Sin City was in a swamp. Yes, it looked like a beautiful lake with a jewel-like city on a raised platform setting of steel in its midst. All trees, brush and scrub had been cleared in a sixty mile radius around the beanstalk. The heat and mugginess seemed to drain the strength from me. On top of everything, it rained very often.
I did not see much of the Principality itself. Principality D’Orleans had very strict immigration procedures. There were actually segregated byways for people and cargo to pass from the spaceport to the beanstalk. Along the way were large signs, aggressively advising that we should cash out some local hard currency for the trip down, and even for our time in the city. When we arrived at the beanstalk’s loading terminal, I decided to take them up on it.
The D’Orleans beanstalk looked less like a piece of high technology and more like an enormous elevator mechanism shimmering with titanic quantities of infused prana. Its elevator passenger cars had a decidedly Victorian feel to their decor and furnishings: passable floral-patterned waxed cotton upholstery; hard wood, rich with polish and enchantments. The people working the elevator, men and women, wore smart brown trousers, brown shoes, dark green wrap waistcoats, white shirts.
There was also no computer network here. The admonition to use hard currency suddenly made a lot more sense.
The city itself was built much the same way as its umbilical to the heavens. I arrived in the early evening, and for a moment I felt like I had walked onto a movie set, complete with smells of people and animals permeating the air, and the sound of wheels on cobblestone. If I were alive, I would have said that it looked like the French Quarter and Uptown had teamed up to reclaim the entire city of New Orleans, but outside of the architecture, there was nothing familiar here.
Scratch that. There was a peculiar energy about the people who rode down with me. There weren’t that many solo travelers. Most traveled in small groups, chatting amongst themselves with hushed excitement. I was reminded of seeing people excited about coming to New Orleans for the first time.
I really wished that I had access to a decent network and search engine.
There were newspapers and a wider variety of disposable periodicals, broadsheets, tabloids, pamphlets, flyers, and booklets. It was like the early 1980s before most tourist information delivery went online. The only hurdle would be finding the right place so I could find the right magazines. Or find a bloody civilized hotel.
My “plan” for navigating the area consisted of just following the flow of vehicles. The most popular ground transports working the arrival terminal were carriages and buckboards that carried a classical air, except that their steering assemblies looked rather automotive. The effect was compounded by the lack of animals pulling the craft. I was feeling lost until I ambled into a place of stark familiarity, the French Quarter, or at least a replica of it.
The demographics of this “Tourist Quarter” were not exactly the same as the French Quarter, but the bar callers and store bawdy fronts made up for it. Sin City, indeed.
I found a nice extended stay apartment/motel establishment, roughly between the generally straight party area and what was supposed to be the “homosexual underground.”
I did not explore the underground or the overground, though. My room was nice: high ceilings, a massive bed with gauzy curtains, and a generally homey atmosphere. I ordered some food, just bread, cheese, fruit, and water. After eating, I locked the doors, added warding barriers, and fell fast asleep.
I woke up in the dark of the morning. Sounds of party and play drifted through the glass and wood windows.
“Time to exercise,” I mumbled. I dressed and flew out of the city and began weight lifting with masses of water. I worked until the sky turned from night to predawn purple. I flew back to the Tourist Quarter, alighting in an alleyway and jogged to my hotel. I snagged more fruit and bread and went back to my room.
Without the Blessing, my thoroughly abused circadian rhythms were reasserting themselves. Years ago, the first time I realized that they were still in play, I had felt terribly put out. Paulos had launched into a philosophic discussion about “life on Earth preparing us for Heaven,” that had seemed like a clash between cyberpunk and gnosticism.
In the present, I yawned around the last few bites of breakfast, and barely made it to the bed. The workout seemed successful, though. A pleasant tension throbbed in my aura, with the knowledge that I had exceeded my maximums by more than a bit.
I would have moved onto laps, but I did not quite want to swim in a swamp that had been subjected to the orbital bombardment method of clear-cutting.
I went to bed thinking that this “reduced” activity schedule might not be so bad.
I banished that thought from my mind when I woke up feeling sick. I had a fever; my arms and legs throbbed, and my aura had not changed since I had last looked it over. My will quailed at the very idea of getting up and moving around, much less exercising. I went back to sleep and slept for two days, only getting up to order room service.
By the third day, I felt normalish. By the fourth, I was just fine. So, of course, I did it to myself again. This time, my recovery time was spent crying and mumbling curses into a stack of pillows so the hotel staff would not think I was a crazy person instead of just being miserably depressed. Exercise had never had this effect before, but thanks to Paulos, I had plenty of practice exceeding my limits as a matter of daily exercise prior to meeting Qin Weh-Lin.
I spent two months in the Tourist quarter, not having fun, not relaxing, but flying out from the city in the dead of night trying to figure out what the break point of exercise was. My training for improving effective telekinetic strength was pretty much fucked, each attempt sending me into pain, fever, and sleep. Endurance training was more “successful.” I was only out of commission for a day.
I think I spent hours staring at my “pranic” body and was forced to come to an unsettling conclusion: Qin Weh-Lin, her presence, just her coaching plus the Green Blessing, was a super steroid. One without the other as probably useless. With her, I got better. I improved monstrously fast. That was probably why she cost a fortune.
There was also the mutation motivation. If I did not work extremely hard and with dedication, I’d turn into something horrible. In the first day of the first week, we tried sixteen hours on and eight off, and the next day I woke up with jade green irises and hadn’t felt any difference. No pain, no sense of anything being off, just sudden change.
The event scared me so bad, I did not even try to make an incremental time advancement. I had stayed always “on,” sleeping maybe four hours a night. We stuck to the aggressive schedule, and in my haze, I had completely forgotten about the mutative aspects of the Blessing. I never bothered with mirrors unless it was to make certain I was dressed for whatever event Sivar put on that I was forced to attend for doing something off in training. I had been drunk on advancement, from moving, from manipulating hundreds of pounds to tons, and now I was going into DTs.
While once again going over how awesome drug-induced, supervised self-torture was, I moaned into the mirror. “And now I’m normal again,” I sighed, followed by, “which is a self-serving lie. I’m just sober.” I did not think I could ever be that high again, and now I really, really wanted it. It was the thing that took Paulos’ place in my life. Something new to obsess over and focus upon.
“Twenty hours on, four hours off,” I muttered. I could not come close to maintaining that pace now. Still, I remembered the ease at which the obsessive training pattern had slugged its way into the my daily routine. The more I used the Blessing, the less of awareness I had of time. I lived in this fugue where the focus was training. I only slept because I had to, because Sifu made me. She was the thing I set my world by, my clock by. I had not idea of time.
I expected to eventually be approached by an authority of some sort, but it turns out what I was doing was not unusual in the grandest scheme of things. I just went when most of the city was asleep. During the day there were multiple excursions into the lake around the city, by yachts and party barges. Airships carried large numbers of people beyond the circle to see the swamps themselves, and those accomplished with their own abilities flew constantly during the day.
I should not have been that surprised. I was not necessarily special, just specialized.
Near the end of my time of misery, when I had finally gotten the hint that I had reached the end of my rope and should get a life, I penned a very neutral letter to Sivar thanking her for her patronage, asking after her good health, and wishing her well. I sent it through the CNAP Embassy in town.
A week later, on a particularly rainy evening while I lay in bed, my aura pulsing just on the verge of painful from an early morning endurance training session, someone knocked on my door.
I sat up and almost shouted, “Who’s there?” But I calmed, and breathed. It was night. I had not ordered food. The hotel had their money. I calmed myself and let my awareness blossom. Through the wall, I felt one powerful presence… and one at one of my windows.
I erected a purplish black barrier around the perimeter of the room, blocking all of the windows, and I rolled to my feet, opening the door from a distance. “Yes? How can I help you?”
A muscular, older-looking man of middling height, with a full, well-trimmed white beard, wearing the tailored white linen suit that tourists seemed to prefer, stepped across the threshold. “Hello, Master Vycta.”
The cultured, Anglican delivery, along with the face, brought recognition. “Holy hell! Hello, Horace.” He was one of the legion of servants who had attended Sivar, but most importantly, he was the primary butler and keeper of peace in the harem. I do not think I ever saw him actually demonstrate his power. It was there, though, as calm as the face he usually presented to the world, but heavy enough to probably put holes in steel and stone. “Please come in.” I looked into the hallway. “Was there anyone with you?”
He closed the door behind himself. “No. Her Eminence felt you would be less threatened if a familiar face came alone. Is there something wrong?”
“I think you may have been followed,” I replied, tilting my head towards the wall of shadow. “I sensed someone hovering outside my window just as you knocked on my door. Come away from the door, just in case.”
He nodded. “Her Eminence is on a routine diplomatic mission to D’Orleans, and she sent me down to see if you would be interested in joining the Prelate’s Entourage.”
I blinked for a moment and quickly said, “I’m honored. Let me get dressed and pack.” Yes, I was lonely and pathetic.
“She also wanted me see if you were living in dissipation and squalor,” he commented.
“It’s just hot,” I replied. “I prefer to be undressed.”
“I remember,” he said. “Your presence drove the other boys quite mad with jealously. They did not believe that you were paying for the drugs and training out of your own pocket.”
“The Prelate’s facilities were invaluable,” I replied, pulling on socks and pants, t-shirt, over-shirt, and boots. Clothing floated from the closet, colored faintly purple from the touch of my prana, the fabric’s feel as bright in my mind as though I held it in my hands.
My hands were busy tying my boots while my mind folded each piece and slid it into its satchel. I clamped on my wrist computer, hung the goggles on my head, and strapped on my pouch, refilled with polished pebbles.
Horace moved in smoothly and scooped up my bag.
“Oh, Horace, you don’t have to do that, I can…”
“You said I had possibly been followed,” he replied. “Then we need to not be out of the ordinary, at least until we reach the ship.”
“Ship? What ship?” I asked.
“One of the Prelate’s launches,” he replied. “Armed to the teeth.”
“Are things tense?” I asked.
“Outwardly no,” he said. “But one can never dismiss the value of a prominent display of firepower. Prelates never travel without a display of some sort.”
I wiped all hard psychic traces of myself from the room, bleeding them out with a profligate release of sandpaper-like prana. Maybe someone could get a scent, but there would be no psychometric scans or retrogressive experiences. When I dropped the barrier, my peeping tom had departed.
I closed out my bill and we stepped carefully out onto the street.
“Bugger this,” Horace murmured. A gentle gold glow surrounded him and he took wing. “I don’t like this. The street feels odd.”
I joined him in the air and we streaked out of the Tourist Quarter. The scent of the air changed, charging with prana becoming nearly acrid with pregnant power.
“Armor up, boy!” he called, the stilted, anglicized delivery making it a clarion call to arms. He dropped my bag into the city and his nice suit exploded off of him as his chromed Legionnaire’s armor rose into place over his body.
Since I had nothing nearly so impressive, I sheathed myself in a bulbous black pranic armor construct. It was terribly simple, barrel chest, round balls for hand and feet. Waldoes snaked, spider-like, from the back of Horace’s armor as his harness flared to life. His wings formed and he said, “Go! I am right behind you! Go! I…”
Anything else he was going to say was drowned out by flash of lighting with a deafening thunderclap right on its heels.
“Go, boy, go!” Horace hissed across the headphones in my goggles.
I went. Full turbos, full rage. “You cannot fight the air,” Sifu had sad. “However, you can split it.”
We broke the speed of sound at roughly the same time. I knew where I was going. Horace was feeding me telemetry so the night did not throw me too off. The weather manipulation effect was highly localized and we quickly outran it.
“Suliss,” Horace barked.
“Here sir!” A new voice answered.
“Get the dropship ready for take off and inform Prelate Sivar of our current predicament. We will be coming in hot. Mr. Vycta looks a bit demonic at the moment so please do not shoot the bulbous black humanoid thing.”
The CNAP Embassy glittered in the night under its artfully placed lights. The grounds, with their shaped shrubbery and coiffed lawns and stone work, were immaculate except for the insectoid craft the size of a bus resting on the rear garden, covering the tennis courts.
“Slow down, and follow me in,” Horace said.
I slowed down rapidly, accompanied by a rapid series of pops as I dropped below the speed of sound, wind whistling around me. Horace slowed down in a flare of wings, making himself a beacon I homed in on, and then they folded and he dove for the embassy complex.
I sensed multiple faint contacts in the air rapidly moving in this direction. “Horace, I sense eight things headed this way, maybe three or four miles out.”
A small section of the machine’s carapace surface split into a raised hatch and short gangway. Concrete and dirt spewed as Horace came in for a sliding landing and he turned sideways to squeeze inside. I just dismissed my armor, leaving my own rut in the ground, and sprinted the rest of the way.
I stepped into a narrow cabin with large seats and no other people. The door closed and Horace said, “Suliss, burn ten g’s.” He turned to me. “Brace yourself.”
My body turned to lead and my hand sunk deep into the seat cushion. A dull roar sounded outside, but the vessel smoothly lifted up, twisting and tilting into its forward trim without sacrificing speed. I twisted into one of the seats and breathed, wincing. The air was like molasses and my lungs labored. I eventually just held my breath and circulated prana, drawing life through the flow.
“Welcome back, Lord Vycta,” Sivar’s voice drawled mockingly from speakers in the wall. “Trouble follows you, as always.”
“No,” I replied. “Trouble followed Horace. I was just fine here for two months by myself.”
“Sect Rouge witches, My Lady,” Horace responded. “I was alone. They must have thought I made a tempting target to take for ransom.”
“The Embassy was probably being watched and poor Vycta looks like a commoner, so they would not have interest in him,” Sivar replied.
“I’ve also only been once, during the day when the other CNAP tourists are needing government services. That, and I generally keep myself inconspicuous in public.”
“You just laze around your room in your underwear,” Horace interjected.
“I was recovering from exercising,” I replied.
“I’ve seen you exercise,” he bore down. “How is that not conspicuous?”
“I only go out during the dead of night and I fly nearly a hundred miles into the swamp, and then I only do telekinetic endurance work. Sure, it’s disruptive up close, but not from a distance, unless they are looking for something.” I shrugged. “There are a lot of tourists who do a lot of strange things. No one has hassled or approached me about it. Besides, it only happens every few days. Sifu kind of fucked me over so I can’t train like I used to, even when Paulos was my trainer.”
“It was for your own good,” Sivar replied. “Did you try to undo the effect?”
“No,” I replied. “And it… the time I had to contemplate what my life had been like with Sifu. It was a rarefied experience and I do not think it could ever be truly replicated. It’s a miracle I just escaped with these eyes. If the expenditure is commiserate with the experience, then the training was truly something that could occur maybe every five hundred years if I solely devoted myself to making money. But then I would be wasting time. The interdiction isn’t supposed to last forever, just a year or so…”
“Or,” Sivar said, “You could have asked me to do it.”
And the interdiction broke; I felt it break. The prana freed itself from its binding and bonded with my guts. I made a sound like a crushed baby chick and passed out mid-speech.
I dreamed. I saw the Earth perfect and round, and seven hundred motes of lights, representing concentrations of prana of varying sizes orbiting her. I drew back and I could see the moon. There were two concentrations there, another on Mars, three near Jupiter, and others at Saturn, Neptune, and Pluto, and something… massive in the darkness of the Ort Cloud and beyond that… a chasm of darkness.
I strained whatever remarkable eyes that were giving me this information, and I “saw” something. No, I felt it. The darkness formed a map in my mind and I could feel the masses of bodies like they were resting on my skin. Whatever I was looking at felt like a single pebble on my arm, while Jupiter was a baseball, and the sun was a ball of granite.
And then I felt something… odd… mass… motion heaviness, tremendous speed. Something was coming very, very fast from the opposite direction of the massive thing in the Ort Cloud. It struck the Earth, and a tenth of the lights went out.
I woke up on a hard table, my vision blocked.
“At least we know we aren’t being tested,” a voice said. “It will be an attack from the Atlanteans.”
“A distraction, you mean,” another said. “They can throw rocks but they need the bridge to get soldiers here.”
“And we have an entire Legion there with the proper equipment for dealing with an incursion,” Dion’s voice rang. “Now we just have to prepare the Principalities for tragedy.”
“Can you tell which ones will be destroyed,” someone, a man, asked.
“Can we petition the Celestials to intervene,” a woman asked.
“They already have,” Dion said. I heard the faint rustle of fabric.
One of the men who spoke earlier asked, “What is that?”
“Something I’ve been saving for an emergency,” Dion muttered.
“Dion!” one of the voices shrieked. Belatedly, I tried to pull off the mask, and a hand slammed my head onto the table.
“I knew you would listen instead of act,” Dion said. His prana burned through me, keeping my limbs from obeying. The prana-sheathed needle trembled and sang gently as it went directly into my head. And then I saw white.
“We have enough information,” one of the voice I had heard before said. “I… I do not know what to say.”
“‘Thank you’ would be appropriate,” Dion said.
“What about the sacrifice,” another voice asked.
“He is only a sacrifice if he dies,” Dion replied. (by Hank T Cannon)