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A world of endless sky, with no land, no gravity: this is Virga. Beginning in the seminal science fiction novel Sun of Suns, the saga of this striking world has introduced us to the people of stubborn pride and resilience who have made Virga their home; but also, always lurking beyond the walls of the world, to the mysterious threat known only as Artificial Nature. In The Sunless Countries, history tutor Leal Hieronyma Maspeth became the first human in centuries to learn the true nature of this threat. Her reward was exile, but now, in Ashes of Candesce, Artificial Nature makes its final bid to destroy Virga, and it is up to Leal to unite the quarrelling clans of her world to fight the threat.
Ashes of Candesce brings together all the heroes of the Virga series, and draws the diverse threads of the previous storylines together into one climactic conflict. Blending steampunk styling with a far-future setting and meditations on the posthuman condition, Ashes of Candesce mixes high adventure and cutting-edge ideas in a fitting climax to one of science fiction's most innovative series.
About the Author
Karl Schroeder lives in Toronto, Ontario.
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Ashes of Candesce
Virga Book Five
By Karl Schroeder
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2012 Karl Schroeder
All rights reserved.
Leal Hieronyma Maspeth took a look back to see how close their pursuer was and felt the scree under her feet give way. Suddenly on her knees and then her side, she began to slide. She heard shouts, and half-visible hands reached for her. Darkness opened below and, in desperation, she grabbed for a half-glimpsed jut of rock.
She swung, suddenly and shockingly, above open air. The gravel made a trickling sound as it sped past her, but she couldn't hear it land. It just disappeared.
"The rope's just to your left, Leal, can you see it?"
"No," said Leal. "That's okay. I'm going to reach for it now. Tell me if I ..." She forgot words as she stretched out her left hand, and felt her right slip another inch. Now she was hanging on by just her fingertips.
She had an awful moment then. The thing that was following them was close. If it caught up to them, if it was the one to rescue her — for she was sure it would neither kill her nor leave her in this predicament — would she regret not having just let go?
Should she let go?
"Leal!" That was Piero Harper's voice ... She blinked; something brushed her face. "Grab the rope!" He was only a few feet away, but above her.
"You've got to keep going!" she hissed at him. He shook his head.
"This'll only take a second. Take hold, ma'am."
Damn his politeness. She flailed for the rope and met empty air. Her fingers slipped, were about to lose it —
Something tapped her knuckles, and then she felt cool fibers coil around her fingers. With relief Leal let go of the rock, but again there was that damned gravity pulling her straight. Stretched and jolted, she yelped with pain as, in jerks and yanks, she rose rather than fell.
Rock banged her shoulder and she felt herself being dragged over the lip of a rough ledge. "Are you okay?" said Piero as the rope unwound itself from her lacerated hand and slithered back. It was visible now in lantern light and she watched in abstract amusement as it inched and twisted its way back into the body of the large, four-footed creature standing next to Harper.
"I-I'm fine. Thanks," she said to both of them. Once again the emissary had taken a hand in saving her life. The emissary! She brought up her hands to touch her shoulders. "Are you there —"
"Yes," said a tiny voice near her ear. She felt little pulls on the cloth of her collar as a small doll regained its accustomed seat on her shoulder. "I fell down your back," it said, "but hung on."
"Good." She wilted with relief. "We've lost too much of you as it is ..." The doll was made of junk: A coiled wire made up its left arm, a couple of broken pencils its right. Its head was the porcelain knob from some electrical device, with bright screws attached that moved uncannily like eyes. Its mouth was the reed from a ship's horn.
There was no magical spirit animating these random pieces, but fine, hairlike threads of something the emissary called nanotech. This body — this doll, so unlike the ones Leal had collected back when she lived in Sere — was part of the alien. It was the part that she spoke with, and could cup in her hands and so treat, if only for moments at a time, as a being like herself.
She fully intended to start moving, but for a long moment remained at the edge of the cliff, staring downward. She'd seen faces as she dangled: of poor Dean Porril, huddled in permanent mourning behind his great iron desk in a wind-rattled office deep underneath the university; of Easley Fencher, who could never keep his lanky elbows and knees from sticking out, nor his equally awkward thoughts and attitudes. Of her friend Seana, in the bright metal exoskeleton that kept her upright in the unfamiliar gravity of the city. Of fire, bright and orange and frantic, as it consumed Easley's home with Easley in it ...
"We'd best get going," said Piero quietly. The rest of the group had already moved on — predictably, with the limping silhouette of Eustace Loll, high official in her country's government, in the lead.
"For somebody who's half-lame, he sure moves," she muttered; Piero saw where she was looking and grinned.
They made to catch up, unspeaking. There was no sound for a while then, but for the muttering of the breeze and the distant crack of glacial ice falling from the wall of the world. Their pursuer had stopped yelling for them to stop, wait, just hold on a minute and talk to it. It must know it was going to catch them now, so why bother talking?
They'd had a seemingly insurmountable lead when they set out this morning. Leal had stood on a promontory and scanned the steep, seemingly infinite slope below their campsite. Far down there, barely visible in the gray light that only indicated a sky, something was heaving itself across the rocks. As usual, somebody had been watching it at all times, as the rest of them slept. She'd taken her turn, and she could see that it hadn't gotten very far since then.
They'd walked on up the slope, reassured. And then, an hour ago, she'd heard that familiar voice again.
And here it came again, from only a few hundred yards back: "Leal! Wait, please!"
As if in agreement, there came a deep grumble of sound from far above. At first, as they'd toiled their way up steeper and steeper slopes, those occasional bellows of thunder had seemed familiar. Leal had waited to see lightning, but there never was any. Gradually, she'd come to realize that she wasn't hearing storms. Thunder here meant something different than it did at home.
"Leal, come back! I can help you!"
"Come on, what are you waiting for?" she snapped at the little group of men whose faces were painted by lantern light in shades of worry and doubt. "All we need is a big overhang. We'll be fine."
She'd slipped because there was as much ice up here as rock. Generally you could tell the difference, but not always. She'd been careless; now she stalked on, head down, fiercely focused on the uneven tumbled stones ahead of her. Piero walked next to her; in another time and place, he might have gallantly demanded that she rest, but they had no time for that.
Another man had been walking beside her when they'd set out on this journey. He was gone now. He wouldn't be back, despite her doubts, despite the promise of that distant voice that followed her through her waking hours and even into her dreams. She shuddered and tried to bring her attention back to the tilted, broken slabs of the ancient roadway under her feet.
This worked for a while, but then a series of cracking sounds, like distant gunshots, echoed from far overhead. In the silence that followed, Leal and her men met one another's eyes; then somebody said, "Move!"
Everything was tilted at an absurdly steep angle here, but luckily gravity had been lessening as they climbed. It was easy to balance on the narrowest of ledges or blades of shattered pavement, and she could jump distances she would never have considered on the daylit plains they'd come from. Like fleas on some vast monster's back, they popped from stone to stone, trying to get away from what was coming.
The whole slope shuddered and slid down a few feet. Leal stumbled, luckily, as something slashed through the air just above her. Clattering and pattering, splinters of shrapnel ice shot from the point where some glacial mountain had hit the rocks behind them. Distant booms signaled the landing of other house-sized chunks of hail.
"Maybe it's a seasonal thing." Piero's voice sounded very small in the sudden quiet.
Leal shook her head. The icefalls had been increasing in frequency for days. Something was peeling away the great glacial sheets that built up above the rock line. Up there, the world's wall was black and smooth, a fine weave of carbon nanotubes that was only a meter or two thick. Thin as it was, it transmitted the chill of interstellar vacuum from the other side. Water — and even air — froze to it. The glaciers that resulted would normally split and fall away in their own time, but they were hurrying now, as if they sensed the presence of intruders coming from below.
The only door home from this strange and perilous world was past those glaciers, at the very top of the wall. Leal and her companions had no choice but to come this way if they were ever to see their countries and people again.
She eyed the silhouette of Eustace Loll, who had fallen back from the lead and was watching the skies fearfully. The politician had branded her a traitor, and though he'd promised to lift that accusation if they ever made it home, he couldn't be trusted. If she ever walked the copper streets of Sere again, she feared it would be as a paraded prisoner, in chains and spat upon by the countrymen she had tried so hard to save.
One foot ahead of the other. Just keep walking ... She ignored her pounding headache and the ever-present knot in her stomach. She had a job to do.
They'd gone about a mile when Piero held up his hand. "Wait," he said. They all stopped, and in the new silence Leal heard it: cracks and pops and splintering sounds, layered over one another in an almost continuous grumble. This was like the sound that presaged the fall of a glacier, but stretched out, as if not just one berg but an entire sky full of bergs was about to come down ...
Piero swore, and Loll stumped back to blink at them both. "What do we do?"
The little junk-doll suddenly grabbed her ear. "There!" It stood up, pointing past her eyebrow at something ...
Miles above, a little string of lights broke the total darkness. It was impossible for them to be there — Aethyr was an empty world, and nowhere was as desolate as this long treacherous slope — and yet there they were:
* * *
THE SOUND OF children playing faded as Keir Chen took the down stairs three steps at a time. He didn't have much time; recess would be over in fifteen minutes.
The stairwell was pitch black, and he had no light; to guide him, Keir relied on the little cloud of buzzing dragonflies that accompanied him everywhere. They were his second set of eyes, and they did pretty well in low light. Now they showed him the knapsack he'd stowed here yesterday. It was heavy as he picked it up — stuffed with food, clothing, and other supplies. He'd carefully spent months accumulating it all, taking his time so the others wouldn't see the pattern.
He wanted to run, but even if the gravity was low here in the city of Brink, he couldn't risk a fall. Some of these stone stairwells plummeted for miles through the foundations of the city. It took too many seconds to pick his way down, so when he reached the bottom he began pelting at full speed through a succession of dark, empty corridors and chambers where his footsteps were the only sound. His dragonflies had been gamely trying to catch up, and when he reached one particular side chamber and finally stopped, they came to zizz around his head angrily.
This little room had two doors, one leading inside where he'd just come from, the other letting onto a balcony. There was a spot next to the entrance where he'd stood a few times; he went there now and put his back to the wall. Then he knelt and picked up a sharp rock that lay by the door. When he straightened with his back against the wall, he lifted his hand to scratch it behind his head.
Keir lowered the stone, his eyes fixed on the black-on-black doorway that led outside. "Don't worry about such things," Maerta had told him when he'd revealed his suspicion to her. "You're a kid, Keir. Why don't you just enjoy being a kid?"
He took one more deep breath, squared his shoulders as he'd seen some of the older men do, and stepped away from the wall. He turned around and, summoning his dragonflies, peered at the latest mark he'd made. There was at least a half-centimeter gap between it and the last one he'd made.
There was no doubt about it.
He was getting shorter.
He'd talked to the other kids, and he'd been watching them. They were all growing up; but he wasn't. They were learning new things every day, a fine layering of knowledge on knowledge that was taking them all to adulthood.
Keir knew that he knew less than he once had, not more.
He stepped out onto the balcony, and turned around to look up.
From this little balcony the city was visible only as black piled up on black, its cornered intricacies lost in permanent shadow — all save for that one ring of windows in one high tower. With the aid of his dragonflies' eyes, he could see the city's overall shape, and size. Their vision gave him a little courage, too, when the distant winds sighed like voices from the empty apartments, and when he fancied he saw movement in the blackest shadows of the stone gardens. They let him see and verify that, no, nothing ever spoke here, and nothing ever moved.
— Which was good. He couldn't afford for anyone to find what he'd been doing on this little parapet, half a mile from the inhabited halls.
He took a deep breath and stepped up to something that sat swaying slightly on the parapet, all folded angles and parchmentlike planes. "Are you ready?" he asked the ornithopter he'd been growing. "Tell me you're ready."
"Not ready," it said in its mindless monotone. "Feed me."
"You said you'd be ready!" he burst out. "You said you'd be ready to fly!"
"Yes. Can fly. Cannot carry."
"That's not what I —!" He punched its wing. It shuffled aside. Keir stepped back, clutching his knapsack and nearly in tears. He couldn't go through with his plan today, but Gallard was going to catch him for sure if he went back, and then he'd never get another chance. Or maybe he could be extra sneaky; maybe he could pretend to be a dutiful student for another few days. He could hide feedstock for the ornithopter, maybe make it down here one more time to feed it ...
With a curse at his own indecision, he stalked back into the tower. He hadn't brought anything to feed the aircraft, because stealing feedstock was risky and anyway, he'd thought it was ready. But there was another potential source of the stuff here ...
He waited for his dragonflies to catch up and when their eyesight supplemented his, he could see what he was after in one corner of the room. He hunkered down and shuffled toward it.
A tiny pinprick of light suddenly glowed there, then another, then a dozen. Little gleaming midges flew up from the experiment he'd begun here a week ago. A pipsqueak voice sounded in his head: "I am the mighty Brick! Tremble before me, mortal!"
"That's okay, it's okay," he said in a soothing tone as he reached slowly for the half-open bag of feedstock lying next to the brick. His fingers were almost touching it when the little midges dove at his hand. "Ow!"
The air was suddenly full of dragonflies, and little dogfight battles erupted all over the room, complete with the pittering sound of minuscule machine guns firing and tiny smoking death spirals. "Do not defy the mighty Brick!" cried the brick. Keir ducked under the aerial battle and snagged the bag of feedstock. Then he ran from the room before the brick was able to bring its little howitzers to bear on him.
He'd had some compelling reason for making a minitech AI think that it was the brick. It had been some sort of reminder to himself, he knew that. But the details ... they were gone, like so much of what he'd done and intended lately. All he had left was a terrible feeling of apprehension, a certainty that if he didn't get out of this place, and soon, something terrible was going to happen.
Shakily, he went out to the balcony again and dumped the bag of feedstock in front of the ornithopter. As it eagerly scarfed down the mixture of metals, silicates, and rare earth elements, Keir leaned on the balustrade, looked out, and sighed.
This world had suns — dozens of them — but they were too far away to provide even a hint of radiance to the sky. The city was as invisible as it ever was, its cornered intricacies lost in permanent shadow. Only that one ring of windows in one high tower betrayed habitation.
Brink crested above that and over itself, in wave after frozen wave whose dark caps faded into obscurity in the heights. The near-infinite wall to which the city clung rose at an eighty-degree angle. Farther down, the angle decreased to a mythically distant, sunlit plain, while above it steepened to the vertical so far away that all gravity would cease by the time you got there.
Giant knuckled slabs of glacier and stone were the city's only companions at this height. Paths wove from one patch of scree to another, avoiding the perilously slick black skin of the world's wall whenever possible. Eyeless goats brayed from their rock perches, and fungi and meatshrooms blossomed from cracks in the stone. He could hear booming sounds from distant avalanches; those had increased in frequency lately, sometimes shaking Complication Hall with the power of their passage.
He'd thought about just walking off down that slope, but if he were to try it he'd surely be killed by icefall before he got ten kilometers; and anyway, down led only to the realm of the oaks, who had filled Aethyr with grasslands and forests that were prowled by strange predators, and sometimes by the oaks themselves. He'd hoped his ornithopter would take him high enough that they'd become weightless, and then it would have been easy to cross Aethyr to the wild but free worlds of the arena. Wild, free — and in their own way, far more dangerous than any encounter with the oaks.
If he and the ornithopter sailed off to the arena right now, no one would see him go. Of course, there would be no one to see him crash on the steep slopes below the city, break a leg or a collarbone, and slowly freeze to death. Even if they noticed his absence right away, they wouldn't know where to look for him.
Excerpted from Ashes of Candesce by Karl Schroeder. Copyright © 2012 Karl Schroeder. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part 1: The Offer,
Part 2: The Cheetah and the Tree,
Part 3: The Choice,
Tor Books by Karl Schroeder,
About the Author,
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