In the last few minutes before the sun strikes Umria Gorge, all the inhabitants who can afford common sense but not shielded clothing have taken shelter. Rectifier Karbek practically has the streets of the topmost stratum all to himself as he hurries toward this morning’s target.
Practically, except for people like the heavyset man with unkempt hair painting nonsense doodles on a wall. Karbek slows down long enough to drop a warning: vandalizing this area could earn someone an overnight stay in a public reparation cage. The painter bellows something about salad poachers and Karbek moves right along. He’s on a mission, and this one’s beyond help.
A huge red and black banner dominates the wall in question. Amid stark pictures of thieves being brought to justice and compliant citizens being rewarded, its main text reads:
THE DOMINION’S PUBLIC SECURITY DECREE:
FREELOADING MUST BE ERADICATED
FOR A PROSPEROUS TOMORROW
Pathetic attempts by a dying regime to cling to power. But the En Koris Dominion still has some teeth left in its shriveled mouth. The man he finds in a twitching heap a little farther on can attest to that.
From the talon marks, a passing star-eye must have dropped him here after playing with him. From the viscous muck coating him, it snatched him out of the sump that occupies the middle of the gorge. Even on frigid winter mornings like this one there’s always a crowd down there, trawling the mire for any detritus of value. Once the star-eyes have flown off to roost for the day over the security beast pens, the indentured and the desperate get to work. Their window of clear skies is brutally short. This poor devil got eager and broke cover before the last of the winged predators had finished its patrol. Those who stay out too long, on the other hand, won’t be able to extricate themselves from the sump before the ray nets go up at sunrise.
“I’ll make them all pay. Rest easy.” A practiced twist ends his pain forever. It’s the least one can do for those who aren’t cut out for the struggle of this place.
He arrives at the square behind the east rim cable car dock. Here the street he’s on joins up with one that meanders downhill to a lower level. The barrier surrounding the dock takes up half the square. Otherwise he has an unobstructed view of the gorge and the cables spanning it.
The only other person in sight is a narrow-eyed woman skipping up the hill with her tub of water, muttering something singsong. The tub is leaking all over the place and she spills more with every step. He can tell there’s no point alerting her. Just one more weak mind that’s survived here longer than it should have. Maybe someday there’ll be help for her kind, once we’ve wiped out those disgusting – is that a snowman?
On the corner opposite the barrier, someone has indeed taken great pains to erect a full-size snowman, complete with sleeved and gloved arms, a row of three oversize buttons, and a mangy bograt-fur hat.
The feebleminded really are out in force today.
He conceals himself in the shadows as the woman passes by. A few minutes later, sections of the barrier come down and the night watch file out, just as their relief approaches from up the street. His intelligence was correct. Tarmin Enterprises has had to divert some of their mercenaries and run a reduced crew today. The ideal time to strike.
The captain steps forward and presents the ornate symbol of his office, the Light Keeper’s Staff. “Enter, you who would seize the light of the heavens.”
His replacement grasps it. “May its beams strengthen our allies and burn mmphmmghmpm-”
A mouthful of snowball interrupts his rigmarole. The others pivot, weapons raised, as he staggers back a few steps and drops the staff.
The snowman is shaking off its snow, revealing what could either be a man or an animate rag pile. A bulbous pair of eyes confirm the former. They’re all that’s visible between scarves and hat (which turns out to be not just bograt fur but an entire stuffed bograt). He plucks the buttons, actually three grapefruit-size orbs, off of his coat.
The Tarmin men would have reacted immediately to a full-on assault, but this takes them aback. One sinewy fellow with a nose that reminds Karbek of a bird’s beak lets out a laugh. He quickly stifles it under glares from his superiors.
“Who goes there?”
“Three men and a ball! Or…” The erstwhile snowman pauses and begins juggling as if to jog his memory. “Possibly vice versa.”
When several guards advance on him, he pulls something from each orb without breaking his rhythm. Three detonator pins clink on the ground.
A wary shout goes up. They all give him a wide berth, keeping their weapons trained on him as he skips halfway around the square, still juggling.Only Karbek spots two people darting from an alleyway as soon as the guards are facing away from them. Carrying a big cloth bundle between them, they slip through the perimeter.
So someone else is making a move. Who would be reckless enough to rely on a diversion like this?
“Catch!” The men scatter or dive to the ground as the juggler tosses his grenades. One bursts with a plume of colorful smoke, the other two scatter confetti and streamers with BANG written on them.
Everyone still standing charges him as he makes a break for it down the hill. Most of their feet slip out from under them when they hit the slope. It’s coated in ice, as if someone’s been splashing water all over it. He meanwhile squats low to the ground and glides off with his arms stretched out like wings, making a “Pchooooo” noise.
Karbek won’t get a better setup than this. He hits them with a salvo of darts first, then dons his visor and unsheathes his polearc with a crackle. The time for stealth is over. Whoever finds these bodies will know from the flash burns that they received justice from the blade of an Agnuk Alliance Rectifier.
Even at close range, they don’t stand a chance. They were disoriented already, and the blinding flares and smoke the polearc deals with every strike don’t help. It’s over in two minutes.
A few of the cable technicians are peering fearfully over the barrier. Karbek waves them away. The mercenaries are his only target for now. Today is about shaking their bosses up, a precursor to seizing full control. The actual operation of the ray nets can’t be disrupted.
The first solar alarm blares as he’s finishing off the wounded. He reflexively checks his scattersuit and visor for full coverage. The madman, jogging back up the hill, seems oblivious to it all. Even if he has some kind of shielding under that midden of an outfit, his face will be cooked if he doesn’t have shelter nearby.
“Who hired you?” Karbek barks at him. “How many others are here?”
“One, two, thirty-three, how many songs does a blind man see? You ever seen a high-wire act?” When this only provokes an exasperated stare, he extends his arms and prances along a crack in the pavement, humming. “Daah, dum dum da daah - like at the circus. You know, under the big top?”
He points to the cables, then southward to a vast, curved structure that spans the canyon. It overhangs a majority of the districts despite only being half finished and unlikely to progress farther anytime soon. The holes from the latest sabotage are still visible. That’s what you get when none of the rival powers can afford to let any of the others complete it.
It does look a little like half of a giant tent. But Karbek can’t let that kind of flippancy pass, nor hide his irritation. “Are you referring to the great firmament shield?”
“The big top, yeah. Just picture it under bright lights, with trapezes and acrobats and animal trainers and all...this town already has everything you’d need. Starting with tightropes, of course.”
Karbek has heard of such things before. The kind of frivolity that comes up in the last ravings of the senile or the chatter of newcomers from far away, still unbroken by reality.
“I don’t know when you arrived here or from where, but what you speak of isn’t a game. If that shield is ever finished, its masters will have full control of the gorge and the whole territory. Those ‘tightropes’? Tarmin strings ray nets from them. You understand what ray scatter does to flesh? I’m here to take that power from them, not amuse myself with it.”
“And not destroy it either, hm?”
“Destroy it? Destroy the energy source for two whole strata? ” I wasted breath and reason on this one. I’ll strangle the next insolence that comes out of his throat. “Bite that tongue before it-”
“Oh, right. Because then your people would never get the chance to run it themselves. Hold this, would you please?” Before Karbek’s hands can reach the offending throat, they find themselves occupied by an uncomfortably warm, squishy orange pouch. He stops short for a moment, then tosses the thing aside.The fool dives into a somersault, intercepting it before it can splatter. He bobbles it spastically from hand to hand before catching it atop his hat, on his knees a safe distance away.
“Clumsy. We’ll work on that.”
He unlaces his boots with the pouch still balanced on his hat. The shoes he has on underneath are skintight, thin-soled, useless for this weather. He nudges the boots down the icy hill, salutes them, and marches to a ladder built into the nearby rock face.
Karbek isn’t through with him, but he won’t get far. The terrace he’s climbing to only has two exits. Now where did the Light Keeper’s Staff get to? Claiming that will be as much of a blow to Tarmin as killing their men.
Speaking of which, one mercenary is still alive, the one with the beak. He got up while they were talking and has almost staggered his way out of the square. Karbek draws the polearc again, sends him sprawling with the long handle, and plants a foot on his chest with the blade pointed at his neck. The sun is upon them.
Something explodes against his temple.His visor clatters to the pavement. Before he can close his eyes the light assails them from all directions, piercing, shot through with sparks of color. He lunges blindly for cover, holding up his arms to ward off any further missiles and at least some of the scatter.
But there’s no pain yet, not even at his temple. He touches it – that cold wetness dripping from it is only water and ice crystals. Another snowball.
And the blaze of light can’t be scatter; the nets aren’t even up yet. He cracks an eye and lowers an arm.
Across the canyon, from hovel rooftops to stone outcrops to the spikes and bars of reparation cages, every frost-coated or snow-dusted surface refracts the sunrise. The first sunrise he’s ever seen unvisored. He stands there in awe long enough for both the snowball thrower and the mercenary to make their getaways. And he watches what happens next from one of the best seats in the house.
The whir and clank of the cable car starting up is the final warning to everyone still out in the open. The caged huddle under any scraps of material they can find, or failing that, curl into positions rumored to be more survivable. The gleaners who’ve left it too late drop whatever they were trying to haul out of the mire and struggle hopelessly toward dry ground. No one notices a motley figure weaving about on the terrace overhanging the east cable car dock. And he seems not to notice anything either, preoccupied with balancing an impressively ugly staff on his nose.
Too close to the parapet, he lunges to catch it as it topples. Over the edge he goes with a yowl that draws all eyes within earshot. The first thing most of them see is him dangling from the cable, legs flailing.
The car advances, unfurling the first ray net behind it. The metallic mesh is still in shadow, still inert. To everyone’s surprise the hapless idiot has gotten himself on top of the cable and is wobbling upright. He waves frantically at the approaching car, but if the drivers cared about human life they would have a different job. With the wheels of the car’s overhead carriage bearing down on his feet, he’s forced to walk, swaying wildly. Now he looks down, covers his face, and shuffles ahead blindly; now he pitches forward and goes on all fours for a bit; now a foot slips off and he has to hop on one leg while getting his balance back. The onlookers who’ve just been waiting for him to fall are beginning to root for him.
Then it catches up to him.
The carriage strikes his back foot and he goes flying over top of it, arms windmilling, in what becomes a full backflip. He lands on the cable behind the carriage, crotch first. His whole body goes rigid, slowly tilts to one side, and flips upside down.
Amid a peppering of applause, the first laugh breaks out.
He recovers himself and makes as if to crawl to safety, but something tugs him back. Somehow a strip of his clothing is caught in the carriage mechanism. His pants have begun to tear and unravel. He scrambles upright again, clutching at his clothes and trying to tug them free in vain. Against all known rules of physics and dress, his oversize drawers are now unraveling too.
The wheels jam. The cable car growls to a halt, with the leading edge of the net just feet away from sunlight. The wire walker gives one last pull at the fabric strip, loses his grip, and stumbles backward, tearing off the last shreds of his underpants. Cheers for the reprieve briefly overwhelm the laughter below.
He sticks his tongue out the corner of his mouth and bends over, wobbling like crazy. He starts unrolling the second pair of pants he had on underneath everything. Before he can finish, a hatch opens in the car and a hand tosses out a sleek cylinder. It ignites, streaking into an erratic spiral that tightens as it homes in.
He breaks into an ungainly run with one pant leg rolled down, rummaging in his coat. Back toward the cliff, as if he could escape that way.
Just before the heat seeker reaches him, he falls headlong, flinging something ahead of him. An orange pouch hits the ray net and splatters its glowing, steaming contents across it.
The seeker passes over his shoulder and strikes its new target with a burst of light. When the audience is able to look again, it sees the wire walker clinging to a net with a smoking gash in it. And it goes wild.
The cable car engine’s whine increases in pitch. It shudders, breaks the cloth snarled in its wheels, and lurches forward. Sparks fly from the net’s torn edges as the rent widens.
Two shots, from under the dock. A pair of harpoons puncture the net, each trailing a rope. As the net tears completely in two and the car surges into the light unimpeded, the ropes drag something red and black and billowy out into the open air behind it.
Everyone falls silent.
The cable car suddenly looks very small trundling across the canyon in the sparkly winter sunrise. Ripped from its circuit, a length of ray net flutters harmlessly below it. And tacked on to that by the harpoons, there flutters a giant, garish banner with some freshly painted modifications:
FREE------------ BE ER--------
And sliding awkwardly down that is – well, no one seems to know who he is. But as he reaches the end of the banner and drops out of sight onto the nearest high rooftop, he gets the ovation he deserves.
There isn’t a creature in this territory that can hide from a Rectifier. A piece of confetti here, a limping set of thin-soled footprints there, and soon Karbek’s tracked his new quarry to one of the condemned cliffside tenements. His polearc still hums at his side. Once drawn, the charged blade can’t be sheathed again until discharged, a requirement of its construction and his honor.
Crouched on the neighboring roof, he watches them through an upper window. The madman sits against a wall where a narrow-eyed woman is helping wrap his ankle. Another woman and a heavyset man, his hair neater now, cook breakfast at the fireplace. Their paint buckets and homemade harpoon launchers sit nearby.
He springs across the gap, headfirst through the window, rolls across the floor and up into attack stance with perfect grace, and hurls the polearc.
Crowds have gathered in the daylit streets for the first time in years, staying small enough not to draw reprisals. Those near the west rim either perk their ears up or flinch when they hear a crackling beneath the cliff. Brilliant light flashes from somewhere within the maze of old hovels. Are they about to get another show? No, it ends as abruptly as it began.
The smoke clears from the room. Three of the occupants are backed against the walls in terror. Karbek stands in the middle, regarding his handiwork.
“A circus, you say?” There’s a touch of unsteadiness in his voice, but not from the exertion.
Unmoved from his seat, the madman looks from the sparking weapon embedded in the wall next to his head, to its owner. His only reply is a grin that threatens to split his face in half.
“You’ll need tumblers. And sparklers.”