As of Friday, June 15, 2007, SCI FICTION will no longer be availabe on SCIFI.COM.
SCIFI.COM would like to thank all those who contributed
and those who read the short stories over the past few years.

She pulled the trigger on her pistol, and it hummed as an electric spark pushed a steel bullet silently from the barrel.
The once panoramic view had been largely replaced now by the other dirigibles and their gondolas.
Changing the Guard
by Matthew Claxton

Leather wings scissored across the moon's face, giving her a grim shadow smile for an instant. The flyer dove through a cloud bank and flapped hard to port, wing-cables whining as the electric motor strained. Wind keened past her quilted flight suit and leather helmet.

The Presidential Palace floated in an amphitheater of drifting clouds. Its rotors slowly turned against the night breeze, holding it in place above the valley.

By day the many balloons that held it aloft were a riot of color in the sun. Its gondolas were draped with banners of holy crimson, emblazoned with the presidential seal in gold. Moonlight gave the lie to its glamour. The bright colors were lost, and the bulges resembled nothing so much as a tumor in the sky.

Lin banked to find an updraft and gained altitude again. She pulled on the wings and felt her strength joined with that of her machine. A kick at the stirrup controls and she was above the palace. Another kick and she was gliding above the largest of the airships, the oldest, the center about which the others clustered. It was a long tube of canvas, gray, given shape by metal struts. Above, where no onlookers could see, it had been allowed to remain functional and colorless for more than two decades. Its fabric was weather-stained and several of its gas cells had torn and collapsed. Only the other balloons and dirigibles held it aloft.

She landed running, flapping twice to halt momentum. She folded and shucked the wings, lashing them to a ring she hastily glued to the airship. Lin pulled one battery from the harness and slipped it into a leather holster on the small of her back. She snapped an insulated wire running from the butt of her pistol to the battery. She drew the long-barreled gun and began padding across the surface of the dirigible, searching.

The hatch was exactly where she had been told. For a man who had spent a decade as a sot and opium fiend, her informant had a remarkable memory. No doubt he recalled the days when the guard had changed and the first ruler of the dirigible had fallen.

· · · · · 

Lord John Althorp stood in the entrance to the lamasery and shielded his eyes from the sun with a gloved hand. Built on the slopes of the highest of the Holy Mountains, it was the building closest to the gray dirigible that hung in the sky, a shadow threatening death.

"Too long a shot for your muskets, eh?" he said.

The head lama, surrounded by a retinue of lower-ranked monks in saffron and red robes, nodded soberly.

"Our weapons are not as fine as those of the west. Only our mountains have protected us from the British, the Chinese, the Russians. How can these now defend our valley from one who conquers the sky?"

"Don't worry, your eminence. Dr. Tzu doesn't have a monopoly on flight. Does he, Harry?"

"'Course not, my lord. Not since the monks got me the hardwood to fix up Phoenix's cracked rotor. She's ready to fly any time you give the word." The ruddy mechanic grinned and scratched his chin, leaving a new smear of engine oil.

The lama raised a hand, questioning.

"But the doctor's heat guns. They hold our people hostage in the valley below. And we have already had a demonstration." The smell of charred wood and roasted flesh was inescapable. It had been less than a week since the doctor had reduced the lamasery's east wing to ash on the wind.

Althorp grinned, white teeth gleaming.

"I should tell you about vacuum tubes sometime, your eminence. They require time to heat up before use, time we shall not give the good doctor." He patted the bulky pistol on his hip. "I'll gas his gun crews unconscious first, and Harry will smash the tubes. Then it's for the doctor, and an end to his tyranny."

The adventurer gave a cursory bow to the lamas and strode back into the building and toward an open courtyard. A roaring noise and fierce wind through the corridors was followed by the ascent of a gyrocopter, two men in heavy coats and leather flying helmets at its controls.

· · · · · 

Lin spent several minutes trying to pick the rusty padlock before giving up. She slid picks and tension bar back into one of her flight suit's many pockets and sliced the lock in two with bolt cutters. After finding and rerouting an alarm wire, she opened the hatch, tugging against years of encrusted guano. The ladder inside led down into darkness, a cavern between the massive gas bags. She entered and descended slowly, testing each thin steel rung before trusting it with her weight. The revolutionary committee had chosen her partly for her small size, for the chirothopter could not carry a large man. She had not realized her light build would be an asset here too. Twice rungs broke, and rusty shards fluttered into the shaft, but she did not fall.

At the bottom, she felt silently until she found a rusty latch. She turned on her electric torch and drew an oil can from her belt, applied it to the metal until it only creaked a little when tugged. The latch thunked home and she doused her torch. Gun in hand, she eased the hatch open.

A corridor stretched in a curve for dozens of yards, lit by soft electric lights. Its once-rich green and gold carpet was frayed down the middle, and the teak wall paneling had dried and fissured in the high altitude. There were no guards or servants in sight.

Lin took her bearings and padded to the stern of the dirigible. Her felt boots left only the sounds of a cat's footfalls as she passed a dozen closed doors. They were labeled in the original Chinese characters and in English, added after the president had taken the ship. Engine Room. Officers' Mess. Captain's Cabin.

She stopped before that door. The president had taken that room for his own; this she had heard from interrogated servants and bribed guards. There was an antechamber between the hall and the bedroom, and two secret police officers always on duty there.

The woman opened the door quickly, holding the knob so it would not slam into the wall. She pulled the trigger on her pistol, and it hummed as an electric spark pushed a steel bullet silently from the barrel. A guard sitting in a chair, reading a dime novel, stared down at the hole punched in book and chest, then slumped. His companion looked up from another seat, and his mouth gaped as Lin shot him in the forehead.

Neither man had uttered a sound or managed to touch the intercom on one wall. Lin noticed both were Eurasians, like many of the president's thugs. She wondered if they were from his reputedly vast brood of bastards.

A key from one of the guard's belts fit the inner door to the cabin. Lin turned it silently and swung the door open fast. Her pistol homed in on the wide-eyed figure lounging on the bed.

"Don't make a sound," she said.

· · · · · 

"My lord, you threw him?"

Althorp shook his head sadly as Harry took in the scene in the zeppelin's opulent bridge. Two crew members, wearing the black and gold silk uniforms of their master, lay slack over banks of control switches, dripping blood. They wore gas masks, and Althorp's gas gun was holstered. He held a stolen automatic pistol of the doctor's design, taken from a minion. The floor-to-ceiling window at the front of the bridge had been smashed. The doctor was nowhere to be seen.

"I tried to gas him of course, but he had taken an antidote to my chemicals," Althorp said. "I offered him the chance to surrender; he answered me with a thrown dagger."

Harry noticed the Indian kris, buried almost to the hilt in the door frame.

"I wish I'd seen the yellow devil die at your hands, my lord," Harry said.

Althorp shook his head again.

"I couldn't bring myself to put a bullet in that magnificent brain, Harry. For all the evil he did, look at the great achievements here. His discoveries in medicine, aeronautics, chemistry, and physics—all could be put to good uses. I told him again he could join us, work with Britain and the west instead of against us. But he was too full of venom for that. He smiled—you've seen his smile, Harry; even when he was helpless it sent a shudder through me—and threw himself back out through the glass. His eyes were fixed on mine when he fell. Those terrible green eyes."

Harry hurried to the edge of the broken window and steadied himself against the edge before looking down. Gliders launched by the terrified zeppelin crew were spiraling down, and mobs of villagers were forming to meet them.

"He wasn't wearing a parachute, my lord? It'd be the third time he's faked his death."

"No, he dropped like a stone. I watched him fall all the way to the valley floor."

"Well, it's done then," Harry said. "We can be off for home at last and sleep again without one eye open for his damned Thuggee assassins."

"Home, yes … Perhaps."

"My lord?"

"I've been thinking about what a man of science could do here, Harry. One who really had the welfare of the people at heart, unlike our former adversary. Would you stay and help me, old friend?"

"Wouldn't dream of leaving without you, my lord."

· · · · · 

The woman in the president's bed was Chinese, close to forty, and running to fat. She pulled the silk sheets up to her neck and quivered. Lin recognized her from the president's rare public appearances in the capital. She hung on his arm, sheathed in the latest French gowns, as they walked past ranks of soldiers to the opera house or theatre. His mistress.

"Where is he?" Lin whispered in Chinese. "Is he in the head?" She jerked her chin at the only other door in the room. The mistress—she called herself Madame Chin—shook her head. Lin sidled across the room and pushed it open with her toe. Gold-plated faucets gleamed back from an empty room.

"Where is he?"

"I don't know," Chin said. "He hasn't been here today. He hardly comes anymore. He is always walking about the palace. To the engine rooms, the ballroom. I don't even know where he sleeps."

Lin mentally cursed the president. He was making this very difficult.

"Do you know where he normally walks at this time of night?"

"I don't know!" Her voice climbed to a terrified pitch. "If I tell you, you'll just kill me." She shook with silent sobs of terror.

Lin raised her gun, lowered it again. She tossed a capsule from a belt compartment at the crying woman. It burst, engulfing her in a small cloud of yellow gas. Chin clutched her throat and gasped, sucking more of the chemical into her lungs. She fell unconscious in a few seconds.

Lin approached and saw that the woman's chest was rising and falling slowly. She would sleep for hours and wake with a brutal headache. Lin had experienced the gas herself dozens of times, building up a resistance to its effects. A precaution against the famous weapon the president still carried.

"You'll survive, at least until the revolution," Lin said. "Thank your lover for the gas."

· · · · · 

From the repaired and refurbished bridge of the zeppelin, Lord Althorp and Harry watched the fire spread to the center of the lamasery.

"Shouldn't we do something to help, my lord?" Harry said.

"I don't think the villagers need any help," Althorp said. "They seem to have the situation well in hand. It's burning a treat."

"I meant, perhaps we should stop this," Harry said. "The monks were the ones who helped us with Phoenix, and saved us from the hashishim killers. And now we've put them under arrest." Harry wrung his hands, moving around the permanent engine grease smears.

"Just the high lamas," Althorp said. "They ruled this valley before the doctor arrived. And a theocracy isn't much better than his tyranny. Now they are being swept away, to make way for our new state. Democratic, free and based on scientific principles. The first like it in the world. Isn't that worth the destruction of a few old temples and superstitious doctrines?"

"They're smashing the Buddhas with hammers," Harry said. "Burning those beautiful old tapestries. Have a look through the binoculars, my lord."

Althorp waved them away. "It's sad, but remember what our mothers told us about omelets and eggs." He clapped a hand on Harry's shoulder. "This is the birth of a glorious future. You didn't expect a little blood and pain?"

· · · · · 

Lin locked the inner door and the hall door of the captain's cabin and dropped the key into a pocket. She was alone, the hall still and empty. She pondered her next move.

If she continued left, toward the stern, she could cross to the adjacent balloon, where the House of Commons and political offices hung.

Forward at the prow were other catwalks that led to the guard barracks and military offices, and the gunnery chambers. More guards that way, more chances to be caught. She turned left, hoping the president had chosen solitude.

There were guards on patrol, but they walked loudly and chatted in the Chinese and English pidgin that had become the unofficial language of the army. Lin was able to hide herself in alcoves and ministerial offices as they passed down the corridors.

The offices here had less of the shabbiness of the old dirigible, but there were signs of abandonment. Since the last parliament six years before, only cleaning crews and a few key advisors had visited these rooms. After the revolution, there would be life here again. Party officials, working on behalf of the people, not lording over them.

Lin headed down to the lower decks, where bureaucrats toiled. She searched three levels of clerk's offices and found nothing but rows of desks and typewriters. At least these places were still used, and there was no dust to tickle her nose. Tan folders with titles such as "Annual Rice Production Quota Reassessment" and "Foundry Employment Changes" were laid in neat stacks for the clerks when they returned by ferry balloon in the morning.

Past those offices and up a spiral staircase from the docking platform, Lin found the jade inlaid double doors of the parliament. One of them was ajar.

She circled up another flight of stairs and let herself in to the visitors' gallery. Moonlight fitfully illuminated the room as balloons shifted back and forth above the skylights. Below Lin was the presidential podium, the seats of the members of parliament arrayed in half-rings like broken orbits.

A figure sat in the president's seat. His face was in shadow, but he wore the blue and gold braided uniform so familiar from newsreels and statues. A lit cigarette hung from his lips.

She raised her pistol.

· · · · · 

"Damn it, fire warning shots if they won't disperse!"

Althorp slammed the telephone receiver back into its cradle. He sat down on his bed and began buttoning his tuxedo shirt. A servant knocked and entered, eyes trained on the floor.

"The minister of industry to see you, Mr. President."

"Send him in."

Harry's tuxedo was already well on its way to the disheveled state that was the destiny of all his clothes. One of his shirt buttons had popped, and his cummerbund was slipping sideways. Both shoes were scuffed.

"Call about the strike?" Harry held up his hand to his ear, imitating a phone. "I heard you hang up from halfway down the corridor."

Althorp nodded. "The workers have dispersed, but now the university students are taking their places. That bloody school is turning out a pack of damn Marxists when we meant to have engineers. How are things on your end?"

"We'll hit the top seven quotas this year, but only if we add three more hours a week to the work schedules. No bonus pay either. Frankly, I think we should just let it slide. We're close to target, and we can't afford to rile up the workers any more."

"No. I'll convene parliament tomorrow and we'll order the additional hours."

"You have the votes?"

"This time. I may have to use my emergency powers if it comes to this next year."

"I'll do better, my lord," Harry said. "We won't fall short."

"No, Harry, I'm not blaming you. You've done yeoman's work for me here. And speaking of work, let's not speak of it any more tonight. How does the ballroom look?"

"Wonderful." Harry glowed with pride. He had supervised the construction of the balloon and its magnificent four-storey gondola. It had been christened and attached to the zeppelin just four days before. "The guests are just coming up now in their zeppelin launches. Completely gobsmacked, the lot of them. Should impress my dance partner."

"You've brought a girl, Harry? What would Elizabeth say if she knew?"

Harry cleared his throat. "Ah, I got a letter from Betsy a few months back," he said. "Just shows how efficient the new post office is, took a week from London … Ah. She's seeing another fellow. Can't say as I blame her, with us gone three years now."

"I'm sorry, Harry. Why didn't you tell me?"

"Sort of forgot, what with all the work at the ministry. Your stay-awake pills are all that's kept me going."

"Well, congratulations on meeting a new girl. Local?"

"Yes. Her father's a factory foreman. Good man."

"You're lucky. I am to escort the daughter of General Chin tonight."

"The warlord?"

"Yes. He's here to see if we're worth looting, I've no doubt. I'm demonstrating the heat gun tomorrow to put the fear of God into him."

"What's his daughter like?"

"They say she's lovely as the moon, but when your father massacres villages for a lark, that could be code for 'face like a goldfish.' I have an idea for getting out of social situations like this, actually, a sort of stand-in. Have a look at some plans with me tomorrow?"

· · · · · 

Lin's first shot hit the president high in the forehead, but he barely rocked in his seat. She pumped three more rounds into his torso and he sat still and upright. His head turned toward her, the cigarette like a red Cyclops eye.

Damn. Lin had been warned about this, but she hadn't really believed it. It did explain why so many previous assassination attempts had failed.

She made her way back down to the entryway and walked up the centre aisle of parliament. She flicked on her electric torch and flooded the figure with light.

It looked like the president, save for where the waxy material of its forehead had been puckered by her bullet. Hair black but graying at the temples. Nose straight, jaw strong. The scar under his eye from an Ashanti spear. Something black leaked from one of the three holes in his chest. Up close, you could see the smoke from its cigarette climbed straight up, never breathed in or out.

"You're his decoy robot," Lin muttered to herself. "I don't suppose you know where he is?"

"Nineteen," it said. Lin jumped and aimed her pistol at the machine again.

"What did you say?"

"Nineteen. This is the nineteenth time I have been killed in his place." The robot's tone was natural, but there were quiet hisses and crackles, like those from an old phonograph.

"You haven't died yet."

"No. He always rebuilds me. He won't let me die. My cooling system has been hit; I will overheat in forty minutes unless I self-repair. It does not matter whether I do or not. I cannot die."

"You can't die because you're a thing."

"I am a well-made thing."

Lin considered the robot, and it smiled the famous screen-idol smile. Its teeth were white as polished ivory. Which they probably were, she decided.

"Do you know where he is?"


"Tell me."

"You mean to kill him," it said. Not a question.


"If I tell you, what will you do to me?"

"Destroy you," Lin said, surprised by her own honesty. But why lie to a machine? "You could be used to impersonate him for years. To prop up his regime."

"I will not. If he dies tonight, I will self-repair and leave here. I can take one of the skiff-zeppelins and fly west.

"I will tell you where he is," the robot continued. "He was here earlier, and he told me. It is where he always goes at night, now."

The robot leaned forward and fixed glass eyes on Lin. It whispered in her ear. No breath, but static electricity stroked the side of her face.

"Why do you want him dead?" she said. "Couldn't you escape any time?"

The robot stood and straightened its jacket. Something whirred as it drew the corners of its mouth up in a smile.

"The next time, I want to die for my own sins."

· · · · · 

"Goddamn you, John!" Harry roared. "You can't use it. Not on your own people."

Technicians scurried around the heat-gun deck, mostly trying to look busy. The gunners were already in place, waiting for the word to fire. There was no need to wait for vacuum tubes to warm now, since the president had improved the design.

"They leave me no option, Harry. None at all."

"You could throw them a damn bone. They just want better working conditions, most of them. It's only a few hotheads who are really out for your blood."

Below them rivers of people flowed between factories and row houses, angry banners like scraps of confetti in the current. At the airfield, the mob had broken down the fences and was milling around the few gyrocopters and zeppelin-skiffs that hadn't managed to take off in time.

"They've crossed the Rubicon now, old friend. They can't turn back. They'll be up here in no time," Althorp said. "If I ground their aircraft and fire a few shots into the crowds, they'll disperse and the army can restore order. I can't let them undo all our good work."

"I'm beginning to think they don't want our help. Do those look like happy people?"

"Do you remember what this valley was like when we got here, Harry?" Althorp had steel in his voice, fury in his eyes. "Dogs fighting with children in the streets for food. Thousands with leprosy. And every mind clouded with superstition."

Harry barked out an ugly laugh. "Aye, they've traded leprosy, dog bites and monks for black lung, rationing, and strikebreakers. No wonder they kowtow to you in the streets. Of course, that could just be your guards and their lathi sticks …"

"How dare you! You know I only expect from them what I do myself. You know how hard I work for my people."

"Your people … John, you've been up here too long. Months at a time without a visit to the ground. You don't know who 'your people' are. I'm guilty too, but at least I've a family on the ground. At least I live there, with them. They're just … just little mice to you now. Mice you've built a grand bloody maze for, and you expect them to run through it and say 'thank you, sir.' Well, they won't. And I'm done with you and your plans if you give that order."

Althorp set his jaw, raised his right hand. The gunners tensed at their controls.

"You've become him. Just like him. My lord." Harry turned on his heel and stomped away.

Althorp's face was stone. He dropped his hand. The air burned.

· · · · · 

"So, you must have found the old access hatch," the president said as Lin entered the zeppelin's bridge.

He sat in the control chair, staring out the windows. The once panoramic view had been largely replaced now by the other dirigibles and their gondolas. It was fewer than a dozen feet from the bridge to the blank gray walls of the guard barracks.

Lin kept her pistol trained on the back of his head while she scanned the rest of the room. Empty.

The president blew out a cloud of smoke and ground out a butt in an overflowing ashtray. He swiveled in his chair. His skin was at least as waxy as that of his robot double. When he smiled, his teeth showed yellow. He wore his old flying clothes, immortalized in the ten-part serial made about his life. His gas gun was on one hip, and he toyed with a wavy-bladed dagger. A kris, Lin thought.

"It was the access hatch, yes? You could let me know as a courtesy before you kill me."


"Who told you about it?"

"Harold Jameson."

"Harry. Good old Harry. I wonder why it took him so long." Nostalgia pushed his face from happiness to sadness in an eyeblink.

"Because he loved you," Lin said. "We've been trying to convince him for years to help, but he wouldn't. Not until you ordered that execution last week. My mother. Harry's wife."

"Ah," he said. "You're Harry's … Lin. I haven't seen you since you were toddling. You take after your mother. I'm so sorry."

"No, you are not!" she yelled. Her hand shook, and she forced herself to breathe slowly. She wiped away sudden tears.

"Yes," he said. "I'm always sorry. And I always do it anyway. Which is why you are going to try and shoot me. If you're up to the task."

He was out of the chair and rolling, bringing one arm up to throw the dagger. Lin fired three times, her bullets gouging into the wooden floor. She ducked to one side as the knife passed her, cutting a few stray strands of her hair before is slammed into the wall.

His gas gun chuffed and the canister struck her stomach, knocking her wind out even as the yellow cloud blossomed. Lin scrambled clear, dizzy but conscious. She brought her gun up again and centered it on the president's head. He quirked his eyebrows respectfully.

"Very good," he said, and holstered his gas gun. He sat down again in the captain's chair.

"You've killed my father too, you know," Lin croaked. "Your old sidekick."

"I never called him that," he said. "Just the papers. Harry liked it, at least at first. I hadn't heard he was dead."

"Still walking around, but you couldn't call it life. It was your stay-awake pills. He couldn't stop taking them. Tried to wean himself off with opium. But that's just another way to feed yourself to the earth."

For the first time, Lin saw she had scored a hit. An unguarded spot, a soft scale on the dragon.

"Damn. Harry shouldn't have ended up like that. Never told me about the pills."

"He didn't want to hurt you," Lin said. She coughed and spat out yellow phlegm.

"I don't deserve it, but may I ask one more question?"

The bridge was still spinning from the heavy dose of gas. If he wanted to wait until Lin could shoot straight, that was fine with her.


"Where will the new government be based? I assume you're communist"—she nodded—"so you'll have a party apparatus, commissars and so forth. Where will you put their offices?"


"On board the palace. No surprise. Smooth transition of power, symbolically important. And of course, the heat guns are here. I saw all that, damn near thirty years ago. Even though it had been the fortress of my enemy."

"You're saying we should let you take it?" Lin sneered. "You want to fly off, no penalty, no punishment? Maybe you could go back to fighting crime lords and jungle chiefs too. I'm sure Father would go along. Phoenix is boxed up in our basement."

The president tapped his chin as if considering, smiled, laughed.

"Tempting, but I know you wouldn't let me go. No, I was hoping you would consider destroying it. The whole palace."


"It won't be good for you. Do you really want to be standing here in a decade, or two or three, facing down someone bent on snuffing you out like a candle?"

"We won't be tyrants. We are going to give people freedom from your fascist—"

He cut her off with a wave of his hand. "Save it for the Party meetings. I'm just saying, you don't want to look at people from up here. They look small. Small enough to move around with a signature on paper or the wave of a hand. Don't make that mistake. Make your own." The muscles in his neck pulled taut, as though he was in pain.

"I spent the last twenty years making the dreams of my worst enemy a reality. Your father saw it, years before I did."

He stood again, stretched. He unbuckled his gun belt and tossed it at Lin's feet.

"At least I've learned a few things. I can go out without breaking any windows." He flipped up a latch on the central pane of glass in the windscreen. It swung out and open, and the wind brought the scent of the mountain glaciers into the room.

The president looked down. "You can see the moon reflecting on the lake," he said. "Lovely."

He leaned forward and fell.

Lin sprinted to the edge of the drop, watched as he fell. No parachute bloomed, and he dwindled to a speck. A whitecap on the lake could have been his landing, but she couldn't be sure.

She pressed a stud on her wrist radio.

"It's done," she said. "He is dead." In minutes, flashes of gunfire began in the city. She turned away.

Lin picked up the gun belt and ran her fingers over the supple leather. It was still well oiled, lovingly maintained like almost nothing else on the airship. She sat in the captain's chair for a long time. No guards came. He had set off no alarms. From one of the side windows, she saw a stiff, wax-faced figure in a blue jacket with gold braid approach the dock. He carried Madame Chin, still unconscious, over one shoulder. In moments, a skiff detached from the palace and pointed its prow into the west wind.

Dawn was breaking when she stood up. Her lungs and head hurt, and she was tired. Her shoulders were beginning to ache from her flight. She began to work.

She found the controls she wanted as the first of the ferry zeppelins were rising into view from the airfield. She threw the switches and set off the emergency alarms. Emergency parachutes and gliders began blooming around the palace in minutes. She pushed a second set of switches, jamming them down as far as possible.

Below each balloon, sand and water streamed away. The palace lurched upward as ballast was dumped. Gauges showed it was rising more than one hundred yards a minute. She pulled her pistol and fired, fast and precise. Bullets tore control panels and levers into metal confetti. She fired until she ran out of ammunition.

Lin ran, her empty pistol in one hand, the old gun belt in the other.

In the corridor, three crew members charged toward her, drawn by the alarms. She waved her gun and screamed, incoherent. They turned and sprinted away from her. Whether they were more afraid of the pistol or the expression on her face, she couldn't tell.

Lin scrambled up the access ladder faster than was safe, breaking three rungs and catching herself at the last minute above a fatal fall.

Her wings were where she had left them, undiscovered. She slithered into the harness and strapped the gas gun belt around her waist. The batteries hummed, and she launched herself from the zeppelin's surface. She flapped low over the balloons, working hard to gain lift in the thin, high air. Twice she had to drop her legs and run across a canvas peak for a time before flying again.

Clear of the last balloon, she stretched her wings and glided. She circled for a last look at the palace as it was pushed north and east by the high-altitude currents.

Cut loose of the valley, it was beautiful, Lin realized. For so long it had been a shadow above her people, threatening death. But now it was simply colored canvas and wood, stripped of its ugly meaning. She had hoped it would take its evil away with it, but there was nothing vile in the airships. Even the heat guns were mere elegant geometric forms with no hands at their controls.

Perhaps evil had already fled her land, when the president fell. Perhaps the people would believe in this exorcism, even if she did not.

If the wind carried it on its current course, Lin guessed the palace would reach its maximum height over the empty Taklimakan desert. There the balloons would begin to burst in the thin air, and it would crash to earth.

Lin flew home, passing over the peaks of the holy mountains above the remains of the old lamasery. In the city, she could see people celebrating, so many of them in the streets it caught her breath. The secret police headquarters was burning like a joyful lantern. She was tempted to remain in flight as long as her batteries lasted, watching the panorama unfold.

Instead, she folded her wings and dove to join them.

The End

© 2004 by Matthew Claxton and SCIFI.COM.