Saturday, November 17, 2007

16. Changing Hands (Part 1)

“Easy now, Your Majesty.” Captain Corsair realized his slip, and corrected himself. “Forgive me. Old habit. I mean to say, easy now, Associate Bandit-in-Training Dent.”

Dent, who had loudly insisted these past few days that he was no longer his majesty of anything, let the frown fade from his face, and concentrated on steering.

The Sightless Nebula was exactly that — a dense, swirling cloud of warm gases spanning light-years in every direction, reducing the view in every direction to an opaque pinkish haze. And like space itself, which is commonly and erroneously believed to be crammed chock full of stuff, the nebula was mostly empty space.

That meant that even though the Sightless Nebula was notorously reputed to have swallowed three entire terraforming caravans, two off-course space stations, and a certain not-necessarily-lost portion of the Imperial fleet, collisions within its murky midst were rare and improbable. In short, for teaching future starship pilots, it was space’s equivalent of the Parallel Parking Sandflats on Instruction Planet DM-5.

“Very good,” Corsair nodded, as Dent swung around to the proper headings on the x-, y-, and z-axes. “Now, ahead one quarter on the antigravs, Bandit-in-Training.”

Dent had always wanted to be a bandit (exciting!) a lot more than he’d ever wanted to be an emperor (boring, at least to hear his father tell it). Now that he had the chance, he took his new role seriously. He’d spent hours in the hammock in these past three days of waiting, reading the crisp new operator’s manual to the Captain’s craft from cover to cover, and at least pretending to understand most of it.

He’d also taken to running around the ship with a blanket tied capelike around his shoulders, laughing boldly and jumping suddenly into whatever room he entered. There being only two real rooms (and a corridor) on the ship, aside from crew quarters, this got old for everyone save Dent very, very quickly.

Pebble had never harbored aspirations of bandithood, and was still sore at Dent for his rudeness on the relay station. She took to hanging around — and occasionally, hanging onto — Bosun Little. The Bosun minded this far less once she learned of Pebble’s mechanical skills; at present, the two of them were back in the engine room inspecting the auxiliary power relays, and having a make-silly-faces contest.

“Captain?” Dent said, tongue pressed to one corner of his mouth as he turned toward a new heading. “Can we still rob people? After you get rich, I mean?”

“But of course,” the Captain smiled. “I would hardly deny you the full experience of true banditry. We shall rob, perhaps, the Central Bank of Gullentrue? Or a station in the Ruby Belt?”

These were all lies, and the Captain felt terrible about them. But they kept the boy happy, on which the Captain placed a premium. He could not in good conscience endanger a child by plunging him into criminal deeds. The Captain had a special place upon the point of his sword for any soul who would treat actual human lives so cavalierly. (One soul, in particular, more than any other.)

Once the boy had been returned to his family, Dent would probably hate him. That was for the best, the Captain believed. Until then, it was unquestionably the courteous thing to let the boy enjoy feeling that someone, somewhere in the universe, truly did want him around.

“New heading, Captain?” Dent asked, prodding Corsair from his thoughts.

“No, Bandit-in-Training,” Corsair said, running a thumb across one curl of his moustache in an appropriately commanding manner. “We maintain this course, straight on for two bells.”

“Where are we going?” Dent squinted out into the pinkish half-light of the nebula.

“An astute question, my young trainee,” Corsair nodded. “The Sightless Nebula, she is nearly unnavigable, even with the most sensitive instruments. Unless, of course, one has been here before — and had the foresight to place a beacon.” With his metal hand, the Captain pointed to a small monitor, where the triangle of their ship slowly approached a flashing blip.

“This is where we’re getting the ransom?” Dent grinned, excited.

“This is where the Bosun and I will get the ransom,” the Captain nodded. “And you and the lady Pebble will remain here, as our getaway, to watch for signs of treachery. In this I will depend upon you, yes?”

Signs of treachery. Dent liked the sound of that. He wondered if there might also be skullduggery, or if someone would do something fiendish.

“And then we blast off with their money and never see ‘em again, right?” Dent said, bouncing a little in his chair.

Corsair smiled, and tried not to do so too sadly. Of all the hostages he had ever taken or would ever take, he was certain these two would be the most agreeable. “Of course,” he lied. “Never again.”

“Hey, ugly,” Pug began, and stopped short. “What’re you wearing?”

Lis threw the book down on her berth in the Zephyr and drew the covers up around her. “It’s nothing.”

“I can’t even see your wrists,” Pug said, averting his eyes in brotherly embarrassment. “And it goes all the way up to your neck.”

“I borrowed it from Carabella, OK?” Lis huffed. “She says she wears it sometimes when it’s cold.”

“At least it’s not that stupid cloak,” Pug grunted, nodding toward the garment hanging carefully from one corner of the wardrobe. The passenger compartments were large by any reasonable standards of space travel — even the Zephyr, the smallest class of craft in the Imperial fleet, could sleep six in positively absurd comfort — but for Pug and Lis, they most definitely qualified as a harship. As did being stuck in each other’s company for any length of time.

“You shut up about the cloak!” Lis snapped. “And get out! Why are you even in here?”

“Fine,” Pug sulked. “I was just gonna….” he held up a lushly padded bedcushion, trailing behind him like an avalache, in one thick fist. “I can’t sleep on this thing. It’s too soft. You take it.”

And Lis, who had been finding the berth a bit lumpy — at least by her standards — sighed and snatched the cushion from his hand. “Thanks, stupid,” she said, smiling in the exasperated way of sisters everywhere. “Sit down before you break something, huh?”

“Nah, I’m good.” Pug waved her away, shifting his weight awkwardly from one foot to the other. “I gotta get some reps in, maybe practice some with the quadrastaff.”

“I’ve got cookies,” Lis offered, holding out a small tin Ellentine had packed for her. Pug beheld a galaxy of tiny round wafers, fragrant with lemon and spices. Sugar glistened diamondlike on their surfaces.

“You okay?” Lis asked, her face crinkling in confusion. “You just went all glassy-eyed. More than usual, I mean.”

“They’re so … delicate,” Pug breathed. He seized one between a calloused thumb and forefinger, held it up to the light for a moment, and nibbled just the tiniest corner of it. His eyes briefly rolled back into his head.
“Gods,” Lis laughed. “You’re weirder than Dent.”

“Dent?” came a high, jittery robot voice. Story suddenly loomed in the doorway behind Pug, his shining metal head canted at an odd angle, red eyes pulsing ominously. “Is he hiding? Where is he hiding?” His pincers snapped.

“Oh, for—” Lis groaned, having no patience for Story’s manic murder time. “Look, I told you this when we first found you in the cargo bay. I told you this yesterday. I told you this three bells ago. Dent’s not here. Not anywhere on this ship. There is no Dent.”

“I’m looking for him,” Story continued, eerily singsong. “I have a present. It is a shiny present. He will like it very much.”

The small island’s worth of robots Pug had consigned to the recycling smelter left him with even less respect for artifical intelligence than he had for the actual kind. “Look, you stupid box,” he growled, shoving Story out of the room with one broad, meaty hand. “Few more days, you can kill him all you like. But he’s not here.”

“You look a little like Dent,” Story giggled in low tones. “Around the eyes, yes.” He craned his extendable neck over Pug’s shoulder to stare at Lis. “You both look like Dent. I have been thinking about this. It interests me.”

“Gods, enough!” Lis rolled her eyes, then spoke in a loud clear voice. “Piccolo. Spitworm. Arcturus.”

The glow died from Story’s eyes. His pincers stopped clacking. The robot’s whole demeanor seemed to recede.

“My, but I just had a curious notion,” the robot said, sounding strangely like someone awakening from a dream. “It seems so very silly now.” Pug and Lis stared at him until his social circuits ran the proper recognition protocols and kicked in. “I believe I should go recharge now. If anyone should need me—”

“We won’t,” Pug glowered, and shut the door. Story clack-clack-clacked off toward the cargo bay, slowly shaking his metal head.

“How’d you know how to do that, anyway?” Pug said. “I was just gonna, I dunno. Put a blade to him, maybe.”

“I saw Mother do it once,” Lis said, “when he interrupted a tea party we were having with the Ambassador of Port Meiron and that hurtball team he calls his sons. What? Your eyes just went all funny again.”

“Nothing, nothing,” Pug said. He stuffed the rest of the cookie in his mouth and chewed hastily.

“You want another?” Lis said, holding up the tin. Pug froze.

“Maurice says sugar is the enemy,” Pug said quietly. “Sugar makes you weak. He said.”

Lis snorted. “Yeah, right. I’ve so seen him on Culinary Deck at two bells dayside, raiding the containment units in Pastry Prospect.”

“Really?” Pug frowned, his brow furrowing. “Wait, what were you doing on Culinary Deck at two bells dayside?”

“Supplies,” Lis said, before she could think better of it. “Um. Not important. Look, a little bit of sugar’s not gonna kill you. I won’t tell him if you don’t. Besides, this is nothing compared to Mother’s high tea. She has the Sugarmaster make these beetlenut puffs with powdered honey, and these little star-shaped — okay, seriously, is something wrong with you?”

“Nothing,” Pug said, hastily grabbing a fistful of cookies from the tin. He sat down heavily in one of the alcoves scalloped out of the walls and proceeded to eat them one by one, in tiny, measured bites. “What are you reading?”

“It’s, uh…” Lis said, toying with the corners of the book Librarian Glew had given her. “It’s like strategy. I’m preparing my defenses for the next time I meet Captain Corsair.”

“There pictures in it?” Pug asked, spitting crumbs. Lis shook her head, immediately causing Pug to lose all interest. “Yeah, well, you’ll totally nail that Captain guy next time. Take him down hard, tie him up, have him — what? What’s that look? Is there something on my tunic?”

“It’s not you,” Lis said quickly, exhaling a long, steady breath. “It’s just … okay, say you’re in battle, right? Have you ever had an enemy where you wanted to kill them, but you also didn’t? Like, you wanted to fight them, you wanted to chase them, but you kind of enjoyed that you hadn’t caught them — not yet, anyway?”

Pug thought of swirling copper hair and muscular arms. “Yeah, I guess,” he said quietly. “You think there’s a book for that?”

“Gods, I wish.” Lis fell back to her pillow with a thud, one arm resting across her eyes. “Look at us. Talking and everything.”

“I know,” Pug chuckled. “Mother would snap in half. Stupid Dent, getting kidnapped. Now I have to put up with you.”

“Yeah,” Lis laughed. “Stupid Dent.”

Her laughter died away, and they both fell silent, thinking.

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