Monday, November 26, 2007

21.5. The Horizon of Events (Part 2)

Crestfall moved along the fireteam, passing his hands through the wisps of smoke rising from their uniforms, making the signs of prayer for them. At the edge of the scattered men he stopped, knelt down.

“I know you, soldier,” he said softly, to the ruined, gasping face that looked up at him.

The trooper choked out syllables through scalded lips. “Honziger, sir. Aide to the XO.”

“On the Crucible, yes,” Crestfall nodded, smiling down kindly at him. “You fought like a lion. Were you fixed to shoot me there, Lieutenant?”

“Wasn’t sure it was you, sir,” Honziger said. The words flaked like ashes from him. “You look different.”

“I could say the same,” Crestfall said. The funniest thing that could be said of Honziger was the way his eyebrows still trailed tiny gossamer wisps of smoke. The rest of him was not very amusing at all. “What’s your brief here, Lieutenant?”

Honziger gasped, struggled, mastered his breath for a little while longer yet. “Nothing official. They don’t tell us.”

“But there were rumors,” Crestfall said. “There are always rumors.”

“VIP,” Honziger said. “Got some kind of bomb. Big bomb. Rain all perdition on that powwow out there. That’s all I heard.” His eyes unfocused, and then sharpened again, just over Crestfall’s shoulder. “Yago?”

“Hello, Karl,” Captain Corsair nodded, bowing slightly. “I thought it was you. I regret we could not meet under kinder circumstances.”

“You know this featherhead?” Crestfall asked the dying man, genuinely surprised.

“Know him?” Honziger laughed. It was a terrible sound. “He owes me twenty coin.”

Corsair smiled, bleakly, and reached for his belt, withdrawing two solid, shining golden discs, each bearing a circle of twelve stars. He bent down and placed them in one of Honziger’s blistered hands, slowly closing the fingers shut.

“A gentleman pays his debts,” Corsair said. “For the ferryman, then.”

But Honziger was beyond all hearing.

“Did he say something about a bomb?” Lis asked, hovering at the edge of the fallen fire team. She had never seen anyone die before, except perhaps for that incident with the Viscount of Beauregard a few years back, and, well, she’d been preoccupied at the time. And he’d gone happy, by all appearances.

“We need to find a comm station strong enough for ship-to-ship,” Crestfall said, standing. “Can your Story dip a toe in their network?”

“Done,” the robot nodded, eyes pulsing and flickering as data streamed through the air and into his crystalline brain. “The rest of the crew has been alerted. Teams are on their way here.” Story nodded toward the small hatchway leading from the cargo hangar to the interior of the ship. “Communications are locked down, save for the bridge.”

“Then we fight to the bridge,” Crestfall said. “Be a change to lead this side of the charge, for once.”

The Bosun grunted, muscles straining, and tore the lid off a secure locker off to one side of the pile of crates from the Zephyr. “Found our weapons,” she called, hoisting her Whomping Stick and checking the blade end for nicks.

“Some of these aren’t fried,” Pug nodded, arms full of the fallen troopers pulse-guns. “So we’ve got artillery, too.”

“I have found the Young Master,” Story announced, head canted at an angle, as if listening for a distant sound. “The frequency of the Captain’s tracker — it is faint, but nearby. On the dark ship, I would estimate.”

“We’ve got no craft to reach it,” Crestfall said, plucking Bad News from the air as the Bosun tossed it to him. “We get to the bridge, raise a cry, and we’ll have your fleet and mine to get the boy back.”

“Assuming he’s alive,” the Bosun said darkly, handing Lis her repeater-pistol and lash. “Anyone flying the Dark Matter profile isn’t like to coddle him with tea and cakes.”

“And that ship had the bomb,” Pug nodded. “Dead guy said so. If the ship is the bomb — well, I don’t want to tell Mother I let the little stain get vaporized.” By someone outside the family, he did not add.

“I could get there,” Story said quietly. “I am fully equipped with jets to navigate in zero.”

“But you’re not shielded,” Lis replied. “The cold out there—”

“I accept the possibility,” Story said. “He is my responsibility.”

“And mine,” Corsair added. He was sealing up a black standard-gauge zerosuit, the helmet tucked under one arm. “I will find this ship and retrieve the boy.”

Crestfall drew Bad News and closed the distance between them in a matter of seconds. The Captain did not flinch as the blade glimmered an inch from his face. “That’s not happening,” the Captain said, even but firm. “You’re in my custody, or their custody, but you don’t go free.”

“Your voice is the only one the FLAW will recognize,” Corsair replied. “You will need the Bosun’s fighting skills to reach the bridge, and His Majesty’s. And while Her Majesty’s graces are many and splendid, I sadly doubt she has the sufficient experience in zero. Even if more suits were available to us than the one I wear.”

“All well and good,” Crestfall told him, the blade of Bad News not wavering in the slightest. “But I’m sworn to bring you back. It’s my duty.”

“Duty is done at the order of others,” Corsair said softly. “Honor is done for oneself alone. And this is a matter of honor.”

“Let him go,” Lis said, drawing the Captain’s cloak tighter around her shoulders. “He’ll come back. For his Bosun, if nothing else.”

“Damn well better,” Bosun Little smiled, but sadly.

“I will return with the boy — and with my very fine ship, whose ownership you contest,” Corsair grinned. “On this, I give you my word. And if we remain in disagreement then, we shall settle the matter as gentlemen do — with steel.”

Slowly, Crestfall swung the blade down and away. “You run out on me,” he said, “I’ll chase you thrice round the rim and back. Swear to say. And check the seals on your suit there — the generics tend toward the leaky.”

The Captain sealed the zerosuit’s helmet on, and Bosun Little stepped forward to hand him his saber. “Behave yourself while I am away,” he grinned at her from within the helmet. “Remember, you are among company of quality.”

“I could say the same,” the Bosun grinned, and punched him genially in the shoulder, light enough that he only staggered back a step or two. “You come back in a singular piece, square? Can’t collect my pay if you’re bifurcated.”

“I shall do my best,” the Captain nodded, as Story clack-clack-clacked toward the airlock nestled beside the docking bay door, and began to hack its seal.

The Captain turned to follow, but a hand encircled his arm. “Your Majesty?” he asked.

Lis’s mouth quirked, as if she were trying to spit something out. “I have to know,” she said. “I asked you before, why you gave me your cloak.”

Corsair sighed genially. “Majesty, I find your lack of concern for your brother entirely dismaying.”

“I’m not worried about him at all,” she smiled. “The great Captain Santiago Desdichado Dominguez y Corsair is coming to save him.”

And the Captain grinned back at her. “A fair point. I gave you my cloak because you are a lady, Your Majesty, and ever deserve to be treated as such. I gave it because you did indeed look cold.” He paused, and a strangeness, a shadow, stole for one moment across his features. “And for one other reason besides.”

“Yes?” Lis asked, wide-eyed, expectant. But the Captain just grasped her hand gently through the glove of his zerosuit.

“I would kiss Her Majesty’s hand, if I could,” Corsair smiled, and tapped the visor of his helmet, “but alas, the suit presents difficulties. Ask me again when you see me next.”

The airlocked opened with a hiss, and Story rolled inside. The Captain followed, Lis watching, and the door sealed shut behind them. Through the small window in the airlock door, she saw the Captain turn once more to her and wink. Then the outer door opened, and in a soundless rush, Corsair and Story tumbled out into the dark.

Lis stood there, staring through the tiny window out into the endless reaches of space, even as the door on the opposite side of the hangar exploded inward in rubble and smoke, and fire teams of black-suited freelancers began to pour into the hangar bay. Even as Crestfall began delivering Bad News, and the Bosun and Pug leapt into the fray, and began to make a great many of the opposing force wish they’d demanded better pay for this job, or at least more thorough medical coverage.

It was not the most considerate move, on Lis’s part, nor the most conducive to her long-term survival. But under the circumstances, it was entirely understandable.

1 comment:

John said...

Just three days of November left... though you're well past 50,000 words. You'll keep writing until you're done, right?