Continued from 6. A Strange Benefactor.
The story begins with 1. The Director.
Vhen leaped to the front seats, leaving Julin in the back.
Julin turned to peer back through the rear window of the sky car. His mind didn’t really register what his eyes saw. His father had suspected the plot against the Emperor? Was it possible? Why had he gone along with it then? Julin had reviewed hours and hours of logs on his father’s command ship. Nothing he had seen or heard had given any indication that his father suspected anything.
The sky car lurched to the right as Vhen’s companion switched to manual controls and pulled the sky car into a long, hard bank. Julin watched another sky car peel out of the traffic flow to follow them. They descended, picking up speed.
Vhen dug into a rucksack at his feet and pulled out a bundle which he tossed to Julin. “Here, put this on.” He pulled out another bundle and began putting it on himself.
Julin watched and followed suit. Yes. He had decided. He would trust this man, at least for now. The straps looped over both arms, over the back, and around both legs.
“Ever used a wing suit?” asked Vhen.
Vhen grinned. “Nothing like learning. We’ll jump together. Let go, count to five, and pull this cord.” He indicated a short cord at his shoulder. “You’ll have to figure the rest out. Try to stay close to me. Watch what I do. Stay away from the buildings.” He looked at the pilot. “Ready?”
The other man held the controls lightly, but his attention was fixed straight ahead. “Ready.”
Vhen came back. He and Julin crouched at the side door.
“On my mark,” called the pilot.
Vhen grabbed hold of the seat next to him. Julin followed suit just in time as the sky car, traveling at great speed, slewed in the air. The door flew up, and a blast of wind hit them hard.
Vhen and Julin grabbed hands. They leaped. Cleared the sky car. Let go.
Buildings all around. The ground a blur. Wind whipping. One, two, three, four, five. Julin pulled the cord.
A ribbed membrane sprouted somehow, extending past his arms, joining down to his leg on each side and between his legs. The jolt nearly broke his back. He tumbled, wings folded. Curled into a ball. Stretched out. Caught air. Stabilized. The world stopped spinning. Where was Vhen? He caught sight of him ahead and above. Angled his body, gained altitude, lost speed. Tested with arms and legs. Yes.
Soon he was following Vhen, mimicking him as they wound their way around buildings, down, down, wind whistling in his ears. He looked and saw no sky cars following them. Could one even match their maneuvers? He liked this new gadget.
The ground grew ever nearer. Julin saw a park off to the side through the buildings. Vhen seemed to be angling for it. How do I land this thing? He had some guesses. He grinned, the wind cold on his teeth. Nothing like learning. He backed off, giving Vhen plenty of distance ahead of him.
Vhen was slowing down too, angling up to catch air. They appeared to be gliding upwind now. Ahead, Vhen skimmed the ground. Then he folded himself in half and seemed to almost leap in mid-air, wings perpendicular. The maneuver stalled him, and he landed light as a feather on two feet. Then it was Julin’s turn. He tried to match what he’d seen. He folded, tumbled, stretched, caught air, hit ground, bounced, tumbled, bounced. The world went black.
When Julin regained consciousness, Vhen was kneeling beside him looking grave. Julin blinked. A slow smile spread across Vhen’s face. He chuckled. “Not bad for your first time. You don’t seem to have anything broken.”
“Can I keep this thing?” asked Julin, grinning now from ear to ear.
Vhen laughed. “Yes, but we need to get out of the open. Come!”
He showed Julin how to twist the cord and signal the wings to retract. Then they ran across the park into the shelter of the nearest building’s lobby.
“We’ll have to keep moving,” said Vhen. “There’s another tunnel entrance about two miles away.” He started walking.
Julin stretched his legs to catch up. “That’s where they’ll expect us to go!”
“Of course. We’ll go up instead of down. Once he’s clear of pursuit, my friend will meet us at the perch.”
Julin shook his head and grinned. “Your friend is quite a pilot. Who is he?”
“Nobody you need to know about.”
Julin shrugged. Made sense. “Earlier, you mentioned training me. I like how you work, so I’ll consider it. But my first priority is to clear my father’s name. Can you help with that?”
Vhen nodded. “Yes, I think I can. You need a benefactor, someone with clout to protect you and the leverage to use what you know. Am I right?”
“Yes. Without Pracclen, I’m out of ideas.” They passed through the doors into the street again. The winter wind bit at Julin’s cheeks.
Vhen sighed. “As I suspected. You arrived at Siben without a backup plan? All your hopes were pinned on a gangster who wanted the throne?”
“Well, when you put it that way…” Julin chuckled.
“You have a natural ability. Your intuition is strong, and you lead with it. Your father was right in seeking your training. But high naturals like you have a weakness. You rely too much on intuition and improvisation, not enough on knowledge and planning.”
Julin smiled ruefully. “I discovered that years ago. Tell me something I don’t know.”
Vhen made a wry face. “You say you know your weakness, and yet here you are.”
Julin held up his hands. “What? I found the Lost Fleet when nobody else could. That was my intuition. I got out of Pracclen’s ahead of the Enforcers. That was my intuition. I just jumped out of a sky car with nothing but a wingsuit. I’m not dead thanks to my intuition. Three out of four isn’t so bad!”
“Yes, but based on your intuition, you overcommitted to a deal with an unreliable gangster without a backup plan. If not for me and the Geniit, you would be dead or in custody right now. At this level of the game, it only requires one mistake to be taken out of play.”
Julin had no response for that. They walked on down the gray street in mutual silence. The adrenaline rush had faded, and Julin began to feel dreadfully sore and cold. He walked with his arms folded, hunched slightly. Vhen had to quicken his pace now to keep up with Julin’s long strides.
Finally, Vhen spoke. “You need a benefactor, or so you think. I know of one. My employer, actually.”
“Ah, there it comes. The real reason. Do tell.”
Vhen smiled and raised his eyebrows. “I’ve told him about you, and it piqued his interest. He wants to meet you.”
“And who is he?”
“I doubt you would believe me.”
Vhen chuckled. “I hesitate to tell you, because, if you want my true opinion, I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“For me to meet your employer?”
Vhen made a wry face. “I’m more concerned about him meeting you.”
Julin looked at him. What game was he playing? “Then why did you tell me?”
Vhen sighed. “Because otherwise I would quickly run out of usefulness to you, and you would need to continue on your own.”
Julin started to contradict him, but Vhen interrupted. “No, you can’t afford gratitude right now. That will come another day. By myself, I can’t protect you long term. The Geniit are only a loose alliance. We can’t stand against the focused power of the Empire.”
They reached the building Vhen wanted and went in to the lobby. Vhen stopped by the elevators and looked hard at Julin. “You have only two choices,” he said. He pointed down. “You can hide, go underground, stay out of the light for a while and then try again once things cool down.”
Julin looked at the floor and imagined the tunnels. How long? How long would he have to wait down there?
Vhen pointed up. “Or, you can come with me. Take the risk. Meet my employer and accept what he can offer.”
Julin looked up. With prominent help, he would continue to be a prominent target. If Pracclen himself couldn’t protect him, who could? He shook his head. Either way, he would still have to rely on himself, on his intuition, to stay out of trouble. Either way, there was no rest.
But with a powerful benefactor, he would have powerful allies. He would have leverage and a hope of clearing his father’s name and bringing his father’s murderers down. Kolteo especially.
And he would have Vhen. He’d only just met him and already he valued this strange new ally. The man knew a side of his father that he had never suspected. Julin wanted to know more.
Vhen waited expectantly, watching Julin, saying nothing.
Finally, Julin sighed and looked Vhen in the eyes. “Alright. I’ll meet your employer, and we’ll see where it leads.”
Vhen smiled and sagged a bit in relief. “I was hoping you would say that.”
“So, who is it, this employer of yours?”
“Atlesefa Altolcz. He’s upstairs.”
Julin’s eyes widened. “Altolcz? The Peer?”
“Yes, the Peer.”
Julin laughed and took a deep breath. “Well, alright. He’s going to have the resources to protect me, at least.”
“There’s one problem.”
Vhen hesitated. “Well, I expect that he will try to betray you the first time he meets you.”
Continued in: 8. The Interview…
Julin meets with a new benefactor, the mercurial Peer Altolcz. But not all is as it seems…
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