Sunday, December 16, 2007

23. Out of the Frying Pan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Advise us what?” the Captain asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 9, 2007

The Eighth Rule of Banditry (Part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dent stepped forward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The thread snapped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So did the methane gas filling the kitchen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 1, 2007

22. The Eighth Rule of Banditry (Part 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His brother’s silver spoon.

His sister’s weird little vial.

His mother’s ball of pseudosilk.

His father’s tin soldier.

The Captain’s gold medallion.

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

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

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

Cruel, and sharp, and useful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It felt so long ago to Dent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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