We bring you the prologue for Book Five of Virga: Ashes of Candesce by Karl Schroeder, out February 14 —
A world of endless sky, with no land, no gravity: this is Virga. Beginning in the seminal science fiction novel Sun of Suns, the saga of this striking world has introduced us to the people of stubborn pride and resilience who have made Virga their home; but also, always lurking beyond the walls of the world, to the mysterious threat known only as Artificial Nature. In The Sunless Countries, history tutor Leal Hieronyma Maspeth became the first human in centuries to learn the true nature of this threat. Her reward was exile, but now, in Ashes of Candesce, Artificial Nature makes its final bid to destroy Virga, and it is up to Leal to unite the quarrelling clans of her world to fight the threat.
Ashes of Candesce brings together all the heroes of the Virga series, and draws the diverse threads of the previous storylines together into one climactic conflict. Blending steampunk styling with a far-future setting and meditations on the posthuman condition, Ashes of Candesce mixes high adventure and cutting-edge ideas in a fitting climax to one of science fiction’s most innovative series.
Darkness, and a rope road. “Champagne?” asked the flight attendant. Antaea Argyre raised her hand to wave him away, then turned the motion into acceptance of the helix glass. It wasn’t as if she was on duty, after all. She sipped the tart wine from one end of the glass coil that surface tension held it to, and watched the undulating rope ravel by outside the window.
None of the other passengers were watching. In knots of two or three or five, they preened and posed, drank and laughed at one another’s jokes. The gaslights of this passenger ship’s lounge lit the space brightly, highlighting the gold filigree around the doorjambs and the deep mazelike patterns in the velvet of the cushioned pillars. Everything held sumptuous color and texture, except the floor-to-ceiling window that took up one entire wall. This was black, like the uniform Antaea wore. She was the only passenger close enough to touch the cold glass; the only one looking out.
The last hour had somehow managed to be tedious and nerveracking at the same time. The lounge was full of diplomats, military commanders, politicians, and newspaper reporters. They were all attentive to one another, and all were adept at negotiating today’s social minefield.
They had all stopped talking when Antaea entered the room.
Even now she felt eyes on her back, though of course, nobody would have the courage to actually approach her.
She took a bigger drink of the champagne, and was just regretting not having started in on it earlier when the doors to the lounge opened and a new knot of officials sailed in. They caught various discreet straps and guide ropes and glided to a unified halt just as the distant drone of the ship’s engines changed in tone.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said a bright young thing in a sequined corset and diaphanous harem pants, “we’ve arrived.”
There was a murmur and polite applause; Antaea turned back to the window. As her hand felt for the railing, it fell on someone else’s. “Oh!”
“Excuse me.” The voice was a deep, commanding rumble. It came from a man with the craggy features of an elder statesman and silver hair tied back in a short tail. He was dressed in a silk suit of a red so dark it was almost black. He seemed quite relaxed in the company of so many powerful people; but his accent pegged him as a foreigner.
He’d shifted his grip and she put her hand on the rail next to his. Only then did she notice that they were still the only ones at the window; everyone else was listening attentively to the government delegation. Of course they were. They couldn’t very well ignore their hosts.
The rope that their ship had been following through the weightless air of Virga ended at a beacon about a mile ahead. This was a heavy cement cylinder with flashing lamps on its ends. Right now their flickering light was highlighting the rounded shapes of clouds that would otherwise have been invisible in the permanent darkness. Without the rope and the beacon, it would have been impossible for any ship to find this particular spot in the thousands of cubic kilometers of darkness that made up Virga’s sunless reaches.
“We thank you all for coming with us today,” the young thing was saying breathily. “We know the rumors have been intense and widespread. There’ve been stories of monsters, of ancient powers awakened in the dark old corners of Virga. We’re here today to help put any anxieties you might have to rest.”
“There.” The man beside her raised one hand and pressed his index finger against the glass. For a second she was distracted by the halo of condensation that instantly fogged into existence around his fingertip. Then she looked past and into the blackness.
She saw nothing there but the ghostly curve of a cloud bank.
“For some months last year, our nation of Abyss felt itself to be under siege,” the spokeswoman continued. “There were reports of attacks on outlying towns. Rumors began to circulate of a vast voice crying in the dark. Ah! I see by the expression on some faces that some of our visitors from the warm interior of the world have already figured out the mystery. Don’t tell! You must understand how traumatic it was for us, who live here in the permanent dark and cold near the wall of the world. Many of the things you take for granted in the principalities are never seen out here. Maybe that makes us provincials, I don’t know; but we had no reason to expect the kind of attack that really did happen.”
The man next to Antaea removed his finger from the glass, leaving a little oval of frost behind. “You don’t see it, do you?” he asked in obvious amusement.
She shrugged in irritation. “Behind that cloud?”
“So you think that’s a cloud?”
Startled, she looked again.
“The crisis culminated in an attack on the city of Sere,” the spokeswoman said. “There was panic and confusion, and people claimed to have seen all manner of things. The hysteria of crowds is well known, and mass hallucination is not uncommon in such circumstances. Of course, the stories and reports immediately spread far beyond Sere—to your own countries, and I daresay beyond. A deluge of concern came back to us—inquiries about our safety, our loyalties, the stability of our trade agreements. It’s become a big mess—especially because we long since sorted out the cause of the problem, and it’s been dealt with.”
The officials from the Abyssal government moved to the window, not too far from where Antaea and the stranger perched. “Behold,” said the spokeswoman, “the Crier in the Dark!”
She gestured dramatically, and floodlights on the outside of the ship snapped on. The thing Antaea had at first taken to be a vast cloud blinked into view; at least, part of it did.
There were shouts of surprise, and relieved laughter; then, applause. “A capital bug!” someone shouted.
The spokeswoman bowed; behind her, the (entirely male) group of officials were smiling and nodding in obvious relief at the crowd’s reaction. Their backdrop was a cavern of light carved by the floodlights out of an infinite ocean of night. The lights barely reached the gray skin of the city-sized beast that hung motionless and dormant in the icy air. Antaea could see a rank of tower-sized horns jutting from beyond the horizon of its back. In a live bug those horns would be blaring the notes of a chord so loudly that no ordinary form of life could survive within a mile of the thing.
Everybody was talking now, and the reporters were throwing questions at the Abyssals: When did you discover it was a capital bug? Why is it silent now? How did you save the city from it? The stranger next to Antaea shook his head minutely and his lips quirked into a faint smile.
“The gullibility of people never ceases to amaze me,” he murmured.
Antaea realized that she’d bought this explanation, too, and frowned now in confusion. “You think it’s a lie?” she asked quietly. He gave her a pointed once-over—taking in, she assumed, her uniform, though not without a slight pause here and there. “You tell me,” he said. “I’m sure the Abyssal government doesn’t tie its collective shoes without the permission of the Virga Home Guard.”
Rather than answer that, she pointed to the obvious. “They do have a bug, don’t they? Capital bugs aren’t native to this part of Virga. It’s too cold for them. So if one strayed this deep . . .”
“Oh, yes, if one strayed this deep.” He shook his head. “But I happen to know that a bug that’s been living on the fringes of Meridian for years disappeared about a month ago. There were witnesses said they saw ships circling it in the evening sky—heard the sound of artillery being fired. Now, tell me: those horns there. Do they look intact to you?”
She did think she could see dark pits in the giant horns, now that he’d mentioned it. Behind her, one of the men from the government was saying, “It took weeks for it to cool down enough to fall into a dormant state. We didn’t really have to do anything, just keep it away from the city until it finally began snowing in its body cavity. Now, as you can see, it’s in hibernation.”
Antaea frowned at the frost-painted hide, more landscape than flank, that curved far beyond the range of the ship’s floodlights. She had to admit, she wanted the monster to have been something ordinary like this. It would be so much simpler; so reassuring.
If she thought this way, though, how much more so would the officious, conservative bureaucrats who ran Abyss these days? Monster was not a column heading in their ledgers. So, would they invent an answer if they couldn’t find one? Of course they would.
She shot her companion a sour look. “Are you going to mention your little theory to our hosts? And how did you hear about it anyway?”
“I pride myself in listening well,” he said; then he put out his hand for her to shake. “Jacoby Sarto.”
That was definitely a name from the principalities of Candesce, thousands of kilometers from here. “Sayrea Airsigh,” she said as they shook, and she saw his eyes widen minutely. He noticed her noticing, and grimaced.
“Excuse me,” he said. “You look like another Guardswoman of winter wraith descent . . .”
Had he seen a photo of her somewhere? That wouldn’t be unusual, what with her notoriety after recent events in Slipstream. “Well, there’s more than one of us in the Guard, you know,” she said, and then added icily, “and I’m told we all look alike.”
He refused to be baited. “So the Virga Home Guard agrees with Abyss’s official story, that the monster was a capital bug all along? — Even though there are dozens of Guard cruisers patrolling the sunless countries even now?”
“Are there?” She didn’t have to pretend her ignorance; this man seemed to know details of the situation that Antaea had only been able to wonder about.
He gazed at the pebbled hide of the capital bug. “Some of us are keenly interested in the truth of the situation. Of course, as a member of the Home Guard, you know everything already. That being the case, I really have no reason to give you my card”—and here a small rectangle of white paper suddenly appeared between his fingers—“nor tell you that I’m staying at the Stormburl Hotel, on Rowan Wheel.”
Damn him, he had her figured out. She opened her mouth to say something dismissive, but his gaze flicked over her shoulder and back; she quickly snatched the card and palmed it before turning to find that two Abyssal cabinet ministers were closing in on her. “Gentlemen,” she said with a gracious smile.
“It’s a magnificent beast, isn’t it?” said one of the two. Antaea glanced over her shoulder; Sarto was gone.
“Yes, beautiful,” she said. “I’ve seen them before, but never up close, of course. Their song kills.”
“Yes.” He nodded vigorously. “We trust that the Guard is, ah, in agreement with us that the disappearance of the outlying towns, the battle with the sun lighter—these were all caused by this one?”
The battle with the sun lighter. She’d heard about that; well, practically everybody in Virga had by now. Hayden Griffin was fabled for building a new sun to free his country from enslavement by the pirate nation of Slipstream. He had been constructing another sun for a client here in Abyss when the monster interrupted his work. The stories had him pursuing it to its lair and incinerating it with the nuclear fire of his half-built generator. Antaea hadn’t really believed this part of the rapidly mutating legend, but here was an Abyssal government official, offhandedly confirming it.
She belatedly realized he wanted some response from her. “Um—sorry?”
He looked impatient. “Do you think this explanation works?”
“Oh. Yes, yes, of course. It’s very, uh, convincing.” She gestured to the bug. “Especially having the actual bug to show. A nice touch.”
He relaxed. “The response has been good, I think.” Around them, the guests were chatting animatedly, and some of the reporters had left with a steward to find a good vantage point from which to photograph the bug. “I think we can finally lay this incident to rest.” The official hesitated, then said, “But we’d understood that we had the Guard’s consent to do this. It was a bit of a surprise to see you here. Was there any problem . . . ?”
“Oh! No, no, I’m just observing.” She gave him a sphinxlike smile. “Everything is just fine.”
“Good,” he said, as he and his companion nodded to one another. “That’s . . . good.”
They bowed themselves away, and she watched them go with mixed contempt and bemusement. Then she turned back to examine the bug.
This was indeed a clue. Maybe she should rent a jet bike from one of the wheelside vendors back in Sere, and slip back here to check the thing out herself. Those horns did look shot up—though the Abyssal navy would have targeted them first if the creature really had been threatening the city. No. Any evidence she might find here would be inconclusive. She would need more if she was to disprove the government’s story.
Even assuming that she did, what then? Clearly, whatever was going on, the Home Guard knew about it. What could Antaea do here but satisfy her own curiosity?
Well, there was one thing. A life to save, maybe. She should focus on that; this bug, and all the furor around it, was just a distraction.
With a sharp nod she turned from the window. Before she left the lounge to join the photographers in the fresh air on the hull, she looked for Jacoby Sarto among the crowd. She didn’t see him; and by the time the dart-shaped passenger liner had finished its tour of the capital bug, she had put him and his cryptic comments out of her mind.
BY THE TIME the streetcar deposited her in front of her hotel, Antaea was exhausted. She had been in Sere a few days now—long enough to have gotten over any residual nostalgia from her college days. The city was the same as always, after all: locked in permanent darkness, its mile-wide copper wheels lit only by gaslight. Rings of windows turned above her head, and the streets soared up to either side to join in an arch overhead; nothing unusual there. Each window, though, spoke of some isolated room, some tightly constrained human life. There were thousands of them.
It was raining, as it often did here. Rain was something that happened only in town wheels, and she’d used to think it was a wonderful novelty. The wheel cut into a cloud, and droplets of water that had been hanging in the weightless air suddenly became little missiles pelting in almost horizontally. They were cold, though. The novelty wore off fast; so she hunched her shoulders and trotted across the verdigris-mottled street to the hotel, where the permanent fans of light and shadow had faded the paint in the entryway, and thousands of footsteps had worn a gray smear in the once-red carpet.
The boy behind the desk sent her a covert, hostile glance as she walked past. It was the thousandth such glance today and she ignored it. They might hate her kind, but as long as she wore this uniform, no one would dare lay a hand on her.
In the elevator she pulled back her black hair and wiped the rain from her face. The dimly lit car thumped at each floor, monotonously counting its way up to her room. No one else got on or off. When it stopped, she fumbled for her key as she counted the doors to hers, and, in a state of nonthinking exhaustion, slid the key into the lock.
Antaea just had time to realize that the lights in the room were on before iron fingers clamped onto her wrist and yanked her arm behind her. She automatically went with the motion but before she could finish her recovery somebody’d kicked her leading foot out from under her, and then she hit the floor and the wind went out of her.
Some heavy body was sitting on the small of her back, holding her wrists against the floor. She snarled, furious and humiliated.
“Just like I thought,” said a familiar male voice. “She’s wearing it.”
“Crase?” She craned her neck and saw a small forest of blackclad shins and boots. After struggling to breathe for a few seconds, she managed, “What are you doing here?”
“Today, I’m chasing down an imposter.” Lieutenant Anander Crase of the Virga Home Guard knelt to look into her face. “You’ve no right to wear that uniform. Not since the trial.”
She hissed. “All I wanted to do was come home. Without the uniform, I’d have been arrested by now, or strung up by some vigilante gang. You know how they feel about winter wraiths here.”
He’d been looking her in the eye, but now that she’d highlighted the racism they both knew was common here, his gaze slid away. “Why did you come back, then?” he asked sullenly. “If there’s no welcome here for you?”
“It’s not up to me to justify returning. It’s up to them to justify keeping me out. Let me up,” she added to whoever it was that sat on her back.
Crase looked up, shrugged. The pressure on Antaea’s back eased, and she rolled into a crouch.
There were six of them, all men, only their standard-issue boots betraying that they were Home Guard. They’d tossed her room efficiently and ruthlessly. She almost smiled at the thought of how disappointed Crase must be at finding nothing.
He went to sit in the small suite’s one chair. “You almost make sense,” he said, “but not quite. You lived here for a while, but Abyss isn’t your home. You grew up on the winter wraith fleet.”
“—Which I did not want to return to. They’re the most isolationist people in Virga, even if it’s for good reason because normal people are always trying to kill them . . . Crase, where did you expect me to go? I have no home anywhere. The Guard was my home. Without that . . .”
“You have friends here?” He was skirting very close to the truth, but she had no option now. She nodded.
He leaned forward in the chair. “Then where are they? And why did you use your disguise,” he nodded to her frayed old uniform, “to wrangle your way onto a government-sponsored expedition today?”
“I’ll tell you that if you tell me why the Guard is lying about the Crier in the Dark.”
He exchanged a glance with another of the men. Then he stood up and walked up to loom over her. “I want you out of here on the next ship,” he said. “None of this concerns you. You’re not Home Guard anymore.”
She could probably have put him and his friends on the floor, if she’d been training the way she used to. As it was, she had to stand there and take his intimidation. She hung her head, and consciously kept her hands from balling into fists.
Crase shoved past her, and he and his goons clotted the doorway. “You know what happens to people who pretend to be Guardsmen,” he said before closing the door. “You got off lucky this time.”
The click of the door locking itself surprised her into motion. Antaea went to her bags and began assessing what they’d done. Crase really had let her off easily; imposters usually disappeared. And though they’d gone through her luggage with trained efficiency, they hadn’t taken anything. When she was sure of this, she sat down on the edge of the bed and let out a heavy sigh. Her chest hurt, and her arm. There would be finger-shaped bruises there later.
Crase might have stayed to interrogate her further, but they had a bit of a history. He knew her well enough to suspect that she was tougher than he was. She half-smiled at the thought, then reached into her jacket for the item that, if they’d frisked her, would have told them why she’d come here.
She hadn’t lied about this being the only place where she had ties—it was just that those ties were almost impossibly thin, and left to herself, she would never have come back because of any of them.
The letter in her hands was so worn from travel and folding and refolding that it was practically falling apart. Still, she smoothed it carefully onto the bedspread. She didn’t have to read it; she just needed the reassurance of knowing it existed at all.
Dear Antaea, it read. My name is Leal Hieronyma Maspeth. I don’t know if you remember me,
I studied with your sister at the academy. We had supper together, the three of us, one time. Your sister once told me she wanted to join the Home Guard and I told her it was a myth. I guess I was wrong.
She did remember Leal Maspeth; she’d been her sister’s timid, academically minded roommate when Telen went to college here in the city of Sere. Maspeth was one of the few people in the world who’d known of Telen and Antaea’s plan to track down the supposedly mythical Virga Home Guard and join up.
I’m writing you, Maspeth continued, because we have a problem, and the government refuses to admit to it, and they refuse to let the Home Guard in to investigate. I don’t know who else to turn to, so I’ve asked the Guard to bring this letter to Slipstream and maybe they can get it to you.
There is something in the dark.
Antaea stood and walked to the window. It looked out over Rowan Wheel’s main street, providing an unchanging vista of lit windows and deep shadow. No sun ever rose here. No one born and raised in Abyss should be afraid of the dark.
Nobody will talk about it. Officially, things are fine. But people have been disappearing—whole town wheels! They’re outlier communities, fringe places whose people only show up to market once or twice a year. Now they’re not showing up at all. Far as we are from any sun, the darkness has always seemed normal. You know, you grew up here. Lately, though, it broods. I believe something has awakened in one of the cold abandoned places of the world. It is picking off the weak and those who get separated from the group and it is growing bolder.
If you make inquiries no one will admit to anything, so don’t even try! I know I’m asking a lot, but you must trust me. We need someone who has experience with this world’s mysteries, Antaea. We need a hunter.
Nobody cares about Abyss. We’re all like you and Telen, as far as the sunlit countries are concerned: just winter wraiths of no account. Maybe you no longer care about your old home, either, in which case I shall never hear from you.
But if you do care—if you believe me even a little—please come home. I don’t know who else to turn to.
Once, the darkness hadn’t bothered Antaea, either. There had been a time when she wondered what waited there—oh, not in the unlit cloud banks and fungal mists beyond the lights of Sere, but beyond: past the iceberg-choked walls of Virga itself, in the vast universe that bounded and, lately, threatened this little world. Telen had wondered and had found out, and been more than killed for that knowledge. Antaea had chased her, too late to catch her, and didn’t know what it was that she’d found other than that it was horrible.
Leal Maspeth was missing, too. The government wouldn’t talk about it; the officials Antaea had spoken to acted like she should already know, and she’d been afraid to push lest they begin to question her authenticity. So far, though, Antaea had learned that somehow, impossibly, timid little Leal had gotten to know the famous sun lighter and adventurer Hayden Griffin, and then . . . The rumors spoke of murder and of the Crier in the Dark, and then she was gone.
Antaea unbuttoned her jacket, aware with each twist of her fingers that she would never be putting it on again. She’d kept it out of sentimentality uncommon for her; it was time to let it go. She dropped it on the bed and forced herself to turn away.
Then, she dressed herself in civilian clothes, slid knives into the boots still hidden under her trousers, and added one to the back of her belt.
Crase wasn’t going to make her leave. She’d failed to save her own sister from the dire mystery that pressed upon her world. Walking the streets here was about to get much more dangerous for her, and the ministries and offices she’d been able to enter as a Home Guard member would be closed. From now on, her appointments would be in the alleys and at the docks. It was going to be hard.
She would find Leal Maspeth.
Ashes of Candesce © Karl Schroeder 2012