Thursday, November 8, 2007

8. Space Pirates!

The Empress’s laugh, dry and restrained though it might have been, broke all previous personal records in its duration. Despite Captain Corsair’s sword at her throat, her laughter continued for a solid fifteen and a half seconds. Had he been there to hear and measure it for posterity, Spymaster Harme would have entirely swept the staff pool on the subject, and pocketed a tidy fortune.

Captain Corsair’s own smile did not waver in the slightest; courteous to a fault, he joined in, prompting a few nervous chuckles out of Pug and Lis. Dent felt slightly disturbed, never having heard his mother laugh before, and guessing that it portended nothing good.

At last, the Empress’s laughter trailed off into a mild cough.

“Are you quite finished, Your Majesty?” Captain Corsair enquired graciously.

“Quite, yes,” the Empress said, and cleared her throat. “Guard?” she said, in a loud, clear voice.

Captain Corsair looked hurt. “Just one?” he asked her. “Singular?”

“Pace yourself,” the Empress smirked.

A hatch opened seamlessly in the flooring between the pneumovators and the table. With a blast of air, an armored guardsman from the elite corps of the Imperial garrison flew upward, landing at a run on the deck, short sword in one hand, repeating pistol raised in the other.

Captain Corsair’s metal hand flashed. Something spun, glittering, through the air, lodging in the barrel of the guardsman’s gun. Without pausing, the guardsman flung the pistol aside and leaped past the Emperor, onto the table.

Corpsman training dictates, in these situations, that your enemy will almost certainly turn to engage you directly. Captain Corsair did not.

He sidestepped the guardsman, leaving only one outstretched leg in his opponent’s path, and the guardsman flailed. Losing his grip on his sword, he pitched forward into the bowl of tuber mash and a deep, lasting unconsciousness, entirely ruining any hope of a good annual performance review. Corsair snatched the guardsman’s short sword from the air and tested its weight in his metal hand, appraisingly.

“Good balance, excellent heft,” he frowned, “and oh! The filigree on the haft. Exquisite!” He smiled to the Emperor. “You will not mind if I perhaps keep this?”

“Guards!” bellowed the Emperor.

“Ah, plural!” Corsair beamed. “I see I am moving up in the world.”

“Briefly, I think,” the Empress said, as her husband fumed. “And not very far.”

Dent sat back down and tucked his feet up on his chair, wondering how long he could go without blinking. He did not want to miss a second of this.

More tubes opened in the floor of the deck, guards rocketing up in neat formation. In moments, seven guardsmen stood, pistols poised, swords ready.

“Holster your firearms!” the Emperor shouted. “And by all the gods, will someone hand me a sword?”

“Ah, but your highness!” Captain Corsair sighed. “I do not wish to fight you.” The Emperor’s chest puffed in haughty pride.

“Why, coward?” the Emperor asked. “Afraid to lose?”

“I am afraid of nothing,” Corsair replied coolly. “It would merely be the height of discourtesy to best you.”

The Emperor turned a deep shade of scarlet, and slowly stepped to one side, toward his wife. “Guards,” he said through clenched teeth, “leave not enough of him to full a bucket.”

The guards charged.

“Your Majesty,” Corsair bowed quickly to the Empress, “if you will excuse me for a moment.”

The captain turned, with a swirl of his cloak, and brought both flashing blades to bear against the upraised sabers of the guards. Metal clashed with metal. The deck sang as a guardsman caught Corsair’s boot on his chin and crashed backward in full armor. Above the clatter of swords, Corsair’s laugh rang out clear and true.

He parried the thrust of one guardsman with the short sword, then brought the heavy butt of his own saber clanging against the side of the man’s helmet, knocking him senseless. Leaping forward off the table, he turned a somersault in the air, driving the guards back against the edge of the table.

The Emperor snatched up a sword and surged forward, crying havoc. Pug, feeling left out, made a hasty assessment of the tableware, chose a particularly sturdy ladle, and clambered up across the table, through the platter of kale greens, to join the fight.

Dent nearly passed out, and then remembered that he ought to breathe.

A bold swing by Corsair sent the guardsmen scattering, stumbling into one another. They were the finest soldiers in the Empire — but this was the palace’s first incursion in more than a century, and they were trained to fight armies, not a single man.

The captain turned, raising his short sword to parry the swing of Pug’s ladle, even as his saber blocked the Emperor’s cunning slash from the opposite direction.

“You fight well!” Corsair grinned to the Emperor, dodging Pug’s fist. “And your son, he is magnificently trained! You should be proud.”

“You should be dead,” the Emperor huffed back, the sword feeling considerably heavier in his hands than he remembered it.

“Ah, but I have so very little to lose,” Corsair said, “and you? You have all these wonderful things.”

“Enough,” the Empress sighed, still dabbing at the stain on her dress. Washmaster Scower would have his work cut out for him, certainly. “Robots,” she called out.

“Robots?” Corsair frowned, deftly stepping aside to let Pug’s ladle and the Emperor’s sword collide with one another. “Your highness! Truly, you insult me!”

The entire palace rumbled. Trails of smoke and fire launched from far below, near the palace’s base. They soared upward, high above the palace roof in blazing parabolas, and began to descend.

Dent snuck a yeast-bun from the scattered mess of the table and munched on it avidly. This just kept getting better and better.

The assorted guardsmen scrambled to their feet and flattened themselves against the veranda railing, and even the Emperor and Pug stepped back. Even the Empress took the precaution of steadying her wig.

At twenty feet tall and two thousand stone, a single Crouch Industries Sentry-class Arsenal Drone could punch through the hull of an Imperial Dreadnought without scratching the finish on its enormous spiked knuckles. Its impressive color brochure, for prospective buyers, advertised that one was sufficient to destroy an entire city. Two, if they were smallish. The Imperium’s Official Writ of Military Tactics’ entry for combating an Arsenal Drone was, in its entirety, “Don’t.”

Two of them touched down on the veranda, gentle as a kiss, and turned the flat, armor-plated bulk of their blank metal faces toward Corsair. Clever compartments unfolded in their arms, and a simply embarrassing number of guns emerged, all pointed at him.

“I am now somewhat less insulted,” the captain re-evaluated. He put two fingers to his lips and whistled up toward the craft behind him.

“Bosun Little!” Captain Corsair called. “If you would be so kind!”

Seven feet and three hundred pounds of solid muscle hurled herself from the open hatch of the intruding ship, toward the head of the nearest Drone.

Bosun Little landed nimbly on the bot’s shoulders, adjusted her grip on the weapon in her hands, and lifted it high above her head with arms the diameter of small artillery cannons. The pole was nearly as tall as she was, with a half-moon blade shining on one end and a thick block of stone on the other. And when she brought the hammer end down with a flash of copper-colored hair an ear-splitting clang, the Arsenal Drone’s head promptly vanished, replaced by a deep divot directly between its shoulders.

Dent whooped in delight, and then clapped both hands over his mouth, in response to a withering look from his mother. He was having real trouble sorting out where his loyalties lay in this fight.

The Bosun leaped away as the drone’s huge, deadly hands groped around the place where its head had been, baffled. A smile split her face as she landed by the captain’s side, and the stippled tattoos patterned beneath her reddish-brown skin reconfigured themselves, goosebumping into whorls of satisfaction.

Pug froze, the ladle falling from his fingers. Maurice the trainer had generally discouraged him from fraternizing with girls, on account of their ability to “make you all soft and crosseyed.” He had instead subtly encouraged Pug to spend a bit of time in the Imperial steam baths with some of the garrisons, a prospect Pug felt uneasy about for reasons he couldn’t quite articulate.

Now, somehow unable to stop looking at the Bosun as she adjusted her toolbelt around the waist of her grime-stained brown coveralls, he began to see Maurice’s point. At least about the girls.

The poor damaged drone, having given up on finding its head in the appropriate spot, was now groping ineffectually around its midsection, full of misplaced mechanical hope.

“There we are,” Captain Corsair grinned, bowing in gratitude to the Bosun, then turning to raise his blade to the remaining drone. “One on one. A far more equitable match, I think.”

The Arsenal Drone that still had a head produced a cannon from one protruding arm, and did not so much aim it at Captain Corsair as invite him to step into its barrel.

The captain and his bosun scattered, Corsair lunging in a furl of cloak and a flash of steel toward the second, headless drone. Its undamaged counterpart tracked him faithfully — a bit too faithfully, since its fist wound up smashing straight into the chest of the headless one.

Now, even without a visible head, an Arsenal Drone was programmed to know when it was being attacked. It could track that direction based on sound and impact alone. And without visual circuits to identify friend from foe, an Arsenal Drone could be relied upon to do what it did best.

At last, the shooting stopped. Nothing remained of the drones save a pair of smoking heaps of slag on the deck, and, upon the ocean far below, the separate splashes of large, heavy objects. The Emperor released his wife, whom he had shielded with his body, to find Corsair’s blade now at his own throat.

Behind Corsair, Pug rose, slightly scorched, his fists raised to crash against the captain’s skull. Bosun Little tapped him lightly on the skull with her hammer, and he sat down hard, and looked up at her with some combination of annoyance and awe.

“Now, Your Majesty,” the Captain said, “if I may relieve you of your—”

He glanced at Dent’s chair, and found it empty. Across the veranda, in a whirl of crimson silks, Lis dragged her squirming, incredibly dismayed brother into the pneumovator. “But I want to see the—” Dent said, and then the doors shut, and the capsule plunged with a hiss into the palace below.

“A subterfuge!” Corsair smiled. “Your Majesty, you outdo yourself in presenting me with challenges.”

“This isn’t a challenge,” the Emperor huffed, drawing himself up to his full height. “This is a minor inconvenience compared to what you’ll suffer. Surrender now, and cease this foolishness, and I may consent to merely quartering you.”

“A tempting offer,” Corsair smiled, “and most gracious. It speaks well of you. Alas, I must pursue, and while I would not dream of striking Your Majesty…”

He lifted his faintly ticking metal hand, and with a gentle hiss, a cloud of orange gas escaped from its fingertips. The Emperor smelled lime trees, and then his eyes rolled back in his head, and he collapsed against his wife, breathing slowly and steadily.

The Empress took a deep, appraising breath, coughed a few times, and arched one eyebrow.

“Methilaine gas?” she sighed. “Honestly?”

“Forgive me,” Corsair offered. “I am entirely rude to underestimate you.” He snapped his mechanical wrist slightly, and a much stronger jet of green gas wreathed the Empress’s face.

“Ah,” the Empress said, wavering. “Much more suitable.” She leaned backward in her chair, her wig going askew, and her eyes slid shut.

“Is that gas?” Pug asked, his vision just beginning to undouble. “Do I get gas?”

Corsair shook his head. “Alas, my friend, I feel that would be too great an insult to a warrior of your caliber. You get her. Bosun?”

Bosun Little nodded sharply, her tattoos forming martial straight lines. “Aye, sir.”

“Very good,” the Captain said, dashing for the pneumovator. “I go to steal a treasure!”

Down, down the pneumovator plunged. Lis scowled at her brother, who sulked resolutely on the opposite side of the capsule.

“I’m not a baby,” Dent muttered, not exactly proving his point. “You could’ve let me watch.”

Lis rolled her eyes, jingling faintly with annoyance beneath her glimmering robe. “Gods, is everything about you? Would it kill you to think of us for once? If you get kidnapped by some — some rag with a third-rate accent—” and, she did not add, such a curiously charming laugh— “we’ll be the laughingstock of a hundred systems.”

“So how come it’s OK if Story lasers my face off?” Dent protested.

“That’s different,” Lis snapped back. “Story’s part of the household.”

“Pneumovator’s a dumb escape route anyway,” Dent said, from experience. “The access tunnels are, like, three times faster.”

The capsule slowed, then stopped. Lis checked the indicator above the door, quizzical.

“Wait, this isn’t Garrison Deck—” she began, and then the doors opened.

“Greetings, Your Majesty,” Captain Corsair said, bowing deeply. “I have taken the liberty of sabotaging your lift.”

Lis kicked him in the head. He bounced off the far wall of the corridor, landed on his feet, and shook his head briskly to clear the cobwebs.

“I admit,” Corsair chuckled, “I was not prepared for that.”

Lis peeled off her robe again, thumbing a catch on the collar. The fabric’s molecular structure reconfigured, constricted, and the garment braided itself into a ruby-colored lash, glittering nastily at its tip.

“Go, Dent,” she said, dragging him by the collar out of the pneumovator. “Run and hide!”

“But—” he began, and Lis smacked him on the back of the head.

“Run and hide,” Lis said, “or I will SO drop you in the lexigator pit!” Dent imagined the lexigators’ fifteen distinct rows of teeth, and their lazy hungry smiles, and obeyed.

As the capsule door hissed shut behind her, Lis stepped forward, folding and angling her limbs into a combat stance. Corsair stretched himself lazily, working out a kink in his sword arm’s shoulder.

“I see you have trained with the Sisters of Temple Marguerite,” Corsair grinned.

“Extensively,” Lis shot back. She felt strangely disconcerted, and it took her a moment to realize why. The Captain was looking, of all places, at her eyes. Lis was not used to this, especially from men.

“I once spent an enchanting week there, you know,” the Captain sighed, nostalgically. “They had quite the excellent wine cellar.”

Lis lashed out with her crimson whip. Corsair swatted it aside with his blade. The duel began.

Accounting Deck Five, like its nine siblings within the palace, consisted of a ring of corridors surrounding one enormous open chamber. Inside, row after row of identical desks, each perfectly rectangular in accordance with the Golden Ratio, fanned out in rays around a central column of shellstuff. The column was riddled with pneumotubes for the interlevel transport of documents, and tear-off pads for Imperial Form 112-B-R, the Form to Authorize the Interlevel Transport of Documents.

Five rows deep into Radial Three, Dent huddled beneath the desk of Ledgerman Second Tier Pruitt Coyne. Coyne was a slim, pale, sensible man with a thatch of thin, strawlike hair. Even as Dent hid under his desk, Coyne sat in one of the palace’s twenty dining halls, joining his comrades in a lusty accountant’s drinking about an indecorous string of numbers that refused to round off. Lusty puns were made on the words “caluclation,” “rounded,” and somehow, “decimal.” Had Coyne known that his workstation was at that very moment involved in a thrilling intrigue involving a member of the Imperial family, his sectionmates never would have heard the end of it.

At this hour, the section was lit only by the faint green glow from the screens embedded in the surface of each desk. Dent waited in the near-darkness, huddled in the cavelike space beneath the desk, marveling at how very loud his own breathing sounded. He was accustomed to hide and seek, of course, but this was a different sort of game. Story’s reactions, he could gauge, but the smiling man with the sword?

The excitement of dinner had begun to fade, and Dent was no longer entirely certain that being kidnapped sounded like the fun adventure it usually was in his bedtime stories. He tried to remember what he had learned about bandits.

One: Bandits usually wore masks. That was a definite point against Captain Corsair, unless you counted the cloak.

Two: Bandits fought injustice. Dent wasn’t quite clear on what injustice was, and Story was vague on the definition. All Dent knew was that it involved kings or something, but only bad kings that were not in any way like his father.

Three: Bandits spent a lot of time throwing flowers at pretty ladies and singing them songs and rescuing them from dungeons. Dent could not in good conscience support this behavior.

Four: Bandits could not be trusted. This last part particularly worried Dent.

Something thumped in the floor directly beneath him, and Dent’s heart all but leaped out of his chest. The thumping sounded again, a few feet away, and then again, a few feet more. Steam knocking around in the pipes, perhaps.

Dent followed the thumps to a wide ventilation grating on the floor of the aisle between rows of desks, and peered into the darkness beyond.

“Shhhhh,” he whispered. “I’m supposed to be hiding.”

Something rattled within the vent.

“You’re welcome,” Dent breathed back. “I’ll tell Cook. Oh, man, we had the best dinner ever! It was like something out of Battle at Trial Gap! First a starship crashed into our table, and then there was a real live bandit, and he fought the guards with a sword, and then Dad called out the big robots—”

Dent froze. Several rows away, a door hissed open, spilling a shaft of yellow light into the chamber’s gloom. A shadow moved, and Dent heard faint singing — a strumming, lilting, melancholy song in a language he didn’t know. It sounded like Captain Corsair.

“He’s here,” Dent whispered into the vent. Somewhere inside, a stone or a seashell pinged off the ductwork. “Are you sure?” Dent asked. “I don’t think I’ll fit.” Another stone. The singing grew closer. Dent reached for the sonic knife on his belt.

It hummed to silent life in his hand, effortlessly shearing off the bolts at the four corners of the grate. Dent lifted it away, got down on his belly, and slipped headfirst into the dark.

Or almost did, until the cool metal hand of Captain Corsair closed around his ankle.

“Very good,” Dent heard the Captain say, his voice weird and echoing inside the vent. “A most admirable strategy. I apologize for my undue speed in locating you, Your Majesty.”

The lights came on, and in an angry chatter of heavy plate armor, guardsmen flooded into the room. Corsair’s head snapped up, eyes alert. His cloak was now gone, revealing keen blue eyes, a sharp and dashing profile, and a close, curly head of deep brown hair. A fresh line of blood darkened and congealed on his cheek, matching the dark red rose on the lapel of his elegantly ragged jacket.

“My regrets, Your Majesty,” Corsair said to Dent’s ankle, “but I must cut our pleasantries short.” He snared a Portabubble from his belt and flipped into the air above the vent, watching it snap into an opaque sphere of shimmering energy.

Keeping his eye on the advancing soldiers, he permitted himself one uncouth grunt of exertion, and hauled the entire contents of the vent up into the bubble’s protection. Quite a heavy boy, he thought, tapping in the code that sealed the bubble from everything but the outside air.

“Are you comfortable?” Corsair asked the bubble. He received a muffled reply. “Excellent! I shall endeavor to release you shortly, but in the interim, I fear I must ask you to abide turbulence.”

The Captain leapt atop the nearest desk, meeting the slash of a guardsman’s blade with his own. He clocked the guard with a well-placed slash of his boot and held up the floating Portabubble, high enough for the guards to see.

“I have here the Empire’s youngest heir!” Corsair called. “However much you may wish to shoot, stab, or otherwise inconvenience me, I doubt you would wish to do so to him.”

“Prove it,” drawled Guard Captain Rendell, his thick, calloused finger tensing on the trigger of his upraised pistol.

“Hi, Captain!” Dent’s voice emerged from the bubble.

“Your Majesty,” Rendell replied, his posture almost imperceptibly straightening. “Are you hurt?” He served the Empire because it was his duty. But he served Dent, specifically, because the boy would sneak him and his men tea-cakes from Culinary Deck on rainy days.

“I’m kind of smushed,” Dent said, “and I can’t see anything. Pebble says hi.”

“I believe my point is proven?” Corsair asked. Rendell growled, and with a nod from his graying head, his men stood down.

“There’s no percentage for you in hurting the boy,” Rendell said, feeling the sentiment bristle equally among the surrounding guards. “Only pain beyond. I promise you that, on my aegis.”

“Well then,” Corsair laughed, dancing across the desks toward the nearest door, “how fortunate for me that I intend no such thing.” He backed out the door. “I am about to seal you all inside. Forgive me.”

The door hissed shut. In the hallway, the Captain plunged his blade into the locking mechanism, and it spat forth a gout of sparks.

“Now,” he said to the Portabubble, hearing more guards advance from each end of the corridor, “I hope you are not easily motion-sick.”

He dashed for the nearest pneumovator tube, sliding his blade into the slender seal between the doors. With a jerk of his wrist, they slid open, and without a capsule present, a howling gale poured out into the corridor. Without hesitation, Corsair and his bubble stepped inside, and shot upward.

Corsair had chosen wisely; this was the service lift. They popped out on the undulating roof of the center of the palace, under a twinkling scatter of stars in the midnight-blue sky. The Captain waited for a moment, the Portabubble humming softly, his own breath pluming in feathery gusts from his lips.

From the opposite side of the palace, in the vicinity of the Veranda, came a screech, and a crunch, as if something heavy were tearing free from its moorings. The air shifted, in bulk, and with a soft whine of antigrav units, the ship that had so rudely invaded the Imperial family’s dinner slid softly into place overhead. The dinner table, or most of it at least, still clung awkwardly to its pointed nose. The Captain sighed at this lamentable breach of aesthetics as he felt the lift beam seize him, pulling him up toward the hatch on the belly of the craft.

As he handed the Portabubble inside, to the waiting Bosun Little, he heard a furious shout from below. Glissandra Voluptua led a full complement of guardsman charging across the room, spitting invectives unexpected from a young lady of her beauty. She limped slightly, and wore the captain’s cloak around her shoulders. Corsair hauled himself up into the hatch and crouched by its edge, as shots from the guardsmen below sparked harmlessly off his craft’s hull.

“For you, Your Highness,” he shouted down gallantly, plucking the rose from his lapel. “A poor beauty indeed, compared to your own, but it must suffice.” He tossed the rose down to her; it thudded to the deck, sprouted tiny tendrils at its base, and dashed toward Lis, deftly scaling the hem of her cloak as she backed away in surprise. After some momentary confusion about what, exactly, constituted a lapel on her jacket, it gave up and twined itself tenderly around one of the chains stretched across her collarbone.

The ship rose into the night sky, headed for orbit. A bubble of blue-white light bloomed, and then it was gone, and the starlight illuminated the broad disc of the Imperial dinner table, spinning its way down to the sea.

Lis touched the rose that had fixed itself to her, shaken and baffled, to find that it purred beneath her fingers. She had been wounded, and deeply, with perhaps the one facet of her job title with which she had no experience: romance.

In a certain respect, Glissandra Voluptua might be able to play every instrument in the orchestra. But until now, she had never actually heard music.

Space, light-years distant. In a soundless flash of blue-white light, Captain Corsair’s craft wobbled back into existence.

“Now, Bosun,” the Captain said, swiveling his chair away from the controls, “let us examine our fortune.” The Bosun set the Portabubble down, thumbed the release code, and gasped as its contents spilled out.

“Well,” Corsair said softly, thoughtfully. “I appear to have miscalculated.”

There on the deck sat Dent, blinking in surprise. Next to him, equally stunned, a girl of maybe nine, with bone-white skin, silver hair, and an ill-fitting jumpsuit studded with seashells, stared back at the Captain. Her wide, terrified eyes reflected eerie disks of yellow light, like a cat’s, in the darkened cockpit.

“Hi, I’m Dent,” the boy said. “This is Pebble. She’s real shy. Are you going to kill us? And if not, can we have supper now?”

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