Monday, April 7, 2008

Chapter eight: Like the dreams of alien gods.

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After William Anderson had left, I told Lewis that we were leaving; there was no way I was going to sleep that clock night, and I figured I might as well take us back to the City. Lewis agreed. I don't think he wanted to stay any longer in Taylorville, either.

I did most of the work setting the airfoils, drag line, all the rest. Lewis realized that I needed the activity and sat over by the side near one of the aft viewports, watching the sky. About the time I had everything set and we were at full drift, he spoke.

"Do you think she was?" he asked me. "Pregnant, I mean."

He hadn't needed to clarify. I'd been thinking the same question.

"Yes," I answered. "It would make sense. I think she'd have spurned the money, otherwise. She was young. Pride."

"And she had the child?"

"She'd never have aborted it, if that's what you mean," I told him.

"You talk like you know a lot about a girl you only met once," he said.

I'd thought about that, too, but I didn't have an answer to it. "I guess so," I said. "It's always possible that I'm wrong. But I'm not uncertain about it. Some people are obvious. Not shallow or transparent, but obvious. You feel like you know them from the first. Maybe it's just a projection on my part."

He said nothing for a long while. "If there is a child," he said finally. "How messy does that make things?"

"Very," I told him. "A direct descendant of Robert Grayling. But not through a legal marriage. On Luna, that's no relationship at all. All children have a legal mother and father at birth, or they aren't allowed to come to term. There are some cuckoos, of course, but legally they are still only related to their parents."

"That's a stern system," Lewis said.

"Luna is a stern place," I told him.

I continued. "On Venus, as I understand it, the laws of the local cluster prevail, the same as for most everything else. Then there is Sky City, which has developed its own legal code. City law is more flexible than Lunar law, and blood relations count, even when not formalized by legal marriage. It pretty much has to work that way, since so many City residents are originally from free clusters, and the City management doesn't want to try imposing a single code on people who didn't grow up under it. If someone dies in the City, no one wants to tell his mother that she isn't legally his mother."

Lewis nodded. "And Grayling?" he asked.

"A lot would depend on where the estate is settled. Grayling owned property on Venus, Skyhook, and Luna. That makes it a hell of a tangle. One of Grayling's cousins, a guy named Jesse Grayling, is trying to untangle the matter right now, I'd say."

"Do you think that this Jesse knows about the child?" Lewis said. "Or even that there might be a child?"

"I hope not," I said. "If I have to get involved in another matter involving the Graylings, I'll need every edge I can get."


We got back to the City as the sun was in its final descent toward the forty-eight hours of blackness that are true night. As the cloudtops begin to cool the storms in the clouds below often begin to make their presence felt, a distant growling sound that can be felt in the belly if the mood is right, and if one is prepared to listen to things from the depths.

"The weather service says that a megastorm may be brewing, pardner," Lewis told me as we were pulling in the lines in preparation to go to powered flight. "We haven't had one of those in five or six years now."

"There hasn't been one since I've been on Venus," I told him. "I thought that they were mostly polar events."

"They are," he told me. "But the whole atmosphere gets a bit more turbulent for a while. And the bloons really get a feed after one hits. The dust from below gets a high ride."

"Should I make any preparations?" I asked. Lunar natives such as myself don't really have a handle on weather. It seems too much like magic, or the dreams of alien gods.

"Nah," he said. "Just find a place with full holo and watch the show. It's pretty impressive, so they usually have some crews up there taping it. Some go on tours to the things."

"Isn't that dangerous?" I asked.

"Not so much for a small bloon. The big ones get sheared pretty good, and a megastorm will rip a cluster apart. They don't kill as many as it seems they ought to, though. That's the advantage of riding the winds."


We docked back at Madame Fumio's after the new clock day had started, just before 5000 hours, 0200 hours by the twenty four hour clock. Lewis had napped in the bloon on our way back; he said good bye and left to collect what remained of a night's sleep. I was still jumpy from the trip and whatever the events of the past few days had stirred up.

So after I let Lewis off, I took the bloon out again and took it down to the drift level under the City, and turned off both the fans and the transponder. That's mildly illegal, but it's never enforced, because most free drifting bloons at that level are unmanned strays, and it's too much trouble to police the area. That far down is pretty warm, too, and the pressure begins to tell. You can only go for a half hour or so at drift level before you have to worry about decompressing when you rise again.

My route puts me at the higher pressure just long enough to get a little dreamy from nitrogen narcosis, but not long enough to cause problems. During the time I'm down, the City above moves forward without me, west to east, so I wind up near the western edge.

At the right moment, I dump my ballast and bubble up, heading for an illegal entry point to the City, an entry point that's pretty much mine alone by now, because it isn't worth much as a smuggler's hole. It's just a zippatched section on a warehouse bloon, but it's my own little bolt hole, a City entry without going through the checkpoints. Once my bloon's snug in its nest, a minor indentation between two much larger bloons, I enter the warehouse, spring the lock on its door, and go prowling in the lowest level of Sky City.

There are certain sections of any city that are known to the people who need them to be the way that they are. This section of Sky City is mostly storage areas, with a few bars and such for the longshoremen and teamsters who lug material out of transport bloons and onto transport vehicles or pneumotube. Some of those bars have rough reputations, and some of the men who frequent them like to prowl. Sometimes they prowl for women of a certain sort; sometimes they prowl for men.

You can find most kinds of people much easier in Darkunder. There is at least one cluster for almost every sort of need down below. The big exception is for those who find the prowling almost as important as the object of the search. Look on it as primal Stocasticism. Look on it as another way of tossing the dice. If you need some free range, you still need to go Cityside.

When I search out the lower levels of the up and up, I'm never quite sure what I'm looking for, and most often, I'm disappointed. That's okay, too. Sometimes even disappointment helps me to sleep. And that's what I was looking for that night, a way to get some sleep.

I walked for a couple of hours that night, finding no one on my usual routes except the prostitutes and the men looking to find them. None of them were what I was looking for, a fact made plain by the way most of them shrank from my gaze when it found them. By 5300 hours, I was beginning to think I was wasting my time.

Then I saw them. They weren't much to look at actually, just five young men, boys really, marching through the corridors as if they owned them. A gang, I guessed, looking for solidarity and a group to give them identity. They were each carrying a short stick, less than a meter long. Call them canes, though none of them was using them to walk.

They walked more or less shoulder to shoulder, taking up the entire width of the corridor. The idea was that anyone who saw them should turn and run away, I expect. Anyone who didn't, well . . .

I decided to find out what happened if someone didn't.

If I'd been a smaller man, I expect that they would have just come at me straight out, sticks swinging or whatever. But I'm sufficiently large to give most people pause, even when they're part of a group that outnumbers me five-to-one. When I didn't stop my ambling walk in the appropriate place, the two of them on either end of the line sped up a bit, to move around me on either side and flank me from the rear. The three of them in front of me spread out to block my progress.

They weren't very good at it. Not good at all. They held their sticks down at their sides, as if by doing so they could gain some element of surprise. The down side of that was that when the one behind me began his swing at my head, I had all the time in the world to react. The strike was telegraphed six ways from Sunday, by the feel of shifting weight through the yielding floor, by the way the eyes of the three punks in front of me followed the motion, by the sound and feel of air displacements from behind. It came from the guy to my right rear, who was right-handed besides, so the trajectory of it was easy to spot, even without seeing it. I pivoted on my left foot, entered his safety zone, and joined his motion before it had even reached the top of its arc. The easiest move at that point was a projection throw that I put too much muscle into -- Sensei Mac would have scowled and snorted. But it got the job done, and lifted the guy off his feet and into the one directly in front of me at about knee level. I heard the pop of cartilage as his knee dislocated, the sound immediately drowned out by his yelp of pain.

Whatever scenarios they had in their heads evaporated with that yelp, and the two still standing in front of me froze. That gave me time to snap out a kick to the other one at my rear. Contempt made me sloppy on that one as well; I put it right into his solar plexus. It's dangerous to kick that high against someone who knows what he's doing, but these were just children, playing at being tough. Welcome to show biz, guys.

The two in front of me came out of their daze and started swinging wildly with their sticks. That was the first flash of danger that I felt, not because they were any good with the things, but because they weren't. You can never tell when someone is going to get lucky with a weapon, long odds though that might be. I dodged back and picked up the stick from the guy behind me who was on the floor gasping for breath and came around at the other two. Deflecting a blow from the one on my right, I jabbed in at the one on my left and caught him in the throat. That was all for him. The punk standing to my right turned and fled. He was followed by the fellow who had struck the first blow. That one had scrambled to his feet after I'd thrown him, and he decided to become the better part of valorous.

None of the others moved from their positions on the floor. They were watching me with fear on their faces, and I liked that part. It was the only satisfying thing that had happened, really. They hadn't been enough to properly feed the demon until then. The one I'd gotten in the throat was making little gurgling noises. I considered whether or not I'd crushed his windpipe, and decided I hadn't used that much force. I might have been wrong about that though, and if so, he'd probably die soon. I didn't care enough to investigate further. I twirled the stick in my hands, to test the balance of it, then resumed my walk, heading back toward my exit hole and my hidden bloon. Not the best of late night entertainment, but not the worst either. The tightness in my chest had eased somewhat, and by the time I got back to my hotel, I was getting drowsy.

I slept a full eight hours after that, and if I dreamed I don't remember of what, or of who, or of when.

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