The Sunlit Man | Chapter Six
Nomad tapped on the driver’s shoulder and thumbed backward. She quickly glanced over her shoulder, said something he was quite certain was a curse, then bent lower over the controls. He reached for her rifle, but she put a protective hand on it and glared at him.
Great. He could just kick her free and take the vehicle; he was relatively certain he could fly it. But then she pulled up, gaining elevation.
Something about getting away from the dirty ground, up into the sky toward those rings … it had an effect on him. Wind against his face, the landscape shrinking below. It reminded him of better times. Pure, crisp air acting like a moral decongestant.
He smiled at that thought. It was wordplay his former master would have liked. And maybe there was something to be said for the thinner air up here. Maybe he had been, after all, a little bit airsick …
Nah. That was absolutely going too far.
Still, he kept his shield in place and didn’t try to steal the cycle. Instead he focused on the enemies behind. They crowded onto two sleek war barges. Long and flat, with large decks on the front and cabs at the back. Like flying speedboats, though with the control room farther back and more of a deck on the bow. Ember people stood on those decks, clinging to the railings. Their embers stoked in the wind, growing brighter, like headlights. Their postures determined, eager.
And they were gaining. How had the rescuers expected to pull off their raid when flying inferior ships? A sharpshooter in a white coat stepped out the side door of the cabin onto the deck on one of the warships and took aim. Nomad raised Auxiliary as a shield and noticed that the sharpshooter wasn’t one of the ember people. Those appeared to have only melee weapons.
The sharpshooter fired. Not at Nomad or the driver, but at the central fuselage between the seats. As he’d noticed earlier, this cycle he flew on had a strange construction. It featured a long central core with four open seats at the sides—each one designed to be straddled, with handholds on the front and its own windshield.
It was … like four smaller cycles had been attached to a larger core. Three of the spots were taken, and while there was a seat for Nomad at the front right, he was instead clinging to the center of the machine—holding tightly to an improvised handhold with one hand, using his shield with the other to protect his driver’s back.
The sharpshooter’s blast had hit about three feet away from Nomad, farther along the core fuselage. His driver cursed, looking back past him. He turned his shield transparent to let her see—because the sharpshooter fired again in the same spot, blowing off a piece of the cycle. This exposed some of the underlying mechanism, which glowed brightly.
Nomad, sensing the driver’s panic, slid down the fuselage and blocked the next shot—which exploded into sparks against his shield. He’d positioned himself directly behind the place the sharpshooter had targeted, hanging on with one hand to the slick side of the metal housing.
This gave him a good view of what the enemy had targeted: a small hatch on the fuselage. That, blown free, showed a compartment that cradled a brightly glowing chunk of stone … or maybe glass? Roughly the size of a grenade, it had the same red-orange glow as the engines and the blasts the guns were firing.
“Power source?” Nomad guessed, blocking another shot.
Almost assuredly, the knight says almost assuredly.
“Think that is powerful enough to get us off of this planet?”
“It’s powerful enough to fly these ships. That’s a lot of energy being expended.”
Yes, and that is a valid point, but different technologies across different planets are more efficient than others at converting energy to Investiture or vice versa. And your own efficiency at absorption and usage is less than many. My best guess is that you’d need twenty or thirty of those to achieve Skip capacity, but we’ll know better once you absorb it. Which I suggest you do only after we land. Unless you’d rather said landing be a little more abrupt than is normally desirable.
Ahead of him, the driver somehow leaned even lower behind the short windshield, the throttle shoved forward as far as it would go. The gap-toothed man Nomad had rescued clung to his seat, eyes wide, hair fluttering in the wind.
Nomad glanced ahead of them, hoping to see a fortress refuge, or a line of reinforcements speeding to their rescue. Instead there was only deep blackness. Above, the rings of the planet appeared to have moved in the sky. But they hadn’t actually moved; Nomad’s ship was flying forward so fast that it dramatically shifted the angle of the rings from his perspective. They were not only outpacing the rotation of the planet, but changing their orientation compared to stellar bodies.
Storms. They weren’t flying that fast. How small must this planet be, if flying a short time could round it so quickly? He should have seen from the horizon line, would have seen if he’d been less distracted. But the gravitation was relatively normal, which must mean a dense core, perhaps beyond natural levels for—
Stop, he thought at himself. The man who made calculations like that … you’re not that man any longer.
Either way, they were quickly approaching shadows ahead. A place under oppressive cloud cover, where even the reflected sunlight off the rings didn’t shine.
The sharpshooter had pulled back inside the cabin, but the enemy ships were gaining on them; Nomad could hear the ember people hooting and shouting. They crowded the front of their platforms, preparing to jump as soon as their ships got close enough to Nomad’s cycle.
So, the knight asks, how are you going to survive this without fighting?
“I’m hoping the Torment will relax a little,” he said. “Maybe take pity on me?”
Good luck with that, the knight replies with an exhaustive amount of rueful skepticism. Nomad missed the days of inflection in that voice. Aux might have started their relationship hesitant to show his true self, but after decades together, his expressiveness had grown and grown. Until … that day.
Nomad refocused on the task at hand, keeping his shield in place. The transparent metal let him watch the approaching ember people as four prepared to leap. Even if he could fight, he’d have trouble handling four at once—particularly with four more coming up on the second ship behind.
Fortunately he had one advantage. Everything he’d seen so far indicated that these beings didn’t expect anyone to be as strong as they were. So Nomad took a deep breath, stood up, dashed along the length of the hovercycle, and jumped.
It felt familiar.
Wind against his tattered clothing.
An infinite expanse above.
Land below, looking up, aspirational.
Nomad and the sky weren’t currently on speaking terms. But they’d been intimate for some time in the past, and he still knew his way around her place.
He felt … stronger now. Where he’d struggled to make the leap onto that box earlier in the day, this time he soared.
The ember people watched with shock at the distance he covered. He soared over their heads, hitting the wall of the cabin behind them with enough force to shake the vessel. He slid down it to the front deck of the ship, grinning, summoning Auxiliary as a sword …
Oh right. No swords.
… summoning Auxiliary as an extra-large wrench. He pointed it at the four ember people, then charged them. They made way for him, sidestepping and surrounding him. He didn’t swing, though. He spun toward one of them and formed Auxiliary as a shield right as they attacked. He blocked the blow, then threw the ember person back before spinning to block the next attack.
He met each attack with alacrity—though having a huge, transparent, moldable shield was an undeniable advantage. He had to be careful not to push them too aggressively, lest his Torment activate.
Nomad, the knight warns, check the other ship.
He glanced to the side, seeing that the second vessel had almost caught up to the hovercycle. His gap-toothed friend was listing, strapped in place but losing consciousness from his pain. The captive ember woman fought against her restraints and howled toward her allies, but the driver—leaning low—was concentrating on trying to fly. She couldn’t use her gun, as she had to keep weaving and darting to stay away from the enemy ship.
To no avail. It was faster and more maneuverable. She’d soon have four enemy soldiers crawling along the fuselage toward her. Nomad blocked one more blow, then turned and shoved between two ember people, leaping the distance to the second enemy vessel.
Again, a moment in the air. Glorious.
Then he arrived, just barely grabbing the ship’s deck and slamming down beside the vessel, hanging off it. He formed Auxiliary as a ladder, hooked it to a railing above, then scrambled up to face a new group of surprised ember people. Shocked by his sudden appearance, the pilot lost control for a moment, causing the platform to veer toward its companion ship. That let the four ember people there—now wholly focused on Nomad—jump across the narrowed distance. That put all eight in position to fight him on one crowded deck.
In a fight of one against many, chaos favored him. A trained military squad would have easily surrounded and pinned him, but these people didn’t fight with coordination. They came at him individually, shouting angrily. They were quick and strong, but their usual advantage over others had taught them the wrong lessons. They thought they didn’t need to fight as a team. He’d seen it many times.
He rolled to the deck, skidding and coming up with his shield, blocking the machetes and maces that managed to track him. Other ember people stumbled or tripped one another in their eagerness to get to him. He jumped to his feet, throwing one man back into several others, then leaped closer to the cockpit at the back of the long deck.
Through the window, he saw the pilot in her white coat, watching him with a panicked expression. She hit a button, and a blast shield slid up over her window, sealing her off. Fortunately he wasn’t after the pilot. Because Nomad spotted a hatch set into the floor of the deck, similar to the one that had been blown off the hovercycle.
He formed Auxiliary as a crowbar and rammed it into the hatch’s lock. The hatch popped open, revealing the power supply.
Ah … the knight says with begrudging admiration.
The power cell inside glowed with a similar light to the spear tip that made the ember people, but the sheen wasn’t quite so … violent. To be careful, Nomad formed Auxiliary into a gauntlet on his hand and reached in, then ripped the power cell out. The ember people tried to rush him from behind, but the ship—now without power—dropped beneath them. Nomad got off one last good jump, hurling himself back toward the first warship.
Behind him, the ember people howled as they fell. The unfortunate ship plowed into the ground below just as Nomad landed on its companion.
You should be able to carry that power source without it hurting you, Aux said. It’s different from those spear tips somehow. It is more stable.
He nodded, taking the glowing power source in one hand while dismissing the gauntlet. As he did, he leaned out over the side, looking down, and noticed that the ember people were pulling themselves from the mud. Here, the ground seemed as wet as it had been at the arena. Maybe rain fell in the darkness. Then, as the planet rotated that landscape toward the sun, the reflected light—and Investiture—of the rings made things grow. Finally the sunrise approached, burning it all away.
What a strange life these people had, always a few hours from total annihilation. No wonder they didn’t trust one big, indivisible ship to carry them. Bunches of little engines gave much more redundancy. Not to mention the chance to detach your home from the others and move on ahead if something went wrong with the community.
Remarkably he thought he counted all eight ember people climbing from the wreckage below. Damnation. These things were hard to kill.
He raised his shield and turned toward the cockpit of this ship, where the pilot was accompanied by that sharpshooter. Both stared at him, wide-eyed, through the glass. The sharpshooter raised her rifle at him. And in a panic, she fired—melting holes through the windshield, unloading at him.
Each shot bounced off his shield. Then predictably they tried to raise their own blast shield. So he tossed Auxiliary at the window—jamming him into the mechanism so it failed to cover the half-melted window.
Nomad advanced. Completely unarmed, of course—and worse, completely unable to harm these two. But they didn’t know that. He pointed at their gun, then glared down at them. He’d noticed that people here were, on average, shorter than those of his homeworld. He’d often felt short compared to the towering Alethi, but here he was the tall one.
Intimidated by the strange man holding an energy core in his bare hand, the sharpshooter obeyed Nomad’s demand. She lowered the gun, then—in response to his miming—tossed it out through the ruined windshield. She stepped back, raising her hands. The pilot kept at his controls, and as Nomad seized the gun, the man rolled the ship.
When they returned to verticality, the sharpshooter was collapsed on the cabin’s floor. The strapped-in pilot had kept his place. Nomad stood where he had before, Auxiliary having formed a magnetic boot around one of his feet. His heart pounded; he hadn’t been sure that would work. He smiled with relief, raised the energy core to his face, and breathed in.
It had taken him months to get the trick of that. He was certain that the “breathing in” part was purely psychological, but it somehow facilitated the action. Being able to feed on Investiture was an aftereffect of the burden he’d once carried, the thing that had given him his Torment.
He needed a power source that was potential, not kinetic. Scientific terms that, in this case, meant he was extremely good at leeching batteries or other stable sources of Investiture. However, something like an energy blast being shot at him or—unfortunately—the power of that sun wouldn’t work. Too intense, too kinetic. It was also storming difficult for him to get Investiture out of a person or another living being, requiring very unique circumstances.
In this case, though, he had what he needed: a battery of some sort. He easily absorbed the Investiture of that fragment of the sun—a ball of molten light that somehow wasn’t the least bit hot in his fingers. As he took the Investiture in, the entire core dimmed, its energy drained. Depleted, it looked like dark glass or one of the gemstones from his homeworld, except there were more smooth ripples and bumps on its surface, like melted glass or slag.
Inside his head, Auxiliary sighed in satisfaction. That’ll do, the knight tells his unwashed companion.
“How much did we get?” Nomad asked.
That jumped us up to over ten percent. Still want me to Connect you to this land so you can speak the language?
“Absolutely,” Nomad said. “I’m tired of hearing only gibberish.”
Right, Aux said. Give me a few minutes, and I’ll have it done.
Nomad nodded. He pointed the rifle at the pilot, disguising the way his arms locked up by making it seem like he was standing there, stoic, ready to fire. The pilot grew even paler at the sight. Nomad lowered the gun as soon as his muscles relaxed, then gestured to the side.
The pilot obediently took him in close to the fleeing hovercycle. Nomad nodded, then pointed at the pilot and gestured dramatically backward with as much of an ominous expression as he could form. He tried to make the implication as clear as possible: I’d better not see you following.
Nomad jumped onto the hovercycle. It seemed the enemy pilot had understood Nomad’s command, because he immediately turned his craft and fled toward the other ships that were giving chase in the distance. The landscape was growing darker, and ahead, rainfall masked the air further. As they sped toward it, that sheet of rainfall reminded Nomad of another storm back home. A place he missed terribly but could never visit again, lest he lead the Night Brigade to people who loved him.
The gap-toothed man was staring at him in awe. When had he regained consciousness? The woman flying the hovercycle glanced back. Then paused. Her eyes went wide as she saw the one ship fleeing, the other one nowhere in sight. Storms. Hadn’t she been watching? Had she only now noticed what he’d done? Judging by her expression, that was indeed the case.
He sighed. By this point, he had gotten accustomed to the way many outsiders looked. He didn’t think they were “childlike” because of their odd eyes; in fact, he had come to recognize the many nuances of countless ethnicities. He knew Alethi with eyes as open and wide as a Shin, while he’d met offworlders who could have passed for Veden—even within a population of people who generally wouldn’t have.
Still, he couldn’t help thinking they looked a little bug-eyed when expressing surprise. Well, to each their own. He clambered forward to the seat to her right. In the process, though, he caught his foot and dropped his rifle over the side.
He leaned out and reached for it, then came up empty-handed and shrugged.
The driver said something to him, sounding frustrated.
“Yeah,” he said, settling down in the seat across from hers, “I bet you’re annoyed I lost a gun. Those don’t seem plentiful around here. Ah, well.” He sighed and shook his hand. His thumb was working fine, and the pain had faded, the scrapes on the sides of his hand healed. “Don’t suppose you’ve got anything good to drink?”
He said this in Alethi on purpose, which wasn’t his native tongue. Previous experiences had taught him not to speak in his own language, lest it slip out in the local dialect. That was how Connection worked; what Auxiliary was doing would make his soul think he’d been raised on this planet, so its language came as naturally to him as his own once had. Since he generally didn’t want people listening in on what he said to Auxiliary, it was better to get into the rhythm of speaking Alethi when he didn’t wish to be understood.
Regardless, the driver of the hovercycle could only stare at Nomad as they passed into the darkness of this strange, oppressive cloud cover.