Sunday, December 16, 2007

23. Out of the Frying Pan

All through the long clicks in which they sailed together across the freezing dark of space, Captain Corsair could feel the robot’s steel skin pinging and singing with the formation of a thousand tiny fractures. It was not, as one might imagine, the most comfortable feeling, even through the reassuring thickness of a Crouch Industries Insta-Fit ZeroSuit (“99% Guaranteed Leakproof!”). The miles-long shadow toward which Story steered them, a deeper shade in the umbra of the moon it orbited, did nothing to ease the tension.

It was fortunate, then, that Captain Corsair had been raised a gentleman. And gentlemen did not sweat.

Even after they touched down on the hull, the Captain’s magnaboots kissing softly against a spire of black, it took more time still to find anything resembling a hatch. The ship’s owner, perhaps expecting visitors, perhaps expecting none at all, had left this particular airlock unlocked.

As the pressure normalized, and heat and air returned, the Captain heard with rising volume the sharp, swift cracks of Story’s frost-rimed chassis adjusting poorly to the sudden change in temperature.

“Are you well, my shiny comrade?” Corsair asked, peeling the zerosuit off his clothes beneath, and reattaching his scabbard to his belt. He looked with some concern at the fissures running up the sides of Story’s torso, the metal curling with mist and swiftly beading with condensation.

The robot simply nodded, but Corsair saw its eyes flicker uncertainly. And when it moved to open the inner airlock, there were glitches, erratic tics, in its motion that had not been present before.

“I can no longer locate the young master,” Story said mournfully, as they emerged into a dim, mirrored hallway. In the war, Corsair had heard wild tales of Dark Matter Armada craft; this one looked much like he’d imagined it, and nothing at all.

“Does the ship perhaps have a network you might access?” the Captain asked, drawing his sword. There might well be people here that regrettably required stabbing. Or other things. Captain Corsair wished to be prepared for any and all stabbing-related challenges that might present themselves.

“I am not—” Story began, and then his eyes pulsed subtly. “Ah. Very strange. There is a layer of familiar coding over … something much stranger. It speaks to me with an accent.”

Corsair stopped to quickly adjust his jacket and tunic in one of the convenient mirrors. Gentlemen and bandits alike must always look their best. “What sort of security do we face? Ordinarily, I would plan these matters beforehand, but I find myself regrettably pressed for time.”

“I can … persuade the ship not to notice us,” Story affirmed. “Provided we do nothing to provoke its attention.”

The ship rumbled then, a short sharp shock, distant and low.

“It seems something else is doing so for us,” the Captain mused.

“Two decks down, and not far from there,” Story said, head tilted to catch the silent song of the ship all around it. “Someone is making a lemon-tree cake.”

“I beg your pardon?” the Captain asked. The robot looked at him blankly.

“There is a stairway just ahead,” Story continued, blithely. “We should hurry.”

“The children?” Corsair asked, but the robot had already expanded its treadball and rolled past him. The Captain noted a hitch, a hiccup, in the robot’s once-steady clack-clack-clacking.

Down they went, spiraling around curiously spaced steps that seemed to the Captain at once too large and too small for comfortable human strides. Story rolled ahead without waiting for the Captain, and Corsair broke into a run to keep up. They veered around corner after corner in the seemingly endless maze of mirrored corridors, and from time to time, Corsair could catch Story humming snatches of something that sounded like bits of three different songs all at once.

The thought occurred to him that his guide in this endeavor might not be entirely reliable. But the Captain, lacking better alternatives, plunged ahead anyway. Such was his way.

He had a few seconds’ warning before the mirrors exploded — just enough time to duck and cover his eyes. He rose, shaking glass off himself, to see Story stuttering in place, his treadball seizing and beginning to grind.

“A minor malfunction,” Story said. “Pickle in the sight. I am attempting to fix.”

“Do not trouble yourself, my shiny friend,” the Captain said, offering the robot a reassuring pat on the shoulder. The plating wobbled and creaked at his touch. “I shall scout ahead while you gather your wits.”

Corsair had neared the junction of the next corridor when he heard them — footfalls crunching through the broken glass, and distant howls, as if from some terrible beast. He pressed himself against a wall, quickly kissed the shining blade of his saber for luck, and sprang out into the corridor, sword at the ready.

The children plowed into him. The Captain had been well-trained at maintaining his composure in expected situations, and also not looking like he was in any way pained or inconvenienced; this experience now served him well.

By the time he had regained his wits, he realized that Dent had finally stopped speaking and taken a breath, and Pebble had quit signing long enough to work out the cramp in her fingers.

“Your adventures sound most fascinating,” he lied politely, reassuring himself that he could always catch up when none of them were in mortal peril. “Shall we perhaps now look for my most enviable spacecraft?”

But the children had already rushed past him to dangle joyously from the still-immobile Story, Dent in particular hugging the robot for as long as its still-chilly metal skin allowed.

“Are you okay?” Dent asked, in mid-hug. “You’re all cold and cracked up.”

“My condition is excellent, Young Master,” Story replied, a faint warble in his even voice. The glitch finally worked out of his treadball, and he rolled a short distance forward before bringing himself to a half. “But goodness! Look at you! Your mainspring’s got gophers.”

The boy looked at the robot strangely, and then at Captain Corsair, who could not quite disguise his look of concern quickly enough to be reassuring.

“We must clip all your toenails and mend your aelerons,” Story fussed, plucking at Dent’s tunic gingerly. “The sergeant will be most displeased.”

“Your metallic friend, he was very brave,” Corsair endeavored to explain, as gently as he could. “He carried me all the way here, through the cold of zero. The extreme cold.”

“Manufactured for guaranteed kills in all weather conditions,” Story blurted, then burped static. “Pardon me. Did I just say something?”

“We’ll get you fixed up,” Dent said, patting the condensation-beaded steel of his best friend’s chestplate. “Nothing but the best.” Pebble took the robot’s hand gently, and gave it a squeeze.

“I do not wish to hurry along this reunion,” the Captain offered, “but I find the lack of resistance we have thus far encountered somewhat suspect. And I am, as I have said, eager to once more claim possession of the fine spaceship which is indisputably my own.”

Story listened intently to the dark ship’s network for a moment, eyes pulsing, and then turned — first one way, then the entirely opposite direction. “This way,” he said. “But I must advise you— advise you— advise you—”

“Advise us what?” the Captain asked.

Then the ceiling fell upon Story in a pile of spines. The robot flailed, and the mirrored faces of the Wee Ones dug into Story’s chassis turned to reflect Dent, Pebble, and the Captain.

“Story!” Dent cried, rushing forward. The Captain only just managed to pull him back out of range of a swiping Wee One talon.

“If I may, Your Majesty,” the Captain offered, and stepped forward with his blade flashing. It struck sparks as it clanged against the black hide of the Wee Ones, dashing them off Story with surgical precision.

“Are you functional, my friend?” the Captain asked, as Story seized one straggler with his pincer arm and flung it into the nearest wall.

“Yes,” the robot nodded, looking past the Captain’s shoulder, his laser eyes beginning to charge up. “But conditions appear suboptimal for our remaining so.”

A black, scuttling tide of Wee Ones surged down the corridor behind them, mirrored faces reflecting dozens of tiny Dents, Pebbles, Stories and Corsairs.

The Captain turned, relaxing into a well-studied fencing crouch, as Story readied his laser arm. “Permit me, if you would,” the Captain said in a low, calculating voice, “to deal with the advance wave. If you would then do me the courtesy of—”

Story’s trio of lasers erupted, raking in a precise zigzag pattern across the leading edge of the Wee Ones, slicing them to bits.

“That is fine as well,” the Captain conceded, and hacked a leaping Wee One out of the air. “Children! Kindly remain behind us, that we may better prevent your deaths!”

There seemed no end to the waves of Wee Ones that came at them. Dent and Pebble hung back, lobbing bits of broken class over the heads of the Captain and Story at the charging mass. Corsair’s blade danced and looped, battering away the few Wee Ones able to dodge Story’s lasers. But onward ever the black spiny monsters came, clambering over the fallen bodies of their comrades, until the sword grew heavy in Corsair’s arm, and Story’s laser pulses began to stutter ominiously.

“Ha ha!” the Captain laughed through his own labored breathing, as at last the Wee Ones seemed to back away. “We are both victorious and unmutilated!”

“The latter, yes,” Story nodded. “But the vicar’s onion jam is uncertain of the former.”

It took Corsair a moment to parse that, and then he heard the scrape and clatter of Wee Ones reassembling themselves.

The mass of tiny bots had drawn back indeed — but only to surge together, folding, interlocking into a single figure whose squirming bulk filled the whole of the corridor. Dozens of mirrored faces formed a short of shield on one arm; a multiplicity of razor talons formed sharp claws on the other.

The Great Big One, fully assembled, shook its headless torso to work out the kinks and took one step forward. The corridor trembled and creaked.

Story unleashed a laser salvo, but the thing’s mirrored shield lifted, deflecting the blast back to sizzle across the arched ceiling. One huge black claw raked out, tearing jagged fissures in Story’s chestplating, and sending the robot skidding backward along the hallway.

Dent screamed, and once more the Captain had to hold him back. Pebble ran toward the fallen robot, but he waved her back with a snapping pincer arm.

“Core containment breach,” the robot warbled in a waning voice. Steam issued in hisses from the holes in its chest, along with an ominous flicker of blue light. “The tart seems thoroughly ruined.”

Captain Corsair raised his blade again as the Great Big One turned toward him.

“I had hoped to die beneath a pile of beautiful, angry women,” he sighed. “But one must accept such disappointments with grace.”

Story’s treadball whined, grinding its mechanisms. In a bolt of silver, the robot shot forward up off the floor and smashed squaredly into the Great Big One’s midsection, knocking the behemoth off its feet.

“Young Master,” Story said solemnly, his head swiveling completely around as his limbs flailed against the struggling Great Big One. “You must run now.”

“No, Story!” Dent sobbed, the awful realization driving itself like a fist into his gut. “No, we can fix you up.”

“The damage is too great,” Story said, his voice warping and stuttering as bits of the Great Big One detached themselves to tear at him. “Go, Young Master. I can do this for you.”

“But…” Dent sniffled, “but we’ll never know how The Caravan’s Escape ends.”

“They escape, of course,” Story said gently. “As will you, Young Master. Straight ahead, right at the third juncture, down two decks. Goodb—”

And then his silver hide disappeared beneath a writhing pile of Wee Ones, and Pebble tugged at Dent’s arm. The Captain slung Pebble up onto his shoulders, and lifted Dent off the ground under one arm, and ran all perdition away down the hall. Flashes of blue light from behind made the world strobe around them, capturing strange half-moments of time.

Two corners distant, a wave of absolute silence and blinding blue caught up with them, lifting the Captain off his feet. By reflex, he rolled onto his back, cradling the children to his chest, and skidded in a wave of glass across the onyx floor until the shockwave subsided.

“Well,” the Captain said at last, beneath the weight of two stunned children. “That was spectacular.”

Dent sat up, helping Pebble clamber off the Captain, and looked back the way they had come.

“I would not advise it,” the Captain told him softly. “You should remember him as we was — not as he may be now. He had a good end.”

“Do you think robots get a paradise?” Dent asked him, all seriousness.

“I had not thought of it before,” the Captain said. “Did you know that he was made for war, originally?” Dent nodded, smearing a forearm across his sniffling nose in a way that would have appalled his mother. “I saw others of his model in action,” the Captain added. “During the war. Theirs was not a happy lot. I think… to have some new purpose, to care for you, as he clearly did… that was in itself a paradise for him.”

“He never did get to kill me, though,” Dent smiled, tears drying up.

“I find that a most fortunate turn of events,” the Captain said. “And I am certain he did as well.”

Then Pebble tugged at his sleeve, nervously looking back in the direction they had come, and it was time to be off again.

Story’s directions proved as true as the robot himself, and with some judicious tinkering on Captain Corsair’s part at the entry lock, the three escapees found themselves entering a huge, echoing cavern of a docking bay. Before them, dimly lit by spotlights shining up from the floor, was the familiar pointed silhouette of the Captain’s stolen ship, outlined against the heavy blast doors that separated the hangar from hard vacuum without.

“You see?” the Captain exulted. “My daring plan has entirely succeeded. Soon, we may resume the getting-incredibly-wealthy portion of my original stratagem, yes?”

Pebble signaled to Dent, and when he saw it, too, he nudged the captain. “Is that thing part of your plan?”

It sat unsecured on the hangar deck, next to the gravlocked ship: A fat, nearly featureless silver cylinder, nearly as tall as the captain, laid on its side in a launching track that pointed toward the blast doors.

“It is most assuredly not,” the Captain mused. “But perhaps it could be — depending, of course, on its value?”

Captain Corsair had no further time to speculate on this, alas. For at that moment, a harsh klaxon rang through the bay, and beneath their feet, the three escapees felt heavy machinery grind to life.

“What’s happening?” Dent tried to shout, his words batted away to nothingness by the solid wall of shrieking noise.

The Captain barely had time to gather the children in his arms, plunge the point of his blade deeply into the deck in a fount of sparks, and hold on tight. Then the heavy blast doors opened, and all the air rushed out of the chamber at once.

All three of the people trying very hard to stay inside were too busy suffocating to notice the curious metal cylinder launch itself out into the deep black of space.

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!”

Saturday, December 1, 2007

22. The Eighth Rule of Banditry (Part 1)

The Wee Ones flung him from the chair, unkindly, and Dent’s world went tumbling around him. Something cold smacked hard into his back and his head, and then an upside-down Sir Leslie was smiling his diamond shark smile.

“We’ll let you keep a bit,” Sir Leslie said. “While I sharpen the knives.”

Dent couldn’t see Pebble, but somewhere she was shrieking in fear, and then the cage pressed gently against his head, and upside-down Sir Leslie slid upward out of view, and all around were the prongs and spires of the dark ship’s architecture. A door slid shut, latching with a heavy clang, and Pebble’s shrieks faded, and were finally gone.

Dent scrambled to right himself, and the floor wobbled perilously; he realized in one sickening instant’s rush that there was nothing around him, nothing but air, and clung to the edges of the disc on which he found himself until the wobbling stopped. He was suspended a far and frightening distance in the air, the walls of the chamber arcing up around him in curling spines and filligrees to a ceiling well beyond his reach. The walls were too far to jump, even if he’d been brave enough to try standing up. And when he peered carefully over the edge, he saw Wee Ones moving below in the semidark. Their faces turned up to his in glints of menacing light, and they paused their clacking patrol of the floor, rooted on him.

Slowly, shakily, Dent rolled onto his back. He felt terror and despair rise in a wave in him, squeeze his chest tight and crawl out in salt tears through the corners of his eyes. An Imperial heir did not cry, but then, Dent was no longer an Imperial heir. He was a bandit now, and not a very good one, and soon he would be dinner.

So Dent cried, and understandably so. He cried for the pain slowly ebbing from his back and the back of his skull, and for Pebble screaming off into the distance, and for being a very small boy alone and friendless in a strange and terrible place.

He shut his eyes and wished that this whole adventure had been nothing but a dream. And he shouted, loud as his voice could carry, for himself to wake up. But no miraculous rescue or awakening came.

A small thing, a very ordinary thing, happened instead. But in the grand scheme of things, it was almost as good.

As Dent shouted, the contents of his belt shifted, rattling from one end of their pouches to the other.

Dent, still sniffling, remembered that was alone — but not without resources. And he remembered what Captain Corsair had told him, just before they parted.

“A bandit always has a plan,” Dent said to himself, sounding brave so that maybe he would feel brave. It worked, a little.

Cautiously, the platform wobbling beneath him, Dent rolled over and began to take inventory.

“Food safety,” smiled Sir Leslie, as he finished tying his long hair back. “Very important.” He peeled off his black velvet jacket, undid his ruffly cuffs, and rolled his sleeves up to the elbows for the washing-up.

Sir Leslie had culinary bots to handle most of the tedious fare he usually had to subsist upon, and to prepare the occasional confectionary indulgence. But for the true gourmet meals, the ones Sir Leslie lived for, he preferred to do the cooking himself. He’d had a special kitchen fitted in the ship, adjacent to the wine cellar and his private dining chamber. Most of the cooking was done with lasers and infrawaves these days, but Sir Leslie was a purist. He’d paid extra to cook with fire, fueled by harvested, purified methane from the ship’s waste systems.

Well, he would have paid extra for it, had he paid at all, in any fashion other than several bad bouts of indigestion.

Sir Leslie liked to talk while he cooked, but in most cases, what he considered his sterling conversation was always lessened by the other party or parties’ tendency to scream, whimper, or beg for their lives in a truly unbecoming fashion.

There had been some screaming from the girl earlier, and a little crying, and he’d had to stuff an apple in her mouth the second time she tried to bite him. But now that she was sitting on his countertop, securely tied with excessive amounts of food-grade butcher’s twine, she had settled down to stare at him with those wide, strangely reflective eyes of hers. (Sir Leslie had resolved to retain those, and pickle them separately — their doubtlessly delicate flavor would be utterly lost in a stew.)

She was propped on the island in the midst of Sir Leslie’s pleasantly dim kitchen, flanked on one side by the spice rack, and on the other by the large porcelain basin, just large enough to hold a child. The edges of the drain around the bottom were flecked with bits of something dark and rusty-red.

“There we are,” he grunted, satisfied. “Clean hands.” Turning from the washbasin next to the stove, he toweled his black-thatched forearms dry. Sir Leslie picked up a gleaming steel mallet, studded with little spikes on its face, and tested its weight. “Now, it’s important to tenderize the tougher, stringier cuts of meat before you cook it,” he explained to Pebble, savoring the tremors of worry he saw flitting across her face. “I personally find that a bit of tenderization before one even begins the carving is also useful.”

The mallet lingered in his hand for a moment … and then he laid it back down on the wooden cutting block. “But I’m getting ahead of myself! Must do the prep work first.”

With thick hands — far rougher than a gentleman’s ought to be, despite his daily regimen of softening creams and dermabrasion — he plucked two fat grape-onions and a paperskinned tumus root from the countertop, setting them down in a solid thwack on the cutting block.

“I find it often saves time to prepare the veg in advance,” Sir Leslie said cheerily. “The meat can get a mite messy.” He reached up to the floating knife rack, listening to the blades chime as he swept a finger across the row of their handles, and neatly plucked a utility blade off.

Pebble listened to everything, her mouth cottony-sweet with overripe apple, her jaws pushed painfully open to accomodate it. Behind her back, in small, cautious movements, she peeled one of the stuck-on seashells slowly from the sleeve of her jumpsuit.

“I learned this when I was but a wee boy,” Sir Leslie said, the knife gliding through the tough skin of the first grape-onion with barely a whisper. “We’d had servants once, I remember that. Remember a Winter Ball dinner, with a lovely great pudding. Then Father had that trouble with his holdings, and mother took ill —”

He abruptly slammed the knife down on the block, jerking Pebble’s gaze back from the stove to him. “The cooktop isn’t speaking to you, miss,” Sir Leslie said slowly, and no less sharply than the knife in his hands. “I’m speaking to you. You’ll show me the courtesy of looking at me. Or it’s worse than the stew for you.”

Upon the word “worse,” his diamond teeth briefly sang out, then stilled themselves. Pebble’s eyes widened, and from then on fixed on him. But in her hands, the seashell’s sharp edge began to work its way through the layers of twine, thread by slender thread.

“That’s a good lass,” Sir Leslie purred, turning back to the grape-onion. “See here?” he said, holding up a neatly cleaved segment. “The purple veins between all the layers. That’s how you know it’s fresh. Good and fresh. Very important, fresh food.”

He set down the onion and finished the chopping in a few deft strokes, then turned to the tumus root. “I learned that as a boy, too. Couldn’t get much fresh, with mother’s illness, and the doctors. Just that packaged, processed glob they try to pass as food when you’re — when your circumstances are reduced. Makes you fat, it does. All fat and wobbly.”

He stopped, looking up at Pebble from the neat stripes of skin he was carving off the root. Beneath, its flesh was a firm, wet indigo. “Not that you’ll ever have that problem, eh? Skinny little scrap like you. Bet you’re half gristle.”
He chuckled, as if this was the sort of thing both of them would find very funny, and went back to work.

“Tumus root — full of vitamins,” Sir Leslie grinned, the blade crisping and snacking as it divided the root into broad chunks. “Good low-calorie snack. Not that I’m watching my figure, mind. And it’s simply divine with just a dash of —” his free hand loomed over the spice rack, fingers waggling, and plucked out a vial “— powdered sparkpepper.”

Pebble watched as Sir Leslie slid the catch, the container’s lid opening to reveal a mound of spicy-smelling fine red powder. He dabbed a finger in, and waved it under Pebble’s nose, grinning as her eyes began to water. He picked up a slice of tumus root from the counter, dusted it with a pinch of sparkpepper and let it crunch between his teeth.

“Mmh,” he exulted, when at last he swallowed. “Divine.” He opened his eyes.

Pebble, her hands freed, dashed the entire container of pepper into his face.

Sir Leslie roared, swinging blindly with the utility blade, cleaving only the air. He dropped the knife and stumbled backward in a cascade of oaths, the pepper searing his eyes, until he found the washbasin. It took nearly a click for the water to soothe and clear his swollen, tender eyes, and half a click more until he could keep them open well enough to see.

“Sashimi it is,” he snarled, swabbing his eyes clean with towel, and turned back to the island.

But only a pile of butcher’s twine, a once-bitten apple, and a single seashell, remained of the girl.

Once, the Dark Matter Armada had left its prisoners in the cell where Dent now sat, left them for days floating on the platform in the middle of nothing. The platform was unstable, deliberately; too great a motion in one direction or the other could send them pitching off to the pitiless floor far below. Sometimes, after days and days, they’d simply let themselves slide off. Some, if their balance was good enough, would find their feet enough to jump. Some managed to reach the walls on their way down; if, by cruel luck, they did not manage to have their soft tissues forcefully introduced to one of the jagged protrusions, their lacerated hands and feet would begin to bleed, and they would slip…

And if, by even crueler luck, they survived the fall, still clung to life in a shattered heap on the onyx floor far below, the drones that Sir Leslie would later dub his Wee Ones would be waiting for them.

No prisoner had ever escaped from a Dark Matter Armada vessel. But Dent knew none of this. So he did not give up.

Dent had certain advantages, of course. Clothing, for one — a luxury the Armada had never allowed its prisoners. And of course, the contents of his Adventure Belt.

His brother’s silver spoon.

His sister’s weird little vial.

His mother’s ball of pseudosilk.

His father’s tin soldier.

The Captain’s gold medallion.

These, and his sonic knife, were all the tools Dent had.

He looked up; the ceiling was smooth and featureless, offering no anchor. He looked down again; the pseudosilk might reach all the way down, but while it was strong, it was too slender to grip well. Dent saw himself slipping and falling, and the Wee Ones waiting with their sharp, merciless limbs. Besides, there was nothing on the platform with which he might anchor himself.

The walls had handholds and footholds aplenty, if Dent could have jumped that far. But the prongs and swirls of jagged black material reaching out from the walls looked cruel and sharp.

Cruel, and sharp, and useful.

It took Dent a few tries to tie one end of his mother’s pseudosilk to the silver spoon. (Knots had never been his forte.) It was stronger than steel, by tensile strength; resistant to fraying or cutting, as far too many of Janos of the Midnight Guard’s briefer acquaintances had discovered.

When he was sure the spoon had been tied on good and tight, Dent carefully began to twirl the silk, the spoon at its end, above his head. The platform wobbled, but did not tilt. He threw; the spoon fell far short, and began to plunge.

He hastily tugged on the string and drew it back in. Below, he heard a sudden scraping of pointed appendages. The Wee Ones had taken an interest.

Another throw, this one strong enough, but not accurate — the spoon pinged off the wall and fell again, and the thread nearly slipped from Dent’s fingers before he could pull it back in.

Sitting down was no good. He scooted himself as close to the center of the platform as he could, and tried to slide one knee beneath him.

The platform wobbled wildly, and for one perilous moment, Dent felt himself about to fall. He hunched into a ball, on reflex, and the platform stilled. Slowly, slowly, Dent rose to one knee. The platform quivered beneath him, yet still it held.

Dent closed his eyes and tried to picture himself among the sageriders of one of his favorite stories, The Lariateers of Floating Gulch. Story had acted out the motions as Dent huddled, rapt, at the entrance to his tent.

It felt so long ago to Dent.

The spoon swung in circles above his head, the give of it pleasant to the muscles of his arm, and Dent opened his eyes and let it fly. The spoon arced through the air, trailing silk from the unraveling ball, and plink-tinged itself into the thorny snarl of prongs on the distant wall. Dent pulled, and the spoon wedged crosswise in the gap between two protrusions, and held.

Thumbing on his sonic knife, Dent picked up the captain’s medallion and began the arduous process of cutting into its center.

Eyes still burning, edges of his vision smudged with tears, Sir Leslie Murther threw open the kitchen’s single, heavy iron door. No child awaited him — just the Wee One he’d stationed there as guard. It clicked its legs expectantly, and greeted him with his reflection.

“Well?” Sir Leslie growled. “What’s there to be looking at?” He slammed the door in its face, and his own.

So the little morsel was still here somewhere. Sir Leslie drew his cutlass with one hand, and picked up the tenderizing mallet with the other. Then he put the mallet down again, and picked a fat, gleaming cleaver from the rack. No point in bruising the meat, really — not if he was planning to eat it straightaway.

The kitchen had many crannies and cupboards and hiding places. Sir Leslie threw them all open, poking inside with his cutlass, clanging it against pots and pans, scattering jars and preserves, and doing irreperable harm to some of his cheesecloths. But no little girl.

He stopped, stock still, the cabinets all open, crockery and steelware spilling out around his ankles. Sir Leslie sniffed the air. The child was still here. He could have smelled her even if she hadn’t, by this point, gone a full turn and then without a bath. And he could hear something, rustling around in some dark hidden place. In the gloomy family kitchen of his youth, he might have thought it a rat, nibbling about in the sawdust. But there were no rats on Sir Leslie’s ship. Not for very long there weren’t.

The stovetop rattled, ever so faintly, and Sir Leslie whirled. One by one, his smile revealed the points of his shining teeth. He stalked back around the island, toward the oven. The contractors had pushed it out from the wall by a measure, and the cabinets and countertops adjacent to run the mains in. Enough room for a skinny little child, one accustomed to tight spaces.

Sir Leslie, entirely forgetting his own insistence on a top-of-the-line Crouch Industries Speedi-Char Archaic Replica Stove, lashed out with the heel of his boot against the oven door. The entire stove tilted backward, smashing against the wall with a jangling clash, and thumped just as noisily back into place.

Sir Leslie had expected a cry, a whimper, something. But he heard nothing. No sobs, no howls of high, girlish pain.

Not even the steady hiss of escaping gas, odorless, colorless, from a torn-open methane line.

Sir Leslie scowled, and with slow, hunching steps, edged around the counter toward the door, to peer into the gap behind the cabinetry. Far back the darkness, back where the opposite cabinet sat flush against a protruding bulkhead, he saw reflective eyes glimmering back at him.

“There you are,” Sir Leslie purred, all sweetness and lamb’s wool. “Gave me quite a scare, you did. Come on out, won’t you?” He set down the cutlass and squeezed one arm into the gap behind the cupboards. Out of sight, he kept the cleaver raised, ready to bring it down upon the girl as soon as he’d pulled her free.

But the eyes in the gloom didn’t move. And Sir Leslie’s smile began to curdle into a sneer.

“Very well,” he said. “Won’t come to me, then? My, but we’re obstinate.” He rose, picking up his cutlass and tucking it hastily into his belt, and stomped away, careful to keep one eye on the gap leading from behind the cabinets. “I’ve a way of dealing with stubborn little children,” Sir Leslie grunted, opening a high cabinet.

He pulled down a long, gleaming spit, the one he used on occasion to slow-roast entire cattle — among other, more sentient meals — over the firepit he’d had installed adjacent to the engine room. It looked like the sort of thing one might find in the Forbidden Black Cookbooks of the Library of Despair. Indeed, Sir Leslie had mail-ordered it from one of the Library’s Catalogs of Sinister Sundries, and written a very polite thank-you note upon its arrival to express his satisfaction with the merchandise.

He hefted the spit like a pike, gave it a few exploratory thrusts through the air. Long enough to reach. Sharp enough to hold fast. Yes, this would just do.

“Draw near, my little morsel,” Sir Leslie smiled, pacing back toward the gap behind the cabinet. “I’ve a wonder to show you.”

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Empire Requests Your Patience

To our humble readers...

Correction: To our humble reader. (The plural being something of a grand assumption in regard to this particular venture.)

It is a regrettable fact of human physiology that all but a select handful of individuals require fairly regular amounts of sleep. (Navy SEALS and the parents of newborn infants are among the notable exceptions to this rule.) Alas, the Imperial Scribes responsible for chronicling the adventures of young Accident, his speechless friend Pebble, and their somewhat talky and overly expositional gaggle of motley allies, are not among this select cadre of the sleep-immune. The Imperial Gengineers are working diligently to isolate the necessary chromosomes that will alleviate this problem; until then, the Scribes require rest.

Yes, even "Coffee Nerves" MacGillicuddy, seemingly tireless backbone of the Division of Spurious Punctuation.

Unfortunately, there has been some sort of contest taking place for the past several weeks, and the Scribes, equally motivated by a sense of duty and a desire to avoid summary execution, have been burning the Midnight Oil in order to meet the necessary allotment of words. (Midnight Oil fumes have been known to cause dizziness, improper use of semicolons, and convoluted plotting, the effects of which you may already have noticed.)

Much to the Scribes' relief, their diligence has paid off. The goal now met, the Scribes are under somewhat less pressure of imminent beheading, and are free to sleep, if not as much as they like, then certainly more than they have been. Imperial Statisticians have already noticed a 20% reduction in irritability, 30% fewer drooping eyelids during daylight hours, and a 100% drop in unauthorized snoring.

Alas, this newfound reacquaintance with the proverbial arms of Morpheus has led to a drop in productivity among the Scribes. Where they once prided themselves on the production of a new chapter each and every day, their attempts to catch up on their rest have left them lucky to hammer out 2,000 words a day. And with installments growing progressively longer as our story barrels toward its exciting conclusion -- yes, there will be a conclusion; yes, it will be exciting, or at least, we hope so; and yes, there may even be barrels involved -- the Scribes' chapter-a-day goal has proven somewhat less than reachable.

The Grand Galactic Imperium asks -- well, technically "demands," but "asks" sounds so much more pleasant -- your understanding during this time of weariness. The Scribes assure us that the next chapter is well under way, and involves a cooking lesson with the dastardly Sir Leslie Murther, and at least 50% of the Imperium's recommended daily allowance of excitement. Possibly more, depending on the reader's body mass and medical history.

Until then, we thank you for your patience, your utter failure to attempt to violently overthrow us, and those lovely taxes you send us every year. Walking seashell palaces don't pay for themselves, you know.

Vociferous Interminabilius
Spokesmaster, Grand Galactic Imperium

Monday, November 26, 2007

21.5. The Horizon of Events (Part 2)

Crestfall moved along the fireteam, passing his hands through the wisps of smoke rising from their uniforms, making the signs of prayer for them. At the edge of the scattered men he stopped, knelt down.

“I know you, soldier,” he said softly, to the ruined, gasping face that looked up at him.

The trooper choked out syllables through scalded lips. “Honziger, sir. Aide to the XO.”

“On the Crucible, yes,” Crestfall nodded, smiling down kindly at him. “You fought like a lion. Were you fixed to shoot me there, Lieutenant?”

“Wasn’t sure it was you, sir,” Honziger said. The words flaked like ashes from him. “You look different.”

“I could say the same,” Crestfall said. The funniest thing that could be said of Honziger was the way his eyebrows still trailed tiny gossamer wisps of smoke. The rest of him was not very amusing at all. “What’s your brief here, Lieutenant?”

Honziger gasped, struggled, mastered his breath for a little while longer yet. “Nothing official. They don’t tell us.”

“But there were rumors,” Crestfall said. “There are always rumors.”

“VIP,” Honziger said. “Got some kind of bomb. Big bomb. Rain all perdition on that powwow out there. That’s all I heard.” His eyes unfocused, and then sharpened again, just over Crestfall’s shoulder. “Yago?”

“Hello, Karl,” Captain Corsair nodded, bowing slightly. “I thought it was you. I regret we could not meet under kinder circumstances.”

“You know this featherhead?” Crestfall asked the dying man, genuinely surprised.

“Know him?” Honziger laughed. It was a terrible sound. “He owes me twenty coin.”

Corsair smiled, bleakly, and reached for his belt, withdrawing two solid, shining golden discs, each bearing a circle of twelve stars. He bent down and placed them in one of Honziger’s blistered hands, slowly closing the fingers shut.

“A gentleman pays his debts,” Corsair said. “For the ferryman, then.”

But Honziger was beyond all hearing.

“Did he say something about a bomb?” Lis asked, hovering at the edge of the fallen fire team. She had never seen anyone die before, except perhaps for that incident with the Viscount of Beauregard a few years back, and, well, she’d been preoccupied at the time. And he’d gone happy, by all appearances.

“We need to find a comm station strong enough for ship-to-ship,” Crestfall said, standing. “Can your Story dip a toe in their network?”

“Done,” the robot nodded, eyes pulsing and flickering as data streamed through the air and into his crystalline brain. “The rest of the crew has been alerted. Teams are on their way here.” Story nodded toward the small hatchway leading from the cargo hangar to the interior of the ship. “Communications are locked down, save for the bridge.”

“Then we fight to the bridge,” Crestfall said. “Be a change to lead this side of the charge, for once.”

The Bosun grunted, muscles straining, and tore the lid off a secure locker off to one side of the pile of crates from the Zephyr. “Found our weapons,” she called, hoisting her Whomping Stick and checking the blade end for nicks.

“Some of these aren’t fried,” Pug nodded, arms full of the fallen troopers pulse-guns. “So we’ve got artillery, too.”

“I have found the Young Master,” Story announced, head canted at an angle, as if listening for a distant sound. “The frequency of the Captain’s tracker — it is faint, but nearby. On the dark ship, I would estimate.”

“We’ve got no craft to reach it,” Crestfall said, plucking Bad News from the air as the Bosun tossed it to him. “We get to the bridge, raise a cry, and we’ll have your fleet and mine to get the boy back.”

“Assuming he’s alive,” the Bosun said darkly, handing Lis her repeater-pistol and lash. “Anyone flying the Dark Matter profile isn’t like to coddle him with tea and cakes.”

“And that ship had the bomb,” Pug nodded. “Dead guy said so. If the ship is the bomb — well, I don’t want to tell Mother I let the little stain get vaporized.” By someone outside the family, he did not add.

“I could get there,” Story said quietly. “I am fully equipped with jets to navigate in zero.”

“But you’re not shielded,” Lis replied. “The cold out there—”

“I accept the possibility,” Story said. “He is my responsibility.”

“And mine,” Corsair added. He was sealing up a black standard-gauge zerosuit, the helmet tucked under one arm. “I will find this ship and retrieve the boy.”

Crestfall drew Bad News and closed the distance between them in a matter of seconds. The Captain did not flinch as the blade glimmered an inch from his face. “That’s not happening,” the Captain said, even but firm. “You’re in my custody, or their custody, but you don’t go free.”

“Your voice is the only one the FLAW will recognize,” Corsair replied. “You will need the Bosun’s fighting skills to reach the bridge, and His Majesty’s. And while Her Majesty’s graces are many and splendid, I sadly doubt she has the sufficient experience in zero. Even if more suits were available to us than the one I wear.”

“All well and good,” Crestfall told him, the blade of Bad News not wavering in the slightest. “But I’m sworn to bring you back. It’s my duty.”

“Duty is done at the order of others,” Corsair said softly. “Honor is done for oneself alone. And this is a matter of honor.”

“Let him go,” Lis said, drawing the Captain’s cloak tighter around her shoulders. “He’ll come back. For his Bosun, if nothing else.”

“Damn well better,” Bosun Little smiled, but sadly.

“I will return with the boy — and with my very fine ship, whose ownership you contest,” Corsair grinned. “On this, I give you my word. And if we remain in disagreement then, we shall settle the matter as gentlemen do — with steel.”

Slowly, Crestfall swung the blade down and away. “You run out on me,” he said, “I’ll chase you thrice round the rim and back. Swear to say. And check the seals on your suit there — the generics tend toward the leaky.”

The Captain sealed the zerosuit’s helmet on, and Bosun Little stepped forward to hand him his saber. “Behave yourself while I am away,” he grinned at her from within the helmet. “Remember, you are among company of quality.”

“I could say the same,” the Bosun grinned, and punched him genially in the shoulder, light enough that he only staggered back a step or two. “You come back in a singular piece, square? Can’t collect my pay if you’re bifurcated.”

“I shall do my best,” the Captain nodded, as Story clack-clack-clacked toward the airlock nestled beside the docking bay door, and began to hack its seal.

The Captain turned to follow, but a hand encircled his arm. “Your Majesty?” he asked.

Lis’s mouth quirked, as if she were trying to spit something out. “I have to know,” she said. “I asked you before, why you gave me your cloak.”

Corsair sighed genially. “Majesty, I find your lack of concern for your brother entirely dismaying.”

“I’m not worried about him at all,” she smiled. “The great Captain Santiago Desdichado Dominguez y Corsair is coming to save him.”

And the Captain grinned back at her. “A fair point. I gave you my cloak because you are a lady, Your Majesty, and ever deserve to be treated as such. I gave it because you did indeed look cold.” He paused, and a strangeness, a shadow, stole for one moment across his features. “And for one other reason besides.”

“Yes?” Lis asked, wide-eyed, expectant. But the Captain just grasped her hand gently through the glove of his zerosuit.

“I would kiss Her Majesty’s hand, if I could,” Corsair smiled, and tapped the visor of his helmet, “but alas, the suit presents difficulties. Ask me again when you see me next.”

The airlocked opened with a hiss, and Story rolled inside. The Captain followed, Lis watching, and the door sealed shut behind them. Through the small window in the airlock door, she saw the Captain turn once more to her and wink. Then the outer door opened, and in a soundless rush, Corsair and Story tumbled out into the dark.

Lis stood there, staring through the tiny window out into the endless reaches of space, even as the door on the opposite side of the hangar exploded inward in rubble and smoke, and fire teams of black-suited freelancers began to pour into the hangar bay. Even as Crestfall began delivering Bad News, and the Bosun and Pug leapt into the fray, and began to make a great many of the opposing force wish they’d demanded better pay for this job, or at least more thorough medical coverage.

It was not the most considerate move, on Lis’s part, nor the most conducive to her long-term survival. But under the circumstances, it was entirely understandable.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

21. The Horizon of Events (Part 1)

If you’d asked Ludo Tisane why he’d signed on with the independent contractors of Pacification Services Intergalactic (a division of Amalgamated Facilitation, a branch of Magnacorp, a division of Yummi-Chow Pet Nutrition, a wholly owned subsidiary of Crouch Industries) after his tours in the Third Galactic Conflict, he’d probably say something about service and sacrifice.

In truth, however, Tisane just really, really enjoyed shooting people.

Not that he was one of those giggling maniacs you hear so much about, the sort who went around fondling their weapons of choice in ways that psychologists could build entire careers upon. Tisane kept his gun holstered at all times save two. First, when he disassembled, cleaned, and reassembled it every night, blindfolded and timed. And second, when he was actually doing some of that shooting he enjoyed so much.

At the moment, Tisane’s repeater-pistol was safely strapped to the holster on his thigh. But his deceptively casual posture, the way his eyes swept the room as if they were painting bullseyes on everything they saw, tended to give others the impression that those circumstances could change at any time. The two dozen armed men behind him, their pulse-guns raised and ready, did nothing to lighten the mood.

“Comfortable?” he asked the prisoners, around the toothpick dancing from one end of his mouth to the other. The mottled black fabric of his uniform fell in neat creases along the lean lines of his frame.

Lis raised her head as far as the shackles would allow, and gave him her sweetest, most insincere smile. “Aside from the itch on my nose? Mostly.”

The royals, Tisane knew by sight. He’d already heard snickers circulating from his men about the possible benefits of having the Ministress of Love aboard. As for the Minister of Violence, Tisane had him double-bound while he was still unconscious, just like that half-sized joke passing for a Corinthian. Tisane had seen the vids of Pugio’s spectacle battles; the kid was used to fighting animals too dumb to outthink him, or people too loyal to beat him. Tisane had ways to defeat that.

The robot must be the royals’, he figured. Leave it to the Imperium to take a perfectly good Kill-O-Tron and reprogram it to say please and thank you. He had it magnalocked, still, just to be safe.

The famous Commodore Crestfall, he knew — no one who’d so much as passed through the FLAW these past ten years could have missed the vids of that face. Funny how famous people looked so much smaller and worse in person. Tisane knew Crestfall’s name held water, even with some of his own men, but he personally had a name for a man who loses his ship and gets himself impaled for his trouble. It was not the sort of name one repeated around children.

The fop with the metal hand, and what Tisane assumed was his friend the little Corinthian, Tisane didn’t know. That was OK. Tisane had shot plenty of people he didn’t know. Especially when their manners were as excruciatingly good as this one’s.

His men had worked fast, gutting the Zephyr. They’d cut out the pluslight drive for parts — never know when those might come in handy — and stripped the precious stones and metals from the consoles. One of those occasional bonuses of freelance work. It wasn’t like its passengers were going to need the ship again, famous or not. Not with the orders Tisane had gotten from Mrs. Poole.

Tisane bit down on the toothpick and smiled. “Here’s how this is gonna work. I’m going to ask you questions. You’re going to answer them. Who else knows you’re here?”

“The whole of the Imperium,” Lis sneered.

“And the FLAW besides,” Crestfall added, unblinking.

Tisane laughed. “Sure they do. I suppose that’s why they’re all floating out there, nose to nose, and not coming anywhere near us. Clever little strategy of theirs, don’t you think?”

“No one knows we are here,” the robot chimed in. Tisane saw the royals, brother and sister both, shoot it a dirty look. Good old robot honesty. “Their Majesties were sent to retrieve an object of great value to the Imperium, stolen by Captain Corsair and Bosun Little.”

“That so?” Tisane nodded, walking toward the robot. The Minister of Violence tried to lunge at him, but the restraints held, gravitationally linking his wrists and his ankles and the deck of the docking bay. “This object of great value — they still have it?”

“No,” the robot answered, its red eyes softly glowing.

“Story, one more word and I’ll have you deactivated,” Lis hissed. Tisane looked at her for a second, smirked, and turned back to the robot.

“The prize was stolen from all of us, by the black vessel with which you seem to be aligned,” it continued calmly.

Tisane frowned. Poole had said escort and containment duty; show up, protect the VIP — whoever he was, in that shudder-skinning ship of his — and bag anyone else who got close. Nothing about a treasure. He’d have to make sure he got his cut of that.

“However,” the robot said, “we do have the ransom we were bound to deliver.”

At this, the fop began to struggle. Tisane would have found it cute, if he’d allowed the word in his vocabulary to begin with.

“You wretched steel dog!” Captain Shorthair or whatever his name was seethed, wriggling around like a mudcrawler on a hook. “The treasure is ours! I swear, by all the stars—!”

“Stow it, greasy,” Tisane said mildly, doubling the fop over with a kick to the guts. He saw the Ministress of Love flinch at this. Interesting, if not especially useful. “Talk on, tin man.”

“As a functionary of the Imperium,” the robot said, “I am prepared to offer you the entire ransom in exchange for the safe release of Their Majesties. Whatever you are being paid, I guarantee, the ransom exceeds it.”

“You’d be surprised,” Tisane chuckled. “Where’s this ransom hiding?” The robot swiveled his head to the pile of cargo crates Tisane’s men had offloaded from the Zephyr.

“The three maroon containers,” the robot said. “Marked with the Imperial seal on the lids. Do we have an accord?”

“I make no deals until I’ve seen the goods,” Tisane said, then nodded to two of the men in the fire team. “Kerner. Po’ua.”

The troopers fell out and doubled-timed toward the stack of crates. In less than a click, they’d found the crates and lugged them back to Tisane. The fop made another lunge, this time for the ransom crates, and Tisane laughed and dragged the crate a little further from the line of prisoners.

“All right, men,” Tisane nodded. “Let’s open ‘em up.”

Po’ua unsnapped the first clasp, and slowly raised the lid. Strange light shone upon his face, and his eyes widened.

“Sir,” he breathed. Even Tisane nearly dropped the toothpick from his lips. The case held more rubies, fist-sized rubies, than he’d seen in a decade of artful misappropriations and spoils of war.

“Lords of Perdition,” he swore.

Po’ua ran an analyzer over the gems and looked up. “They’re real, sir. All of them.”

“Of course they’re real,” Lis huffed from a distance. She had a mouth on her, Tisane thought. Just like that servant girl last year in the Caliph’s palace.

The men of the fire team, as one many-legged unit, drew closer to the chests, the straight line of their rifles drooping. Tisane nodded to Kerner, who opened the second chest. The latch unsnapped, and a golden glow spilled out around the edges.

“How many laurels do you think that is, sir?” Kerner asked softly. Tisane looked in the chest, at the heaps and heaps of gold coins bearing the Emperor’s face.

“Almost enough,” Tisane laughed. He glanced at the fop, who was looking like someone had just kicked him in the beans. With an asteroid. These were the little moments that made Tisane’s job so enjoyable.

The fire team drew closer, mesmerized by the sight of more laurel coins than they’d collectively earn in a year. Tisane crouched down by the third and final case, the men falling into step behind him.

“Sir?” the robot asked, an edge of nervousness in the synthetic trill of its voice. Its doubt circuits were beginning to kick in. “I ask again — do we have an accord?”

“We’ll find out in a moment,” Tisane said, laying one hand upon the latch.

“Were I you,” the Commodore spoke up softly, “I wouldn’t open that case. ‘Course, I’d do a lot of things different, in that circumstance.”

“Were I you,” Tisane replied, “I wouldn’t be so careless with my capital ships.” He opened the latch.

The world went blue.

The lightning bomb surged through Tisane, jumping with a series of deafening cracks through each and every member of the fire team, and finally down into the floor. The lights in the cargo bay flickered and dimmed, and the grav-units holding the prisoners’ shackles in place whined and died out.

One by one, smoking, their uniforms flaming in patches, the fire team dropped to the deck. If they moved at all, it was only to twitch.

“Thank the gods for Mother and her spitefulness,” Lis sighed, shruggling off the shackles and getting shakily to her feet.

“That was meant for us?” marveled Corsair, flexing his real and artificial hands. “For the Bosun and myself? Truly, I am honored! Should you get the opportunity, please, tell Her Majesty she outdid herself.”

“You knew that was in there?” the Bosun growled at Pug, as the two helped Story out of the magnoclamps.

“Not that, specifically,” Pug shrugged. “But I know my mom. And hey — honestly, tell me you woulda done different, for me.”

The Bosun frowned, and tore the last clamp from around Story’s treadball. “I might’ve dropped a hint or something,” she muttered.

Tisane’s heart no longer beat. He was not about to let that minor inconvenience, or any resulting self-pity, cost him his last few seconds of useful consciousness. Not when he could be shooting people. Sprawled on the deck, muscles stiffened and twitching from residual current, he clawed at his holster, felt the repeater good and solid in his hands, and aimed with blurred vision at the prisoners. There. That one looked like the fop. Good enough.

Commodore Crestfall’s boot lashed out, kicking the pistol across the deck. It lay there, just a few feet from Tisane, impossibly far.

“Never say I didn’t give you a chance,” Crestfall sighed.

Tisane looked across the deck at his pistol, his vision dimming. He breathed one last heavy sigh, like an infant deprived its favorite toy, and then looked a great way into the distance, at nothing that living eyes could see.

To be continued...

Saturday, November 24, 2007

20. Puffcakes and Peril

Of the estimated thousands of Dark Matter Armada warships to take part in the Third Galactic Conflict, only one was recovered intact. Sir Augustine Winthrop-Wong, on a private pleasure-cruise of the very combat sites he had so assiduously avoided during the actual war, discovered it orbiting the dark side of the gas giant Porphyrus. The conflict had been over for five years.

Sir Augustine promptly claimed the ship by right of salvage, although he didn’t actually bother to tell either of the interested governments of his new find. He briefly considered exploring it himself, but that sounded distressingly like effort. The far braver souls he hired for the task reported endless, mazelike corridors, bay after bay of jettisonned escape pods, and everywhere, lifeless servant droids scattered in slicing heaps of prongs and spires on the cold onyx decks. Sir Augustine absorbed all this information, mildly fascinated, and then arranged for the exploration teams to have a dreadful mishap with their vessel’s oxygen supply. It was his standard means of avoiding debts.

Sir Augustine knew that nothing was a proper secret until someone else knew about it. But he had to choose his confidant carefully. His betters in the pan-galactic aristocracy would condemn him for flights of fancy, or worse yet, report him to the Imperium, the FLAW, or both. And Sir Augustine was keen to keep this new toy to himself, at least until he struck upon the most lucrative means of profiting from it. But if he were seen slumming with any of the hangers-on around the lower rungs of the aristocracy, the gossip on the club circuit would surely be intolerable. After much consideration, Sir Augustine chose a happy medium of sorts, sagging away from the middle ranks of the social hierarchy, but possessed of the sort of vaguely unsavory reputation that made him the most deliciously scandalous guest at all the best parties.

It was a careful choice, but ultimately not a wise one.

“Do tell,” Sir Leslie Murther had grinned, in the dimly lit booth on the Copernical Club in orbit off Celestine.

Sir Leslie offered to buy the craft from Sir Augustine, the number of zeroes at the end of each offer growing consecutively longer. But Sir Augustine was a proud man, and a covetous one, and had no interest in parting with his prize discovery. He entertained the offers only because they were generally accompanied by free dinners, and Sir Augustine had his resources to think of.

At last, Sir Leslie struck a deal he found difficult to stomach. But while it proved difficult on his teeth and his digestion, he surely came out of it far better than the unfortunate Sir Augustine. (Or, for that matter, Sir Augustine’s many creditors.)

Sir Leslie towed the craft personally to orbit the green-gray, drizzly, dreary world of his birth. The finest and most discreet mechanics and artisans were summoned from across the Imperium and the FLAW, sworn to absolute secrecy. They repaired the ship’s strange engines and power systems, patched the burns and rents in its bristling hull, reprogrammed and refitted the servant droids, and remodeled the interior to Sir Leslie’s eccentric specifications.

Any one of these technicians might have spilled word of the strange craft to the galaxy beyond. None got the chance. Sir Leslie had his own way of avoiding his debts. It involved quite a lot of heartburn on his part, and frequent doses of bicarbonate of soda.

Now, even as the battered Imperial Zephyr was captured for docking, the black ship it had pursued through long days of plus light drifted patiently nearby, nestled in the shadow of the gas giant’s largest moon. And at its very heart, in one of the few chambers of the whole of the ship bereft of any reflective surface whatsoever, Sir Leslie ran and ran and ran.

Sweat arced in speckled cascades off his pale skin, beading on fine curls of thick black hair along his chest, arms, and back. He wore loose-fitting breeches, and softly padded shoes, and he wheezed and staggered his way through an infinity of nothingness. All the while, a voice shouted in his ear.

“Lollygagger!” it snarled. “You greasy gobbet of old suet! You fat, bloated beast! Look at you ripple! Look at you lurch! Disgusting! Faster on, you circus tent, you elephant! Faster!” The voice was his own, prerecorded.

Moisture shone in tracks along Sir Leslie’s face, running into the flopping tangles of his beard. It may have been sweat. It may have been tears.

At last, he felt the treads below him slow. The voice faded away, as if receding into the distance. It contained the distinct promise of returning. Sir Leslie clamped his thick-knuckled hands to his knees and sucked in great lungfuls of air, his hair falling loose and bedraggled into his eyes.

When he’d recovered enough to move, he staggered from the exercise chamber directly into his bath — a chamber equally black, and equally bereft of mirrors — and bathed himself, dried and toweled and perfumed himself. He donned his smalls, and then wriggled into his Special Device, and pressed its activation clasp. The Device shifted around his torso, squeezing and lifting, and Sir Leslie once again felt fully himself: slim, straight, tall. Every inch the man of breeding.

He flung open the double doors to his bedchamber, admiring the rich, silken bounce of his flowing locks and well-groomed beard in the mirrors on the walls and the ceiling. Around the room, his treasures hung mounted from the ebony support pillars. Sir Augustine’s walking-stick, cracked in half, still bearing teethmarks. The pliers of the dentist who’d redecorated Sir Leslie’s mouth, and then promptly and permanently left his practice. Mummy’s favorite brooch, with most of the dried blood off, except for the cracks and corners. Sir Leslie loved souvenirs.

Two of his Wee Ones trotted up lovingly to meet him, their reflective faces showing him the handsomeness of his own. They brought him clothes, freshly pressed and scented and clean, and helped him dress. His boots gleamed as he let the Wee Ones slide them up and on to his legs. His cutlass, shined and sharpened, was a reassuring weight against his hip. He made one last pluck at the lace ruffle of his shirtfront, and rose from his dressing table.

It was time for high tea.

Crouch called, of course, as he navigated the corridors to the sitting room, the voice following him as he wound through the mirrored maze.

“I’m not disturbing anything, I trust?” Good old Quarry. Not of noble blood, to be certain, but considerate to a fault all the same.

“Just on my way for tea,” Crouch said, licking his lips, careful after years of practice not to cut his tongue on the edges of his teeth. “I’m saving supper until after I’ve delivered your little gift.”

“Very good,” Crouch said. “It’s ready, then?”

“Armed as we speak in the forward bay,” Sir Leslie nodded. “Next to that ship you’re so keen on. Waiting for the launching when it’s time.”

“You’ll want to stick around for this one,” Crouch said, the sound of a smile in his voice. “At a safe distance, of course. Indescribable, really.”

“If I’m not busy with supper,” Sir Leslie replied, “I might do.”

The Wee Ones had come and gone by the time he arrived at the sitting room, pleasantly musty and lined with all the old books that his family had proudly passed down unread from generation to generation. Above the fireplace, flickering with mock holographic flames, Sir Leslie’s family portrait hung — a great sturdy barrel of a man, his black beard streaked with gray rivulets; a pale and puckered woman, her tightly wound black hair bunched upon her head like a nesting spider; twin sons, tall and strapping, grinning fierce mischevious grins toward the painter; and off in the corner, indistinctly in shadow, a small round shape that might have been a little boy.

For all the times he’d seen it, Sir Leslie’s breath still caught in his throat as he surveyed the full table laid out along the length of the cozy room. Above the black silken tablecloth, a fairy-kingdom of sugar-dusted spires rose on silver serving trays, bursting with merry candy colors. The macaroons and the kitten-ear biscuits, the snickerdoodles and the frosted gingerstars. And the puffcakes, oh, the puffcakes, with their airy, faintly crunchy crust, the solid square sugar granules that fell fat against your tongue, the thick creamy filling with hints of fruit and almonds.

Sir Leslie’s mouth began to water, a common occurrence. He dabbed at it with a black handkerchief. One mustn’t start eating before company was seated; Mummy had taught him that, with harsh words and the occasional rap of a silver serving ladle across his knuckles. But, oh, the ship’s miraculous robotic chefs had prepared so very many of those tantalizing puffcakes. Surely one would not be missed.

The puffcake was in Sir Leslie’s hand before he even realized, and then into his mouth, and he shut his eyes while the flavors mashed themself against his teeth and tongue and the insides of his cheeks.

Sir Leslie gulped it down and reached for another one. Just one more couldn’t hurt. But the scribble-scrabble of the Wee Ones’ legs on the corridor decks outside told him that company was soon to come, and he froze, waiting for a scolding. None came, of course. Sir Leslie laughed to himself, and fastidiously wiped away a dab of custard from his moustache. He walked around behind the table, before the fireplace, and stood with arms folded, awaiting his guests. The door slid open soundlessly.

Two clusters of Wee Ones walked in, having formed themselves into armchairs of sorts, spindling along on four spiny limbs apiece. In each of the high-backed chairs, securely bound by the Wee Ones’ appendages, the boy and the girl sat, pale (paler, in the girl’s case) and disheveled, blinking in the relative brightness of the sitting room.

He had expected their faces to light up, as his had, when they saw the delicious tea laid out for them. But they did not — just stared at him, sullen and just a touch fearful. Within him, Sir Leslie felt familiar storm clouds begin to gather, and he cleared his throat.

“Hello, children,” he said, careful to smile closedmouthed this time. Too much adrenalin, too many stress hormones, made for a stringy, acrid meal. Much better to sweeten things with a healthy dose of sugar. “And such lovely fit children you are, at that. You must be His Majesty. And who is your friend?”

“I’m Dent,” the boy said. “This is Pebble.” Sir Leslie had expected more blubbering, perhaps some pleading. But the boy just stared at him levelly, calmly. A touch of the royal blood in him, then, for certain. The girl, with perhaps a few more nervous glances at the boy, did likewise. They looked too different to be brother and sister; Sir Leslie wondered if she’d been part of the crew of that ship Crouch was so interested in. He also wondered if he’d have to employ some sort of marinade with her; she looked a bit on the stringy side.

“You may call me Sir Leslie,” he said, and bowed with a flourish, as his father had taught him. “Your friend — does she speak for herself?”

He noticed the girl Pebble’s hands fluttering, making some sort of signals. The boy Dent watched them, and his eyes widened slightly. “I’m not going to say that,” he whispered sharply to her. “That’s not nice.” He looked at Sir Leslie. “She doesn’t like talking.”

“That’s quite all right,” Sir Leslie said, rounding the table toward the boy. His fingers twitched, wanting to snare a gingerstar, just one, and pop it in his mouth. He had to remain strong. Indulgences were, by nature, occasional. Anything more frequent was base gluttony. He knew that.

“Is there something wrong with her tongue, perhaps?” Sir Leslie asked, all honey and jasmine. The boy shook his head. “Ah, good,” Sir Leslie relaxed. “The tongue adds such a lovely flavor.”

He put out a hand and tested the flesh of the boy’s arm. Wonderful; plenty of muscle, just a bit of baby fat. Some onions, some mycoprotein slabs to soak up all that fat when it rendered out. Maybe with a few lemons. “Ohh, I see why they were hiding you. A fine young boy you are. Plenty of fresh air for you, yes? Plenty of exercise, good food? Your family must just eat you up.”

Dent looked at him as if he’d grown an extra head. “Why does everyone keep saying that?” he asked. “Did you ever meet my family?”

The memory suffused Sir Leslie with a warm glow, and for a moment, the storm clouds thinned and rolled back. “Indeed I did. The Midwinter Ball, two years back.” He was fifth cousin, several times removed, to one of the distaff lines of the Imperial family tree. Visiting the Imperial palace had felt like coming home. And oh, the food.

“So that was you?” Dent asked, looking at Sir Leslie quizzically.

“Ah! Your family remembered me, did they?” Sir Leslie puffed up with pride, or started to, before his Special Device kicked in.

“My mother said you had the manners of a droolhound,” Dent told him. It was not the comment that wounded Sir Leslie — it was the look of apology, of pity, on the boy’s face. “She doesn’t like anyone, really,” the boy said, as if that made it better. The storm cloud thickened, and Sir Leslie’s palm fell to rest on the hilt of his cutlass.

“Your mother,” he said, grinding his teeth like his own mother had always told him not to, “shouldn’t talk about people behind their backs.” He felt sparks dancing in his mouth from every scrape of his diamond dentition. Sir Leslie stopped, took a deep breath. Smile, mouth closed. Fear makes the meat bitter. No point spoiling a good meal now.

“The both of you must be hungry,” Sir Leslie purred, mastering his temper. “Wouldn’t you like a sweet?” With a wave of his hand, the Wee One chairs uncoiled the restraints around the children’s left arms, and scooted close enough for them to reach the table.

The boy and girl looked at one another, hesitantly. The girl gave a little shake of her head. The boy looked at him and said quietly, “No thank you. We’re not hungry.”

“Not even you, little miss?” Sir Leslie asked, all outward concern. Inside, the storm clouds had begun to blacken, and the wind picked up. “Don’t be frightened. It’s all very good. Here.” Sir Leslie reached out with a hand that didn’t quite tremble in anticipation, and plucked another puffcake from the top of one silver serving tower. Tactically necessary, he told himself. It’s not gluttony if you’re putting your guests at ease.

The children seemed unconvinced. Very well — perhaps just one more. Who cared that the Special Device had begun to pinch a bit?

“Mmm,” Sir Leslie exulted, mouth full. He turned to the children and smiled, waiting to speak until he’d swallowed the last of it and swathed his teeth clean with his tongue. “See? Go on. Have some.”

“No thank you,” Dent said quietly. In Sir Leslie’s mind, distant thunder rumbled.

“Not good enough for you?” Sir Leslie said softly, his smile freezing, beginning to crack around the edges. “Is that it? Is the food better in your private seashell palace, Your Majesty? Are the cakes sweeter? How very trying this must be for you, then.”

As if of its own volition, the hand resting on the hilt of his blade began to slide it slowly in and out of the scabbard, just an inch or so. The sound of knives scraping always pleased Sir Leslie.

“Never had to scrape for anything in your life, did you?” Sir Leslie continued. He plucked a macaroon off the table and began to nibble on it in neat tiny bites, talking all the while. “Never had to look up at anyone, eh? Got everything you wanted, every time. Lucky you.”

“Actually—” Dent began. Sir Leslie slammed his macaroon-eating hand down on the table, making the silver rattle. He bent his shaggy head to Dent’s level.

“We do not speak when others are speaking,” he said, mouthing each word. Flecks of coconut danced on his lips. Then he stood, and discreetly smeared the bits of smashed cookie off the palm of his hand and onto the tablecloth.

“Must have been a lovely life for you,” Sir Leslie continued. “Secret son of the empire. No one to pity you, to whisper behind your back. No one telling you to straighten up, tuck in, stop snacking between meals.” In the artificial firelight, something terrible danced in Sir Leslie’s eyes, black as thunderheads. “I’ll wager you were never Mummy’s little butterball, now were you?”

He stretched out a hand and gently cupped the boy’s soft, slightly plump chin. The boy looked down at the hand, shying his head away, and then up at Sir Leslie.

Sir Leslie squeezed, forcing Dent’s mouth open. The boy cried out, squealing flattened syllables between outward-bowed, distorted lips. The girl let out some kind of prevocal shriek, and the boy clawed with his free hand at Sir Leslie’s arm.

“It is a basic rule of common courtesy!” Sir Leslie roared, grabbing a fistful of delicate pastries from the table. “Eat what you’re given! Every last bite!” He smashed the sweets against the boy’s mouth and pushed his jaw shut. Dent choked, lips smeared with custard and jam, and his eyes shone with tears.

“Now,” Sir Leslie smiled, with his full mouth of very sharp, very shiny teeth, “what does a proper boy say?”

Dent spat the entire mouthful back into Sir Leslie’s face, and all over his shirt.

Sir Leslie bellowed in revulsion, the inside of his mind lit in sudden sharp flashes of lightning. He smeared his face mostly clean with one sleeve, unsheathed his cutlass, and kicked the boy’s chair backward to the floor. The Wee Ones’ legs flailed for purchase, and the girl shrieked again.

“Not one more sound from you,” he snarled, leveling the blade at her. “Not a wee peep.”

Sir Leslie gave Dent’s chair a kick to get the Wee Ones back on their feet. “A fricasse and a stew, I think.” He walked behind the chairs and grabbed the girl’s head by her unruly mop of hair, hearing her whimper softly. “We’ll get the stew started first; they do take the longest, to soften up the tougher cuts of meat.”

“When I tell my family,” the boy said, sniffling and spitting from his chair, custard all down his shirtfront, “they’ll take your head.”

And Sir Leslie looked into the boy’s eyes, a gale now howling inside him, and exulted. Because he saw that Dent did not believe his own words.

“You’d better hurry, then,” Sir Leslie chuckled. “Two bells from now, you’ll have no family left. I’m going to gobble them all up. Say, now — that’ll make you Emperor, won’t it?” He grinned again, his teeth beginning their soft ultrasonic song. “I’ve never eaten an Emperor before.”