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.”

Friday, November 23, 2007

19.5. In Transit (Part 2)

“The boy is a myth,” the Emperor lied.

“We never made any such craft,” Duly Elected Eleven lied, on the other end of the scrambled comm channel.

Thousands of diplomats on both sides of the rapidly escalating pan-galactic disagreement were also busily lying to one another at scattered points throughout both the FLAW and the Imperium. They lied far more expensively, with much larger words, sometimes over lavish meals. But the net effect was no different. Tensions among both populaces continued to rise. And Crouch News, vowing that it was working from accurate reports by highly placed sources, continued to quell that tension about as effectively as liquid oxygen doused a fire.

“My people aren’t going to accept that,” Duly Elected 11 sighed, truthfully this time. “They want their hypothetical nonexistent ship that we never actually built back.”

“My people won’t accept it either,” the Emperor said. “They want their entirely imaginary Imperial heir back, and also this nonexistent ship.”

Both men — well, 11 sounded like a man, which was the best one could go on — took a moment to stare off into space, feel terrible resignation, and wish they were off playing a nice round of duff somewhere sunny.

The distant and venerated founders of the Federated League of Allied Worlds, high on democracy following their hard-won independence from the Grand Galactic Imperium, had understandably gone a bit overboard. Their chosen ruling body, the Duly Elected, ran the FLAW in absolute anonymity, their faces concealed, their voices masked, speaking on all but the rarest occasions in one singular voice. Candidates for Due Election had their identities erased, running in a literal and figural black box for the entire campaign. Duly Elected were only allowed to reclaim their faces and voices when they retired, and then only after an exception had passed (unanimously) to better facilitate the publication of former Dulys’ lucrative memoirs.

The FLAW founders, with the same sort of cheery optimism that would so poorly serve Imperial engineers centuries later, believed that when candidates lacked an appearance, a voice, and a history, the public would be free to judge them solely on their ideas and arguments.

In reality, it simply made the Duly Elected wildly unaccountable.

The Emperor liked 11; they’d struck up a friendship during the Third Galactic Conflict, back when 11 was 11.5.1, the secretary of foreign affairs for the former 11. They had spoken regularly in the years since, ostensibly to maintain high-level backchannel communications, but mostly to complain discreetly about their wives and tell increasingly inaccurate hunting-related stories.

“Can’t you do anything about these damned news reports?” the Emperor said, drumming his fingers on the crystalline surface of his desk.

“No more than you,” 11 replied gloomily. “They’re only saying nice things about us. We can hardly pass legislation about that. And armistice or not, there’s still a lot of bad feelings for the Imperium among your average FLAWed.”

“But look, there’s nothing to get upset about here,” the Emperor lied. Even now, his intelligence services were conducting surveillance upon Bennington Yards, where the nonexistent FLAW spacecraft had definitely not been built. “If anything of the sort were happening, I’d have my own flesh and blood out putting it right. Not that I do.”

“Absolutely,” lied 11. Wherever he or she was sitting, he or she placed his or her right or left hand on a fat dossier from FLAW Intelligence Directorate, full of undoctored photos, stolen genetic records, and various reports confirming Dent’s existence. “It would be preposterous to let this fight go hot. I mean, if there were a spacecraft, we’d have dispatched our most reliable man to get it back. Which we haven’t.”

“So can we just sit on this and wait for it to blow over? You pass some new subsidies, we stage a few photo opportunities, maybe—” and the Emperor sighed here, imagining the vast and life-threatening sacrifices it would entail on his part — “we circulate a rumor that the Empress is expecting a new heir…”

“I don’t know if you’ve seen it,” 11 despaired, “but Crouch News — oh, there it is again — Crouch News is running a cartoon of you over here. You have fangs, and there’s some blood … babies are involved.”

The Emperor put his head in his hands. “Yes, that’s running here, too. With the opposite effect, you can imagine.”

“Half the Duly, they’re up for re-election next year,” 11 said, “and no one wants to appear weak or cowardly.”

“The Empire cannot and will not back down,” the Emperor nodded, resigned. “Shall we let the suits shake this one out? Stage a face-off at the very least? We bring out our forces, we do a little posturing, the citizenry gets scared, and we all go home looking like heroes?”

“I’ll get our briefcase boys working on it,” 11 nodded. “Suppose I’ll be seeing you in a few days, then.”

“Or not,” the Emperor smiled. Their old familiar joke. “If you had built a ship, you know — one capable of breaching Imperial defenses — you do realize we’d want it for our own.”

“And if there were a hidden heir to the Grand Galactic Imperium,” 11 countered, “he’d make one hell of a bargaining chip for the Duly.”

“I hope you find your ship,” the Emperor told his friend, and meant it.

“I hope you get your boy back,” 11 replied, with equal sincerity.

The channel closed, and the Emperor reached for the small jeweled box that had arrived that morning from Moldsmith Tisane on Fabrication Deck. It opened on perfectly oiled hinges to reveal a tiny unpainted tin figure, couched in velvet. A replacement for the one missing from the Emperor’s model.

The Emperor turned it over in his creased and callused hands for several minutes, before reaching for his jars of paints.

“Collectibles, really,” Bosun Little said, and took another sip from the mug of tea. “I’ve got one of the first-run Crouch Industries Chattering Charas, mint in box. You know, the ones with the snarled voice chip that swore blue mighty when you switched them on?”

“Yeah,” said Pug noncommittally, trying to reconcile this information with his current assessment of the Bosun.

“And don’t ask me where,” she continued, pixels percolating eagerly across her cheekbones, “but the Captain dug up this rare variant Princess Prin, with the real cloned skin on… ha. Listen to me yap. Probably boring a cutthroat like you slipknotted with all this delicate talk.”

Pug realized he was sipping tea with his pinky out, and hastily curled it back in. “Oh, absolutely. Yeah. So you and the Captain…” He almost came within shouting distance of nonchalant, provided nonchalant had excellent hearing. “You his woman?”

The Bosun stared at him over the edge of her mug and then burst out laughing, pixel explosions blooming across her face. The sound of it nearly rattled the pans maglocked to the Zephyr’s galley walls. In the dishcleaner, last night’s plates quivered faintly.

“I’m his Bosun,” she said firmly. “He’s my Captain. Found me hucking no-goods from a station bar off Thalis. Treated me like an officer again. Like somebody.” She smiled and took another sip. “Don’t let the flowers fool you. The Captain’s got steel. But a little slip like him? Ha. I’d break him in half.”

The way she said that last sentence made Pug’s toes curl against his sandals. He would later find he’d left fingermarks indented in the gold of his goblet.

“So,” the Bosun smacked her lips, downing the last of the tea in a few quick gulps. “No slight on the onboard library, but what’s there for fun on this boat?” She wiped her hands on her coveralls. “Woman’s facing execution and all, she tends to get antsy.”

Pug had never been so glad to hear a pistol-shot in his life, not even that time with the charging armorvore. The crack of his sister’s repeater rang in through the galley door from the cargo bay outside.

Pug and the Bosun thudded quickly from the galley. Smoke still drifted from the small scorch mark Lis’s shot had left on the cargo deck. It had hit directly between Captain Corsair and Commodore Crestfall. Slowly, both men lowered their swords and turned toward the top of the staircase, where she stood with the pistol still raised.

“Don’t think I haven’t seen you two these past few days,” she sighed, tossing her hair back in a far more successful fashion. She’d been practicing. “The both of you, sidling circlewise around each other, itching for a duel.”

“I make no apologies,” the Captain spat.

“I was just seeing to my blade,” Crestfall replied.

Lis narrowed her eyes and began to descend to the cargo deck. “Captain, we’ve been over this. If you kill this man on our ship, the whole galaxy goes to war. And Commodore, the Emperor does not take kindly to men who execute his prisoners before he can.”

“Don’t supposed you’ve had any luck with a transmission?” Crestfall asked, as if enquiring about the weather. With a flick of his eyes toward Corsair, he slid Bad News back into its scabbard.

“None,” Lis sighed. “I’m sending bursts to the right Imperial relays, but nothing’s getting through. Same as yours to FLAW command.”

“Someone is blocking us,” Corsair said darkly. “The same someone who knew precisely where to locate our rendezvous.”

“Might do to plug the holes in your network, Majesty,” Crestfall said, cleaning his glasses with the hem of his traveling cloak. “Just to say.”

“That is, of course, assuming your transmissions truly are not getting through,” Corsair replied, a dagger-edge in his voice. “And that it was not some ally of yours making off with His Young Majesty.”

Crestfall stopped fiddling with his glasses in mid-polish, and fixed Corsair with a look. “Because I’m so keen to put myself in the path of a disassembler-tide,” he said slowly. “And watch the ship I loved get eaten to atoms.”

And in the Commodore’s gaze, Captain Corsair saw something, some kindred sort of loss, that finally gave him pause. His posture shifted, and he sheathed his sword and sat down on a nearby crate of canned khim-crack eggs.

“I concede,” Corsair said, “you have a fair point.”

“Doesn’t matter if it’s a plot,” Pug said, working a kink out of his neck. Even the bare springs and slats of his cot weren’t quite agreeing with him. “The black ship guy, he thinks we’re all bits by now. They’re not gonna see us coming.”

“You’ve fought a lot of animals, square?” Bosun Little asked him. “Men think different. See more of the angles.”

“And they’ve got smaller teeth,” Pug countered, grimly. “Softer bellies.”

“We’ll find out soon enough,” Lis said. “Six bells till we catch up with the Captain’s signal. Until then, no more dueling. Her Majesty needs serious beauty rest.”

“I highly doubt that,” Corsair smiled. Lis shot him a look and stomped off to melt in private.

Commodore Crestfall scanned the cargo hold calmly. The Minister of Violence and the mini-Corinthian had ducked back into the kitchen. Crestfall could read their body language like the skies before a coming storm.

“You seem twice sweet on the lady,” he nodded to Corsair. “Considering she’s keen for your head and all, and not in the good way.”

The Captain snorted in disgust, but did not get up from his seat. “A keen observation, for the hero of the FLAW Fleet. The man with the famous heart of gold.”

“Comes with a kill switch, you know,” Crestfall sighed. “And the Duly’s fingers on the button. They don’t tend to circulate that.”

Corsair looked at him, taken by surprise, and ingrained decades of breeding overcame fresher animosity. “I… I am sorry,” the Captain said quietly, and looked away. Some things, you didn’t even wish on your worst enemy.

Crestfall pulled a crate of table linens rattling across the bay’s corrugated floor, and sat, a safe distance from Corsair. “It’s my lot. A man has to do his duty, kill switch or otherwise. No charter says he has to like it.” He nodded toward the Captain’s metal hand. “Took me a while to recognize, on account of the customizations, but that’s a FLAW model, square?”

“So it is,” Corsair nodded, cradling it with his still-living hand, testing the give in the joints of the ring finger.

“Someone wants to kill me, I generally like to know why,” Crestfall said. He unslung Bad News in its scabbard from his belt, and carefully set it to the deck, keeping his eyes on Corsair the whole time. “Specially if I take no joy in reciprocating.”

Corsair looked up at him, swallowing some fierce emotion back down his throat. “The Crucible. You did love her, truly.”

Crestfall nodded. “Lost my heart to her,” he said.

“Then perhaps you will understand.” And there in the cargo bay, to the man he’d sworn to kill, the Captain told his tale.

The Imperial Fleet was waiting by the time the FLAW Navy plussed in. The Borderlands were neutral ground, home for free-thinking settlements, the law-averse, and anyone too ornery, strange, or antisocial to abide the strictures of government.

The last great space battle of the Third Galactic Conflict was decided on the spot where the two powers now met. Ten years and turns before, FLAW and Imperial forces staged a battle here to lure out the Dark Matter Armada in its full strength. The Armada had apparently expected to mop up two weakened, broken vanguards; instead, its fleet broke apart and died in a hailstorm of unified artillery.

Both sides had scoured the field clean of chunks of DMA craft, hunting for any clues to explain where the enemy fleet had sprung from. The FLAW and Alliance hulks remaining from the battle, they left, as a monument to the fallen. From the bridge of the Deciduous, flagship Dreadnaught of the Imperial Fleet, the Emperor could just make out the drifting forward half of the Valerion, and remembered seeing it split apart in fire. It was the sort of thing that would have been tremendously cunning, and worth capturing an image of, if not for all the friends and comrades he knew were suddenly finding themselves on one of two smaller, significantly more burning, and far more hazardous vessels.

Ahead, from the dark of space, the sleek capital ships of the FLAW Navy stretched out of pluslight and squashed back into shape. The Emperor sighed, and wished his breakfast had agreed with him better. He did not mind the notion of another war — he simply preferred a necessary one, not waged against allies.

And not, he had to admit to himself, with his ten-year-old son somewhere in the midst of it.

“Let the diplomacy begin,” the Emperor said softly.

Behind him, in a specially furnished chair which no crew member dared approach, look at, or even think about, really, the Empress briefly looked up from her knitting. The Emperor knew various members of her Midnight Guard were stationed somewhere here, around the brightly lit bridge; he thought he’d heard one cough earlier from underneath the communications panel.

“You boys have fun,” the Empress said curtly, and started on another row.

And just a few orbits distant, in the shadow of a gas giant ringed with tiny, blinking mining stations, the Imperial Zephyr plussed in. Pug sat at the controls, Story ably manning (or robot-ing, at least) the copilot’s seat. Lis rested a hand on the back of her brother’s chair; behind her, Corsair and Crestfall took opposite sides of the cabin, although the air between them seemed less likely to spark lightning at any given moment.

Instead, Corsair was looking curiously at Bosun Little’s hair, which stuck up in strange directions. The Bosun scowled, at him and at the hair, and attempted to discreetly flatten it down. She did not look at Pug, and he did not look at her; absolutely nothing was out of the ordinary with them, individually or jointly, and certainly no one should ask about it or suspect otherwise.

“Looks clear,” Pug said at the controls, scanning the seemingly empty starfields ahead.

Lis leaned toward the controls and thumbed on the comms. “Let’s try to raise the border stations,” she would have said, if not for all the explosions.

The shockbursts hit the ship all at once, from every direction, exploding in solid walls of sonic force. Story’s eyes winked out, the frequencies of his crystalline brain disrupted too greatly even for an emergency reboot to kick in. The rest, battered and buffeted and deafened, merely lapsed into bruised unconsciousness.

Lightbending hull shimmering soundlessly against the stars, the covert transport that had lain in wait for them moved in to dock.

Something was different in the black room. Had Dent ever traveled pluslight before, he would have recognized the familiar squash-and-stretch feel of deceleration. As it was, the not-quite-seamless return of mass to his body woke him from a sound sleep, in which he’d dreamed of a black room exactly like this one.

Unfamiliar sounds, scraping and chiming, filled the room. Dent nudged Pebble awake, looking toward the door.

In the lattice, the Wee Ones had begun to move, unfolding from the barrier, stalking slowly toward the children.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

19. In Transit (Part 1)

The Empress did not watch the vids. Nothing about the fictional portrayals entertained her; the news always seemed old and thirdhand by the time it reached her ever-attentive ears; and the advertisements were frankly insulting. If the Empress wished to buy something, she would inform its manufacturer. If it did not exist, she would have it made for her. Anything other permutation of the relationship between the Empress and the assembled forces of commerce seemed distastefully like begging on their part.

In most circumstances, the Empress got her news directly from its many sources, whether they knew it or not. This left her extremely well-informed by the time news was filtered, dissected, watered-down, and adorned with footage of adorable baby animals by the galaxy’s dispersers of information. But it also left her dangerously vulnerable in situations such as these, in which the purveyors of news chose to manufacture their own.

Still, she was not entirely unaware. The Empress believed that conversation had a temperature. Her own, for example, usually fell somewhere in the range in which icicles tended to form. Now, as she sat in her skeletal chair, knitting a pair of itchwool socks for the infant daughter of a distant third cousin she did not particularly like, the Empress heard the galaxy’s temperature steadily rising. Office gossip and bland production figures gave way to discussions of troop strengths, to whispered innuendo and suspicion. Usually lukewarm, the Empress realized that the galaxy had now escalated to a simmer. It would shortly begin to boil.

The Empress set her knitting down in her lap, admiring how subtly she had woven the traditional Imperial symbols of bad luck into the adorable pink-and-yellow pattern of the socks, and touched the hidden button on the arm of her chair that connected her to her husband, wherever he might be.

“Yes, treasure?” the Emperor said, with the manner of a man suddenly returning to full wakefulness, and wishing to conceal it. That meant he was in his meeting of ministers, although the Empress already knew that.

The Empress frowned, her lips becoming even thinner and less approving, as the chatter in her ears grew ever more heated. “You should turn on the vids,” she said. Then, because she was running a little behind on her daily quota of arch reproachfulness: “If you haven’t already.”

In the small hours of evenside, Glissandra Voluptua stole from her quarters, barefoot on the cold metal decks of the Zephyr, and crept to the doorway of the cabin she and Pug had grudgingly assigned to Captain Corsair. She wore his cloak tightly around her, the hood pulled up to shadow her face. What she might have worn underneath was purely a matter of speculation.

She stretched out a hand, curled into a fist, and hesitated, holding it poised just before the surface of the Captain’s door. Her heart pounded so loudly, she could hear it in her ears.

“I wouldn’t,” said Story, whirring quietly past in Evenside Mode (known in his former career on the battlefield as Stealth Mode). The robot didn’t look back at her, continuing on toward the cargo bay. Lis glared after him, wishing her own eyes shot lasers. Then, feeling like an idiot, she turned and dashed back on tiptoe to her own chamber, where she would bury her head under one of the pillows and bask in her own mortification.

And in the cargo bay, Captain Corsair sat before the three cases containing the reward that he now technically might not get to collect, on account of perhaps being dead. He had crept from his own room before — mere clicks before Lis made up her own mind to sneak out herself — to come and examine his treasure. If it were made of small, portable units — jewels, perhaps, or golden laurel coins — he could perhaps spirit enough of it away in his boots or the pockets of his cloak to ensure that he and Bosun Little did not escape from this adventure unrewarded.

The notion that they would, indeed, escape, was never in doubt to the Captain.

He chose one case at random, the middle one, and reached for its clasp, wondering how quietly he could pry it open.

“I wouldn’t,” said Story, bumping softly down the stairs from the main deck.

The Captain raised his eyebrows in surprise, and made another gesture toward the middle chest. Story shook his head warningly.

Corsair gestured inquisitively toward the first case, and then the third.

“I wouldn’t,” Story repeated, and rolled over to his recharging station to dream of nursery rhymes and combat manuevers.

“Hmm,” the Captain nodded, and smiled at his hosts’ cleverness. He patted the tops of the chests lightly, as if to assure them that he’d be back. Possibly with some sort of extensive scanning equipment. Then he stole back up to his cabin and slipped inside, never aware that he’d almost had a visitor in his absence.

Time didn’t exist in the black room. The light was always just bright enough to see by, just dim enough to sleep. There was a privy and a sink in one corner, a surprisingly comfortable bed with soft black sheets in another, and the doorway. Nothing more.

For a time, after the Wee Ones had dumped them here, Dent and Pebble had shouted and banged on the door. They gave up on the shouting after their voices grew hoarse. And they stopped the door-battering when one of the interlocking lattice of Wee Ones that had folded itself to form the door turned its mirror face toward them and took a menacing swipe with one pointy appendage.

No bells sounded through the strange ship — at least, not in this portion of it. Day and night soon blended into a hazy blur. Food arrived through a bristling gap in the Wee Ones blocking the door, three times a day. It was simple and bland — clean water and simple nutrient-wafers. Neither of them liked the food, but both of them were hungry. So they ate.

Dent’s sonic knife seemed to have little effect on the black walls or the onyx floor. He could use it to etch pictures on them, but he couldn’t really see the drawings, and besides, it ran down the battery.

Dent and Pebble ate when they were hungry, slept when they were tired, and tried to amuse themselves the rest of the time. They played catch with the ball of pseudosilk, until that got old. Dent would march the army man from his father’s model up and down the walls, but without any squadmates or interesting terrain, the campaigns proved uneventful. Pebble tried tapping out tunes with the silver spoon. They tried flipping the coin and seeing how many times it came up heads, but the results were ultimately uniform.

So at last they were just left to talk, discussing their favorites of Story’s bedtime tales, and talking about what might happen in Part Five of The Caravan’s Escape. Sometimes they fought, out of boredom, and then grudgingly reconciled.

If they had been able to see Sir Leslie Murther down in the craft’s vast kitchen, whistling a cheerful tune as he inspected his fine and extensive selection of very sharp implements, they would have been far more frightened.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

18. Funhouse, Without the Fun

Dent’s mother had impressed upon him from an early age that biting other people was beneath Imperial dignity. They generally didn’t deserve the blessing of your royal saliva, and besides, you never knew where those people had been.

Pebble had not been raised with any such niceties.

And thus, as the growly bearded man with the frilly cuffs and the crinkly, perfumed velvet coat hauled them struggling down the high vaulted corridors of his vessel, one to an arm, Pebble got a solid mouthful of sickly-sweet sleeve in her jaws and went to town.

Sir Leslie Murther’s head had, until that moment, been filled with lists of ingredients, and thoughts of fire and savory aromatics. As Pebble’s teeth sank into his sleeve, and very nearly his arm, he howled. It was more from shock than actual pain, but he nonetheless dropped the wriggling children to the shining onyx deck. Actual pain obligingly followed when Pebble lashed out with a strong, skinny leg and kicked him in the beans for good measure.

As Sir Leslie bellowed, tottering back and forth in tiny, hunched-over steps, Dent and Pebble clutched hands and ran. Then, once their arms had been nearly yanked from their sockets, they tried both running in the same direction, which proved far more productive.

They had been carried by their captor for several clicks prior to Pebble’s dental opportunism, through twists and turns, and mostly with an excellent if somewhat unmemorable view of their own reflections in the polished black stone of the deck. As a result, once they succeeded in getting well out of sight and earshot of their captor, they found themselves hopelessly lost.

It did not help that the corridors of Sir Leslie’s ship were all identical, down to the black rivets in the black columns of the sturdy black material that, uncomfortably, always seemed to have just stopped moving the instant you laid hands on it. Nor did it help that everything in every corridor that was not black was a solid, seamless mirror. Dent and Pebble found themselves lost, one of a infinite number of feeling children in a grid of parallel universes, curving up and away on either side of them into deepening darkness.

It reminded Dent all too much of his least favorite dream — of wandering the halls of the palace, crying out, and no one there to hear him.

They stopped at a T-junction so that Pebble could put her ear to the deck, trying to hear pipes that might speak navigational secrets to her. She listened for a long while, then pressed her head harder against the smooth black stone, puffs of her breath pooling in fog just past her lips. She stood up, looking strangely shaken.

Nothing, she signed. No sound. Not even a little.

Dent waved her over to the closest mirror, which reflected the two of them and the corridor stretching back behind them. “Look at this,” he said, unnerved, and pointed at his own eyes in the mirror.

The reflection seemed to be shifting, changing shape, wobbling the borders of his eyes ever so slightly. The motion was faint, almost unnoticeable. But once you noticed it, it never stopped.

They both saw it at the same time. A strange black thing, all curves and points, tic-tic-ticking along on six spindly legs across another junction in the corridor behind them. It was about the size of Zoomaster Genus’s Altaran Droolhound, which is to say, it would be nearly Dent-sized if it chose to rear up on any two of its appendages.

Dent and Pebble turned, from the reflection to the real, and the walking thing froze. Slowly, it turned toward them as well, revealing a flat shiny face in which they could see a very tiny Dent and a very tiny Pebble. A mirror.

Is it friendly? Pebble asked, her hand tight at her side. Dent’s face expressed significant doubts.

The mirror-faced thing ticked a few steps down the corridor toward them. Dent and Pebble waited, holding their breath. It stopped, shifting its weight, tilting its head a few degrees to the left.

Then it charged.

Thankfully, Dent and Pebble agreed on their direction this time: Right. They ran all-perdition down the corridors, taking twist after turn, not caring where they ran so long as it was away. The mirror-faced thing did not flag, bounding along behind them in long, springy strides, the points of its legs pattering like a tiny rainstorm. And the storm began to grow.

Each time Dent looked back, there were more of them, scrabbling along, mirror faces reflecting his own terrified eyes. And each time he looked, they had closed a little more of the gap.

One of the black things left, weight slamming into Dent’s back, and he went down tumbling hard to the deck, suffocating in a scratching tangle of pointed cold limbs, covering his eyes. Somewhere nearby he heard Pebble shrieking, but he was too scared to even move. And then he found that he could not.

The black things had folded themselves, interlocked, around his arms and legs, and Pebble’s too. Dent found himself lifted, hung up like a painting on display, lines of cold criscrossing his limbs where the black metal of the mirror-faces touched him.

Footfalls echoed in the corridor ahead, and then the bearded man strode carefully, with stiffened dignity, around the corner and toward the two children.

“Nnf,” Sir Leslie grunted, walking it off. “Let’s get one thing straight here, bairns,” he growled at them. “I’m the one does the biting in this little arrangement.” He tugged up his sleeve and studied the fading half-moons of red here Pebble’s teeth had left an impression.

“If that leaves a mark, girl,” he scowled, the points of his teeth sparkling in the reflections from countless mirror faces, “it’ll be sashimi for you.”

“Who are you?” Dent asked, trying to summon some of that Imperial courage he was supposed to possess. “What do you—” Without a sound, one of black limbs of the mirror-faces clamped over his mouth. It tasted like nothing — not air, not water, not even the numb, sandy prickle of a burnt tongue. Nothing at all.

“Children,” Sir Leslie clucked, “should be savored, not heard. See them to their accomodations, my Wee Ones.”

The mirror-faced things — the Wee Ones — obliged, cooperating in clusters of spare limbs, carrying Dent and a softly whimpering Pebble off down the corridor, until they were lost in the maze of reflections.

Sir Leslie stood up fully, not without some lingering pain, and straightened the frills of his collar in the nearest mirror. He primped, just a little, weighing whether the light most favored the strong line of his jaw from this angle, or that. He stood back, smoothing down the front of his coat — underneath, delicate and complicated mechanisms pinged and ticked — and admiring the slim straight line of his own figure.

He smiled into the mirror with diamond teeth, and ran a hand back through his hair approvingly. And beneath the mirror’s surface, and every other mirror in every hall on every deck of his strange ship, thousands of micromotors worked endlessly, adjusting the mirror’s surface, ensuring that Sir Leslie’s reflection looked every bit as smashing as its owner assumed it should.

It was all going quite well until the wall became the floor.

Lis yelped as her brother’s full weight suddenly flattened her against the frost-patterned wall of the Crucible’s corridor, the world pitching sideways by a hard 90 degrees. Story’s treadball servos whined, the robot’s internal gyros momentarily blanking out, and the robot crashed and clattered down in a hail of hasty apologies.

“What in Perdition?” Lis said, accustomed to a life that never malfunctioned, upon pain of death.

“The gravity generator,” Corsair grunted, hauling himself to his feet and straightening his cloak. “Our friends the disassemblers have begun to make a feast of it, alas.”

“We’ll all be in zero when it goes,” Crestfall said, pushing his spectacles back up the ridges of his broken nose. “But it’s gonna go slow, and before it does, it’s gonna make things topsy-turvy.”

As if to oblige, gravity suddenly shifted another 180 degrees, sending everyone tumbling hard into what had only moments before been the opposite wall.

“Thank Iolanthe for soft landings,” the Bosun groused, smarting in all the places where she’d landed on Pug’s armor plating. The patterns on her cheeks wavered queasily. Pug, still recovering from a momentary faceful of one of the Bosun’s perfectly honed shoulderblades, could only manage a grunt.

Story checked the Captain’s three cases with a free hand, glad they were tightly secured via mag-clamp to his own steel back. Especially the middle one.

“Just a few clicks further,” Lis said through gritted teeth, fighting off a roiling wave of dizziness. “Emergency stair’s just down this hall.”

“Let’s hope,” Crestfall nodded, somber. “Those disassemblers get to your ship — or us — before we do, this is gonna be little more than a pleasant stretch of the legs.”

Gravity had played havoc with the locking mechanisms, but the Bosun’s Whomping Stick, and some mutual effort between herself and Pug, forced the door open with a creak. Lis noticed Crestfall wincing at the sound, as if any further harm to the ship he’d already lost once was a wound to the man himself.

She also noticed Corsair, observing the same phenomenon, with not a trace of pity in those clear flashing eyes.

A short leap down left them in the pitch-dark emergency stair, which stretched off sideways two levels, toward the airlock where the Zephyr waited.

“Well,” Lis sighed, hauling herself up over the barrier that had once been the nearest landing, “at least this gravity’s good for something.”

Then the ship lurched horribly again, and forward became straight up, sending Lis crashing back against Captain Corsair. Her knees buckled as another wave of vertigo hit; the world reeled sickeningly inside her skull.

Then a hand grasped her arm, gently applying pressure, and the sickness fizzled and faded. She opened her eyes to find Corsair lightly pressing his non-metal thumb against the inside of her forearm, just below the wrist, and for a moment she felt dizzy again for entirely different reasons.

“A pressure point, majesty,” he said softly, with sympathy. “It helps with the grav-sickness, I have found.”

“You…” she said, barely above a whisper. “You’re touching me.”

“So I am,” he nodded, smiling even in the face of death. “And?”

Lis recovered her wits and snatched her arm away.

“It’s a good way to lose another hand,” she said, rubbing her wrist, trying to tell herself how incredibly offended she ought to feel.

“Perhaps the best,” the Captain nodded, and the smile fled, chased by shadows.

One by one, they clambered up to stand on the underside of the stairs, and began to climb.

Halfway up, Lis began to feel her breath tighten in her chest. Lead flowed, congealing, into her arms and legs.

“Does—” she gasped, struggling now to get the words out, “does anyone else—” And then a firm, invisible hand pushed her down to the stairs, and she could not rise.

“What’s the grumble?” Bosun Little asked, looking back to see Crestfall, the Captain and Lis flattened against the stairs, and the trailing Story’s motors grinding as he struggled to move forward. “Hey, wait.” She flexed her arms, shook out her legs, with familiar ease and comfort. “I know this feeling. This is—”

“Heavy grav,” Pug said beside her. He leaned against the wall, sweat beading on his face, but did not slump. “I’d say about a times three.” With thick hands, he tugged off his helmet, unsnapped the clasps on his armored breastplate, and hurled both away with a grunt. Freed of the weight, he sighed, grateful in his sweat-soaked tunic, skin steaming in the cold.

“You handle the crush pretty sturdy, for a lightweight,” the Bosun admitted, the dots on her cheeks rising in rounded peaks.

“Yeah,” Pug nodded, swabbing away the sweat on his brow. “I’ve been training in plus four, sometimes plus five, since I was seven.”

This charming conversation was cut short by the sound of rending metal, and the sudden lurch of the stairwell on which they stood. Straining under Corsair, Lis, Crestfall, and Story’s weight, the stairwell had begun to buckle. Bolts thick as two fingers stripped their threads, peeling out of the wall.

“You two think you could — maybe — ?” Lis managed, and then had to catch her breath.

The two brackets keeping the stairs attached to the wall slipped another perilous inch. The metal on which the less gravitationally fortunate members of the group struggled began, inexorably, to bend.

“I’ll anchor,” Bosun Little nodded, wiping one hand dry on her coveralls. “You grab as many as you can.” She clasped Pug’s hand, tight enough to squeeze the bones, and he had the strangest sensation that blood was flushing into his cheeks, for some reason.

Pug crouched down, stretched out his free hand, and began to drag Commodore Crestfall slowly up to the landing. The stairs trembled again.

“Oh, no,” Lis said quietly, hand crawling toward the lash on her hip. If she could just reach it, just move her dead stone fingers, just find the strength to send the lash out to grab some protrusion of metal…

The stairs gave way. Story clamped hold of the opposite platform, but could not reach the Captain or Lis as they plunged. At this gravity, even a short fall would surely shatter their bones.

Lis felt the Captain’s cold metal hand grab hers, saw a flash of sparks, heard a clang of steel and Corsair’s cry of pain. When she could finally lift her head, neck muscles trembling with the effort, she saw him clinging to the handle of his saber, sunk to the haft into the wall of the stairwell. His eyes were shut tight, his white teeth clenched, the whole of him shaking from the strain of holding himself and Lis up from the pit below.

Squeezing breaths into her lungs one painful rasp at a time, Lis swam her dangling arm up through a sea of iron air to seize hold of the captain’s metal hand.

“Don’t let go,” was all she could say. She felt the metal hand slipping in her grip, crumpling under the gravitational crush, pulling away from its housing on the stump of the Captain’s arm. He opened his eyes and looked down at her, but Lis got the curious feeling that in that moment, he was seeing someone else entirely.

“I will never let go,” he said, and he meant every word.

On the landing above, Pug braced Bosun Little as she stretched out full on the metal grating, extending the hammer end of the Whomping Stick down toward Corsair. But the Captain could not grasp it without releasing his sword, or releasing Lis.

Corsair’s blade began to list, the gravity pulling it out and down from its hold in the wall. The two sank even further away from the Bosun’s reach. Corsair tried to haul Lis up, to bring her within range of the extended hammer, but the effort only further strained the workings of his metal hand.

Lis looked up at him, hopeless. He managed one sad, gallant smile.

“If we go, Majesty,” he said, “we go together.”

The sword pulled free.

The weight lifted. They floated.

The gravity generator had finally succumbed, leaving the whole ship listing and adrift in zero. Lis and the Captain hung motionless in the middle of the stairwell, and for a long moment, she forgot to let go of his hand.

Then she did, drifting slowly away. The Captain adjusted his metal hand, squeezing it back into shape, fitting it with a clunk to the hidden housing where it met his flesh, and breathed a sigh of relief.

“A good way to lose a hand, indeed,” he said, and kicked off from the wall, heading higher.

It was easier going in zero, and in less than a click, they had swum through the dark and the air to the level where escape waited just a few doors away.

“Airlock’s just this way,” Pug nodded, hauling himself through the doorway from the stairs and angling off a wall toward the far end of the new corridor. By the time the others reached him, he had pried open the manual access hatch and turned the handle.

The door did not open. Motors groaned, protested, and fell silent again.

“Gods, it just worked!” Pug growled, hammering a fist fruitlessly against the thick steel. Beyond the tiny porthole in the door, the airlock waited tantalizingly, the open hatch of the Zephyr in sight.

“That’d be the gravity,” Crestfall sighed. “Messes up the circuits some. We’d usually run a reboot, when she was — when she was whole.”

The corridor lit up an eerie, angry red, and Lis turned to see Story facing away from the rest of the group, his laser eyes and arm rising to readiness in a low, escalating whine. “It may be prudent for you to hurry,” Story suggested calmly. “I am programmed not to fear, say, my imminent deconstruction into my component atoms. I am not certain if you possess similar protocols.”

In the red glow of his eyes, the walls of the corridor, far at the opposite end, seemed to fizz and bubble, steadily vanishing in the wake of some unseen tide.

“Ah yes,” Corsair sighed, as if someone had just scuffed his boots. “The disassemblers, at last.”

Story opened fire, searing beams playing across the leading edge of the tide, slowing its advance in lines of glowing slag. But in all the places where he did not fire, the disassemblers surged onward, and when she shifted his aim, the glowing scars left behind soon fizzed themselves, and vanished again.

“If I can get at the wiring,” Bosun Little strained, fingers digging into the edges of the access handle panel, “I could maybe—”

A hand fell upon her shoulder, steady and slightly cool to the touch.

“Miss, if you’ll move back a mite,” Commodore Crestfall said. He drew Bad News soundlessly, and tumbled in the air as he sent the sword slicing in a quick, effortless oval through the three-inch door. He braced himself and kicked, and the better part of the door floated inward, clearing the way towards the Zephyr.

“All in that’s going,” he said, and made room for the Bosun.

They all scrambled through the gap, Story’s lasers scouring away the disassembler advance until the Zephyr’s hatch sealed. In a hiss, the smaller ship disengaged, and lurched away to safe distance.

In the pink mists of the nebula, the unlikely cluster of allied enemies sat before the forward viewport and watched the F.S.S. Crucible dissolve into nothingness. Commodore Crestfall’s face betrayed nothing, except perhaps a bit more sadness at the corners of his smile.

“There is, of course, the matter of the boy,” Captain Corsair said at last. He sat proudly, possessively, atop the three stacked crates containing his reward, in the far corner of the Zephyr’s opulent, swooping cockpit. (“Pit” was an entirely improper word, really, for any space equipped with a jewel-studded throttle lever, but old terminologies died hard.)

“There’s the matter of my ship,” Crestfall responded calmly, turning toward him. Beneath the cloak, one or more of his hands may or may not have been moving toward his sword. “And the question of you and your friend’s heads, and whether they remain attached.”

“You’re on Imperial territory now, Commodore,” Lis smirked, leaning against an opal-inlaid navigation console. “Sorry to tell. The prisoners, and their heads, are the Imperium’s to deal with.”

“Please, please, do not fight on my account,” the Captain laughed. “My head is already spoken for, by myself, I am afraid.”

“I’ve heard that before,” Crestfall said.

“The coordinates we now occupy are those to which I sent the boy, and his ship,” Corsair shot back. “And yet, as you see, neither are present. They are with our mysterious friend in his Armada craft.”

“Hey,” Pug realized. “Doesn’t that make you two sorta… useless?” He did not, as he might with other prisoners, suggest a quick and mess-free ejection from the airlock, which may have had something to do with the way the Bosun tossed her hair derisively when he called her “useless.”

“The Commodore, he wishes the return of his ship. Technically, my ship now, but let us not quibble over such trivialities. You, Majesties, seek the safe return of your brother, if only so that no one else may learn of him. I have stated the facts correctly, yes?”

“Which still doesn’t explain what use, if any, you still are to us,” Lis replied flatly. A little voice in her head suggested many uses for the Captain — an embarrassing number, really — and it took considerable effort for Lis not to let her knees start wobbling again. She thought of the Imperium, as her mother had long ago advised her to do, but it didn’t really help.

Corsair appeared to think about this for a few seconds. “Are you aware your brother steals?” he said suddenly. “Small things, trifles, really. I applaud such behavior in a bandit-to-be, but in a future heir to the Imperium? I would find that quite troubling.”

Lis shot an uneasy look at Pug, who shruggled slightly, just as baffled. “Yeah,” Lis said. “Sure we knew. That’s our stupid little brother. It’s what he does.” It certainly seemed to explain that little pink vial she’d misplaced a week back.

The Captain held up his hands, conciliatory. “Very well — I am hardly one to judge. At any rate, I anticipated complications. I left any number of shiny, enticing, banditlike trinkets within His Young Majesty’s reach. All of them equipped with long-range tracking devices. I believe he chose the medallion — somewhat obvious, perhaps, and lacking in the subtlety true banditry cultivates, but he is young. It is understandable.”

Indeed, at this moment, ever farther away by pluslight, a golden medallion engraved with a three-headed god jingled around in the darkness of Dent’s adventure belt, along with his other accumulated treasures. From a nanodot in the nostril of the god’s second head, a steady signal pulsed out through space, just waiting for someone to hear it.

Corsair hopped off the crates and straightened the glove covering his non-metal hand, as if that action were the single most important in his life.

“You may take my head if you wish — how ungenerous of me it would be to protest!” the Captain grinned. “But I caution you, that same head contains the frequency by which we may track your brother, and your ship — my ship? Let us say your ship, to be courteous.” He reached out with one finger of his metal hand, and pushed Commodore Crestfall’s glasses back up his nose. The Commodore did not move, did not blink — just sort of smiled, as if at the hubris of it.

“And you will find my head far more useful,” Corsair continued, “save perhaps as some sort of decorative planter or centerpiece, if it remains exactly where it is. I would also ask that you spare the Bosun, but you may find her far more persuasive on that subject than I.” The Bosun lifted her Whomping Stick and twirled it lazily, just for emphasis.

”So,” Corsair said. “Shall we go and rescue the boy, and retrieve the fine ship that is supposedly not mine? Or would you rather kill me, and fight over my very handsome assorted pieces?”

Lis and Crestfall exchanged wary glances, checkmated. And the Captain smiled, like a man who has just posed a question to which he already knows the answer.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

17. A Pleasant Conversation, And Then The Missiles

“I will thank you to step to one side, Your Majesty,” Corsair hissed through clenched teeth. He still wasn’t looking at Lis, still held her about the wrist with her pistol upraised. He held her lightly, courteously, just with his fingers and thumb, but she felt that contact through the whole of her arm, if not the rest of her. “I would not wish for you to be injured.”

“What are you doing?” she whispered back to him, and still, his eyes did not move from Commodore Crestfall at the the top of the stairs.

“I very much need to kill that man,” the Captain said, and from the low fire burning in his voice, Lis knew he meant it.

“Wouldn’t be the first,” Crestfall sighed, still as stone.

“To try?” Corsair seethed. Crestfall shook his head slowly, his eyes flicking to a certain spot near one of the gutted helm stations.

“To succeed,” he said.

Bosun Little snapped a glance over her shoulder, sizing up Crestfall in a matter of moments. She saw the line of his elbow, the cant of his arm beneath the cloak. She measured the absolute calm in his face.

Still pinning Pug to the stairs with one knee and the blade of her weapon, she turned back to Corsair, straight vertical lines appearing on each side of her face.

“Don’t,” she said. It wasn’t a request.

“But he—” Corsair began.

“Am I your bosun?” she asked him, low and steady. “If I’m your bosun, you listen to me. If you don’t listen to me, I’m not your bosun, and you’re alone in this. Don’t.”

“Listen to her,” Lis found herself saying to the man she ostensibly wanted to kill, and at last his eyes met her own, filled with a pain she could not recognize. Slowly, the Captain lowered his sword.

“I have never been able to deny two women the same request,” he sighed.

“Am I supposed to know you?” Crestfall called down from the top of the stairs. His voice held no mockery; just an open palm. “I’m afraid I don’t recollect.”

“I did not think you would.” Corsair bit off every word. “That is precisely the problem.”

Bosun Little turned back to Crestfall. “How’d you find us?”

“That ship of yours does strangeness to space,” Crestfall said. “Or so the scientists tell me. Leaves a sort of gravitational furrow in its wake. Hardly anything, unless you know to notice, but easy enough to track.”

“We weren’t going to keep it,” Bosun Little said. “The ship. Weren’t going to sell it, either. Just needed it for this job.”

Crestfall thought on this, then nodded, light glinting off his spectacles. “I believe you,” he said. “But the Duly don’t lean to lenience on this particular —”

The Bosun lurched sideways as Pug made his move, rolling out from under her, one curved knife raised, pinning her across the throat with his forearm.

Crestfall’s cloak billowed. Bad News split the air, hooking around to strike sparks with its dull edge against the line of Pug’s upraised sword.

“I’m gonna need that one alive, Your Majesty,” Crestfall said, grunting slightly from the strain of holding back Pug’s marble column of an arm. “With respect.”

Pug didn’t look back. “Wasn’t gonna kill her,” he said. “You’ve got a hand on me that shouldn’t be there. With respect.”

“Fair point,” Crestfall said, gingerly releasing Pug. He kept Bad News unsheathed; even in the semidark, the arc of its cutting edge shimmered oddly.

“Weren’t gonna kill me?” the Bosun rasped under Pug’s forearm, wide lines curving upward to pixel-points across her cheeks. She looked almost insulted. “Why not?”

Roughly five hours from now, Pug would think of an excellent answer for this, a witty and impressive response, and bang his head against the wall — this time without a helmet. For now, he just hesitated about three seconds longer than he probably should have, and then, lacking anything better to do, shrugged.

“What’s this about a ship?” Lis asked Corsair, nudging the barrel of the gun persuasively back toward his face.

“Stolen ship,” Crestfall said, edging carefully around Little and Pug on his way down the stairs.

“That’s not your ship?” Lis boggled. “You kidnapped my brother in a hot starship?”

“Hot experimental starship,” Crestfall said. “Shouldn’t even speak of it here, Majesty. No offense.”

The Captain gave a little sigh, raising his eyebrows at Lis in a way that briefly made her feel willing to forgive him for everything short of planetary genocide. And even then, it depended on the planet. She shook off the feeling.

“Ah yes,” Corsair said to Lis, returning calm to his voice with audible effort. “The experimental starship being developed by the FLAW. Your former enemies, I believe. The craft that allowed me to breach Imperial defenses as if they were a gaggle of the most dewy-eyed lambs. Whatever could they be developing such a technology for, I wonder?”

“Don’t do that,” Crestfall scolded, that sad little smile lurking about the edges of his mouth. “Don’t go playing us against one another like—”

He stopped abruptly, largely because Lis’s pistol was now aimed at him.

“Majesty,” Crestfall said evenly, slowly bringing Bad News up within swinging reach of Corsair. “I’ve only killed but one and a half women in the course of duty, and none of them were heads of state. I’m in no fancy to add to that tally, today or anytime else.”

“What’s the ship for?” Lis asked him, the gun unwavering.

Crestfall opened his non-sword-bearing hand and held it up slowly. “I’m not the one who makes things, or gets told their purpose,” he said. “I’m just the soul who brings them back.”

Pug watched this all intently, which gave Bosun Little the opening she needed to flip him forward over her shoulders. He hit the stairs rolling, and they were both up and armed and facing in the same space of seconds.

“Nice move,” Pug admitted, keeping his swords low and angled at his waist.

“Likewise, with that reversal,” the Bosun conceded, grip slowly shifting on the handle of her Whomping Stick. “I saw you fight, on the vids. The Armistice Spectacle.”

“Which one?” Pug asked. “The tigerleeches?”

“The masticore,” Bosun Little said. “You were perdition with a spear.”

“Really?” Pug said, maybe half an octave higher than he would have liked to. He tried to cover it up by clearing his throat and spitting, but it was clear, from the curious look on the Bosun’s face, that the damage was done.

“Any objections” Crestfall asked, reaching toward the spirit-cask on the map table, “if I pour myself a drink?”

Corsair’s metal hand lashed out, scattering the cask and its contents away across the deck. “My hospitality is not for you,” the Captain said, eyes narrowing.

Crestfall looked at him thoughtfully for a moment. “We’ll come back to that,” he said, and turned back to Lis. “Word of caution here. Ministress of Love for the Grand Galactic Imperium puts a hole in me, the Duly are apt to consider it an act of war.”

“You would not want that, I am certain.” Corsair’s words dripped acid. “Your Majesty, if it will inconvenience this man, I will gladly provide you the ship in question, along with your younger brother. This is, of course, contingent on my successful escape.”

“I don’t suppose you’ll offer me a similar deal?” Crestfall asked, one brow sloping slightly upward in passing interest.

“I would offer to kill you swiftly,” Corsair spat, “but I do not make deals I do not intend to honor.”

Crestfall studied the Captain’s face intently for several long moments. “No bells rung,” he said, and nodded at the captain’s metal hand. “Did I perhaps leave you with that?”

“My hand, I could forgive,” Corsair said, in a voice that set prickles rising on the back of Lis’s neck. “But the person who was holding it…”

“This man’s a prisoner of the Imperium,” Lis told Crestfall. “He kidnapped royal blood. He comes with us. My father has a very long, very specific list.” Which she could hopefully bargain down significantly, Lis thought. She had a certain dismayed tone of voice she reserved only for emergencies involving her father; it had yet to fail her.

“This man stole FLAW property,” Crestfall replied, coolly. “Before he got to kidnapping your royal blood. Which is a whole other interesting story, on account of the only two verified Imperial heirs being right here in this room, to my knowledge. And technically speaking, we stand on FLAW territory, which makes mine the jurisdiction here.”

“You don’t get him, and you don’t get the ship,” Lis said. “I’m not leaving my family open to invasion.”

“You take that ship,” Crestfall replied, “and the Duly will want it back. They’ll do their asking in cannon and armor.”

“Hey, is somebody gonna kill somebody?” Pug shouted down, growing impatient.

“Been wondering that myself,” the Bosun agreed, loudly.

“Not yet,” Captain Corsair said, still holding fast to the handle of his saber. “In due time, perhaps.”

The entire room rang with three loud crashes, in sequence — cargo crates clanging heavily against the deck. Story unfolded his four arms and expanded his treadball to its full circumference, and in the gloom of the bridge, his eyes glowed an attention-getting red.

“If I may interrupt your various intrigues,” the robot said, the faintest hint of threat in his cheery synthesized voice, “I seem to be the only being present fully cognizant of why we are here. Captain, these crates contain your payment, as promised. You all may bicker, damage, or disassemble one another as you see fit, but I have a young master to see to.”

Crestfall tilted his head a tick, impressed. “Royal blood indeed, I guess,” he said softly. “The metal man makes a sound point. I’m not for standing in the way of any family reunions. Any other matters, we can discuss after.”

“This is so very charming,” Corsair smiled, more pleasantly at Lis than at the Commodore. “Your assumption of my helplessness. But I am only too happy to keep my word. The boy is—”

“There,” Bosun Little said, too quietly, a single solitary dot standing out on each cheek amid a sea of recessed pits. Her hands had gone slack on the grip of her weapon, and she stared out through the viewport behind them with distant, frightened eyes.

In the pink void of the nebula, a vast shadow slid into view — a floating ebony cathedral of bristling ribs and spines and strange organic clusters. Against the dark of space, it would have been all but invisible — just a dark spot among the stars.

“Dark Matter Armada,” Pug breathed. “That’s a DMA flagship.”

“It was,” Corsair said slowly. “The maneuvering, it is different. Smoother.”

“He’s right,” Crestfall nodded. “The hull’s off, too, just in a few places. Work’s been done, and not by Armada hands.”

“I heard rumors they’d captured a few,” Lis said. “Father always wanted one. As a trophy.”

Corsair thumbed a button on the hilt of his sword, and a comm channel blipped open. “Your Majesty,” the Captain said, “do you receive? Reply, please.”

Dead silence.

“An all too appropriate irony, I fear,” Corsair said gravely. “That which I have stolen is now stolen from me.”

“She’s launching,” Pug cried. His warrior’s eyes had spotted tiny puffs of gas against the black skin of the strange craft. Glowing bright orbs spiraled swiftly toward the Crucible, coruscating in the gases of the nebula. They rocketed past the bridge and struck somewhere far distant aft, in the gutted superstructure.

“No explosions,” Crestfall observed, quietly. “That’s never good.”

Out the viewport, the Armada ship’s pluslight engines flared. It accelerated into the pink mist, ever faster, until it was not even an outline.

A groan shuddered through the whole steel skeleton of the Crucible, juddering up from the floor of the bridge.

“I’m gonna lose her again,” Crestfall said softly, sadly, placing a hand upon the map table.

“What’s going on?” Lis asked, backing away from Crestfall, lowering her pistol. “Why wasn’t there more of an impact?”

“Disassemblers,” Corsair said, all the laughter gone from his eyes. “If the ship still had shielding, it would perhaps stop them. Slow them down at least. Now they will rampage unchecked — devour the craft, atom by atom, and use it to make more of themselves. The process is exponential.”

“This would be totally cunning if I weren’t, you know, here,” Pug said, sheating his swords. He nodded to the Bosun. “Kill you later, okay?”

The Bosun managed a weak smirk. “You’ll try,” she said. “Assuming you get the chance.”

“My ship’s docked five clicks distant, portside forward,” Crestfall said. “Sorry to tell it could only carry two.” He cast calm, rational glances at Corsair and the Bosun. “More if they’re dead, perhaps.”

“We’re starboard forward, three tiers down,” Pug said. “Seven clicks at a run.”

“Room for six, at least,” Lis added.

“I’m not leaving the prisoners,” Crestfall added.

“Then you’re coming with us,” Lis snapped.

“Let us go, if we must,” Corsair told them, as the ship shuddered again. “I swore to the boy he would not be harmed. And no one — not you, Majesty, nor the FLAW, nor the Armada resurrected — will make a liar of Santiago Corsair.”

Quarrington Crouch closed the communication link and smiled. He felt the last of the goosebumps, always a byproduct of conversation with Sir Leslie, fade from his arms and legs.

“Syles,” he summoned, as the tailor at his feet measured his inseam. Syles appeared. “I have a message. It goes to Spinner in Media and Poole in Freelance.”

“Yes, sir?” Syles asked, unblinking.

“The message, in its entirety, is ‘go.’” Crouch said. Syles nodded dutifully, and retreated.

“If you’ll just turn around, sir,” the tailor said, his thumbprints leaving glowing red marks on the smart-tape.

“Certainly,” Crouch nodded. “How are your wives, Mr. Bespoke?”

“Fine, sir,” the tailor nodded, and made another measurement. “Thank you for asking.”

Within the hour, both major Crouch News stations interrupted their regular programming — Shout at the Issues for Crouch News FLAW, The Reasons You’re Wrong on Crouch News Imperium — so that identical Rockwell-model anchors could deliver vastly divergent news.

Rockwell Q8-234, for Crouch News FLAW, reported that members of the Imperial Royal Family had stolen a top-secret experimental FLAW craft, with designs to mass-produce it for military purposes.

On Crouch News Imperium, Rockwell J9-004 (Rockwell A8—113 had every seventh day off, for nutrient replenishment, exfoliation, and hair and makeup) reported that covert FLAW agents had launched a daring, almost unthinkable attack on the Imperial homeworld seven days previous, with the first of a new line of military vessels designed to breach the Imperium’s defenses.

Via more discreet channels, Poole in Freelance passed her message along, too.