Our hero combats a desperate enemy on a surreal battleground and is shocked at what he learns about the woman he’s sworn to protect. I was crushed
Our hero combats a desperate enemy on a surreal battleground and is shocked at what he learns about the woman he’s sworn to protect.
I was crushed into my seat as the rocket hurdled upward and deafening thunder tried to rattle my bones from my body. The machine gun was torn from my grasp and nearly choked me as it jerked to a stop at the end of its sling.
From the corner of one eye, I caught sight of Aeliana laid flat in the pilot’s chair and an expanding circle of sky above us. Out of the other, I could see our attacker pinned flat against the rear bulkhead, his snarl drawn into a rictus.
The rocket burst from the silo on a thunderous plume of hellfire as it climbed into the sky. I struggled against the magnified weight of my own limbs to lift my hand and work clumsy fingers to undo the buckles of the harness, secured at three points.
The rocket tilted in its arc and flew upward on a shallower climb. My fingers kept slipping on a latch, then…one buckle undone.
With an animal growl, our attacker had gotten an elbow under himself and lifted his head from the metal behind him. He clutched his knife with a hand pinned to his chest.
The sky grew darker. I worked faster, my fingers slipping in haste. I undid a second buckle.
The thunder tapered off. Through the canopy, the sun blazed blindingly to one side, set against a fuligin void. To the other was the curving horizon of the roiling white and blue planet—should I call it Earth? All at once, I floated freely, and nearly lost my grip on the last buckle. Then it released.
In a few frantic moments, I untangled myself from the harness and spun my body, only to see the enemy soldier sailing toward me.
I got a hold of the machine gun and used it to shield my face as he collided with me. We crashed against the back of the empty co-pilot’s chair and his knife screeched as it slid across the metal of the gun, leaving a shallow slice across the back of my hand.
I had a glimpse of Aeliana’s wide eyes and the muzzle of her pistol as she tried to train it on the black-clad soldier.
With one hand, I slapped the pistol aside, to keep from being shot. With the other hand, I thrust the butt of the gun at this throat, but connected with his chest. Braced as I was against the co-pilot’s chair, he was thrown backward and his knife tumbled from his hand.
I kicked off toward the back of the cabin as he caught hold of one of the other seats. I thrust out the barrel of the gun like a spear and hit him in the diaphragm. His breath came out in a rush. I led with my shoulder as I impacted him.
We flew back and crashed into the rear bulkhead. My sight was crossed with streaks of lightning as my head connected with the metal and then starbursts as the soldier’s fist hammered my skull.
Half-stunned, I threw my arms over my head and kicked out, but this just sent me tumbling till I collided with another chair. I grabbed hold to arrest my spin.
I wished I could make my vision stop spinning. But I was clear-eyed enough to see the soldier making his way back to the front of the cabin, in the direction of the tumbling knife. At the same time, Aeliana was undoing her harness.
I steadied myself, gripped the seat, and then flung my body toward the black-clad soldier. The machine gun trailed behind me on its sling.
My angle was off. I glanced off of one seat, bounced off of another, ricocheted off the side of the cabin, and spun into the enemy, knocking him out of reach of the knife.
He drove an elbow into my skull, which threw us apart, but I grabbed hold of his ankle and pulled him back toward me. I also landed a fist between his legs.
With a groan, he curled into a ball. I yanked an empty canvas bag from a rack and dragged it over his head. I hooked a leg around a seat armature, and holding him by his uniform, punched him till he went slack.
My chest heaved like bellows as someone played bongos with my skull and my ears rang. But I had enough concentration to keep hold of the prisoner and grip the seat as an anchor.
Aeliana watched with bright amber eyes, her face circled with a halo of night-dark hair. She gripped the back of the pilot’s chair and had her pistol at the ready. “What now?”
I erupted in laughter.
She looked on me with wounded dignity.
I caught my breath. “Isn’t that supposed to be my question?”
Then, with the high clear notes of bells, peals of laughter erupted from her, and I laughed all the harder. It tapered off as we returned to our situation.
I looked about and spotted a coil of rope on another rack. “I’ll secure the prisoner.”
She bit her lip. “Would it not be better…” She eyed the airlock.
I considered him. The bag over his head was like an executioner’s hood. Then I saw again that lifeless eye surrounded by ichor and it hung as a baleful orb in front of me.
I shook my head. “He might have information we could use, and we have the option…for later.”
Aeliana inclined her head. “Then I shall leave the matter to you, my bannerman.”
All of my muscles ached, especially the ones I didn’t know I had. And even crossing the cabin was a chore while weightless. In time, I got the line unspooled, and cinched the bag around the prisoner’s neck while securing his wrists and ankles with a knot my father taught me when we went sailing. I used the remainder to tie him to one of the seats.
I made my way to the co-pilot’s chair and felt every one of my bruises as I settled in. “I hate to repeat a question, but what now?”
She tapped out something on a keyboard as vertical columns of unfamiliar characters swept down a screen embedded in the control console. “We have enough reaction mass to raise our orbit and then reverse our orientation to dock with one of our refueling stations, but it will take several hours and half a dozen revolutions around Aarde.”
“Is that what you call the planet?”
The corners of her mouth quirked up as she kept working. “Yes. What do you call the world you’re from?”
“Earth. And our moon…” I pointed to the pale sphere that was now visible, “we call Luna.”
“Earth…Luna.” She tasted the words and smiled with the sound of them. “Good names. Warm names. We call our moon Selene.” Then she looked at me. “This must be all so strange for you.”
She lifted a hand and traced the bruises on my face. “You’ve never trained for a soldier, have you?”
A shiver went up my spine at her touch. It took me a moment to answer. “No, I was studying to be a historian.”
Aeliaana grasped my hand. “Well, my learned vassal, I thank you again for your bravery.”
I sat a little straighter at those words.
In the next moment, there was something behind her eyes and her face closed into a mask of imperial dignity. She withdrew her hand and we fell into silence.
I closed my eyes and pretended to sleep, but uneasy visions barred me from slumber.
Then I blinked my eyes open as I was jerked in my harness. I could feel the spin of the cabin, till we shuddered to a stop. Through the canopy, there was something like rails or spars to either side of us. “Where are we?”
“We are…” Aeliana checked the screen. “At refueling station thirty-six, in medium orbit above Aarde.”
I shook my head. “I forgot to ask, what’s our destination?”
“The outpost at the fifth libration point of the Aarde-Selene system. It’s not preprogrammed, so I will have to calculate our course.” She bit her lip. “I hope I remember what my tutors taught me.”
“My lady, I have faith in you.” What else could I say?
I heard noises behind us and turned to see our prisoner straining against his bonds.
I unharnessed and sailed to his seat. I pressed the muzzle of the machine gun under his chin. “You might not understand me, but I’m guessing you understand this. Stop struggling, or I’ll kill you.” I hoped he caught my tone.
I made my way back to the co-pilot’s chair. I didn’t follow everything that Aeliana did, and I was too exhausted to ask questions, but an hour later we left the station.
Our next course was a long one, two days and more. I found the “water closet” well nigh inscrutable when I needed to relieve myself. I decided it was best to let our prisoner soil himself, since I wasn’t going to untie him. The stench made me regret my choice, but Aeliana disdained to acknowledge the odor.
Then the outpost station was in view. It was a cylinder, with what looked like a crossbar with weights at either end, that spun around its long axis. I recognized these habitats using centripetal force to create “spin gravity.”
Several tones came over the speakers, followed by a tinny voice, speaking over the hisses and pops of analogue static. “This is the Vigil II station, outpost of the High Imperium. Identify yourself or be fired upon.”
Aeliana’s face lit up. She flipped a switch and spoke into a microphone on the control console. “Lucan, is that you?”
There was a long pause. “Ae…Highness. You’re alive!?”
She stifled a sob. “Yes, yes I am, Lord Valerius, but it is ‘Majesty.’”
There was silence. She spoke again into the microphone. “Can you prepare for docking?”
We docked at one end of the cylinder. I left the prisoner tied up and led the way through the airlock.
We were met by a young man, in a uniform like my own—though much cleaner and less torn—with golden locks and the face of an Adonis. He floated gracefully in the main corridor of the cylinder, lightly grasping a handhold.
He panicked as his eyes took me in, bruised, bloodied, and holding a machine gun. I held up a hand. “I’m a friend.”
He went for his holstered pistol. Guess he didn’t understand me.
Aeliana came up from behind and tackled him in a hug, nearly sending him into a tumble. I had a tinge of jealousy.
She lifted her face from his chest and gazed into his eyes. They exchanged some brief words, but I could only understand her side of the conversation. Then she pulled out her orb and touched it to his forehead.
She pointed to me, but seemed to realize her undignified state and straightened herself. “Lord Valerius, this is Michael Faustus, Caliban’s son. He saved me.”
Lucan—Lord Valerius—paled at these words. “Forgive me, I did not realize…”
I forestalled his words with a gesture. “I don’t look particularly lordly, and I’m not exactly from around here, so all is forgiven.”
Lucan nodded at these words, but spoke with stiff formality. “Magnanimous of you, Lord Faustus.”
Aeliana broke into our exchange. “Lucan, we have a prisoner. He’s been tied up for over two days, so he won’t give you much trouble. Do you have men to handle him?”
Lucan’s eyebrows nearly reached his hairline. “A prisoner? One of the enemy?”
“I’ll have men see to it. But we’ve been monitoring things planetside. If you’ll follow me to the war room, your Majesty, we’ll debrief you there.”
Aeliana was haggard from anger, grief, and too little sleep, but she refused to show it. Though I didn’t know my exact duties as a bannerman, I guessed that discretion went with the job.
I interposed. “Lord Valerius, the empress needs to rest and refresh herself.” I struggled to think of what courtly speech I could use. “I am sure that you and your men are capable of handling matters for now.”
She wheeled on me, mouth open for a retort, but I held her gaze with a raised eyebrow. She softened and nodded assent.
“Yes, Lord Valerius, matters can wait for a few hours, at least.”
Lucan nodded his understanding. “Forgive me for forgetting my duties as a host, as well as to the throne. Our accommodations aren’t much, but you will have clean beds and gravity to sleep in.”
We passed through the cylinder corridor, through the armature, and to the habitats, which even here had ornaments and iconography, though nothing like what I had seen before. Aeliana had her own apartments, which were the station commander’s rooms—I didn’t ask why he was absent—and I received a bunk with the station’s skeleton crew. Lucan and I sat across from each other in a common room.
He drew an unseen pattern on the tabletop with his finger. “So, you’re Caliban’s son?”
“I am indeed.”
He shook his head. “That’s just…it’s hard to contemplate. He wasn’t much older than you when…he left.”
“How does that work? I get that there was some portal between my world and this one, but how did years pass on my side, but no time passed on this side?”
“Some time did pass, but mere moments. It’s different temporal frames, like the frame-dragging of a dark star, or something to that effect. The empress and I had the same tutors, but I never had a head for the subject, and it’s easier to understand when you have the Inheritance.”
“Sounds complicated. I guess I’ll ask her.” I looked him the eye. “Are you two close?”
He smiled at that. “You could say that. We’re cousins, but we were raised like siblings. My line doesn’t possess the Inheritance, so we’re not in the succession, but our people treasure family and kinship.”
I eyed the corridor to Aeliana’s room. “Was the empress close to my father?”
“You don’t know?”
I turned at the sound of astonishment in his voice. “Know what?”
“They were betrothed…”
The bottom fell out of my stomach.
To be continued…