escape had helped keep him sane--and was ready. He used the baton like a dagger in a hand-and- a-half duel, sliding it along the first man's blade and twisting, then doubling in midair and kicking him in the face. In a moment he had the man's sword in his own hand. He turned, too late as the other raised his hand and chopped--
--And missed as a ragged boy, no more than twelve years old, jumped him from the side. Before the jailer could turn his sword on the boy, Chaison leaped after him and stabbed, pinning his forearm to the wall.
As the jailer howled the boy turned, and Chaison was able to properly see him for the first time in months.
A scrawny gargoyle of a kid, cheeks sunken, eyes black beads in well- defined sockets, all framed by a wreath of oily black hair-- for a second Chaison hesitated, sure that he must have opened the wrong cell. Then the apparition spoke in a familiar wheeze. "Sir! You look a sight, if'n I can say so."
Chaison laughed. "You should talk, Martor! Are you strong enough to handle a sword? There might be more."
Martor grinned hideously. "They been letting me out to run laps in the hamster- wheel, the fools. I'm good." He jabbed a thumb at the row of cell doors. "What about that lot?"
"Let a few out, I suppose. They'll make a good distraction while we get away."
"We? Who's this we you're talking about?"
Martor exchanged a wide- eyed look with Chaison. The voice had come from one of the cells, and it was familiar. Chaison went to the blank iron door and rapped it. "Excuse me?"
"Am I part of your distraction?" said the voice. It held overtones of power, as if the speaker had once been an orator or singer--but it was thin now, and desperate. "After all this time, is that the only role I can play in your escapade?"
Chaison blinked. "A-ambassador?"
"Who do you think I am, you ninny? I am the very Richard Reiss whom you kidnapped from a life of privilege and luxury to aid you in your suicidal little expedition. I'll have you open the door this instant, unless you fear my quite- justified wrath at your theft of my life and reputation. Open up, sir, if you love your country and countrymen!"
"Sheesh, that's him all right," said Martor. He flung back the door, and they were greeted with a vision of bushy gray hair and wild eyes. Only the wine- colored birthmark on his cheek was familiar.
". . . Or were you just going to abandon me after all this time?" Reiss, it seemed, was nearly in tears.
Chaison tossed him the baton and he caught it clumsily. "Never," said the admiral. "I gave up a guaranteed escape to return for you. Now come with me if you ever want to see your home again."
The two men and the boy turned and leaped toward the light.
THE LITTLE TUG hove next to the window of the interrogation cell. While men stood on the hull and laid down suppressing fire against the few officers still in the building, Venera threw a grapple across the short space and hooked the bars of the window. At her order, a spring- loaded winch whirred into action and the bars cracked, squealed, and then burst outward.
She stuck the barrels of two pistols into the room, and then her head. She glared at the body of the chief interrogator, then raised an eyebrow to the other man, who was still clutching the table stand. He shrugged.
"Not here," he said. "But free, last I saw."
She cursed and withdrew. Seconds later the tug's engines howled into life and it shot away. The visiting interrogator watched from the window as it vanished in the mist.
He looked around at the thousand and one clouds that dotted the free air here at the edge of Falcon Formation. "Good luck with that," he said with a short laugh. Then he returned to his table to wait for his own rescue, and in the meantime thought about how he was going to spend the money the mysterious woman had paid him.