The Sunlit Man | Chapter Three
The entire city vibrated, and the buildings swayed sickeningly. Cracks appeared in the metal street beneath Nomad, but as he began to panic, his captors calmly stepped across the cracks and pulled him into a building.
The city shook and split. It … it wasn’t breaking. It was disassembling. It shattered into hundreds of pieces, each chunk rising on its own jets, each with a single building on it. Each chunk was a ship.
Earlier, he’d seen how the hovercycles had locked into place along the edge, adding their thrust to the city. In a discomfiting moment, he now realized that every piece of the platform was similar. It wasn’t one big flying city; instead it had been hundreds of ships joined together.
Most of them were modest in size—the single-family-home version of a hovership. Many were smaller than that, built like tugboats, with wide decks and a cab on top. A few were larger, carrying wide buildings suitable for meeting halls or warehouses. They were all bounded with wide, flat decks that could be joined together to make the streets. As each ship flew off, railings rose at the decks’ edges and walls unfolded to reveal windshields and control cabs.
He got the impression that this city hadn’t been built as a cohesive whole that could also be disassembled—rather, this was a hodgepodge of individual vehicles that could work together. That helped explain the city’s eclectic quality. The place was like a caravan that, for the sake of convenience or defense, could assemble its pieces into a temporary town.
The fact that it worked so well together was remarkable. Responding to shouts and instructions Nomad couldn’t understand, many of the ships flew off into the distance, engaged in some activity. Nomad squinted and saw that several were scattering some substance onto the ground.
Seeds, he realized. They’re spreading seeds. A puzzle piece of this bizarre world fell into place. The Invested sunlight explained the fast-growing plants, maturing almost instantly as they absorbed the potent predawn light. He’d already proven he couldn’t siphon off that energy for himself, but the plants whispered there was a way—even if it was out of his reach.
Regardless, this society had a harvest every day. They must sow crops, then reap them mere hours later, before fleeing into the darkness. Was that light from the rings sufficient, or did they need to get in close, dare the edge of the deadly sunlight?
He had to fight back his curiosity with a bludgeon.
You make, he thought at himself, a terrible cynic.
The ship he was on didn’t follow those sowing the crops; it joined another group of ships that descended to the ground. Some here had buildings of two or three stories, the largest he had seen. They landed in a wide ring on the muddy ground. His ship came down and locked in next to an overbearing one with tiers of balconies on the front.
Glowing Eyes stepped up onto one of these and settled into a seat. Nomad inspected the muddy ring as lesser ships locked in on top of one another, creating a tiered structure four or five ships tall. He felt a sinking feeling as he recognized this setup. It was an arena. While the farmers went out to work, the privileged gathered on the front decks of their ships to enjoy some kind of show.
He groaned as his captors affixed a golden set of bracers to his forearms, just like the ones the ember people wore. Once these were in place, his captors hauled him to the front deck of their ship. When he tried to resist—instinctively taking a swing at one—he locked up. Then they easily tossed him down some twelve feet into a patch of rancid, waterlogged earth.
It wasn’t the first arena he’d been in, but as he pulled his face from the muck, he decided it was certainly the dirtiest. Several larger vessels that resembled shipping containers landed and opened their front doors. Officials in white coats forced out three tens or so people in ragged clothing, herding them into the ring. Nomad sighed, pulling himself to his feet, trying to ignore the stench of the mud. Considering what he’d been through the last few weeks, he figured the mud was probably trying to do him the same favor.
The prisoners forced into the ring did not seem like the fighting type. The poor souls looked almost as tattered and worn as he felt. They stumbled and tripped as they tried to move through the thick sludge, which stained their clothing.
No weapons were offered. So, Nomad thought, not a gladiatorial arena. They weren’t here to fight … but they might be here to die. Indeed, another door opened, and three of the ember people strode out, carrying weapons. A ship floated down—its engines’ heat uncomfortable—and dropped several large metal crates, each landing in the mud with a wet squelch. Obstacles, ranging in size.
The ember people came in running. The crowd cheered. The unarmed peasants scattered like hogs before a whitespine, frantic.
Nomad dashed through the mud. It only came up to his ankles, but it was treacherously slick, and stuck to his feet with surprising suction. He skidded toward one of the larger boxes, fully eight feet tall, and heaved himself up onto it by his fingertips.
He figured that if he made himself the most difficult target of the bunch, the ember people would chase easier prey first. That might give him time to figure some storming way out of this situation. But as soon as he got onto the box, a pair of black-gloved hands appeared, and a figure climbed up after him. Ember burning at the center of her heart, light green eyes fixed solely on him, her lips snarling. She had short black hair streaked with silver, and her left cheek was scored by a vein of blackness with a glowing line down its center.
While the other two ember people carried whips, this one held a long, wicked machete. Damnation. Why come after him? Nomad glanced toward the throne above where Glowing Eyes watched with interest.
Do you think, the knight asks his faithful squire, he wants to see what you can do?
“No,” Nomad whispered, backing away from the ember woman. “Remember the anger the leader displayed? The others treated me with some reverence for escaping the sun. He hated that.”
This wasn’t a test. Glowing Eyes wanted Nomad to be killed in public. Wanted him humiliated and defeated for everyone to see.
The ember woman came in swinging at Nomad, so he turned and leaped from the top of the enormous crate toward a smaller one. Here, he rolled purposefully off into the mud, pretending to scramble and find something there. As the ember woman came bounding down toward him, he heaved upward with a newly formed crowbar—deliberately not trying to hit the woman, but only to deflect the machete.
His body didn’t lock up. So long as he was focused solely on defense, it seemed that he could resist. He shoved the ember woman aside, causing her to lose her balance and fall. She was up a second later, half her face covered in mud, glaring at him in a feral way. She didn’t seem shocked by the sudden appearance of his weapon, and he’d tried to hide how he’d obtained it with his roll and fall. He hoped those watching above would assume that he dug it from the sludge somehow, that it was some piece of junk left by some other passing group.
Growling, the woman came scrambling for him. Behind, one of the poor peasants had been backed into a corner. An ember man grabbed her and thrust her aloft toward the sky with one arm. The crowd yelled in delight while the woman screamed in panic, though she didn’t seem to have been hurt.
Nomad dodged once, twice, three times—narrowly avoiding machete blows from the ember woman, who moved with supernatural speed and grace. He had more trouble with the mud than she did. Despite his years on the run, soil still felt unnatural to him. It was wrong not to have solid stone underfoot.
As a second person was caught, Nomad blocked another blow from the machete—then barely stopped himself from hitting the woman with a backswing. Storms, it was hard to restrain himself. But he also couldn’t dodge forever. Eventually those two other ember people would come for him.
He hit the woman’s machete extra hard on the next clash, knocking the weapon free from her muddied hand. As she howled at him for that, he turned and ran, hooking his crowbar on his belt—covertly making a small loop to secure it. He didn’t look to see if she followed, instead leaping onto a set of smaller boxes, then hurling himself up toward the tallest one, some fifteen feet high.
He barely grabbed the top, trying to haul himself up. Unfortunately his hands were slick with mud, and he started to fall.
Until a gloved hand caught him by the wrist. There was a man on top of the box already, one of the peasants—a tad heavyset, with pale skin, brown eyes, and a dimpled chin. With a determined expression, the man heaved, pulling Nomad the rest of the way up.
Nomad nodded to the grime-covered man, who gave him a gap-toothed smile in return. He glanced at Nomad’s weapon, then asked a question, sounding confused.
Something about … you killing? Aux said. I’m sorry. I can barely make out any of this. You need to get some Investiture.
“Sorry, friend,” Nomad said to the man. “Can’t understand. But thank you.”
The man joined him in watching the arena. Another captive was giving the ember people some trouble, dodging well, scrambling through the mud. It took two to eventually capture the poor woman.
The ember woman who had fought Nomad still ignored all other prey. She strode carefully around the large box, planning her ascent. As one more person was captured, the rest of the peasants gave up running, falling to their knees or leaning against walls, puffing in exhaustion.
The ones who had been captured were herded toward a different ship, screaming and crying—though notably not fighting back. Curious. From the way they acted, Nomad got the sense that—
“That bunch who were caught first are another set of condemned, Aux,” he guessed. “To be left for the sun.”
So … Auxiliary said in his head. This was some elaborate game of tag? To determine who’s next in line to be executed?
“That’s my best guess,” Nomad said. “Look how relieved the others are not to have been caught.”
Relieved, yes, the knight says with a morose sense of melancholy. But also … sad.
Auxiliary was right. Many of the survivors turned pained eyes toward the ones who had been taken. One man even screamed in a begging posture, falling to his knees, gesturing to offer himself instead. These captives all knew each other. The ones who had been taken were friends, maybe family members, of those who had survived.
Nomad’s ally started to climb down, but the contest wasn’t completely over. Not yet. Though the two other ember people had moved off after corralling the condemned, the third one—the woman with the silver in her hair—surged along the jumble of crates toward Nomad’s perch.
She wouldn’t stop until he’d been killed, he was certain of it. Well then. Time to see if he could trick his Torment. He waited tensely as the ember woman approached.
Nomad? Auxiliary asked. What are you doing?
“How heavy an object can you become?” he asked. “Without using up any of our BEUs?”
Every transformation I make uses a tiny bit of Investiture, but mostly not worth accounting. So I assume you’re asking what I can become without dipping into and greatly draining our reserves. Under those restraints, I can become a mass of metal weighing about a hundred pounds or so. Why?
Nomad waited until the ember woman was nearly upon him—leaping for his box from the next perch over. At that moment, Nomad hurled himself toward her. He raised Auxiliary over his head—worrying that he’d have to reveal his secret—and created a barbell of the maximum weight. Nomad held it in front of him, as if poised to swing it.
In response, his Torment sensed he was trying to do harm. His arms locked up. But the ember woman still slammed right into the large chunk of metal, gasping as the two of them smashed together in midair.
He essentially became another deadweight. They both plummeted to the mud below, and he landed on top of her, his barbell hitting her in the chest, his elbow smashing her throat. The combined weight drove her into the soft ground.
When Nomad stumbled to his feet, she remained down—conscious but stunned. Her ember fluttered, like an eye blinking in exhaustion.
The crowd’s yelling became a deathly silence.
“Doesn’t happen often, does it?” Nomad shouted, turning toward Glowing Eyes, seated on his balcony at the head of the arena. “Someone defeating your soldiers. Why would it ever happen, though? These are Invested warriors, and you pit them against unarmed peasants!”
Glowing Eyes didn’t reply, of course. Storms, Nomad hated bullies. He stepped forward, as if to challenge the man. As he did, however, a piercing shock of cold swept through him, originating at his wrists.
He looked down at the bracers he’d been given. They were leeching body heat right out of him, leaving him frozen, his muscles immobilized. He exhaled, his breath misting. He glared at Glowing Eyes—who held a device with buttons on it.
“B-bastard,” Nomad said through chattering teeth. Then fell face-first into the mud, unconscious.