Sunday, November 18, 2007

16.5. Changing Hands (Part 2)

The shadowed bulk of the derelict ship loomed ahead of them, through the mist of the nebula. It reminded Dent of the breachwhales he’d spot sometimes from the roof of the palace. Dark forms shifting into and out of sight beneath the surface of the ocean.

“Why this one?” Dent asked, as the Captain buckled on his saber. In the doorway to the corridor, Bosun Little ran a honing stone across the half-moon edge of what Pebble’s sign language had shakily translated as “Whomping Stick.” Pebble herself was back in the engine room, beating out random notes on the Bosun’s xylophone; she was still not speaking, or at least not signing, to Dent.

“I know this vessel,” the Captain said, checking the latches on his boots. “Quite well. That is the seventh rule of successful banditry. Know your territory better than your opponents do.”

“It doesn’t look Imperial,” Dent said, straining to identify the outline of the vessel.”

“Imperial ships were not the only ones lost here,” the Captain nodded. “She is a FLAW vessel.”

“Why do people talk about ships as if they were girls?” Dent asked, having always wondered this. The Captain chuckled, and Bosun Little shot him a look suggesting at least a passing interest in his reply.

“Perhaps,” the Captain said, “because they are tempermental, unreliable, and quite often hazardous to your health.” The Bosun’s eyes narrowed, unimpressed. “And yet, they will always be there when truly needed. And you cannot live without them.”

The Bosun made a small, satisfied-sounding grunt, and went back to honing the blade. The Captain shut his eyes, a glow once more flickering up beneath his eyelids. But before Dent could ask him about that, too, Corsair’s eyes were open again, clear and shining and purposeful.

“Are you certain, Bandit-in-Training Dent, that this is what you wish?” the Captain said, kneeling down to look Dent in the eye. “To never again see your family?”

Dent looked away, scowling, and nodded. He was sick of being asked, in large part because he wasn’t sure anymore.

“We bandits, we have families, too,” Corsair said to him. “At least, I had one, once.”

“Did they hate you, like mine?” Dent said. Sadness passed across the Captain’s visage, like the shadow of a cloud.

“They did not,” the Captain said. “Any more than yours does, truly. Sometimes the love of a family, it takes very strange shapes. But it is love all the same. You see my blade and my ship and my admittedly superior taste in rugged banditwear, and you think, ah, this is a life for a discerning gentleman! But I swear to you, young Dent, on my sword — I would trade it all for a single day with my family.” The Captain’s eyes grew distant for a moment, and Dent saw the Bosun glance over at Corsair with strange pity on her face. “With all of those I loved,” the Captain said.

Dent folded his arms, and tried his best to look resolute. He was a bandit now. Bandits had to be tough. “I’m not going back.”

The Captain sighed, and shrugged, and smiled at him again. “As is your choice. Now. Can I rely upon you to remain here, vigilant for any sign that the Bosun and I may be deceived?” Dent nodded dutifully, as Bosun Little stood up — well, as far as she could — and leaned over the controls.

“This button’s your communications, square?” Bosun Little told Dent, one massive finger pointing the way. “You see anything, or something goes wrong, or what’s-your-shadow, you sound off. I mean it.” Dent nodded again. Something about the Bosun made you want to nod when she gave you an order, and quickly.

The Captain, in the pilot’s seat, maneuvered the ship into the shadow of the derelict, lining up its airlock with an intact hatch on the side of the larger ship. All the while, the Bosun quizzed Dent on the docking and undocking procedures, on basic maneuvering, on the heading he would occupy while the exchange took place.

“What if something goes wrong?” Dent asked. “In there, I mean. With you.”

The Captain laughed. “That is what makes life exciting, yes? The uncertainty. Fear not, my young and highly profitable friend.” Corsair turned and winked at Dent. “That is the eighth and most important rule of banditry. No matter what, a bandit always has a plan.”

The hatch sealed and hissed. Corsair donned a second cloak, this one midnight blue with a fraying gold trim, and saluted Dent on his way into the corridor. The Bosun paused in the doorway, the patterns on her cheeks spreading out in crooked radial lines. She looked back at the boy, sitting with his feet dangling awkwardly off the edge of the copilot’s seat.

“The pale one back there, she’s still upset,” Bosun Little said, adjusting her grip on the Whomping Stick. “I’d patch that hole, and soon, were I you.”

“She’ll be okay,” Dent muttered, unable to meet the Bosun’s eyes. “I’m sorry” were words he’d never had much cause to utter in his upbringing, and they did not come easily to him.

“Your boulder to burden, I guess,” the Bosun said, her eyes fixed on him with calm, quiet reproach. “But you’ve got no family now. Said so yourself. Which suggests to me you’ve got no friends to spare.”

She began to duck through the doorway, paused, and stuck her head back into the room. “And don’t touch any of my things,” she said quickly. “Those are collectibles. All of them. I mean it.”

Then she was gone, leaving Dent to ponder her words. Partly the ones about the collectibles — they sure looked like toys — but mostly about the other topic.

The airlock closed and cycled, and Dent began the disengage sequence, as the Captain had taught him. Back in the engine room, Pebble began to tap out a tune: Old Jack jumped in a pile of cheese…

The Zephyr’s forward lights slipped in liquid circles along the war-scorched hull of the derelict. Past a cluster of laser burns on its steel skin, over the jagged vent of a long-ago hull breach, to reveal the distinctive FLAW insignia, with its circle of twelve stars. And the dead craft’s name, painted in battered letters person-high: F.S.S. Crucible.

“Lanthia’s eyes,” Pug swore, eyes wide, puffs of his breath turning to steam on the diamondglass of the viewport.

“What?” Lis shrugged, fastening the Captain’s cloak around her shoulders. “It’s a creepy old ship. Big splash.” Her favorite repeater-pistol slapped in its holster against one hip; the most painful-looking of her whips was fastened to the other. She was dressed for combat, which was to say, she was dressed. Mostly.

“Third Galactic Conflict. She was leading a supply convoy through the nebula when it happened,” Pug said, eyes never leaving the dead ship out in the perpetual pink twilight. “Sole military escort for 20 ships, 50 brace of souls. Three Armada ships plussed in and hit her here, no warning. She fought to the last to protect the convoy, till her batteries went dark and her tubes ran dry.

“The DMA sent shocks in — you’ve seen the pictures, right? Really big guys, all of ‘em, in that no-faced black armor. The Crucible fought hand to hand, to the last, till the FLAW plussed in reinforcements to the rescue. They say the Crucible’s Steward took Armada steel through the sternum and still fought.”

Pug turned to look at Lis, clanking and clattering under a small pile of armor and weaponry. “We were at war with the FLAW then, and Father still pulled our ships back from Tenebrae when he heard about the Crucible. It’s what got him to sign the pact.”

Lis raised one eyebrow, in a manner she’d never admit to have gotten from her mother. “You read all of this? In an actual book?”

Pug suddenly became very interested in studying the floor. “There was, uh, a vid,” he muttered. “But it had lots of talking.”

The Zephyr jostled gently, and from below in the cargo bay, brother and sister felt the airlock engage and begin to cycle.

“You ready to do this?” Pug said, lowering his golden helmet over his brow. “Let’s do this! Yeah!” He butted the brow of his helmet into the nearest bulkhead a few times, to get himself feeling properly motivated, and to try unsuccessfully to chase all thoughts of flowing copper hair from his mind. Well-rattled, he raised a meaty fist to smack knuckles with his sister.

Seeing his hand up, just sort of hanging there, his flush of agression rapidly cooling into quiet desperation, Lis reluctantly raised a fist and gently tapped her knuckles against his. “Yeah, sure,” she said, beneath a wet blanket of mortification. “Let’s do this.”

For all the cool distance in her expression, beneath the Captain’s cloak, Lis’s heart beat like war drums, and would not slow down. The rose, carefully nurtured with honeywater these past days, adjusted its viny grip on her belt and purred softly against her hipbone.

Story’s scanners assured atmosphere beyond the airlock, and in they went. Pug clattered at the fore, sweating beneath at least half again as much armor as he would ever actually need. Lis padded silently behind him, wrapped in the cloak that smelled of orange blossoms. Story rolled along behind them, lugging an antigravved stack of three bulky cargo boxes. The robot hummed quietly to himself in flawless synthesized tones.

The beacon signal Corsair’s message provided led them up, up, through a maze of inky corridors and eerie, echoing staircases. The FLAW military had removed the bodies after the battle, patched the wrecked shell of the Crucible just enough to restore life support in the unpunctured decks, and stripped out anything of value. The rest, they left. Proposals to retrieve the ship’s skeleton for salvage, or alternately turn it into an incredibly difficult-to-find museum, had stalled for years in the halls of the Duly Elected. So the Crucible waited, frozen and dark and all but dead.

“Look,” Pug whispered, playing the light from an algae-globe over a zigzag line of scorch marks on the walls. “This is where the kitchen staff set up a defensive perimeter. ‘The Feast of Fire,’ they called it.” He liked to tell that story at his tea parties, although he sensed Kell was beginning to tire of it.

So was his sister, far more rapidly. Lis poked him hard in the kidney with one finger to keep him from slipping back into history mode.

“The signal originates just through here,” Story said at one-quarter standard volume. He nodded his metal head toward the blast-burned doors ahead that still faintly read BRIDGE. Pug found the emergency release lever and pulled, straining slightly. The doors slid open, and a faint, flickering light spilled out to greet them.

The bridge, big as a whole deck of their zephyr (or one half of Lis’s bathroom), descended from the door along rows of gutted computer stations to a forward pit. At the very front of the room, two sets of helm controls trailed wires from empty cases, starkly silhouetted against the vast pink vista of the forward viewport. Upon the map table at the center of the pit, a white linen tablecloth had been spread, bearing light-spheres, a simple assortment of chocolates and fruits, three tall globular glasses, and a cylindrical spirit-cask.

“Greetings!” Captain Corsair grinned from the far side of the table, his teeth gleaming white and flawless in the flickering light of the spheres. “May I perhaps pour you some Celezana?”

Lis’s heart leaped against the cage of her chest. Almost as smoothly as she would have liked to, she brought the pistol up from beneath her cloak and leveled it at the Captain.

“Not Celezana, then?” the Captain shrugged. “I have Ludomin, also, if that is more your preference.”

“Where’s the boy?” Lis asked, hoping her hair looked suitably intimidating. She’d had Story work on it a little, but his skills were limited at best.

“Perfectly safe, I assure you,” Corsair smiled. Damn him, Lis thought, why did he have to smile? Couldn’t he just show a little fear? Or at least leer at her? She knew what do with leering.

“He believes he is about to begin a new life as a bandit,” the Captain continued, his voice plucking quiet notes of regret. “Very excited. I have, alas, not had the heart to disappoint him. Will you not at least sample the chocolates? They have the most exquisite pepperfruit centers.”

“Where’s the, uh, the, with the big muscles,” Pug said, his train of thought lurching smokily out of the terminus. “Where’s she?”

“With the boy,” Corsair said. “Keeping a watchful eye.”

Pug’s shoulders dropped, just a fraction.

“Please, eat, enjoy! I will sample it myself, and gladly, if you fear unhealthy additives. Ah! And you must be the robot Story!”

“Protracted death to all enemies of the Imperium!” Story responded, but kindly.

“Ha! My mechanical friend, your sense of humor is most enjoyable. Your young charge speaks well of you, particularly your considerate failure to kill him on many, many occasions.”

“This unit tries,” Story said, his circuits glowing with unaccustomed flattery.

Lis stepped forward, slowly, refusing to let the gun tremble in her hand. She waited, with every step, for the Captain’s polite smile to decay into the more wolfish, paper-thin courtesy she’d seen in the eyes of ambassadors and prince regents and shipping heirs alike. She waited for his eyes to rove somewhere other than her own. She waited in vain, which did absolutely nothing for the trembling.

“I have questions,” she said, when she stood opposite him, the gun aimed at his heart. She attempted a cavalier toss of her head, long a successful disarming tactic in her wide and varied arsenal. But this one came across more as some sort of neurodegenerative twitch.

“These questions — they are about your brother?” Corsair asked, calmly pouring two glasses of wine. He offered one to her, and she snatched it from his hand.

“Not yet they aren’t,” Lis said.

“Well,” Corsair grinned. “Then I will not answer. Not until you at least try one sip of the Celezana. It is really quite sublime.”

“If this is a trick—” Lis growled, her eyes narrowing.

“Then your brother up there — will you not come down and have something? — will most surely decapitate me, or some such, no doubt with great enthusiasm,” Corsair shrugged. “And I would be a very poor host indeed, to so ruin such a pleasant gathering.”

Lis took a sip of the wine. It really was good. She poured the rest out slowly onto the deck, then set down the glass.

“Shame to waste a good Celezana,” the Captain sighed. “But please, ask your question.”

“Why this?” she said, gesturing to the rose snuggled against her belt. “Why did you throw this at me? Was it, what, an insult?”

“Far from it, Your Majesty!” the Captain protested. “It was an apology.”

Lis felt a flush rising in her cheeks, and tightened her grip on the pistol. “And why did you—”

“Regretfully,” the Captain smiled, “if this question is not about your brother — and perhaps it is not my place, but I am surprised you seem so untroubled in that regard! — I must insist that you try at least one of these fine chocolates before I will answer.”

She leveled the gun at the Captain’s eye, and still, he did not flinch, he did not blink. He plucked a single chocolate from the pile, holding it up between his metal thumb and forefinger, and offered it to her.

Right. Lis would show him. She leaned forward, never breaking eye contact, and seized the candy with her teeth. There. She couldn’t be intimidated quite so easily. Who cared if it was delicious chocolate? Or if the filling fizzed just so in her mouth? She was the Ministress of Love, and even if her knees had begun to spontaneously wobble, she wouldn’t back down.

“Not bad,” Lis understated. “Now why this cloak? I was trying to kill you, and you just … gave it to me.”

“Do you like it?” the Captain asked. “It was long a favorite of mine.”

“This scratchy piece of dross?” Lis snapped, attempting the head-toss thing again, with no greater success. “I’ve been given jewels the size of your brain.”

“Ah,” the Captain nodded. “Well, I regret to say, it was more my intent that I should receive such jewels from you. But as for my humble cloak, as I said — you looked cold. It seemed the courteous thing to do.”

Lis took a half-step back. The pistol twitched in her hand. “And,” she began, and had to start over, “and would you do that for anyone? Or was it just me?”

“Are you certain you do not wish to ask about your brother?” Corsair inquired, his eyebrows furrowing. “Because it would seem appropriate for—”

And then his entire face changed. Hardened. He drew his saber in a flash of steel.

Reflex took over. Lis’s finger closed on the pistol’s trigger. The repeater barked, spitting shot against the clear surface of the viewport. The Captain’s hand grasped her wrist, gentle as a breeze, having moved her arm harmlessly to one side as if she were not even there. And that was when Lis finally realized that the Captain was not looking at her.

Pug saw the saber start to flash and leapt, curved swords sliding from their scabbards at his belt. In most forms of cogitation, Pug’s brain was limited at best. But in this instant, he saw lines criscrossing the Captain’s body, saw exactly how many pieces the man would fall into, knew exactly how many swings it would take, and in which order.

Then a shadow fell from above. He twisted in midair, almost but not enough. A whole planet landed on him, slamming him in a jangle of armor to lie slanted upon the stairs.

“I’ll just be over here,” Story demurred, sliding discreetly out of the nine most likely lines of fire. No one paid him any notice.

Bosun Little dug one massive knee into Pug’s chest, sharp lines dotting down across her cheekbones, her half-moon blade right at the edge of his throat. Her hair, much to Pug’s dismay, was every bit as distractingly coppery, her arms no less muscular.

“Don’t make me, Your Majesty,” the Bosun growled, all business. Pug’s brain went to a place it probably shouldn’t have, especially in battle.

“Guh,” Pug said. Even if the wind hadn’t been knocked out of him, he would have said no different.

Lis, the sting of the pistol’s recoil still tingling in her palm, turned her head to track the Captain’s line of sight, all the way up to the top of the stairs, where a slender man in a gray traveling cloak had appeared.

“You,” she heard Corsair say, in a voice to scald the blood.

“Him with the sword, and the smallish Corinthian, I knew to expect,” Josiah Crestfall said calmly, looking around the bridge slowly. Behind his spectacles, his eyes were mournful, and nostalgic. “But Your Imperial Majesties? That comes by surprise.” One hand shifted beneath his cloak, slow but meaningful, as if it were resting on something slung from his belt.

“I think we’ll have some answers now,” Crestfall said, and smiled in his melancholy way. “Starting with what in the six perditions you’re all doing on my ship.”

“He believes he is about to begin a new life as a bandit,” the Captain’s voice crackled over the comm. “Very excited. I have, alas, not had the heart to disappoint him.”

Dent stabbed at the button angrily, and threw himself back into the copilot’s seat. More lies. Of course. All the stories had warned him, time and time again. Bandits could not be trusted.

He felt the hurt, the disappointment, balloon in his chest. His eyes stung, the tears almost there, but not quite. He couldn’t make himself feel as angry as he wanted to. He couldn’t rage, shout, stamp his feet. He realized he’d just feel silly, and he had too much pride to let himself. Because he knew, somehow, that the Captain was right.

Dent missed Story, and Cook, and the great big rambling rooms of the palace. He missed his brother and sister, even when they were yelling and throwing stuff and trying to have him thrown overboard. Just hearing them over the comm had made something in his throat well up like he’d swallowed a whole nectar apple.

He missed his father, around whom Dent somehow always felt safe, even if he happened to be in actual mortal peril at the moment. He even missed his mother, kind of, a little. If only because going to see her was the exciting sort of scary, like washing windows with the Imperial Acrobats of Cleanliness.

Small footsteps padded into the cockpit. Pebble, with some effort, hauled herself up into the pilot’s seat opposite Dent, and sat there staring at him with reflective eyes.

“Hey,” he said at last, half-looking at her.

Your head is large and stupid, Pebble signed, then thought a moment. Also, you smell bad.

“I’m sorry,” Dent mumbled. “I shouldn’t have been mad at you.”

No kidding, Pebble signed. You’re the dumbest friend I have.

“I’m the only friend you have,” Dent smiled.

I need better friends, Pebble shot back, but her attempts not to grin were failing.

“You could share Story with me,” Dent offered. “I don’t think he’d mind. He’d still want to kill just me though, probably.

Fine by me, Pebble shrugged. If he does, I get your stuff. She let her hands lapse into stillness for a moment. Are you really not going back?

“Why should I?” Dent asked. “You’ve seen my family. You saw the vidstream. I embarrass them. Just a stupid mistake.”

But if you don’t go back, Pebble countered, I can’t go back. I miss my mom and dad. And your family would never help me find them without you.

“Yeah,” Dent admitted. “They’d probably just feed you to something on Zoo Deck.”

Pebble made her “ewwwww” face. Could you … maybe come back for a little bit? she signed. Just for a while?

Dent thought about it. “I guess,” Dent said. “Maybe just for a bit. I could study all the important bandit stuff until I run away again. Maybe the Captain would let me get kidnapped another time.”

I’d miss you if you were a bandit, Pebble signed.

“Even if I was doing cunning bandity stuff?” Dent asked. “Like, robbing transports, and raiding fortresses, and stealing jewels?”

Especially then, Pebble told him, giggling a little.

“You could come too!” Dent grinned. “You could be my bosun!”

No way! Pebble protested. I’d be the captain.

She kicked at him from her chair, and he kicked back, and the resulting kickfight was a whole lot of fun until something smacked into the hull, and the whole world started shrieking so loud that they both fell down.

The noise permeated the entire ship, vibrating through the hull, deafening, ear-grinding, and painfully loud. In the engine room, the Quantum Coral Drive flared a blinding violet in subatomic pain, and then its light died altogether. The ship went dark.

At first, Dent could not tell that the noise had stopped, for all the ringing in his ears. The light from the viewport was different somehow, dimmer. A shadow had fallen across the whole of the tiny ship.

He could not hear the airlock cycling through buzzing ears, but he could feel the floor move. He groped out in the dimness and found Pebble’s hand, saw her eyes glowing wide and scared.

Out in the corridor, the airlock swung open, blasting a shaft of light directly upward. Heavy boots rang on ladder rungs, and then the dark shape of a man loomed in the doorway to the cockpit. Dent couldn’t see its face, but he knew, somehow, it was looking right at him.

“Well, now,” Sir Leslie Murther said, in a satisfied growl that seemed to bristle up from all the way down in his stomach. “My lucky day, it is. Two for the price of one.”

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