Thursday, November 15, 2007

14.5. Missing Child (Part 2)

Dent and Pebble had parked themselves in front of nature documentary from frozen Fangjaar, watching raptly as icewhales bored up through the planet’s perpetual crust of glaciers to snack on the transparent shimmerbirds (and, occasionally, one of the many nature-documentary vid-techs that Fangjaar’s frosty beauty tended to attract like cockroaches.)

When that program ended, the two children discovered advertisements for the first time, Dent having been well shielded from them, and Pebble knowing them only in the form of strange, much-debated photographs in the pages of her people’s lone copy of Aristocratic Fashion. Like indigenous peoples exposed to a foreign disease, they had no accumulated resistance, even if the ads had been stripped of their embedded subliminal messages. Three clicks later, for deep-seated reasons neither could explain, both children wanted to purchase asteroid insurance, a new prescription medication for people ashamed of their own ears, and a refreshing bottle of Imperiola, What Everyone Better-Looking Than You Drinks. Thankfully, these impulses would pass quickly.

Then the newsfeed came on, and for a moment, Dent thought the screen he and Pebble watched and the one immediately adjacent were broadcasting the same program. The presenter seemed identical on both screens, as did the studio, CrouchNews logos, and three-dimensional holocrawl that looped in a slow parabola out from the screen and back.

But then one presenter began mentioning the untrustworthy FLAW farmers using dubious means to increase their farm production. Meanwhile, the the other began to discuss the pathetically backwards farmers of the Imperium, and how their complaints threatened to derail the mighty progress of the FLAW’s sterling agricultural planets. (The presenters were, in fact, “Rockwell” models of Crouch Industries QuikClones. They were designed for perfect hair, long-lasting youthfulness, a severe allergy to contract negotiations, and a willingness to read anything put in front of them in a pleasing baritone.)

Dent and Pebble amused themselves for a while by running back and forth between the screens, trying to spot the differences. They stood back, closed one eye and then the other, flickered back and forth between two seemingly identical parallel universes of information. Pebble got a little dizzy from this, and had to sit down, leaving Dent to notice that the screen that seemed to favor the Imperium was now showing pictures of his family.

“Happy and untroubled,” Rockwell model A8-113 intoned, “the Imperial Family today relaxed in absolute security.” Footage from a floating autocam showed the family eating breakfast on a new, only slightly less impressive table on the hastily patched-up veranda under sunny, cloudless skies.

“Hey, Pebble, look!” Dent smiled, waving her over. Even if he was sort of enjoying hostagehood, he was a long way from home for the first time in his young life. Home looked good, even through a dusty vidscreen.

“The Imperium today announced an even more formidable upgrade to the fine Crouch Industries-made security network surrounding the planet, ensuring a messy and rapid death for would-be intruders, and more happy family breakfasts for the Emperor, the Empress, and both their children.”

Both. It was such a tiny word, little more than a whimsical puff of air off the tongue. But it struck Dent square in the chest with the force of a bullet. Pebble heard it too, and her hands shaped questions. Dent did not register them. He kept watching, kept listening, certain he had heard wrong.

“Here we see Pugio Magnificus, Imperial Minister of Violence, leading the Golden Garrison in mock combat exercises in the Imperial Palace’s top-of-the-line training facilities,” the newscaster intoned, as Pug wreaked havoc on a whole legion of Crouch Industries disposable Kill-O-Tron Biped units. Even through the screen, Dent could see that his brother fought with greater ferocity, and greater carelessness, than usual.

“And here is Glissandra Voluptua, the multiply-beloved Ministress of Love, emerging from private one-on-one negotiations with Colquin Haime of Haimestar Transit.” Lis and several clever swatches collectively masquerading as a dress swept into view. She looked unearthly in her makeup and antigrav-assisted hair, and carried a thick book tucked protectively under one arm. “Whatever she’s reading, we’re certain half the Empire will want to read it, too,” Rockwell A8-113 chuckled in a voice like curdled honey. “Clearly, the Imperial Couple could not ask for two finer children.”

The picture changed, and Dent relaxed. This was last year’s Armistice Day ceremony, broadcast throughout the Imperium, which he’d sweltered and suffocated through in a starched formal uniform on the same stage as his family — albeit in a much smaller chair off to one side.

“Remember this?” he said, nudging Pebble, grinning in relief. “You were signing me jokes through that vent in the floor? I almost—”

Then he stopped. Because the camera clearly showed the space on the stage where his chair ought to be. And that space was empty.

No Dent. No chair. Just a faint ripple in the pixels, not even there unless you were looking for it.

“Truly,” the newscaster concluded, in tones that suggested money had definitely changed hands at some point, “with two strong, magnificent heirs and a youthful, vigorous Emperor and Empress, the future of our great Imperium is assured. Next: Is the FLAW smuggling diseased animals to petting zoos in Imperial space? And we’ll have Rad Corolis with your solar storm watch…”

Dent backed as far from the monitor as he could get. His eyes would not leave the screen. He waited for the newscaster to laugh, and assure everyone it was a joke, and say insincere but very complementary things about Accident, the youngest, bravest, smartest, funniest, nicest boy in the whole of the Imperium.

Instead, he got a commercial for Nutri-Os.

Pebble tried to sign something, and when he ignored her, she signed it again, right in his face. He slapped her hands away angrily. She punched him hard in the arm, which the not-angry part of him admitted he deserved, and went off to sulk in front of an exercise feed for amputee veterans of the Third Galactic Conflict, which would later give her bad dreams.

That was where the Bosun found them some clicks later. Dent stayed silent as she herded them back down the ladder, past the locked-in lady who was still yelling about her music unit, through the airlock, to the Captain’s ship. He went and lay down in the hammock and swept all his treasures off the shelf and back into his belt. He shut his eyes, though he was not tired, and lay still. Pebble’s nudging fingers through the bottom of the hammock didn’t stir him, and when the Bosun came to bring his dinner, she ended up leaving it on the fold-out table for him, in case he got hungry later.

Several bells came and went. The ship made another spacejump, which of course felt like nothing at all. Pebble made a few more halfhearted attempts to nudge Dent into responsiveness, and sadly curled herself in her blankets off the floor. Eventually, Dent heard her breathing descend into a series of gentle, rolling rises and falls. He heard music faintly in the corridor outside.

The Bosun had not locked them in tonight, so Dent slipped out into the corridor, dimly lit in beacons along its length for the evenside cycle. From the not-engine room, he heard the Bosun playing a sad centipede tune on her xylophone; in the cockpit, he could hear Corsair softly singing along in silky tones.

Without a word, Dent walked into the cockpit and hauled himself up into the copilot’s seat, opposite the Captain. The glowing lights of the instrument panel made constellations to match the starfields floating outside the viewport. Dent recognized many of the readouts and panels and switches from his lessons with Air Marshall Vliet. He wrapped his hands around the dead copilot stick and pretended he was flying the ship, but the stars outside stubbornly refused to move.

“My esteemed hostage,” the Captain said softly. “I thought you were asleep. Cocoa?”

“No thank you,” Dent mumbled, staring straight ahead.

“I myself very much like hot cocoa in the small bells of evenside,” the Captain said, closing his eyes to breathe in the vapor rising from the steel mug in his hands. His mustache bore flecks of foam. Behind his eyelids, a soft orange glow flickered to life, and persisted for several seconds until the Captain’s eyes opened once more. “The cocinera would make it for me when I was, yes, about Your Majesty’s age.”

Dent thought of Cook’s hot cocoa, and the pit of his stomach curled forlornly.

“Did you send a message to my family today?” Dent asked.

“How clever Your Majesty is!” the Captain smiled, and took another sip. “Yes, such was my purpose at the relay station. No finer place to send an encrypted signal to the highest channels.”

“What did you say?” Dent continued. He made himself look at the bright orange power readouts just above the copilot’s stick.

“I… informed them that I had their beloved son,” the Captain began, with the graceful caution of a skater entering uncertain ice. “That you were safe — although, if Your Majesty will forgive me, I falsely implied that such safety might be entirely temporary — and that you would be returned in exchange for a positively ludicrous sum of their finest, most lustrous currency.”

“Do you think they miss me?” Dent curled both feet up in front of him, and hugged them to his chest.

“Of course, Majesty!” Corsair said, concern clouding his eyes. “I am sure your father cannot sleep, and your mother…” He paused to reconsider this. “Your father cannot sleep, I am certain.”

Dent turned and looked the captain in the eye, and sat up straight the way Story had taught him to do. “You’re lying,” he said quietly.

“What makes Your Majesty say so?” Corsair asked, carefully setting down the mug of cocoa.

“You’re not making them pay to get me back,” Dent said. “They don’t want me back. Not really. You’re making them pay so you don’t tell anyone else about me. So you don’t embarrass them.”

“That was not my intent,” the Captain said. He held Dent’s gaze, and his eyes did not flicker or waver in the least. “Not entirely. You saw the broadcasts. They conceal you, yes? They hide you. When I discovered this, long before I had the pleasure of making Your Majesty’s acquaintance, I thought to myself, this, this is their great treasure. To keep a child secret, to keep him safe — he must be precious to them beyond all measure.”

“You’re wrong,” Dent said, finally looking away. He turned his head to the blank opposite wall of the cockpit, because no one should ever see an Imperial heir shed tears. “You’re wrong and dumb. They’re probably glad I’m gone. Probably don’t even care. I don’t.”

“I would venture,” Corsair said softly, “that your place in their hearts, however well-hidden, is nonetheless secure.”

“I hate them,” Dent said. His voice was thick, and the words came with difficulty. “I don’t ever—”

“Your Majesty,” the Captain interrupted, sudden and sharp. “Please believe me when I say that ‘ever’ is a far longer time than you know. Especially without a family.”

“I don’t ever want to see them again,” Dent continued, defiantly. “I’m staying kidnapped. I’m never, ever going back. Never ever.”

And the Captain was deeply troubled to hear this, and only partly because it complicated his dreams of fantastic wealth.

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