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Darkship Revenge: Chapter Five
Last updated: Monday, March 6, 2017 18:27 EST
And The Rock Cried Out
Eris cried all the way on the way down. I kicked the broom into as shallow a descent as I could, but I had the vague and possibly wrong idea that babies’ eardrums were more sensitive than adults’, and I assumed the pressure changes bothered her.
We glided over blue ocean, tinged gold here and there by the setting sun. Above us, the air-to-space sped up on its final journey.
She was still crying it is entirely possible that babies crying are the most underestimated force in the universe when we approached the ocean I changed my flight path, adjusting from memory to fly at that one peculiar height that was rarely tracked. Too high for the normal every day flyers, but not so high that I impinged on the path of intercontinental or inter-island traffic. It was the level at which broomers lived. Other than the occasional peacekeeper broomer or flyer looking for broomers, and that only when broomers had been particularly troublesome.
There were neither broomers nor peacekeepers. In fact, there was no one around.
I let my memory play back what I’d seen while coming down through the atmosphere, and while getting ready for the broom, and oriented myself. If I was right, Liberte Seacity would be North. About an hour.
Long before I’d flown the full hour, I was tired of listening to Eris cry, and felt like I’d been flying for years or perhaps centuries. My back ached and I couldn’t move it, couldn’t make myself comfortable with Eris and the broom both strapped to me.
It felt oddly more vulnerable and desolate to have Eris with me than to be alone. I was responsible for her, so it wasn’t simply a matter of looking after myself. And part of me hated being responsible for her, and having the extra burden of making sure she was well, and the other part of me despised myself for thinking it.
When we got near Liberte, even from the air, I could tell something was wrong. In fact, it was as much of a shock as I’d sustained when first seeing my native city of Syracuse from the air last time I’d returned to Earth.
Liberte unlike Syracuse had always been a beautiful seacity. Part of it came from its being the ruling city of the empire ruled by Good Man St. Cyr who, for the last ten years or so had been my friend, Simon. His domains included Liberte, sure, but the real work horse of his fortune was the seacity of Shangri-La, known mostly for its production of mind-altering and in many jurisdictions illegal drugs and the algae farms that surrounded it, which fed half a continent, if one were to believe the reports put out by St. Cyr. Of course, I didn’t believe the reports. It’s something one learns when growing up in an oligarchy. Never believe the official reports. But I still knew the St. Cyrs had commanded impressive wealth for a long time, and that very little of it was produced in Liberte.
This left the city where administrators and bureaucrats lived a beautiful place, resembling a dimatough wedding cake, climbing layer on manicured layer till it achieved the pinnacle, where Simon’s palace stood, itself like a wedding cake, all glistening white dimatough, layer on layer, to the turret on the top, where the ballroom had been located.
It had been one of the most beautiful seacities to look at from the air.
Half the palace looked ruined blackened and burned — as did many of the other levels of the seacity. Even from the air I could see entire streets where once-airy mansions had been torched.
There were signs of rebuilding, as I got nearer the palace: Scaffolds and heavy machinery, some of it obviously dimatough extruders, stood close enough to the palace that it was obvious that they were repairing some of the damage. But who was repairing the damage? Who was in control?
The same events that had propelled me out of Earth and into Kit’s native Eden, and that had caused a quasi revolution in Eden, had made it so that there was a revolution or the start of one on Earth.
Now, Earth, unlike Eden, was a vast place, with more than three billion inhabitants how much more was a matter of great debate, because, as I’ve said before, the Earth was divided not only into the domain of fifty Good Men, but into countless principalities, governorships and satrapies under them. And none of the absolute rulers or their absolute underlings trusted each other’s numbers. So estimates of the numbers of humanity on Earth ranged from ten billion to three billion, and there was no consensus.
But even at three billion, there was no way a single revolution, even one propelled and masterminded by the Usaian cult which seemed to be everywhere, could by itself span the globe. However, it was enough that it had started chaos in the areas I was most familiar with. My own native city, Syracuse Seacity, had been destroyed by a bomb and the last time I’d been on Earth, war ranged across all of Syracuse’s continental dependencies, and Olympus Seacity’s also.
That it had extended to Liberte was not a surprise. Simon, though not an Usaian, had aligned himself with them. And the Good Men still in control of most of the Seacities and territories on Earth would attack him as well as the rest.
But the question was who had won? Who was in control of the island?
If it was the party of the Good Men, my landing there and making myself known might at best get me killed, or, more likely and worse, get me captured and made into that “Mother of the Race” thing they had planned for me.
I listened to Eris’ now hoarse cry and decided I wasn’t absolutely sure I was ready to be the mother of one child, much less of a race. This was absolutely not happening.
So, instead of landing near the top, where the palace was; instead of trying to make contact with Simon and asking for his help in finding Kit, I circled the island and came in on the North side, the lowest level.
The way the seacities were built, level on level, the level above cut off most of the light and air to the lower on. Perhaps because of that, the lower levels tended to be far cheaper than the top levels, and the areas where the supports for the top level anchored often were dark and difficult to get to, which made them ideal for a criminal or at least shadowy element.
Now most levels of Liberte housed at worst minor bureaucrats and an educated middle class. But there still needed to be a place for the servants and gardeners, the cooks and cleaners catering to the rest of the island. Shangri-La was too far away for a daily commute for those who had neither a flyer nor a broom. And I’ve yet to see a place, on Earth or not, who doesn’t have an area where a shadow economy can flourish. In Liberte that was only the lowest level of the seacity.
I landed there, in a secluded place I knew from visits with my broomer’s lair. My appearance attracted a few looks, even after I pulled off the oxygen mask and stowed it and removed my Eden-made helmet from Eris’ head and folded it into my pocket. Possibly because my suit was more expensive than normally seen in these parts, but also likely because it was unusual to see a broomer carrying two brooms on her back and an infant on her front.
The minute I removed the helmet from Eris, she had stopped screaming and fallen asleep. This told me she really didn’t like her head confined, but there was something more. From the whiff emanating from her we’d need to find a place to change her too. Materials too. I wasn’t used to this being a mother thing. I had completely forgotten to pack diapering material.
Everyone gave me a wide berth, and I walked more or less aimlessly, but taking stock of what was available, as well as thinking through my next move. I needed to know if Simon was safe and still in control, but if he weren’t that might be a perilous or even deadly move. The easiest thing would be to listen to people talk, but that wasn’t going to happen on the streets. It might very well happen while shopping for diapers, or looking for food. But for that I needed money.
I knew where to go. Look, my lair did not engage in the normal criminal pursuits of broomer lairs, but it was impossible to exist even as a semi-recreational broomer lair without getting into battles with other lairs. And in those battles we often took spoil, which was mostly brooms. So we needed a place to dispose of stolen brooms. And I’d in the past had occasion to dispose of other spoil. Or at least of things I’d stolen from my father’s house, in order to finance my lair or a new broom. Mostly things no one but me even remembered existed, like one of those musty, old books in the library, printed in twenty first century paper with ink that was fast fading.
Most of the places we traded with were in Syracuse Seacity, but we had places of resort in other isles and continental settlements, at least within our broom range.
In Liberte the place was Lupin and Sons. Its door looked like a gash in the base of one of the dimatough columns that supported the next level. From the fact it was much taller than most normal doors, it probably had started out as a bubble in the dimatough, with an opening. Well, two openings, because next to the strangely shaped door was a strangely shaped shop window.
The shape of the shop window did not begin to be as odd as its contents. In higgledy piggledy fashion, the display showed off if you can call it that anything from tarnished silver candlesticks to brand new, shining burners that looked like police issue.
In the center of the shop, holding pride of place, was a stuffed squirrel outfitted in miniature broomer kit, with a burner in its hand. By pride of place I mean that it was upright and could easily be discerned from its surroundings. It was, however, covered in a thick layer of dust and a dusty cobweb linked its tufted ears to presumably the distant, darkened ceiling of the shop window.
Its dull glass eyes seemed to look me over banefully as I passed by, to enter the shop.
The man behind the counter was old François and his helper was his son Louis. They were both thin and I presumed they had both once been dark haired. The only way I’d ever known them, François’ pony tail was all white, and there was a distinct bald circle on top of his head.
They looked like perfectly respectable merchants, except for a slight look of expectancy. Behind their eyes lurked the sort of alertness that indicated they were looking for something or waiting for something. People said no one tried to rob Lupin’s twice. People and by people I mean broomers also said that in the basement of the shop there was a powerful hidden incinerator that was used to dispose of more than damaged merchandise.
As a matter of curiosity, I’d often wondered if there was any truth or if these were rumors carefully set about to make sure that no one tried anything funny the first time. It didn’t matter. I’d never been willing, or in fact interested in, trying anything new the first time around, and I surely wasn’t about to do it now, with Eris dependent on my staying upright and breathing. If I died heaven only knew what they’d do to Eris.
An unexpected, disturbing image, of a stuffed Eris in the shop window, in a miniature broomer suit, holding a burner, made me shudder, and I realized both men were looking at me expectantly and also with a scared expression. The expectant made sense. They probably remembered me. The scared? Not at all.
I kept my eyes and ears open for any movement behind or to the sides of me, but there was nothing. The crowded little shop with brooms hanging from the ceiling, used furniture and books cramming the corners and for whatever reason a batch of white rats in a cage looked perfectly still, and sounded perfectly still, except for the rats and the men behind the counter. And trust me, if there had been anyone else there, even just breathing, I’d have heard them when I was listening that intently and that alert.
The last time I’d used the code that told Louis and François that I was a broomer with something illicit to sell, it had been “At the orders of Marat.”
Now in the old days, the password had changed every few months, and I was never absolutely sure how it was changed or how it was passed down. We just knew it by word of mouth. Mention in any broomer bar that you were going to visit Lupin’s and someone sooner or later told you the new code.
Only I’d been away from Earth for well over six months. I was sure it had changed, but not how. So I approached the counter and gave the old sign. “At the orders of Marat.”
Pierre’s watchful, laid-back look changed. He blinked. I had the impression he’d bit his tongue. He said, in something less than a whisper, “Louis, secure.”
I tensed. For a moment I thought he was telling his son to secure me, which even with Eris strapped on and brooms on my back would not go well at all well for him.
But Louis slid quietly around me, as I tracked him, and closed the door, then threw a switch somewhere in the shadowy edge of the walls. I wasn’t sure what the switch was, or even if there was one, but I was aware a distant hum had quieted.
François gave me the once over. “Well, demoiselle, now we should be safe. I should tell you never to say those words again, and not in public. We are good citizens, and good subjects of the Emperor Julien, allors.”
If my eyebrows climbed any further, they would become part of my hairline. “Emperor Julien?” I asked. My voice cracked a little. I didn’t know anyone named Julien, and really, Emperor? It didn’t sound like someone who served under the sphere of the Good Men. The highest title I knew they allowed as king, and mostly because the British, an ancient, proud and quite possibly mad race had refused to surrender their ancient pomp and dignity.
“Emperor Julien Beaulieu,” he touched his forehead, in what seemed to be some kind of gesture. “The protector of Liberte, grantor of our liberties and keeper of our people.”
Uh uh. There was one thing I knew for sure. When someone called himself the grantor of anyone’s liberties, those liberties were long gone, if indeed they had ever existed.
I tried to look calm and uncaring. It didn’t help that Eris chose this moment to wake up and give me a look like she was astounded at my incompetence. All right, so I was probably reading that into her wide-eyed look. But I felt incompetent, and was afraid of getting us both killed. “What happened I’ve been away ah. Out of the reach of news. What happened to Good Man St. Cyr?”
François didn’t look shocked. He tightened his mouth so much that it looked as though he were trying to make his lips invisible. “I suspected you might have been away, ‘demoiselle.” His eyes narrowed too, and he made a gesture with his head, as though pointing his rather sharp chin at Eris. “Judging by your company.”
I almost corrected him and said I was Madame, as befitted a married woman, but I didn’t, because he was going on, “The Good Man, so called, got deposed and executed for his crimes against the people.”
For a moment the room swayed and it seemed to me like darkness crept from near the walls to press in on me.
“Mademoiselle!” It was Louis, and he’d held my arm near the elbow. I didn’t think I’d almost passed out, but I must have swayed, from his gesture.
“I’m fine,” I said, steadying myself, and standing on my own two feet. “I’m fine. I just didn’t know.” Poor Simon.
He’d been somewhat of a pest. If I understood what Kit had said after he’d found these things out from the memories of the man he was cloned from Simon’s own original had been created as a spy, a chameleon who could fit in anywhere, unnoticed, who could penetrate all levels of society and the most closed of conspiracies.
And Simon’s own history, with his father becoming incapacitated when Simon was very young, and Simon being required to step into the work of government, while at the same time keeping the insurgence against the mode of government alive, had caused him to develop a fake personality, a face he wore in public, which I had reason to believe concealed a much deeper and thoughtful young man.
But for all his flaws and sometimes I wasn’t sure where the flaws ended and Simon began he had been one of my earliest friends and one of my first lovers. Even the last time we’d met we’d flirted and to be fair to him, he’d given me and Kit and our companions, all the help we needed in getting what we needed from Earth.
“Well, now, ‘demoiselle, we all had our own, private feelings for the Patrician. And that’s how they should remain. Private.”
François was watching me closely. I nodded. I shook Louis’ grasp away from my elbow. “Indeed,” I said. “Indeed, we must be loyal subjects of the ah — Emperor Julian.”
François smiled approvingly. He made some kind of head gesture at Louis, who disappeared into the shadows, and, if my ears were tracking right, into a corridor somewhere near the back of the shop. “Now,” he said. “Before we open the door, demoiselle, how may I help you?”
I took the extra broom from my back and laid it on the counter.
He looked at it, nodded, then ran his fingers over it, as though studying it by Braille. “It’s not one of the standard commercial models,” he said. “Nor one of the military models.”
I kept my mouth shut. I really had no need to confess to the theft of an air-to-space, much less precisely to where I’d stolen it or why.
“On the other hand,” he said, largely I think speaking to himself. “It is not one of those rescue brooms that fly only down, right? So. Let me see what I can give you for this?”
He bit the corner of his lip. It was said among the broomers that François Lupin had a computer between his ears. A highly specialized computer that could calculate to the last centime exactly how much he would get for an item, and then offer you half.
But when he spoke I was shocked. “How about two hundred Beaulieus?” he asked.
I raised my eyebrows. “Beau –” The currency not just in Liberte but over most of the hemisphere was narcs, which was an abbreviation for “narcotics” which had been a form of currency in the Turmoils, before the Good Men had taken over and restored peace.
“It tracks more of less with the old narcs,” the man said. “Because they were only replaced a week ago. It’s a thousand Beaulieus to the ounce of gold,” he added, helpfully. “Give or take. Emperor Julien has placed us on a gold standard.” I noticed once more he touched his forehead with his fingertips when talking about the emperor. It really gave me a creepy crawly feel up the spine, but I turned on the calculations instead.
One thousandth of an ounce per narc give or take and depending on fluctuations, had indeed been the price of gold in the old days. I knew because I often bought raw gold to have it fashioned into jewelry that was exactly what I wanted.
Given that, 100 was unusually high for a broom with its brains beaten out, which made it clear it was stolen. I must have murmured something about high price, which just shows you I wasn’t functioning. I’m not in the habit of arguing against myself.
I didn’t realize I’d done it, till I saw François smile widen, with his lips still closed. “Well, Demoiselle,” he said, his voice slightly hoarse. “It is what you can expect when war is so widespread that all flyers and brooms go up in price, as the military are buying them. He looked at the broom on my back. “If you sell me that one too, and your suit, I can raise it to four hundred nar — Beaulieus.”
I shook my head. The entire situation was making my skin crawl, and I did not want to leave myself without the means to escape this place as soon as possible. I did not know anything about the Emperor Julien, his rule, his domains, or even his policies. But I knew anyone who talked loudly about how much they defended liberties, let alone anyone who named a currency after himself, was not a benevolent or lax ruler.
“One broom,” I said, my own voice hoarse. “And what is the price in gold?”
“One tenth of an ounce,” he said. “Would Madame prefer it in coins?”
I was Madame now. And Madame was not outfitted to check the gold composition of coins, and wasn’t completely stupid.
I ended up selling the broom for a tenth of an ounce, deposited in the Interplanetary bank, an old and respectable institution at least 300 years old and if anything a little stodgy. The deposit was in gold, but retrievable in any currency of my choice by means of a fingerprint, a voice code or a typed number code, both of which I memorized.
When I asked how much of that I’d have to pay for a packet of diapers the smell was really near unendurable, and I suspected the screaming was about to resume they told me it was no charge, and brought out from the back a dusty, ancient but sealed packet of newborn sized diapers, and even threw in a shoulder sack to carry them in.
I changed Eris in a little room at the back of the shop, one that contained two cots and a tiny cooker, and where I couldn’t avoid the suspicion that father and son lived.
And I left wondering if I’d sold the broom so cheap that it warranted throwing in freebies, or if Gallic courtesy had taken over.
I thought of this to avoid thinking of what had happened to Simon. Or of what might happen to me and Eris, in a world where no one had any reason to be well disposed towards us.
Kit? I mind called.
But there was no answer. Which only meant I had to find him, if I had to turn the Earth upside down and give it a good shaking.
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