Ventus – Day 70 of 135

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An hour later they paused in the center of a darkening field in the very middle of nowhere. The milky way made a broad swath of light across the sky. Diadem was setting, its light glittering darkly off a lake near the horizon. There were no houses visible anywhere; other than the road, the nearest feature to the landscape was a dark row of trees along a nearby escarpment.

“There she is.” Calandria pointed to a slowly falling star at the zenith. “We’re going to have to break radio silence.”

Axel nodded. If Mounce’s ship landed back at the Boros manor, it would take them a week to reach it, and by then she would surely have lifted off again. Particularly if the Diadem Swans came down after her.

They watched the little spark overhead grow. Chill autumn wind teased at Axel’s long black hair. Neither spoke. Axel wasn’t sure what Calandria was feeling, but that dot of light represented escape to him, if they could get aboard it and evade the things that were chasing it.

“We may have to act quickly,” Calandria said. “Where would be a good spot?”

“Nowhere’s a good spot,” he said. “So we might as well flag her down right here. At least it’s level and open.”

“Here goes,” said Calandria. Then her voice spoke in his mind. “This is Calandria May calling the Pan-Hellenia. Can you hear me?”

They waited in tense silence. The brightening star had begun to drift away over the lake, following Diadem.

“Hello! Yes, it’s me, Marya. Are you with Axel Chan?”

“Yes.”

“They’re behind me, so I’m coming down at your last location–”

“No! Can you find us from this signal? We’re a couple hundred kilometers south of where he last contacted you.”

“Oh. I don’t know if I can… Yes, it says it can do that. Do you have shelter?

Axel and Calandria exchanged a glance. He squatted down and began pulling stalks of grass out of the ground. “Shit. Shit, shit shit.”

“Why do you need shelter?” asked Calandria. “Are you trying to pick us up, or–”

“Pick you up? I’m trying to stay alive! The Swans are behind me, they’re closing in. They’ve picked off every ship that’s tried to get past Diadem. I’ve stayed ahead of them this far by skimming the top of the atmosphere, but they’re all over. Everywhere! I– hang on–”

Axel could see his shadow on the grass. He glanced up, in time to see the star brighten again to brilliant whiteness, and swerve quickly in their direction. Around and above it, a coruscating glow had sprung up, like an aurora.

All over, thought Axel. Great.

“The forest,” said Calandria. “Come on!” She began sprinting. He looked up again, then followed.

Low rumbles like thunder began. Instead of fading, they grew. The sound was familiar to Axel, and unmistakable: something was coming in to land. The sound had a ragged edge to it. Years of exposure to spacecraft told him it was a small ship. The big ones sang basso profundo all the way down.

Their shadows sharpened as they ran. Axel began to feel heat on his face. The roar became a steady, deafening thunder. On the shoreline below, the crescent of sand lit amber under a midnight dawn. Axel knew better than to look directly at the spear of light settling towards them, though it seemed as though Mounce was going to bring her ship down right on top of them.

The sky was starting to glow from horizon to horizon. He’d never seen that effect accompany the arrival of a starship.

Axel redoubled his effort, though he had twisted his ankle and it spiked pain up his leg with every step. Calandria was pulling ahead, but he didn’t have the breath to spare to tell her to slow down.

Suddenly spokes of light like heat lightning washed across the sky. Their center was the approaching ship.

A blinding flash staggered Axel. Childhood memory took hold: he counted. One, two, three, four– Ca-rack! The concussion knocked him off his feet. He came up tasting grass and dirt.

Whatever that flash had been, it had happened less than a kilometer away. He blinked away lozenges of afterglow in time to see the brilliant tongue of fire overhead waver, and cut out.

A dark form fell with majestic slowness into the forest. As it disappeared a white dome of light silhouetted the treetops, and Axel felt the deep crump of impact through his feet.

Calandria was waiting at the edge of the forest. “Are you okay?”

“Fine,” he said through gritted teeth. “Let’s go.” They waded into the underbrush. The darkness would have been total under the trees, except that a fire had started somewhere ahead, and the sky was alive with rainbow swirls. Axel would have found them beautiful if he hadn’t been so frightened.

Of course, if there were any witnesses to this within fifty kilometers, they’d all be cowering under their beds by now. No sane person would want to be caught in the open when the swans touched ground.

It was dark enough that Axel couldn’t spot branches and twigs fast enough to prevent himself getting thoroughly whipped as they went. Stinging, his feet somehow finding every hidden root and rock, he soon lost sight of Calandria, who as usual moved through the underbrush like a ghost. He could hear his breath rattling in his lungs, and somewhere nearby the crackling of the fire. Above that, though, a kind of trilling hiss was building up. It seemed sourceless, but he knew it must be coming from the sky. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end; so did those on his arms. He might have preferred it if they were doing that from fright, but he knew it must be the effect of a million-volt charge accumulating in the forest.

“Axel!” He hurried in the direction of the voice. Past a wall of snapped tree trunks and smouldering loam, Calandria stood on the lip of the crater Marya Mounce’s ship had dug.

The ship was egg-shaped, maybe fifteen meters across. It was half-buried in the earth. Smoke rolled up from its skin, which was blackened and charred. Neither the heat of reentry nor the crash could have cindered the fullerene skin to that degree. “She can’t have survived that,” Axel said as he staggered to a halt next to Calandria. “What did they do?

“Can’t you feel it?” she asked. Stray wisps of her hair were standing up. Little sparks danced around Axel’s fingers when he wiped them on his trousers. “They hit her with a lightning bolt.”

“Well they’re about to fire another one,” he said. “We’d better get out of here–” He was interrupted by a flash and bang! of thunder. He ducked instinctively, though it had come down at least a few hundred meters away.

“There!” Calandria pointed. Warm orange light was breaking from somewhere around the curve of the egg. A hatch had opened.

They clambered over the smoking debris, and rounded the ship in time to see a small figure step daintily out of the hatch, arms out for balance.

“Hello!” shouted Marya Mounce. “Is anybody there?”

The woman revealed by the glow of the ship’s lights was not the brave rescuer Axel had hoped for. Marya Mounce was tiny, with pale skin and broad hips. Before seeing her face he noticed the frizz of her dun-coloured hair, which was held back by an iridescent clip. She was dressed in a blouse that swirled like oil, and a black skirt. It was evidently some inner system fashion, spoiled by the kakhi bandoliers slung over her shoulders.

What made his heart sink, though, was the sight of her feet.

Mounce had succumbed to a fashion sweeping the inner worlds, and had her Achilles tendons shortened. Her toes, the balls of her feet and calf muscles were augmented, so she stood en pointe at all times. All she wore on her feet were metallic toe-slips. He doubted she could run, much less climb over the broken trees strewn about this new clearing.

“There you are!” she shouted as Axel and Calandria fell over one last log. “See, we survived! You–you are May and Chan, aren’t you?”

“Who else would be crazy enough to be here?” he said. “Are you alone?”

“Yes, it’s just me.” Mounce turned and waved vaguely at the ship. “I was doing a demographic survey, it involved some close orbits, so that’s why I got caught in the–”

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