I decided to take a chance on getting into more trouble. I dropped the bundle onto the bed and left for the hospital wing to find Thud and Desdemona. The halls leading to the palace’s hospital were utterly deserted. A smothering, heavy presence pervaded everything. Despite the emptiness, something was here; something whose existence warped and suffocated everything.
The presence pulled at the prana (or chi, in Sifu’s parlance) from my skin. I could almost see the extracted energies as a faint, effervescent purple light. I retracted my aura and awareness under my skin like a child covering his head with a blanket to protect himself from the boogie man. I immediately felt better. It was a Ranger technique, mainly dealing with pranavores, creatures and areas of wilderness that literally sucked the life out of a spirit. It also helped one to hide from someone looking for your pranic signature.
Who in the hell would let such a predator on the station?
I crept forward. The aggressive heaviness in the air that had been robbing me was now more of a heavy presence, redolent with the scent of the creature’s prana. I tried to track it, only using passive awareness. There would be no probes for it to seize on and backtrack to me.
Hearing conversation drift down one of the hallways, I slowed. listened and then turned down that hallway and kept approaching. I could pick out bits of Desdemona’s voice. She did not sound upset or alarmed.
Goose-flesh rippled into being over any bit of skin it could occupy. The epicenter of the emanation coincided with the source of conversation. I stopped to stare at the closed door, fear smashing at the back of my eyes.
“Excuse me please Princess Qin Ann-meh,” Desdemona said smoothly, her voice growing closer, she cracked the door open. “This floor is supposed to be clear, servant.” Her eyes were crystal hard with meaning. “Get out!”
I pivoted and snuck away, resisting the urge to run or enter blackspace with all of my being until I was clear of the hospital wing.
Can’t breathe, or she’ll eat me. What Princess Qin Ann-Mei was, was a mystery to me. Still, she terrified me and we had not even met.
I broke into a blurring sprint when I was clear of the hospital wing, uselessly locking the door of my room when it arrived. I stared at the wooden barrier sheepishly. It wouldn’t stop me, let alone the boogie-woman. I collapsed onto the bed, scared and frustrated. I rolled over and felt the bundle Sivar had given me. I picked it apart. In addition to my clothes, there was a wrist computer, I think the same one that I’d had when I was with Paulos, and a pair of goggles.
There was also a note. “Sorry Vycta. Qin is too close, and too powerful an ally for me to permanently alienate. Your partial refund for disrupted services has been deposited in your accounts. Vacate immediately.
P.S. If you go into blackspace, she will know. Leave like a normal person for once. Run with your two big feet. Or fly. Normal people fly here.”
Well, that message did not require too much guess-work. I grabbed a duffel and started packing for travel. I turned on the wrist computer to find somewhere in the city to hide.
The goggles beeped and the wrist-comp verbally reported, “Visual interface peripheral detected. Analyzing. Devicorp, Navigation, and Heads-Up Display interface goggles detected. Initiate secure synch?”
“Yes,” I spoke to it.
“Synching. This will take a few minutes.”
I stripped and wiped myself down, removing any excess dungeon smell. I pulled on a desert suit, heavy boots, my petitioner’s hooded robe, and the computer.
I felt something in one of the inner pockets of the robe. Shielding my hand, I reached in and pulled out a Rangers signet ring. It was not charged or enchanted in any way. Carefully, I sniffed it, let my aura run over it. I could taste the faint traces of my pre-tainted self, Paulos, and a fainter trace of Sivar.
How long had she had this? With an aching heart, I put on the ring, tugged on the goggles, pulled up my hood, and headed for the nearest exit. Unfortunately, the closest exit from the harem wing to the city outside the palace was staked out by a menacing mass of reporters. While I gawped, frozen briefly by chagrin, they turned their camera drones and other peripherals towards me and began shouting questions en masse.
I started to move back into the complex, but I felt the faint, leading edge of that zone of heaviness and misery that surrounded the room where Desdemona warned me off. It was moving. I walked to the exit and let the press corps in.
I pressed forward and through the gaggle, weathering their bombarding questions, only saying in an exaggerated Mississippi twang, “Princess Qin Ann-Meh is about five hundred feet directly up that hall. Ask her your questions.”
Almost all of them hesitated. Some recovered and scampered through the entrance and disappeared onto the grounds.
“Who are you?” A dark-haired woman with a decidedly military bearing, dressed in what I would have sworn was a teal Chanel pants suit (or a heavenly knock off) asked rather forcefully. “Did you meet with the Princess?”
I wondered why she didn’t dash inside. “You seem to have the look of the Legion about you. Use your senses, ma’am. You can feel the ripples she makes in the local pranafield when she moves. I don’t need to meet her to know she’s coming!”
The reporter closed her eyes and scowled. I sensed a scanning pulse of prana range out and ahead of her. I started walking. Her eyes shot open and she hissed, “Holy fuck! We have to get out of here! Now!”
I jogged away from the palace, avoiding the enclosed maze-like interior corridors for the false-openness of the orbital city’s road system.
Just have to reach the spaceport, I thought, easily keeping pace with the ground cars and trucks. I was not the only “pedestrian” among the traffic. I was terribly conspicuous only in my mind. In Heaven, anyone could be a “superman” if they trained obsessively enough.
Is there ever “enough?” I thought, tacking with freight traffic towards the cargo terminals where inter-principality shipping was king. By now I knew my way to the airlocks in the area. Sifu and I would often slip into the cargo container loading zones to avoid the long delays of the passenger areas. That was my goal today. Time to disembark this drama trap.
“Incoming message,” danced across the goggle’s lenses.
“Yrek,” Prelate Sivar appeared in my view, a semitransparent image that could distract, but not obstruct. Of course, the moment she said, “Yrek,” I knew something was horribly wrong.
I drew up, levitating above traffic and onto the side of the road. “Yes your, Eminence?”
“Do you always handle being thrown out of a home so well?” she asked.
An odd question. “In life I was used to going when I was not wanted.”
“You did not fight?” she asked.
“There is always a middle passage from arrival to departure. Navigating it is the true challenge, not waiting until the end, which is usually too late.” I shrugged, even though she couldn’t see me. “Also, Ann-Meh seems to suck in prana from the very air when she’s nearby. I felt like I was in the corona of a tiny black hole. I decided to take the hints.”
“Oh,” I could almost hear Sivar rolling her eyes. “It’s her Cloak of Darkness.”
“Cloak of Darkness?” I replied, unable to keep the sarcasm out of my voice. “Really?”
“It’s fairly descriptive,” Sivar replied. “What would you call it?”
“Pranavore’s Frock,” I said immediately.
“Oh shut up Yrek,” she sniped.
“Getting back on topic… fighting to stay,” I paused for a second. “You are a Prelate; I am nothing. But, I’m sorry to say, I am a prideful nothing. I’m not going to shriek and beg, much less attempt to fight you.”
“You are a demon,” she said, with no negative inflections. “One who sacrificed his humanity for his fellow souls. You have the cursed energies within you under control. You applied yourself to Weh-Lin’s instruction and screened out all distractions. If I thought you were a threat before, I do not now.”
“One of the harem is a spy for Qin, or at least he was outside of the cell where I woke up,” I replied.
“Who?” she asked.
“I do not know his name,. Now that I think about it, I didn’t get to know any of them. I think I spent close to twenty hours a day with Sifu,” I replied. I described him for her.
“Hm,” Sivar mused. “Thank you. That tidbit will be useful. When the Rangers guarding you were ambushed, I wondered if they were getting information from somewhere besides their Primate.”
“He was with someone who injected me with Green Blessing, which I violently threw up,” I replied. “The harem man told the injector that vomiting fire was not a normal reaction to the serum.”
Her voice grew concerned. “Are you under its effects now?”
“Not that I can tell,” I replied. “My prana network is not responding as it usually would under the influence. Sifu’s cure did not fail under re-introduction, it seems.”
“She was always afraid that you’d lose yourself to the drug,” Sivar replied. “She saw your willingness to push the limits of the serum: twenty hour days with only four hours of sleep is a sign of imbalance, even though you had no clear objective besides to ‘get better.’ There is usually a ‘get better so I can do something’ aspect.”
“It was a way to push away….” I stopped groping for something properly erudite.
“Existence?” she posited.
“Yeah,” I replied.
“You were supposed to be eased into life here. All newcomers are,” she lectured. “Just because we Believed in some way or other means that we suddenly lost free will and all of the other vagaries and perversities that make us human. Now we’re just long-lived and mostly free of disease. We are still human, just not completely subject to fatalism.”
“Well, Sifu told me that the ‘cure’ keeps me from developing more power for the next year,” I replied. “So I guess she thought I’d regress and start injecting myself.”
“It is certain,” Sivar agreed. “She told me that would be her last resort, but apparently her hand has been forced.”
I sighed bitterly, slumping against the wall, vehicles blurring by. “Great. It really is an enforced vacation. Your Eminence, do you wish me to come back?”
“There has been a complication,” Sivar informed me. “Princess Weh-Lin has come to my estate. She and her sister were going to battle and probably wreck miles of this space station. I mediated the situation, of course, and the sisters have agreed to a duel with champions.”
A faint pain started in my chest as she talked. It was a purely emotional response. I could feel the trick coming. The trick Sivar set me up to be aware of when she used the wrong name. I opened another data window and tapped on the screen of the watch, starting a search for the nearest emergency airlock. When I spoke, I hoped I managed to sound relatively normal. “That sounds nice and civilized.”
“Yrek, come back,” she asked. The now valiant, heroic tone of her words flowed through me. “Come home and stand for your teacher in noble combat!”
The sense of impending doom was suffocating me.
“Yrek?” She asked. “Yrek!”
I started running, slipping into the first available airlock. I began the air cycling process.
“Yrek!” Sivar’s voice was a completely unfamiliar, harsh, scratchy roar.
“I’m tossing myself into space, Your Eminence,” I replied. Maybe ten seconds later, a heavy ringing rapport sang through the door. A figure in black enameled armor with a sealed helm decorated as a grossly stylized wide-eyed monster face had hurled itself against the door. I felt the impellers in the powered armor and the figure hit the door again. It began to give.
I jammed the emergency vent button. “Yrek is dead. Goodbye.”
She cut off the signal on that note. The outward blast of air cleared me from the lock where emergency beacons flashed, alerting anyone who could see the event. I was close to the space port, and small ships were already slowly vectoring in on my position.
Disks appeared under my hands and feet. I righted myself, relative to the surface of the space station, and skimmed maybe two hundred yards away before taking a seat to brood for a bit.
Where in the hell am I going to go?
In the distance, I saw the red lights on the exterior of the airlock I just left turn green. It was ready for a new passenger.
Away from here.
I accelerated, passing over the edge of the colossal edifice and into solo orbit, rapidly leaving home behind. Before I lost connection to the CNAP network, I fiddled my way through several searches for what would be the best principality to hide in.
The closest one that had a currency treaty with Sivar was the Principality D’Orleans and its Sin City beanstalk city.
Might as well. I thought. Maybe I can get laid for the first time in a year.
I began a long arc, accelerating away from CNAP into a low orbit that would take me into the general vicinity of the Principality D’Orleans in a couple of hours. (by Hank T Cannon)