Friday, November 23, 2007

19.5. In Transit (Part 2)

“The boy is a myth,” the Emperor lied.

“We never made any such craft,” Duly Elected Eleven lied, on the other end of the scrambled comm channel.

Thousands of diplomats on both sides of the rapidly escalating pan-galactic disagreement were also busily lying to one another at scattered points throughout both the FLAW and the Imperium. They lied far more expensively, with much larger words, sometimes over lavish meals. But the net effect was no different. Tensions among both populaces continued to rise. And Crouch News, vowing that it was working from accurate reports by highly placed sources, continued to quell that tension about as effectively as liquid oxygen doused a fire.

“My people aren’t going to accept that,” Duly Elected 11 sighed, truthfully this time. “They want their hypothetical nonexistent ship that we never actually built back.”

“My people won’t accept it either,” the Emperor said. “They want their entirely imaginary Imperial heir back, and also this nonexistent ship.”

Both men — well, 11 sounded like a man, which was the best one could go on — took a moment to stare off into space, feel terrible resignation, and wish they were off playing a nice round of duff somewhere sunny.

The distant and venerated founders of the Federated League of Allied Worlds, high on democracy following their hard-won independence from the Grand Galactic Imperium, had understandably gone a bit overboard. Their chosen ruling body, the Duly Elected, ran the FLAW in absolute anonymity, their faces concealed, their voices masked, speaking on all but the rarest occasions in one singular voice. Candidates for Due Election had their identities erased, running in a literal and figural black box for the entire campaign. Duly Elected were only allowed to reclaim their faces and voices when they retired, and then only after an exception had passed (unanimously) to better facilitate the publication of former Dulys’ lucrative memoirs.

The FLAW founders, with the same sort of cheery optimism that would so poorly serve Imperial engineers centuries later, believed that when candidates lacked an appearance, a voice, and a history, the public would be free to judge them solely on their ideas and arguments.

In reality, it simply made the Duly Elected wildly unaccountable.

The Emperor liked 11; they’d struck up a friendship during the Third Galactic Conflict, back when 11 was 11.5.1, the secretary of foreign affairs for the former 11. They had spoken regularly in the years since, ostensibly to maintain high-level backchannel communications, but mostly to complain discreetly about their wives and tell increasingly inaccurate hunting-related stories.

“Can’t you do anything about these damned news reports?” the Emperor said, drumming his fingers on the crystalline surface of his desk.

“No more than you,” 11 replied gloomily. “They’re only saying nice things about us. We can hardly pass legislation about that. And armistice or not, there’s still a lot of bad feelings for the Imperium among your average FLAWed.”

“But look, there’s nothing to get upset about here,” the Emperor lied. Even now, his intelligence services were conducting surveillance upon Bennington Yards, where the nonexistent FLAW spacecraft had definitely not been built. “If anything of the sort were happening, I’d have my own flesh and blood out putting it right. Not that I do.”

“Absolutely,” lied 11. Wherever he or she was sitting, he or she placed his or her right or left hand on a fat dossier from FLAW Intelligence Directorate, full of undoctored photos, stolen genetic records, and various reports confirming Dent’s existence. “It would be preposterous to let this fight go hot. I mean, if there were a spacecraft, we’d have dispatched our most reliable man to get it back. Which we haven’t.”

“So can we just sit on this and wait for it to blow over? You pass some new subsidies, we stage a few photo opportunities, maybe—” and the Emperor sighed here, imagining the vast and life-threatening sacrifices it would entail on his part — “we circulate a rumor that the Empress is expecting a new heir…”

“I don’t know if you’ve seen it,” 11 despaired, “but Crouch News — oh, there it is again — Crouch News is running a cartoon of you over here. You have fangs, and there’s some blood … babies are involved.”

The Emperor put his head in his hands. “Yes, that’s running here, too. With the opposite effect, you can imagine.”

“Half the Duly, they’re up for re-election next year,” 11 said, “and no one wants to appear weak or cowardly.”

“The Empire cannot and will not back down,” the Emperor nodded, resigned. “Shall we let the suits shake this one out? Stage a face-off at the very least? We bring out our forces, we do a little posturing, the citizenry gets scared, and we all go home looking like heroes?”

“I’ll get our briefcase boys working on it,” 11 nodded. “Suppose I’ll be seeing you in a few days, then.”

“Or not,” the Emperor smiled. Their old familiar joke. “If you had built a ship, you know — one capable of breaching Imperial defenses — you do realize we’d want it for our own.”

“And if there were a hidden heir to the Grand Galactic Imperium,” 11 countered, “he’d make one hell of a bargaining chip for the Duly.”

“I hope you find your ship,” the Emperor told his friend, and meant it.

“I hope you get your boy back,” 11 replied, with equal sincerity.

The channel closed, and the Emperor reached for the small jeweled box that had arrived that morning from Moldsmith Tisane on Fabrication Deck. It opened on perfectly oiled hinges to reveal a tiny unpainted tin figure, couched in velvet. A replacement for the one missing from the Emperor’s model.

The Emperor turned it over in his creased and callused hands for several minutes, before reaching for his jars of paints.

“Collectibles, really,” Bosun Little said, and took another sip from the mug of tea. “I’ve got one of the first-run Crouch Industries Chattering Charas, mint in box. You know, the ones with the snarled voice chip that swore blue mighty when you switched them on?”

“Yeah,” said Pug noncommittally, trying to reconcile this information with his current assessment of the Bosun.

“And don’t ask me where,” she continued, pixels percolating eagerly across her cheekbones, “but the Captain dug up this rare variant Princess Prin, with the real cloned skin on… ha. Listen to me yap. Probably boring a cutthroat like you slipknotted with all this delicate talk.”

Pug realized he was sipping tea with his pinky out, and hastily curled it back in. “Oh, absolutely. Yeah. So you and the Captain…” He almost came within shouting distance of nonchalant, provided nonchalant had excellent hearing. “You his woman?”

The Bosun stared at him over the edge of her mug and then burst out laughing, pixel explosions blooming across her face. The sound of it nearly rattled the pans maglocked to the Zephyr’s galley walls. In the dishcleaner, last night’s plates quivered faintly.

“I’m his Bosun,” she said firmly. “He’s my Captain. Found me hucking no-goods from a station bar off Thalis. Treated me like an officer again. Like somebody.” She smiled and took another sip. “Don’t let the flowers fool you. The Captain’s got steel. But a little slip like him? Ha. I’d break him in half.”

The way she said that last sentence made Pug’s toes curl against his sandals. He would later find he’d left fingermarks indented in the gold of his goblet.

“So,” the Bosun smacked her lips, downing the last of the tea in a few quick gulps. “No slight on the onboard library, but what’s there for fun on this boat?” She wiped her hands on her coveralls. “Woman’s facing execution and all, she tends to get antsy.”

Pug had never been so glad to hear a pistol-shot in his life, not even that time with the charging armorvore. The crack of his sister’s repeater rang in through the galley door from the cargo bay outside.

Pug and the Bosun thudded quickly from the galley. Smoke still drifted from the small scorch mark Lis’s shot had left on the cargo deck. It had hit directly between Captain Corsair and Commodore Crestfall. Slowly, both men lowered their swords and turned toward the top of the staircase, where she stood with the pistol still raised.

“Don’t think I haven’t seen you two these past few days,” she sighed, tossing her hair back in a far more successful fashion. She’d been practicing. “The both of you, sidling circlewise around each other, itching for a duel.”

“I make no apologies,” the Captain spat.

“I was just seeing to my blade,” Crestfall replied.

Lis narrowed her eyes and began to descend to the cargo deck. “Captain, we’ve been over this. If you kill this man on our ship, the whole galaxy goes to war. And Commodore, the Emperor does not take kindly to men who execute his prisoners before he can.”

“Don’t supposed you’ve had any luck with a transmission?” Crestfall asked, as if enquiring about the weather. With a flick of his eyes toward Corsair, he slid Bad News back into its scabbard.

“None,” Lis sighed. “I’m sending bursts to the right Imperial relays, but nothing’s getting through. Same as yours to FLAW command.”

“Someone is blocking us,” Corsair said darkly. “The same someone who knew precisely where to locate our rendezvous.”

“Might do to plug the holes in your network, Majesty,” Crestfall said, cleaning his glasses with the hem of his traveling cloak. “Just to say.”

“That is, of course, assuming your transmissions truly are not getting through,” Corsair replied, a dagger-edge in his voice. “And that it was not some ally of yours making off with His Young Majesty.”

Crestfall stopped fiddling with his glasses in mid-polish, and fixed Corsair with a look. “Because I’m so keen to put myself in the path of a disassembler-tide,” he said slowly. “And watch the ship I loved get eaten to atoms.”

And in the Commodore’s gaze, Captain Corsair saw something, some kindred sort of loss, that finally gave him pause. His posture shifted, and he sheathed his sword and sat down on a nearby crate of canned khim-crack eggs.

“I concede,” Corsair said, “you have a fair point.”

“Doesn’t matter if it’s a plot,” Pug said, working a kink out of his neck. Even the bare springs and slats of his cot weren’t quite agreeing with him. “The black ship guy, he thinks we’re all bits by now. They’re not gonna see us coming.”

“You’ve fought a lot of animals, square?” Bosun Little asked him. “Men think different. See more of the angles.”

“And they’ve got smaller teeth,” Pug countered, grimly. “Softer bellies.”

“We’ll find out soon enough,” Lis said. “Six bells till we catch up with the Captain’s signal. Until then, no more dueling. Her Majesty needs serious beauty rest.”

“I highly doubt that,” Corsair smiled. Lis shot him a look and stomped off to melt in private.

Commodore Crestfall scanned the cargo hold calmly. The Minister of Violence and the mini-Corinthian had ducked back into the kitchen. Crestfall could read their body language like the skies before a coming storm.

“You seem twice sweet on the lady,” he nodded to Corsair. “Considering she’s keen for your head and all, and not in the good way.”

The Captain snorted in disgust, but did not get up from his seat. “A keen observation, for the hero of the FLAW Fleet. The man with the famous heart of gold.”

“Comes with a kill switch, you know,” Crestfall sighed. “And the Duly’s fingers on the button. They don’t tend to circulate that.”

Corsair looked at him, taken by surprise, and ingrained decades of breeding overcame fresher animosity. “I… I am sorry,” the Captain said quietly, and looked away. Some things, you didn’t even wish on your worst enemy.

Crestfall pulled a crate of table linens rattling across the bay’s corrugated floor, and sat, a safe distance from Corsair. “It’s my lot. A man has to do his duty, kill switch or otherwise. No charter says he has to like it.” He nodded toward the Captain’s metal hand. “Took me a while to recognize, on account of the customizations, but that’s a FLAW model, square?”

“So it is,” Corsair nodded, cradling it with his still-living hand, testing the give in the joints of the ring finger.

“Someone wants to kill me, I generally like to know why,” Crestfall said. He unslung Bad News in its scabbard from his belt, and carefully set it to the deck, keeping his eyes on Corsair the whole time. “Specially if I take no joy in reciprocating.”

Corsair looked up at him, swallowing some fierce emotion back down his throat. “The Crucible. You did love her, truly.”

Crestfall nodded. “Lost my heart to her,” he said.

“Then perhaps you will understand.” And there in the cargo bay, to the man he’d sworn to kill, the Captain told his tale.

The Imperial Fleet was waiting by the time the FLAW Navy plussed in. The Borderlands were neutral ground, home for free-thinking settlements, the law-averse, and anyone too ornery, strange, or antisocial to abide the strictures of government.

The last great space battle of the Third Galactic Conflict was decided on the spot where the two powers now met. Ten years and turns before, FLAW and Imperial forces staged a battle here to lure out the Dark Matter Armada in its full strength. The Armada had apparently expected to mop up two weakened, broken vanguards; instead, its fleet broke apart and died in a hailstorm of unified artillery.

Both sides had scoured the field clean of chunks of DMA craft, hunting for any clues to explain where the enemy fleet had sprung from. The FLAW and Alliance hulks remaining from the battle, they left, as a monument to the fallen. From the bridge of the Deciduous, flagship Dreadnaught of the Imperial Fleet, the Emperor could just make out the drifting forward half of the Valerion, and remembered seeing it split apart in fire. It was the sort of thing that would have been tremendously cunning, and worth capturing an image of, if not for all the friends and comrades he knew were suddenly finding themselves on one of two smaller, significantly more burning, and far more hazardous vessels.

Ahead, from the dark of space, the sleek capital ships of the FLAW Navy stretched out of pluslight and squashed back into shape. The Emperor sighed, and wished his breakfast had agreed with him better. He did not mind the notion of another war — he simply preferred a necessary one, not waged against allies.

And not, he had to admit to himself, with his ten-year-old son somewhere in the midst of it.

“Let the diplomacy begin,” the Emperor said softly.

Behind him, in a specially furnished chair which no crew member dared approach, look at, or even think about, really, the Empress briefly looked up from her knitting. The Emperor knew various members of her Midnight Guard were stationed somewhere here, around the brightly lit bridge; he thought he’d heard one cough earlier from underneath the communications panel.

“You boys have fun,” the Empress said curtly, and started on another row.

And just a few orbits distant, in the shadow of a gas giant ringed with tiny, blinking mining stations, the Imperial Zephyr plussed in. Pug sat at the controls, Story ably manning (or robot-ing, at least) the copilot’s seat. Lis rested a hand on the back of her brother’s chair; behind her, Corsair and Crestfall took opposite sides of the cabin, although the air between them seemed less likely to spark lightning at any given moment.

Instead, Corsair was looking curiously at Bosun Little’s hair, which stuck up in strange directions. The Bosun scowled, at him and at the hair, and attempted to discreetly flatten it down. She did not look at Pug, and he did not look at her; absolutely nothing was out of the ordinary with them, individually or jointly, and certainly no one should ask about it or suspect otherwise.

“Looks clear,” Pug said at the controls, scanning the seemingly empty starfields ahead.

Lis leaned toward the controls and thumbed on the comms. “Let’s try to raise the border stations,” she would have said, if not for all the explosions.

The shockbursts hit the ship all at once, from every direction, exploding in solid walls of sonic force. Story’s eyes winked out, the frequencies of his crystalline brain disrupted too greatly even for an emergency reboot to kick in. The rest, battered and buffeted and deafened, merely lapsed into bruised unconsciousness.

Lightbending hull shimmering soundlessly against the stars, the covert transport that had lain in wait for them moved in to dock.

Something was different in the black room. Had Dent ever traveled pluslight before, he would have recognized the familiar squash-and-stretch feel of deceleration. As it was, the not-quite-seamless return of mass to his body woke him from a sound sleep, in which he’d dreamed of a black room exactly like this one.

Unfamiliar sounds, scraping and chiming, filled the room. Dent nudged Pebble awake, looking toward the door.

In the lattice, the Wee Ones had begun to move, unfolding from the barrier, stalking slowly toward the children.

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