Tuesday, November 20, 2007

17. A Pleasant Conversation, And Then The Missiles

“I will thank you to step to one side, Your Majesty,” Corsair hissed through clenched teeth. He still wasn’t looking at Lis, still held her about the wrist with her pistol upraised. He held her lightly, courteously, just with his fingers and thumb, but she felt that contact through the whole of her arm, if not the rest of her. “I would not wish for you to be injured.”

“What are you doing?” she whispered back to him, and still, his eyes did not move from Commodore Crestfall at the the top of the stairs.

“I very much need to kill that man,” the Captain said, and from the low fire burning in his voice, Lis knew he meant it.

“Wouldn’t be the first,” Crestfall sighed, still as stone.

“To try?” Corsair seethed. Crestfall shook his head slowly, his eyes flicking to a certain spot near one of the gutted helm stations.

“To succeed,” he said.

Bosun Little snapped a glance over her shoulder, sizing up Crestfall in a matter of moments. She saw the line of his elbow, the cant of his arm beneath the cloak. She measured the absolute calm in his face.

Still pinning Pug to the stairs with one knee and the blade of her weapon, she turned back to Corsair, straight vertical lines appearing on each side of her face.

“Don’t,” she said. It wasn’t a request.

“But he—” Corsair began.

“Am I your bosun?” she asked him, low and steady. “If I’m your bosun, you listen to me. If you don’t listen to me, I’m not your bosun, and you’re alone in this. Don’t.”

“Listen to her,” Lis found herself saying to the man she ostensibly wanted to kill, and at last his eyes met her own, filled with a pain she could not recognize. Slowly, the Captain lowered his sword.

“I have never been able to deny two women the same request,” he sighed.

“Am I supposed to know you?” Crestfall called down from the top of the stairs. His voice held no mockery; just an open palm. “I’m afraid I don’t recollect.”

“I did not think you would.” Corsair bit off every word. “That is precisely the problem.”

Bosun Little turned back to Crestfall. “How’d you find us?”

“That ship of yours does strangeness to space,” Crestfall said. “Or so the scientists tell me. Leaves a sort of gravitational furrow in its wake. Hardly anything, unless you know to notice, but easy enough to track.”

“We weren’t going to keep it,” Bosun Little said. “The ship. Weren’t going to sell it, either. Just needed it for this job.”

Crestfall thought on this, then nodded, light glinting off his spectacles. “I believe you,” he said. “But the Duly don’t lean to lenience on this particular —”

The Bosun lurched sideways as Pug made his move, rolling out from under her, one curved knife raised, pinning her across the throat with his forearm.

Crestfall’s cloak billowed. Bad News split the air, hooking around to strike sparks with its dull edge against the line of Pug’s upraised sword.

“I’m gonna need that one alive, Your Majesty,” Crestfall said, grunting slightly from the strain of holding back Pug’s marble column of an arm. “With respect.”

Pug didn’t look back. “Wasn’t gonna kill her,” he said. “You’ve got a hand on me that shouldn’t be there. With respect.”

“Fair point,” Crestfall said, gingerly releasing Pug. He kept Bad News unsheathed; even in the semidark, the arc of its cutting edge shimmered oddly.

“Weren’t gonna kill me?” the Bosun rasped under Pug’s forearm, wide lines curving upward to pixel-points across her cheeks. She looked almost insulted. “Why not?”

Roughly five hours from now, Pug would think of an excellent answer for this, a witty and impressive response, and bang his head against the wall — this time without a helmet. For now, he just hesitated about three seconds longer than he probably should have, and then, lacking anything better to do, shrugged.

“What’s this about a ship?” Lis asked Corsair, nudging the barrel of the gun persuasively back toward his face.

“Stolen ship,” Crestfall said, edging carefully around Little and Pug on his way down the stairs.

“That’s not your ship?” Lis boggled. “You kidnapped my brother in a hot starship?”

“Hot experimental starship,” Crestfall said. “Shouldn’t even speak of it here, Majesty. No offense.”

The Captain gave a little sigh, raising his eyebrows at Lis in a way that briefly made her feel willing to forgive him for everything short of planetary genocide. And even then, it depended on the planet. She shook off the feeling.

“Ah yes,” Corsair said to Lis, returning calm to his voice with audible effort. “The experimental starship being developed by the FLAW. Your former enemies, I believe. The craft that allowed me to breach Imperial defenses as if they were a gaggle of the most dewy-eyed lambs. Whatever could they be developing such a technology for, I wonder?”

“Don’t do that,” Crestfall scolded, that sad little smile lurking about the edges of his mouth. “Don’t go playing us against one another like—”

He stopped abruptly, largely because Lis’s pistol was now aimed at him.

“Majesty,” Crestfall said evenly, slowly bringing Bad News up within swinging reach of Corsair. “I’ve only killed but one and a half women in the course of duty, and none of them were heads of state. I’m in no fancy to add to that tally, today or anytime else.”

“What’s the ship for?” Lis asked him, the gun unwavering.

Crestfall opened his non-sword-bearing hand and held it up slowly. “I’m not the one who makes things, or gets told their purpose,” he said. “I’m just the soul who brings them back.”

Pug watched this all intently, which gave Bosun Little the opening she needed to flip him forward over her shoulders. He hit the stairs rolling, and they were both up and armed and facing in the same space of seconds.

“Nice move,” Pug admitted, keeping his swords low and angled at his waist.

“Likewise, with that reversal,” the Bosun conceded, grip slowly shifting on the handle of her Whomping Stick. “I saw you fight, on the vids. The Armistice Spectacle.”

“Which one?” Pug asked. “The tigerleeches?”

“The masticore,” Bosun Little said. “You were perdition with a spear.”

“Really?” Pug said, maybe half an octave higher than he would have liked to. He tried to cover it up by clearing his throat and spitting, but it was clear, from the curious look on the Bosun’s face, that the damage was done.

“Any objections” Crestfall asked, reaching toward the spirit-cask on the map table, “if I pour myself a drink?”

Corsair’s metal hand lashed out, scattering the cask and its contents away across the deck. “My hospitality is not for you,” the Captain said, eyes narrowing.

Crestfall looked at him thoughtfully for a moment. “We’ll come back to that,” he said, and turned back to Lis. “Word of caution here. Ministress of Love for the Grand Galactic Imperium puts a hole in me, the Duly are apt to consider it an act of war.”

“You would not want that, I am certain.” Corsair’s words dripped acid. “Your Majesty, if it will inconvenience this man, I will gladly provide you the ship in question, along with your younger brother. This is, of course, contingent on my successful escape.”

“I don’t suppose you’ll offer me a similar deal?” Crestfall asked, one brow sloping slightly upward in passing interest.

“I would offer to kill you swiftly,” Corsair spat, “but I do not make deals I do not intend to honor.”

Crestfall studied the Captain’s face intently for several long moments. “No bells rung,” he said, and nodded at the captain’s metal hand. “Did I perhaps leave you with that?”

“My hand, I could forgive,” Corsair said, in a voice that set prickles rising on the back of Lis’s neck. “But the person who was holding it…”

“This man’s a prisoner of the Imperium,” Lis told Crestfall. “He kidnapped royal blood. He comes with us. My father has a very long, very specific list.” Which she could hopefully bargain down significantly, Lis thought. She had a certain dismayed tone of voice she reserved only for emergencies involving her father; it had yet to fail her.

“This man stole FLAW property,” Crestfall replied, coolly. “Before he got to kidnapping your royal blood. Which is a whole other interesting story, on account of the only two verified Imperial heirs being right here in this room, to my knowledge. And technically speaking, we stand on FLAW territory, which makes mine the jurisdiction here.”

“You don’t get him, and you don’t get the ship,” Lis said. “I’m not leaving my family open to invasion.”

“You take that ship,” Crestfall replied, “and the Duly will want it back. They’ll do their asking in cannon and armor.”

“Hey, is somebody gonna kill somebody?” Pug shouted down, growing impatient.

“Been wondering that myself,” the Bosun agreed, loudly.

“Not yet,” Captain Corsair said, still holding fast to the handle of his saber. “In due time, perhaps.”

The entire room rang with three loud crashes, in sequence — cargo crates clanging heavily against the deck. Story unfolded his four arms and expanded his treadball to its full circumference, and in the gloom of the bridge, his eyes glowed an attention-getting red.

“If I may interrupt your various intrigues,” the robot said, the faintest hint of threat in his cheery synthesized voice, “I seem to be the only being present fully cognizant of why we are here. Captain, these crates contain your payment, as promised. You all may bicker, damage, or disassemble one another as you see fit, but I have a young master to see to.”

Crestfall tilted his head a tick, impressed. “Royal blood indeed, I guess,” he said softly. “The metal man makes a sound point. I’m not for standing in the way of any family reunions. Any other matters, we can discuss after.”

“This is so very charming,” Corsair smiled, more pleasantly at Lis than at the Commodore. “Your assumption of my helplessness. But I am only too happy to keep my word. The boy is—”

“There,” Bosun Little said, too quietly, a single solitary dot standing out on each cheek amid a sea of recessed pits. Her hands had gone slack on the grip of her weapon, and she stared out through the viewport behind them with distant, frightened eyes.

In the pink void of the nebula, a vast shadow slid into view — a floating ebony cathedral of bristling ribs and spines and strange organic clusters. Against the dark of space, it would have been all but invisible — just a dark spot among the stars.

“Dark Matter Armada,” Pug breathed. “That’s a DMA flagship.”

“It was,” Corsair said slowly. “The maneuvering, it is different. Smoother.”

“He’s right,” Crestfall nodded. “The hull’s off, too, just in a few places. Work’s been done, and not by Armada hands.”

“I heard rumors they’d captured a few,” Lis said. “Father always wanted one. As a trophy.”

Corsair thumbed a button on the hilt of his sword, and a comm channel blipped open. “Your Majesty,” the Captain said, “do you receive? Reply, please.”

Dead silence.

“An all too appropriate irony, I fear,” Corsair said gravely. “That which I have stolen is now stolen from me.”

“She’s launching,” Pug cried. His warrior’s eyes had spotted tiny puffs of gas against the black skin of the strange craft. Glowing bright orbs spiraled swiftly toward the Crucible, coruscating in the gases of the nebula. They rocketed past the bridge and struck somewhere far distant aft, in the gutted superstructure.

“No explosions,” Crestfall observed, quietly. “That’s never good.”

Out the viewport, the Armada ship’s pluslight engines flared. It accelerated into the pink mist, ever faster, until it was not even an outline.

A groan shuddered through the whole steel skeleton of the Crucible, juddering up from the floor of the bridge.

“I’m gonna lose her again,” Crestfall said softly, sadly, placing a hand upon the map table.

“What’s going on?” Lis asked, backing away from Crestfall, lowering her pistol. “Why wasn’t there more of an impact?”

“Disassemblers,” Corsair said, all the laughter gone from his eyes. “If the ship still had shielding, it would perhaps stop them. Slow them down at least. Now they will rampage unchecked — devour the craft, atom by atom, and use it to make more of themselves. The process is exponential.”

“This would be totally cunning if I weren’t, you know, here,” Pug said, sheating his swords. He nodded to the Bosun. “Kill you later, okay?”

The Bosun managed a weak smirk. “You’ll try,” she said. “Assuming you get the chance.”

“My ship’s docked five clicks distant, portside forward,” Crestfall said. “Sorry to tell it could only carry two.” He cast calm, rational glances at Corsair and the Bosun. “More if they’re dead, perhaps.”

“We’re starboard forward, three tiers down,” Pug said. “Seven clicks at a run.”

“Room for six, at least,” Lis added.

“I’m not leaving the prisoners,” Crestfall added.

“Then you’re coming with us,” Lis snapped.

“Let us go, if we must,” Corsair told them, as the ship shuddered again. “I swore to the boy he would not be harmed. And no one — not you, Majesty, nor the FLAW, nor the Armada resurrected — will make a liar of Santiago Corsair.”

Quarrington Crouch closed the communication link and smiled. He felt the last of the goosebumps, always a byproduct of conversation with Sir Leslie, fade from his arms and legs.

“Syles,” he summoned, as the tailor at his feet measured his inseam. Syles appeared. “I have a message. It goes to Spinner in Media and Poole in Freelance.”

“Yes, sir?” Syles asked, unblinking.

“The message, in its entirety, is ‘go.’” Crouch said. Syles nodded dutifully, and retreated.

“If you’ll just turn around, sir,” the tailor said, his thumbprints leaving glowing red marks on the smart-tape.

“Certainly,” Crouch nodded. “How are your wives, Mr. Bespoke?”

“Fine, sir,” the tailor nodded, and made another measurement. “Thank you for asking.”

Within the hour, both major Crouch News stations interrupted their regular programming — Shout at the Issues for Crouch News FLAW, The Reasons You’re Wrong on Crouch News Imperium — so that identical Rockwell-model anchors could deliver vastly divergent news.

Rockwell Q8-234, for Crouch News FLAW, reported that members of the Imperial Royal Family had stolen a top-secret experimental FLAW craft, with designs to mass-produce it for military purposes.

On Crouch News Imperium, Rockwell J9-004 (Rockwell A8—113 had every seventh day off, for nutrient replenishment, exfoliation, and hair and makeup) reported that covert FLAW agents had launched a daring, almost unthinkable attack on the Imperial homeworld seven days previous, with the first of a new line of military vessels designed to breach the Imperium’s defenses.

Via more discreet channels, Poole in Freelance passed her message along, too.

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