Friday, November 2, 2007

2. Earlier That Morning...

Apart from the bit about his now-imminent demise, the day had been a fairly ordinary one for Dent. It began, as many days did, with the dream.

In his dream, Dent wandered the hallways of the Imperial Palace all alone, calling out as loudly as he could. He knew he was looking for something, but he did not know what or why. He also knew that he was dreaming, and remembered being here before many times, and he was bored, and lonely. He wanted to wake up. So he shouted, again and again, in hopes that he would awaken. But no one heard him — not even himself.

As he moved from room to room, Dent began to hear distant laughter, happy laughter, always just a chamber or two away. He would see light spilling from beneath the next doorway, or from around the next corner. But no matter how fast he ran, or how quickly he threw open the dream-doors, the room he found was empty, and he was still alone.

In the dream Dent took off his boots and let his bare feet flap on the floors. They were not warm or cold, and they did not feel like the decks he knew. He thought maybe he should go to the garden, because he liked the garden, but when he went to look for it, the door wasn’t there, and he dream-remembered that it was actually on another floor.

And at last, as he always did, he gave up and sat down in the corner of one of the dream-halls, and yelled as absolutely loud as he possibly could. Not even his own echo answered back. Dent shut his dream-eyes, and heard gentle, kindly laughter.

When he opened them again, the hallway was bright, and a man and woman, and an older boy and girl, were standing in a neat, formal row before him, dressed in plain and unassuming clothes. The woman smiled at him, sweetly, the way Dent had sometimes seen Cook smile at her daughter Ellentine, and the man laughed the warm, easy way Dent had heard Mechanic Doren laugh with his pit gang. And if the boy and girl seemed slightly more indistinct in their particulars, they at least showed no sign of wanting to throw anything at Dent, or even yell at him a little.

“We’ve been looking for you all over,” the woman said, with the sweetest concern on her face. She held out her arms open to Dent, and knelt down. “Our son,” she said. “Our real actual son.”

This was the cruelest part of the dream. This was the part where Dent forgot he was dreaming, or let himself forget, or knew he was dreaming but just ignored it. This was the part where he believed the dream.

This was the part where he always woke up.

Dent’s bed was enormous and swoopy and lavishly plush, which was partly why he never actually slept in it. It had been personally chosen by his mother, from the Crouch Industries SmotherMax line of Fine High-Suffocation Bedding, and custom-modified to child-size, because there were some places where even Crouch Industries drew the line on product safety.

Dent had tried it once, with the customary wariness he had cultivated for anything his mother seemed enthusiastic about. He’d ended up dog-paddling in a sea of down and 800-thread-count synthetic fabric straight through until morning.

So instead, Dent slept in one corner of his huge and spacious bedchamber, in a little tent he’d fashioned. He hung a bit of rope between two of the wall supports, and draped the comforter from the bed over it, and made the floor out of various pillows he’d collected from the Imperial Lounges that no one ever actually used.

Inside his tent the air was close and warm, the light blue as it filtered through the comforter, and all his treasures looked back at him in the neat rows he’d made of them all along either side of the tent. It wasn’t lavish or elegant, but it was his own, and for that, Dent loved it.

Dent awoke in the blue light of the tent, the smiles of his dream family receding into darkness in his memory. For a few awful moments he was truly, deeply happy. Then he remembered. He buried his face in the nearest pillow and shut his eyes as tightly as possible, and tried to wish himself back to sleep. But that door had shut, and fizzled away into nothing, leaving Dent stranded on the shore of yet another day.

From outside the tent, Dent heard the door open, and the steady clack-clack-clack as his best friend rolled into his room. “Young Master?” the high, twittering robot voice called out. “Is there a Young Master hiding in this room?”

Dent smiled, forgetting the dream a little bit more with each second. He lay very still and tried to hold his breath. It was good practice for later in the afternoon.

“I don’t see a Young Master anywhere!” the voice called out, very disappointed. “He isn’t in… the wardobe!” And the wardrobe, with its airtight seal, swooshed open. “He isn’t in his bed!” And the Asphyxio-Foam mattress flumpfed a bit as robot hands prodded it.

“He isn’t playing with any of his toys,” the robot voice continued. “Not the Young Demolitionist’s Explosion Kit, or the Mechano-Grinder, or Let’s Take Your Hands Off!” Dent had no shortage of toys — far more than most children his age. But they all seemed to be the kind of toys designed for exceptionally short-lived children. With the exception of the sonic knife, Dent had learned to keep them up on the high shelves, and leave them there, and jostle or disturb them only at a safe distance, if at all.

“Well, then,” the robot voice continued. “If he’s not in any of those places…”

“I’m not in the tent!” Dent called out, and stifled a giggle.

“You’re not?” asked the robot voice. “Then you won’t mind if I have a look!” The tent flew open in a sudden burst of yellow light, and the same hands that would later that evening drag Dent to certain doom hauled Dent laughing out of the tent, and tossed him in the air, and caught him with a feather’s touch.

“Good morning, Young Master!” said the Crouch Industries Kill-O-Tron 57X, its terrible red eyes glinting merrily. Dent had long ago named it Bedtime Story, for his favorite part of its daily duties. “I hope you slept well! We have a very busy morning before I attempt to kill you! Now, what would you like for breakfast?”

Bedtime Story — Story for short, after his mother had informed Dent that the robot’s initials were not suitable for Imperial mouths — woke Dent every morning, just past seven bells dayside. By eight bells, Dent had been scrubbed and toweled and dressed and fed algae-cakes with clone bacon, all by robot hands initially designed for far less gentle purposes. Dent had no idea how insulting it was for an Imperial heir to be served solely by a machine, and one single machine at that. He mostly just thought it was neat to have a best friend with laser vision, provided that laser vision wasn’t being used on him.

Dent spent most mornings in his room, having learned by now that his family liked to see him as little as possible. Dent’s chamber was enormous, but empty; besides his tent in the corner and the bed in the center of the room, it was a vast and echoing space with high, arching seashell ceilings. Dent had his wardrobe, and his shelf of extremely volatile toys, and Story had hung some of his young charge’s drawings along the walls to brighten things up. But the room had no windows, no pictures of Dent’s family, and very little other ornament.

In several senses at once, it was never quite warm enough.

Eight bells half to eleven bells half were Dent’s daily lessons. Today, Dent learned about the Battle of Angel’s Head in the Second Galactic Conflict; read another chapter in Pilgrim Savoy, and wrote a short essay about it; practiced his calculations of orbital momentum; and studied plankton through a microscope. Owing to the occasional glitch in Story’s programming, Dent was also treated to a brief discussion of the strategic importance of maintaining the high ground against an advancing force. You could take the robot out of the combat, but clearly, you could not take the combat entirely out of the robot.

As twelve bells sounded throughout the ship, Story made a few futile passes at brushing Dent’s floppy, poorly cut hair — a tragic limitation of the robot’s own pincer arm — and wiped a smudge from his young master’s cheek with one cold steel thumb.

“Do you have your adventure belt?” the robot asked, and Dent nodded. “All right. Cook’s waiting.”

“Will you try not to kill me today?” Dent asked.

The robot nodded solemnly. “I will try very, very hard,” Story said, and he meant it; robots are honest. “Run along, Young Master!”

Dent scampered out the door, and Story wheeled himself to the center of his charge’s big, empty room and waited.

At twelve bells four, a single particle changed state in the crystalline matrix of Story’s brain. A program activated. His pincer hand began to snap, rhythmically and involuntarily.

The robot let out a high, mad giggle. The day’s game of hide and seek had begun.

But Dent was an old hand at this game, and four clicks was an almost luxurious head start. By now, he had slipped into Access Hatch #33, slid down the ladder past Garrison Deck, Botany Deck, and the Imperial Stores, and made his way onto Culinary Deck to get his lunch.

Dent loved every considerable acre of the palace’s kitchen — the noisy, rushing chaos of it, the clang and flash and whistle of a thousand cooktops constantly blazing. He could lose himself in the crowds of white-jacketed Culinary Guard and pretend, just for a little bit, to be ordinary.

He waved hello to the Steel Blade Brigade as he passed. At the head table, before a sea of solid stone cutting blocks, Knifemaster Murasami bowed and barked a command, and the gleaming cleavers of a hundred dedicated choppers and mincers and filleteers were lifted high, spun in the air, and caught. Dent bowed back, and kept moving.

He did not venture far into the Pastry Prospect, today; Sugarmaster Meraang seemed to be wrestling with an unstable candyfloss matrix, shouting orders to his scrambling team of technicians as superstrings of sugar swelled and strained inside a crackling electromagnetic containment field.

Instead, Dent cut through the shimmering orange heat of the Infurnace, where Pitmaster Burne’s smile glowed sudden white among the charcoal smudge of his face. The Pitmaster and his team hauled in rhythm on massive rubberized cables, singing grill-shantys over the roar of the flames, to slowly turn an entire whale on a spit over the primary roasting pit. Dent smelled caramelizing blubber, and a trace of spices, and his stomach growled anew. Breakfast seemed ever more distant.

At last he found Cook at the center of it all, as she always was, resting on a tattered and much-repaired stool as figures in white darted in and out around her circumference. Cook had a sour, sagging face, but kept a smile always poorly hidden in her eyes. She’d lost one arm years ago, saving two sous-chefs from a flambe that had neared critical mass; now she kept one empty sleeve pinned discreetly inside the front flap of her gilt-edged jacket.

“More salt,” she snapped, and a whitejacket hurried away to Sauce Section.

“Less salt,” she commanded, and the diver pulled back on his mask and flopped flippered feet back toward the soup tanks.

“Like that, but smaller,” she nodded, and the runner from the Steel Blade Brigade, First Cubing Regiment, bowed and dashed off, ghostly in her pale billowing kimono.

“Your majesty,” she said, scowling at Dent with smiling eyes. Ever-deepening lines of whitejackets began to pile up around the circumference of her station. Even for Dent — especially for Dent — the kitchen stopped.

“Hi Cook,” Dent waved. “The whale smells really good.”

“You think?” Cook asked. “I wasn’t sure about the herbs.” She lifted her head and, in no particular direction, bellowed, “SANDWICH!”

The whitejackets parted ranks, and Cook’s daugher Ellentine hurried through. At nineteen, she was as plump as Cook was lean, but had the same keen, friendly eyes, and a missing pinky finger on her left hand. She held forth two sealed, wrapped sandwiches.

“Roast clam and alligator pear, Cook,” she said solemnly, “and sunfish and chives for His Majesty’s friend.”

Cook took the sandwiches gingerly and sniffed at them, appraising. She grunted and nodded approval. “Well done, Ellentine.” Ellentine beamed, a sight Dent liked quite a lot.

Cook winked at Dent, deliberately and solemnly, as she handed over the sandwiches. “You tell that friend I said hello, OK?” she growled.

“Yes, Cook,” Dent agreed, and then remembered. “Did you cut the crusts off?”

“Life is tough, Your Majesty,” Cook said, far more kindly than the words ought to have sounded. “I’ve got a kitchen to run. Scamper.”

Dent scampered, through Salad Acres and up the utility lift, storing the sunfish in one belt pouch. He took the maintenance port at Library Level, and sat out in the wind and sun on one of the service balconies of Spire Three, eating his roast clam and alligator pear on flatbread. He tossed bits of bread to the flying fish, watching the sun glint off the scales of their wings, and followed them with his eyes as they plunged down, down, down to the distant sea far below.

After lunch, he nearly cut back through the tunnel into Library Level, but something stopped him at the door. He pressed his ear to the metal and heard it: A steady clack-clack-clack, a shrill cry of “Death! Adjudicated death!” Then a loud, insistent “Shhhh!” from Librarian Glew, and what sounded like a hasty robotic apology.

No library for Dent today, then. It was big enough to hide in, certainly, but the last time Story had caught him there, he’d chased Dent all the way from Art History to the New Fiction section, and Librarian Glew had not seemed pleased about the damage done to his stacks.

So it was that Air Marshal Vliet, hearing strange noises echoing through her hangar, got up from the flight plans she’d been charting for the next day’s sortie for a quick patrol of the fighters. She was not surprised to find Dent sitting in the open cockpit of an Imperial Lancer, waggling the stick back and forth and making explosion noises under his breath as he cut through legions of imaginary foes.

If Dent had been a wingless rook under her command, Air Marshal Vliet would have chewed him out with such blistering thoroughness that he’d need a maintenance crew to scrape him off the deck. But the Marshal had two children of her own back home, girls about Dent’s age, and it had been two long years since she’d seen them last. So she saluted His Majesty smartly, twined her silver-black hair back in a bun, climbed up the ladder, and spent a few minutes quizzing him once again on what the switches and dials did.

But alas, the Marshal’s time was precious and limited, and she generally did not favor leaving young children unsupervised in the cockpit of anything loaded with guided missiles. So she ushered Dent out of the hangar, with her usual promise that he could come back any time he wished. And she went back to her charts feeling somehow lighter and heavier all at once, and very much missing her little girls.

And poor Dent, alone in the corridor outside the hangar deck, realized that long hours yet remained between now and six bells seven. He could have gone to the garden, or rappelled down the side of the palace scrubbing windows with the Imperial Acrobats of Cleanliness, or even said hello to the two-headed lion, Yow-Yow, on Zoological Deck. But part of being ten years old is wanting to do things you should probably know better than to do — foolhardy, dangerous, exciting things that will probably irritate people in a position to yell at you, loudly and for a long time.

So Dent made up his mind to do the most dangerous thing he could possibly do, short of seeking out Story in the midst of his daily murder-rampage and giving the robot a great big hug.

He decided to go see the rest of his family.

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