Wednesday, November 14, 2007

14. Missing Child (Part 1)

There were worse jobs than Imperial Relay Operator (Class 3). Kei Takahara had held most of them in his relatively young life. Deep-Space Sanitation Engineer. Comestibles Transport Technician for location #44797 of Uncle Mung’s Home-Cooked Nutrient Swill, back on Habitation Planet Noizawa. Tigerleech Wrangler for the Grand Pan-Galactic Circus and Gladiatorium.

When you’ve spent a year and a half warily lobbing chunks of meat to a hissing cage full of twenty-fanged creatures who see you primarily as a larger, fresher version of that same meat, 120-turn shifts in the backwater of the Imperium begin to sound almost heavenly. Except, of course, for Helen.

In planning the Imperium-wide network of communication relays, concerned engineers had realized that prolonged isolation might prove less than optimal to the relay operators’ mental health. So they decided to make sure there were two operators stationed on each outpost. Each tiny, tiny outpost. With a single privy. Then they patted themselves on the back and went out to lunch, confident that absolutely no part of their solution could possibly go wrong.

As his breakfast abruptly began to float away in the sudden absence of gravity, Kei did not get up from the table. (Not voluntarily, anyway, although that was more the zero gravity.) He did not float over to the door of Imperial Relay Operator (Class 3) Helen Forste’s chamber and batter it down with the vibro-axe those same concerned engineers had thoughtfully provided in case of emergency. He did not then proceed to put the axe through the music unit that was playing Helen’s favorite insipid song for approximately the 14,328th time in the last week. Nor did he use the axe upon Helen herself, who was presently in the midst of the zero-grav exercises her latest fashion magazine had assured her would result in tighter, toned thighs. And he certainly did not proceed to laugh maniacally and swim zero-g victory laps around the station’s miniscule crew quarters.

Instead, he reached slowly for the station memo pad, and began to write another excruciatingly polite note. It involved words like “consideration,” “cohabitation,” and “personal space.” If it was like any of the others, Helen would ball it up unread and flush it into the incinerator.

The airlock clanged, hissed, and began to cycle. Kei stopped, halfway through a neat cursive rendition of “understanding,” and looked up. It was a few days early for the supply shuttle, but sometimes they did that. Kei pushed off from the chair, floated toward the hatch, watched the seal turn green, and opened the door in a hiss of atmosphere.

A fancily dressed man pointed a sword at his face.

“Good morning, my friend!” the fancily dressed man said cheerfully. “Please pardon the inconvenience, but I am here to take you hostage for a brief period of time.”

Kei looked over his shoulder at Helen’s room, where the final notes of Tell Me You Love Me Right Now (Extreme Custom Brainwave Mix) died away, only to launch directly into rendition number 14,329.

“Oh, thank the gods,” Kei sighed, and put up his hands.

“You see?” Captain Corsair smiled, as Dent handed him the gloves to his bulky zerosuit. “My plan proceeds apace. Soon the Bosun and I will have positively obscene amounts of currency, which we may spend, or invest, or merely lie upon and roll back and forth, depending on our mood and preference. And you will be back with your adoring family.”

Dent’s face crinkled in confusion. “Are you sure you’re talking about my family?” he asked, in all honesty. The Captain merely laughed, and checked the glove seals.

“That’s an old suit,” Dent said, noting the faded markings of the FLAW on the shoulder of the Captain’s left sleeve. Only the glove over his metal left hand looked newer.

“It is indeed,” the Captain said, taking the helmet Dent handed to him.

“Were you in the war?” Dent asked, turning his head sideways. He was trying to imagine Corsair in someone’s military uniform. “My father was in the war.”

“I know.” Corsair checked the helmet over for any flaws or cracks. “I saw his flagship once, at some distance.”

“Is that where you lost your hand?” Dent asked, and something in the Captain’s eyes flickered for a second, like a burst of static on an audio channel.

“It is where I lost many things,” the Captain said quietly. Then he flung on his smile again, like a cloak thrown across his shoulders, and fastened the helmet on. “How do I look?” he asked, muffled through the glass.

“Kind of like a fishbowl,” Dent said, and laughed.

“I thank Your Majesty for the compliment,” Corsair replied. “I have long admired fishbowls.”

Bosun Little appeared, ducking through the doorway from the engine room. Bulky, battered blocks of portable comm equipment swung from each of her fists. On her back, Pebble clung gleefully, relishing a view of the world at such a height.

“Uk,” Bosun Little said, gasping slightly. “Not so tight, quartersize. This one’s got to breathe.” Pebble shifted grip, and the Bosun sighed, and pretended that some part of her wasn’t actually having fun with this.

“You rigged and righted, Captain?” she asked. “I was gonna lock up the hostages, but, well, they made these faces…”

“Truly, you are fearsome,” the Captain grinned from inside his suit.

“Yeah, yeah,” Bosun Little growled. “I’ll talk you through the patching when you’re in place.” She crouched down to let Pebble slip from her shoulders. “All right, microbes, march! Last one through the hatch is an albatross!”

Dent and Pebble stepped into the lower level of the station. The gravity had been restored, leaving someone’s breakfast spilled all over the small utilitable. Behind one of the three doors leading off, a woman could be heard banging on the other side of the door, screaming angrily about the destruction of her music unit. From another on the opposite side, almost loud enough to drown out the woman’s words, triumphant orchestral melodies rolled out in mighty waves.

“Wait,” Dent asked Bosun Little as she gingerly shoved the hatch shut behind them with one foot. “So where do the people live?”

The Bosun just looked at him for a long moment, the tattoo patterns on her face wavering uncertainly from shape to shape to shape. “You’re looking at it, Your Majesty,” she said at last. “We can’t all be royalty. She put a foot on the ladder up to the outpost’s operations level and heaved the comm equipment up through the hole in the ceiling. “Come on. Up this way.”

Dent and Pebble found themselves in a slightly larger room, a jungle of wires and monitors and heavy, welded consoles. Flickering screens broadcast vidfeeds from throughout the Empire — there the Leaping Guardsmen of Ereloss high-stepping in parade formation, here a cheaply staged dramatization of the final days of Emperor Sanguinus involving a lot of showy gestures and fake blood.

Dent had seen few vidfeeds, his mother believing that they rotted the brain and were also far too low-resolution to properly spy on anyone. Pebble had seen none. They gazed in awe, nudging each other periodically to point at some interesting thing or another on one of the screens, as Bosun Little folded open her comm cases and ran cables into key ports on the outpost’s consoles.

The Bosun finished plugging in, thumbed the power switches on her old familiar comms gear, and looked up to see Pebble staring at her with wide, curious eyes.

“What?” the Bosun asked, flat parallel lines rendering across her cheekbones.

The girl made rapid swooping gestures with her hands, and Dent tore his eyes away from a rebroadcast of the Intergalactic Hurtball Championships long enough to translate.

“You remind her of her mom,” he said softly. Some small, winged thing fluttered once behind the Bosun’s steely rib cage, and the pixels on her cheeks scattered into random dancing clouds.

“Yeah, okay,” she said, not quite choking on the words, and very pointedly went back to checking the inputs on the comms decks. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Pebble’s hands folding and unfolding themselves again.

“Now she wants to know, um, how you got so big,” Dent said. “I was kinda wondering that myself.”

“If I told you to eat your vegetables, you’d know I was taking the gaff, wouldn’t you?” Bosun Little asked, lines curving gently upward on her face.

Dent consulted with Pebble, who nodded emphatically. “Yeah, pretty much,” he said.

“You ever heard of Corinthia?” the Bosun said quietly. The pixels on her cheeks began to undulate in steady sine waves. “Hup, hup, save me the text. I guess you have. It’s a heavy-grav planet, so the first people who settled there, back when it was a mining world, they did some genejerrying on ‘em, square? Made us tough enough to deal with the crush. Out here it’s like I’m always swimming. And in zero? Hardly feel like I’m there at all.”

Pebble wandered over to the board, and the Bosun hoisted the girl up on her shoulders. The girl watched avidly, her unblinking eyes faintly reflective in the semidark, as the Bosun’s immense hands and sausage-thick fingers moved over the controls.

“Most lightweights think we’re all savages,” the Bosun said. “Brutes. I mean, we’ve got architects, artists, poets. Damn good musicians. But nobody’s heard of them outside the crush, and everyone’s heard of the Corinth Elite. Greatest mercs in the galaxy, right?”

“They fought with my father,” Dent said. “In the war. He likes to talk about it.”

“I know,” Bosun Little said. “I was Elite. Just barely.”

Dent frowned. “Wait, were you or weren’t you?”

“Do you know—” Bosun Little began, and paused as Pebble shifted her grip on the Bosun inconveniently. “Hey, little bug, I need those eyes for seeing, square? That’s better. Thank you. So. Do you know how tall a Corinthian’s supposed to be?”

Dent sized her up. “Tall as you?” he guessed, honestly. The Bosun smiled sadly.

“You’re sweet, Your Majesty. I’m a round seven feet. Not bad for you lightweights, but on Corinthia? The average is ten feet, easy. They weren’t even gonna let me live — bad for the gene pool or something - but my dear dust Ma had some pull with the Council.

“Same pull got me into the Elite, just. I worked twice as hard as everyone else, trained twice as long, hit all the good scores so they had to let me in. But they wouldn’t put me front. I was the comms tech, back of the line.” The Bosun grinned ruefully at the equipment before her.

“Your dad ever talk about Echo Hill?” she asked. Dent just rolled his eyes. “I’m guessing that’s yes. Well, while he was off winning the war, we were on the other side of the mountain. Walked right into a DMA ambush.”

Dent saw her face darken; he remembered his father, the few times the Emperor would start talking about the war and then stop, and not want to talk to anyone for a little bit. Not that he ever wanted to talk to Dent, really.

“I’m sorry,” Dent said, and Pebble laid a tiny cool hand on the Bosun’s shoulder.

Bosun Little shut her eyes, and for a split second, the lines on her face went jagged and twisted. “It was bad. And I by my lone lived it out. Wasn’t my fault. It really wasn’t. But the High Elite, they saw the runt who survived while her sworn all fell, and…”

The Bosun put a hand to her ear, to the audio speaker there. “Hup. Storytime’s over, my specks.” She hoisted Pebble of her shoulders, back to the deck. “You two run, find something to burn out your eyes on. We’ll be sealed and sailing in a few.”

The children wandered off with little waves, drinking in the vidblitz on all sides. “They’re good kids, Captain,” she said quietly.

“I could not have asked for finer hostages,” Captain Corsair replied, from the freezing silence of space. The massive transmitter array, dwarfing the station itself, bounced all the knowledge of the Imperium across the galaxy and back. The Captain, magboots securely locked, knelt in its shadow, at the pylon where it anchored to the station, opening the access hatch that led to its workings.

“When are you going to tell him the truth?” Bosun Little murmured to him over the link. She cast a sidelong glance at Dent, as the boy and Pebble stood far closer to a particular screen than health experts would ever have recommended.

“If fortune smiles?” the Captain sighed. “Never at all.”

No comments: