Ventus – Day 40 of 135

§

Jordan met August Ostler in a cellar hallway choked with dust and swarming with terrified people. The soldier looked stunned, and Jordan had to take him by the shoulders and shout in his face to get his attention.

August blinked at him. Despite the warm red light of the torches, August’s face was deadly pale. “The Heaven hooks have come,” he said.

“I know,” Jordan said impatiently. “Where’s my lady?”

A series of scraping thuds sounded overhead, like the foosteps of a bewildered giant. The crowd grew suddenly silent; their gleaming eyes rolled and glanced to and fro.

Jordan felt curiously detached. He knew he would be in the same state as these people, if he didn’t know who the Heaven hooks wanted. But they wanted him; knowing that made his mind wonderfully clear. He was sure he was as afraid as anyone here, but his fear was focussed and sharp. He knew the thudding steps above were the gropings of a god which was determined to take the manor apart stone by stone until it found him.

August stammered. “Last I saw, she was being held by Linden’s men. They suspect her of killing Yuri!”

“Killing Yuri? That makes no sense!”

A giant roaring collapse took place somewhere above. It shook dust from the ceiling. People had begun to talk again, and this silenced them.

Jordan strove to compose himself. It seemed everything that went wrong in his life did so when he lost control. He folded his arms across his chest, closed his eyes, and tried his breathing exercises. With an effort he began mentally reciting one of the nonsense mantras Calandria had taught him.

He would have to leave the building. The Heaven hooks would get him for sure, but it sounded like it was just a matter of minutes anyway before they dug down to where he was now.

Once he came to this decision, he felt calmer. He opened his eyes.

August stood near him, eyes downcast. Only now did Jordan notice the bags he was carrying.

“These are Calandria’s!” He fingered the strap of one.

“Yes, I was carrying them because… well, never mind.”

“Give them to me!”

August did so without complaint. He seemed relieved, in fact, to be free of the responsibility.

Jordan sat down on the cold flagstones and began rooting through the bags. His mind was racing, spinning between the terrible feeling that he was somehow responsible for this disaster, and a hope that he might be able to set it right.

“August, what do the Heaven hooks look like to you?”

August shook his head dumbly.

“Come on! What do they look like? Animals?”

“No.”

“Trees?”

“Almost… no. They are what they are, Jordan.”

“Do they look like mechanisms?”

August frowned, then nodded.

Jordan had found what he was looking for. “Listen, August, when Calandria and I were on our way here, we stopped one night in a manse of the Winds. We slept there, unmolested.”

“Impossible.”

“I thought so too. I didn’t want to go in.” Jordan half-rose, and poked August in the spot where the man had been run through. “Remember this? The wound that nearly killed you last night? That’s now gone? Calandria May has more tricks than that. One of them is this.” He held up the gauze they had used to avoid the mecha in the manse, and told August how they had used it.

He had the man’s attention now. “I swear to you,” Jordan said, “the Heaven hooks are after me! I’m not Calandria’s servant, or Axel’s apprentice. I’m just a workman. But I’ve been cursed, and the Winds are after me. They’re tearing the manor house apart because I’m down here! If I leave, they’ll stop.”

“If that’s true…” August didn’t finish, but Jordan knew what he was thinking. August believed him. It was best for Jordan to go out there, and if he wouldn’t go voluntarily, he should be forced. And yet, from the look on August’s face, he had no love for the idea.

Could it be that August felt some sort of loyalty to Jordan, because he had saved the man’s life? Ridiculous. Other people were worthy of such admiration, but Jordan knew he was not.

He had no time to think about that now. Renewed crashings sounded above them, and deep thuds which seemed to be coming nearer. “Listen,” he shouted over the din, “Lady May says mecha are a kind of machine. If the Heaven hooks are like the mecha, maybe this will hide me from them.”

“Then they will go berserk for sure,” said August. “But anyway, the Winds are different from live things, and different from machines.”

Jordan shook his head. “Maybe, maybe not. Anyway, I’ve got no intention of just disappearing.” He told August his plan.

§

Thousands of kilometers above Ventus, a thing like a bird sculpted in liquid metal heard Calandria’s call. The Desert Voice was named for the voice of conscience that had driven Calandria from the employ of the men who had trained her. The Voice knew the origin of her name, and was proud of it and of her mistress. When she heard Calandria’s call she was nearly over the horizon, following her orbit; she instantly reversed thrust. A bright star appeared in the skies over Ventus.

The Voice had been sailing a very quiet sky. There was no radio traffic from the surface of Ventus, except for localized tight beams between the vagabond moons and the Diadem Swans. The Swans themselves were invisible, wrapped in radar-proof cloaks. They knew the Voice was there, but the starship had been discreet after dropping Calandria and Axel off.

They were about to become very interested in the Desert Voice.

She broke orbit entirely and dropped to hover directly over the Boros estate at an altitude of two hundred kilometers. The fire from her exhaust pierced the ionosphere and created an auroral spike visible over the horizon. To the survivors huddled in the ruins of the Boros estate, the vagabond moon that eclipsed the sky glowed faintly for a moment.

“She’s here,” said Calandria.

The Voice assessed the situation. The aerostat between her and her mistress was a big one: two kilometers in diameter, comprised of a thin carbon-filament skeleton covered with quasi-biological skin. It was surrounded by a haze of ionized air, which it created and directed around itself to control its movement. It was completely empty except for a ring of storage tanks and gantries in its belly, which was of insignificant mass compared to the lift the sun-warmed air inside it gave.

It stood five hundred meters above Calandria’s position. The Voice could see it straining to maintain its place: lightning shot from its waist, and a vast electrical potential roved its skin, pulling the air about. It was creating its own weather, and it would have to lift soon or the instabilities would drag it into the ground.

The Voice reviewed her options. Eliminating the aerostat without having it fall on Calandria was going to be tricky. She could send a nuke into the center of the thing and blow it to smithereens, but a lot of the debris would fall on the mistress. Better to blow a hole in its side–but a quick calculation told her that the aerostat could stay on station for many minutes despite huge structural damage, simply because it would take a while for the warm air inside to be replaced by outside air.

She could nuke a spot some miles above the aerostat. The updraft would loft it into the stratosphere… but might also tear it in half.

Her thoughts were interrupted as, all across the sky, the Diadem Swans threw aside their cloaks and came for her.

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