Friday, November 9, 2007

9. The Bearer of Bad News

A great many people wanted Griswold. He had standing invitations from twelve systems to spend the rest of his life in a tiny, windowless cell, at their expense. Three more wished to reduce him to his component atoms; methods varied, from “swift and painless” to “protracted and messy” to “too horrible to describe, but as a hint, hungry dogs are involved.” And he was the only sentient being in the known universe to have received a lifetime ban from the Library of Suffering, on account of late fees running into the nine figures. Rumor had it he had eaten the books.

Griswold had left a livid, zigzagging wound across the galaxy in his fifty-three years of drawing breath (and relieving others of the burden of same). In the highest towers of civilized society, mothers frightened their children to sleep with tales of him. In countless scummy dive bars on backwater moons, or ore-trading stations, or the bellies of derelict floating freighters, merely saying his name was an invitation to a hasty, artless, and often fatal stabbing on the part of the patrons.

Right now, Griswold was busy feeding the goats.

“There’th a good Billy,” he said, in the high, mild voice that had lured so many into a false sense of security. He leaned over the low wooden railing and tossed another handful of chow pellets into the sawdust. The goats bleated, hairy chinny chin chins quivering, and trotted over to investigate.

As a child, more than a century previous, the future Emperor Prolixus II had been taken to a petting zoo for some innocent fun on his sixth birthday. Tragically, a confused sheep had nipped him on the fingers, forever traumatizing the boy. Enraged, his father, His Majesty the Emperor Inconsolus, ordered all petting zoos forever banished from the whole of the Grand Galactic Imperium.

But some owners resisted the ban, and some otherwise loyal subjects found themselves still interested in feeding small, domesticated livestock at a reasonably safe distance. The petting zoo, as an institution, went underground throughout the whole of the Empire. Over time, the demographics of their clientele shifted toward the criminal, until “pet the llama” became common slang for the planning or perpetration of mishchief.

Ironically, Prolixus II ultimately died after choking on a particularly large bite of mutton.

This particular petting zoo, nestled in the hollow core of a mined-out asteroid not far from the Borderlands, was a favorite of Griswold’s. Its periphery was devoted to flophouses, seedy bars, and other such low establishments. But in its center, tier after tier offered a thorough selection of pettable creatures and coin-operated feed machines. Over the years, it had proved a reliable place to lay low after Griswold’s latest bit of mayhem, and make the necessary connections to set up the next one. Also, he liked the goats, with their weird sideways pupils and their nuzzly mouths.

“Beautiful animals, aren’t they?” came a soft voice to Griswold’s left. He turned his scarred, lumpy face slowly in that direction, eyes trailing along the wooden railing, to see a slender man in a long traveling coat standing a calculated distance away.

He seemed a young man — indeed, must have been, from the shape of him. But his blonde hair hung ragged and unkempt, down to his neck, and his pale, deeply lined face, stippled with fine golden stubble, seemed much older than the rest of him. Neat round spectacles, slightly bent, sat on the bridge on his long, slim nose, which bore the kinks and corners of at least two breaks. His brown eyes were clear and steady, and as the goats cantered up to nibble pellets from his outstretched palm, a slow, sad smile stretched the corners of his mouth.

“I thupothe,” Grisworld ventured. Subsets of the many, many people he did not like included Men With Glasses, Men With Sad Eyes, and Men Who Smiled. In the Venn diagram in Griswold’s head, the intersection of these three sets was colored deep bloody red. His thick, perpetually stained right hand crawled slowly down his hip, to the ten-inch knife holstered there.

“I hear you’re a man to see,” the young man told Griswold. This was true; indeed, Griswold was the last man a great many people ever saw.

“Dependth,” Griswold shrugged, the sibilant syllable whistling slightly through the gap in his filed, sharpened front teeth. “What ith it you want to thee?”

“A starship,” the slender man said. Griswold tittered, high and girlishly, with a bit of a honk at the end.

“You theem to have mithtaken me for a common thief,” Griswold said. There was a thin layer of rat poison beneath the pink buttercream frosting of his voice. “Hot thtarshipth are ten laurelth for the dothen here. But thothe cardth don’t cut with me.”

Behind the two men, figures began to drift away from the llama pen, the border collie cage, the marmoset bubble. Griswold’s gang. Billy Knives, middle and ring fingers pressed to his palms to fondle the handles of the stilletos he kept up both sleeves. Jimmy the Hat, whistling a jaunty tune in his stovepipe chapeau, hands supiciously in his pockets. Almanac, stroking the cover of the blank-paged book he insisted held the names of life and death.

If he noticed them forming a slow, vulturish circle at his back, the slender man gave no sign. He just looked up at Griswold in that gentle, mournful way, as if he were partial to some secret that poor slow Griswold would never grasp.

“You misunderstand, sir,” the slender man said. His voice had a bit of a twang in it. The distant flavor of gentility. “Your reputation’s only too well known. No three-spoke vessel-jack, you. Wouldn’t dream of wasting your time like that. I’m here to trade on your eyes and ears.”

“Spoken for,” Griswold chuckled, unkindly. “Promithed ‘em to the Academy for Deviant Thience a tenyear back. Along with the brain.”

Griswold’s gang was now nearly close enough to brush against the slender man, close enough that he’d surely feel their hot, hungry breath. But he just kept smiling, steady and even. It occurred to Griswold that this man was either very stupid, or very not.

“No, sir,” the slender man laughed. “I don’t refer to the anatomical sense. By the way, trust me when I say that you gentlemen behind me would all be well served by taking one big step back.”

“And why’s that?” sneered Jimmy the Hat, hands shifting in his pockets. The slender man turned and looked at them each in turn, and smiled that sad, sad smile.

“Because I’m asking you nicely,” he said.

All three men took a step back. If you’d asked them, none could have told you why.

The slender man returned his gaze to Griswold, his smile seeming to say, interruptions — what can you do?

“You’d know this craft if you laid eyes on,” the slender man continued. “Skinny sharp nose to her, like that pigsticker on your hip you’ve had your hand on for the last click and a half. No markings, no colors. No pluslight engines on the back of her. She vanished from Bennington Yards ten turns or so back, not a sign, not a trace.”

“Bennington Yardth,” Griswold said, chewing on the thought. His hand did not move from the knife. “Other thide of the Line, then.”

“It would seem so, yes,” the slender man nodded. He tossed another handful of pellets to the goats.

“Thupothe I did hear thomething,” Griswold shrugged, leaning over the rail to scratch a young kid just behind the nubs of its horns. “What would it get me?”

“Gratitude,” the slender man offered. “Of the jingling, heavy, shiny sort.”

“How much gratitude?” Griswold asked.

“I’m a very grateful soul,” the slender man said. “And prepared to be so right this very moment, if so moved.”

A slow, ugly smile cracked and spread its way out to the edges of Griswold’s face. The slender man looked him in the eye and smiled back, in that distant, melancholy way.

His traveling cloak swirled, crisp gray and grimson blurring underneath. A wide arc of silver gleamed, traversing Billy Knives and his upraised stilletos, Almanac and the zap-gun he kept in his hollowed-out book, and Jimmy the Hat, his hands outstretched, his favorite Hangtown Necktie looped loosely around each set of knuckles.

Billy fell into halves. Almanac sank to his knees, the story of his life spilling red onto his book’s empty pages, and pitched sideways. Jimmy’s hat fell off, and took his head mostly with it.

“Perdition’th Horn,” Griswold swore softly, his face contorting so that all its scars turned exclamation points.

“Josiah Crestfall, by name,” the slender man said to him, by way of introduction. “Commodore, if you wish to be formal.”

Crestfall brought his outstretched right arm back the way it had come, and the sword he held — flat and broad as a dinner plate, half his own height, a rainbow corona shimmering at its cutting edge, as if the light itself cleaved around it — followed. Engraved in its surface, Griswold could see two words, seven letters total, in graceful, looping script.

“The bearer of Bad News,” Commodore Crestfall concluded.

“Beads of sweat emerged at the base of Griswold’s skull, and began to trickle slippery down the back of his neck. The goats began to bleat, agitated.

“Jutht a rumor,” Griswold said, his voice barely more than a whisper. “About your thtarship. I heard thome thuithidal idiot wath planning a job on the Imperial Palath. Ath if the thatelliteth wouldn’t get him. He’th thurely vapor by now.”

“Perhaps he is,” Crestfall said, nudging his spectacles back into place on the bridge of his nose. “This suicidal idiot has name, I trust?”

“Thomething long. Fanthy. Thounded like a Cathtellan,” Griswold said, wracking his memory vainly for particulars.

Crestfall seemed to absorb all this information, file it away somewhere deep behind his eyes. Then he blinked once, and smiled gently at Griswold, or rather kept smiling.

“Most helpful of you, sir,” Crestfall said, and nodded curtly.

“I thupothe…” Griswold ventured, pressing his luck. “That gratitude you menthioned?” He giggled again, nervously. But the laugh died in the back of his throat as he saw Crestfall’s eyes turn mournful, and his smile wane apologetically.

“Gorden Geranium Griswold,” Crestfall said, shaking his head slowly, “you are wanted by the Federated League of Allied Worlds on fifteen counts of slaughter, thirty-two counts of gross damage to individual ownings, and one count of indecent acts with a public artwork.” He moved forward, his cloak flowing open, revealing the crisp red-and-gray uniform of the FLAW military, and a chest starred with whole constellations of bright medals and decorations. “As a sworn officer in the National Fleet, I hereby bind you by law. Sorry to tell.”

The knife left Griswold’s hip, rose high in the air. Griswold threw himself at Crestfall, desperate, his left hand closing around the Commodore’s throat. The men fell into the mud, Griswold using his left elbow to pin Crestfall’s sword arm where it lay. He plunged the knife down at Crestfall’s heart.

It stopped an inch or so above the target, wavering, pushed back by some invisible fluid force. Griswold could feel the steel of the blade quivering in his grip.

Beneath his left thumb, where Crestfall’s pulse ought to have fluttered frantic in his jugular, he felt only a low, steady hum.

“Really wish you hadn’t done that,” Crestfall grunted, gripping Griswold’s knife hand at the wrist and steadily pushing the man up and away from him. Griswold struggled, but Crestfall’s sword arm slowly rose from the mud, and with it the blade glimmering and deadly…

“Academy for Deviant Science, yes?” Crestfall asked him, the smile faded, and only his sad eyes staring out from that young old handsome face. “I’ll see they get what you promised them,” Crestfall said. “Word as oath.”

In a few seconds more, it was finished. The goats huddled bleating and fearful at the far side of their pen. Commodore Crestfall rose, shaking the mud off his cloak, and slid Bad News back into its scabbard. He made signs of prayer, slow and personal, over all he’d done, and moved his lips in request of forgiveness.

The Commodore’s scoutcraft was small, and inconspicuous, and far from lush — all exactly as Crestfall wished it. And when it had cleared the asteroid zoo’s orbit, and entered pluslight, Borderland bound and beyond, the Commodore opened a channel to central. The familiar ring of twelve lights winked into view on the screen, twelve voices speaking to him as one.

“Progress, Commodore?” the Duly Elected asked.

“Got something for the law boys, sirs” Crestfall nodded solemnly. “Back in the cold storage.”

“And the craft?” the voice continued, young and old, male and female, gray and solid and indistinguishable.

“Nothing good, if it’s true,” Corsair sighed. “The word is Imperium, sirs. Right to the central planet.”

“You suspect a plan by the Imperium, then?” came a voice, older, possibly male. One of the twelve lights momentarily glowed brighter. “To steal the craft in secret?”

“Suspicion is your province, sirs,” Corsair said, and meant it. “I only report.”

“We’ll make ready the fleet,” the Duly Elected continued, one voice again, “and await further. You serve us well, Commodore.”

“With all my heart,” the Commodore said. He could not keep a twist of bitterness from his lips or his words.

The screen went black without further communication.

Josiah Crestfall exhaled, leaning back in his chair. His heart did not beat quickly in fear or triumph, nor slowly in contemplation. His heart did not beat at all. And the medals on his chest felt heavy as the whole of a planet.

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