Ventus – Day 71 of 135

“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–“

“You can tell us later,” said Calandria in her most diplomatic voice. “The swans are coming.” She pointed.

“Ah. Yes.” Mounce’s looked disappointed, but not frightened.

The sky was full of arcing incandescent lines. They stretched in a spiral all the way to the zenith, like ladders to heaven. Axel had seen the Heaven hooks when they came to destroy the Boros estate, and those too had been skyhooks of a sort, but nothing like this. Where the Heaven hooks had been cold metal and carbon-fibre, the swans seemed bodiless, creatures made of light alone.

From his scant reading on the subject, Axel knew the swans were nanotech, like most of the Winds. They were constituted from long microscopic whisker-like fibres. These could manipulate magnetic fields, and in their natural environment in orbit they meshed together in their trillions to form tethers hundreds of kilometers long. They drew power from the planetary magnetic field, and projected it by the gigawatt to where ever it was needed.

They could fly apart in an instant and recombine in new forms, he knew. Some of these forms could apparently reach down through the atmosphere itself, maybe even touch down on the surface of Ventus.

Calandria took Mounce by the shoulders. “Do you have any survival supplies?”

“Y-yes, it’s a institute policy to carry some.”

“Where are they?” Calandria vaulted into the ship. “We need stealth gauze. Have you got any?”

“I don’t–” began Mounce. The voice of the ship interrupted her. Axel couldn’t hear what it said over the roar of a nearby fire.

With a curse he hauled himself in the hatch after Calandria. She was rooting in a suit locker near the lock.

For a second Axel just let himself drink in the sight of the clean white floors, padded couches and trailing wall ivy decorating the ship. The Pan Hellenia represented civilization, with all the amenities–flush toilets, air beds, hot showers and sonic cleansers, VR, fine cuisine…

“Axel, help me!” He sighed, and turned away from it all.

Calandria was throwing things indiscriminately into a survival bag. Axel spotted a first-aid kit, diagnostic equipment, some emergency rations, a flashlight–

“Aha!” He pounced on the laser pistol. “Now I feel whole again.”

“Forget that–help me with this.” She was struggling to unclip a heavy box from the wall.

“What’s that? Cal, it’s way too heavy–“

“Nanotech customization kit. It’ll save our lives, believe me.”

“Okay.” He helped her wrestle it down and into the bag.

“Uh, guys?” Mounce stood in the entrance, framed nicely by a vision of burning forest. “We’d better get going. The swans are here.”

Calandria leapt past her, carrying two metal cases. Axel had never seen Calandria like this. It made him more than a little uneasy–as if his own vivid imagination was underselling the danger they were in.

“Hell!” Caught in her urgency, Axel swung the survival bag onto his shoulder and, staggering under the load, followed. Mounce accompanied him, her hands fluttering as she visibly tried to find a way to help.

A strange twilight glow pervaded the shattered clearing. Calandria had dumped both cases on the ground and was frantically rooting through one of them when Axel and Mounce caught up to her. Drifts of wood smoke stung Axel’s eyes and the roar and heat of nearby flames made his head spin. Sparks of static electricity were flying everywhere, and Mounce’s clean hair puffed out around her head like a dandelion.

Suddenly Calandria cried out, and collapsed. She curled into a ball on the smoking ground, hands clutching her head.

Axel felt it too–a ringing pain his head. It was centered on the left side, just above his ear. Mounce cursed in some foreign language and pulled off her crescent-shaped hair clip.

“What’s happening?” she shouted over an impossible roar of sound. The sound of the fire was drowned out by the approach of the swans. It wasn’t a single sound, but many, like a thousand strings. The swans sang a single unison chord as they reached to touch ground.

Lightning arced from the top of the starship. “Our implants!” shouted Axel. “We’ve all got hardware in our skulls. It’s shorting out from all this power! Calandria’s got more than either of us–she’s augmented in a dozen ways.” She lay insensible now, twitching next to the golden gauze she had half-pulled from the case.

“We’ve got to get her out of here!” He grabbed Calandria’s arm, hoisting her into a fireman’s carry. “Bring the stuff!”

Marya threw the cases into the survival bag and bent to haul it after her. Axel didn’t look back to see how she was doing; it took all his concentration just to navigate the splintered branches and gouged earth around the ship. Finally he reached untouched forest and toppled into a thorn bush with Calandria on top of him. The singing pain in his head continued, but not as strongly as it had right next to the ship.

Marya Mounce struggled her way across the obstacles, the huge bulging sack getting caught on every jutting spar. She seemed determined, her mouth set in a grim line.

She had nearly made it to the trees when a rain of white light pattered into the loam right behind her. The ground sizzled and smoked under it.

“Run!” Axel waved frantically at her. “Forget the sack! Just run!” He knew she couldn’t hear him over the chorus of the swans.

The rain intensified. It was like a funnel somewhere overhead was pouring down liquid light. Where it landed, the light coalesced, pulsing. The rain stopped abruptly, and started up again farther around the clearing.

The glow it had left behind flashed brightly once, and stood up.

Axel’s voice died. He was glad Marya seemed oblivious to the thing behind her, because it would have paralyzed him were he in her place. It looked like a man, but was entirely made of liquid light. Long electric streamers flew from its fingertips and head. As another such being grew behind it, the first began to pirouette this way and that, like a dancer, obviously looking for something.

Marya landed heavily next to Axel. The survival bag spilled open. “Damn,” she said meekly. Then she grinned crookedly at him. “Made it!”

Calandria pushed herself onto her elbows. “Steath gauze,” she croaked. “Where’zit?”

Axel grabbed the golden filigree she had been trying to unwind earlier. He pushed himself to his knees and flipped it open, letting it drape over all three of them, as Marya hauled the survival bag in under it.

The creature that had built itself behind Marya turned and looked in their direction. Axel forgot to breathe. He felt the other two freeze too, ancient instinct kicking in to save them from a superior predator. Slowly, deliberately, the thing stalked toward them.

“Oh, shit.” Axel fingered the laser pistol. It felt hot under his hand; he wondered if it was shorting out too. It looked like he would find out in a second, when he had to use it.

The thing’s head snapped to the left. It paused, chin up as though sniffing the air. Then it stepped over a log and headed away. The gauze had worked.

Axel blew out his held breath. Of course the stealth gauze worked–it was designed to fool the senses of the Winds. At times like this, though, he found it hard to remember that the technology of the Winds, including the swans, was a thousand years older than his own.

Old, maybe. But not primitive. He sucked in a new breath, and tried to will his racing heart to slow.

Soon six humanoid forms walked the clearing. Everything they touched caught fire. They tossed downed trees aside, and sent beams of coherent light into the treetops, hunting high and low, but never noticing the three small forms huddled right on the edge of the clearing.

One entered the ship. Loud concussions sounded inside, and the lights went out. Then spiral tendrils of light drifted down from above, and gently but firmly gripped the sides of the ship. The five remaining humanoid forms reached out, and dissolved into the ropes of light. Then, with hardly a tremor, the swans pulled the Pan Hellenia out of the ground, and retreated into the sky with it in tow.

The stellar glow faded; the full-throated cry of the swans diminished; soon the clearing was lit only by ordinary fire. But over the smell of burning autumn leaves lay the sharp reek of ozone.

For a time the three lay where they had fallen, head to head, watching the spiral aurora recede into the zenith, until finally the stars came out one by one, like the timid crickets.

Marya Mounce sat up and brushed dirt off her sleeves. “Well,” she said briskly. “Thank you both, very much, for rescuing me.”

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