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HAYDEN GRIFFIN WAS plucking a fish when the gravity bell rang. The dull clang penetrated even the thick wooden walls of the corporation inn; it was designed to be heard all over town. Hayden paused, frowned, and experimentally let go of the fish. Four tumbling feathers flashed like candle flames in an errant beam of sunlight shooting between the floorboards. The fish landed three feet to his left. Hayden watched the feathers dip in a slow arc to settle next to it.
“A bit early for a spin-up, ain’t it?” said Hayden. Miles grunted distractedly. The former soldier, now corporation cook, was busily pouring sauce over a steaming turkey that he’d just rescued from the oven’s minor inferno. His bald skull shone in the fire-light. “They might need me all the same,” continued Hayden. “I better go see.”
Miles glanced up. “Your ma left you here,” he said. “You been bad again. Pick up the fish.”
Hayden leaned back against the table, crossing his arms. He was trying to come up with a reply that didn’t sound like whining when the bell rang again, more urgently. “See?” he said. “They need somebody. Nobody in town’s as good with the bikes as I am. Anyway, how you gonna boil this fish if the gravity goes?”
“Gravity ain’t gonna go, boy,” snapped Miles. “It’s solid right now.”
“Then I better go see what else is up.”
“You just want to watch your old lady light the sun,” said Miles.
“Today’s just a test. I’ll wait for tomorrow, when they light it for real.”
“Come on, Miles. I’ll be right back.”
The cook sighed. “Go, then. Set the bikes going. Then come right back.” Hayden bolted for the door and Miles shouted, “Don’t leave that fish on the floor!”
As Hayden walked down the hall to the front of the inn another stray beam of sunlight spiked up around the plank floor-boards. That was a bad sign; Mom would have to wait for deep cloud cover before lighting the town’s new sun, lest the Slip-streamers should see it. Slipstream would never tolerate another sun so close to their own. The project was secret—or it had been. By tomorrow the whole world would know about it.
Hayden walked backward past the well-polished oak bar, waving his lanky arms casually at his side as he said, “Bell rang. Gotta check the bikes.” One of the customers smirked doubtfully at him; Mama Fifty glared at him from her post behind the bar. Before she could reply he was out the front door.
A blustery wind was blowing out here as always, even whistling up between the street boards. Sunlight angled around the edges of the street’s peaked roof, bars and rectangles of light sliding along the planking and up the walls of the buildings that crammed every available space. The street boards gave like springs under Hayden’s feet as he ran up the steep curve of the avenue, which was nearly empty at this time of day.
Gavin Town came to life at dusk, when the workers who slept here flooded back from all six directions, laughing and gossiping. Merchants would unshutter their windows for the night market as the gaslights were lit all along the way. The dance hall would throw open its doors for those with the stamina to take a few turns on the floor. Sometimes Hayden picked up some extra bills by lighting the streetlights himself. He was good with fire, after all.
If he went to work on the bikes Hayden wouldn’t be able to see the sun, so he took a detour. Slipping down a narrow alleyway between two tall houses, he came to one of the two outer streets of the town—really little more than a narrow covered walkway. Extensions of houses and shops formed a ceiling, their entrances to the left as he stepped into the way. To the right was an uneven board fence, just a crack open at the top. An occasional shuttered window interrupted the surface of the fence, but Hayden didn’t pause at any of them. He was making for an open gallery a quarter of the way up the street.
At moments like this—alone and busy—he either completely forgot himself or drowned in grief. His father’s death still weighed on him, though it had been a year now; was it that long since he and his mother had moved here? Mother kept insisting that it was best this way, that if they’d stayed home in Twenty-two Town they would have been surrounded by reminders of Dad all the time. But was that so bad?
His father wouldn’t be here to see the lighting of the sun, his wife’s completion of his project—their crowning achievement as a family. When Hayden remembered them talking about that, it was his father’s voice he remembered, soaring in tones of enthusiasm and hope. Mother would be quieter, but her pride and love came through in the murmurs that came through the bedroom wall and lulled Hayden to sleep at night. To make your own sun! That was how nations were founded. To light a sun was to be remembered forever.
WHEN HAYDEN WAS twelve his parents had taken him on his first visit to Rush. He had complained, because lately he’d come to know that though Slipstream was a great nation, it was not his nation. His friends had jeered at him for visiting the camp of the enemy, though he didn’t exactly know why Slipstreamers were bad, or what it meant to be a citizen of Aerie instead.
“That’s why we’re going,” his father had said. “So that you can understand.”
“That, and to see what they’re wearing in the principalities,” said Mother with a grin. Father had glowered at her—an expression his slablike face seemed designed for—but she ignored him.
“You’ll love it,” she said to Hayden. “We’ll bring back stuff to make those pals of yours completely envious.”
He’d liked that thought; still, Father’s words had stuck with him. He was going to Rush to understand.
And he thought he did understand, the moment that their ship had broached the final wall of cloud and he glimpsed the city for the first time. As light welled up, Hayden flew to a stoutly-barred window with some other kids—there was no centrifuge in this little ship, so everybody was weightless—and shielded his eyes to look at their destination.
The nearby air was full of travelers, some riding bikes, some on prop-driven contraptions powered by pedals, and some kicking their feet to flap huge white wings strapped to their backs. They carried parcels, towed cargos, and in the case of the fan-jets, left behind slowly fading arcs and lines of white contrail to thatch the sky.
Their cylindrical frigate had emerged from the clouds near Slip-stream’s sun, which it made an inferno of half the sky. Seconds out of the mist and the temperature was already rising in the normally chilly ship’s lounge. The other boys were pointing at something and shouting excitedly; Hayden peered in that direction, trying to make out what was casting a seemingly impossible shadow across an entire half of the view. The vast shape was irregular like any of the rocks they had passed on their way here. Where those rocks were usually house-sized and sprouted spidery trees in all directions, this shape was blued with distance and covered with an even carpet of green. It took Hayden a few seconds to realize that it really was a rock, but one that was several miles in diameter.
He gaped at it. Father laughed from the dining basket, woven of wicker, where he perched with Mother. “That’s the biggest thing you’ve ever seen, Hayden. But listen, there’s much bigger places. Slipstream is not a major state. Remember that.”
“Is that Rush?” Hayden pointed.
Father pulled himself out of the basket and came over. With his broad laborer’s shoulders and calloused hands, he bulked much bigger than the kids, who made a place for him next to Hayden. “The asteroid? That’s not Rush. It’s the source of Slipstream’s wealth, though—it and their sun.” He leaned on the rail and pointed. “No . . . That is Rush.”
Maybe it was because he’d never seen anything like it before, but the city simply hadn’t registered in Hayden’s mind until this moment. After all, the towns of Aerie were seldom more than two hundred yards across, and were simply wheels made of wooden planks lashed together and spoked with rope. You spun up the whole assembly and built houses on the inside surface of the wheel. Simple. And never had he seen more than five or six such wheels in one place.
The dozens of towns that made up Rush gleamed of highly polished metal. They were more cylindrical than ring-shaped, and none was less than five hundred yards in diameter. The most amazing thing was that they were tethered to the forested asteroid in quartets like mobiles; radiating from each cylinder’s outer rim were bright sails of gold and red that transformed them from mere towns into gorgeous pinwheels.
“The asteroid’s too big to be affected by the wind,” said Father. Hayden shifted uncomfortably; Father was not trying to hide the burr of his provincial Aerie accent. “The towns are small enough to get pulled around by gusts. They use the sails to help keep the wheels spun up.” This made sense to Hayden, because wind was the result of your moving at a different speed than what ever air-mass you were in. Most of the time, objects migrated outward and inward in Virga to the rhythm of slowly circulating rivers of air. You normally only experienced wind at the walls of a town or while flying. Many times, he had folded little propellers of paper and let them out on strings. They’d twirled in the rushing air. So did the towns of Rush, only much more slowly.
Hayden frowned. “If that big rock isn’t moving with the air, won’t it drift away from the rest of Slipstream?”
“You’ve hit on the very problem,” said Father with a smile. “Slipstream’s more migratory than most countries. The Slipstreamers have to follow their asteroid’s orbit within Virga. You can’t see from here, but their sun is also tethered to the asteroid. Ten years ago, Slipstream drifted right into Aerie. Before that, we were a smaller and less wealthy nation, being far from the major suns. But we were proud. We controlled our own destiny. Now what are we? Nothing but vassals of Rush.”
Hayden barely heard him. He was eagerly staring at the city.
Their ship arrived at midday to find a traffic jam at the axis of one of the biggest cylinders. It took an hour to disembark, but Hayden didn’t care. He spent the time watching the heavily built-up inner surface of the town revolve past. He was looking for places to visit. From the axis of the cylinder, where the docks sat like a jumble of big wooden dice, cable-ways radiated away to the other towns that made up the city. One wheel in particular caught his eye—a huge cylinder whose inside seemed to be one single building with balconies, coigns and glittering glass-paneled windows festooning it. This cylinder was surrounded by warships, which Hayden had seen in photos but never been close to before. The massive wooden vessels bristled with gun ports, and they trailed smoke and ropes and masts like the spines of fish. They were majestic and fascinating.
“You’ll never get there,” said Father drily. “That’s the pi lot’s palace.”
After ages they were finally able to descend the long, curving, covered stairway to the street. Here Hayden had to endure another interminable wait while a man in a uniform examined Father’s papers. Hayden was too distracted at the time to really notice his father’s falsely jovial manner, or the way his shoulders had slumped with relief when they were finally accepted into the city. But after some walking he turned to Mother and kissed her, saying quietly, “I’ll be back soon. Check us into the hotel, but don’t wait for me. Go and do some shopping, it’ll take your mind off it.”
“Where’s he going?” Hayden watched as Father disappeared into the crowd.
“It’s just business,” she said, but she sounded unhappy.
Hayden quickly forgot any misgivings this exchange might have raised. The town was huge and fascinating. Even the gravity felt different—a slower turnover of the inner ear—and there were points where you couldn’t see the edges of the place at all. He followed his mother around to various outlets and while she haggled over wholesale paper prices for the newspaper she helped run, Hayden was happy to stare out the shop’s windows at the passing crowds.
Gradually, though, he did begin to notice something. Mother was dressed in the layered and colorful garments of the Aerie outer districts and, like Father, made no attempt to hide her accent. Even her black hair and dark eyes marked her as different here in this city of fair-haired, pale-eyed people. Though the shop keepers weren’t actually hostile to Mother, they weren’t being very friendly either. Neither were the other kids he saw in the street. Hayden smiled at one or two, but they just turned away.
He could have forgotten these details if not for what happened next. As they approached the hotel late that afternoon—Hayden laden with packages, his mother humming happily—he spotted Father at the hotel entrance, standing with his hands behind his back. Hayden felt his mother clutch his shoulder even as he waved and shouted a hello. It was only then that he noticed the men standing with his father, men in uniform who turned as one at the sound of Hayden’s voice.
“Shit,” whispered Mother as the policemen converged on her and a very confused Hayden.
The rest of the trip mostly consisted of waiting in various pale-green, bare rooms with his mother, who sat white-faced and silent, not answering any of Hayden’s increasingly petulant questions. They didn’t go back to the hotel to sleep, but were given a couple of rough cots in a small room in the back of the police station. “Not a cell,” said the sergeant who showed them to it. “A courtesy apartment for relatives.”
Father had reappeared the next day. He was disheveled, subdued, and had a bruise on his cheek. Mother wept in his arms while Hayden stood nearby, hugging his own chest in confused anger. Later that day they boarded a passenger ship considerably less posh than the one they had arrived on, and Hayden watched the bright pinwheels of Rush recede in the distance, unexplored.
Later Father had explained about the Resistance and the importance of assembling the talent and resources Aerie needed to strike out on its own. Hayden thought he understood, but what mattered was not the politics of it; it was the memory of walking through Rush’s crowded streets next to his father, whose hands were bound behind his back.
THE GALLERY WAS just a stretch of street empty of fence, but with a railing you could look over. Mother called it a “brave-way”; Miles used the more interesting term “pukesight.” Hayden stepped up to the rail and clutched it with both hands, staring.
A gigantic mountain of cloud wheeled in front of him, nearly close enough to touch. The new sun must be behind it; the ropes of the road from Gavin Town to the construction site stabbed the heart of the cloud and vanished inside it. Hayden was disappointed; if the sun came on right now he wouldn’t see it.
He laughed. Oh, yes he would. Father had impressed it upon him again and again: when the sun came on, there would be no missing it. “The clouds for miles around will evaporate—poof,” he’d said with a wave of his fingers. “The temperature will instantly shoot up, in fact everything within a kilometer is going to catch fire. That’s why the sun is situated so far from any towns. That, and security reasons, of course. And the light . . . Hayden, you have to promise not to look at it. It’s going to be brighter than anything you can imagine. Up close, it could burn your skin and dazzle you through your closed eyelids. Never look directly at it, not until we’ve moved the town.”
The cloud appeared to rotate as Hayden gazed at it; Gavin Town was a wheel like all towns, after all, and spun to provide its inhabitants with centrifugal gravity. It was the only form of gravity they would ever know, and it was a precious resource, costly and heavily taxed. Grant’s Chance, the next nearest town, lay a dozen miles beyond the sun site, invisible for now behind cloud.
Cloud was why the Griffins had come here. At the edges of the zone lit by Slipstream, the air cooled and condensation began. White mist in all its shapes made a wall here separating the sunlit realm from the vast empty spaces of winter. This was the frontier. Here you could hide all manner of things—secret projects, for instance.
The town continued to turn and now sky opened out beyond the barrier of mist—sky with no limits, either up, down, or to either side. Two distant suns carved out a sphere of pale air from this endless firmament, a volume defined by thousands upon thousands of clouds in all shapes and sizes, most of them tinged with dusk colors of rose and amber. There were ragged streamers indicating currents and rivers of air; puffballs and many-armed star shapes; and many miles away, its outlines blurred by intervening dust and mist, a mushroom head was forming as some current of cold impacted a mass of moist air. Below and above, walls of white blocked any further view, while what ever lay on the other side of the suns was obscured by dazzle and golden detail.
As it radiated through hundreds of miles of air, that light would fade and redden, or be shadowed by the countless clouds and objects comprising the nation of Aerie. If you traveled inward or up to civilized spaces, the light from other distant suns would begin to brighten before you ran out of light from yours; but if you went down or back, you would eventually reach a point where their light was completely obscured. There, a creeping chill took over. In the dark and cold, nothing grew. There began the volumes of winter that made up much of the interior of the planet-sized balloon of air, called Virga, where Hayden lived.
Gavin Town hovered at the very edge of civilization, where the filtered light of distant fires could barely keep crops alive. It wasn’t lonely out here, though; above, below, and all about hung the habitations of Man. Three miles up to the left, a farm caught the suns’ light: within a net a hundred feet across, the farmer had gathered pulverized rock and soil, and was growing a crop of yellow canola. Each plant clutched its own little ball of mud and they all tumbled about slowly, catching and losing the light in one another’s shadow. The highway that passed near the farm was busy, a dozen or more small airships sailing along guided by the rope that was the highway itself. The rope extended off into measureless distance, heading for Rush. Below and to the right, a sphere of water the size of a house shimmered, its surface momentarily ridged by a passing breeze. Hayden could see a school of wetfish swirling inside the sphere like busy diamonds.
There was way too much to take in with a single glance, so Hayden almost didn’t spot the commotion. Motion out of the corner of his eye alerted him; leaning over the railing and sighting left along the curving wall of the town, he saw an unusually dense tangle of contrails. The trails led back in the direction of the sun and as he watched, three gleaming shapes shot out of the cloud and arrowed in the same direction.
Just as he was wondering what might be happening, the gravity bell rang again. Hayden pushed himself back from the rail and ran for the main street. It wouldn’t do for somebody else to get the bikes running after he’d promised Miles he’d be there.
The stairwell to the gravity engines led off the center of the street. Gravity was a public ser vice and the town fathers had insisted on making its utilities both visible and accessible to every-one. Consequently, Hayden was very surprised when he clattered down the steps into the cold and drafty engine room and found nobody there.
Excerpted from Virga: Cities of the Air by Karl Schroeder.
Copyright Â© 2007 by Karl Schroeder.
Published in 2007 by A Tom Doherty Associates Book.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.