Monday, January 28, 2008

26. The Maw, The Moment, The Melody

Clearly, Dr. Grolescht thought, this was all some amusing joke that would shortly be explained.

After all, he and his very good friend Quarrington Crouch had just concluded a wonderful dinner together, collectively demolishing an entire joint of Altaran acorn-hog, not to mention at least two bottles of very fine wine.

Dr. Grolescht could not remember how many bottles of wine, exactly, which did at least give him suggestions as to the quantity consumed.

As he shivered slightly in the dim, clanking cargo container, Dr. Grolescht realized he could not remember a great many things. The exact topics of conversation at dinner, for example. He remembered talking very excitedly to Crouch about some topic of great pride, and also Crouch saying something about the wine, and then they both went for a walk around the gardens…

For a moment, Dr. Grolescht panicked, thinking that perhaps he might have explained the secrets of the BHB to his employer. But that was simply ridiculous. Quarrington Crouch, being a notoriously tight-fisted leader of business, had gained a reputation of paying his employees handsomely, right up until the point at which he no longer had to. Dr. Grolescht had made a habit, then, of speaking of his highly technical work only in vague generalities, to ensure that he himself remained the invaluable element in their success.

It was hard to see in the cargo container, but as Dr. Grolescht’s round, watery eyes adjusted to the darkness, he began to make out row after row of identical shapes on the shelves. They looked dimly familiar.

What was it Crouch had been saying about the wine? For some reason, Grolescht’s attempts at recall only led his thoughts back to the workings of the BHB. It was a highly technical topic, but in short, the device’s initial explosion created a very small star, even as a ruthlessly efficient containment field — powered by the same energy released in the star’s birth — contained and compressed that star. Crushed ever tighter, even as it strained to expand, the star was forced to collapse. Voila! Instant black hole.

Of course, black holes were something of a nuisance to have hanging around the galaxy, especially a sector of the galaxy that, say, you wanted to conquer. So the BHB’s containment field, established just beyond its event horizon, continued to crush and compress, accelerating millions of years of the black hole’s existence into a little more than an hour. The device’s deployer simply waited at a safe distance, watched any troublesome fleets or moons or planets get dragged into the pitiless gravity well, and moved in once the black hole had expired in a final belch of scrambled x-rays.

There was more to it than that, of course. Far more, all very technical and detailed. Dr. Grolescht would never discuss that sort of thing with his employer, especially over dinner. Except…

It got no warmer in the cargo container, and Grolescht began to find this particular joke less and less funny. He rapped gently with his knuckles against the reinforced steel door, expecting Crouch or one of his functionaries to open it, laughing. On the shelves behind him, small hummings and whirrings began to sound.

Dr. Grolescht began to recall Crouch seeming very proud of the wine. It was special somehow, yes… enhanced, Crouch had said, with some sort of impressive new protein. What had he called it?

Spillitol! That was it. An impressive new protein that made the imbiber entirely willing to… that…

Dr. Grolescht slowly began to remember what he’d spoken about with Crouch, in great detail, often with charts and diagrams. And come to think of it, there had been a great many waiters, hadn’t there? Not very good waiters, but certainly very attentive ones.

Panic welled in Dr. Grolescht’s barrel chest, and he began to pound on the door now, shouting, pleading. Unbeknownst to him, the cargo container had already been jettisonned from the Crouch flagship; there was absolutely no one, and nothing, outside to hear him.

And on the shelves, around Dr. Grolescht, dozens upon dozens of adorable bright blue eyes snapped open. Soft plush heads swiveled in unison toward the only human being in range. Countless fluffy-wuffy limbs began to stir.

“Hello!” said row after row of Crouch Cuddly Cub Mark I models. Defective Mark I models. It seems the engineers had overestimated the adorable robo-bears’ grip strength, and the programmers had failed to adequately nuance the Cuddly Cub’s personal definition of love.

“I want to snoogle-woogle you to bits!” the bears cooed in carefully focus-grouped voices. “Will you be my friend forever and ever?”

No matter how loudly Dr. Grolescht screamed, no matter how he pleaded, the bears did not stop climbing from their packaging, did not stop making their way in adorable lopes down the shelving, did not stop bobbling along the floor toward him in a wave of chirpy synthesized phrases…

Somewhere far beyond this life, a table had been prepared especially for Dr. Grolescht, and fitted with large, heavy restraints. A multitude of pale, spectral figures gathered around it, all with very good reason to await the Doctor’s arrival, and watched his final moments of life.

They wound up wincing a lot, and at least one of them, in defiance of the basic principles of metaphysics, may actually have fainted.

“Status, Rendell!” the Emperor barked, amid the soft chiming of the Dreadnaught’s peril alarms. (The Empire’s engineers had long since realized that if you were aboard a ship that was in some sort of danger, you probably knew that very clearly, and having loud klaxons blaring in your ears did nothing to calm you down.)

“Pluslight at maximum, Majesty,” Rendell said, gripping the edges of the helm console until his knuckles turned white. “Energy drain’s increasing — three point two clicks until they hit burnout.”

The Empress sat silent and fascinated in her chair behind the Emperor, knitting steadily, gazing at the great black void in the forward viewport into which bits of the very ship she occupied were steadily tumbling. She had always considered death an invisible, inexorable, pitiless force, and it was somehow a strange and quiet comfort to her to be proven right.

“Sir,” Wavesmith Second Class Juniper said to Rendell, from the communication station. (She was not important enough to speak directly to the Emperor, nor indeed for the Emperor to know her name.) “We’re picking up a transmission.”

“From the FLAW?” Rendell asked.

“No, sir!” Juniper said, retreating from his own overwhelming terror into the familiar comfort of his training. “Point of origin unknown — the anomaly’s scrambling the readings.”

“Put it through!” Rendell barked, and Juniper obliged.

A voice crackled through the bridge, punctuated by static, and for a moment it seemed even the imminent-death chimes fell silent.

“Father?” Dent’s voice said. “Mother?”

The Empress, for only the fifth time in her entire life, missed a stitch.

“Accident?” the Emperor asked softly, all protocol forgotten.

And in the cockpit of Captain Corsair’s stolen ship, a wave of relief flooded over Dent. He forgot to be angry at them, he forgot that they didn’t care about him. It didn’t matter.

“A noble kidnapped us and tried to eat us, and now I’m flying a ship, and I think that’s a black hole.” he said. “Are you mad at me?”

There was a long, long silence on the other end, and just as panic once more began to well up in the boy, his father’s voice reached him again.

“Accident, where are you?” Dent had never heard his father sound afraid before. He almost didn’t recognize the sound. “Does the black hole have you?”

“We’re… we’re close, but I think we can get away,” Dent said. “The ship can kind of slip around space. I think that’s how it got past the satellites.”

“Accident,” his father said, “you need to listen to me. Run.”

“But you and Mother—” Dent began. His father didn’t yell. His voice didn’t peak and sharpen, like it usually did. That was what frightened Dent the most.

“We can’t escape, Accident,” his father said. “We’re too close, and soon the pluslight will fail. You have to run. You’re the last of the line now.”

“No I’m not,” Dent said, in a panic. He felt the weight of an entire Empire looming just above his shoulders. “Pug and Lis are—”

“Pug and Lis are here, too,” the Emperor said. “It’s just you. My son.”

Dent’s throat got all thick and prickly, filled with a sadness too big to swallow. “I can’t do it,” he said. “I don’t want to.”

“You have to,” his father said. Still calm. Still quiet. “And I know you can. Yours is Imperial blood. It served me. It served my father, and his father before him. Be good. Be wise.”

“Don’t drink anything you haven’t tested on an underling,” his mother added, with perhaps a bit more of a quaver in her voice than she might have wished.

“No,” Dent pleaded, “no, no, no, I don’t want to — you can escape, I know you can!”

“Do this for me, Accident,” the Emperor said. And then he used a word Dent had never heard him say, at least not in this particular context. “Please.”

On the bridge of his flagship, the Emperor’s hand wavered for a moment, then pressed the pad that ended the transmission. The deck officers turned away, out of respect, so that only the Empress would see his grief.

And in the cockpit of Captain Corsair’s ship, Dent sat at the controls, very alone. He thought long and hard for nearly a minute, and then he came to a decision.

He’d spent most of his life very pointedly not doing what his father told him to. This was no time to change his ways.

On the bridge of the mercenary ship, the four unlikely allies sat in silence, caught fast in the pull of the black hole, and surrounded by the dead.

“Grontarian Thrallbeast,” Pug sighed. “Never fought one of those.”

“They’re extinct, aren’t they?” Bosun Little asked.

“Yeah, but, you know, I was hoping I could clone one,” Pug said, his thick, calloused fingers knotted. “Maybe for my birthday.”

“You ever tangle with a Tendril Vine?” the Bosun asked. “Back during the Conflict, in the Argos campaign…”

“Yeah, those are the worst,” Pug said, but did not look up from his hands. “I had to kill like three of those one time.”

The pixels on the Bosun’s cheeks flowed in straight lines down from her eyes, and she put one massive hand upon Pug’s shoulder, and left it there.

At the forward viewscreen, Lis and Crestfall watched the ever-advancing wall of nothing.

“Least we managed to slingshot that other ship past us,” Lis said. “Whoever grabbed Dent, he deserved to go first.”

“Buys us some time, yes,” the Commodore nodded. “From what they tell me, that stolen ship could escape everything short of absolute event horizon. If that’s your brother on it, he could have a chance.”

Lis smiled. “Gods save us all. My little brother, the Emperor.” She looked at the Commodore. “So, we’ve probably got a few clicks. You want to—?”

The Commodore shook his head. “I just don’t lean that far familiar, Majesty,” he said, smiling sadly. “No offense.”

“Force of habit,” Lis shrugged. She stared back out the viewscreen, at the tiny ship floating there, and tried not to think of the Captain.

All through the corridors of the dark ship, littered with constellations of broken mirrors and frenzied, scrambling Wee Ones, the curses of Sir Leslie Murther echoed.

The narcotic gas had given him a terrible headache, and his stomach was both painfully empty and a little upset, and he’d apparently been outwitted by a pair of small children and a shabby social reject with a fatal stomach wound. It was not, Sir Leslie reflected as he staggered groggily toward forward command, his most accomplished day.

But there would be others, he was certain. The BHB was launched, so Crouch would surely have to pay him for those services rendered. And even if they’d managed to escape, his former prisoners would doubtlessly flee right toward the Imperial fleet, and that would settle that account rather nicely.

If only he could figure out why the Wee Ones were in such a fret.

He reached the thick black doors to forward command, kicked and swore at them until they opened, and stepped inside. The bridge’s original fixtures seemed not quite at the right proportions to accomodate a human being, but Sir Leslie had liked the dark, swooping curves of them, and kept them as is. He called up the viewscreen, and cursed again, wondering why he wasn’t getting a picture. Then the ship began to shudder, and alarms began to blare, and he noticed a few faint stars around the edge of the screen, vanishing quickly.

Sir Leslie slowly sat down, staring at the screen, into a hunger as black and terrible and all-encompassing as that which had boiled in his gut from childhood onward. It felt more like his reflection than any mirror into which he’d ever gazed.

Sir Leslie cinched up the fastenings on his Special Device even tighter, and straightened his hair as best he could. As Mother had said, one must always look his best, even in the worst of circumstances.

The dark ship passed beyond the event horizon.

Sir Leslie had always wanted to be thinner, and to look young forever. Depending on how you looked at it, and which physicists you talked to, both his wishes were granted.

“Captain,” Dent said gently, shaking Corsair’s arm. “Captain, you need to wake up.”

The coral sparked and flickered, reduced again to dimness by the power expended in jumping out of the black ship. In the intermittent light, Pebble’s eyes strobed reflectively as she kept her hands pressed against the Captain’s wound. No matter how Dent prodded and pleaded, the Captain would not wake. He breathed shallowly, and with effort, and behind his closed eyelids, the light pulsed and stuttered.

“Please, Captain,” Dent said. “I can save us. I know it. But I need you to sing. Please wake up.”

The Captain coughed, and stirred, but did not wake. Dent bowed his head and told himself, again, that a child of the Empire did not cry.

Pebble looked at him, her hands warm and sticky with the Captain’s blood, her arms slowly growing numb from pressing against Corsair’s wound. In her heart, an egg that had been slowly warmed and incubated over the past two years cracked open, and shed its shell, and fluttered brightly colored wings.

Dent heard music. Not the Captain’s songs, but a high, quavering, unearthly voice. He looked up.

Pebble had heard many songs in her time in the palace — court songs, working songs, even the sort of randy musical tales of calculation that Imperial accountants are careful never to sing in front of their children. (They are mostly about columns adding up, and accounts receivable, and that sort of thing.)

But she only knew, truly knew, one song. The same song her mother sang to her each night as an infant, a song that bypassed her ears to seep itself into Pebble’s blood and bone and muscle. She sang that song now.

It started softly, hesitantly. But as Pebble sang, Dent saw rainbow arcs begin to leap off the surface of the coral. The glow spread across the whole surface of it, brighter and brighter, as Pebble sang her song louder and louder. The light became dazzling, and panel by panel, light by light, the entire ship shook itself and came fully to life again. It seemed to Dent that he could feel Pebble’s song pulsing through the deck plates, humming all inside the ship.

He gave Pebble a great big hug, crushing her to the best of his ten-year-old strength, until she pushed him away, and signed, I’m busy. Don’t you have something to do?

Dent got to his feet and ran, skipped, leapt away through the corridor, threw himself into the seat as if it had been made for him. It seemed the switches all threw themselves the moment before he could touch them.

And with the sole potentially surviving heir of the Grand Galactic Imperium at the controls, the tiny stolen ship shot into motion — directly toward the black hole ahead.

“Majesty,” Guard Captain Rendell said, from the bridge of the Imperial flagship. “Your son’s craft — it seems to be—”

“No,” the Emperor mourned, watching the tiny ship zip toward the black, devouring malestrom. “No! Damn the boy!” He had always thought he wanted a warrior child, ready to lay down his life in service of the Empire, right up until the moment when it seemed that would actually come to pass.

“Accident is a clever boy,” the Empress said slowly, thoughtfully. “He’s always been very good at staying alive. I should know.” With a strange sort of confidence, she picked up her needles, and resumed her knitting.

The stolen ship began to shudder as the hungry, invisible gravitation of the black hole drew it closer. Alarms in the cockpit began to nag, and then, pester, and then shout. Just before they began to shriek in panic, Dent made a hard turn, pointing the slender nose of the craft directly away from the black hole. He took a deep breath, and made quick child’s prayers to every god he could think of, and a quick hello to Story in Hypotethical Robot Paradise.

Then he called up the jump computer and told it what he wanted. If the computer had thought his requests baffling before, it would have judged them completely insane now. But Dent insisted, and the computer obeyed, and somewhere deep in its circuits, it figured it had enjoyed a pretty good life for a computer.

Dent punched the button to activate the jump.

A black hole drags space down into a sort of pit, squeezing it shut. Dent’s craft, at least at the rear, expanded that same space, pulling it taut at the edges like a blanket. And when Dent hit the jump, at maximum power, the crushing containment of the BHB met the insistent expansion of the Quantum Coral drive.

The laws of physics had an epic tug of war.

The alarms in Dent’s cockpit moved swiftly past panic into outright hysteria, as the whole ship shuddered around him. In the engine room, Pebble saw the light of the coral begin to dim. And though she was getting red in the face, and more than a little dizzy, she sucked more air into her lungs and sang louder, shouting over the rumbling of the ship itself.

Space itself flashed and crackled in an expanding web behind the stolen ship, bursts of radiation sparking from the black hole. Crouch Industries could turn out fine engineering when it had a mind to, and the BHB fought valiantly.

It lost.

In a final burst of despairing X-rays, the artifical black hole exhausted its hunger, and was no more, and went back to being just plain space. At the same moment, both Pebble’s lungs and the quantum coral drive gave out. The stolen ship drifted, end over end, past the bridge of the mercenary ship, upon which the four still-living inhabitants would have been wildly cheering if they weren’t busy gaping slack-jawed in various states of amazement.

Dent realized he had been holding his breath the entire time, and collapsed in the chair, sucking in air, spots dancing before his eyes. Pebble, in the engine room, had similar issues.

Captain Corsair continued to miss all the excitement, but then, whatever played out on the inside of his eyelids was probably just as compelling.

In the black depths of space, all was still and silent again. The tattered, considerably shabbier fleets of the Grand Galactic Imperium and the FLAW cut their pluslight drives with mere instants to spare, and breathed collective sighs of relief.

When the Emperor could speak again, his words finding a path around the strange, swelling pride filling his chest, he said, “Status, Rendell.”

“We have power, Majesty,” Rendell nodded, his knees still shaking. “And… we’re not destroyed.”

“Good,” Emperor Impromptu I said, standing up straighter, feeling less like an old man, and more like the leader of a dynasty. “Overtake the smaller ship and bring it aboard. I want to see my son.”

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