Sunday, January 20, 2008

25. Breaking Out

Across the galaxy, billions of citizens of two mighty factions watched the live feeds of the two great fleets hanging motionless among the stars, and collectively held their breath.

Oh, sure, they might spend their end-of-turn nights in the pub, hollering for the blood of those damned Imperials. And they might make grumbly noises over the morning news scroll, cursing those arrogant prods in the FLAW. But the memory of the Third Galactic Conflict remained fresh in everyone’s minds, and only the craziest of zealots — the kind unceremoniously hucked out of the pubs, or glared at over their scrolls — actually wanted anything like a war.

So the galaxy waited, and watched, and wondered exactly what sort of perilous, high-powered negotiations were taking place.

“Is that the one with the dogleg on the 27th hoop?” the Emperor asked, looking up from a writing pad covered with unprofessional doodling. “I quite liked that one. Good view of the mountains.”

“Yes, exactly,” said the Duly Elected in a twelvefold pulse of light from the screen of his conference suite. “So did we.” There was a pause, as if some private discussion were taking place. “Most of us did,” the Duly amended.

“Right,” the Emperor sighed. “Since it’s—” he checked the chronometer on the wall — “ten clicks until lunch, are you amenable to summing up?”

“What are you having?” the Duly asked.

“Octopus, I think,” the Emperor said, his stomach rumbling. “Cook does a lovely dish with pepperfruit jelly. I could send some over.”

“Acceptable,” the Duly chanted. “Yes, let us sum up. You do not have our craft in your possession?”

“I do not,” the Emperor said. “And you do not have my child?”

“We do not,” the Duly replied. “Our agent has yet to report.”

“As have my contingent,” the Emperor said. Diplomacy might lack something in glory, but it was much easier to prevent misunderstandings without all those swords and guns lying around. The Emperor felt somewhat ashamed to realize this, and decided he must be getting old.

“We should spend the afternoon coming up with suitable threatening statements,” the Duly proposed.

“Sounds sensible,” the Emperor nodded. “I was thinking of something like, ‘intractable hostilities,’ or perhaps—”

“Majesty,” Guard Captain Rendell’s voice came over the intercom. There was an edge in his words, an energy, that the Emperor hadn’t heard since that long-ago night on Echo Hill. “We have an unregistered contact on the scanners.”

“Is this you?” the Emperor asked the Duly, sitting up straighter in his chair, his fingers tightening on the glossy seashell surface of the conference table.

“It is not,” the Duly responded, hesitantly. “We have just been informed of a similar contact.”

“Captain, pipe the footage in here,” the Emperor said. “And elevate the fleet’s readiness.” He glanced at the flickering circle of lights on the screen, and added, “No offense.”

“None taken,” the Duly agreed, and the screen flickered to reveal external footage of a small, merchant-class freighter trawling slowly across the black. The tiny gray ship itself did not cause the Emperor’s heart to pound, or his breath to quicken. But the faint, almost invisible silhouette it towed, blacker than space itself, stood out sharp and clear, seared into the Emperor’s memory.

“The Dark Matter Armada,” he breathed.

The Emperor burst forth from the conference suite to find the entire bridge frozen, staring at the image on the screen. Even his wife had momentarily ceased her knitting, and beneath her layer of ceremonial makeup, her face seemed another shade paler still.

“Shake yourselves,” the Emperor barked. A thrill of adrenalin raced through his blood. “Rendell, weapons to full. Target that ship and make ready to fire. Are we still on with the Duly?”

“Yes, Majesty,” Rendell said, his voice not quite shaking, as he forced himself to look down at his console and make the adjustments.

“Our fleet has similar targeting,” the Duly’s manifold voice droned through the bridge. “Except…”

“It’s signaling,” the Emperor said, squinting at the image onscreen, watching lights flare in rhythm along the hull of the small lead ship. “That’s Imperial flashcode.”

“And standard FLAW pulse signals on the side facing our craft,” the Duly affirmed.

“Extreme… danger…” Rendell began, watching the signals. “Unknown… threat… evacuate…”

He would have finished, except for the inconvenient flare of unimaginable light that blew out the visual circuits on both fleets’ external feeds.

The BHB, having maneuvered itself unnoticed between the two fleets, like any other piece of space junk, detonated. And things only got worse from there.

It never occurs to anyone, really, that they might at some point have a knife driven into their vitals. So Captain Corsair could be forgiven for looking as surprised as he did.

He stood there, his sword beginning to wilt from his fingers, and stared quizzically down at Sir Leslie’s blade, plunged to its hilt into his stomach. He shuddered slightly when Sir Leslie gave the knife a particularly vicious twist, and again when it was plucked out, but his expression of surprise and curiosity did not change. At last, the sword fell from the Captain’s hands, rattling dully on the onyx plating of the deck, and the Captain sank to his knees as if being lowered to them, a dark red stain spreading over the front of his jacket. The slow, half-hesitant way he did so would haunt Dent’s nightmares for years to come.

Sir Leslie dropped Pebble without much ceremony, leaving her to gasp the color back into her cheeks. But Dent was too stunned to even look at her for a moment. He kept staring at the Captain, who, in turn, kept staring at his own injury.

“Pardon me,” the Captain said at last, faintly, and with an unpleasant gurgle just beneath the words. “I seem to be bleeding on your deck.”

Sir Leslie turned, still kneeling, and sized the Captain up like a freshly bled calf. His eyes fixed upon the Captain’s metal hand, and sparkled with greed.

“I have a collection, you know,” Sir Leslie purred, picking up the Captain’s limp, unresisting arm, and studying the metal hand attached to it with an enthusiast’s eye. “This piece… the customization is exquisite. Would you mind terribly if I displayed it?”

“Not at all,” the Captain coughed. “Please, feel free to look closer.”

Sir Leslie peered at the hand’s weathered components. “These channels here, with the filigrees,” he said. “Are they merely decorative?”

“Far from it,” the Captain smiled weakly, and twitched his wrist. Three different-colored clouds of gas jetted forth from concealed compartments in the hand, wreathing Sir Leslie’s head. His hungry black eyes crossed, and he began to slur out what might have been an oath before sliding sideways to the deck, unconscious.

“I wish I had thought of that sooner,” the Captain said, and slid ever so gently backward himself.

“Captain?” Dent asked. He crawled, hands and knees, over to Corsair, and shook him. “Captain, please!”

The captain’s closed eyelids glowed, but the light was uneven, flickering. At last, his eyes slid open again, to fix wearily on Dent’s.

“You are quite right,” the Captain coughed. “This is no place for a gentleman to die. I do not know what I must have been thinking.”

The whole ship rocked again, and for a long second, brilliant light leaked in, even through the seams in the hangar’s blast doors.

“What was that?” Dent asked, as a slightly woozy Pebble signed something similar. The girl crawled over, sized up the blood on the Captain’s shirtfront with wide, serious eyes. She pressed her hands together over the wound, as she’d seen her father do long ago.

“That was nothing good,” the Captain said. “Your majesty, if you would kindly drag me to my very fine ship?”

It took both Dent and Pebble to drag the Captain across the deck, up the airlock ramp, and into the darkened central corridor of the twice-stolen ship. A wet and steaming trail of red followed in the Captain’s wake, but though he often winced at the bumps and jolts of the journey, he made no cry of pain.

“The coral’s dead,” Dent mourned, in the gloom of the corridor. “Sir Leslie hit us with some noise thing.”

“Do not despair, my friend,” the Captain smiled gently. “I would ask if you had tried to sing to it, but perhaps it is better that you did not. Please, if you would convey me to the engine room?”

Another slow, agonized minute of dragging led Dent, Pebble, and the Captain into the barely visible contours of the engine room. The whole of the ship was dark and still inside.

Captain Corsair coughed wetly, closing his eyes. The light beneath them flickered to life, and for a moment, it seemed to glow brighter than it had before. And with his eyes still shut, the Captain began to sing.

Dent and Pebble had never heard this song before. They would have remembered it if they had. Anyone would have. And though the Captain did not have his ninestring, both the children would forever remember the song as if it had been there.

And from deep within the cluster of coral, a single spark flared, and kindled, growing with the Captain’s song. Light began to dance, faint but persistent, over the surface of the cluster. At last, weakly, the ship’s lights and systems flickered and hummed to life.

“Ah,” the Captain sighed, gratified. “You see?” His eyelids drifted southward, and shut, and behind them a soft glow began to flicker.

“Captain?” Dent asked, and reached down to touch Corsair’s shoulder. Pebble scowled and swatted at Dent, leaving a wet red stain on the boy’s sleeve. With hands covered by the Captain’s blood, she signed: He’s alive. Get us out of here.

Dent backed away uncertainly, then turned and scrambled toward the cockpit. Pebble, left behind in the engine room with the Captain’s shallow breathing and the faint coruscation of the mass of coral, kept pressing against the Captain’s wound. She felt it pulsing back against her palms, and tried to remember what else, if anything, she’d ever seen her father do in circumstances like these.

Dent reached the cockpit and clambered awkwardly into the pilot’s seat. The grid of lights enveloped him, each button an individual tooth in some terrible mocking smile, and for a moment, everything he had learned in his time on the ship went tumbling out his ears.

“I can’t do this,” he said to himself, and wanted very badly for Story to be there, or the Captain, or someone, anyone, to tell him exactly what to do. He squeezed his eyes shut tightly and wished himself far, far away.

And in the exploding colors behind his eyelids, the faces of his mother and father and sister and brother appeared. They were not angry, not even disappointed. They were looking at him exactly like they always did. Not surprised in the slightest. The family’s little Accident, helpless and useless, as ever.

Dent opened his eyes and forced himself to find just one button on the panel that he recognized. There. The thrust control. He knew that. And right next to it, the jumpdrive initiator, and the docking controls, he knew them, and… okay, he’d never been told what the triangular one above them did, but right above that was the pitch adjuster…

Dent gripped controls that were nearly too big with his hands, and took a deep breath to quiet the flying fish flopping to and fro in the pit of his stomach. He flipped three switches, and felt the ship shudder and rumble around him. The world wobbled slightly as the antigrav came online; the ship pulled away from its magnetic moorings, and floated just a few feet off the obsidian deck of the hangar bay.

Carefully, awkwardly, Dent nosed the ship around, until its sharp, slender nose pointed directly at… the firmly sealed blast doors. Ah, yes. Dent had forgotten this detail up until now.

He could blast the doors wide open, blowing the entire bay out into space. That might have unpleasant effects for the still-unconscious Sir Leslie, out in the bay, but Dent was not exactly worried about that. He was more concerned about the ship’s absolute lack of any sort of guns with which he might do that hypothetical blasting. (Every good ship, by Dent’s ten-year-old standards, had guns. Despite the life-or-death stakes now facing him, the boy remained somehow quietly disappointed that he finally got to fly something, and it lacked the ability to shoot anything.)

Dent cast his mind back to the hours he’d spent reading the ship’s manual. He remembered a curious fact about the ship’s operation. It was the sort of curious fact that might get them all killed, if applied improperly. But Dent, given the ship’s regrettable absence of shooting-stuff capabilities, had no choice.

He called up the jump computer, as he’d watched the Captain and Bosun Little do several times before, and entered a desired distance. The computer, unnerved by this, checked to make sure he hadn’t made a mistake. And then again, just to be extra double sure. Dent confirmed both times.

The computer had not been programmed to shrug its shoulders and say, “Your funeral” — it had not been given shoulders in the first place — but if it had, it most certainly would have.

“If we all explode and die,” Dent shouted back to the engine room, “I’m really, really sorry!”

Pebble’s head snapped up; owing to the noise and the distance, she had only heard “explode and die” and “really really sorry,” neither of which were comforting phrases. But before she could really get properly frightened, Dent hit the jump activator.

It was not so much that the ship passed through the blast doors in front of it, en route to the empty space beyond. It was more that the coral, using nearly every jot of what little power the Captain’s song had lent it, squeezed space down in the front of craft, and stretched it out in back, and the universe very obligingly stepped aside and let the ship pass around the doors, and on its merry way.

It happened so quickly, that the windshields ahead of Dent were already full of stars before his finger had left the button, and it took him a few extra seconds to realize that nothing of the explode-and-die variety had, in fact, happened.

He whooped for joy, pumping ten-year-old fists into the air. Pebble, in the engine-room, initially mistook this for horrible screams of agonized death, and was somewhat less than comforted until she figured out what was going on.

Behind them, the black ship drifted on, and ahead of their ship, Dent could see another craft, modestly sized and gray and boxy, not too distant.

Oddly, it had its pluslight drive on, at full burn. And yet, it was standing entirely still in space.

Now that Dent thought of it, his own ship seemed to be most definitely drifting in a certain direction. He took the controls and wheeled the ship around.

On opposite sides of a stellar divide, the fleets of the FLAW and his family’s familiar Imperial Dreadnoughts seemed to be trying to back away from one another, as quickly as possible. And failing utterly. As Dent watched, he could see bits of the ships on either side peeling off, as if yanked by an army of invisible hands, and tumbling into an absolute void of black that blotted out the stars between them.

The darkness flared blue at odd intervals, in crackling bursts of radiation, and Dent thought back to his lessons with Story with realized: Black hole.

Then he remembered what black holes did, especially to little tiny ships like his, and though he did not think it possible for a ten-year-old boy alone at the controls of a stolen spacecraft with a dying captain and a narrow escape from a mad cannibal in its recent past, he somehow got even more scared.

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