Shadows of the Keepers: Chapter 37
From far and wide, they summoned allies. Corvel wrote to his friends back in Arztilla, had them put into place plans of rebellion long discussed, Captain Prex returned from a privateering voyage, and one Lady Beren of the East offered her broken-down vacuum airship, which Eric and Felden repaired.
Now, Eric sat on the upper deck of the Rogue’s Galley, unable to sleep much for the second day in a row. Ed, likewise, fidgeted restlessly beside the other gryphons. Officially, they would show up over Grand Arztilla and ask to negotiate, but even without Selva’s expertise he knew they’d have to fight. Dulane had an authoritarian mindset, she said—not one to accept a diplomatic solution to a problem. Or any solution, really, that didn't have him as the biggest guy on the biggest throne.
And what of himself? Jefferson seemed very far away now, and increasingly felt less like home. Especially since that conversation with Ezhiri. He’d run into her outside the gryphon roost not long after they got back from his first flight. She’d grabbed him by the sleeve and said:
“We’re not stupid, you know.”
“Huh?” He turned away from his path back to the temple and faced her.
“I heard you talking the other night with your teacher and the Winged Man. You called us primitive, said this world is a desolation of war and misery.”
“Well, that’s…” he sputtered, cheeks burning with embarrassment. “I didn’t mean everyone.”
“I take it you think I want to live as starmen do, on one of your worlds.”
“Well...yeah.” Off in the distance, a group of gryphon-riders in training flew past. “We’ve got clean water, medical regeneration, spaceships.”
“I asked Rachel about your home, the place they call Jefferson. Named after a mythic hero of your people, it seemed.”
“Yeah, I think he was the guy who signed his name really big on the Declaration of...nevermind.”
Ezhiri continued, “She said most people live in rooms inside colossal buildings built into cities so vast one can stand atop them and see no open fields. Every day they leave and work at some task they only grudgingly like, to earn money so they can keep living in those rooms. All your machines, all your knowledge and wonders, and you are no happier than we.”
“Like Felden said, the usual state of human society is the rich getting richer off the labor of the masses.”
“So then why call us primitive, if your ways are no better than ours?”
“Well, we don’t kill animals for food. We grow the meat in vats. And there’s no war, we have the Stellar Compact to resolve disputes.”
“Yet centuries ago, your ancestors waged a war so massive it burned entire worlds. Even a man ten times as evil as Caesar Dulane could do no such thing here!”
“Because you don’t have the technology.”
“Whereas you do, and it has made your malice all the more destructive. You say men originated among the stars, on a world once as, like you say, ‘primitive’ as ours. But in all the time since then, have your technological wonders done anything by themselves to make you a better people?”
“They...make it easier in some ways. We don’t need slaves because we’ve got robots.”
“But if your morality has improved, it was not technology that did it.”
Eric had to admit, “No. People needed to campaign for abolishing slavery, granting civil rights to uplifted animals. It didn’t just happen on its own.”
“Then remember that next time you think to call us primitive.”
Eric awoke to the orange glow of dawn overhead.
“At least you got some sleep.” Professor Temerin helped him up. “I couldn’t stand still all night.”
“How far out are we?” Eric asked. Off to the Rogue’s Galley’s right was the vacuum airship crewed by Lord Leon and Lady Beren’s men.
“Should be approaching Grand Arztilla in a few hours. No signs of any volors sent out to meet us, but we passed a few gryphons. Some of them might be messengers, though we ought to beat them to the capital. Feel like breakfast?”
Eric didn’t eat more than a few nibbles, then stood beside the volor’s helm and watched out the diamond-glass windows as the Arztillan capital came into view.
It looked different than he remembered. A dull, dirty haze hung over its sprawling patchwork of structures—air pollution wasn’t just an industrial problem—and many of the outlying farmhouses appeared burned. A large gate in the city’s wall stood closed.
“Heads up.” Felden pointed forward.
Above the city and its palaces, two volors rose up to meet them. One was little, smaller than the Rogue’s Galley, but the other formed a big wishbone shape with a hull that forked into two prongs, all lined with gravity brakes and sun-sails.
“The Victory of Caesar,” Prex gasped. “General Fuhran himself will be commanding it.”
Temerin said, “Try signaling.”
Prex nodded and gave the order to a crewman, sending him above decks to try hailing with signal flags common to most Meridian sky-sailors. After a few minutes the lack of success became evident; the Arztillan volors continued their approach.
“Then we shall fight!” Sir Wotoc grinned.
The smaller volor came first, its boat-like hull of white diamond-glass supported by a quartet of gravity brakes glowing Cherenkov blue. It turned for the Freeholds vacuum airship, which moved to evade, fanless engines whining under the strain. Men on the Arztillan craft aimed ballistae, the bolts shot out and struck glancing blows on the lifting envelope’s smooth, curved surface. Freehold crossbowmen leaning from windows returned fire.
Victory of Caesar continued its approach, a magnificent vessel festooned with pennants and flags, Black Legionnaires standing atop its decks. Stepping back from the windows, Prex relieved his helmsman and took the wheel. They were flying perhaps several hundred meters above the city, Eric looked down and saw tile-roofed houses whizzing past below, amazed citizens standing in the streets to behold the aerial battle unfolding overhead.
Captain Prex turned left, the volor’s deck rolling by some twenty degrees, out the corner of the window Eric saw Victory of Caesar follow. Leveling out, Prex advanced the throttles and climbed.
“You starmen can make volors, correct?” he asked.
“Oh yes,” Zandra replied. “My grandparents own one about this size.”
“Uh...why?” asked Felden. Eric did not like where this was going.
Prex went hard right, a forty-five-degree bank at full throttle which stressed the relic Keeper craft far more than Eric thought safe. The gryphons abovedecks protested with annoyed shrieks.
Coming about a full hundred-eighty degrees, Prex completed the turn and Eric saw Victory of Caesar ahead and to the right, perhaps a kilometer away over the city center, Bellodrome and Caesar’s Palace below. From his vantage point it stayed in place through the window, growing in size as both ships rushed together on intersecting courses.
“No, no, no, no, no!” he shouted. “You’re insane!”
“Yes!” Wotoc thundered. “Onward, ‘till we meet our foe!”
The big Arztillan ship began to climb, but to no avail. Rogue’s Galley was nimbler; its captain could force a meeting if he wanted. And of that there was no dissuading him.
“Up top!” Zandra shouted. “Run!”
Eric scrambled for the stairs, dashing up to the wooden deck and over to Ed. Rachel, Ezhiri, and Ralbor followed behind, while Zandra and Felden wasted no time in pulling on their goggles and flying masks before vaulting over the railing. Ahead, their foe-vessel grew ever-larger.
Eric drew the Star Patrol knife from his belt, cut the strap securing Ed’s harness to the deck, and swung on his back. No takeoff run was needed, he merely stood up, spread his wings to catch lift, and banked away from the volor as he ascended. Ralbor was the last to get clear as Eric swung around and looked back.
The two volors hit.