The Long Fall
It’s Tuesday, and while that means I’m here, this Tuesday is not like other Tuesdays. My own stress is reaching a fever pitch. The Lesser Unknown is pissing me right off, and so are Wee Dave and Wee-er Dave. The usual sitter has appointments out of town, today, so my DARLING CHILDREN are spending their energy working to distract me from, well, anything productive. In addition, we had a long, full weekend full of good and (very) tiring things, and I’m fighting a headache and fatigue. So I’m going to try a thing, and see where it gets us.
Chapter 1: The Long Fall
The wind of my passage roared in my ears and pulled involuntary tears from my eyes. I should have been wearing a balaclava made from a fabric of layers of hair-thin solid-state circuitry that could read the pounding of my heart and tell the pharmacomp integrated into the ruck I also wasn’t wearing that I could use a trickle of something to help me get it under control.
That and something for the incipient hypothermia.
While I wasn’t wearing the balaclava with integrated goggles. Or the pressure suit to which I’d become accustomed as a valued member of Her Majesty’s Small Boat EVA Assault Corp. Or the unpowered or powered versions of the standard armor for the same. I was wearing a pair of athletic shorts, more or less unchanged for hundreds of years of human space travel.
Oh, and a transparent film covering my lower face, a single-use breathing mask lined with an oxy-nitro mix trapped in a truly superior matrix the composition of which I once had memorized. Recent events had driven it clean out of my head.
I was also no longer a valued member of Her Majesty’s Space Fleet, having been cashiered in disgrace a handful of months ago. The shame and fury was almost enough to replace the mind-numbing fear currently causing my testicles to try to crawl up into my body cavity.
Getting thrown off the top of the longest building extending toward the artificial sun at the center of Antigone Station had that effect, a distant part of my mind whispered. I let a giggle escape, but clamped down hard on the bubble of hysterical laughter as I spread my arms and legs to maximize surface area. Which action had the effect of turning me around as an errant gust pulled at one leg. I ended up facing the shining surface of the Royal Tower, a somewhat misnamed edifice in which lived, worked, and played something like an hundred thousand souls from all over the Prime system of the inappropriately named Star Empire of Neos Thebes.
I mean, really: two systems does not an empire make.
The surface of the Tower appeared matte from below, so the expanse of durable glassite tiles wouldn’t blind those on the ground. Which was the inside of the gargantuan space station that housed the majority of sentients in the second system of the Theban “Empire.” I hadn’t realized the glassite panels were reflective from above, as hardly anybody ever had the opportunity afforded by being thrown from the top of the King’s Thing, as the groundlings below called the massive edifice.
Hell, I hadn’t even know you could be thrown from the top. As far as I’d known ten minutes earlier, the entire top of the Tower was a private reserve of Her Majesty’s, enclosed by a wall of glassite and force screens to hold in air and heat.
The perfect reflection of everything behind me let me see the Guard flyer – ducted fans still worked just fine in even the thin atmo this close to the Spindle above me, especially with electromagnetic bearings – as it slid in behind me. Whichever of my erstwhile comrades piloted the heavily armed flyer was quite good. He or she brought the flyer even with my falling form, and extended a capture arm.
I pulled my limbs in just as the tethered net exploded toward me. The gossamer weight cords wrapped around me, weighted clasps whipping around to grip at the net and trap me in an unbreakable cage. Unbreakable for me, at least, who had nothing but the equipment bestowed by nature.
Gently, more gently than I expected, the Guard flyer reversed momentum, and headed upward at a sedate pace, reeling in the net’s tether until I was suspended below the small craft. I hung that way as I was returned to the exact space from which I’d been thrown moments earlier.
I could see my going away party watching my unwilling approach. The Guards stood silent in their armor, faces hidden behind reflective helmets. My former brethren weren’t visibly armed, but then, they didn’t need to be. The way the powered armor augmented their natural abilities, they could literally tear me limb from limb and there was nothing I could do about it.
Captain Marris, commander of the Guard, stood among them, in a suit of armor identical to the other Guards, but with his helmet retracted and locked into position behind and above his left shoulder. A step ahead and to his left stood His Highness Perseus, the younger of the twins who stood at the height of the Theban Empire. He was armed, gripping the hilt of his sword hard enough to make the tendons stand out on the back of his hand.
I considered saying something flippant and insulting as the flyer deposited me on the dimacrete pad from which I’d been thrown, but the truth was, I was shuddering in reaction and just couldn’t unlock my jaw. As well, the net still bound me into the fetal position, which is a terrible one from which to crack wise.
“You see,” roared the Prince Royal over the surging whine of the flyers fans, “I’m not playing! You have a job to do, you honorless peasant, and you’ll by all the gods do it!”
The net fell away, retracting into its housing as the flyer slid backward out of the alcove in the side of the Tower. I slowly stood, forcing my limbs to quiet and using my Guard training to calm my breathing. To give myself a moment, I slowly pulled the mask from my face. It would have muffled anything I said, anyway.
“I told your sister I wouldn’t be part of the grand Theban breeding program, Pers, not even if she married me.”
The poor kid looked as though I’d just hit him in the head with one of the Guards’ ceremonial polearms, the ones with the big spike sticking out. His mouth worked, but nothing came out.
Marris, my former superior, just looked tired. As well he might. The Guard were personal retainers of the royal family. In fact, their oaths to the Queen superseded their oaths to the Empire itself. It was one reason there’d been such a fuss when I was inducted.
Marris hadn’t liked any of the past few months, to include stripping me of rank and position, but he was oathbound to follow orders, and nothing Perseus had done was particularly illegal. Shady as hell, maybe, but within the bounds of Theban law. Even throwing me off the Tower, much as I hated to admit it.
“Look, Pers, any children I have will be free, not bound to some ridiculous notion of creating superior beings.” His face went white, and then red. Well, I’d as much as told him he was a freak. Not that I held it against him: I just didn’t want any offspring of mine caught up in that foolishness. “I told Andy that, too.”
“You keep Her Majesty’s name out of your filthy mouth, coward!”
He abruptly lunged and drove his fist into my middle. The breath wooshed from my lungs at the unexpected blow as pain exploded through me. Kid he might be, but Perseus was the result of centuries of years of breeding warriors, and had the training to back up his natural – and unnatural – brawn.
My already weak knees collapsed under me, and I just managed to get my hands up to keep my face from bouncing off the pad. I tasted bile at the back of my throat and struggled to draw breath. Strong fingers wound through my hair as Perseus pulled my head up, and his other fist crashed into my face once, and then again. Stars exploded in my vision, but I didn’t fight back. With the Guard around, it wouldn’t have done me any good to lay hands on the Prince. Besides, most of them agreed with him. One more blow, and pain exploded as I felt my nose crunch. Blood burst down my chest as I sagged against his hold.
And then the world whirled as he seized the back of my shorts and threw me from the Tower. Again. We were far enough up that I couldn’t breathe well, even if my nose hadn’t been broken, and the lack of oxygen quickly send my already bruised consciousness spiraling down into darkness fast than my body fell.