The Daring Leap
“Are we in favor?” Heads nodded around the cramped room. Aki stifled a yawn. This meeting had been going on all morning and nothing of importance had been decided. Three five-days after Benji’s death and everyone was still overly cautious. It didn’t help that the Prime and the Choisant’s crackdown on the city streets above had become even more brutal. While it had led to members of Eolas faculty, members of the Resistance, and even townspeople joining their cause, the new arrivals were skittish. And worse, thought they should be in charge.
She leaned forward on her stool, “I’m sorry, but I don’t agree.”
Several of the other people in the room grimaced. There were nine of them crowded into the small room, and despite the chill in the air outside it was stuffy and cramped. “We have been over and over this, Aki,” Said Lothar, the self-appointed leader of a delegation of townspeople, mostly other merchants. It seemed to Aki like the merchants had picked their representative based on his wealth and volume of his voice. Getting to know him over the past several days had not dispelled that notion. His face was florid and flushed with and there were large sweat stains on the armpits of his robes, which looked ornate for someone who was part of a revolution. “It is too dangerous to come out into the open. We have to be cautious, wait until set-down. The Choisant outnumber us five to one…”
“So you have said repeatedly,” Aki interrupted. “But what none of you have acknowledged was that it was ten to one odds three five-days ago,” palms flat against the battered table that filled the room, she stood up and glared back at the other erstwhile leaders of the Engineer’s Rebellion. “With every crackdown, every time the Choisant arrest innocent men and women in the street, more and more townspeople join our cause. People like yourselves. If we wait until set-down, they will reinforce, and by then it will be too late. The time to take the fight to the Prime is now!”
“Calm down, calm down,” came the querulous voice of Sephina, one of the older faculty members. She was a gnarled looking woman, with thin and wispy white hair. Aki remembered Sephina ruling her classes with an iron fist, in defiance of her decrepit appearance. She also knew for a fact that Sephina had joined to protect some of the younger students. Aki wished that Filias had showed the same strength of character. “We appreciate the work you and the other Engineers have done, but, I am afraid that Lothar is correct.“
“Thank you,” Lothar began, but Sephina glared at him, and he quieted, a sullen look on his face.
Sephina held the glare a moment, to make sure that he would not start speaking again, and then continued. “We may have had more people join the cause, myself included, but none of us our soldiers. We are outmanned, and without the armament, Fòrsic or otherwise, that we need to bring down the Prime.”
“But we have to try!”
“Aki,” Sephina’s voice softened, “I know you are broken up about the death of young Benji, but throwing all our lives away will not help. We need to escape the Ater-Volante instead, regroup and raise the ground-siders to join our cause. If the city cannot resupply, then the Prime will have to listen to our demands.”
Much as she wanted to, Aki couldn’t deny that Sephina was right about the tactical situation. They had been pulling back and hiding since before Benji’s death, more people supporting them notwithstanding. “It is not enough,” she insisted, trying to keep the anger out of her voice. “We may be surviving, but we are not doing anything else.”
“I believe I may have a compromise,” a third voice put in. Aki frowned, curious. This was the first time she had heard him speak, she realized. The speaker was a middle-aged man, bland and non-descript, although his accent and skin-tone both had a Thesian flavor to them.
“And who are you?” Lothar asked.
If the man was upset with Lothar’s tone, he did not show it. Instead, he just smiled. “People know me as Darius.”
Beside her, Maz stirred in her chair and leaned over to whisper in Aki’s ear, “He’s the senior Resistance member in the city, or so Aziz claims.”
Aki pursed her lip, thinking. So that was who he was. The Engineers had been regularly dealing with the Resistance all along, but the organization had many layers. She had only ever met a few, like Aziz, a Alisian man who had been their main point of contact.
“That tells me nothing,” Lothar said, his face growing redder.
“What do you propose?” Aki cut in before Darius could answer. She wouldn’t allow a cretin like Lothar to upset as potent a potential ally as this one.
Lothar sputtered, but Darius ignored him and locked eyes with Aki. “The Don has a request of you, if you have the stones for it.”
She smiled, “Tell me.”
Three days of frantic preparations later, they were ready. Aki checked her Fòrsic pocket-watch and frowned at the time. She looked over at Maz, “They’re late.”
“Good distractions take time,” Maz shrugged, the motion causing the glider suit she was wearing to creak. Aki was similarly outfitted, along with Ora and Jos, two of her fellow Engineers. Darius was wearing a suit as well, with an intimidating crossbow on his back, but his was not a new suit. Maz had found some time to make a few more, but none had fit Darius except for Benji’s. Aki tried very hard not to look at the scorch mark on the chest plate.
Her eyes flicked over at the thought, but she managed to bring them up to his solemn face instead. “Feeling nervous?”
Darius shook his head. “Feels like I should be asking you that question. This is your first mission since the… incident, is it not?”
“I’ll be fine,” anger had her biting off the words more than she would have, otherwise.
He smiled. She couldn’t tell if it reached his eyes, shadowed as they were by the suit’s helmet. “Just making sure your head is on straight. This mission is too vital.”
Aki ground her teeth together. “I said I will be fine,” she took a deep breath, and changed the subject. “You still have not told me why this mission is so important.”
It was Darius’s turn to shrug. “You need more time, this mission buys it for you.”
“It buys us time on the ground, which is not the same. Besides, I know that’s not why you suggested it.”
“I guess you will just have to trust me,” he grinned, showing teeth as white as pearl. “I know it’s not why you’re here, either.”
“Hmph,” Aki grunted, and the group lapsed into silence again. She knew Darius was right. She couldn’t sit on her hands anymore, and so had jumped at the opportunity for a little sabotage. Or a lot of sabotage, as the case may be. But why did the Resistance want Ater-Volante grounded? She stared out over the edge of the city, the patchwork fields below giving away to sparse, desert scrubland as the city settled into place over Dak.
A distant Whumph interrupted her thoughts. She shifted her feet as the ground shook, and all five of whirled around to stare up toward the city’s center. They were rewarded with sight of a dark plume of smoke billowing skyward. “I wonder what they blew up?” said Jos.
“We can ask them later,” Aki’s tone was firm. “It’s time to move.”
The rest of the group nodded. Together, they activated the central crystals in their suits. The air hummed. Aki felt the warmth of the crystal on her chest. “Here goes nothing,” she muttered, as she threw herself over the edge.
She spread her arms. The fabric and struts on the arms of her suit caught the air, slowing her fall. The strain on her arms was immense. What was a pleasant breeze on the edge now felt like a howling gale. The land below her spread out in dizzy infinity, and the sight of nothing beneath her caused a gibbering panic to curl its cold way up her spine. She shook her head to clear her thoughts. There wasn’t time for terror. Hoping the others followed behind her, she angled herself in against the side of Ater-Volante. The city was wide and shaped like a spinning top; to stay close, she had to catch the air and angle herself forward into the side of rock before her. The effect was disconcerting. The glide evoked a sense of being out of control that was exhilarating, and she had to fight back the urge to whoop at the top of her lungs. After all, it was supposed to be a stealth approach.
Rocky walls sped past. The crystal against her chest grew hotter as it worked to slow her fall. It helped that Ater-Volante was moving too. It was descending towards its berth on the ground below, moving with imperceptible slowness. The city rotated as it dropped. With Aki as the point of a V, the five of them moved diagonally down the city’s inward sloping underside. Ahead of them, a narrow, crystal spar jutting from a hole in the rock denoted one of Ater-Volante’s maintenance shafts. Under normal circumstances, the shaft would be closed and the spar of crystal withdrawn. However, during set-down day, maintenance workers opened the tunnel mouths to blow a change of air through the city’s subterranean systems and ran out the spar to help manage the descent. Aki flared her body as she approached the hole. The strain on her arms doubled and she gritted her teeth as her progress slowed. The crystal on her chest burned white hot. Hoping it would hold, she allowed her remaining momentum to slam her into the crystal spar. The air whooshed out of her. Aki scrabbled for purchase on the crystal and struggled to regain her breath. Looking towards the entrance, she saw an astonished soldier watching them. She struggled to get a hand free so she could fire on him. On either side she felt the spar shuddering as the others hit. Aki was focused on the man, but a part of her counted the impacts. One. Two. Three. Damn.
Aki whipped her head around to see who had missed. It was Maz. Aki was about to call out, to drop off and follow her down and rescue her, somehow, when Maz suddenly lifted her arms and banked upward. The wind blew her up in a graceful, arching loop that brought her back towards the spar. Aki watched, heart pounding, as Maz made a lazy flip midair. She landed lightly on the edge of the spar, and then triggered her suit. A blast of lightning shot forth from her hand, sending the man watching them sprawling. Maz charged down the spar to secure the entrance. “Show off,” Aki muttered as Maz passed her. Maz just grinned.
Once they had all managed to scramble inside the tunnel, Aki paused to assess the situation. While at first glance the man had been a soldier, upon examining his body they found that he wore a maintenance uniform. A half-burned cheroot in his hand explained his presence at the end of the tunnel. Aki felt guilty about that, but needs must. She turned to Darius. “We got you inside, now comes your part.”
Darius pulled out a rolled map from a bag on his hip. “All these tunnels are connected,” he said, spreading the map on the floor. “Each of the supporting crystals has its own pathway feeding back into the central crystal. All of which are closed to human access,” he pointed at the maze of blueprints. “Luckily for us, there are maintenance tunnels that parallel the route,” he knelt and jabbed a finger into the map, “here, here, and here,” he looked around to make sure the group was following him, and Aki nodded. Standing, Darius rolled the map up and stuck it back into his pouch. “Just follow me, and we’ll sabotage the lift spars as we go. I’m not expecting any resistance, but keep your eyes and ears open.”
“That reminds me,” Aki took a crystal from her own pouch, and activated it with her breath. She strode to the edge, and affixed it to the base of the spar. She checked the sight of the ground below, and then returned to the group. “That crystal will discharge in fifteen minutes, and the descent will be done in twenty. We have ten minutes to get to enough of the other crystals and get out.”
The rest of the group nodded in agreement. Aki inclined her at Darius, “lead the way. And I expect you to tell me why this matters, afterwards.”
“We’ll see,” he winked at her, and strode off down the passageway. The rest of the group hurried along behind him. The tunnel was dim, lit only by widely spaced Fòrsic lanterns. The group moved in a series of short dashes and shorter pauses, staying out of the patches of light as much as possible. They saw several branching pathways, but Darius led them past without a second glance. From the directions of their turnings, Aki could tell they were moving in a clockwise fashion along the outer edge of the city. They reached the next crystal spar without incident. Aki placed the next crystal, breathing on it to activate as before. She did not adjust the timing. The Theorist who had put together the Fòrsic Disrupters, as she called them, had been adamant that Aki change nothing. The plan was to induce a cascading series of failures among the balancing crystals, the spars that jutted out along Ater-Volante’s perimeter, and the slightest disruption could ruin the effect. Or so Valessa, the Theorist, claimed. The Runic patterns behind the city’s capability to float was a closely guarded secret. Aki herself knew nothing about it, and had to trust that Val was not sending all of them to their doom. “I’m done here,” she said, and Darius nodded, and led them back towards another junction. The next two crystals were much the same. They saw no one in the deserted passageways they scurried along, and Aki was able to place her crystals with ease.
It didn’t last.
They had come around a corner to find a squad of Stripies stationed in a tunnel intersection. Maz had reacted first. Raising her hands, she threw lightning from her fingertips. It fizzled out. Aki grabbed Maz and threw her back behind the corner. She motioned the others back as well. Meanwhile, the guards snapped to attention and began to fan out along the wall of the corridor. Aki risked a glance and swore at the telltale shimmer surrounding them. “A Fòrsic barrier? Here?”
“It makes sense,” Ora pointed out. “Our advantage is our better Fòrsic equipment, and not all Theorists and Engineers are against the Prime.”
“But why not deploy them until now?” Jos looked nervous, Aki could see sweat beading on his face.
Maz shrugged. “Powerful shield, though,” she moved to the edge of the corner, and took a defensive crouch.
“Maz is right,” Aki said. “It has to be powerful, to block her energy so effectively. A shield like that must burn through crystals, no matter how efficient they make it. Maybe they were afraid of the expense?”
Darius spoke from further down the tunnel. “Can we shelve the musings for later? There are footsteps coming from the other direction.”
“Halt in the Prime’s name!” someone shouted, and the situation devolved into chaos.
“I thought you said there weren’t any guards?” Aki yelled, and ducked. There was a sizzle as a bolt of Fòrsic Energy slammed into the wall above her head.
“I said I didn’t expect any,” Darius’s voice was calm and collected. Remarkable in the din swirling around them. He moved his head a fraction of an inch, and another blast rent the air just past his ear. Maz held off the first squad of guards, ducking and weaving and slinging Fòrsic lighting from around the corner. The guard’s barrier didn’t appear to be portable, and they were reluctant to leave its protection.
On the other side, Jos and Ora had their hands full holding off the Stripies coming from the other end of the corridor. Aki and Darius were between the two groups, planning. There were only two squads so far, maybe ten men, but more were undoubtedly on their way. They needed to leave, and fast. Aki pointed at the crossbow on Darius’s back. “Are you any good with that?”
He unslung it and smiled. It was already loaded, and he gestured wicked looking barbed bolt. “I don’t have many, but I can make them count.”
“Go forward with Maz, if we can whittle the guards in front of us down, we can push through. I’ll deal with the ones behind us.”
Darius nodded. He stepped forward to crouch behind Maz. “Can you extend a shield around the corner?” He asked her.
“On my mark then. Three. Two. One. Mark.”
Maz flexed her suit fingers. She made a gesture, calling on the suit’s core crystal, and Darius began to shimmer. He raised his crossbow, stepped out in the corner, and fired. The butt slammed into his shoulder, followed by several blasts. The blasts flared as they struck. The corridor glowed with a sudden white light, but the energy left no lasting impact. The shimmer around him fading, Darius ducked back around the corner unharmed. He began to wind the crank on his crossbow, while Maz replaced one of the core crystals in her suit. “That’s one down,” Darius said.
“Keep at it,” Aki turned away, satisfied that he and Maz had the situation under control. She looked at Jos and Ora. “Do you have any spare crystals?”
Jos checked his pouch, “only a few, and I have a feeling I might need them.”
“I am in the same boat,” added Ora. “These suits may be powerful, but they are not at all efficient.”
Aki put her hands on her hips, thinking. They all needed function suits to get out, and they were light on other equipment, besides her cluster of crystals meant to disable to lift spars. The ability of the suits to channel and redirect Fòrsic energies should have been sufficient to bull through any obstacles, but they had not expected as many well-armed guards as there appeared to be. They had placed three crystals. Hopefully, the damage from those would ground the city long enough for Darius and the Resistance to do whatever it was Darius was planning. Valessa had etched the glyphs to produce a wave of energy that would interfere with the Fòrsa channeled by the lift spars. Theoretically, this effect would bleed over onto crystals not targeted by Aki and her team, and force the Prime to replace the whole ring of lift-spars if he wanted to lift Ater-Volante off the ground again. They could achieve a similar effect with the crystals she had already placed, albeit on a much smaller scale. If they were lucky.
The priority now was to escape. Aki dug through her bag, setting one crystal aside in case she had an opportunity to disable one more spar on their way out. Using a metal-tipped stylus, she quickly adjusted the runes on the other five crystals. By adding a few lines, she could convert the crystal from one that channeled air-aspected Fòrsa to one that channeled ice. She also shortened the time before the crystals activated.
Aki signaled to Jos and Ora to cover her with Fòrsic barriers. As soon as they did so, she activated the crystals. She placed three of the five in a line across the middle of the hallway. The other two she affixed to the wall. “Get back!” she warned.
The three of them scrambled down the hallway towards Maz and Darius. Behind them, Aki heard a shattering CRACK. The air in the tunnel suddenly felt much, much colder, and she shivered. She risked a glance behind. The whole width and breadth of the tunnel had been stoppered by an enormous plug of ice, nearly a yard thick. “That will slow them down,” Aki said. “How many left on this side?”
Darius shrugged. “I hit two, and grazed a third. They’ve taken cover now, though.”
“Three left, then,” Aki looked around at her team. “Fresh crystals for the final push. If we rush them fast and hard enough, we will break through easily,” she locked eyes with Darius. “Once we’re through, you are on point. Get us out, I won’t risk our lives anymore.”
He hesitated, but she held her gaze steady. “Fine. Try to keep up.”
“Maz, you’ll lead the charge. Ora and Jos will back you up,” Now that Darius had agreed, Aki ignored him.
Maz nodded, as did Jos and Ora. “We won’t let you down,” said Jos.
“Let’s all just focus on getting out of here,” Said Aki. “Are we all ready? Good. Now… GO.”
Maz shot down the corridor. She used the gliding mechanism in her suit to take to the air, only to ram feet first into a startled guardswomen, who had ducked out of cover to level a Fòrsic lance at the charging group. She went down, hard. Maz, however, sprang to her feet, and continued on down the corridor, Darius right on her heels. Ora and Jos each took on a remaining guardsmen. Jos feinted, coming in low. A blast from a Fòrsic lance fizzed against his suit’s shield, and he popped up with a brutal uppercut. The guardsmen shot towards the ceiling, and then fell to the ground, limp. Ora had a little more trouble. Her opponent was massive, over six feet tall, and he had no trouble keeping the slim woman at bay. Coming up behind, Aki triggered a blast from her suit that fizzled against the guards’ shield. The bright light distracted the guardsmen, and he threw up a hand. Ora slammed a kick into the man’s crotch. Her blow had all the force of her suit behind it, and the guardsmen let out a strangled yelp. He fell to the floor, clutching himself, and the Engineers charged onwards.
Darius led them unerringly. Left, right, and then left again, and Aki saw daylight ahead. She shook her last crystal loose from her pouch, slapped it into place, and then followed the others leaping into the chill spring air. They glided outwards, just above the tops of Dak’s tallest minarets. Up in the air, all her fears and worries fell away. Aki whooped with glee. This is what taking action feels like, she thought to herself, this is exactly what we need to be doing. Ahead of her, Darius heard her war whoop. He turned his head, and she thought she saw the glimmer of a smile.
Chapter 24 can be found here.