Saturday, February 2, 2008

The Empire Thanks You

His Majesty the Accident is shorter than my first stab at noveling, at only 88,906 words, and took far less time to complete -- a mere three months and two days, even with all the slacking. Alas, if only I could say it came out better, or would require less rewriting, than its predecessor. (=

If you're just now discovering this site, you can start from the first chapter.

Many thanks to everyone who read and endured -- enjoyed, I mean enjoyed -- the story, and to the family and friends whose feedback kept me writing. You've helped make this whole endeavor a very happy accident indeed.

28. The Man Behind the Tree

Two turns passed. And, at least for Dent, surprisingly little changed.

“Kill you!” his older brother screamed, lunging forward at the boy with an axe as big as two Dents, and considerably deadlier.

Dent leapt to one side, out of the aisle and into Dhuei Decimal System codes 234.5 - 278.9 (venomous reptiles to maritime law). The axe blurred down and neatly halved a poor, unsuspecting library cart.

The stacks of Library Deck were an excellent place for Dent to retreat, slowed as he was by the weight of Captain Corsair’s saber. The space between shelves was just slightly narrower than the width of Pug’s shoulders, forcing his brother to shimmy himself into a less-than-ideal stance for axe-related murdering, and giving Dent a few precious extra seconds to gain some distance.

The boy leapt up to the nearest shelf and began to climb, disgorging large, heavy, incredibly expensive volumes (A Painstaking Study of The Biting Vipers of Malodorous V, Marmoset Hypnosis and You, So You Want to Dispute a Salvage Claim!) to rain with musical thuds against his brother’s helmeted head. With insufficient room to get a good swing going, Pug was forced to poke ineffectually at Dent’s retreating heels with the very end of the axe, which did far more damage to the bookshelves than to Dent himself.

Reaching the top, Dent took a moment to steady himself, then leapt perilously to the next stack over. Behind him, the shelf on which he’d just stood trembled as Pug flung himself against it, bellowing something about murdering Dent’s entire face.

Dent held the saber out in front of him for balance, like a tightrope-walker’s pole, and proceeded to jump three shelves more (Imperial history to unimportant non-Imperial history) before wobblingly climbing down the edge of the shelf. His brother had gone quiet, but Dent trusted that he could hear Pug’s heavy footfalls in time enough to avoid him.

A few shelves shy of the floor, Dent discovered that his brother had learned to walk quietly at some point.

“Face! You! Murder!” Pug roared, red-faced, still up on his tiptoes. Dent’s eyes widened as Pug charged into the stacks, holding his axe ahead of him like a pike. Quickly, the boy tightened his grip on the nearest shelf, tucked his legs up, and kicked into the books, squeezing himself through the gap in the shelves. He landed tailbone-first in the next stack over, just as Pug’s axe thrust through the gap in the books to batter a complete set of The Food-Related Poetry of Emperor Consumptious the Indigestive.

Dent scrambled to his feet and made for the next aisle over, hoping his brother would keep poking around with the axe. But no sooner had Dent skidded out into the open than Pug appeared, drawing a sword from the belt of his full combat armor. Pug wasted no breath on face-murdering-related utterances this time; he simply struck.

Dent brought the saber up in time, the shock of the blow wobbling through his arm and down into his boots (not unlike his experiences with The Young Gentleman’s Convenient Excuse for Electrocution Kit, come to think of it.) Pug swung again, and Dent ducked, thrusting the sword up at his brother. Pug dodged, just, and seized his brother’s sword arm with one massive hand. With the other, Pug brought up his own blade, and prepared to prune a branch from his family tree.

“Your Majesties!” Librarian Glew harrumphed, his arms overflowing with rare volumes he’d sought to save from the carnage. “That is truly quite enough.”

Pug and Dent hung their heads sheepishly as the Librarian advanced. “I seem to recall,” Glew continued, “that we currently occupy some sort of a palace, in which there are a great many rooms not containing the extremely fragile cultural treasures of the Imperium. I suggest you both go find one of them, and practice murdering one another there.”

“Sorry, Librarian,” Dent said, shuffling his feet.

“Got carried away,” Pug shrugged apologetically. “You know how it is.”

“Indeed,” the Librarian nodded, poorly concealing a smile. “By the way, Your Elder Majesty, I located those volumes you requested on etiquette. They’ve been delivered to your chambers.”

“Yeah,” Pug grunted. “Thanks.” It was his equivalent of squealing with excitement, and possibly doing a little dance. He turned to his younger brother, who looked up at him with earnest, serious eyes. “You did good, twerp.”

“Really?” Dent asked, wiggling his sword arm slightly. “This thing’s so heavy.”

“No, that was a good thrust,” Pug nodded. “Almost got me. But next time, don’t go for the armor, ‘cause that’s like, tough. Look for the seams. You, uh, sure I can’t get you a smaller sword just to start with? I got heaps of them.”

Dent’s face turned grave, and he shook his head quickly. Since Bosun Little had given the boy Captain Corsair’s sword, Dent had scarcely let it out of his grip, and his family had nearly learned to stop asking him about it.

“So, hey, did you like how I said I was gonna murder your face, when I totally wasn’t?” Pug beamed, lifting his helmet to wipe sweat from his brow. “That’s called subterfuge.” Pug had been studying.

“I was completely fooled,” Dent only partly lied.

“Okay, good fight,” Pug said. “I gotta go meet with Vestimaster Mezzure about some formal suits, and then see if I can get Maurice outta his room today.”

Upon his return from offworld, Pug’s titled had been switched from the Minister of Violence to the Minister of Conversation. This did not necessarily excude conversations that involved large, dangerous weapons, but nonetheless, Maurice was so crushed at his charge’s perceived betrayal that he’d spent the last turn and a half locked in his private quarters.

Ellentine, charged with delivering the grizzled old trainer a full container of sylvanbean ice cream each afternoon, reported soft, blubbery, despondent noises issuing from behind Maurice’s door.

“See you at dinner?” Dent asked, and Pug nodded, and punched him amiably on the arm. Dent found that he was still accumulating bruises these days, but they were at least more kindly intended.

Librarian Glew shooed the both of them out, asking Dent to send for a repair crew up when he next encountered Mechanic Doren, and the brothers parted ways in the corridor. As Pug clanked off, mentally reviewing the proper order for using one’s forks, Dent maneuvered the Captain’s blade awkwardly into the scabbard that hung from his Adventure Belt. If he angled it right, as Dent was learning to, it didn’t quite clunk along on the floor as he walked.

Dent spotted a tiny insect darting through the cool, slightly salty air of the hallway. Since neither Imperia nor the palace had any native insects, outside of Zoology deck, Dent waved amiably at the bug. A tiny camera transmitted his image invisibly through the decks of the balance, through a relay station, and neatly into the retinal overlay worn by his mother the Empress, who smiled, and kept at her knitting.

“That’s my son,” she confided to Mr. Gnash, her very favorite nightshark. Mr. Gnash gnawed futilely against the transparent flooring of the Empress’s chamber before thrashing off into the watery gloom, and the Empress turned her attention back to the rapidly dwindling political fortunes of the current Duly Elected.

As Dent waited for the pneumovator, he caught himself staring up at the ventilation duct, hoping for a flash of reflective eyes. That was silly, of course; by Imperial decree, Pebble was now entirely welcome in the whole of the palace (save perhaps the Empress’s deck, but a few more months of regular bathing on the girl’s part might prompt Her Majesty to reconsider.)

Pebble had only been gone a little more than a turn, and would only be away for a few turns more, but Dent already missed her terribly. But she deserved to spend time with her family, now that she’d helped Mechanic Doren and his men to unseal the linkages between the palace and his boilers, and reports from the Imperial Anthropological Corps indicated that the girl was proving invaluable in smoothing over any misunderstandings between the two divergent cultures. The boiler people had almost entirely stopped referring to Pebble as “the angel,” even.

In the interim, Pebble had taken to sending him notes via the palace’s newly reestablished pneumonetwork. Apparently, her parents and little brother were all quite keen to meet him, and Dent was pretty sure Pebble was joking when she’d warned him to wear body armor before letting her mother hug him.

On the way up from Library deck, the pneumovator stopped to admit a young woman. She was trailed by Scribe Third Class Nibbins, who nodded kindly to Dent as she boarded the carriage.

“… I mean, sure, OK, princes and ambassadors, fine,” the other young woman was saying. “That comes with the territory. All I’m saying is, could we maybe get some poets into the rotation? Maybe a painter? Some musicians? There have to be a few among the aristocracy.”

“I’ll pass along the request, Your Majesty,” Nibbins nodded, dutifully recording, and then cleared her throat and shot a glance in Dent’s direction. The young woman turned, and Dent realized with a mild shock that it was his sister.

“Hey, creep,” Lis smiled at him, and did a quick turn, showing off the diaphanous folds of her clothing. “Like the new outfit?”

“There’s… there’s so much of it,” Dent marveled, and compared to his previous experience with his sister, this was true.

Lis’s gaze fell briefly upon the saber dangling perilously from Dent’s belt, and for a moment her smile faltered, and sadness veiled her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Dent said quickly, and turned, trying as best he could to block it from her view. But Lis, with a small effort, only grinned at him, and sighed.

“It looks good on you,” she said, her voice catching a little in her throat. “You’ll make a great bandit yet.”

“I don’t know,” Dent said, studying the floor. He was reconsidering his banditry-related career plans. This week, he thought he might rather be an astronomer.

“Oh, come on,” Lis smirked. “Somebody’s gotta be the family disgrace.” Dent stuck his tongue out at her, and she responded in kind, and ducked out of the pneumovator on Recreation Deck, trailed by Nibbins, who was deciding whether blowing a raspberry was the sort of thing one transcribed.

The pneumovator rushed onward, and soon Dent found himself in the rarefied, gilded halls of Imperial Deck. A parade of ministers were shuffling from his father’s conference room, and each nodded and bowed to Dent, now that they were allowed to acknowledge his existence. He waved cordially to the guards at his father’s door, who half-bowed back, and knocked for admission. The door slid open.

His father sat behind the massive geode desk, paging through datascrolls, and did not look up when Dent entered his study.

“Accident,” the Emperor intoned, “I want you to go have a look at my model.”

“Yes, Majesty,” Dent nodded, a little bit fearful, and wondering what he’d done this time. He walked quietly over to the table, hands at his sides, and studied the frozen, miniature combatants on the scaled-down contours of Echo Hill.

“Do you notice anything odd?” the Emperor asked. “Anything… missing?”

Dent looked at the very edge of the model, to the empty, unpainted space just next to the tree, and swallowed hard. Things had been going so well, really, and now Dent feared he would slide back into being the annoyance, the obstacle, the obligation.

When Dent looked up, his father was crossing the room toward him, noble face stony and impassive. “I noticed one figure gone from the model several turns back,” the Emperor said. “During your… excursion. I suspect you know what happened to it.”

Dent had glossed over certain details of his escape from the prison cell on Sir Leslie’s shop, hoping to avoid just this sort of questions. Now he looked his father in the eye — turning his gaze anywhere else would have earned him a scolding — and nodded.

“Do you know who that figure represented?” the Emperor asked sternly. “Do you know why he was important?” Dent shook his head, setting his jaw, preparing for the inevitable lecture.

His father knelt down then, next to the model, on Dent’s eye level. It startled the boy, and he took a half-step back. His father knelt for no one, but here he was, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

“I didn’t either,” the Emperor said. “Not for a good two, three years after the battle, even. I might not have ever known, if Rendell hadn’t brought it up after consulting with the historians.” He looked at the empty spot next to the tree, and Dent saw again that strange distance in his face, that summoning back to the combat of the Emperor’s youth.

“His name was Merriwell,” the Emperor said. “Scout, Second Grade. His sergeants deemed him too small, too distracted for frontline combat. They made him a spotter, bringing up the rear guard. Hardly a position of honor.”

The Emperor pointed to his own tiny figure, leading the charge up the hill. “There I was, you see, about to break through the Armada’s lines.” He traced his finger across the map to a small, distant hill, covered with tiny model foliage, and for the first time, Dent noticed black, beetle-carapaced models of Dark Matter Armada troopers huddled there, all but invisible. “And here was an Armada sniper squadron, with a full complement of particle cannons, and a clear line of sight to my position.”

The Emperor sighed, and shook his head. “It was a trap, you see. I thought I was smashing their lines at the weakest point. But they were deliberately weakening their fortifications there, taking a chance to lure me in. And I never would have seen it. But Merriwell, it seems … Merriwell did.”

As Dent peered closer at the model, the Emperor traced a line between the Armada snipers and the empty space beside the tree. “It was pitch dark,” the Emperor recalled, “and the rain was pounding hard upon us. But Merriwell caught a flash of their dazzlescopes through the gloom, and trained his field glasses, and saw them. And when his superior refused to let him call in an orbital strike, Merriwell apparently stole the access codes and ordered it anyway. I remember the beam as it lanced down, brilliant, burning away the clouds, but it was just one of many things going on around me. I didn’t understand why it mattered, at the time.”

The Emperor looked at Dent now, and to the boy’s considerable surprise, his father’s features softened into something approaching kindness. “Had I known, I would have given him a medal. Gods, I would have given him a title, perhaps even a moon. But I didn’t. And he died the very next day — stepped on a hidden earthcharge while clearing out the fortifications. A sad end for a man who saved the Empire, don’t you think?”

Dent nodded, and the Emperor brought up a closed fist, and then opened it slowly. In his palm, Dent saw a freshly repainted replica of the soldier he’d stolen. “He saw what no one else was looking for. He cared about people who gave not a breath for him. And he did right, when even his own opposed him. That’s why he’s important,” the Emperor said. “That’s why I want you to help me put him back where he belongs.”

Hesitantly, Dent picked up the model Merriwell, and stuck him back on the miniature grass, next to the tiny tree. Then he frowned, curiously, and pointed to another lone soldier, charging up the hill at the Emperor’s flank.

“Who’s this?” Dent asked, always curious. The Emperor smiled.

“To explain that,” he said, “I’ll have to tell you how we got to Echo Hill in the first place…”

And peace, for the moment, abided among the Imperial family, and within their seashell palace, and across their private ocean planet, and throughout the whole of their fine and glittering galaxy.

And, as these stories are rightfully supposed to end, they all lived happily ever after.

… At least, until the the Dark Matter Armada returned.

But everyone already knows that story.

Monday, January 28, 2008

27. Endings, Some Happy

In Story’s absence, there was no specific person designated to care for Dent on the Imperial flagship, as it made its way back to Imperia. Dent’s father, once he’d gotten past clapping his grimy, smelly, beaming son on the shoulder and smiling at him in a way that made both of them feel like they’d just conquered at least fifteen planets, found himself at a loss. As for the Empress, the idea wasn’t even broached.

To the Emperor’s considerable surprise, there was no shortage of volunteers to fill in for the boy’s care. Despite a rather earest bid from Mechanic Doren, Cook won out in the end — one does not wish to antagonize the person who prepares one’s food — and thus became the first person outside the royal family to hear the full tale of Dent’s adventures. It was a lengthy tale, told partly through a mouth full of cook’s sandwiches, and partly with glubby intervals of bubbles during the royal bath, and often with quick interjections of signings from the strange, lovely, silver-haired girl who Cook recognized at once, if only from her own imagination.

It took some doing with just her one arm, but somehow Cook got both the children safely bundled into a pair of spare bunks down in the guard quarters. Dent’s story petered out, and all his many adventures finally seemed to catch up with him, and he yawned loudly and relaxed into the rare comfort of a bed not designed to asphyxiate him.

“Will you leave a light on?” he asked Cook, and she smiled and nodded, remembering similar requests many years gone from Ellentine.

“And you?” Cook asked of Pebble, the girl’s eyes already drifting closed, slow and inexorable as cloudbanks. “Anything you need, little marzipan?” Pebble shook her head, a little warily.

The door to the cabin chimed, and slid open, and Cook snapped to attention. Several shadows that might or might not have been heavily armed guards passed across the light spilling in from the corridor, and then the Empress entered, slowly, in small steps.

“Thank you, Cook,” the Empress nodded, and Cook bowed and headed for the door, most definitely not deliberately stepping on the toes of any hidden guards on her way out, or smirking about it privately.

Dent sat up in his bunk, shucking the well-worn, wooly blankets. In her bunk below, Pebble drew back slowly against the bulkhead, and watched the Empress with wide, unblinking eyes.

“Accident,” the Empress said quietly. “Come down here.”

The boy did so, hesitantly. He’d thought that, after all his adventures, his mother no longer held any terrors for him, but this was not entirely true.

The Empress took a deep breath and looked her son in the eye. She made a small adjustment to a bracelet on her wrist.

“There,” she said. “I’ve turned off the alarms. You have thirty seconds.” She shut her eyes very tightly, pinched her lips shut, and held out her arms stiffly.

It took Dent a few seconds to realize what he was supposed to do here. And then, for the first time in his entire life, he stepped forward and gave his mother a hug. She smelled nice, actually; she smelled like flowers, and the front of her gown was as soft as he’d always imagined.

Even as her brain ran through all the decontamination and disinfection procedures she’d have to undergo as quickly as possible, the Empress realized that she did not entirely mind this thing she’d heard about, this business where children and parents sometimes made contact. Maybe she would try it again. Perhaps next year. But first, she would speak privately to her surgeon about the way it made her heart flutter so strangely.

Dent turned back and looked at Pebble, still huddled against her bunk. The memory of the face his mother had made, the way her right eye had started twitching, when he’d explained earlier who Pebble was and where she came from, and how his mother really shouldn’t kill her because of how she’d helped Dent save the entire family, was vivid in his memory. But Dent was in an optimistic mood.

“Come on,” he said to Pebble. “It’s all right.”

The Empress opened one eye, and fixed it on the little girl. Pebble shook her head quickly, and did not move. And the Empress smiled.

“I like your little friend,” she told Dent, as he stepped away and her personal defense systems came back online.

“Mother?” he asked, as he climbed back up into his bunk. “How is Captain Corsair?” They hadn’t let him see the Captain since the doctors clustered around him in the hangar and carried him off, and Dent was beginning to grow worried.

The Empress paused, wetting her lips. “Our finest doctors are caring for him,” she said at last. “I expect we’ll know in the morning.”

And she left, accompanied by shadows. The door hissed shut, and the cabin was dark save for the light Cook had left on. Dent settled back into the bed, listening to Pebble breathing steadily in the bunk below, and fell slowly into sleep.

Anatomaster Cadeucus stepped through the disinfecting mist into the waiting room, and bowed first to the Emperor, and then to Pug and Lis in turn, and not at all to Bosun Little, Commodore Crestfall, or the armed guards attending both.

“He’s conscious and responsive,” the Anatomaster said, in a voice as resigned and colorless as his face. “For a little while yet.” He was thinking of something else suitably professional to say, but was spared the necessity when Bosun Little shoved him bodily aside and ducked through the mist and into the Imperial surgery.

They’d taken away his cloak and his jacket, his sword and his boots. He wasn’t a Captain anymore; he was just a very small, very pale man on a sleek white table, in the middle of a chilly, empty room. Lines fed into his arm, and the table pulsed with light in time to the rhythm of his vitals. The Bosun paused, and for a moment, gravity seemed to crush her. Then Captain Corsair turned and smiled at her, the same way he had the night she’d been about to physically hurl him from the bar where they’d met.

“Hello, my enormous friend,” he said, in little more than a whisper. “The Empire has kindly provided me with numerous, truly excellent drugs. You should request some for yourself.”

The Bosun’s cheeks speckled and danced. “See?” she said, kneeling down next to the table to rest a wide flat hand against his brow. He was burning up. “You go running off without me, and this is what happens.”

“I fear I will not collect the enormous riches we so thoroughly discussed,” the Captain said, and coughed. “You may, of course, have my share.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” the Bosun shook her head, and felt her face pinching itself, walling off the tears, against her volition. “I wouldn’t know how to spend it, square? You’ve gotta advise me.”

“I am sure,” the Captain said, drawing in a rattling breath, “you will do admirably in my absence. But… if you were, in fact, to fill an entire room with emeralds, and then roll around in them, on my behalf… I would consider it an honor.”

“Funny little man,” the Bosun said, and sucked in a messy breath of her own, and shook a little. The Captain’s hand found hers, and squeezed, so frighteningly feeble. “You always made me feel ten feet tall.”

Captain Corsair shook his head. “Twelve,” he smiled. “At the very least.”

The mist parted, and Lis walked through, arms hugged around herself, and only partly because it was very cold and she was wearing one of her usual outfits.

“Ah, the lady,” Corsair smiled. “Bosun, if you would give us privacy?”

“Always you and the frails,” the Bosun grinned around her tears. “Don’t think I’m done with you, square? I’ll catch up in the Shadowlands, give me time enough. Bigger steps, see.”

“I shall keep a weather eye for you,” Corsair nodded, and coughed again.

Bosun Little got to her feet, and shouldered her way past Lis without looking at anyone, her cheeks a scramble of dots. Later, Lis would see the big round dent in the wall of the waiting chamber, and know exactly how it happened.

“You’re a terrible bandit,” Lis said, and tried very hard to smile.

“It is a great pleasure to see you, too,” the Captain replied. Lis sat on the edge of his platform, marveling at how very cold it was, and feeling it pulse in time with Corsair’s own ebbing life. She took his living hand; it, too, was far too cold, even as she saw the beads of sweat dribbling along the Captain’s brow.

“I have to know,” she said. “That last reason, why you gave me your cloak. I’m going to stay here, and not let you go anywhere, until you tell me.”

“Ahhh,” the Captain smiled. “How can I refuse Her Majesty?” He let his eyes slide shut, and Lis saw a light pulse beneath them. She’d seen this before — it was impressive, difficult work, very custom, very rare. Video screens, implanted on the inside of the eyelids, to play a certain loop of footage again and again. It was most frequently found among the grieving, the inconsolable.

“I gave you my cloak,” the Captain said with his eyes shut, his words trailing off into whispers, “because you look … just the tiniest bit … like her.” He smiled, and spoke a name that fell from his lips like music, and was not Lis’s name. Then he said nothing else.

Glissandra Voluptua sat there for a very long time, holding the Captain’s cold, cold hand, long after the light behind his eyelids had flickered a last time and gone away, long after the table on which she sat had stopped pulsing and faded from glowing white to a dull, listless gray.

She thought about bandits, and all the things they could steal.

Lis had not wished to join them on the observation deck, saying she was tired. Whether it was true or not, the Emperor let it pass. Bosun Little was forbidden, by protocol, from joining them; she would pass the evening in training with the Imperial Guard, after which neither she nor the twenty-odd guards matched against her would really feel that much better.

So it was simply The Emperor and Empress, and Pug, and their honored guest, Commodore Crestfall, taking light refreshment under a dome cut from solid diamond, and the twinkling stars beyond. The Commodore and the Emperor had traded war stories, and even laughed at times, remembering certain generals on both sides with strange facial hair or unusual tastes in music. The Empress sat with her knitting, and pretended not to notice Pug nibbling his way through entire plates of finger sandwiches.

“This one fought particularly well, Majesty,” the Commodore nodded at Pug, catching him halfway through a triangle of watercress and cucumber. “You should be proud.”

“Well fought, then, Pugio,” the Emperor nodded to his son. “We should have a proper spectacle for you, when we reach Imperia. Maurice tells me he’s procured three adult Ogodsnos for you; one of them has some sort of chafing, apparently, so he’s extra irritable.”

Pug flexed his thick fingers and stared at them thoughtfully. He looked at the sword resting next to his chair, and the half-demolished plate of sandwiches on the table next to him.

“Uh, Pop?” he ventured. “Yeah. About that…?”

Maurice would be so very, very disappointed.

And as Pug haltingly explained, and the Emperor sat silently in ever-growing disbelief, the Empress nodded toward Crestfall, who approached with his customary courtesy.

“May I be bold with you, Commodore?” she asked, and he nodded. In a single, deft movement, she spun a knitting needle in her hand and plunged it toward the center of his chest.

It wavered there, hovering, repelled by some thick, rubbery force.

“Ah,” the Empress smiled. “So nice to have one’s intelligence confirmed, then.”

“So nice not to be perforated,” the Commodore smiled. “No offense, Majesty.”

“An actual heart of gold,” the Empress marveled. “And those would be magnets, then, propelling the blood?”

“The Dark Matter Armada did a thoroughness on my ticker, yes, Majesty,” the Commodore said. Behind his spectacles, his eyes grew distant. “Now I serve at the pleasure of the Duly. And not a moment longer.”

The Empress smiled one of her little smiles. It was not in her nature to take an enemy into confidence, but then, she had never really liked the Duly Elected. Democracy made her skin crawl.

“As you may imagine, Commodore,” the Empress said, “my knowledge of the galaxy is… rather extensive. Reaching even into your own borders.” She leaned forward, smiling, thrilling just the tiniest bit to this wicked confidence. “Would you like to know a secret about that heart of yours?”

The Duly Elected were unaccustomed to visitors, even one as august as Commodore Crestfall. Especially when those visitors came unannounced, in the middle of the day’s discussion. The Commodore could not see their faces behind the one-way slabs of black transparite that concealed their identities, nor the lights that shone forth from the base of each of their pedestals, but the thought of their collective shock warmed his golden heart something mighty.

“Commodore,” the Duly’s voice chimed at last. “We did not summon you.”

“You did not,” the Commodore said, keeping his hands loose and steady at his sides. His traveling cloak hung still against him in the breezeless gloom of the Duly’s chamber.

“We would prefer that you made an appointment,” the Duly ventured. “Our registrar—”

“Was only too happy to make room in your schedule, right at this very time,” Crestfall said. “Especially for the great Commodore Crestfall, hero of the Third Galactic Conflict.”

“You… you look unusually presentable,” the Duly intoned, and the Commodore ran a hand over his newly shaven cheeks, and nodded. “We are grateful for the safe return of our craft. It would have been ideal if the Imperium had not been able to study it so, but…”

“I had little choice, sirs,” Crestfall said, with an audible absence of regret. “They were my obliging hosts.”

“We understand you have commissioned a second?” the Duly asked.

“Indeed,” Crestfall said. “A Corinthian, former military. She was in the Echo Hill campaign, and I saw her do some violence in this last adventure. She’s a good hand.”

“That’s… very good, Commodore,” the Duly said. “Now, if you will excuse us, we have important matters that need deliberation.”

“Indeed you do,” Crestfall said. If his heart could have pounded now, it would have, but he was resolute. “I’m resigning my commission.”

He took great satisfaction from the whispers of shock coming from behind the panels.

“That is unacceptable,” the Duly said, but with more of an edge of desperation than it might have wished. “You are a valuable asset to the FLAW. Your service is essential.”

“My service is good relations,” Crestfall said. “It keeps you all snug in your seats. But a man grows restless. I’ve done my time as the hero of millions, thank you.”

“We must remind you,” the Duly warned, their unified voice darkening, “of certain measures at our disposal.”

“Oh, I know about them,” Crestfall smiled. “All about them. You just go ahead and press that kill switch you’ve been holding over me these many years. Go on. I’ll be a mess somewhat on your floor when I go, but I’m sure you’ve seen worse.”

“We will activate the device,” the Duly rumbled. “Do not try our patience, Commodore.”

“I’m waiting,” Crestfall said. “Hmm. Must not have done it yet, then. I still feel my blood moving, and such.”

The Duly were silent, and the silence expanded, until Crestfall felt it appropriate to fill up the gap with words of his own. He swept aside his cloak and put a hand on the scabbard of Bad News.

“Bet you’re reconsidering the notion to give me armament about now,” the Crestfall said. “Let’s open a parlay, shall we, you all and I? Let’s talk about what it is keeps this blade in its scabbard. What say you?”

The Duly Elected had plenty to say indeed.

“Sit, Mr. Crouch,” the Empress said, to the sound of birdsong. “There’s refreshments, if you like.”

Quarrington Crouch was substantially more nervous than when he’d entered Foliage Deck. For one thing, when he’d entered Foliage Deck, he’d had a full complement of armed security. Somehow, they’d managed to all vanish along the garden path, leaving just him in his charcoal suit. But he had been to the Imperial Palace many times before, and it would not do to show fear now. This was just a discussion about munitions sales. That was what they’d told him. That must be it.

The Empress nodded again to the exquisite spread of tea cakes, and kept on with her knitting. Crouch studied them all, their exquisite frosting and jams, and remembered what he’d heard about other people who’d sampled refreshments in the company of the Empress.

“Apologies, Majesty,” Crouch demurred smoothly. “Some digestive troubles of late, my doctors tell me. I would not wish to be rude.”

“Of course,” the Empress said. “So. I wish to express my regrets about the tragic passing of your Dr. Grolescht. I understand he was quite invaluable.”

Crouch nodded, and refused to look surprised. No single soul outside his organization, and precious few within it, knew what had happened to Grolescht.

“We’ll manage,” Crouch said, and smiled, and crossed his legs, leaning back in the chair. “Thankfully, he left considerable notes behind.”

“I’m sure he did,” the Empress nodded. “Are you sure you won’t at least take something to drink? That decanter’s full of your favorite Shantaram.”

Crouch eyed the amber liquid uncertainly. “My doctors advise moderation of late,” he sighed. “The digestion, you understand.”

“Say no more,” the Empress said.

“If her Majesty is amenable,” Crouch said, “I’m happy to provide a full listing of our very latest munitions, each ideal to compound the might of the Imperial military.”

“One model in particular piques my interest, yes,” the Empress said. “The BHB.”

Crouch’s blood froze. Colder than its usual temperature, at least. “That’s not in our catalog, majesty,” he said. “Perhaps some misguided employee, through a spelling error…”

“Do not insult me, Mr. Crouch,” the Empress said. Her voice remained calm and mild, but she managed to make the “Mr.” sound like an epithet. “Let’s have some honesty, shall we?”

“I… I am given to understand that some rogue employees of mine may have appropriated a prototype device, and used it in some mad coup plot,” Crouch said. “If they were not already dead, I assure you, they’d be dealt with harshly. As a gesture of apology, I’m prepared to offer the Empire however many of the devices it may wish.” It was painful for him to add these next words, foreign as they were to him, but he felt it somehow necessary. “Free of charge.”

“Very generous,” the Empress nodded. “We shall take it under consideration. Are you quite certain you will not take refreshment, Mr. Crouch? We would be quite the poor host not to offer, at least.”

“Your Majesty’s graciousness humbles me,” Crouch smiled. Provided no armed men sprang from behind the topiaries, he might be able to chalk this up as yet another victory. “I must once more refuse.”

“Wise, Mr. Crouch,” the Empress said. “They were all poisoned, of course.” For the first time in their entire conversation, her eyes met his. “You underestimate me grievously, Mr. Crouch. I am only too accustomed to threats against my life — against the very Imperium. You cannot imagine that you are the first such soul to conceive of such ambition, can you? I expect such measures. I respect them, even.”

She rose from her chair to depart, and Crouch tried to follow suit. “Tried” being the operative word. His legs no longer seemed to obey him. Nor did any other part of his body, for that matter.

“But when such designs,” the Empress continued, her voice thickening, “threaten the life of an Imperial heir…” She stopped, as if the words were difficult to get out. “Threaten my son,” she said again, the look on her face suggesting that the concept was a revelation to her.

Then she turned her eyes again toward Quarrington Crouch, and he saw in them a fury whose depth and intensity he had seen only once, in his father’s eyes, as the outer airlock door began to cycle.

“The Empire will not abide that,” she spat. “You should be gracious, Mr. Crouch. The FLAW, I understand, wished to make a public end of you. We prefer your end to be private, and miserable, and uncelebrated.” She swept past him as the paralysis reached his lungs, and he could only stare straight ahead, listening to her voice as it retreated down the garden path behind him.

“You really should have eaten the refreshments,” the Empress said, without looking back. “Their poison would have ended you quite painlessly. The vapor in the air, however…”

The birds sang, and the artificial sun shone. Throughout the whole of Foliage Deck, the wind rippled, purring its way across arbors and hedgetops. But the man in the chair at the center of the garden sat very, very still, even as the attendants came in their heavy hazmat suits to clear away the refreshments, not one so much as sparing him a glance. Artificial day mellowed and goldened and sank into artificial night, and still the man in the chair did not move.

He was mere ornamentation now, no different from the grass or the statues or the hedges or the trees, and most certainly no longer the CEO of anything at all.

26. The Maw, The Moment, The Melody

Clearly, Dr. Grolescht thought, this was all some amusing joke that would shortly be explained.

After all, he and his very good friend Quarrington Crouch had just concluded a wonderful dinner together, collectively demolishing an entire joint of Altaran acorn-hog, not to mention at least two bottles of very fine wine.

Dr. Grolescht could not remember how many bottles of wine, exactly, which did at least give him suggestions as to the quantity consumed.

As he shivered slightly in the dim, clanking cargo container, Dr. Grolescht realized he could not remember a great many things. The exact topics of conversation at dinner, for example. He remembered talking very excitedly to Crouch about some topic of great pride, and also Crouch saying something about the wine, and then they both went for a walk around the gardens…

For a moment, Dr. Grolescht panicked, thinking that perhaps he might have explained the secrets of the BHB to his employer. But that was simply ridiculous. Quarrington Crouch, being a notoriously tight-fisted leader of business, had gained a reputation of paying his employees handsomely, right up until the point at which he no longer had to. Dr. Grolescht had made a habit, then, of speaking of his highly technical work only in vague generalities, to ensure that he himself remained the invaluable element in their success.

It was hard to see in the cargo container, but as Dr. Grolescht’s round, watery eyes adjusted to the darkness, he began to make out row after row of identical shapes on the shelves. They looked dimly familiar.

What was it Crouch had been saying about the wine? For some reason, Grolescht’s attempts at recall only led his thoughts back to the workings of the BHB. It was a highly technical topic, but in short, the device’s initial explosion created a very small star, even as a ruthlessly efficient containment field — powered by the same energy released in the star’s birth — contained and compressed that star. Crushed ever tighter, even as it strained to expand, the star was forced to collapse. Voila! Instant black hole.

Of course, black holes were something of a nuisance to have hanging around the galaxy, especially a sector of the galaxy that, say, you wanted to conquer. So the BHB’s containment field, established just beyond its event horizon, continued to crush and compress, accelerating millions of years of the black hole’s existence into a little more than an hour. The device’s deployer simply waited at a safe distance, watched any troublesome fleets or moons or planets get dragged into the pitiless gravity well, and moved in once the black hole had expired in a final belch of scrambled x-rays.

There was more to it than that, of course. Far more, all very technical and detailed. Dr. Grolescht would never discuss that sort of thing with his employer, especially over dinner. Except…

It got no warmer in the cargo container, and Grolescht began to find this particular joke less and less funny. He rapped gently with his knuckles against the reinforced steel door, expecting Crouch or one of his functionaries to open it, laughing. On the shelves behind him, small hummings and whirrings began to sound.

Dr. Grolescht began to recall Crouch seeming very proud of the wine. It was special somehow, yes… enhanced, Crouch had said, with some sort of impressive new protein. What had he called it?

Spillitol! That was it. An impressive new protein that made the imbiber entirely willing to… that…

Dr. Grolescht slowly began to remember what he’d spoken about with Crouch, in great detail, often with charts and diagrams. And come to think of it, there had been a great many waiters, hadn’t there? Not very good waiters, but certainly very attentive ones.

Panic welled in Dr. Grolescht’s barrel chest, and he began to pound on the door now, shouting, pleading. Unbeknownst to him, the cargo container had already been jettisonned from the Crouch flagship; there was absolutely no one, and nothing, outside to hear him.

And on the shelves, around Dr. Grolescht, dozens upon dozens of adorable bright blue eyes snapped open. Soft plush heads swiveled in unison toward the only human being in range. Countless fluffy-wuffy limbs began to stir.

“Hello!” said row after row of Crouch Cuddly Cub Mark I models. Defective Mark I models. It seems the engineers had overestimated the adorable robo-bears’ grip strength, and the programmers had failed to adequately nuance the Cuddly Cub’s personal definition of love.

“I want to snoogle-woogle you to bits!” the bears cooed in carefully focus-grouped voices. “Will you be my friend forever and ever?”

No matter how loudly Dr. Grolescht screamed, no matter how he pleaded, the bears did not stop climbing from their packaging, did not stop making their way in adorable lopes down the shelving, did not stop bobbling along the floor toward him in a wave of chirpy synthesized phrases…

Somewhere far beyond this life, a table had been prepared especially for Dr. Grolescht, and fitted with large, heavy restraints. A multitude of pale, spectral figures gathered around it, all with very good reason to await the Doctor’s arrival, and watched his final moments of life.

They wound up wincing a lot, and at least one of them, in defiance of the basic principles of metaphysics, may actually have fainted.

“Status, Rendell!” the Emperor barked, amid the soft chiming of the Dreadnaught’s peril alarms. (The Empire’s engineers had long since realized that if you were aboard a ship that was in some sort of danger, you probably knew that very clearly, and having loud klaxons blaring in your ears did nothing to calm you down.)

“Pluslight at maximum, Majesty,” Rendell said, gripping the edges of the helm console until his knuckles turned white. “Energy drain’s increasing — three point two clicks until they hit burnout.”

The Empress sat silent and fascinated in her chair behind the Emperor, knitting steadily, gazing at the great black void in the forward viewport into which bits of the very ship she occupied were steadily tumbling. She had always considered death an invisible, inexorable, pitiless force, and it was somehow a strange and quiet comfort to her to be proven right.

“Sir,” Wavesmith Second Class Juniper said to Rendell, from the communication station. (She was not important enough to speak directly to the Emperor, nor indeed for the Emperor to know her name.) “We’re picking up a transmission.”

“From the FLAW?” Rendell asked.

“No, sir!” Juniper said, retreating from his own overwhelming terror into the familiar comfort of his training. “Point of origin unknown — the anomaly’s scrambling the readings.”

“Put it through!” Rendell barked, and Juniper obliged.

A voice crackled through the bridge, punctuated by static, and for a moment it seemed even the imminent-death chimes fell silent.

“Father?” Dent’s voice said. “Mother?”

The Empress, for only the fifth time in her entire life, missed a stitch.

“Accident?” the Emperor asked softly, all protocol forgotten.

And in the cockpit of Captain Corsair’s stolen ship, a wave of relief flooded over Dent. He forgot to be angry at them, he forgot that they didn’t care about him. It didn’t matter.

“A noble kidnapped us and tried to eat us, and now I’m flying a ship, and I think that’s a black hole.” he said. “Are you mad at me?”

There was a long, long silence on the other end, and just as panic once more began to well up in the boy, his father’s voice reached him again.

“Accident, where are you?” Dent had never heard his father sound afraid before. He almost didn’t recognize the sound. “Does the black hole have you?”

“We’re… we’re close, but I think we can get away,” Dent said. “The ship can kind of slip around space. I think that’s how it got past the satellites.”

“Accident,” his father said, “you need to listen to me. Run.”

“But you and Mother—” Dent began. His father didn’t yell. His voice didn’t peak and sharpen, like it usually did. That was what frightened Dent the most.

“We can’t escape, Accident,” his father said. “We’re too close, and soon the pluslight will fail. You have to run. You’re the last of the line now.”

“No I’m not,” Dent said, in a panic. He felt the weight of an entire Empire looming just above his shoulders. “Pug and Lis are—”

“Pug and Lis are here, too,” the Emperor said. “It’s just you. My son.”

Dent’s throat got all thick and prickly, filled with a sadness too big to swallow. “I can’t do it,” he said. “I don’t want to.”

“You have to,” his father said. Still calm. Still quiet. “And I know you can. Yours is Imperial blood. It served me. It served my father, and his father before him. Be good. Be wise.”

“Don’t drink anything you haven’t tested on an underling,” his mother added, with perhaps a bit more of a quaver in her voice than she might have wished.

“No,” Dent pleaded, “no, no, no, I don’t want to — you can escape, I know you can!”

“Do this for me, Accident,” the Emperor said. And then he used a word Dent had never heard him say, at least not in this particular context. “Please.”

On the bridge of his flagship, the Emperor’s hand wavered for a moment, then pressed the pad that ended the transmission. The deck officers turned away, out of respect, so that only the Empress would see his grief.

And in the cockpit of Captain Corsair’s ship, Dent sat at the controls, very alone. He thought long and hard for nearly a minute, and then he came to a decision.

He’d spent most of his life very pointedly not doing what his father told him to. This was no time to change his ways.

On the bridge of the mercenary ship, the four unlikely allies sat in silence, caught fast in the pull of the black hole, and surrounded by the dead.

“Grontarian Thrallbeast,” Pug sighed. “Never fought one of those.”

“They’re extinct, aren’t they?” Bosun Little asked.

“Yeah, but, you know, I was hoping I could clone one,” Pug said, his thick, calloused fingers knotted. “Maybe for my birthday.”

“You ever tangle with a Tendril Vine?” the Bosun asked. “Back during the Conflict, in the Argos campaign…”

“Yeah, those are the worst,” Pug said, but did not look up from his hands. “I had to kill like three of those one time.”

The pixels on the Bosun’s cheeks flowed in straight lines down from her eyes, and she put one massive hand upon Pug’s shoulder, and left it there.

At the forward viewscreen, Lis and Crestfall watched the ever-advancing wall of nothing.

“Least we managed to slingshot that other ship past us,” Lis said. “Whoever grabbed Dent, he deserved to go first.”

“Buys us some time, yes,” the Commodore nodded. “From what they tell me, that stolen ship could escape everything short of absolute event horizon. If that’s your brother on it, he could have a chance.”

Lis smiled. “Gods save us all. My little brother, the Emperor.” She looked at the Commodore. “So, we’ve probably got a few clicks. You want to—?”

The Commodore shook his head. “I just don’t lean that far familiar, Majesty,” he said, smiling sadly. “No offense.”

“Force of habit,” Lis shrugged. She stared back out the viewscreen, at the tiny ship floating there, and tried not to think of the Captain.

All through the corridors of the dark ship, littered with constellations of broken mirrors and frenzied, scrambling Wee Ones, the curses of Sir Leslie Murther echoed.

The narcotic gas had given him a terrible headache, and his stomach was both painfully empty and a little upset, and he’d apparently been outwitted by a pair of small children and a shabby social reject with a fatal stomach wound. It was not, Sir Leslie reflected as he staggered groggily toward forward command, his most accomplished day.

But there would be others, he was certain. The BHB was launched, so Crouch would surely have to pay him for those services rendered. And even if they’d managed to escape, his former prisoners would doubtlessly flee right toward the Imperial fleet, and that would settle that account rather nicely.

If only he could figure out why the Wee Ones were in such a fret.

He reached the thick black doors to forward command, kicked and swore at them until they opened, and stepped inside. The bridge’s original fixtures seemed not quite at the right proportions to accomodate a human being, but Sir Leslie had liked the dark, swooping curves of them, and kept them as is. He called up the viewscreen, and cursed again, wondering why he wasn’t getting a picture. Then the ship began to shudder, and alarms began to blare, and he noticed a few faint stars around the edge of the screen, vanishing quickly.

Sir Leslie slowly sat down, staring at the screen, into a hunger as black and terrible and all-encompassing as that which had boiled in his gut from childhood onward. It felt more like his reflection than any mirror into which he’d ever gazed.

Sir Leslie cinched up the fastenings on his Special Device even tighter, and straightened his hair as best he could. As Mother had said, one must always look his best, even in the worst of circumstances.

The dark ship passed beyond the event horizon.

Sir Leslie had always wanted to be thinner, and to look young forever. Depending on how you looked at it, and which physicists you talked to, both his wishes were granted.

“Captain,” Dent said gently, shaking Corsair’s arm. “Captain, you need to wake up.”

The coral sparked and flickered, reduced again to dimness by the power expended in jumping out of the black ship. In the intermittent light, Pebble’s eyes strobed reflectively as she kept her hands pressed against the Captain’s wound. No matter how Dent prodded and pleaded, the Captain would not wake. He breathed shallowly, and with effort, and behind his closed eyelids, the light pulsed and stuttered.

“Please, Captain,” Dent said. “I can save us. I know it. But I need you to sing. Please wake up.”

The Captain coughed, and stirred, but did not wake. Dent bowed his head and told himself, again, that a child of the Empire did not cry.

Pebble looked at him, her hands warm and sticky with the Captain’s blood, her arms slowly growing numb from pressing against Corsair’s wound. In her heart, an egg that had been slowly warmed and incubated over the past two years cracked open, and shed its shell, and fluttered brightly colored wings.

Dent heard music. Not the Captain’s songs, but a high, quavering, unearthly voice. He looked up.

Pebble had heard many songs in her time in the palace — court songs, working songs, even the sort of randy musical tales of calculation that Imperial accountants are careful never to sing in front of their children. (They are mostly about columns adding up, and accounts receivable, and that sort of thing.)

But she only knew, truly knew, one song. The same song her mother sang to her each night as an infant, a song that bypassed her ears to seep itself into Pebble’s blood and bone and muscle. She sang that song now.

It started softly, hesitantly. But as Pebble sang, Dent saw rainbow arcs begin to leap off the surface of the coral. The glow spread across the whole surface of it, brighter and brighter, as Pebble sang her song louder and louder. The light became dazzling, and panel by panel, light by light, the entire ship shook itself and came fully to life again. It seemed to Dent that he could feel Pebble’s song pulsing through the deck plates, humming all inside the ship.

He gave Pebble a great big hug, crushing her to the best of his ten-year-old strength, until she pushed him away, and signed, I’m busy. Don’t you have something to do?

Dent got to his feet and ran, skipped, leapt away through the corridor, threw himself into the seat as if it had been made for him. It seemed the switches all threw themselves the moment before he could touch them.

And with the sole potentially surviving heir of the Grand Galactic Imperium at the controls, the tiny stolen ship shot into motion — directly toward the black hole ahead.

“Majesty,” Guard Captain Rendell said, from the bridge of the Imperial flagship. “Your son’s craft — it seems to be—”

“No,” the Emperor mourned, watching the tiny ship zip toward the black, devouring malestrom. “No! Damn the boy!” He had always thought he wanted a warrior child, ready to lay down his life in service of the Empire, right up until the moment when it seemed that would actually come to pass.

“Accident is a clever boy,” the Empress said slowly, thoughtfully. “He’s always been very good at staying alive. I should know.” With a strange sort of confidence, she picked up her needles, and resumed her knitting.

The stolen ship began to shudder as the hungry, invisible gravitation of the black hole drew it closer. Alarms in the cockpit began to nag, and then, pester, and then shout. Just before they began to shriek in panic, Dent made a hard turn, pointing the slender nose of the craft directly away from the black hole. He took a deep breath, and made quick child’s prayers to every god he could think of, and a quick hello to Story in Hypotethical Robot Paradise.

Then he called up the jump computer and told it what he wanted. If the computer had thought his requests baffling before, it would have judged them completely insane now. But Dent insisted, and the computer obeyed, and somewhere deep in its circuits, it figured it had enjoyed a pretty good life for a computer.

Dent punched the button to activate the jump.

A black hole drags space down into a sort of pit, squeezing it shut. Dent’s craft, at least at the rear, expanded that same space, pulling it taut at the edges like a blanket. And when Dent hit the jump, at maximum power, the crushing containment of the BHB met the insistent expansion of the Quantum Coral drive.

The laws of physics had an epic tug of war.

The alarms in Dent’s cockpit moved swiftly past panic into outright hysteria, as the whole ship shuddered around him. In the engine room, Pebble saw the light of the coral begin to dim. And though she was getting red in the face, and more than a little dizzy, she sucked more air into her lungs and sang louder, shouting over the rumbling of the ship itself.

Space itself flashed and crackled in an expanding web behind the stolen ship, bursts of radiation sparking from the black hole. Crouch Industries could turn out fine engineering when it had a mind to, and the BHB fought valiantly.

It lost.

In a final burst of despairing X-rays, the artifical black hole exhausted its hunger, and was no more, and went back to being just plain space. At the same moment, both Pebble’s lungs and the quantum coral drive gave out. The stolen ship drifted, end over end, past the bridge of the mercenary ship, upon which the four still-living inhabitants would have been wildly cheering if they weren’t busy gaping slack-jawed in various states of amazement.

Dent realized he had been holding his breath the entire time, and collapsed in the chair, sucking in air, spots dancing before his eyes. Pebble, in the engine room, had similar issues.

Captain Corsair continued to miss all the excitement, but then, whatever played out on the inside of his eyelids was probably just as compelling.

In the black depths of space, all was still and silent again. The tattered, considerably shabbier fleets of the Grand Galactic Imperium and the FLAW cut their pluslight drives with mere instants to spare, and breathed collective sighs of relief.

When the Emperor could speak again, his words finding a path around the strange, swelling pride filling his chest, he said, “Status, Rendell.”

“We have power, Majesty,” Rendell nodded, his knees still shaking. “And… we’re not destroyed.”

“Good,” Emperor Impromptu I said, standing up straighter, feeling less like an old man, and more like the leader of a dynasty. “Overtake the smaller ship and bring it aboard. I want to see my son.”

Sunday, January 20, 2008

25. Breaking Out

Across the galaxy, billions of citizens of two mighty factions watched the live feeds of the two great fleets hanging motionless among the stars, and collectively held their breath.

Oh, sure, they might spend their end-of-turn nights in the pub, hollering for the blood of those damned Imperials. And they might make grumbly noises over the morning news scroll, cursing those arrogant prods in the FLAW. But the memory of the Third Galactic Conflict remained fresh in everyone’s minds, and only the craziest of zealots — the kind unceremoniously hucked out of the pubs, or glared at over their scrolls — actually wanted anything like a war.

So the galaxy waited, and watched, and wondered exactly what sort of perilous, high-powered negotiations were taking place.

“Is that the one with the dogleg on the 27th hoop?” the Emperor asked, looking up from a writing pad covered with unprofessional doodling. “I quite liked that one. Good view of the mountains.”

“Yes, exactly,” said the Duly Elected in a twelvefold pulse of light from the screen of his conference suite. “So did we.” There was a pause, as if some private discussion were taking place. “Most of us did,” the Duly amended.

“Right,” the Emperor sighed. “Since it’s—” he checked the chronometer on the wall — “ten clicks until lunch, are you amenable to summing up?”

“What are you having?” the Duly asked.

“Octopus, I think,” the Emperor said, his stomach rumbling. “Cook does a lovely dish with pepperfruit jelly. I could send some over.”

“Acceptable,” the Duly chanted. “Yes, let us sum up. You do not have our craft in your possession?”

“I do not,” the Emperor said. “And you do not have my child?”

“We do not,” the Duly replied. “Our agent has yet to report.”

“As have my contingent,” the Emperor said. Diplomacy might lack something in glory, but it was much easier to prevent misunderstandings without all those swords and guns lying around. The Emperor felt somewhat ashamed to realize this, and decided he must be getting old.

“We should spend the afternoon coming up with suitable threatening statements,” the Duly proposed.

“Sounds sensible,” the Emperor nodded. “I was thinking of something like, ‘intractable hostilities,’ or perhaps—”

“Majesty,” Guard Captain Rendell’s voice came over the intercom. There was an edge in his words, an energy, that the Emperor hadn’t heard since that long-ago night on Echo Hill. “We have an unregistered contact on the scanners.”

“Is this you?” the Emperor asked the Duly, sitting up straighter in his chair, his fingers tightening on the glossy seashell surface of the conference table.

“It is not,” the Duly responded, hesitantly. “We have just been informed of a similar contact.”

“Captain, pipe the footage in here,” the Emperor said. “And elevate the fleet’s readiness.” He glanced at the flickering circle of lights on the screen, and added, “No offense.”

“None taken,” the Duly agreed, and the screen flickered to reveal external footage of a small, merchant-class freighter trawling slowly across the black. The tiny gray ship itself did not cause the Emperor’s heart to pound, or his breath to quicken. But the faint, almost invisible silhouette it towed, blacker than space itself, stood out sharp and clear, seared into the Emperor’s memory.

“The Dark Matter Armada,” he breathed.

The Emperor burst forth from the conference suite to find the entire bridge frozen, staring at the image on the screen. Even his wife had momentarily ceased her knitting, and beneath her layer of ceremonial makeup, her face seemed another shade paler still.

“Shake yourselves,” the Emperor barked. A thrill of adrenalin raced through his blood. “Rendell, weapons to full. Target that ship and make ready to fire. Are we still on with the Duly?”

“Yes, Majesty,” Rendell said, his voice not quite shaking, as he forced himself to look down at his console and make the adjustments.

“Our fleet has similar targeting,” the Duly’s manifold voice droned through the bridge. “Except…”

“It’s signaling,” the Emperor said, squinting at the image onscreen, watching lights flare in rhythm along the hull of the small lead ship. “That’s Imperial flashcode.”

“And standard FLAW pulse signals on the side facing our craft,” the Duly affirmed.

“Extreme… danger…” Rendell began, watching the signals. “Unknown… threat… evacuate…”

He would have finished, except for the inconvenient flare of unimaginable light that blew out the visual circuits on both fleets’ external feeds.

The BHB, having maneuvered itself unnoticed between the two fleets, like any other piece of space junk, detonated. And things only got worse from there.

It never occurs to anyone, really, that they might at some point have a knife driven into their vitals. So Captain Corsair could be forgiven for looking as surprised as he did.

He stood there, his sword beginning to wilt from his fingers, and stared quizzically down at Sir Leslie’s blade, plunged to its hilt into his stomach. He shuddered slightly when Sir Leslie gave the knife a particularly vicious twist, and again when it was plucked out, but his expression of surprise and curiosity did not change. At last, the sword fell from the Captain’s hands, rattling dully on the onyx plating of the deck, and the Captain sank to his knees as if being lowered to them, a dark red stain spreading over the front of his jacket. The slow, half-hesitant way he did so would haunt Dent’s nightmares for years to come.

Sir Leslie dropped Pebble without much ceremony, leaving her to gasp the color back into her cheeks. But Dent was too stunned to even look at her for a moment. He kept staring at the Captain, who, in turn, kept staring at his own injury.

“Pardon me,” the Captain said at last, faintly, and with an unpleasant gurgle just beneath the words. “I seem to be bleeding on your deck.”

Sir Leslie turned, still kneeling, and sized the Captain up like a freshly bled calf. His eyes fixed upon the Captain’s metal hand, and sparkled with greed.

“I have a collection, you know,” Sir Leslie purred, picking up the Captain’s limp, unresisting arm, and studying the metal hand attached to it with an enthusiast’s eye. “This piece… the customization is exquisite. Would you mind terribly if I displayed it?”

“Not at all,” the Captain coughed. “Please, feel free to look closer.”

Sir Leslie peered at the hand’s weathered components. “These channels here, with the filigrees,” he said. “Are they merely decorative?”

“Far from it,” the Captain smiled weakly, and twitched his wrist. Three different-colored clouds of gas jetted forth from concealed compartments in the hand, wreathing Sir Leslie’s head. His hungry black eyes crossed, and he began to slur out what might have been an oath before sliding sideways to the deck, unconscious.

“I wish I had thought of that sooner,” the Captain said, and slid ever so gently backward himself.

“Captain?” Dent asked. He crawled, hands and knees, over to Corsair, and shook him. “Captain, please!”

The captain’s closed eyelids glowed, but the light was uneven, flickering. At last, his eyes slid open again, to fix wearily on Dent’s.

“You are quite right,” the Captain coughed. “This is no place for a gentleman to die. I do not know what I must have been thinking.”

The whole ship rocked again, and for a long second, brilliant light leaked in, even through the seams in the hangar’s blast doors.

“What was that?” Dent asked, as a slightly woozy Pebble signed something similar. The girl crawled over, sized up the blood on the Captain’s shirtfront with wide, serious eyes. She pressed her hands together over the wound, as she’d seen her father do long ago.

“That was nothing good,” the Captain said. “Your majesty, if you would kindly drag me to my very fine ship?”

It took both Dent and Pebble to drag the Captain across the deck, up the airlock ramp, and into the darkened central corridor of the twice-stolen ship. A wet and steaming trail of red followed in the Captain’s wake, but though he often winced at the bumps and jolts of the journey, he made no cry of pain.

“The coral’s dead,” Dent mourned, in the gloom of the corridor. “Sir Leslie hit us with some noise thing.”

“Do not despair, my friend,” the Captain smiled gently. “I would ask if you had tried to sing to it, but perhaps it is better that you did not. Please, if you would convey me to the engine room?”

Another slow, agonized minute of dragging led Dent, Pebble, and the Captain into the barely visible contours of the engine room. The whole of the ship was dark and still inside.

Captain Corsair coughed wetly, closing his eyes. The light beneath them flickered to life, and for a moment, it seemed to glow brighter than it had before. And with his eyes still shut, the Captain began to sing.

Dent and Pebble had never heard this song before. They would have remembered it if they had. Anyone would have. And though the Captain did not have his ninestring, both the children would forever remember the song as if it had been there.

And from deep within the cluster of coral, a single spark flared, and kindled, growing with the Captain’s song. Light began to dance, faint but persistent, over the surface of the cluster. At last, weakly, the ship’s lights and systems flickered and hummed to life.

“Ah,” the Captain sighed, gratified. “You see?” His eyelids drifted southward, and shut, and behind them a soft glow began to flicker.

“Captain?” Dent asked, and reached down to touch Corsair’s shoulder. Pebble scowled and swatted at Dent, leaving a wet red stain on the boy’s sleeve. With hands covered by the Captain’s blood, she signed: He’s alive. Get us out of here.

Dent backed away uncertainly, then turned and scrambled toward the cockpit. Pebble, left behind in the engine room with the Captain’s shallow breathing and the faint coruscation of the mass of coral, kept pressing against the Captain’s wound. She felt it pulsing back against her palms, and tried to remember what else, if anything, she’d ever seen her father do in circumstances like these.

Dent reached the cockpit and clambered awkwardly into the pilot’s seat. The grid of lights enveloped him, each button an individual tooth in some terrible mocking smile, and for a moment, everything he had learned in his time on the ship went tumbling out his ears.

“I can’t do this,” he said to himself, and wanted very badly for Story to be there, or the Captain, or someone, anyone, to tell him exactly what to do. He squeezed his eyes shut tightly and wished himself far, far away.

And in the exploding colors behind his eyelids, the faces of his mother and father and sister and brother appeared. They were not angry, not even disappointed. They were looking at him exactly like they always did. Not surprised in the slightest. The family’s little Accident, helpless and useless, as ever.

Dent opened his eyes and forced himself to find just one button on the panel that he recognized. There. The thrust control. He knew that. And right next to it, the jumpdrive initiator, and the docking controls, he knew them, and… okay, he’d never been told what the triangular one above them did, but right above that was the pitch adjuster…

Dent gripped controls that were nearly too big with his hands, and took a deep breath to quiet the flying fish flopping to and fro in the pit of his stomach. He flipped three switches, and felt the ship shudder and rumble around him. The world wobbled slightly as the antigrav came online; the ship pulled away from its magnetic moorings, and floated just a few feet off the obsidian deck of the hangar bay.

Carefully, awkwardly, Dent nosed the ship around, until its sharp, slender nose pointed directly at… the firmly sealed blast doors. Ah, yes. Dent had forgotten this detail up until now.

He could blast the doors wide open, blowing the entire bay out into space. That might have unpleasant effects for the still-unconscious Sir Leslie, out in the bay, but Dent was not exactly worried about that. He was more concerned about the ship’s absolute lack of any sort of guns with which he might do that hypothetical blasting. (Every good ship, by Dent’s ten-year-old standards, had guns. Despite the life-or-death stakes now facing him, the boy remained somehow quietly disappointed that he finally got to fly something, and it lacked the ability to shoot anything.)

Dent cast his mind back to the hours he’d spent reading the ship’s manual. He remembered a curious fact about the ship’s operation. It was the sort of curious fact that might get them all killed, if applied improperly. But Dent, given the ship’s regrettable absence of shooting-stuff capabilities, had no choice.

He called up the jump computer, as he’d watched the Captain and Bosun Little do several times before, and entered a desired distance. The computer, unnerved by this, checked to make sure he hadn’t made a mistake. And then again, just to be extra double sure. Dent confirmed both times.

The computer had not been programmed to shrug its shoulders and say, “Your funeral” — it had not been given shoulders in the first place — but if it had, it most certainly would have.

“If we all explode and die,” Dent shouted back to the engine room, “I’m really, really sorry!”

Pebble’s head snapped up; owing to the noise and the distance, she had only heard “explode and die” and “really really sorry,” neither of which were comforting phrases. But before she could really get properly frightened, Dent hit the jump activator.

It was not so much that the ship passed through the blast doors in front of it, en route to the empty space beyond. It was more that the coral, using nearly every jot of what little power the Captain’s song had lent it, squeezed space down in the front of craft, and stretched it out in back, and the universe very obligingly stepped aside and let the ship pass around the doors, and on its merry way.

It happened so quickly, that the windshields ahead of Dent were already full of stars before his finger had left the button, and it took him a few extra seconds to realize that nothing of the explode-and-die variety had, in fact, happened.

He whooped for joy, pumping ten-year-old fists into the air. Pebble, in the engine-room, initially mistook this for horrible screams of agonized death, and was somewhat less than comforted until she figured out what was going on.

Behind them, the black ship drifted on, and ahead of their ship, Dent could see another craft, modestly sized and gray and boxy, not too distant.

Oddly, it had its pluslight drive on, at full burn. And yet, it was standing entirely still in space.

Now that Dent thought of it, his own ship seemed to be most definitely drifting in a certain direction. He took the controls and wheeled the ship around.

On opposite sides of a stellar divide, the fleets of the FLAW and his family’s familiar Imperial Dreadnoughts seemed to be trying to back away from one another, as quickly as possible. And failing utterly. As Dent watched, he could see bits of the ships on either side peeling off, as if yanked by an army of invisible hands, and tumbling into an absolute void of black that blotted out the stars between them.

The darkness flared blue at odd intervals, in crackling bursts of radiation, and Dent thought back to his lessons with Story with realized: Black hole.

Then he remembered what black holes did, especially to little tiny ships like his, and though he did not think it possible for a ten-year-old boy alone at the controls of a stolen spacecraft with a dying captain and a narrow escape from a mad cannibal in its recent past, he somehow got even more scared.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

24. Dear and Costly

Captain Mayweather of Pacification Services Intergalactic was very well-trained and very well-paid, and more importantly, he was employed by people who knew where all of his relatives lived. Even the illegitimate ones.

Mayweather didn’t care much for most of them, and would gladly have left them to his employer’s tender mercies; it was part of the reason he’d thrown himself into the military life to begin with. But at his last performance review, the large man on the other side of the table, with the clipboard and the six-inch scar criscrossing his face, had casually, conversationally mentioned his maiden aunt. The one who’d brought Mayweather up, the only one of his twisted, rotted-out family tree to give a toss about him. The one he deliberately hadn’t mentioned to anyone at the company, ever.

So when the intruders closed in on the bridge, Mayweather didn’t hesitate for a moment in turning his pistol in turn on each of his fellow shipmates. (You can’t give useful information to your captors if you’re no longer alive.) The door smashed open before he got around to finishing himself off — or the navigation systems, for that matter — but he did manage to destroy the comms array. That was something, he told himself, facing down the intruders. The company couldn’t say he hadn’t tried. They couldn’t take it out on Auntie.

“I’ve been trained,” he said. “I can’t be bribed, I won’t be tortured. This—” he waved a hand at his former coworkers, scattered around the deck — “is my doing. Whatever you think you can stop, you can’t. Wherever you think you can go, you can’t. The owners of this ship have long memories and a longer reach. I want you to realize that.”

“Are you about finished?” said the man in the lead, with the gray traveling cloak and the little round spectacles.

“I’ve said my piece,” Mayweather shot back, and waited for his own end.

“Do you know my face?” the leader said.

Come to think of it, Mayweather did. It took him a minute, on account of the scruff, but he did. He paled a little.

“And these folk here,” the leader continued, indicating the beautiful, barely dressed woman to his left, and the roughly man-shaped pile of muscle to his right. “You know them?”

Now that he’d mentioned it, their faces did seem disconcertingly familiar to Mayweather.

“Good,” Commodore Crestfall smiled, watching Mayweather’s Adam’s apple quickly rise and fall. “Now, what say we have us a civilized conversation about long memories and longer reach?”

Mayweather thought of his aunt opening her front door, and finding the large man with the scar and the clipboard waiting.

“Not gonna happen,” he said.

Commodore Crestfall sighed, and Mayweather was surprised to see real pity in the man’s eyes.

“I’ll make sure it gets back to your people you did right by ‘em,” the Commodore said. “On account of anyone you might be afraid for.”

“My thanks,” Mayweather nodded, and shut his eyes. He felt a ripple of air brush his face. “Go on and do it, then.”

He opened his eyes and saw Crestfall withdrawing an empty hand from the folds of his cloak. “Already did,” the Commodore replied.

“Oh,” Mayweather said, feeling a small stinging sensation. He looked down at his midsection and saw something truly remarkable happen. Then neither half of him saw anything at all.

Lis, who had seen her mother feed people to her nightsharks for a broken teacup, felt a curious unhappy sensation in her. Later, after talking to people who knew a lot about these sorts of things, she would learn it was called “sympathy.”

“Huh,” Pug grunted, as Crestfall stepped over Mayweather’s remains to inspect the controls. “That’s some cunning technique.”

“Style, Majesty,” Crestfall sighed. “Although there’s something to be said for your approach.” Indeed there was, as the dozens of mercenaries they had encountered on their way from the cargo bay would attest, once they got out of the hospital and got a note from their doctors. “Hey, Tiny!”

“Little,” Bosun Little growled, triangles strobing on her cheeks, as she ducked her way onto the bridge. She set her Whomping Stick down against a ruined console and wiped trails of dark blood — not hers — on the midsection of her coveralls. “That rear guard problem we had on the way here? We don’t have it anymore. What’s your tizzy?”

“Comms are dead,” the Commodore told her, signaling her over to the half-blasted control deck. Through the viewport ahead, the ridges of the dark ship prickled out of the shadow of the nearby moon; bright, twinkling clusters in the distance, like schools of platefish, marked the opposing Imperial and FLAW fleets. “You familiar with the maneuvering on this sort of boat?”

“Might be,” the Bosun said, thick fingers trailing over the controls.

“We fly out there without comms, bearing no colors, I doubt the fleet’s going to pay us any mind,” Pug offered. “Until we try to dock. Then they’re going to, you know, kill us.”

“Look,” Lis nodded, pointing out the viewport. Tiny flecks of debris scattered out from the dark ship into the starlight. One in particular blinked, readjusted itself, and curved off toward the two distant fleets. “Oh, Gods. Do you think that’s the bomb?”

“Most like,” Crestfall nodded. “Bosun, you think we could intercept?”

“Yes, I completely want to die for the sake of both your slop-rigged sets of politics,” the Bosun snapped. She took a deep breath. “Probably, but if we just show up, there’s that whole problem of them ignoring us.”

“Or killing us,” Pug reminded.

“We need something to get their attention,” Lis said. “Something big.” Her eyes flitted to the controls. Weapons dead; communication dead; scanning dead…

Lis had once had a very wearisome diplomatic meeting with the head of the private army of Kwostell. He’d insisted on giving her a tour of his flagship; she would later return the favor with regard to an entirely different sort of geography, albeit with no greater enthusiasm. She tapped one panel, and watched the lights of its instruments flicker, then spring to life.

“Is this what I think it is?” she said.

Consciousness returned to Captain Corsair in a precise sequence.

First, taste. That was pretty much normal, really.

Then, temperature. Complete numbness slipped gently into agonizing cold, which then passed matters gracefully off to a sort of warmth that would be pleasant once the agonizing cold finally decided to stop lingering.

Then, sensation. His living hand around the haft of his sword. The cloak shifting against his shoulders. The children encircled in his arms, breathing raggedly but steadily, shivering with cold.

Next, smell. Given the children’s long incarceration, the Captain would have been happy to have skipped this part.

After that, hearing. The heavy clang of the blast doors as they finished sealing back into place. The slow clomping and squeaking of tall, heavy leather boots.

And lastly, sight, which was perfectly clear to the Captain except for all those dark spots swimming around in the air. He tried to swat them away, but his progress in that regard was frustratingly slow.

“Look at you, then,” he heard a low, sharp-edged voice purr, growing louder, heading toward him. “I’d heard one of the quality was slumming it as a pirate, but honestly.”

The Captain blinked again, and in a very loose definition of the term “saw,” saw Sir Leslie Murther striding across the deck, cutlass flashing in his hand. Uneven bits of Sir Leslie’s lustrous locks were missing, and half his mustache had been scorched away, but he’d taken the time to go and get himself properly dressed again, once more snug in the embrace of a spare Special Device.

“Excuse me,” the Captain managed to say, through still-chattering teeth. “Which of you am I meant to be fighting? Or is it perhaps the both?”

“You probably don’t remember me,” Sir Leslie tutted. “You’ve come a long way since then. Most of it downward, I see.”

Sir Leslie drew back his arm, and swung the cutlass.

Most of the time, this procedure resulted in a satisfying (to Sir Leslie, anyway) sound somewhere between a squelch and a crunch. This time, to his surprise, it instead produced a clang.

“I must apologize,” Captain Corsair panted, regaining his breath. In the space of a moment, he had drawn his sword from its berth in the floor and lifted it to block Sir Leslie’s swing. “My arm, it is very well-trained. When attempts are made to kill me, it sometimes reacts on instinct.”

Sir Leslie snarled, and slashed again. Again, a clang.

“You see?” Corsair shrugged. “It is hopeless.” With his free hand, he gently set the two groaning, stirring children on the deck. Then, bracing himself, he rose on unsteady legs to face Sir Leslie.

For all of two seconds, anyway. At which point the Captain wobbled and fell over sideways.

“I seem to be having difficulties,” the Captain said, from the floor. “Permit me a brief moment to resolve disagreements with my legs, yes?”

“I’ll spare you the trouble,” Sir Leslie said. He raised the cutlass a third time.

And promptly fell over himself. He had an excuse, at least; the entire ship pitched and roiled, caught in the thrall of some outside force, and it took a few moments for the gravity compensators to keep up.

“Ah,” the Captain observed, making a much more successful second attempt at rising. “I see you have difficulties as well.”

Slung in an invisible web of attracting forces, Sir Leslie’s ship was slowly towed out of its orbit, toward the two opposing fleets of Imperial and FLAW craft. At the opposite end of its tether, the mercenary ship — now under entirely new, if not entirely cohesive, management — chugged slowly but steadily along.

Sir Leslie scrambled to his feet, boiling out a torrent of black, curdling curses that made the Captain wince.

“Please, good sir!” Corsair protested, nodding to Dent and Pebble as they slowly regained consciousness on the deck nearby. “There are delicate ears present!”

“I’ll reserve them for the appetizers,” Sir Leslie snarled, and charged. Swordsmanship, alas, had never been his forte. His swings were wide and clumsy, a butcher’s work. The Captain, shaky but recovering quickly, parried each stroke of the cutlass with tiny, precise adjustments of his blade and his stance, like a painter adding the final touches to a sunset.

“You see there?” the Captain offered helpfully. “Your stance, it is incorrect. Set your feet slightly wider, and — ah, yes, good! Your swing has greater energy.”

“Damnable popinjay,” Sir Leslie growled, beginning to sweat beneath his heavy velvet jacket. The Special Device, for all its admirable features, did not yet incorporate climate control. “I see your manners are all you have left.”

“I begin to remember you, I think,” the Captain mused, ducking adeptly. “You were… how shall I put this delicately… amply proportioned, yes?”

“I was big boned!” Sir Leslie roared, lashing out with a boot that caught Corsair square in the chest. “It was glandular!” The Captain stumbled backward, smacking hard into the hull of his anchored stolen ship.

“I must hesitantly question your use of the past tense in that statement,” the Captain sighed, knocking aside Sir Leslie’s blade with his own. The cutlass screeched sparks in a line across the hull of the ship. “Have you perhaps consulted physicians?”

Sir Leslie’s left eyebrow twitched. His clenched teeth hummed briefly. And then, with a bellow, he thrust his cutlass toward the Captain.

“You seem to have missed,” Corsair noted, casually glancing at the blade embedded just over his shoulder in the steel skin of his stolen ship. “Have I perhaps made you angry?” He cleverly feinted to one side.

Well, he attempted to. Something tugged him back into place, and a second, more thorough look revealed that Sir Leslie’s stab had neatly pinned the Captain’s jacket to the ship behind him.

“This is regrettable,” the Captain said, moments before Sir Leslie’s skull collided with his own. It was a trick Sir Leslie had learned early in childhood, and it never failed to serve him well. Corsair’s head slammed back against the ship behind him, and the Captain sagged, dazed.

Sir Leslie smiled. He opened his mouth, and his teeth began to sing.

Then something small but surprisingly heavy leapt on his back, and Sir Leslie experienced pain in stereo.

Dent remembered the way his brother had scaled the nose of the mighty Ogodsno to deliver the final blow. He applied the same strategy to Sir Leslie, then grabbed both of his would-be captor’s ears and yanked, hard.

Sir Leslie roared in agony, stumbling backward, his arms flailing and wheeling, trying to swat the boy off. Dent, still shivering, the whole of his skin stinging from the intense cold of vacuum, just tugged harder.

And when Sir Leslie flung out one hand, Pebble grabbed hold of it, found the meatiest part, and bit down hard.

One would think that, having subjected others to the same treatment, Sir Leslie would be somewhat understanding in the event that someone else tried to see how he tasted. (Not very good, in Pebble’s estimation — all sickly-sweet and perfumey, with an edge of sweat and rancid fat.) But he did not take it well at all.

It took him a few incredibly agonizing shakes of his arm before Pebble flew off, tumbling across the deck, reflexively spitting out the terrible taste in her mouth. Sir Leslie flung a closed fist back above his head, conking poor Dent squarely on his royal skull. The boy saw stars, and did not realize he had actually let go until the deck came up to thud against his back.

Wincing, Sir Leslie sucked at the neat, child-sized teethmarks reddening the palm of his left hand, glaring black murder beneath his bristly eyebrows at Dent. The boy tried to scramble backward across the deck, but it was a very large and empty bay, and there was absolutely nowhere to hide.

“I have had problematic meals,” Sir Leslie growled. “I have had meals I regretted undertaking. But I have never, ever endured such frustration for the sake of a suitable supper.” Pebble ran at him, but he was ready for her this time. His thick, ungentlemanly hand closed fast against her small pale neck, and he swung her up into the air in a whirl of kicking legs and long silver hair.

Sir Leslie knelt down, resting his free hand on his knee, just above the opening of his boot, to look Dent in the eye. At the end of his outstretched arm, Pebble began to turn blue, clawing at the velvet of his sleeve.

“You’d better damn well be delicious,” Sir Leslie said. Dent could smell the carnivore stink of his breath, overlaid with notes of grape-onion and soot.

The boy looked beyond Sir Leslie, to see Captain Corsair approaching, his blade raised high. And he smiled, and knew that somehow, everything would work out right.

In later days, and months, and years, he would remember this moment of deadly happiness. And he would smile only in guarded, trusted company, and then rarely, and never more than he had to. It was a terrible thing to learn, and a terrible way to learn it.

For Sir Leslie, who might otherwise have been distracted by the dictates of his ravening stomach, saw Dent smile. He heard the movement behind him. From its concealment in his knee-high black boot, Sir Leslie drew a long, serrated knife.

And as Captain Corsair prepared to bring his sword down, Sir Leslie turned and drove the knife deeply and upward into the Captain’s stomach.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

23. Out of the Frying Pan

All through the long clicks in which they sailed together across the freezing dark of space, Captain Corsair could feel the robot’s steel skin pinging and singing with the formation of a thousand tiny fractures. It was not, as one might imagine, the most comfortable feeling, even through the reassuring thickness of a Crouch Industries Insta-Fit ZeroSuit (“99% Guaranteed Leakproof!”). The miles-long shadow toward which Story steered them, a deeper shade in the umbra of the moon it orbited, did nothing to ease the tension.

It was fortunate, then, that Captain Corsair had been raised a gentleman. And gentlemen did not sweat.

Even after they touched down on the hull, the Captain’s magnaboots kissing softly against a spire of black, it took more time still to find anything resembling a hatch. The ship’s owner, perhaps expecting visitors, perhaps expecting none at all, had left this particular airlock unlocked.

As the pressure normalized, and heat and air returned, the Captain heard with rising volume the sharp, swift cracks of Story’s frost-rimed chassis adjusting poorly to the sudden change in temperature.

“Are you well, my shiny comrade?” Corsair asked, peeling the zerosuit off his clothes beneath, and reattaching his scabbard to his belt. He looked with some concern at the fissures running up the sides of Story’s torso, the metal curling with mist and swiftly beading with condensation.

The robot simply nodded, but Corsair saw its eyes flicker uncertainly. And when it moved to open the inner airlock, there were glitches, erratic tics, in its motion that had not been present before.

“I can no longer locate the young master,” Story said mournfully, as they emerged into a dim, mirrored hallway. In the war, Corsair had heard wild tales of Dark Matter Armada craft; this one looked much like he’d imagined it, and nothing at all.

“Does the ship perhaps have a network you might access?” the Captain asked, drawing his sword. There might well be people here that regrettably required stabbing. Or other things. Captain Corsair wished to be prepared for any and all stabbing-related challenges that might present themselves.

“I am not—” Story began, and then his eyes pulsed subtly. “Ah. Very strange. There is a layer of familiar coding over … something much stranger. It speaks to me with an accent.”

Corsair stopped to quickly adjust his jacket and tunic in one of the convenient mirrors. Gentlemen and bandits alike must always look their best. “What sort of security do we face? Ordinarily, I would plan these matters beforehand, but I find myself regrettably pressed for time.”

“I can … persuade the ship not to notice us,” Story affirmed. “Provided we do nothing to provoke its attention.”

The ship rumbled then, a short sharp shock, distant and low.

“It seems something else is doing so for us,” the Captain mused.

“Two decks down, and not far from there,” Story said, head tilted to catch the silent song of the ship all around it. “Someone is making a lemon-tree cake.”

“I beg your pardon?” the Captain asked. The robot looked at him blankly.

“There is a stairway just ahead,” Story continued, blithely. “We should hurry.”

“The children?” Corsair asked, but the robot had already expanded its treadball and rolled past him. The Captain noted a hitch, a hiccup, in the robot’s once-steady clack-clack-clacking.

Down they went, spiraling around curiously spaced steps that seemed to the Captain at once too large and too small for comfortable human strides. Story rolled ahead without waiting for the Captain, and Corsair broke into a run to keep up. They veered around corner after corner in the seemingly endless maze of mirrored corridors, and from time to time, Corsair could catch Story humming snatches of something that sounded like bits of three different songs all at once.

The thought occurred to him that his guide in this endeavor might not be entirely reliable. But the Captain, lacking better alternatives, plunged ahead anyway. Such was his way.

He had a few seconds’ warning before the mirrors exploded — just enough time to duck and cover his eyes. He rose, shaking glass off himself, to see Story stuttering in place, his treadball seizing and beginning to grind.

“A minor malfunction,” Story said. “Pickle in the sight. I am attempting to fix.”

“Do not trouble yourself, my shiny friend,” the Captain said, offering the robot a reassuring pat on the shoulder. The plating wobbled and creaked at his touch. “I shall scout ahead while you gather your wits.”

Corsair had neared the junction of the next corridor when he heard them — footfalls crunching through the broken glass, and distant howls, as if from some terrible beast. He pressed himself against a wall, quickly kissed the shining blade of his saber for luck, and sprang out into the corridor, sword at the ready.

The children plowed into him. The Captain had been well-trained at maintaining his composure in expected situations, and also not looking like he was in any way pained or inconvenienced; this experience now served him well.

By the time he had regained his wits, he realized that Dent had finally stopped speaking and taken a breath, and Pebble had quit signing long enough to work out the cramp in her fingers.

“Your adventures sound most fascinating,” he lied politely, reassuring himself that he could always catch up when none of them were in mortal peril. “Shall we perhaps now look for my most enviable spacecraft?”

But the children had already rushed past him to dangle joyously from the still-immobile Story, Dent in particular hugging the robot for as long as its still-chilly metal skin allowed.

“Are you okay?” Dent asked, in mid-hug. “You’re all cold and cracked up.”

“My condition is excellent, Young Master,” Story replied, a faint warble in his even voice. The glitch finally worked out of his treadball, and he rolled a short distance forward before bringing himself to a half. “But goodness! Look at you! Your mainspring’s got gophers.”

The boy looked at the robot strangely, and then at Captain Corsair, who could not quite disguise his look of concern quickly enough to be reassuring.

“We must clip all your toenails and mend your aelerons,” Story fussed, plucking at Dent’s tunic gingerly. “The sergeant will be most displeased.”

“Your metallic friend, he was very brave,” Corsair endeavored to explain, as gently as he could. “He carried me all the way here, through the cold of zero. The extreme cold.”

“Manufactured for guaranteed kills in all weather conditions,” Story blurted, then burped static. “Pardon me. Did I just say something?”

“We’ll get you fixed up,” Dent said, patting the condensation-beaded steel of his best friend’s chestplate. “Nothing but the best.” Pebble took the robot’s hand gently, and gave it a squeeze.

“I do not wish to hurry along this reunion,” the Captain offered, “but I find the lack of resistance we have thus far encountered somewhat suspect. And I am, as I have said, eager to once more claim possession of the fine spaceship which is indisputably my own.”

Story listened intently to the dark ship’s network for a moment, eyes pulsing, and then turned — first one way, then the entirely opposite direction. “This way,” he said. “But I must advise you— advise you— advise you—”

“Advise us what?” the Captain asked.

Then the ceiling fell upon Story in a pile of spines. The robot flailed, and the mirrored faces of the Wee Ones dug into Story’s chassis turned to reflect Dent, Pebble, and the Captain.

“Story!” Dent cried, rushing forward. The Captain only just managed to pull him back out of range of a swiping Wee One talon.

“If I may, Your Majesty,” the Captain offered, and stepped forward with his blade flashing. It struck sparks as it clanged against the black hide of the Wee Ones, dashing them off Story with surgical precision.

“Are you functional, my friend?” the Captain asked, as Story seized one straggler with his pincer arm and flung it into the nearest wall.

“Yes,” the robot nodded, looking past the Captain’s shoulder, his laser eyes beginning to charge up. “But conditions appear suboptimal for our remaining so.”

A black, scuttling tide of Wee Ones surged down the corridor behind them, mirrored faces reflecting dozens of tiny Dents, Pebbles, Stories and Corsairs.

The Captain turned, relaxing into a well-studied fencing crouch, as Story readied his laser arm. “Permit me, if you would,” the Captain said in a low, calculating voice, “to deal with the advance wave. If you would then do me the courtesy of—”

Story’s trio of lasers erupted, raking in a precise zigzag pattern across the leading edge of the Wee Ones, slicing them to bits.

“That is fine as well,” the Captain conceded, and hacked a leaping Wee One out of the air. “Children! Kindly remain behind us, that we may better prevent your deaths!”

There seemed no end to the waves of Wee Ones that came at them. Dent and Pebble hung back, lobbing bits of broken class over the heads of the Captain and Story at the charging mass. Corsair’s blade danced and looped, battering away the few Wee Ones able to dodge Story’s lasers. But onward ever the black spiny monsters came, clambering over the fallen bodies of their comrades, until the sword grew heavy in Corsair’s arm, and Story’s laser pulses began to stutter ominiously.

“Ha ha!” the Captain laughed through his own labored breathing, as at last the Wee Ones seemed to back away. “We are both victorious and unmutilated!”

“The latter, yes,” Story nodded. “But the vicar’s onion jam is uncertain of the former.”

It took Corsair a moment to parse that, and then he heard the scrape and clatter of Wee Ones reassembling themselves.

The mass of tiny bots had drawn back indeed — but only to surge together, folding, interlocking into a single figure whose squirming bulk filled the whole of the corridor. Dozens of mirrored faces formed a short of shield on one arm; a multiplicity of razor talons formed sharp claws on the other.

The Great Big One, fully assembled, shook its headless torso to work out the kinks and took one step forward. The corridor trembled and creaked.

Story unleashed a laser salvo, but the thing’s mirrored shield lifted, deflecting the blast back to sizzle across the arched ceiling. One huge black claw raked out, tearing jagged fissures in Story’s chestplating, and sending the robot skidding backward along the hallway.

Dent screamed, and once more the Captain had to hold him back. Pebble ran toward the fallen robot, but he waved her back with a snapping pincer arm.

“Core containment breach,” the robot warbled in a waning voice. Steam issued in hisses from the holes in its chest, along with an ominous flicker of blue light. “The tart seems thoroughly ruined.”

Captain Corsair raised his blade again as the Great Big One turned toward him.

“I had hoped to die beneath a pile of beautiful, angry women,” he sighed. “But one must accept such disappointments with grace.”

Story’s treadball whined, grinding its mechanisms. In a bolt of silver, the robot shot forward up off the floor and smashed squaredly into the Great Big One’s midsection, knocking the behemoth off its feet.

“Young Master,” Story said solemnly, his head swiveling completely around as his limbs flailed against the struggling Great Big One. “You must run now.”

“No, Story!” Dent sobbed, the awful realization driving itself like a fist into his gut. “No, we can fix you up.”

“The damage is too great,” Story said, his voice warping and stuttering as bits of the Great Big One detached themselves to tear at him. “Go, Young Master. I can do this for you.”

“But…” Dent sniffled, “but we’ll never know how The Caravan’s Escape ends.”

“They escape, of course,” Story said gently. “As will you, Young Master. Straight ahead, right at the third juncture, down two decks. Goodb—”

And then his silver hide disappeared beneath a writhing pile of Wee Ones, and Pebble tugged at Dent’s arm. The Captain slung Pebble up onto his shoulders, and lifted Dent off the ground under one arm, and ran all perdition away down the hall. Flashes of blue light from behind made the world strobe around them, capturing strange half-moments of time.

Two corners distant, a wave of absolute silence and blinding blue caught up with them, lifting the Captain off his feet. By reflex, he rolled onto his back, cradling the children to his chest, and skidded in a wave of glass across the onyx floor until the shockwave subsided.

“Well,” the Captain said at last, beneath the weight of two stunned children. “That was spectacular.”

Dent sat up, helping Pebble clamber off the Captain, and looked back the way they had come.

“I would not advise it,” the Captain told him softly. “You should remember him as we was — not as he may be now. He had a good end.”

“Do you think robots get a paradise?” Dent asked him, all seriousness.

“I had not thought of it before,” the Captain said. “Did you know that he was made for war, originally?” Dent nodded, smearing a forearm across his sniffling nose in a way that would have appalled his mother. “I saw others of his model in action,” the Captain added. “During the war. Theirs was not a happy lot. I think… to have some new purpose, to care for you, as he clearly did… that was in itself a paradise for him.”

“He never did get to kill me, though,” Dent smiled, tears drying up.

“I find that a most fortunate turn of events,” the Captain said. “And I am certain he did as well.”

Then Pebble tugged at his sleeve, nervously looking back in the direction they had come, and it was time to be off again.

Story’s directions proved as true as the robot himself, and with some judicious tinkering on Captain Corsair’s part at the entry lock, the three escapees found themselves entering a huge, echoing cavern of a docking bay. Before them, dimly lit by spotlights shining up from the floor, was the familiar pointed silhouette of the Captain’s stolen ship, outlined against the heavy blast doors that separated the hangar from hard vacuum without.

“You see?” the Captain exulted. “My daring plan has entirely succeeded. Soon, we may resume the getting-incredibly-wealthy portion of my original stratagem, yes?”

Pebble signaled to Dent, and when he saw it, too, he nudged the captain. “Is that thing part of your plan?”

It sat unsecured on the hangar deck, next to the gravlocked ship: A fat, nearly featureless silver cylinder, nearly as tall as the captain, laid on its side in a launching track that pointed toward the blast doors.

“It is most assuredly not,” the Captain mused. “But perhaps it could be — depending, of course, on its value?”

Captain Corsair had no further time to speculate on this, alas. For at that moment, a harsh klaxon rang through the bay, and beneath their feet, the three escapees felt heavy machinery grind to life.

“What’s happening?” Dent tried to shout, his words batted away to nothingness by the solid wall of shrieking noise.

The Captain barely had time to gather the children in his arms, plunge the point of his blade deeply into the deck in a fount of sparks, and hold on tight. Then the heavy blast doors opened, and all the air rushed out of the chamber at once.

All three of the people trying very hard to stay inside were too busy suffocating to notice the curious metal cylinder launch itself out into the deep black of space.