Escape Pod 843: The Vaulting Vandals of Termina Celeste (Part 1)


The Vaulting Vandals of Termina Celeste (Part 1)

by Jordan Chase-Young

Back then, we liked to scour the docks of Termina Celeste for starships to tag: sleek crafts with hulls like vast canvases and cabins that were mostly unattended because the space-lagged passengers were off in the city somewhere, getting drunk or on business or both.

Blaise Landry was the leader of the crew, being the oldest out of the five of us. I was his lieutenant. That meant whenever Blaise was out, decommissioned–because sick or in deep trouble with his dad or whatever–I got to be in charge that day, which meant I got to choose which ship to tag.

Our evening began like every other: calm and lubricated with a little beer. No hint of the chaos you may’ve read about or seen on holotrope feeds. That all came later.

We were leaning over the cliffside railing in the southeast quadrant of the docks, spitting into the deep canyon beside which Termina Celeste had been built. In my holotrope lectures that week, I’d learned about DNA, and I fancied each little ball of my saliva was bringing down into the River Andalosi a library of tiny blueprints of me. An artist takes whatever legacy he can get. I hocked up a good one and watched the yellow tadpole tumble through four and a half kilometers of space.

“I’ll do you one better, Lucas,” said Hugo Gunfrey. Turning at a slight angle for modesty, he relieved himself over the edge with a sigh that shook his huge belly.

“God that’s revolting,” Robin Vexler said. She guarded her eyes with a flap of her orbital-jumper jacket and scowled. “You and me, Lucas, let’s push him over, how about it?”

“Sounds like a lot of work,” I said.

“Gravity’d do most of it.”

I laughed.

I knew I wasn’t the only one with murderous fantasies whenever we hung out by the abyss. Everybody has dark thoughts now and then. But imagining them behind Robin’s waifish face and big brown eyes was difficult.

“Any word on the boss?” I asked Jacob.

At fourteen, Jacob Landry was younger than his brother Blaise by a year. He was also the tallest and sturdiest of our crew by far. He could’ve passed for a bouncer at one of his father’s mob-front nightclubs, or maybe a truancy officer.

Jacob shook his head as he cast through his wrist holotrope for Blaise’s whereabouts, then shut it off, nixing the dance of holographic minutiae. “With a girl tonight, probably. Doesn’t drop out of the Buzz otherwise.”

“Traitor,” said Hugo.

Robin clipped on her orbital-jumper helmet. Like her jacket, it was several sizes too large and scuffed from the junkyard where she’d found it. “Give that here, Lucas. I wanna hit one of those buzzards.”

I handed her my empty beer bottle, and she chucked it at a sentry drone floating overhead. The bottle burst with a festive crash, a tinkle of falling glass.

By the time the robot spun its floodlights around we were already gone, darting off across the cliffside promenade and laughing.

Bands had struck up in the neon towers of Termina Celeste’s midtown, which clustered like an orthodontic night-terror below the city roof. Music of all kinds, from all places: Jovian blues and heat-death metal, quantum jazz and Horsehead pomp. One strain after another came rolling down off the cool evening air, balled up with smells of fried noodles, potatoplum sauce, koalaroo dumplings, trampagne.

“If Blaise is out, you know what that means,” I said, smiling. I was the first to take out my vaulter. It was long and cold and smooth, a baton of collapsible supercarbon thick as a femur. I kept it in my knapsack with the spray cans and other things.

“Means out with Benito, in with Blackbeard,” said Jacob. His back furrowed as he unsheathed a vaulter of his own. He held it like a gladiator might a pike, with one end balanced on his trapezius muscle.

“That’s right,” I said. “Means I’m in charge. And seeing as I’m in charge, I pick that beauty as our target.”

I pointed my vaulter at the pristine white argosy that’d held my eye all evening, snug and so temptingly secure in its hypersilk moorings. The name Kingfisher was lettered on its hull in old-fashioned silver characters, and from the blue roses running through their gaps I knew the craft belonged to a Delphine merchant prince. The sort of prince, from what I’d glimpsed on holotrope feeds, who needed taking down a few pegs anyway.

“Delphines? They don’t screw around,” said Jacob. “It’s like picking on the uranium mafia.”

“Stuff we’ve been through? Tch,” I said.

“This is different,” said Robin, rubbing her nose through her visor. “This is crazy. You’re crazy, Lucas.”

“Amen,” said Hugo.

“Bunch of cowards, then,” I said. “Guess I’ll have to do it myself.”

They tensed. Getting tagged a coward was no small thing if you ran with a high-wire crew like us. The only worse insult was snitch.

“Screw it,” said Jacob.

“You can’t be serious,” said Robin.

“He’s the boss, and I’m no coward. Are you?”

“These snakes, the Delphines, you said it yourself. They catch you, it’s not exactly a fine.”

“They have to catch you,” I said.

Hugo crossed his pudgy arms. “No way.”

But I’d made my point.

After waiting for a sentry drone to pass, I ran to the edge of the cliff overlooking the docks–faster, faster–and rammed my vaulter into the girders at an angle, letting the energy in the supercarbon whisk me up and fling me over the gulf between platforms. I was rising, flying, and landed on a docked starship with a metal thud, somersaulting once to absorb the impact.

I twirled my vaulter. “Last chance!” I called.

They glanced at each other helplessly. What choice did they have?

#

We vaulted from starship to starship, from small dhows to great frigates and from solar cruisers to alcubierres, our boots ringing on bright smooth alloys and squeaking over solar tarps drawn taut. A cool breeze strummed the hypersilk moorings, bringing the tang of exhaust and deflector wax. The canyon floor unfurled below us, a faint orange sketch. It used to frighten me, how high it all was. One small slip or bit of false footing, one breeze a little too strong or swig of beer too many, and that was it; that was the end of it; you were less than a memory of a memory.

It used to frighten me. Now it gave me a rush.

A maintenance drone was daddylonglegging down a strand of hypersilk onto a ship, and Robin jabbed her vaulter into the robot in passing, sending it skittering into the abyss.

“You have a drone problem!” I shouted.

“When they take over someday, you will too!” she called back.

“Guys!” Hugo stopped to poke his thumb at a freighter in our midst.

It was a clunker, all scrapes and scratches and stains, with a seal of recommission on its hull. But that wasn’t the interesting thing about it. The interesting thing was the dragon: About ten meters long, with scalloped black wings and gaping jaws, it crawled across the hull on the coat of holospray that’d birthed it, a living mural, lashing its tail and spewing bright red flames that spelled DRAKE.

Bits of our work survived at the edges, as if to remind us of our place. I’d never heard of this Drake, but I hated him already.

“Let’s scrub this jackass and put our tags back on,” said Jacob.

Robin glared at him. “You know that’s not how it works.”

She was right. For as long as our tradition had existed, the Code of the Alley held sway: You could spray over anyone so long as your art was better than theirs. It was the only rule, but breaking it was enough to get you stomped by your own crew.

The black scales of the dragon pulsed with life, their quivering reflections of the flames a feat of delicacy I’d never seen before nor imagined possible, at least with so blunt a medium as holospray or crude an instrument as the human hand. Drake was better; he deserved to be there. His dragon deserved to burn our paltry scrawl down to the last daub of color.

But I didn’t care. I was jealous.

Robin nudged me with her elbow. “You’re supposed to say, ‘At least I can count on you, Robin, to respect the Code, unlike this Neanderthal Jacob over here.’”

“Make that two Neanderthals,” said Hugo. “Code Schmode, that’s an act of war.”

After thinking about it, I gave Robin a guilty shrug.

“Sorry,” I said, taking out my spray can.

With twinkles of glee, Jacob and Hugo did the same.

Robin folded her arms disdainfully while the rest of us sprayed our tags over Drake’s. It felt good, the sight of the dragon dissolving as our names took its place.

I thumbed the color slider up and down while I ran my forefinger over the animation pad at the top of the can, setting down layers of the sticky matrix onto the hull in broad strokes. If I wanted an effect, such as a heat ripple or an icy sheen, all I had to do was tap a rhythm on the animator pad, and the smartchip in the can would tweak the spray to match. Gazillions of tiny computers in the holospray kneaded out all the little defects in my work, compensating here and balancing there like a network of pollen-sized elves.

When I was done, I stood back to judge my tag. It began as a Klein bottle full of dark green fluid, the contours warped enough to pass for a cursive lowercase “L.” As a bullet burst through the bottle in slow-motion, the fluid plumed out in its wake to form the rest of my pseudonym–LUX–the letters kindling into brighter shades of green, then yellow, then orange, until the hologram rewound.

Jacob’s tag was a chrome tree held together by scraps of machinery, the name KROMAGNON appearing in the gaps between branches as they meshed periodically.

Hugo’s tag was a self-portrait with some embellishments: biceps, medieval claymore, bandit’s mask. He liked his anonymity.

When we were done, all that remained of Drake’s dragon was a disembodied tail, still writhing despite the jolt of scattered pixels whenever it ventured too close to our tags.

Robin gave me a scornful look. I offered her a chance to change her mind.

“Blaise wouldn’t’ve done it,” she told me.

“She doesn’t know my brother like I do,” Jacob said.

I told Robin, “When you’re the leader you can make your own calls.”

But she vaulted off in a huff, and that was that.

By the time we reached the Kingfisher, Hugo was there waiting for us on a nearby solar cruiser, eating a hickory-smoked ham sandwich he’d dredged out of his knapsack. He offered some, but no one took him up.

“Suit yourselves,” he said, dropping a slice of provolone down his throat.

Nine times out of ten, Hugo was the first to arrive anywhere. We joked that he had so much mass because he was always flouting relativity. He didn’t care for that much.

The argosy was whiter and smoother than any ship I’d ever seen. Even the windows were shuttered behind white covers, their edges machined to an elegance that verged on fetishism. A ship made for us. My giddiness banished all my bitter feelings toward Drake. Here was a miracle. When I encountered a miracle, I didn’t pause to question its source.

But I should’ve.

As soon as I tried to spray the white surface, the contents of my can dribbled in a rainbowy rivulet down the dolphinlike hull and into the abyss.

What the…?

“A custom repellant,” explained a voice behind us.

We whirled to find a lean blond man in a jetpack standing on the solar cruiser. He was middle-aged and handsome, with a Faraday rifle strapped to his back.

Jacob, Robin, and Hugo shifted to a defensive stance, clutching their vaulters like weapons. I whispered for them to relax.

“We’re not here to cause trouble, we’ll leave, no harm done,” I said.

The man smiled and flipped the rifle out of its strap. The muzzle flashed blue. The hickory-smoked ham sandwich in Hugo’s hand became a cloud of grey smoke. Hugo jerked in surprise and cursed.

The man said, “You’d be surprised how many sandwiches have almost done me in. Hidden nerve darts, custom pathogens, stuff like that. You’ll pardon my vigilance. Now if you would, please.” With his rifle, he gestured toward a door in the Kingfisher that had noiselessly opened.

We weren’t in a position to refuse him.

#
The man marched us down a corridor of interlocking black crystals that unmeshed in a wave ahead of us, forming rooms and alcoves that filled in again when we passed them. The ship’s whole interior seemed to consist of these crystals save the pocket of space we made as we traveled through it, like the ripsaw coral on Tarmageddi that’s said to open when tickled by the electric fields of certain jellyfish. Even the furniture–chairs, tables, cabinets–was no more than a brief union of the stuff, though the detail with which these items jumped into existence told me their designs were stored in a memory bank somewhere, like some elaborate subconscious.

A good security system for keeping prisoners, which I supposed we now were.

The man confiscated our knapsacks and Jacob’s wrist holotrope as we entered a crystal kitchen. “A security measure,” he said, with convincing cordiality. “You’ll have it back once we’re done here. Please have a seat.”
“I knew I recognized your face.” Jacob pointed to an old man’s bust at the edge of the room. The face belonged to Jora Hizad, the self-styled Merchant King who ruled the drone trade on Delphos. “So, which of his eighty-five sons are you? Or is it eighty-six?”

The man chuckled, slicking back his blond hair. “A couple of dead ringers, I know, though I like to think I’ve aged better than Father. I’m Hadrian Hizad. And you’re Jacob Landry, Robin Vexler, Hugo Gunfrey, and Lucas Davenport, unless my feedlink deceives me.” He tapped the spot on his temple behind which his feedlink implant was keyed. “Handy little thing. Not that I’d need it, with records like yours.” His eyes flicked back and forth as he read words we couldn’t see. “One of you must have powerful friends to’ve kept you out of the box this long. Powerful indeed.”

“If you’re referring to my father, he does know how to get us out of a tight spot,” said Jacob threateningly.

“Of course. Landry. How slow of me.” The lilt in Hadrian’s voice hinted that he had no fears whatever about the wrath of Jacob’s father, Enoch Landry, one of the High Capos in the Armitage Syndicate that governed the underworld of Termina Celeste.

After all, Hadrian belonged to a deadlier dynasty: a Delphine merchant family.

As if to quell our fears, he said, “I didn’t bring you onboard to harm you if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“Why did you?” asked Robin.

“To make an offer.” The merchant prince stowed his Faraday rifle in a crystal niche, then grabbed five black cups from a cabinet and filled them all with a single flourish of a beer bottle. “I want you to help me with something.” He gave us each a cup.

Robin said, “You couldn’t’ve asked for our help without forcing us onto your freakshow of a ship first?”

“You mean the ship you tried to vandalize? Let’s see.” Hadrian sipped his beer and concentrated on the holotrope data that gushed through his feedlink. “Eight counts of vandalism, nineteen of truancy, three of assault, four of petty larceny, one of grotesque indecency in a public setting–”

“That wasn’t me,” said Hugo.

“–and those are just the ones you got caught doing. I can only imagine the rest.”

“What’s it to you?” I asked.

“I know wasted talent when I see it,” he said. “And wasted courage, wasted youth.” He rubbed his jaw. “Oh, I know. But it doesn’t have to be that way.” He tapped a console, and a small black cylinder rose from its storage port.

While his back was turned, Robin whispered to me, “Let’s rush him, Lucas.”

But the cylinder held me. Even without its color slider or animator pad, I could tell what it was right away.

“Observe,” crooned Hadrian Hizad. He sprayed a cloud of black mist from the cylinder. The particles became a storm of shifting colors, dancing forms. Gradually the mist hardened into the likeness of a hummingbird flittering in midair. Not a hologram, but a hummingbird. Hadrian closed his eyes in concentration. A strand of yellow spooled off the bird’s wing and became the head of a spectacular sunflower, which the bird probed hungrily for nectar.
Hugo crossed his arms.

Jacob leaned forward, dazzled.

Bird and flower rejoined in a painterly whorl, and the colors parted into something new: a moonphoenix and an ice-white full moon. The white bird flew around the heavenly body, absorbing its pale light until it glowed like snow, then burst with a sound like windchimes into a thousand gems that made music as they fell.

Hadrian opened his eyes, and the forms dissolved back into mist and returned to the canister.

“Can Drake do that?” he asked, with a spark of mischief in his grey-blue eyes.

Amazed, I said, “You know?”

The merchant prince tapped his feedlink again like a charm. “I have four other canisters just like this one, and they’re yours….”

“If we help you,” I finished for him. “Doing what?”

“Lucas!” cried Robin.

But Hadrian had me and he knew it. “There’s this fellow–a professional competitor, you might say–who’s been hoarding his trade secrets for longer than anyone should.”

“Then tell the damn Trade Commission,” said Robin, “not us.”

“If only it were that simple.”

Hadrian tapped the console. All the furniture in the room disappeared into the walls in an engulfment of crystals, and a hologram of some asteroids replaced it, turning like a ring of filthy glaciers against a brown-and-green nebula. He tapped again, widened a pair of fingertips across the display screen. An asteroid swelled until its pocked badlands loomed huge and desolate, save for a scattering of tiny red sparkles. These in turn grew until I was looking at a field of red obelisks, widely spaced and identical among so much lonely acreage of light and shadow.

“The Archipelago of Souls,” I said, for I’d seen a holofeed documentary of the place as a child. Only the richest people in the galaxy could afford a crypt on one of the asteroids of the Archipelago, and only a thousand or so of the two million obelisks that studded those asteroids were the crypts themselves; the rest were decoys containing the most extensive maintenance and defense system that mankind in its magnificent vanity had ever made.

“Which one belongs to your rival?” asked Jacob.

“If I knew,” said Hadrian, “I would’ve had his brain drilled out and scanned ages ago. All I know for sure is he’s entombed in this section of the Archipelago. Hence why I’ve brought you all here. Your skills are just the sort I need. With your vaulters you can scour this low-gravity necropolis with ease.” Another few taps of the console overlaid an animation of a man vaulting from one asteroid to another. “And with your flair for artistry…well….”

The man landed on the rim of a crater. A drone scuttled out of the shadows to lase him, and he sprayed himself a mirror shield with one of Hadrian’s black canisters, deflecting the beam into the robot’s energy socket. A second drone swooped down from an outcrop to belch plumes of melting gas at him. His shield morphed into an armor-piercing harpoon gun, which he unloaded into the drone’s hornetlike belly. The drone crashed and skidded, a broken heap.

“You get the idea.” Hadrian tapped the console once more, and the hologram blinked out. “If you can find the crypt, the cans of conjuring spray are yours. I’ll even throw in a set of new vaulters, state-of-the-art. What do you say?”

Robin told him, “We don’t work for hire, Butterlocks. Ours is a strictly nonprofit outfit,” signaling with a sly saccade for me to agree with her.

But I couldn’t. This was the chance I was waiting for. The chance to surpass Drake, to surpass everyone.

Jacob beat me to it: “I’m in.”

“Are you crazy?” Hugo spluttered. “He kidnapped us, he vaporized my lunch, and now you wanna be his space bitch?”
Hadrian beamed. “Good choice, Mr. Landry.”

“I’m in, too,” I said.

“Very good, Mr. Davenport. Born artists, both of you. Willing to do what great art requires. Alas, the same cannot be said for your friends here.”

With that, Robin and Hugo’s chairs swallowed them in a crystal mesh and whisked them down into the ground.
Hadrian raised a hand to fend our horror. “I assure you this ship has passed every safety inspection since its christening. They will be deposited with absolute delicacy, minus a small tax in the form of their spray cans, of course.”

“If you hurt them…” I warned.

“We will kill you,” said Jacob.

The merchant prince forgave this impertinence with a shrug. “Only a fool would hurt friends of Enoch Landry’s son, and I’m no fool.”

#

Hadrian ushered us into a lower level of the ship, where the matrix of black crystals gave way to a corridor of old-fashioned steel and flexicarbon. Panels of harsh light brought out specks of drone grease in the corrugated floor, streaks of tracked grime.

Hadrian explained how the shabbiness of this part of the ship came down to it being the original fuselage. An heirloom more valuable than all the fancy graftings-on, if we could believe it. “Art and antique collecting, the only two things where bad is sometimes better,” he aphorized.

We waited in the cramped, musty lounge of the fuselage for ten minutes or so before a pair of lank young men with the telltale blond hair and grey-blue eyes of Delphine nobility strolled to us from a rickety stairwell.

Hadrian introduced the men as Nerva and Trajan, not that the distinction mattered much. They were identical down to their dour expressions and dutiful strides.

“Your sons?” I asked.

“Of a sort,” Hadrian said. “They’ll be teaching each of you how to use the conjuring spray.”

“I’m sure we could figure it out for ourselves,” said Jacob. “How much harder could it be than regular holospray?”
Hadrian answered with a laugh.

Neither Nerva nor Trajan spoke, but I could imagine the threads of clairvoyance between all three Delphines by dint of the feedlinks in their skulls.

“Out of curiosity,” I asked, “how many people have attempted this mission before?”

“What does it matter?” asked Jacob. “You’re not scared, I hope. The stuff we’ve been through, and all.”

The merchant prince smiled and patted my shoulder as he left us to the twins. “You have the good fortune to be the first, Mr. Davenport. So take heart. It’s not every day a hoodlum gets to prove himself.”

#

Nerva’s room was small, comfortless, and lined with strange equipment, including a rack of vaulters sporting every conceivable design: faux-wooden, optic yellow, ventricle red, diamantine. One was even textured in black scales like a headless water moccasin.

Trajan had taken Jacob to a separate room, so I was alone with the Delphine.

Quickly Nerva sealed the rack of vaulters behind a panel labeled SPARES, then motioned for me to lie on an operating bed. Over the bed hung a stalactite of precision tools connected to a gantry.

“Why?” I asked.

He answered in what seemed to me a raspier version of Hadrian’s voice. “Unless we’re mistaken, and His Fruitfulness is rarely mistaken, you do not have a feedlink, Mr. Davenport.”

“That wasn’t part of the agreement.”

“Fret not. The operation takes no more than a minute. Afterwards,” he said, clicking open a box of black canisters, “the spray will slave to you as soon as you touch it, no manual required.”

I refused to get on the operating bed. “Holospray doesn’t take a feedlink to use. Don’t see why this stuff should.”

Nerva sniffed in annoyance. The first sign of emotion I’d seen from him. “This stuff is orders of magnitude more complicated. In any case, the surgery is safe and entirely aboveboard.” He pointed to a Certificate of Elective Neurosurgery on the wall that bore a wax seal from some academy on Delphos. “I’ll even reverse the procedure myself once the mission is complete, should you change your mind about the conjuring spray. But why would you? A little extra hardware in one’s head is a small price to pay–wouldn’t you agree?–for becoming the greatest artist in Termina Celeste.”

Again I thought of Drake, of the joy I’d feel in surpassing him. The fierceness of my jealousy surprised me more than the madness of my bravery.

With reluctance, I laid down on the operating bed, then told Nerva to hurry up before I changed my mind.

#

Before the Trade Recession, when my father could still find work as a designer of holoaquariums, he’d often wax euphoric over dinner on how effortless each rendering of the day’s fish or sea fern, sand castle or sunken wreck, had come to him, how life had seemed to flow out of his stylus like an effortless dream, to the awe of many a foyer kibitzer or waiting room secretary. Naturals can’t resist bragging, and my father was no exception.

Now I understood why.

Nerva was stunned into silence by how quickly I was mastering the fundamentals of the conjuring spray. While he’d felt compelled to demonstrate with a canister of his own at first, now he was content to gape, like one of my father’s oglers, while I played out each of his lessons with my spray-cloud.

I’d expected to hear the chatter of tiny computers in each particle through my feedlink. Instead I sensed them as an undefined mass, warm with possibility. I knew what I wanted, and the mass shifted. The mist before me swirled from black to green, from vapor to fluid.

I willed a Klein bottle around the fluid to contain it.

Nerva blinked in surprise. “Fluids are hard enough,” he said, “but encasing them in glass so seamlessly–and with that geometry. Even Ariadne didn’t learn this fast. How?”

I laughed. “This stuff is good at recognizing talent, seems to me.”

I grabbed the Klein bottle from its perch in midair. The green liquid sloshed softly, leaving layered sine waves of residue on the glass.

With a hard swing, I smashed the bottle on the side of the operating bed. The fluid splattered all over the room, drenching us both and pooling on the floor like the product of a mutant spleen.

“Impressive,” I said, as the fluid and glass shards dissolved at my beck into the can, leaving every surface as dry as before. “Not even holospray’s that realistic. Who’s Ariadne?”

“No one of importance.” Irritably, Nerva searched his white uniform for stains. “How was I to know that stuff wasn’t dangerous?”

“You weren’t, unless you can read my feedlink,” I said. “Since you didn’t try to stop me, I assume you can.”

“Whatever slander you’ve heard about us Delphines, you’d do well to forget. We have standards. Though I confess even those may not help you, Mr. Davenport, if you take liberties with this spray without my permission again.”

Satisfied he couldn’t read my feedlink, after flitting through a few homicidal fantasies and spotting no tells, I shrugged and said, “Funny, I thought you might’ve been Hadrian’s clone or something, but you’ve got a rod up your ass longer than any in there,” nodding to the cache of vaulters labeled SPARES.

Raising his canister, Nerva sprayed forth a long klinger vine, then snatched my can with its purple tendrils.

“It was a joke,” I protested.

“Best get your laughing done now then, as there’ll be scant opportunity on the Archipelago.” A wisp of menace had crept into his tone.

Something had cut him.

I felt a faint throb in my head–not from the feedlink surgery, it seemed to me, but from some vague connections struggling to form.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I meant no disrespect,” letting my shoulders drop with my voice.

After some hesitation, Nerva held out my can. “Seeing as we don’t have much time, I trust you won’t waste any more of it.”

But I didn’t take the can just yet. “How much time is that?”

“A few hours at most. Once His Fruitfulness is finished with his business here–”

“I need a few minutes, I think. To meditate.”

He squinted. “Beg your pardon?”

“Everything’s just hit me,” I said. “All the stuff I’m about to do. I need to cleanse my thoughts. In peace. If that’s okay.”

Nerva studied me in silence, then said, “Two minutes, Bodhisattva, not a second more,” and left the room.

I grabbed a sharp piece of conjuring spray I’d hidden below the operating bed (a remnant of the bottle I’d smashed; you can never be too prepared) and pried open the vaulter stash panel. I pulled out the vaulter with black scales. I had never seen one like it. It had to be custom-made. I turned it over in my hands. Black scales.
My head throbbed harder as the connections snapped into place.

I returned the vaulter, shut the panel, and hid the shard back under the operating bed. Then I sat on the floor with my eyes closed until Nerva came back.

“Enlightened?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

#

After another three hours of practice, Nerva procured a Delphine meringue from a compartment, which he called my “dinner,” along with a bottle of unbranded alcohol, which he called my “digestif.”

“Taken together, they’ve been known to enhance courage,” said Nerva, “not that you’ll need it.”

Though light as a wiffle ball, the meringue had a payload of sugar packed into its chewy core, and it was shot through with an orange-lemon flavor. One of those foods meant to give energy more than satiation per se, like what longhaulers used to eat in deep space to save on storage.

“How’m I doing?” I asked through a mouthful.

“Truly?” Nerva admired the grindylow I’d made and consigned to brood in a corner, her gilled face smushed between her scaly knees as if looking out of a pillory. “I’ve seen them come and go, supposed wunderkinds, when we were trialing the spray on Delphos. They’ve all disappointed. But you,” he said, shaking his head and smiling faintly, “you could be the real thing.”

Even as I searched his face for dishonesty, I felt a flush of pride.

Maybe his words weren’t cajolery, a means of snaring my allegiance by way of my ego, but a genuine assessment of my skills, which somehow Hadrian’s spray channeled better than every other.

Or maybe I was a chump heading to my doom.

“Well,” I said, “with my Chosen One status, you’d think I’d be able to swing a visit with Jacob by now.”

“In time. Trajan tells me he’s learning slower than you.”

“Just a short one. Just to give him a few tips, you know, and maybe show off a little.”

I sent a brief feedlink signal: Like some fairytale fate, the grindylow dissolved into a cloud of green mist and funneled back into my can.

“Short or not,” said Nerva, “it wouldn’t take long for you to tell him what you found in there,” gesturing with his elbow to the vaulter stash. “Oh please. I’m not that obtuse. Meditate? You?”

I wiped the meringue crumbs off my lips. With all the calm I could muster, I asked, “What happened to Drake?”

Nerva made a drinking gesture. “Some happy juice first.”

“What happened, Nerva?”

Nerva sighed. “His Fruitfulness did advise me to keep quiet, but I was planning to tell you out of respect when I saw what you could do. Just you. No offense to your friend.” He cast around for the words. “Others have attempted the mission, sure. Drake was one. Ariadne, another. All had promise. But not like you. Nothing like you.”

My voice cracked a little. “Tell me they survived, at least.”

Nerva winced. “‘Survive’ is a complicated word. Bodies can last quite a while in vacuum.”

For the first time in my life I felt what must have been vertigo and sat down on the operating bed before it could lay me low. “So that’s it. This is a suicide mission.”

“No, no, no!” Nerva clamped his hands on my shoulders. “You’ll succeed! I’ll stake my life on it. Their destiny is not yours. Listen.” He spoke with conviction. “The spray doesn’t–doesn’t resist you. With a bit more training, the Archipelago of Souls will be no obstacle.”

“And Jacob,” I said acidly, “how do you suppose he’ll fare?”

Nerva gave me the type of shrug that always comes before a lie. “With you by his side I imagine quite well.”

I did the next thing without thinking.

I raised my can and shot a plume of mist at Nerva, aiming to trap his spraying hand in a cast of hypersilk.

But the mist didn’t congeal. And I could no longer sense it through my feedlink.

Nerva flashed a small black button strapped to his wrist. “I understand your emotions might be high right now, so just this once I’m going to forget that.” He cracked his hand across my face, a cherry bomb of hot, bright pain.

My lip fattened, and my cheek burned. I wanted to strike him back, but he held his can like a weapon at the ready. What could I do?

He pushed his wrist button, and my feedlink came online again. Under his hard gaze, I returned the mist to my canister.

“All of it, please,” he said. I returned the shard hidden under the operating bed as well. “Thank you.”

The muffled slam of a hatch reverberated through the ship, followed by the violin-pluck sounds of hypersilk moorings detaching.

We were taking off.

“Now, before we resume,” said Nerva, pointing to the digestif, “I’m afraid I must insist.”

#

The drink felt like a ball of fire in my throat, a mid-grade nuclear reaction in my stomach. But in my brain, the stuff pushed up against experience and left my wits mostly intact. All those swigs over the years with Jacob, Hugo, and Robin had paid off.

But there was use in pretending to be drunk. With theatrical precision, I swayed slightly, then shook my head as if to refocus on my spray-cloud, which Nerva had ordered me to make into a school of spritefish.

Though the windowless room gave no sense of the ship’s location, the steady drop in g-force told me we were already circumnavigating Celeste’s upper atmosphere. We’d be hitching to the planet’s Nullspace sling in ten minutes–or fewer, if the ship was faster than those I’d taken on vacations to Parnassus in the pre-Recession days.

Once the sling had trebucheted the Kingfisher into Nullspace, it would be too late to turn back.

“Concentrate, Mr. Davenport. The wooziness from the drink will wear off, but a similar sensation may afflict you in the Archipelago’s gravity field. You’ll have to stay focused no matter how your guts behave.”

“Ask Hadrian to take us back. I don’t want to go through with this.”

“You and Jacob made an agreement.”

“I can’t….” I trailed off, letting the school of spritefish dissolve as I slumped onto the operating bed. “I can’t do it, Nerva.” I made my voice brittle, my breathing heavy, as though about to be sick.

“If you wish to malinger,” said Nerva, “you’ll have to pick a different culprit than the digestif. We know you lot aren’t teetotalers, for heaven’s sake.”

“You’ve been watching us,” I said, unable to give up my act.

“Don’t let it get to your head. His Fruitfulness watches everyone. Knows everything.”

“Not everything,” I said. “He doesn’t know you told me about Drake, about the rest of them.”

“Nor will he,” said Nerva confidently.

My feedlink. If Nerva had put in a switch to disable it, what’s to say he hadn’t put in other things? A switch to torture or kill me, perhaps. My greed had gotten in the way of my judgment; I should’ve never agreed to Hadrian’s terms, let alone to the surgery. Hugo and Robin had had the right of it.

Then I realized: If Hadrian had no qualms about ushering young artists to their deaths, surely it was no great twist of his conscience to kill the ones who refused to go with him. Which meant….

I doubled over as warm vomit rose to my lips. I didn’t try to hold it back.

Taking advantage of Nerva’s distraction, I willed a fine thread of conjuring spray into the last third of my digestif.

“Robin and Hugo,” I muttered, wiping my mouth. “Are they…?”

“We Delphines have standards, remember?” Nerva snipped. “They’re fine, both your friends.” He turned the vomit on the floor into a stiff blue gelatin with some sanitation spray, then peeled it off in one motion and tossed it down a garbage flue.

“How do you know?” I asked.

“Because I saw them off myself.” Nerva pursed his lips as though he’d said too much.

In the bottle, the spray and alcohol were mixing at my command. Brewing into something else.

“Hadrian sent them to you?” I asked.

“Just for a talking-to. ‘Don’t say this to anyone, don’t say that.’ The usual protocol. And,” Nerva conceded, “to get a couple of implants, naturally. To make sure they don’t forget.”

More vomit threatened to rise, but I held it back. “You’d better be lying.”

Nerva pinched his nose and sighed. “If it helps, I didn’t code the implants to His Fruitfulness’s precise specifications–which were, of course,” he added, waving a hand, “to kill them if they speak his name. A precautionary measure, you see.” He gave a shrug without meeting my glare. “In my mercy, I instead coded the implants to give them a seizure should they decide to inform on him. It seemed a fair compromise. Not that they’ll need much discouraging, your friends. Snitches carry quite a stigma in your patch of the swamp, do they not?”

“Then you set them free,” I said.

“Free as nightlarks,” he assured me.

So that was that. I couldn’t kill Nerva if I wanted Robin and Hugo’s implants removed.

Nerva gestured to the digestif. “Better finish. Nullspace in five.”

I picked up the bottle, pausing as the cool glass touched my lips.

One more try.

“Jacob’s father,” I said. “Enoch. He’s generous to those who help his kin. I imagine he’d reward you handsomely–”

“You think if that were an option, I wouldn’t have suggested it? I am bound to His Fruitfulness in ways you don’t understand.”

“A slave, then,” I said, tightening my grip on the bottle.

“All creatures are slaves, if only to their nature. Even artists, Mr. Davenport. Even you.”

“I disagree.”

I smashed the bottle against Nerva’s wrist button, freeing a starburst of foamy yellow acid.

Nerva gasped.

Before he could raise his can, I sprayed a cast of hypersilk around it, then a cord of the stuff around his neck, which I tethered to the wall.

A pipe broke on the feedlink side of my skull, and pain gushed out in a thick slurry, filling every groove and pocket of my head.

Nerva’s wrist button spat and crackled as the acid burned through it.

I loosened Nerva’s neck-cord so he could talk.

“HOW DO I STOP IT?” I howled.

He just seethed and thrashed while his forearm melted.

I sprayed myself an axe to chop off his wrist device, but it slid off his arm on its own, landing in a puddle of acid. I brought the axe down on the button, a sound as harsh as the pain in my head, and hacked at it again and again until it gave a last chirrup of sparks and died, ending my agony.

I hurried to the door and pulled on the latch. Locked.

I molded the axe into a Faraday rifle to blow a hole through the steel, but the weapon had no charge, and I couldn’t give it one no matter how hard I focused.

“Too late,” Nerva hissed. “We’ll be in Null’ in three minutes.”

“Want to do an over-under on that?”

I changed the rifle to a hydraulic bolt cutter, fitted the vise around the latch, and squeezed the handles with a sound like a gunshot. The broken-off metal went clanging and whizzing.

I shoved open the door, peered outside to make sure the hall was clear. Faint footsteps echoed from the bridge, the dull chimes of diagnostics, other sounds. In the other direction hung the iron-maiden silence of the crystal mesh.

Since neither Hadrian nor Trajan had shown up, this much was clear: Either Nerva feared I would kill him too much to signal for help, or he was terrified of the disgrace he’d reap for my escape. His reticence worked to my advantage, in any case.

I sprayed myself a backpack and stuffed the other cans of conjuring spray inside it. Then, with some delicate manipulations of the hypersilk, I edged the last canister out of Nerva’s trapped hand so I could stow it too.

“You think this is the first time someone’s double-crossed us?” Nerva asked.

I advised him to be quiet and hold still while I sprayed his arm a coat of replacement flesh. Then I sculpted his neck-tether into a lithe yellow variolus squid, whose syringe of neurotoxic bone sat against his brainstem should he find himself in need of being pithed.

“Now,” I said, grabbing Drake’s vaulter, “if you’d be so kind as to help me get off this ship.”

#

Jacob wasn’t amused by my entrance.

He’d been in the middle of a lesson with Trajan when I’d barged into the room and knocked out the Delphine with a blowgun.

“Have you lost your mind?” Jacob asked, pulling the feathered dart out of Trajan’s shoulder and watching it dissolve, along with the blowgun, back into my can. The Delphine lay slack-jawed on the floor.

“Couldn’t risk Trajan sending a feedlink signal,” I said.

I told Jacob what I’d learned, showed him Drake’s vaulter. He glanced at Nerva, whose head was stiff as stone in the variolus squid’s thrall.

“You’re sure about this?” he asked.

This room held a cache of vaulters as well, so I pried it open. “Look for yourself.”

Jacob ran his fingers down the rods in quiet disbelief. “All these artists–gone? I don’t believe it.” But the tremor in his voice told me he did. He selected a vaulter with a chrome veneer and unsheathed it. “Drake’s mural. We should have never….” He shook his head in horror. “If they’re really dead, Lucas, who’s left?”

“We are,” I told him.

I’ll give more thoughts about this story next week, when we complete it and find out about our heroes and whether they manage to escape from their captors, the suicide mission, and the ship.

That was our show for this week. We leave you with the words of Kurt Cobain:

The duty of youth is to challenge corruption.

Thanks for listening. We will see you next week with part 2, be well, have fun.

About the Author

Jordan Chase-Young

Jordan Chase-Young grew up in the Pacific Northwest, where melancholy skies and spectacular scenery imprinted his idea of home. He now lives in Australia with his wife, Caitlin, and their menagerie of cryptids. He loves reading and writing about the distant future, traveling the Australian countryside, goofing around on Twitter, and drawing (he met his wife over one of his illustrations of aliens). His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in F&SF, Unidentified Funny Objects 8, the ZNB anthology When Worlds Collide, and many other venues.

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About the Narrator

Justin Thomas James

Justin Thomas James

Justin grew up on audiobooks and now is thrilled to be narrating them full time! Some of his works include REBOOT: Afterlife Online by Domino Finn and The Wizard Killer series by Adam Dreece. He enjoys narrating short stories on the side for fun and also has a number of children’s joke books recorded in his name.

Find more by Justin Thomas James

Justin Thomas James
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