Escape Pod 844: The Vaulting Vandals of Termina Celeste (Part 2)


The Vaulting Vandals of Termina Celeste (Part 2)

by Jordan Chase-Young

Our boots echoed through the fuselage as we hurried to the bridge. Nerva lagged behind us, grunting whenever Jacob smacked him with the chrome vaulter he’d taken from the cache.
I ordered Nerva to unlock the bridge door.

When he hesitated, I made the squid tap its poison bone against his nape.

Nerva swore in some Delphine patois and punched a number on the keypad. The latch clicked. I forced the squid to ball up behind Nerva’s head, then sprayed Jacob and myself a couple of light, round shields. Since the spray couldn’t make energy weapons, apparently, I also fashioned us each an arqueblaster and loaded them with armor-piercing bullets.

We hid in the shadows of the antechamber while Nerva made his way onto the bridge, moving carefully, as I’d commanded, to keep the squid out of Hadrian’s view.

“Done already?” crooned the merchant prince from his padded throne at the controls.

“Yes,” mumbled Nerva.

“Had a feeling the spray would take to that one. You can always tell a natural by that flame in their eye.” The throne, which slid on a railgrid in the floor, squeaked and rumbled as Hadrian kicked his way like a child in an office chair from one task to another. “As for Jacob, well, let’s hope his vaulting’s as good as they say.”

Jacob cocked his arqueblaster with a scowl, but I made a sign to calm him.

Although the floor and walls of the bridge were made of the same rickety steel as the rest of the fuselage, the ceiling had been scrapped to make way for a bristling firmament of the black crystals. Which complicated things.

“This is rather embarrassing, Your Fruitfulness,” said Nerva, clearing his throat, “but after a brief review of our balance sheet, it seems we forgot to make good on one of our enticements.”

“Which?”

“The surveillance commissioner. We should head back to Termina Celeste, settle the issue at once.”

Hadrian snorted. “I’ll pay that hairless gerbil when it suits me, not a moment sooner.”

“He has records of our activity.”

“He will behave. Patience is the daughter of fear. And anyway, you know as well as I that the obelisk is more important than such trifles.”

Hadrian’s refusal left one option.

I sprayed the rest of my can at the roof of black crystals, my head aching from the inrush of data to my feedlink. I took another can out of my backpack and emptied it too. A cumulonimbus of black mist spread beneath the crystals, hardening into the densest material I could will. Jacob watched me with envy and amazement. I cocked my arqueblaster and gave him a nod.

We stormed the bridge with our shields raised, our weapons aimed at Hadrian.

The merchant prince raised an eyebrow.

“Take us back to Termina Celeste,” said Jacob, “or we’ll off you and do it ourselves.”

“The rotten apple doesn’t fall far,” Hadrian mused. He told Nerva to turn around, which Nerva did, and whistled. “Very lifelike,” he said, throwing me a look of betrayal. “Though not something I’d expected of you.”

“This is a suicide mission,” I said. “We won’t ask again.”

Hadrian considered the arqueblasters, shrugged, and flicked a few switches. The takeoff monitors suspended throughout the room showed a curved red horizon–the eastern rim of Celeste, gessoed in clouds–halting its slow roll beneath the stratosphere as the ship began to yaw back around. A destination readout switched from ARCHIPELAGO OF SOULS to TERMINA CELESTE.

I was so focused on Hadrian I didn’t notice Nerva until too late.

A dagger-length horn had emerged from his nape, impaling the variolus squid. Nerva looked as surprised as anyone when the creature plopped to the ground.

Jacob turned to fire, but Nerva dove behind a food cart. The bullet blasted a cloche off a casserole. Rolling the cart alongside him for a shield, Nerva scurried into the shadows at the edge of the room.

Hadrian chuckled. He’d used the distraction to fetch a canister from a hiding-place somewhere, and a pane of mist was already congealing in front of him; Jacob’s bullets bounced off it like rubber. Hadrian whirled his hand as if pardoning insults, and the pane became a folding screen around his body, blue and shimmery as water.

“Your friend’s overstayed his welcome,” he told me. “But I’m still optimistic about you. Won’t you reconsider?”

“That depends on your terms.”

Hadrian called my bluff with a tsk and flung the screen at us with a thrust of his palm. The panes slammed us off our feet and sent us sprawling.

A thunderclap rocked the canopy I’d formed beneath the ceiling.

Hadrian glanced up in puzzlement, frowned. “Clever. But won’t hold for long.”

More thunder. My canopy shuddered as Hadrian’s crystals tried to pierce through; desperate, I freed a layer of it as a shower of spikes, but Hadrian whipped a fresh shield above him to deflect these.

Jacob hauled me to my feet, his nose dripping blood.

I conjured up a beach hydra to defend us. Splayed on four gigantic starfish legs–sleek and brindled, with a mat of stubby tentacles under each–the creature lifted a pair of leonine heads and gnashed at Hadrian with demonic teeth.

The merchant prince laughed and sprayed himself a butcher hawk in answer.

The hawk spread its razor-lined wings and launched at one of the hydra’s jugulars, but the hydra jerked away at the last second, seized the hawk in its jaws, and brought it thrashing to the ground. They wrestled: a tangle of blood and flesh and green spittle.

BOOM! BOOM! The crystals hammered on the canopy harder than ever. Cracks were forming across the dense substance, and I couldn’t seal them and focus on the hydra at the same time.

Jacob tried to conjure a Volta grenade–but the sphere had no light at its core.

“Can’t make energy weapons,” I said, unsheathing Drake’s vaulter.

Jacob cursed. He transformed the grenade into a spiked ball-and-chain and swung it around his head–once, twice, three times–and lobbed into one of the butcher hawk’s wings. The spikes hooked deep into the veiny webbing and pinned the hawk down, allowing the hydra to tear out its jugular.

Hadrian’s laughter faded. He fashioned the hawk’s carcass into something else while I vaulted to the other side of the room. I shot at him with my arqueblaster. His shield rippled and sang. He swiveled to face me, but I vaulted again, firing as I went. The shield was iridescing, weakening.

My eyes filled with water as I leapt. My throat tightened; I lost my balance and fell.

Jacob took up firing at Hadrian’s shield. Hadrian pushed another pane into him, a sound like a mallet against a piece of meat.

“NO!” I cried.

I tried to lift myself, but my body felt impossibly heavy.

Nerva came toward me, clad in a gas mask and clutching a potted purple flower in one hand, a can of conjuring spray in the other. The flower was a Lucretian lullaby, the strongest allergen known.
A patch of my canopy burst open at last. A long spar of crystal rushed down through the gap and skewered my beach hydra.

I could hardly speak or move. When Nerva reached me, he ripped off my backpack of canisters, wrenched the vaulter out of my grasp, kicked aside my arqueblaster and shield. Then he siphoned the Lucretian lullaby back into his can, the gas mask too. “I’ve got him, Your Fruitfulness.”

“This is the last time I mistake talent for usefulness,” said Hadrian. “Now scrap him.”

Nerva sprayed himself an arqueblaster and pressed it to my head.

“You let me escape,” I whispered. “You think your master will forget that?”

“That’s no concern of yours,” said Nerva.

“DON’T!” screamed a voice from the entrance.

A pair of molten golems, one fat and one slim, tromped onto the bridge with a dazed Trajan between them, leaving a trail of brown sludge in their wake that stank of compost and drone grease and a hundred other foul things. The slim one had a Faraday rifle aimed at Trajan’s bruised head, while the fat one kept a rifle trained on Hadrian.

I blinked. It was Robin and Hugo.

“Let them go, Hadrian,” Robin continued, tossing aside her visor, “and I won’t turn your servant’s head to smithereens.”

By now the butcher hawk’s carcass had assumed its new form: a flock of flying basilisks, seven strong, their leathern wings twitching to be freed and yellow venom dripping from their fangs.

“Tell me, Nerva,” said Hadrian, a quaver of anger threatening his calm, “when you rewired these urchins, did you happen to forget that itty-bitty algorithm that kills them if they speak my name?”

Nerva’s arqueblaster trembled against my skull. “Your Fruitfulness…forgive me, I did not think….”

“It would matter? Your brother’s opinion may differ.”

Trajan flashed a look of rage at Nerva, then winced from the heat of Robin’s Faraday rifle.

“Do it,” Hadrian ordered Nerva. “I can always make another.”

Nerva’s grip on the weapon tightened. Any second it would puke hot metal into my brain, put me away forever.

But Nerva hesitated. “Trajan,” he muttered. “Brother.”

“Do it,” snapped Hadrian.

Just then, Hugo caught sight of Jacob’s body, sprawled and bloody at the edge of the room.

“Jacob–he’s not moving,” said Hugo. “WHAT DID YOU DO?”

Hugo unloaded his rifle on Hadrian.

The lightning-storm of blue muzzle flashes made Hadrian’s shield scream, and shatter.

The basilisks swarmed Hugo and Robin, a volley of wings and teeth and tails.

In that instant, Trajan tackled Robin and pinned her to the ground–but before he could grab her Faraday rifle, the muzzle flashed blue, and his head became a cloud of grey smoke.

Nerva howled as Trajan’s headless body slumped into a loose, grotesque sprawl.

Robin twisted away from the corpse and unleashed three bolts at Nerva, but the swarm of flying basilisks took them all.

Now was my chance. I let the canopy collapse to the ground as a thick, dark fog.

Nerva fired at me as I rolled out from under him, his bullets clanging off steel. I snatched up my arqueblaster and shot him twice through the heart.

Nerva dropped with a thud. I ripped my vaulter and backpack off him.

Flashes from Faraday rifles cut through the gloom. A basilisk incandesced as a brief blue skeleton; the others were shadows within shadows, writhing through the air and snapping at the shapes of Robin and Hugo.

I ran to Jacob as the now-freed crystals lanced down. One stabbed the floor an arm’s length ahead of me with a shriek of metal.

Hugo got to Jacob first and hauled him up; I slung my arm beneath Jacob’s other shoulder.

Hugo’s stench made me choke as we dragged Jacob off the bridge together.

“It’s a long story,” Hugo mumbled. “The hell’s she up to?”

Robin was whistling in the darkness somewhere.

An explosion ripped across the controls, and Hadrian roared with anger.

More crystals lanced down frantically as Robin darted out the fog.

“We’d better find jetpacks,” she said.

“What did you do?” I asked, scared to hear the answer.

“No time, let’s go.”

Since the main door of the ship was cut off from the fuselage by a forest of black crystal, we had no choice but to use the airlock. I wasn’t about to risk a trip through the waste port as Robin and Hugo had done–not with a homicidal Delphine on our tail.

“We’ll asphyxiate, we’re still too high up,” Hugo said, blasting open the jetpack compartment.

“Not for long,” said Robin.

As if on cue, the floor tilted.

Jacob slipped out of our grasp and went sliding into the wall, and Hugo skidded off balance and barreled into him, hard. Jacob lurched back to consciousness with a cry of pain, and Robin and I pulled him out from under Hugo.

“Damn oaf,” Jacob groaned.

“Show some gratitude,” said Robin. “Hugo saved you.”

Jacob touched his broken nose. “Feels like a work in progress to me. How the hell’d you get back here?”

“You don’t want to know,” said Hugo.

To my horror, only two jetpacks remained in the compartment. I told Robin and Hugo to strap them on.

Before Robin could protest, I said, “I’m still the leader, remember? If you two hadn’t snuck back onboard, Jacob and I’d be dead by now.”

Jacob snorted but didn’t bother to argue. We all knew it was true.

There wasn’t enough spray left in the canisters to conjure more jetpacks, but there was enough for two parachutes, so I made these instead.

“God help us,” said Hugo as he pulled the airlock lever.

The airlock door gave an asthmatic wheeze. One moment I was looking at Robin’s anxious brown eyes; the next, a streak of orange cloud against a cruel blue sky, the air suddenly sharp as a riptide of ice water. The sun on the horizon throbbed into view as my head spun perpendicular with the canyon.

The canyon.

We’d jumped right above the River Andalosi.

In my teary periphery, the Kingfisher was plunging toward the docks of Termina Celeste.

I pulled the cord on my parachute, and it wrenched me upright with a hard snap and unfurling. For a moment I thought I’d pulled too soon. No one else was in sight.

Then Robin torpedoed out of the cloud-glare, banking sharply toward me on the flames of her jetpack.

A dark shape moving across a cloud–I’d taken it at first for her shadow–peeled off toward her with a pair of wings spread wide and swooped into her, ripping her into a tangled downward spiral. I thought I’d imagined it, they were gone so fast; but they emerged from the haze a moment later as a filament of jetpack exhaust in the distance, threading down into the shadows of the docks and out of sight.

“Lucas!” Hugo jetpacked out of the clouds to link an arm with mine; he had Jacob attached to the other. The wind was trying to drown out his shouts. “Did you see that?”

I would’ve answered, but the flood of noise and light from the docks overwhelmed us all.

The Kingfisher had exploded on impact.

#

All the music in Termina Celeste had been buried under sirens and shouts by the time Hugo landed us on the outskirts of the docks; the smells of exhaust and deflector wax, under the reek of burning fuel. In the distance, sentry drone floodlights wreathed the inferno that had been Hadrian’s craft.

“Why her?” Hugo screwed his eyes shut while I washed the brown gunk off him with my conjuring spray. “Why couldn’t they’ve nabbed you instead? Picking that ship was your idea, Lucas.”

“One you went along with,” I said.

“Only ‘cause I’m out of my mind.”

Jacob gazed at the flames of the Kingfisher. “Think Hadrian did it on purpose?”

I shook my head. “It was Robin. That whistling must’ve been her luring Hadrian to break the controls with his crystals.”

“God, she’s even crazier than you,” Hugo said.

“You’re just finding this out?”

#

Hugo scoured the docks for Robin with his jetpack, while Jacob and I traveled with our vaulters.

I told them to be cautious. The fire had diverted the sentry drones’ patrols, so we were open to an ambush from whatever creature had taken Robin.

Jacob’s leaps lacked their usual grace. He landed hard on an old sublunary dhow crusted in red dirt and seized the rudder for balance, wincing at a pain in his ribs. “My brother’ll regret missing all this.”

The claim was so absurd I would’ve laughed in other circumstances, but there was no denying the truth of it. Blaise would envy us all if we survived intact.

“The thing that took Robin, did you see what it looked like?” Jacob asked.

I cocked the arqueblaster I’d conjured a few minutes ago, then put a finger to my lips. Footsteps, slow and shuffling, echoed from the shadows of a solar cruiser in our midst. I raised my weapon.

The footsteps stopped, and Hugo’s round head lifted into a patch of light.

“Think I saw ‘em go this way,” he said.

I sighed in relief.

“Where’s your jetpack?” Jacob asked.

“Had to ditch it,” said Hugo. “Ran outta fuel.”

Jacob and I followed Hugo on foot to keep quiet.

Evening had become night, and the disc luminaires beneath the city roof had switched on, sickly orange above the smoke of the wreckage.

“I could go for one of your sandwiches,” Jacob whispered to Hugo.

“Now’s not the time,” I said.

“What was that one you had earlier? Tuna on rye?”

“Hell if I remember,” said Hugo. “Right down here. Pick up the pace, huh?”

We came to a long concrete service platform between rows of ships. Old-fashioned mooring hooks from pre-hypersilk days rusted beside dry coolant pumps and out-of-service holofeed booths. At both ends of the platform, switchbacking metal stairs led up to a labyrinth of catwalks.

As we hurried to the closest stairs, a meaty crack rang out.

Hugo shrieked and collapsed, clutching a large, bloody wound on his head.

I spun my arqueblaster on Jacob, who was holding his vaulter above him like a bludgeon. “Hickory-smoked ham,” he said. “You think Hugo would forget that?”

Hugo writhed on the ground, whimpering. Something buzzed and crackled in his wound. The implant?

To my horror, Hugo’s belly began to shrink, and his limbs grew longer, skinnier. His face melted into–
Nerva’s.

“I had a feeling it was him that grabbed Robin,” said Jacob. “That horn that came out of his neck, killed the squid, did you see it? He’s some kind of shapeshifter.”

Hadrian’s laughter rang high and cold from somewhere above us. “You surprise me, Jacob. I took Lucas for the cleverer one.”

Nerva’s flesh dissolved from his body as a black mist until only a flexicarbon skeleton remained. No. A drone that resembled a skeleton, save for the blue wires that ran through its joints and vertebrae like nerves.

Nerva climbed to his feet. His breastplate still had two bullet holes from my arqueblaster, and the side of his head with the feedlink now had a dent from Jacob’s vaulter. The arm I’d burned with acid was deeply scarred.
Nerva roved a pair of fluorescent pupils from Jacob to me in confusion. “Where am I?” he asked.

“An old model,” Hadrian said. “We Delphines do love our heirlooms.” He descended from an alcubierre in a jetpack and landed on the service platform, his blond hair sooty, his white uniform torn and burnt. “Alas, unlike ships, a drone’s mind sinks without spectacle.”

“Where am I?” Nerva clutched his head. “You overrode me again.”

“Twice today you hesitated to fulfill my orders,” said Hadrian. “Now look what’s happened.” He gestured to the inferno. “I couldn’t risk a third time.”

Nerva choked in anguish. “Trajan…Trajan….”

“Dead, yes,” said Hadrian, “thanks to you.”

Hadrian flicked his hand, and the mist returned to Nerva as a new kind of flesh, jet-black and barbed on the inside like an iron maiden. Nerva screamed and thrashed as the stuff took root. I couldn’t help feeling pity for him.

“Where are they?” I said.

Hadrian summoned a cloud of locusts from the darkness, so dense it might have been a piece of the night itself. The humming swarm dropped Robin and Hugo onto the platform, scratched and bloody and bruised.

I resisted the temptation to shoot Hadrian right there. I knew his swarm could become a shield at any moment, or worse.

“I’m impressed.” Hadrian sounded sincere. “Half the people in this universe have tried to ruin or kill me, and you four came closer than most. A pack of truants and vandals. A good thing my ship was insured, or I might be very mad at you.” He reached out his hand. “Now if you would kindly return my property.”

I hefted the backpack of cans higher up my shoulder. “How do we know you’ll let us go?”

“Because I’m a gentleman,” Hadrian said.

Jacob gave me a cautious look. After a moment, he put his can in my backpack. “You’re the leader, Lucas. You choose.”

Hugo nodded in agreement. Robin watched me intently.

If I were a liar I’d tell you I only cared about them. Not about the power I’d have to give up, the artistic possibilities I would lose forever.

But I’m not a liar, so I’ll leave it at that.

Nervously, I took off the backpack and gave it to Hadrian. His gaze flitted to my arqueblaster. I stowed the weapon in the backpack as well. Then he touched each can inside to slave them to his feedlink, leaving us with nothing but the vaulters.

I expected the cloud of locusts to devour us at any second. But it just hummed overhead, a patient malevolence, while Nerva convulsed on the ground in his cocoon of torture barbs.

A sentry drone’s floodlights flickered between the rows of ships, basking us in whiteness for an instant.
Hadrian’s jaw knotted. The drone was heading our way. He siphoned Nerva’s cocoon back into his can, leaving his servant a bare machine again.

“You want your real flesh,” Hadrian said, tossing him a can from the backpack, “show me you deserve it, and fast.”
The locusts formed a ring around us, blocking our escape.

“Lucas….” Robin grabbed my arm.

“Don’t do it, Nerva,” I said. “You don’t have to be his slave.”

Nerva rubbed the dent in his head, grimacing.

“Maybe Davenport’s right,” Hadrian told him. “Maybe that’s all you are. A slave. A real son of mine wouldn’t hesitate.”

As Hadrian moved to take back Nerva’s can, the robot yanked him into an elbow lock and rammed a torture barb into his chest.

Hadrian screamed.

Nerva stabbed him again, exchanging the barb for Hadrian’s can, and kicked him off the service platform. The merchant prince fumbled with his jetpack controls as he fell, smearing them with arterial blood, then rode a burst of fuel in a desperate zigzag before sputtering into a long, silent plunge.

Seizing our chance, we darted through the locust swarm toward the closest catwalk.
I halted halfway up the steps. Our implants.

“Come with us,” I said. “Jacob’s father’ll find a place for you. He can fix your feedlink.”

“No time,” snapped Jacob.

The sentry drone’s floodlights washed over the service platform, so bright they turned the fixtures into ice sculptures and Nerva into a ghost.

Nerva was giving himself a new coat of flesh with Hadrian’s canister. “Can he bring back Trajan?” he asked. “Can he revive my brother?” This flesh had the rough brown ribbing of tree bark and patches of yellow-green down like moss–the flesh of a dryad from a Delphine fable, down to the purple klinger vines entwining his arms. “I didn’t think so.”

My instincts were ahead of me: The second Nerva whipped a vine toward Robin, I had my vaulter up to smack it away, the impact running through me like a tuning fork.

I didn’t need to tell the others to run.

Now in thrall to Nerva, the cloud of locusts engulfed the sentry drone.

The catwalk shuddered as we bolted for the city.

Two of Nerva’s klinger vines ripped the latticed floor out from under us, and we spilled hard onto the roof of a frigate.

Jacob grunted in pain.

Hugo grabbed his vaulter. “Get on my back!”

Nerva came vaulting toward us on the vines unspooling from his arms.

“Give me Robin!” he called. “Give me my brother’s murderer, Lucas!”

Jacob clasped Hugo’s back, and Robin hopped onto mine.

“We’ll lure him to the hypersilk jetty,” I whispered.

“Why?” asked Hugo.

In as few breaths as possible, I sketched my plan.

Just as Nerva landed on the frigate, Hugo and I vaulted to another ship, using every drop of energy in the supercarbon to make the jump. We barely crossed the gap; piggybacking cut our reach in half.

As I’d guessed they would, shards of the Kingfisher’s black crystal began to appear everywhere as we approached the inferno, glittering like demonic hail on service platforms and in the crevices of ships.

Hugo and Jacob veered right while Robin and I went left.

Nerva followed Robin and me, naturally, his half-dozen vines groping through the hazy air. But we were nimble in landing and leaping, ducking behind rudders, skidding down wing-stems. Robin jumped off my back when we had to run and jumped on again when I vaulted, digging her fingers into my ribs for dear life.

We had to stop Nerva without killing him; all of us still had his implants.

Endless, tyrannical flames bellied thick and bright as molten gold up the jagged guts of the Kingfisher, and I felt their heat on my cheeks, my hands.

The shards of crystal we passed were getting longer, some still smoldering from the blast. Many were as long as spears.

Almost there….

Swift as a bolas, a vine whipped around my legs, and I fell splat on the roof of a dhow. Robin leapt off my back, snatched up my vaulter, and made a breakneck dash in time to miss the vines corkscrewing up my legs, waist, chest.

She knew what to do.

Alighting on the dhow, Nerva whipped around, glowering, but Robin had already disappeared into the smoke. A thin shower of sparks gushed from Nerva’s feedlink, and he rubbed his head. My vine-trap tightened as if in sympathy. “Where is she?” he hissed.

“You’re not thinking clearly,” I said. Jacob’s blow had loosened something in Nerva’s personality. “You’re free now. Don’t you see that?”

Nerva pinned my head between dryad fingers as sharp as stakes. “No one is free, Mr. Davenport. Not even you. All creatures are slaves, if only–if only to their nature.”

Robin called through the smoke: “Don’t hurt him, Nerva! He didn’t kill your brother!”

Still holding me in his vine-trap, Nerva followed Robin’s voice to the steel jetty at the end of the dhow and dropped onto it.

Narrow as a footpath, the jetty held bollards of hypersilk, which several maintenance drones were harvesting, their arachnoid legs teasing miles of the stuff into their round, steel bellies.

Robin was crouched at the end of the jetty. She’d traded my vaulter for a long spar of black crystal and held it at a defensive slant.

Nerva charged at her, slamming each drone in his path into the abyss.

In his rage, he failed to notice another spar buried in a ship’s hull–and the strand of hypersilk, invisible but for a few glints, extending from it to the eave of an adjacent solar cruiser.

I braced myself.

Robin tossed me her spar as Nerva’s neck met the hypersilk garrote.

TWAAANG.

For an instant Nerva was perfectly horizontal.

The collision sent me flying out of his vine-trap.

I stabbed a ship’s wing at my apex with the spar, then kicked off the hull at an angle. I landed halfway onto the jetty with a heavy thud. Breathless, I almost lost my purchase, but Robin grabbed me with both arms, giving me the leverage to claw back onto the platform.

As Nerva climbed back to his feet, oaring the air for balance, Jacob leapt off the solar cruiser, ripping off a solar tarp draped hastily across its hull, and four holospray tags winked to life from under the fabric: my Klein bottle, Jacob’s chrome tree, Hugo’s sword-wielding alter ego, Robin’s tutued sun bear. I couldn’t believe the tags were still there. They were glitchy and faded, among the first we’d ever made. But they were enough to distract Nerva for a moment.

Which was all Hugo needed.

He skewered Nerva from behind with a crystal spar, punching through bark and flexicarbon with an earsplitting crack.

Nerva collapsed to his knees, his guts crackling. His vines wilted into slithery heaps. He shuddered in what sounded like agony, and the can tumbled out of his hand and rolled to the edge of the platform. I caught it.

Then I siphoned up Nerva’s dryad flesh as the others shambled over, reeking of sweat.

“Good thinking with the tags,” I told Jacob. “When Nerva’s throat didn’t stick to the hypersilk, I thought we were dead.”

“It’s a miracle,” said Jacob, shaking his head. “Someone actually saved our work. After all these years.” He laughed, giddy with adrenaline.

The rest of us laughed too. It was all we could do not to hug each other.

“I just realized what that reminds me of,” said Robin, pointing to the scaly black vaulter Jacob had taken off her hands.

Before I could speak, Nerva lunged at me and clamped a flexicarbon hand around my throat, pressing the spar in his chest against my own.

My heart kicked like an animal about to be put down.

“The can,” said Nerva, his voice crackly, distorted. “Give it to me.”

I held the conjuring spray over the River Andalosi. I knew the moment I handed him the spray we’d be finished.

So I said, calmly, “Since you can fly, Nerva, I’m sure you can swim as well,” and tossed the can into the river.

Nerva watched the black cylinder recede to a dot and then to nothing at all. He gaped at me–so baffled, it seemed, by my sacrifice that he forgot to drive the crystal through my heart.

That was good luck. For the second time that night, and with a presence of mind for which I’ll always be grateful, Jacob demonstrated his philosophy for dealing with robots: He smashed Nerva’s feedlink with his vaulter, a sound like a sledgehammer against a circuit breaker.

And this time Nerva didn’t get up.

#

We didn’t stop running, except to catch our breath or curse our injuries, until we got to Enoch Landry’s safehouse in the Armitage territory of Termina Celeste.

A roomy fortress of duraconcrete and camera-infested bamboo, not to mention half a dozen soldiers loyal to Jacob’s father, the High Capo’s home made a perfect refuge from the drones and gendarmes prowling the city.

Blaise Landry, our leader, opened the towering front door. His black hair was disheveled, his eyes were wild, and he wore a plush blue bathrobe.

“Guys,” he said, “have you seen the…?” His mouth twitched as he took in our wounds. “No.”

“Yeah,” said Jacob, panting. “Yeah.”

Chuckling, I shouldered past Blaise into the safehouse, lay down on the cold concrete floor, and passed out.

#

One billion spacemarks.

That’s how much damage the Kingfisher’s crash was projected to cost when all was said and done, according to the holotrope feeds that were piped through our recuperation room a few days later. The Kingfisher alone accounted for about half that figure, while the other ships that’d been destroyed–seven in all–represented roughly a quarter. The other two hundred and fifty million spacemarks would come from hospital bills, heightened surveillance, the city government’s investigation, countless other things. But at least holotrope ratings were up; that had to be worth something.

All of us were terrified someone would find evidence of our role in the crash. Maybe a sentry drone had caught a snippet of footage of us entering the Kingfisher, or maybe an occupant of one of the ships in the docks had seen us facing down Hadrian. Enoch could protect us from the city government, perhaps, but could he fend off Hadrian’s father Jora Hizad, the Merchant King? The Delphines had probably commenced an investigation of their own by now, and none of us could be sure all traces of our presence in Hadrian’s argosy had been devoured by the flames.
But what worried me most were the implants. How could we be confident they didn’t have trackers?

We couldn’t. Which was why we’d taken Nerva with us to the safehouse–the part of him that mattered, anyway.

Nerva’s severed flexicarbon head felt cool and heavy in my hands as I sat at the edge of the bed in the recuperation room. Enoch had given it back to us after we’d let him download Nerva’s mind for retooling into a simple neurosurgical drone. We considered it our gift in exchange for his protection, and he was pleased to have such quality software in his repertoire. Since Nerva’s architecture appeared to be of custom make, Enoch had fried the drone’s hardware once the download was complete to ensure he had the only version. We didn’t mind. Enoch Landry could do what he liked, as far as we were concerned.

#

“Why d’you think Nerva didn’t kill you when he had the chance?” asked Blaise. He was scarfing down a bowl of savory-smelling koalaroo dumplings in front of a holotrope feed at the table.

Since the night we’d arrived, all Blaise had done was wring details about the events involving the Kingfisher out of us, as if to create a mental simulation of them he might insert himself into.

“He told me he respected my skills with the spray,” I said. “But I think it was something else.”

“What’s that?” asked Hugo. He and Jacob were playing a game of bridge on Jacob’s bed, and Robin was watching them with one of Blaise’s blue teacup elephants in her lap; the animal was diligently trying to wrap its trunk around her thumb.

“He pitied me,” I said, “just like I pitied him.”

“He was crazy, no point trying to make sense of it,” said Jacob, waving a dismissive hand. “Butterlocks probably programmed him that way.”

“Or made him that way over the years with his abuse,” said Robin.

I sighed, setting down Nerva’s ghoulish head on a pile of bedsheets. “You guys deserve an apology. A ship that looks that tempting, I should’ve guessed it was a trap. You tried to talk me out of it.”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t have fallen for any of it,” mumbled Blaise through a mouthful of dumplings.

“Shut up, Blaise,” said Robin. “Yes you would’ve.” She shrugged. “We accept your apology, Lucas.”

“Grudgingly,” said Hugo.

“When my nose is healed, maybe,” said Jacob. “And my ribs. And–yeah, whatever, I accept. Just so long as you help me find that spray.”

“It’s at the bottom of the river,” snorted Hugo.

“I guessed that much.”

“Once we get our implants removed,” I told Jacob, “we won’t be able to use the stuff, even if we found it.”

“So we don’t get ‘em removed just yet,” said Jacob.

“They might have trackers.”

“Maybe,” said Blaise. “But maybe not. The Delphines haven’t come knockin’ yet.”

Robin cocked her head at Jacob while the teacup elephant nuzzled her hand. “You are kidding, right? After all the damage that stuff has caused? Besides, the waters of the Andalosi have probably destroyed it by now.”

“Well, we don’t know that,” I admitted. “But it’s best left where it is, either way.”

Part of me hoped the conjuring spray was ruined for good, given how dangerous it was. The other part, though….
Nerva’s skeletal face might have been whispering to me.

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

How hard could it be to find the can?

With one of Enoch’s gadgets, not very. Blaise or Jacob would have to finagle a submersible drone or something off him carefully, as he’d want to keep the spray for himself if he knew about it. But that was doable.

As I considered this, a thin, stoic man in grey scrubs slipped into the room.

“I’m pleased to tell you everything is ready,” the man said softly, without a hint of Nerva’s accent or tone. Enoch’s engineer had done a remarkable job of building a neurosurgical drone with no detectable personality. “Whoever wishes to get their implant removed first, please come with me.”

We looked at each other.

More accurately, everyone looked at me.

“Leaders first,” said Hugo.

Robin waved for me to follow the drone, while Blaise raised an eyebrow expectantly.

Jacob just smiled. He didn’t need to say another word. I could tell by the devilish glint in his eyes that he knew he’d convinced me.

Previously on Vaulting Vandals, our teen heroes have mastered vaulting, the best, fastest way to move around low gravity places. They use, naturally, to tag spaceships and get away quickly. Their luck runs out when they’re captured by Hadrian Hizad, a self-described merchant prince of the drone trade. Hizad says he’ll give them some super sweet spray paint tech if they’ll do him one quick favor. Greedy and eager, two of the teens agree, and then are whisked off to get implants and crap. Lucas and Jacob then find out that they’re not the first vandals to get this job. And all the others have died. So now they need to deal with their implants and their jailer and the merchant prince and how they can still keep that sweet spay tech! So, it’s storytime.

I remember many years ago I was talking to Cory Doctorow about young adult stories. While I will leave the nuances of this discussion to our good friends at our sister magazine, the YA podcast Cast of Wonders, I do want to talk about teen characters.

When you’re a teen, you start to experience many things for the first time. And that’s been said so many times, the meaning is lost on jaded adults. This goes beyond sexual exploration, I’m talking about someone thinking that you’re the best at something, someone offering you an opportunity, a choice, that only you can make for yourself. And someone baiting a hook with a shiny present that you’re still young enough to not ask “what’s the catch?”

Teen stories are exciting if they can transmit to us the pure joy of experiencing something for the first time. The peek into adulthood, independence, and how they’re totally going to do it better than their parents did. What I find interesting about this story is that Robin and Hugo played the adult part of this story, in that they were able to look beyond the shiny bauble and see the danger lurking behind it. And they nearly had a more complex story, in that they made the mature decision to not take the offer, but then made the wild decision to make a daring rescue attempt of their idiot friends.

But it’s clear that Lucas grows up in the final action scene, giving up his shiny present to save his own life.

Makes more sense than the old lady throwing the diamond into the sea in the final scene of Titanic, anyway.

(Don’t @ me.)

We leave you with the words of Stella Addler: “Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one.”

Thanks for listening. 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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