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Pirate Sun

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Pirate Sun

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Author: Karl Schroeder
Publisher: Tor, 2008
Series: Virga: Book 3
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Hard SF
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Synopsis

Return to Virga, a bubble universe artificially separated from our own future universe, and the setting of Sun of Suns and Queen of Candesce.

Chaison Fanning, the admiral of a fleet of warships, has been captured and imprisoned by his enemies, but is suddenly rescued and set free. He flees through the sky to his home city to confront the ruler who betrayed him. And perhaps even to regain his lovely, powerful, and subversive wife, Venera, who he has not seen since she fled with the key to the artificial sun at the center of Virga, Candesce.

Schroeder sets a whole new standard for hard SF space opera.


Excerpt

Chapter One

THEY HAD PROVIDED him with two torturers today.

Chaison Fanning put out one hand to stop himself in the doorway, aware that the prison guard behind him would kick him into the room in a second or two. "Gentlemen," he said in as even a tone as he could muster, "to what do I owe the honor?" Neither answered, but it didn't matter; just hearing himself speak civilly counted as a victory. With luck, that brief moment might sustain him through what ever was about to follow.

Chaison flew the rest of the way into the interrogation room before the guard could kick him. "Against that wall," said the man who usually questioned him. Chaison didn't know this individ-ual's name, but thought of him as the reporter because of the identification tag clipped to his uniform. The embossed white square announced that its wearer was part of the JOURNALISM DIVISION. A piece of tape obscured the name. At first Chaison had thought the tag was a joke of some kind; he had learned otherwise.

Curled up in the weightless black of his cell at night, Chaison's thoughts often turned to killing the reporter. They were fragile, weak fantasies—faint hopes, really, often shattered by panic as he awoke to find that he had drifted into the center of the little chamber. His fiailing hands would find no purchase on wall, ceiling, or floor. In such moments there was nothing solid to be touched in any direction, no proof of his own existence but a scream; no face in his mind but that of his nameless torturer.

Yet he refused to scream, though other men in other cells did. Sometimes their voices brought him back to himself. A few nights ago he'd been drifting in the all- consuming dark when suddenly he'd heard a young voice calling out in the night. At first Chaison had thought his mind was playing tricks on him, because he recognized the voice. But he'd shouted in reply, and the other had answered.

That was how Chaison had learned that one of his crewmen was imprisoned with him. The knowledge had spread like fire in him, giving him a new sense of purpose. That knowledge had emboldened him to greet his tormentor just now.

"Put your hands in the cuffs," said the reporter from his position near the room's single barred window. Chaison wiped a smear of mold off the palm of his hand. In a building like this that had never known gravity, the stuff accumulated everywhere; this patch stood straight out from the doorjamb like fine white fur, just as it coated the walls of his cell. The new man closed the rusty rings over his wrists and Chaison steeled himself for a sucker punch or something that would soften him up for the coming questions. To his relief, the man just met Chaison's eyes briefly, then hopped lightly across the cell to position himself behind the desk podium with the pale- faced chief torturer.

The badge on his gray uniform read, HELLO, MY NAME IS. Underneath this somebody had scrawled 2629.

"Here's the one you wanted to see, Professor," said the reporter. He seemed a bit nervous. Flipping open a thick dossier, he held it out to the light from the window. "Chaison Fanning, former ad miral of the fieet of Slipstream. Our most important guest."

"Hmmpf." The visitor took the file carefully and thumbed through it. He glanced at Chaison again, silver cloud light glinting off his wire- frame glasses. He seemed out of place here; he did, in fact, look a bit like a literature professor Chaison had once had.

Chaison cleared his throat. "I don't understand," he said, unable to hide the bitterness in his voice. "I've given a full deposition. You know everything."

"No, we don't!" The reporter glared at him murderously. "Did they clear you to read my articles in the Intelligence Internal Journal?" he asked the visitor. "He's been cooperative up to a point and I've been able to make most of my deadlines. But there's a crucial piece of information he's holding back. He's very disciplined, he exercises constantly in his cell, jumping from wall to wall, doing isometrics... Seems willing to die rather than give us this last thing he knows. I've had some trouble finishing the last article in the series. I assume that's why you're ...?"

"Mm, I'm not here to fault your work, you were always a good student," said the professor in a bland tone. "But let's start with the basics. It says here you..." He read for a moment, then raised his glasses and looked again. "Did this really happen?"

"Officially, no," said the reporter with a sigh. He watched in evident disappointment as the other flipped through the dossier with an expression of increasing incredulity. After a minute or so the professor pulled himself together and looked up at Chaison.

"You attacked and crippled our fleet," he said.

Chaison nodded.

"With six ships?"

Chaison shrugged modestly. He allowed himself a slight smile.

"How was this accomplished?"

"The better question," said Chaison, "is why you never heard anything about it."

The reporter reached behind himself and unclipped some nasty darts from the board next to the window. Chaison tried to swallow past a suddenly dry mouth.

"Hang on," said the visiting professor, putting a hand on the reporter's arm. "Let's all be civil for the moment. I presume that I wasn't cleared to know about this attack," he said to Chaison, "because it's a national embarrassment."

Chaison eyed the reporter, then said, "Your people launched a sneak attack on my country. I caught your fleet within your own territory and decimated it."

To put it this way was to sum up a gambit of high desperation, take the exhilaration of battle, the panic, and shouted orders on the bridge of a smoking ship that dripped blood into the sky as it maneuvered in pitch blackness at two hundred miles an hour—to take all of that and reduceit, obscenely, to simple history. Impossible; the remembered sound of bullets hitting the hull, thick as rain, woke Chaison every night. At random times on any given day, some quality of light might easily take him back to that bridge, where men's faces were lit only by the instruments and the roiling darkness outside the armored windows flashed into incandescence every few seconds, as this or that ship exploded in the night.

"Amazing." The new man was too absorbed in his reading to notice that Chaison had slipped into a reverie. "It says you used something called ‘radar' to maneuver your ships at full speed in cloud and darkness. Apparently we recovered several working devices from the wreckage of your ships." Now he looked puzzled. "So why do we need you at all? Is there some secret to operating this radar that he's not telling us?"

"Well, no. And yes," said the reporter. "They work just fine. They just . . . don't do anything."

The professorial visitor sighed and tilted his glasses up to rub his eyes. "Explain, please."

Chaison had fought every inch against admitting even these details to the reporter, despite the fact that Falcon Formation's engineers already knew them. They had the wreckage of several of Chaison's ships to examine, after all; they could put two and two together. Yet even though Chaison had in the end bit the words of admission out one by one, in a blur of delirium and pain, he would gladly fight the questions again. There were still facts for which he would die rather than reveal.

The reporter seemed eager to show his former teacher his investigative skills. "Radar's a well- known technology," he said. "It just doesn't work. It's like those, what- you- call ‘computers' and other electrical- onics things. Their operation is permanently jammed by thesun of suns."

In his life Chaison had met few people who knew that there were higher technologies than the simple steam- and fuel- powered mechanisms they'd grown up with. Fewer still knew that it was Candesce, the vast self- contained fusion sun at the center of the world, whose radiation rendered radar and similar systems inoperable anywhere in Virga. Chaison himself, nobly born and educated at the best schools, had only understood this in an abstract sort of way, until a year ago.

The visitor shook his head and frowned. "You're saying Candesce makes radar impossible.Thenhow did he get it to work, unless..." His eyes widened.

"Unless he's been inside Candesce," said the reporter with a nod. "Or knows somebody who has. Maybe the home guard . . ."

"But the home guard's neutral!" The professorial man shook his head rapidly, rubbing at his balding scalp with one distracted hand. "They exist to defend Virga from outside threats, they don't intervene in internal affairs!"

"That's what I always thought," said the reporter, with the air of a man who's recently come into possession of a great and secret truth.

Chaison almost laughed. Weren't interrogators supposed to keep their speculations from their victims? These two shouldn't even be talking in front of him, much less debating the facts of his case.

"This is what he won't tell us," said the reporter. "How did Slipstream get around Candesce's jamming field? Did they shut it off? Did they find a way to shield the ships from it? You see, I've been trying to wrap up my series for months with an appeal to the navy to develop this capability. It was no ordinary attack. If we knew this—if we had this ability—"

"Yes, I see." The professor met Chaison's gaze. It was odd, though: Chaison didn't see the lizard- like coldness in that gaze that he'd come to expect from the faceless apparatchiks of Falcon's brutal bureaucracy. Was this man here to try a new tactic— kindness, perhaps?—in hopes of prying these last, most crucial facts from Chaison?

Copyright © 2008 by Karl Schroeder


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