Sunday, November 25, 2007

21. The Horizon of Events (Part 1)

If you’d asked Ludo Tisane why he’d signed on with the independent contractors of Pacification Services Intergalactic (a division of Amalgamated Facilitation, a branch of Magnacorp, a division of Yummi-Chow Pet Nutrition, a wholly owned subsidiary of Crouch Industries) after his tours in the Third Galactic Conflict, he’d probably say something about service and sacrifice.

In truth, however, Tisane just really, really enjoyed shooting people.

Not that he was one of those giggling maniacs you hear so much about, the sort who went around fondling their weapons of choice in ways that psychologists could build entire careers upon. Tisane kept his gun holstered at all times save two. First, when he disassembled, cleaned, and reassembled it every night, blindfolded and timed. And second, when he was actually doing some of that shooting he enjoyed so much.

At the moment, Tisane’s repeater-pistol was safely strapped to the holster on his thigh. But his deceptively casual posture, the way his eyes swept the room as if they were painting bullseyes on everything they saw, tended to give others the impression that those circumstances could change at any time. The two dozen armed men behind him, their pulse-guns raised and ready, did nothing to lighten the mood.

“Comfortable?” he asked the prisoners, around the toothpick dancing from one end of his mouth to the other. The mottled black fabric of his uniform fell in neat creases along the lean lines of his frame.

Lis raised her head as far as the shackles would allow, and gave him her sweetest, most insincere smile. “Aside from the itch on my nose? Mostly.”

The royals, Tisane knew by sight. He’d already heard snickers circulating from his men about the possible benefits of having the Ministress of Love aboard. As for the Minister of Violence, Tisane had him double-bound while he was still unconscious, just like that half-sized joke passing for a Corinthian. Tisane had seen the vids of Pugio’s spectacle battles; the kid was used to fighting animals too dumb to outthink him, or people too loyal to beat him. Tisane had ways to defeat that.

The robot must be the royals’, he figured. Leave it to the Imperium to take a perfectly good Kill-O-Tron and reprogram it to say please and thank you. He had it magnalocked, still, just to be safe.

The famous Commodore Crestfall, he knew — no one who’d so much as passed through the FLAW these past ten years could have missed the vids of that face. Funny how famous people looked so much smaller and worse in person. Tisane knew Crestfall’s name held water, even with some of his own men, but he personally had a name for a man who loses his ship and gets himself impaled for his trouble. It was not the sort of name one repeated around children.

The fop with the metal hand, and what Tisane assumed was his friend the little Corinthian, Tisane didn’t know. That was OK. Tisane had shot plenty of people he didn’t know. Especially when their manners were as excruciatingly good as this one’s.

His men had worked fast, gutting the Zephyr. They’d cut out the pluslight drive for parts — never know when those might come in handy — and stripped the precious stones and metals from the consoles. One of those occasional bonuses of freelance work. It wasn’t like its passengers were going to need the ship again, famous or not. Not with the orders Tisane had gotten from Mrs. Poole.

Tisane bit down on the toothpick and smiled. “Here’s how this is gonna work. I’m going to ask you questions. You’re going to answer them. Who else knows you’re here?”

“The whole of the Imperium,” Lis sneered.

“And the FLAW besides,” Crestfall added, unblinking.

Tisane laughed. “Sure they do. I suppose that’s why they’re all floating out there, nose to nose, and not coming anywhere near us. Clever little strategy of theirs, don’t you think?”

“No one knows we are here,” the robot chimed in. Tisane saw the royals, brother and sister both, shoot it a dirty look. Good old robot honesty. “Their Majesties were sent to retrieve an object of great value to the Imperium, stolen by Captain Corsair and Bosun Little.”

“That so?” Tisane nodded, walking toward the robot. The Minister of Violence tried to lunge at him, but the restraints held, gravitationally linking his wrists and his ankles and the deck of the docking bay. “This object of great value — they still have it?”

“No,” the robot answered, its red eyes softly glowing.

“Story, one more word and I’ll have you deactivated,” Lis hissed. Tisane looked at her for a second, smirked, and turned back to the robot.

“The prize was stolen from all of us, by the black vessel with which you seem to be aligned,” it continued calmly.

Tisane frowned. Poole had said escort and containment duty; show up, protect the VIP — whoever he was, in that shudder-skinning ship of his — and bag anyone else who got close. Nothing about a treasure. He’d have to make sure he got his cut of that.

“However,” the robot said, “we do have the ransom we were bound to deliver.”

At this, the fop began to struggle. Tisane would have found it cute, if he’d allowed the word in his vocabulary to begin with.

“You wretched steel dog!” Captain Shorthair or whatever his name was seethed, wriggling around like a mudcrawler on a hook. “The treasure is ours! I swear, by all the stars—!”

“Stow it, greasy,” Tisane said mildly, doubling the fop over with a kick to the guts. He saw the Ministress of Love flinch at this. Interesting, if not especially useful. “Talk on, tin man.”

“As a functionary of the Imperium,” the robot said, “I am prepared to offer you the entire ransom in exchange for the safe release of Their Majesties. Whatever you are being paid, I guarantee, the ransom exceeds it.”

“You’d be surprised,” Tisane chuckled. “Where’s this ransom hiding?” The robot swiveled his head to the pile of cargo crates Tisane’s men had offloaded from the Zephyr.

“The three maroon containers,” the robot said. “Marked with the Imperial seal on the lids. Do we have an accord?”

“I make no deals until I’ve seen the goods,” Tisane said, then nodded to two of the men in the fire team. “Kerner. Po’ua.”

The troopers fell out and doubled-timed toward the stack of crates. In less than a click, they’d found the crates and lugged them back to Tisane. The fop made another lunge, this time for the ransom crates, and Tisane laughed and dragged the crate a little further from the line of prisoners.

“All right, men,” Tisane nodded. “Let’s open ‘em up.”

Po’ua unsnapped the first clasp, and slowly raised the lid. Strange light shone upon his face, and his eyes widened.

“Sir,” he breathed. Even Tisane nearly dropped the toothpick from his lips. The case held more rubies, fist-sized rubies, than he’d seen in a decade of artful misappropriations and spoils of war.

“Lords of Perdition,” he swore.

Po’ua ran an analyzer over the gems and looked up. “They’re real, sir. All of them.”

“Of course they’re real,” Lis huffed from a distance. She had a mouth on her, Tisane thought. Just like that servant girl last year in the Caliph’s palace.

The men of the fire team, as one many-legged unit, drew closer to the chests, the straight line of their rifles drooping. Tisane nodded to Kerner, who opened the second chest. The latch unsnapped, and a golden glow spilled out around the edges.

“How many laurels do you think that is, sir?” Kerner asked softly. Tisane looked in the chest, at the heaps and heaps of gold coins bearing the Emperor’s face.

“Almost enough,” Tisane laughed. He glanced at the fop, who was looking like someone had just kicked him in the beans. With an asteroid. These were the little moments that made Tisane’s job so enjoyable.

The fire team drew closer, mesmerized by the sight of more laurel coins than they’d collectively earn in a year. Tisane crouched down by the third and final case, the men falling into step behind him.

“Sir?” the robot asked, an edge of nervousness in the synthetic trill of its voice. Its doubt circuits were beginning to kick in. “I ask again — do we have an accord?”

“We’ll find out in a moment,” Tisane said, laying one hand upon the latch.

“Were I you,” the Commodore spoke up softly, “I wouldn’t open that case. ‘Course, I’d do a lot of things different, in that circumstance.”

“Were I you,” Tisane replied, “I wouldn’t be so careless with my capital ships.” He opened the latch.

The world went blue.

The lightning bomb surged through Tisane, jumping with a series of deafening cracks through each and every member of the fire team, and finally down into the floor. The lights in the cargo bay flickered and dimmed, and the grav-units holding the prisoners’ shackles in place whined and died out.

One by one, smoking, their uniforms flaming in patches, the fire team dropped to the deck. If they moved at all, it was only to twitch.

“Thank the gods for Mother and her spitefulness,” Lis sighed, shruggling off the shackles and getting shakily to her feet.

“That was meant for us?” marveled Corsair, flexing his real and artificial hands. “For the Bosun and myself? Truly, I am honored! Should you get the opportunity, please, tell Her Majesty she outdid herself.”

“You knew that was in there?” the Bosun growled at Pug, as the two helped Story out of the magnoclamps.

“Not that, specifically,” Pug shrugged. “But I know my mom. And hey — honestly, tell me you woulda done different, for me.”

The Bosun frowned, and tore the last clamp from around Story’s treadball. “I might’ve dropped a hint or something,” she muttered.

Tisane’s heart no longer beat. He was not about to let that minor inconvenience, or any resulting self-pity, cost him his last few seconds of useful consciousness. Not when he could be shooting people. Sprawled on the deck, muscles stiffened and twitching from residual current, he clawed at his holster, felt the repeater good and solid in his hands, and aimed with blurred vision at the prisoners. There. That one looked like the fop. Good enough.

Commodore Crestfall’s boot lashed out, kicking the pistol across the deck. It lay there, just a few feet from Tisane, impossibly far.

“Never say I didn’t give you a chance,” Crestfall sighed.

Tisane looked across the deck at his pistol, his vision dimming. He breathed one last heavy sigh, like an infant deprived its favorite toy, and then looked a great way into the distance, at nothing that living eyes could see.

To be continued...

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