Wednesday, November 21, 2007

18. Funhouse, Without the Fun

Dent’s mother had impressed upon him from an early age that biting other people was beneath Imperial dignity. They generally didn’t deserve the blessing of your royal saliva, and besides, you never knew where those people had been.

Pebble had not been raised with any such niceties.

And thus, as the growly bearded man with the frilly cuffs and the crinkly, perfumed velvet coat hauled them struggling down the high vaulted corridors of his vessel, one to an arm, Pebble got a solid mouthful of sickly-sweet sleeve in her jaws and went to town.

Sir Leslie Murther’s head had, until that moment, been filled with lists of ingredients, and thoughts of fire and savory aromatics. As Pebble’s teeth sank into his sleeve, and very nearly his arm, he howled. It was more from shock than actual pain, but he nonetheless dropped the wriggling children to the shining onyx deck. Actual pain obligingly followed when Pebble lashed out with a strong, skinny leg and kicked him in the beans for good measure.

As Sir Leslie bellowed, tottering back and forth in tiny, hunched-over steps, Dent and Pebble clutched hands and ran. Then, once their arms had been nearly yanked from their sockets, they tried both running in the same direction, which proved far more productive.

They had been carried by their captor for several clicks prior to Pebble’s dental opportunism, through twists and turns, and mostly with an excellent if somewhat unmemorable view of their own reflections in the polished black stone of the deck. As a result, once they succeeded in getting well out of sight and earshot of their captor, they found themselves hopelessly lost.

It did not help that the corridors of Sir Leslie’s ship were all identical, down to the black rivets in the black columns of the sturdy black material that, uncomfortably, always seemed to have just stopped moving the instant you laid hands on it. Nor did it help that everything in every corridor that was not black was a solid, seamless mirror. Dent and Pebble found themselves lost, one of a infinite number of feeling children in a grid of parallel universes, curving up and away on either side of them into deepening darkness.

It reminded Dent all too much of his least favorite dream — of wandering the halls of the palace, crying out, and no one there to hear him.

They stopped at a T-junction so that Pebble could put her ear to the deck, trying to hear pipes that might speak navigational secrets to her. She listened for a long while, then pressed her head harder against the smooth black stone, puffs of her breath pooling in fog just past her lips. She stood up, looking strangely shaken.

Nothing, she signed. No sound. Not even a little.

Dent waved her over to the closest mirror, which reflected the two of them and the corridor stretching back behind them. “Look at this,” he said, unnerved, and pointed at his own eyes in the mirror.

The reflection seemed to be shifting, changing shape, wobbling the borders of his eyes ever so slightly. The motion was faint, almost unnoticeable. But once you noticed it, it never stopped.

They both saw it at the same time. A strange black thing, all curves and points, tic-tic-ticking along on six spindly legs across another junction in the corridor behind them. It was about the size of Zoomaster Genus’s Altaran Droolhound, which is to say, it would be nearly Dent-sized if it chose to rear up on any two of its appendages.

Dent and Pebble turned, from the reflection to the real, and the walking thing froze. Slowly, it turned toward them as well, revealing a flat shiny face in which they could see a very tiny Dent and a very tiny Pebble. A mirror.

Is it friendly? Pebble asked, her hand tight at her side. Dent’s face expressed significant doubts.

The mirror-faced thing ticked a few steps down the corridor toward them. Dent and Pebble waited, holding their breath. It stopped, shifting its weight, tilting its head a few degrees to the left.

Then it charged.

Thankfully, Dent and Pebble agreed on their direction this time: Right. They ran all-perdition down the corridors, taking twist after turn, not caring where they ran so long as it was away. The mirror-faced thing did not flag, bounding along behind them in long, springy strides, the points of its legs pattering like a tiny rainstorm. And the storm began to grow.

Each time Dent looked back, there were more of them, scrabbling along, mirror faces reflecting his own terrified eyes. And each time he looked, they had closed a little more of the gap.

One of the black things left, weight slamming into Dent’s back, and he went down tumbling hard to the deck, suffocating in a scratching tangle of pointed cold limbs, covering his eyes. Somewhere nearby he heard Pebble shrieking, but he was too scared to even move. And then he found that he could not.

The black things had folded themselves, interlocked, around his arms and legs, and Pebble’s too. Dent found himself lifted, hung up like a painting on display, lines of cold criscrossing his limbs where the black metal of the mirror-faces touched him.

Footfalls echoed in the corridor ahead, and then the bearded man strode carefully, with stiffened dignity, around the corner and toward the two children.

“Nnf,” Sir Leslie grunted, walking it off. “Let’s get one thing straight here, bairns,” he growled at them. “I’m the one does the biting in this little arrangement.” He tugged up his sleeve and studied the fading half-moons of red here Pebble’s teeth had left an impression.

“If that leaves a mark, girl,” he scowled, the points of his teeth sparkling in the reflections from countless mirror faces, “it’ll be sashimi for you.”

“Who are you?” Dent asked, trying to summon some of that Imperial courage he was supposed to possess. “What do you—” Without a sound, one of black limbs of the mirror-faces clamped over his mouth. It tasted like nothing — not air, not water, not even the numb, sandy prickle of a burnt tongue. Nothing at all.

“Children,” Sir Leslie clucked, “should be savored, not heard. See them to their accomodations, my Wee Ones.”

The mirror-faced things — the Wee Ones — obliged, cooperating in clusters of spare limbs, carrying Dent and a softly whimpering Pebble off down the corridor, until they were lost in the maze of reflections.

Sir Leslie stood up fully, not without some lingering pain, and straightened the frills of his collar in the nearest mirror. He primped, just a little, weighing whether the light most favored the strong line of his jaw from this angle, or that. He stood back, smoothing down the front of his coat — underneath, delicate and complicated mechanisms pinged and ticked — and admiring the slim straight line of his own figure.

He smiled into the mirror with diamond teeth, and ran a hand back through his hair approvingly. And beneath the mirror’s surface, and every other mirror in every hall on every deck of his strange ship, thousands of micromotors worked endlessly, adjusting the mirror’s surface, ensuring that Sir Leslie’s reflection looked every bit as smashing as its owner assumed it should.

It was all going quite well until the wall became the floor.

Lis yelped as her brother’s full weight suddenly flattened her against the frost-patterned wall of the Crucible’s corridor, the world pitching sideways by a hard 90 degrees. Story’s treadball servos whined, the robot’s internal gyros momentarily blanking out, and the robot crashed and clattered down in a hail of hasty apologies.

“What in Perdition?” Lis said, accustomed to a life that never malfunctioned, upon pain of death.

“The gravity generator,” Corsair grunted, hauling himself to his feet and straightening his cloak. “Our friends the disassemblers have begun to make a feast of it, alas.”

“We’ll all be in zero when it goes,” Crestfall said, pushing his spectacles back up the ridges of his broken nose. “But it’s gonna go slow, and before it does, it’s gonna make things topsy-turvy.”

As if to oblige, gravity suddenly shifted another 180 degrees, sending everyone tumbling hard into what had only moments before been the opposite wall.

“Thank Iolanthe for soft landings,” the Bosun groused, smarting in all the places where she’d landed on Pug’s armor plating. The patterns on her cheeks wavered queasily. Pug, still recovering from a momentary faceful of one of the Bosun’s perfectly honed shoulderblades, could only manage a grunt.

Story checked the Captain’s three cases with a free hand, glad they were tightly secured via mag-clamp to his own steel back. Especially the middle one.

“Just a few clicks further,” Lis said through gritted teeth, fighting off a roiling wave of dizziness. “Emergency stair’s just down this hall.”

“Let’s hope,” Crestfall nodded, somber. “Those disassemblers get to your ship — or us — before we do, this is gonna be little more than a pleasant stretch of the legs.”

Gravity had played havoc with the locking mechanisms, but the Bosun’s Whomping Stick, and some mutual effort between herself and Pug, forced the door open with a creak. Lis noticed Crestfall wincing at the sound, as if any further harm to the ship he’d already lost once was a wound to the man himself.

She also noticed Corsair, observing the same phenomenon, with not a trace of pity in those clear flashing eyes.

A short leap down left them in the pitch-dark emergency stair, which stretched off sideways two levels, toward the airlock where the Zephyr waited.

“Well,” Lis sighed, hauling herself up over the barrier that had once been the nearest landing, “at least this gravity’s good for something.”

Then the ship lurched horribly again, and forward became straight up, sending Lis crashing back against Captain Corsair. Her knees buckled as another wave of vertigo hit; the world reeled sickeningly inside her skull.

Then a hand grasped her arm, gently applying pressure, and the sickness fizzled and faded. She opened her eyes to find Corsair lightly pressing his non-metal thumb against the inside of her forearm, just below the wrist, and for a moment she felt dizzy again for entirely different reasons.

“A pressure point, majesty,” he said softly, with sympathy. “It helps with the grav-sickness, I have found.”

“You…” she said, barely above a whisper. “You’re touching me.”

“So I am,” he nodded, smiling even in the face of death. “And?”

Lis recovered her wits and snatched her arm away.

“It’s a good way to lose another hand,” she said, rubbing her wrist, trying to tell herself how incredibly offended she ought to feel.

“Perhaps the best,” the Captain nodded, and the smile fled, chased by shadows.

One by one, they clambered up to stand on the underside of the stairs, and began to climb.

Halfway up, Lis began to feel her breath tighten in her chest. Lead flowed, congealing, into her arms and legs.

“Does—” she gasped, struggling now to get the words out, “does anyone else—” And then a firm, invisible hand pushed her down to the stairs, and she could not rise.

“What’s the grumble?” Bosun Little asked, looking back to see Crestfall, the Captain and Lis flattened against the stairs, and the trailing Story’s motors grinding as he struggled to move forward. “Hey, wait.” She flexed her arms, shook out her legs, with familiar ease and comfort. “I know this feeling. This is—”

“Heavy grav,” Pug said beside her. He leaned against the wall, sweat beading on his face, but did not slump. “I’d say about a times three.” With thick hands, he tugged off his helmet, unsnapped the clasps on his armored breastplate, and hurled both away with a grunt. Freed of the weight, he sighed, grateful in his sweat-soaked tunic, skin steaming in the cold.

“You handle the crush pretty sturdy, for a lightweight,” the Bosun admitted, the dots on her cheeks rising in rounded peaks.

“Yeah,” Pug nodded, swabbing away the sweat on his brow. “I’ve been training in plus four, sometimes plus five, since I was seven.”

This charming conversation was cut short by the sound of rending metal, and the sudden lurch of the stairwell on which they stood. Straining under Corsair, Lis, Crestfall, and Story’s weight, the stairwell had begun to buckle. Bolts thick as two fingers stripped their threads, peeling out of the wall.

“You two think you could — maybe — ?” Lis managed, and then had to catch her breath.

The two brackets keeping the stairs attached to the wall slipped another perilous inch. The metal on which the less gravitationally fortunate members of the group struggled began, inexorably, to bend.

“I’ll anchor,” Bosun Little nodded, wiping one hand dry on her coveralls. “You grab as many as you can.” She clasped Pug’s hand, tight enough to squeeze the bones, and he had the strangest sensation that blood was flushing into his cheeks, for some reason.

Pug crouched down, stretched out his free hand, and began to drag Commodore Crestfall slowly up to the landing. The stairs trembled again.

“Oh, no,” Lis said quietly, hand crawling toward the lash on her hip. If she could just reach it, just move her dead stone fingers, just find the strength to send the lash out to grab some protrusion of metal…

The stairs gave way. Story clamped hold of the opposite platform, but could not reach the Captain or Lis as they plunged. At this gravity, even a short fall would surely shatter their bones.

Lis felt the Captain’s cold metal hand grab hers, saw a flash of sparks, heard a clang of steel and Corsair’s cry of pain. When she could finally lift her head, neck muscles trembling with the effort, she saw him clinging to the handle of his saber, sunk to the haft into the wall of the stairwell. His eyes were shut tight, his white teeth clenched, the whole of him shaking from the strain of holding himself and Lis up from the pit below.

Squeezing breaths into her lungs one painful rasp at a time, Lis swam her dangling arm up through a sea of iron air to seize hold of the captain’s metal hand.

“Don’t let go,” was all she could say. She felt the metal hand slipping in her grip, crumpling under the gravitational crush, pulling away from its housing on the stump of the Captain’s arm. He opened his eyes and looked down at her, but Lis got the curious feeling that in that moment, he was seeing someone else entirely.

“I will never let go,” he said, and he meant every word.

On the landing above, Pug braced Bosun Little as she stretched out full on the metal grating, extending the hammer end of the Whomping Stick down toward Corsair. But the Captain could not grasp it without releasing his sword, or releasing Lis.

Corsair’s blade began to list, the gravity pulling it out and down from its hold in the wall. The two sank even further away from the Bosun’s reach. Corsair tried to haul Lis up, to bring her within range of the extended hammer, but the effort only further strained the workings of his metal hand.

Lis looked up at him, hopeless. He managed one sad, gallant smile.

“If we go, Majesty,” he said, “we go together.”

The sword pulled free.

The weight lifted. They floated.

The gravity generator had finally succumbed, leaving the whole ship listing and adrift in zero. Lis and the Captain hung motionless in the middle of the stairwell, and for a long moment, she forgot to let go of his hand.

Then she did, drifting slowly away. The Captain adjusted his metal hand, squeezing it back into shape, fitting it with a clunk to the hidden housing where it met his flesh, and breathed a sigh of relief.

“A good way to lose a hand, indeed,” he said, and kicked off from the wall, heading higher.

It was easier going in zero, and in less than a click, they had swum through the dark and the air to the level where escape waited just a few doors away.

“Airlock’s just this way,” Pug nodded, hauling himself through the doorway from the stairs and angling off a wall toward the far end of the new corridor. By the time the others reached him, he had pried open the manual access hatch and turned the handle.

The door did not open. Motors groaned, protested, and fell silent again.

“Gods, it just worked!” Pug growled, hammering a fist fruitlessly against the thick steel. Beyond the tiny porthole in the door, the airlock waited tantalizingly, the open hatch of the Zephyr in sight.

“That’d be the gravity,” Crestfall sighed. “Messes up the circuits some. We’d usually run a reboot, when she was — when she was whole.”

The corridor lit up an eerie, angry red, and Lis turned to see Story facing away from the rest of the group, his laser eyes and arm rising to readiness in a low, escalating whine. “It may be prudent for you to hurry,” Story suggested calmly. “I am programmed not to fear, say, my imminent deconstruction into my component atoms. I am not certain if you possess similar protocols.”

In the red glow of his eyes, the walls of the corridor, far at the opposite end, seemed to fizz and bubble, steadily vanishing in the wake of some unseen tide.

“Ah yes,” Corsair sighed, as if someone had just scuffed his boots. “The disassemblers, at last.”

Story opened fire, searing beams playing across the leading edge of the tide, slowing its advance in lines of glowing slag. But in all the places where he did not fire, the disassemblers surged onward, and when she shifted his aim, the glowing scars left behind soon fizzed themselves, and vanished again.

“If I can get at the wiring,” Bosun Little strained, fingers digging into the edges of the access handle panel, “I could maybe—”

A hand fell upon her shoulder, steady and slightly cool to the touch.

“Miss, if you’ll move back a mite,” Commodore Crestfall said. He drew Bad News soundlessly, and tumbled in the air as he sent the sword slicing in a quick, effortless oval through the three-inch door. He braced himself and kicked, and the better part of the door floated inward, clearing the way towards the Zephyr.

“All in that’s going,” he said, and made room for the Bosun.

They all scrambled through the gap, Story’s lasers scouring away the disassembler advance until the Zephyr’s hatch sealed. In a hiss, the smaller ship disengaged, and lurched away to safe distance.

In the pink mists of the nebula, the unlikely cluster of allied enemies sat before the forward viewport and watched the F.S.S. Crucible dissolve into nothingness. Commodore Crestfall’s face betrayed nothing, except perhaps a bit more sadness at the corners of his smile.

“There is, of course, the matter of the boy,” Captain Corsair said at last. He sat proudly, possessively, atop the three stacked crates containing his reward, in the far corner of the Zephyr’s opulent, swooping cockpit. (“Pit” was an entirely improper word, really, for any space equipped with a jewel-studded throttle lever, but old terminologies died hard.)

“There’s the matter of my ship,” Crestfall responded calmly, turning toward him. Beneath the cloak, one or more of his hands may or may not have been moving toward his sword. “And the question of you and your friend’s heads, and whether they remain attached.”

“You’re on Imperial territory now, Commodore,” Lis smirked, leaning against an opal-inlaid navigation console. “Sorry to tell. The prisoners, and their heads, are the Imperium’s to deal with.”

“Please, please, do not fight on my account,” the Captain laughed. “My head is already spoken for, by myself, I am afraid.”

“I’ve heard that before,” Crestfall said.

“The coordinates we now occupy are those to which I sent the boy, and his ship,” Corsair shot back. “And yet, as you see, neither are present. They are with our mysterious friend in his Armada craft.”

“Hey,” Pug realized. “Doesn’t that make you two sorta… useless?” He did not, as he might with other prisoners, suggest a quick and mess-free ejection from the airlock, which may have had something to do with the way the Bosun tossed her hair derisively when he called her “useless.”

“The Commodore, he wishes the return of his ship. Technically, my ship now, but let us not quibble over such trivialities. You, Majesties, seek the safe return of your brother, if only so that no one else may learn of him. I have stated the facts correctly, yes?”

“Which still doesn’t explain what use, if any, you still are to us,” Lis replied flatly. A little voice in her head suggested many uses for the Captain — an embarrassing number, really — and it took considerable effort for Lis not to let her knees start wobbling again. She thought of the Imperium, as her mother had long ago advised her to do, but it didn’t really help.

Corsair appeared to think about this for a few seconds. “Are you aware your brother steals?” he said suddenly. “Small things, trifles, really. I applaud such behavior in a bandit-to-be, but in a future heir to the Imperium? I would find that quite troubling.”

Lis shot an uneasy look at Pug, who shruggled slightly, just as baffled. “Yeah,” Lis said. “Sure we knew. That’s our stupid little brother. It’s what he does.” It certainly seemed to explain that little pink vial she’d misplaced a week back.

The Captain held up his hands, conciliatory. “Very well — I am hardly one to judge. At any rate, I anticipated complications. I left any number of shiny, enticing, banditlike trinkets within His Young Majesty’s reach. All of them equipped with long-range tracking devices. I believe he chose the medallion — somewhat obvious, perhaps, and lacking in the subtlety true banditry cultivates, but he is young. It is understandable.”

Indeed, at this moment, ever farther away by pluslight, a golden medallion engraved with a three-headed god jingled around in the darkness of Dent’s adventure belt, along with his other accumulated treasures. From a nanodot in the nostril of the god’s second head, a steady signal pulsed out through space, just waiting for someone to hear it.

Corsair hopped off the crates and straightened the glove covering his non-metal hand, as if that action were the single most important in his life.

“You may take my head if you wish — how ungenerous of me it would be to protest!” the Captain grinned. “But I caution you, that same head contains the frequency by which we may track your brother, and your ship — my ship? Let us say your ship, to be courteous.” He reached out with one finger of his metal hand, and pushed Commodore Crestfall’s glasses back up his nose. The Commodore did not move, did not blink — just sort of smiled, as if at the hubris of it.

“And you will find my head far more useful,” Corsair continued, “save perhaps as some sort of decorative planter or centerpiece, if it remains exactly where it is. I would also ask that you spare the Bosun, but you may find her far more persuasive on that subject than I.” The Bosun lifted her Whomping Stick and twirled it lazily, just for emphasis.

”So,” Corsair said. “Shall we go and rescue the boy, and retrieve the fine ship that is supposedly not mine? Or would you rather kill me, and fight over my very handsome assorted pieces?”

Lis and Crestfall exchanged wary glances, checkmated. And the Captain smiled, like a man who has just posed a question to which he already knows the answer.

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