Tuesday, November 6, 2007

7. Uninvited Guests

Twenty miles above the surface of Imperia, hundreds of laser death satellites kept their constant watch in a scattered sphere. Each was perpetually ready, at a split-second’s notice, to vaporize anything that even looked like it might be considering passing into their range. The Imperial Family did not kid around about its privacy.

Another twenty miles out, the Empire maintained an even more widely scattered sphere of floating placards, helpfully equipped with blinking lights for the easily distracted. The signs warned passersby about the precise nature of that funny-looking grid of satellites surrounding that particularly lovely blue planet nearby, and the vaporization-related perils thereof. In a naked ploy for good public relations, a frequency was helpfully provided to call for assistance in emergencies. In relatively smaller print, readers were assured that an Imperial rescue craft would arrive before anyone suffocated or froze to death, or the funeral was free.

The narrow, splinter-shaped craft that now hovered within easy reading range of one of these signs, and just beyond the reach of their far less friendly neighbors ten miles distant, displayed no lights and no propulsion. But it was not in any way distressed.

It was waiting.

In the engine room, the bosun set down the hammers to her xylophone and gazed at the main propulsion unit, her features bathed in unearthly light. At last, satisfied, she stood — but only partway, to avoid banging her head on the ceiling — and stooped her way out into the corridor, past the crew chambers, until she filled the doorway of the darkened cockpit.

The captain sat in the pilot’s seat, the restraint harness undone, his boots resting on the dashboard. The only sound was the faint ticking of his silvery right hand. The only lights came from the instrument panels, and from the blue-white world beyond the main viewport, and from the captain’s closed eyelids. They glowed and flickered steadily, illuminating fine blood vessels beneath the surface of the skin, as if lit from within.

“Nearly time, Captain,” the bosun said softly.

The captain opened his eyes.

“Death!” shrieked Story, his laser eyes already preparing to burn a hole through his young charge’s skull. “Truculent, savory death!” His pincer arm snapped menacingly, advancing on the tender flesh of the boy’s throat.

Dent had almost made it, too; that was the shame. In another thirty seconds, it would be six bells seven, and Story’s murder program would switch off. Dent would never know this. But Story did.

Story’s crystalline brain informed him that his laser eyes (and auxiliary laser arm, in case he wanted to shoot something he wasn’t currently looking at) had reached maximum charge, and served up the calculations of the proper force needed for the pincers to sever the boy’s head from his neck in a single stroke. The robot weighed this information in a matter of nanoseconds, and decided that it was imperative he run a self-diagnostic. A self-diagnostic entirely necessary to his Dent-killing abilities, and only coincidentally lasting thirty-four point three five seven seconds.

True, he had been programmed to attempt to kill his young master. But Story, not that he would ever admit it, chose to rather liberally interpret the question of whether or not he was supposed to actually succeed.

With four point six eight two seconds remaining in his extremely important self-diagnostic, another particle changed state in Story’s brain. His lasers powered down. His fingers lost the homicidal urge to twitch to unheard music.

“Goodness, young master,” Story scolded, “but you’ve gotten yourself all smudgy.”

“Hi Story,” Dent sighed in utter relief.

“I think a quick bath is in order before supper,” the robot said, setting Dent right-side-up again. “And you shouldn’t climb on the rafters like that. You could fall and hurt yourself.”

“Yes, Story,” Dent said, with absolutely no intention of obeying. He only partly realized just how close he’d come to being a collection of ash in a tiny golden urn, one his mother would keep at the very back of one of her many and voluminous closets.

“And how is Pebble, if I may ask?” the robot said solicitously, bump-bump-bumping along behind Dent as they descended the stairs from the watchtower.

“She thinks I want to eat her sandwiches,” Dent grinned. “Sunfish! Urgh! She’s crazy.”

“I’m sure she is,” Story agreed, silently lamenting that his kind young master should be afflicted with such tragic sensor malfunctions.

At six bells quarter, Tablemaster Tureen and her team of silver-jacketed tablemaids assembled by the service elevator on Supply Deck. As with every night, the Tablemaster led a quick prayer to Tyne, the god of napkins and utensils. Then they all squeezed into the pneumovator, arms full of their necessaries, clinking and rustling, and ascended on a cushion of air (and the occasional errant, extremely dizzy crab) to the Imperial veranda.

The purple-pink curtain of dusk was sweeping across the eastern sky as the pneumovator opened. With the stiff, silent precision of a drill team, the Tablemaster led her placers out into the bracing evening air of the veranda, a flat, broad promontory of shellstuff on the roof of the palace, jutting out over the ocean from between Spires Two and Three. In the green-white glow of the glass globes of luminous algae that hung from curling, swirling posts at intervals around the railing of the veranda, the massive Imperial dining table waited, expectant as a writer’s blank page.

It took four linenmaids to carry the perfectly white, perfectly crisp cloth out to the table, holding it tight at the corners lest it ever touch the ground. They wove in and out among the five chairs that surrounded the table, then released the cloth in one swift, synchronized motion. It draped with ghostly perfection against the contours of the table. The Tablemaster smiled.

Next came the platemaids, laying out saucers and salad plates and soup bowls and finger bowls and dessert plates and dinner plates with a speed and precision not even the Crouch Industries Serv-O-Tron 6000 could match. Then the glassmaids, singing in high, ethereal tones, arranging the goblets and tumblers and mugs and cups. And last, the silvermaids, unfolding entire family trees of flatware in radial patterns around the plates.

The entire process took less than two clicks. The Tablemaster nodded approvingly, and the tablemaids retreated to the pneumotube, to eat their own supper with utilitensils, off plastic platters, in the low, windowless dining hall.

In the kitchen, Cook felt her blood stir, as it did every night, amid the thrill and crash of the chaos around her.

In front of her, Heavy Meat-Surgeons of the Silver Blade Brigade attacked the roasted whale carcass, fresh from the Infurnace and still sizzling on its spit, with humming, diamond-edged industrial saws. Fat, simmering slices dropped with mechanical precision onto the waiting plates of the whitejackets below, maneuvering themselves so that the meat fell in artistic, eye-pleasing patterns.

To her left, a blast of steam signaled the completion of the kale greens, spilling bright and vivid from the cooker. Teams in shining, heat-resistant suits rushed in, spraying butterroot dressing in a fine, even mist via hoses from the tanks on their backs.

To her right, the perfectly boiled tubers shot through a sonic matrix, their molecular structures collapsing, to land in a great golden bowl as perfect, buttery mash.

From the Pastry Prospect, there came a brilliant flash of pink light, and Sugarmaster Meraang’s familiar cackle of triumph. Cook smiled, just at little bit, with one corner of her mouth, and roared for more parsley.

At precisely six bells half, Pugio Magnificus strode forth from his private pneumotube, surveyed the perfectly laid table service and the steaming dishes of the evening feast, and sighed with every muscular inch of his frame. Not a finger sandwich in sight.

Pug stood behind his seat and looked longingly at the salad fork that taunted him at the far periphery of the utensils he never got to use. For true warriors, his father had long impressed on him, your hands were your fork and spoon, and your teeth were all the knife you needed.

His mother almost caught him reaching for the fish fork, but his reflexes saved him. She swept forth from her her tube, moving in a straight line toward her chair, in a new gown of deep emerald green, and a broad, fanning wig of similar hue. The Empress glided to her seat, and sat, and nodded at Pugio.

“Son,” she said curtly, attempting a smile out of courtesy.

“Mother,” he nodded, wishing she were a pack of entrail-hounds, or some other terrible fanged creature around which he felt perfectly at ease.

Glissandra Voluptua arrived next, wreathed in a cloud of sheer crimson fabric that billowed and fluttered in the ocean breeze, providing teasing glimpses of the contours of her figure beneath. She had nearly reached her seat when the Empress cocked one eyebrow.

“Young lady,” the Empress intoned. “Exactly what are you wearing?”

“Mother,” Lis protested, “It’s just a family dinner. I can wear what I like—”

“You will wear what befits the duty of your station,” the Empress said. Frost formed around each word. “That is not appropriate public attire for the Ministress of Love.”

Lis choked back a particularly scalding retort, and reluctantly peeled off the crimson gauze-robe. Beneath, her outfit consisted entirely of a series of strategic straps and patches, and several chains. It looked neither comfortable nor warm.

“That’s better,” the Empress nodded serenely, and went back to checking the alignment of her flatware for tiny imperfections.

Lis took her seat, jingling awkwardly, and began to shiver in the stiff evening wind. She hoped there was a soup course. Something hot.

“Hey, stupid,” she muttered to Pug, with a sidelong glance. His brow furrowed.

“Hey, ugly,” he mumbled back.

Dent appeared in the next tube, red-faced and slightly out of breath, his hair still slick from the bath. “Hello,” he said, and did the stupid formal bow his mother insisted on. He’d changed his green daysuit for his formal white tunic and midnight-blue dinner uniform, but no amount of pointed hints from Story could get him to surrender his adventure belt. He walked to his seat, conscious of the weight of the treasures in his hip pouch, and tried not to smile too broadly.

At last, the Emperor arrived, swathed in a deep purple cloak that Lis eyed enviously, with a crisp white evening-suit beneath. The wind teased his graying hair, and the dusklight flattered the thick, craggy contours of his face. The Empress stopped mentally measuring the gap between her water goblet and wine glass to congratulate herself, once again, on her matrimonial instincts.

The Emperor sat, and everyone else who wasn’t the Empress followed suit. The Emperor cleared his throat, and raised his wine goblet.

“O gods of light and dark,” he began, in rich full tones, “we thank you for another journey from day into night.” He did not thank them for cabinet meetings, but that was beside the point. “We ask your blessings for this meal, and for our family, and for our eternal Empire, in the name of—”

Light burst in the sky, directly overhead. A shadow grew, blotting out an ever-larger patch of the first faint emerging stars.

Before anyone could act, before anyone could move, an entire spacecraft and plunged vertically into the dead center of the dining table, just missing the platter of grilled whale. Ship and table alike thrummed palpably from the impact, the takka-takka-takka of impact vibrations slowly giving way to the audible hum of the craft’s antigrav unit.

The intruding ship had a long, slender, sharpened nose, tapering back to what appeared to be a cockpit. Its body was largely cylindrical, save for three protruding rear maneuvering surfaces for atmospheric flight. In the back, where most interplanetary ships carried a clutch of bulky pluslight engines, this craft seemed to have none.

Dent's mouth went slack in pure ten-year-old-boy awe.

The Empress dabbed sourly at the fabric of her dress with her napkin, where the impact had sent her wine goblet into her lap. “Do you recognize the markings, dear?” she asked.

“It— it has none,” the Emperor responded, craning his neck for a better view. Her words had pulled him back from less rosy memories of war, from the aerial bombardment at Pellas, where he’d huddled in the bunker all night with his men, listening to the Armada’s jets thunder overhead, sowing death in their wake. “I swear I’ll have someone’s head for however this got past the defense grid—”

“Can we keep it?” Dent asked. He assumed that anything which fell onto the palace was the family’s by right, and he’d long been keen to sit and flip switches in the cockpit of something larger than an Imperial Lancer.

Before anyone could answer, a hatch burst open in the nose of the craft, with a sudden, dramatic whirl of smoke. A man leaped forth, his boots landing on the table with a thunderous thud, and he swirled his cloak to produce a long, tapered sword, now resting just beneath the very point of the Empress’s chin.

“Greetings!” he all but shouted, in a voice full of guitar strings and dusty, moonlit orange groves. A hooded cloak concealed most of his face, but laughing eyes gleamed out from its shadows, and beneath an aquiline nose and a finely tended mustache, the intruder smiled at them all dazzlingly.

“I apologize for so interrupting your evening repast,” the intruder said, “and for taking the liberty of holding at bladepoint the only one of you who would have no qualms about sacrificing the life of any of the others.”

The Emperor reached for his sidearm, only to realize he no longer carried one to dinner.

Pug frantically scanned the array of flatware in front of him, cursing the tablemaids. Why did all these utensils have to be so tiny, and dull, and completely unsuited for combat?

Something in the intruder’s voice made Lis forget that she was cold. She wondered who he was, and why he wasn’t looking at her, and for some reason, what she could do about that last part.

Dent pinched his own arm underneath the table. He wasn’t certain, but he might be in the presence of a real actual bandit, making this a definite candidate very best dinner of his young life.

The Empress, despite the sword at her throat made a small, grudgingly impressed noise at the intruder’s judgment.

“What suicidal impudence,” the Emperor roared, drawing himself up to his full height, “could prompt you to throw away your life like this?”

“Ah, but my life is not over yet, Your Majesty,” the intruder grinned. “But I am being most terribly rude, not to have introduced myself!” He bowled, gracefully and courteously, all the while keeping his sword’s point against the Empress’s throat, and only then did Dent notice that the hand not holding a sword shone like metal.

“I am Captain” — he pronounced it “Cap-ee-tahn” — “Santiago Desdichado Dominguez y Corsair,” the intruder said, “and I come to steal your greatest treasure.” And he flung out his shining hand in Dent’s direction.

“Our what?” the Emperor asked, genuinely confused. Pug and Lis exchanged glances, baffled. The Empress tried and failed to suppress a snort of unladylike amusement.

Dent looked over his own shoulder, on one side, then the other, completely failing to see any sort of great treasure that might be hiding behind his chair.

“Are you mad?” the Emperor scoffed. “What treasure?”

“You bluff admirably under pressure, Your Highness,” Captain Corsair laughed, “but I will not be deceived! I speak, of course, of what you have taken such pains to conceal from an entire galaxy — the secret you have all guarded with your very lives and honor. I come for your youngest child.”

And that, for Dent, clinched it: This was definitely the best dinner ever.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hooray! It's gooooood!