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.

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