Sunday, December 9, 2007

The Eighth Rule of Banditry (Part 2)

The medallion, on the third try, looped dizzily around a jutting swirl of black on the opposite side of Dent’s prison, and came to rest with a dull clunk. There’d been just enough silk for it to reach, and when Dent reached up to pick at the thread now sloped downward from one side of his cell to the other, from the gold medallion with the lopsided hole melted into its center to the silver spoon, it twanged taut.

Slowly, careful not to unbalance the platform, Dent knelt beneath the glimmering line of psuedosilk and peeled off the formal blue dinner jacket, still bearing spatters of whale-juice from that dinner endless days ago. Dent had never been the biggest fan of baths, especially the ice-cold, Story-assisted variety he usually received at the palace. But in the absence of personal hygeine, he was beginning to understand its virtues; if the Wee Ones had noses, Dent could surely have chased them away with his jacket alone.

His mother would have been furious at him for cutting up any of his clothing, not for the waste of it — waste was practically an obligation for the Imperial family — but for the impropriety. It was too much like work. So Dent, even in the terror of his predicament, smiled as the sonic knife neatly sliced the sleeves off his jacket. Misbehavior was somehow sweeter when it could be entirely justified.

Dent set the sleeves aside and picked up the crystal vial. The top unsealed with a soft pop, and Dent dabbed a finger on the lip of the bottle, where tiny beads of fluid glimmered. He rubbed thumb and forefinger together — or tried. They kept slipping right off one another. As Dent peered closer, he could see the pink liquid expanding, almost replicating itself, until it had gone from a single drop to a thin coating on the tips of his thumb and forefinger alike. It smelled weird and fruity, and Dent wiped it on his pants and wrinkled his nose. He guessed his sister must keep it handy for those times when she and her friends got stuck. His sister did so many really weird things.

(If the designers of the vial and its contents, the Singing Sisters of Our Lady of Applied Nanoengineering on Orotund, had not already taken a vow of silence, attempting to answer Dent’s questions regarding the nature of the substance would surely have driven them to one. There were certain corners of the market even Crouch Industries had not yet occupied, and the Sisters made a tidy living filling one or two of them. Lis’s commissions alone could have made them all wealthy as queens, if not for the small matter of their vow of poverty. The Sisters didn’t mind. They liked a challenge, as their habit of singing silently demonstrated.)

Dent tucked the vial back in his belt, and made a few quick cuts to his severed sleeves; the rising, increasingly strained whine of the sonic knife told him the batteries were dying. Shutting off the knife, he slipped the hasty gloves — more like fingerless mittens, Dent’s crafting skills being as lacking as his knotsmanship — over each hand, and wrapped the remaining fabric in tight bunches around each palm.

Dent’s heart pounded, and the bits of puffcake he’d involuntarily swallowed churned in his stomach, splashing sour acid up the back of his throat. He’d done this sort of thing before with the Imperial Acrobats of Cleanliness. But they had antigrav harnesses. Dent had a very thin thread and a very long drop.

He thought of Pebble’s scream, and while that did nothing for his queasy stomach, it at least helped him make up his mind.

Moving with muffled, cloth-wrapped hands, Dent took the rest of his mutilated jacket and twisted it into a tight knotted braid. Carefully, he reached up and looped it over the line of pseudosilk. He could feel his pulse all but rattling his bones, and every breath he took felt like it just wasn’t enough.

In tiny, hesitant motions, Dent got both his feet underneath him. He gripped his jacket, feeling the string wobble under his weight.

Dent stepped forward.

The platform reeled and spun beneath him. Dent cried out as his feet jerked down into empty air, nearly losing his grip. But the psuedosilk held, and slowly, inches at a time, Dent began to slide down the inclined thread, toward the spikes on the opposite wall.

Had Janos of the Midnight Guard known that the selfsame material in his favorite new garotte was currently being used to save a life, he would surely have chuckled.

Of course, he would have found it even funnier that Dent’s weight had pulled the string down at the end attached to the silver spoon, against the razor edge of one protruding blade. It sawed against the edge as Dent wriggled ever closer to the wall, and thread by thread, it began to fray.

Dent’s arms were beginning to burn. Clambering through the palace to get away from Story had made him strong, but only to a point. He swung his feet beneath him, each swing lurching him just a little further toward the wall.

The string began to stretch itself ever thinner against the razor edge, more and more gossamer filaments twanging and curling away with each passing moment.

Dent swung his feet again, sliding another precious inch toward the wall. The soles of his boots just barely touched a protruding swirl of sharp black material.

He looked up and saw the thinning thread of silk, the swirling tangle of frayed threads. Dent’s stomach seemed to fall away inside him, clenching up on itself. He swung violently, slipping the last few inches toward relative safety—

The thread snapped.

Dent began to fall. He let go of one end of his bunched-together jacket, felt it slipping off the slackening cord, and lashed it out toward the wall.

The jacket snagged, pierced by a jutting spire. Dent swung forward, the spikes looming toward him, and just managed to tuck his feet up and under him to brace against the wall.

He reached out with one shaking hand and carefully gripped a swirl of black material. Even through the fabric swathing his palm, he could feel it cold and sharp. He dug his feet in, finding footholds on lower spires, and at last let go of the jacket and grabbed ahold of another spire with his remaining hand.

Dent clung to the wall, exhausted, the muscles of his arms and legs jumping and shuddering under his skin. For a moment, he shut his eyes, just glad to be somewhere steady and stable. Below him, the Wee Ones clacked about angrily, the spot beams reflected from their mirror faces dancing off the ceiling. But they were far below, and he was, for the moment, safe up here. He had time to think.

And then, unfortunately, the whole of the wall to which Dent clung began to move. To crawl, more precisely. What had looked to Dent like particularly nasty ornamentation unfolded itself, revealed as one giant mass of featureless, spike-limbed black drones. None of which were particularly happy to have someone grabbing at them.

As Dent began to scream, the lattice of drones to which he clung peeled away from the wall, curling like a wave toward the unforgiving floor below.

“Ha!” Sir Leslie bellowed in triumph, and plunged the barb-ended spit into the crevice behind his cabinetry. Its wicked point hit home, sinking deep into what, unfortunately for Sir Leslie, was not even remotely Pebble.

He saw this for himself just a moment later, when light flooded into the gap behind the stove. It came in through the cabinet door Pebble had just emerged from, and the hole she had torn in the flimsy backing of the cabinet — Sir Leslie had never quite realized that eating one’s contractors leaves certain gaps in the realm of quality control — and illuminated the pit of his pike stuck fast into the dark material of the neighboring bulkhead.

The scrambling flap of small bare feet sounded in the low, dark kitchen, accompanied by the clatter of the cookware Sir Leslie had scattered across the floor in his search. But by the time he let go of his end of the thoroughly stuck spit, and lifted his shaggy head above the edge of the counter, the girl had once again vanished.

Sir Leslie failed to notice that the air in the kitchen, particularly above the stove, had begun to shimmer faintly.

With a low growl, he took up his cutlass in one hand, and the cleaver in the other, and listened intently. Not a sound. Not a peep. Sir Leslie took a deep, cleansing breath, like that pleasantly meaty monk he’d hired had once taught him, and tried to make the best of his growing vexation. This was exercise. He was burning calories. He thought of it that way.

“Little girl,” he sang out softly, letting the tip of his cutlass ping musically off the scattered pots and pans upon the floor as he passed each one by. In the quiet, his leather boots creaked with each slow, steady step. “Where might you be hiding, now?”

Through a slender crevice, from behind a door, reflective eyes watched him.

He made a full circuit of the island, stepping around the archipelagos of gleaming sterlisteel saucepans and five-in-one stewpots, before he spotted it. A thin curl of vapor from the door of the chillbox, just so slightly ajar.

Sir Leslie had ordered a larger model, the Crouch Industries PermaCold XL, owing to his special diet. The gleaming silver door sitting smugly in the wall of the kitchen, exuding its own unnecessary massiveness, could swing wide enough to accomodate at least one child in its frosty, spacious interior. Sir Leslie could testify to this personally.

Quiet as a whisper, quiet as the tiniest of mice, Sir Leslie crept toward the chillbox, cutlass raised. He hooked the tip of his cleaver into the handle of the door, and with one quick motion jerked the door open. Light sprang forth, flooding over him.

He very nearly, but did not quite, stab the life out of two neatly arranged six-packs of CrouchFood Nutri-Water, a withered bunch of celery, and a half-empty jar of gourmet ganderberry mustard. It had been a while since Sir Leslie had done the shopping.

Then a pot sailed through the air and smacked into the back of his head. Sir Leslie’s head jerked forward with the impact, clunking into the cold steel door of the freezer compartment, which gave his skull expanding clouds of pain, in stereo.

He turned, a roar rising on his lips, only to have it truncated by the prompt arrival of another pot.

Pebble, leaning out of the emptied-out lower cabinet in which she’d hidden herself, picked up a collander and drew back to throw it. She had an excellent arm.

Sir Leslie, seeing spots from the last pot’s collision, managed to clumsily swat this one away. A skillet caught him in the solar plexus, staggering him back a bit. Pebble waited, courteously giving him a moment to recover. And when he rose up, thundering black hatred in a torrent that fairly flowed down his beard, she picked up the biggest, heaviest saucepan within reach, and heaved it at him.

The saucepan whirled toward him, and as Sir Leslie lashed out with his cutlass to bat it aside, he noticed two curious things.

First, and this might just have been his recent cluster of minor head injuries, the air between him and the ever-advancing pan seemed to shimmer ever so slightly.

And second, the little girl was ducking back inside the cabinet, closing the door behind her.

Sir Leslie had a fair arm himself, and his cutlass swing connected with the flying pan. Steel clanged against steel. Sparks ignited.

So did the methane gas filling the kitchen.

The shockwave hit first, lifting Sir Leslie from his feet and flinging him bodily against the nearest wall. He was fortunate for this, as the gas had not quite concentrated enough in the far corners of the room for the ensuing fireball to reach that far. Instead of being charbroiled, Sir Leslie was merely lightly seared. Had he been conscious at the time, this would have been small consolation.

Pebble experienced the blast as a sudden square of intense blue light around the outline of the closed cabinet door, and a rush of sudden heat, and a moment of panic as the entire frame of the cabinetry around her creaked from the sudden pressure. The breath was torn from her lungs, and for several frightening seconds, she gasped, trying to suck it back in. Then air returned, and Pebble sucked it in eagerly. She listened carefully for sounds outside, and heard only the crackle of small, isolated fires.

Pebble opened the door to find the kitchen wrecked and steaming, the pots and pans on the floor all shoved against the far wall. Sir Leslie lay in a great black heap, trailing wisps of smoke. As Pebble watched, that heap began to stir, and groan.

She found her feet and ran, out the now open doorway, over the slightly bent metal of the door, blown from its hinges, and still squirming a bit from the death-throes of the Wee One flattened beneath. She ran into the endless maze of corridors, and behind her, Sir Leslie’s cry of pain, humiliation, and ravenous fury made the very glass of the mirrors tremble.

It would be easy to say that Dent had abundant experience in not dying, but then, most likely so does anyone reading these words. (If not, please see a doctor immediately. Or perhaps a talent agent.)

Instead, it may be more accurate to state that Dent had become quite adept at not being killed when the opportunity presented itself.

And now, as the squirming, slicing lattice of black robot drones buckled away from the high dark walls of his prison cell, Dent saw a gap open in the writhing mass of sharp forms above him, and hauled himself up through it. The edges of the drones’ limbs — one could possibly call them Wee Ones, but these unaltered models lacked their mirrored faces — gashed at Dent’s arms and legs, raising thin lines of bright crimson royal blood. But he struggled onward, through a nightmare thicket of shadows, and finally popped through to the upper side of the tumbling wave. For a moment, his balance seemed like it might hold. But then his footing gave way, and he bounced roughly down the top of what was now an ever shallower slope of drones. The black bots crashed in a heap on the floor, individual members springing up in the air from the impact to clatter against the walls. Dent’s momentum flung him away from the chaos, hard against the black wall, and he lay there dizzy and bruised for a moment, the breath gone from him, ears full of angry scrabbling.

The Wee Ones and the unaltered drones had tangled together in a pile in the middle of the cell, flailing for freedom with insectile limbs. The few that had managed to extricate themselves were scrambling around and butting heads in the artificial intelligence equivalent of a violent sneezing fit. Then Dent, unfortunately, sucked in a particularly loud gasp of air, and sat up. And suddenly the drones remembered which of the various moving entitites in the room did not technically belong there.

Mirrored faces, and appendages that could easily have been faces, all turned toward Dent in unison. The pile of robots began to chitter and scrape eagerly, individual members plucking themselves out of the mess and scrambling toward Dent. Insofar as any of the Wee Ones had minds, they had nothing good in them where Dent was concerned.

Dent, still dizzy and dazed, fumbled in the pouch of his Adventure Belt as a trio of Wee Ones converged upon him from over the top of the pile. His hand closed around the pink crystal vial and he threw it as hard as he could at the reflective face of the lead bot.
The thing’s mirror-eye cracked upon impact, and so did the vial, throwing bright sharp snowflakes of crystal glittering into the air. A brief cloud of pink liquid flowered, splattering all over the drone and its neighbors. And then, with increasing speed, it began to spread.

A thin pinkish sheen of oily liquid spread outward from where Dent had thrown the vial, covering everything it touched, and dispensing almost entirely with the petty concept of friction. The Wee Ones advancing over the top of the pile suddenly lost their footing, slipping and skidding helplessly, wobbling around and falling over sideways.

His head still spun, but Dent recognized an opportunity when he saw it. Lurching to his feet, leaning against the wall for balance, he edged sidewise along the now slightly rosier mass of flailing robots, careful not to slip on the faint trails of pink liquid leaking out onto the floor. The door to the corridor was shut fast, impassable and black and seemingly without a seam. But on the wall beside it, Dent saw a crudely attached box riveted into the black material, oddly out of place.

(The contractor Sir Leslie had hired to refit the cells, having heard surprisingly little from others rumored to have worked on this particular assignment, had decided to add the finishing touches to the locking mechanism only after he’d been paid. Alas, his payment, such as it was, ruled out the chance of any further refinements to his work.)

The sonic knife bleeped a warning as Dent thumbed it on. Its charge was swiftly waning, but it had enough juice yet to shear off the simple bolts on the side of the black case, revealing to Dent the tangle of wires that lay between him and relative freedom.

It would be nice to say that young Dent had a keen mastery of such complicated systems, and knew exactly which wires to snip to open the door. Sadly, his only previous experience with the subject had been his mother’s gift of the Young Gentlemen’s Convenient Opportunity for Electrocution Kit at the age of seven. After his arm stopped wiggling of its own accord, and his hair began to lose its charge and droop back to its normal state, Dent swore off further experiments entirely, and not even Mechanic Doren could rekindle his interest.

The tangle of wires, like a split spaghettifruit pod, seemed to spill from the box and ensnare Dent’s very brain. If he cut the wrong ones, perhaps the door would not open at all. Perhaps he’d be stuck here forever. He froze, the sonic knife in his hand.

Say what you will about imminent death, but it has a wonderful way of clarifying the mind.

A particularly resourceful Wee One, at the periphery of the hopelessly slip-sliding pile of waggling drones, managed to regain its balance. Its reflective face turned to zero in on Dent. With cautious steps, slow at first but ever faster as its motion mechanisms adjusted, it began to move toward him. Then it began to bound.

Dent dug into his Adventure Belt, finding the tin soldier from his father’s model. He looked into the tangle of wires, and saw a place where the insulated coverings of the wires gave way to metal contacts.

The Wee One scrambled closer, nearly stumbled, but kept coming.

Frantically, fingers slick with his own blood from countless cuts, Dent rewrapped his cut-off sleeve around the whole of his right hand, then placed the tin soldier in this mitten of fabric. He took a deep breath.

The Wee One tripped on a protruding limb of one of its comrades, mere feet from Dent, and began to get back up.

Dent turned his face away and shoved the tin soldier into the gap in the wires.

Sparks flew from the box, the force of the shock knocking Dent to the floor. The door slid open halfwise, erratically, leaving a gap just big enough for Dent.

Eyes still dancing with sparks, the fabric on his right hand blackened and smoldering, Dent stumbled toward the door. The Wee One shifted course, feet skidding beneath it, and headed for him again.

Dent threw himself into the gap in the door. To his horror, it smacked shut around him, squeezing painfully around his ribs. For a terrifying second, he could not breathe.

Then the door mechanism hiccuped again, opening wide enough to spit him head over heels into the corridor.

The Wee One saw him and sprang. Dent saw the points of its forward limbs shearing at him through the gap in the door.

With a last, triumphant twitch, the door slammed shut on the Wee One, trapping it. Its pointed limbs flailed and scrambled angrily, gouging scrapes in the onyx flooring. But it could not reach Dent.

Dent lay there for a second, bruised and bleeding and dizzy, just out of the reach of something that wanted very much to poke him full of big bleedy holes. Banditry had not sounded nearly this painful in his bedtime stories.

Then, far down the corridor, he heard a sudden loud thump. The mirrors on the walls bounced a flare of reflected light skittering through the halls. Dent thought of Pebble, and found his feet. The Wee One clawed at him, and Dent blew his own reflection a raspberry, and set off at a stumble toward the source of the sound.

The corridors were no less mazelike, but the thump sounded not too distant. Dent followed it, and other sounds — crashing and bellowing and clanging, as if someone were stumbling around. It occurred to him that those sounds were likely made by Sir Leslie. It occurred to him that Pebble might not still be alive. He kept going anyway.

At last he heard footfalls padding toward him, from around the corner of the intersection ahead. They did not sound like the clomp of boots or the tick of Wee Ones’ limbs. They sounded very much like the relatively tiny, calloused feet of Pebble. He opened his mouth to give a shout, and then she crashed blindly around the corner and knocked him down.

She screamed, and started to hit him, and then stopped to actually look at who she was hitting.

“Ow,” winced Dent, lowering his arms from where they’d been protecting his face. “What did I do?”

A huge smile illuminated Pebble’s face, and she all but crushed Dent and his bruised ribs with a hug.

“Easy, easy, slow down!” Dent said, trying to follow her flying fingers. “What happened?”

Pebble’s exciting and thorough explanation was cut short by the hand that closed around her long silver hair and yanked her shrieking up into the air.

“Tell me, Your Majesty,” Sir Leslie growled, each word wobbly and singing as his diamond teeth shimmered in his mouth. “Do you think you’d taste good as a tartare?”

He was missing one boot, standing lopsided on a bare and hairy foot, and his face was scorched bright crustacean-red. Wisps of reeking smoke trailed from his eyebrows and the tips of his mustache, and small patches of his shaggy, loosened mane of hair still seemed to be on fire. He clutched the screaming, wriggling Pebble in one hand, and the fat haft of his shining silver cutlass in the other.

“Let her go!” Dent shouted, scrambling shakily to his feet. He was more scared than he’d ever been — and not, he realized, on account of his own peril.

Sir Leslie laughed, and the harmonics of his gleaming teeth wobbled up and down the scale.

“You’re a long way from home, boy,” he said, stepping forward, Pebble still flailing and kicking in his grip. “And in these halls, you’re the Emperor of nothing. Except, perhaps, my dinner table.” Bits of saliva glimmered and danced at the corners of Sir Leslie’s mouth. “Now, shut your eyes and show me your neck like a good lad. It’ll go faster if you don’t squirm.”

Dent plucked the sonic knife from his belt and drove it forward. His thumb hit the activator button, and the blade, bleating urgent warnings, shimmered to life for a second, splitting a line open across the front of Sir Leslie’s waistcoat. Then the knife warbled apologetically, and became just a useless handle.

Sir Leslie barked out another laugh, distorted around the edges. “My, but you’re a spicy one!” he gloated. “Or was that actually supposed to do something?”

And then the hum of his teeth died away, as Sir Leslie felt strange twangs and vibrations about his midsection.

In the silence that followed, even Pebble stopped kicking, listening to the escalating cascade of plinks and creaks and snaps emanating from Sir Leslie’s waistcoat.

“Oh, no,” Sir Leslie breathed, his eyes widening. “Oh, no, no, no.”

Sir Leslie’s Special Device was, when whole and undamaged, a marvel of engineering, able to resist the most persistent of pressures. But when enough of its elaborate filaments were severed, as Dent’s brief swipe had done, the rest of it began to try vainly to adjust, to compensate. And a catastrophic sequence of failures, the kind the manufacturer advised about only in small print at the very back of the manual, began.

Springs and coils began to burst loose from the Device, poking out the contours of Sir Leslie’s jacket. He dropped Pebble and placed his hands desperately about his midsection, whimpering, trying to hold the Device in place. But it was too late.

In a spectacular burst of elastic and fabric, the Special Device snapped completely, and Sir Leslie’s immense, food-fueled, flabby white gut bulged out from beneath his trim and tailored shirtfront.

Sir Leslie wailed in horror, looking down at this pale, hated nemesis, this accumulation of his own failures. Then he heard the mirrors on the wall begin to shimmer, heard the strain of overtaxed motors, and looked up at his reflection in even greater terror.

The mirrors were programmed to adjust Sir Leslie’s reflection, presenting him in the most flattering light. They were having a hard enough time compensating for the damage he’d sustained in the kitchen explosion. And when the entire profile of his body changed, beyond any parameters to which they’d been programmed, the mirrors quite simply went berserk.

Thousands of micromotors, usually working in tandem to reshape each mirror, each began moving in individual and conflicting directions. Cracks grew, splitting the surface. Dent and Pebble huddled together on the floor, covering their heads. Sir Leslie watched his own reflection, his hideous and portly self, further uglify and multiply with each new fissure.

The mirrors, quite understandably, exploded. And as the catastrophic logic failure cascaded throughout the ship’s systems — once again, something that might have been prevented, had Sir Leslie not consigned his hired programming team to a series of individually wrapped parcels in the deep freeze — every mirror on the ship followed suit. The whole ship rang with the crash and clatter of shattering glass.

In the midst of it all, Sir Leslie still stared at the blank black wall, ringed with jagged teeth of broken mirror, and wailed, and wailed, and wailed.

He was still shrieking when Dent and Pebble stood up, edging away across a sea of shining broken glass. Still shrieking when Dent unwrapped the cloth from his hands and bound it around Pebble’s bare feet for protection. Still shrieking as they ran, in no particular direction, away down the corridor of the suddenly much darker ship, past endless rows of broken mirrors — approximately 7.29 millennia of bad luck, all told.

And they could still hear Sir Leslie’s distant, ghostly wails when the two children rounded a corner, crashed hard into something that was not a wall, and jumped back screaming themselves.

“Ah! Children!” Captain Corsair beamed, bowing politely. “You remain unmurdered! I find this a most welcome turn of events!”

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