Thursday, November 22, 2007

19. In Transit (Part 1)

The Empress did not watch the vids. Nothing about the fictional portrayals entertained her; the news always seemed old and thirdhand by the time it reached her ever-attentive ears; and the advertisements were frankly insulting. If the Empress wished to buy something, she would inform its manufacturer. If it did not exist, she would have it made for her. Anything other permutation of the relationship between the Empress and the assembled forces of commerce seemed distastefully like begging on their part.

In most circumstances, the Empress got her news directly from its many sources, whether they knew it or not. This left her extremely well-informed by the time news was filtered, dissected, watered-down, and adorned with footage of adorable baby animals by the galaxy’s dispersers of information. But it also left her dangerously vulnerable in situations such as these, in which the purveyors of news chose to manufacture their own.

Still, she was not entirely unaware. The Empress believed that conversation had a temperature. Her own, for example, usually fell somewhere in the range in which icicles tended to form. Now, as she sat in her skeletal chair, knitting a pair of itchwool socks for the infant daughter of a distant third cousin she did not particularly like, the Empress heard the galaxy’s temperature steadily rising. Office gossip and bland production figures gave way to discussions of troop strengths, to whispered innuendo and suspicion. Usually lukewarm, the Empress realized that the galaxy had now escalated to a simmer. It would shortly begin to boil.

The Empress set her knitting down in her lap, admiring how subtly she had woven the traditional Imperial symbols of bad luck into the adorable pink-and-yellow pattern of the socks, and touched the hidden button on the arm of her chair that connected her to her husband, wherever he might be.

“Yes, treasure?” the Emperor said, with the manner of a man suddenly returning to full wakefulness, and wishing to conceal it. That meant he was in his meeting of ministers, although the Empress already knew that.

The Empress frowned, her lips becoming even thinner and less approving, as the chatter in her ears grew ever more heated. “You should turn on the vids,” she said. Then, because she was running a little behind on her daily quota of arch reproachfulness: “If you haven’t already.”

In the small hours of evenside, Glissandra Voluptua stole from her quarters, barefoot on the cold metal decks of the Zephyr, and crept to the doorway of the cabin she and Pug had grudgingly assigned to Captain Corsair. She wore his cloak tightly around her, the hood pulled up to shadow her face. What she might have worn underneath was purely a matter of speculation.

She stretched out a hand, curled into a fist, and hesitated, holding it poised just before the surface of the Captain’s door. Her heart pounded so loudly, she could hear it in her ears.

“I wouldn’t,” said Story, whirring quietly past in Evenside Mode (known in his former career on the battlefield as Stealth Mode). The robot didn’t look back at her, continuing on toward the cargo bay. Lis glared after him, wishing her own eyes shot lasers. Then, feeling like an idiot, she turned and dashed back on tiptoe to her own chamber, where she would bury her head under one of the pillows and bask in her own mortification.

And in the cargo bay, Captain Corsair sat before the three cases containing the reward that he now technically might not get to collect, on account of perhaps being dead. He had crept from his own room before — mere clicks before Lis made up her own mind to sneak out herself — to come and examine his treasure. If it were made of small, portable units — jewels, perhaps, or golden laurel coins — he could perhaps spirit enough of it away in his boots or the pockets of his cloak to ensure that he and Bosun Little did not escape from this adventure unrewarded.

The notion that they would, indeed, escape, was never in doubt to the Captain.

He chose one case at random, the middle one, and reached for its clasp, wondering how quietly he could pry it open.

“I wouldn’t,” said Story, bumping softly down the stairs from the main deck.

The Captain raised his eyebrows in surprise, and made another gesture toward the middle chest. Story shook his head warningly.

Corsair gestured inquisitively toward the first case, and then the third.

“I wouldn’t,” Story repeated, and rolled over to his recharging station to dream of nursery rhymes and combat manuevers.

“Hmm,” the Captain nodded, and smiled at his hosts’ cleverness. He patted the tops of the chests lightly, as if to assure them that he’d be back. Possibly with some sort of extensive scanning equipment. Then he stole back up to his cabin and slipped inside, never aware that he’d almost had a visitor in his absence.

Time didn’t exist in the black room. The light was always just bright enough to see by, just dim enough to sleep. There was a privy and a sink in one corner, a surprisingly comfortable bed with soft black sheets in another, and the doorway. Nothing more.

For a time, after the Wee Ones had dumped them here, Dent and Pebble had shouted and banged on the door. They gave up on the shouting after their voices grew hoarse. And they stopped the door-battering when one of the interlocking lattice of Wee Ones that had folded itself to form the door turned its mirror face toward them and took a menacing swipe with one pointy appendage.

No bells sounded through the strange ship — at least, not in this portion of it. Day and night soon blended into a hazy blur. Food arrived through a bristling gap in the Wee Ones blocking the door, three times a day. It was simple and bland — clean water and simple nutrient-wafers. Neither of them liked the food, but both of them were hungry. So they ate.

Dent’s sonic knife seemed to have little effect on the black walls or the onyx floor. He could use it to etch pictures on them, but he couldn’t really see the drawings, and besides, it ran down the battery.

Dent and Pebble ate when they were hungry, slept when they were tired, and tried to amuse themselves the rest of the time. They played catch with the ball of pseudosilk, until that got old. Dent would march the army man from his father’s model up and down the walls, but without any squadmates or interesting terrain, the campaigns proved uneventful. Pebble tried tapping out tunes with the silver spoon. They tried flipping the coin and seeing how many times it came up heads, but the results were ultimately uniform.

So at last they were just left to talk, discussing their favorites of Story’s bedtime tales, and talking about what might happen in Part Five of The Caravan’s Escape. Sometimes they fought, out of boredom, and then grudgingly reconciled.

If they had been able to see Sir Leslie Murther down in the craft’s vast kitchen, whistling a cheerful tune as he inspected his fine and extensive selection of very sharp implements, they would have been far more frightened.

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