Tuesday, January 1, 2008

24. Dear and Costly

Captain Mayweather of Pacification Services Intergalactic was very well-trained and very well-paid, and more importantly, he was employed by people who knew where all of his relatives lived. Even the illegitimate ones.

Mayweather didn’t care much for most of them, and would gladly have left them to his employer’s tender mercies; it was part of the reason he’d thrown himself into the military life to begin with. But at his last performance review, the large man on the other side of the table, with the clipboard and the six-inch scar criscrossing his face, had casually, conversationally mentioned his maiden aunt. The one who’d brought Mayweather up, the only one of his twisted, rotted-out family tree to give a toss about him. The one he deliberately hadn’t mentioned to anyone at the company, ever.

So when the intruders closed in on the bridge, Mayweather didn’t hesitate for a moment in turning his pistol in turn on each of his fellow shipmates. (You can’t give useful information to your captors if you’re no longer alive.) The door smashed open before he got around to finishing himself off — or the navigation systems, for that matter — but he did manage to destroy the comms array. That was something, he told himself, facing down the intruders. The company couldn’t say he hadn’t tried. They couldn’t take it out on Auntie.

“I’ve been trained,” he said. “I can’t be bribed, I won’t be tortured. This—” he waved a hand at his former coworkers, scattered around the deck — “is my doing. Whatever you think you can stop, you can’t. Wherever you think you can go, you can’t. The owners of this ship have long memories and a longer reach. I want you to realize that.”

“Are you about finished?” said the man in the lead, with the gray traveling cloak and the little round spectacles.

“I’ve said my piece,” Mayweather shot back, and waited for his own end.

“Do you know my face?” the leader said.

Come to think of it, Mayweather did. It took him a minute, on account of the scruff, but he did. He paled a little.

“And these folk here,” the leader continued, indicating the beautiful, barely dressed woman to his left, and the roughly man-shaped pile of muscle to his right. “You know them?”

Now that he’d mentioned it, their faces did seem disconcertingly familiar to Mayweather.

“Good,” Commodore Crestfall smiled, watching Mayweather’s Adam’s apple quickly rise and fall. “Now, what say we have us a civilized conversation about long memories and longer reach?”

Mayweather thought of his aunt opening her front door, and finding the large man with the scar and the clipboard waiting.

“Not gonna happen,” he said.

Commodore Crestfall sighed, and Mayweather was surprised to see real pity in the man’s eyes.

“I’ll make sure it gets back to your people you did right by ‘em,” the Commodore said. “On account of anyone you might be afraid for.”

“My thanks,” Mayweather nodded, and shut his eyes. He felt a ripple of air brush his face. “Go on and do it, then.”

He opened his eyes and saw Crestfall withdrawing an empty hand from the folds of his cloak. “Already did,” the Commodore replied.

“Oh,” Mayweather said, feeling a small stinging sensation. He looked down at his midsection and saw something truly remarkable happen. Then neither half of him saw anything at all.

Lis, who had seen her mother feed people to her nightsharks for a broken teacup, felt a curious unhappy sensation in her. Later, after talking to people who knew a lot about these sorts of things, she would learn it was called “sympathy.”

“Huh,” Pug grunted, as Crestfall stepped over Mayweather’s remains to inspect the controls. “That’s some cunning technique.”

“Style, Majesty,” Crestfall sighed. “Although there’s something to be said for your approach.” Indeed there was, as the dozens of mercenaries they had encountered on their way from the cargo bay would attest, once they got out of the hospital and got a note from their doctors. “Hey, Tiny!”

“Little,” Bosun Little growled, triangles strobing on her cheeks, as she ducked her way onto the bridge. She set her Whomping Stick down against a ruined console and wiped trails of dark blood — not hers — on the midsection of her coveralls. “That rear guard problem we had on the way here? We don’t have it anymore. What’s your tizzy?”

“Comms are dead,” the Commodore told her, signaling her over to the half-blasted control deck. Through the viewport ahead, the ridges of the dark ship prickled out of the shadow of the nearby moon; bright, twinkling clusters in the distance, like schools of platefish, marked the opposing Imperial and FLAW fleets. “You familiar with the maneuvering on this sort of boat?”

“Might be,” the Bosun said, thick fingers trailing over the controls.

“We fly out there without comms, bearing no colors, I doubt the fleet’s going to pay us any mind,” Pug offered. “Until we try to dock. Then they’re going to, you know, kill us.”

“Look,” Lis nodded, pointing out the viewport. Tiny flecks of debris scattered out from the dark ship into the starlight. One in particular blinked, readjusted itself, and curved off toward the two distant fleets. “Oh, Gods. Do you think that’s the bomb?”

“Most like,” Crestfall nodded. “Bosun, you think we could intercept?”

“Yes, I completely want to die for the sake of both your slop-rigged sets of politics,” the Bosun snapped. She took a deep breath. “Probably, but if we just show up, there’s that whole problem of them ignoring us.”

“Or killing us,” Pug reminded.

“We need something to get their attention,” Lis said. “Something big.” Her eyes flitted to the controls. Weapons dead; communication dead; scanning dead…

Lis had once had a very wearisome diplomatic meeting with the head of the private army of Kwostell. He’d insisted on giving her a tour of his flagship; she would later return the favor with regard to an entirely different sort of geography, albeit with no greater enthusiasm. She tapped one panel, and watched the lights of its instruments flicker, then spring to life.

“Is this what I think it is?” she said.

Consciousness returned to Captain Corsair in a precise sequence.

First, taste. That was pretty much normal, really.

Then, temperature. Complete numbness slipped gently into agonizing cold, which then passed matters gracefully off to a sort of warmth that would be pleasant once the agonizing cold finally decided to stop lingering.

Then, sensation. His living hand around the haft of his sword. The cloak shifting against his shoulders. The children encircled in his arms, breathing raggedly but steadily, shivering with cold.

Next, smell. Given the children’s long incarceration, the Captain would have been happy to have skipped this part.

After that, hearing. The heavy clang of the blast doors as they finished sealing back into place. The slow clomping and squeaking of tall, heavy leather boots.

And lastly, sight, which was perfectly clear to the Captain except for all those dark spots swimming around in the air. He tried to swat them away, but his progress in that regard was frustratingly slow.

“Look at you, then,” he heard a low, sharp-edged voice purr, growing louder, heading toward him. “I’d heard one of the quality was slumming it as a pirate, but honestly.”

The Captain blinked again, and in a very loose definition of the term “saw,” saw Sir Leslie Murther striding across the deck, cutlass flashing in his hand. Uneven bits of Sir Leslie’s lustrous locks were missing, and half his mustache had been scorched away, but he’d taken the time to go and get himself properly dressed again, once more snug in the embrace of a spare Special Device.

“Excuse me,” the Captain managed to say, through still-chattering teeth. “Which of you am I meant to be fighting? Or is it perhaps the both?”

“You probably don’t remember me,” Sir Leslie tutted. “You’ve come a long way since then. Most of it downward, I see.”

Sir Leslie drew back his arm, and swung the cutlass.

Most of the time, this procedure resulted in a satisfying (to Sir Leslie, anyway) sound somewhere between a squelch and a crunch. This time, to his surprise, it instead produced a clang.

“I must apologize,” Captain Corsair panted, regaining his breath. In the space of a moment, he had drawn his sword from its berth in the floor and lifted it to block Sir Leslie’s swing. “My arm, it is very well-trained. When attempts are made to kill me, it sometimes reacts on instinct.”

Sir Leslie snarled, and slashed again. Again, a clang.

“You see?” Corsair shrugged. “It is hopeless.” With his free hand, he gently set the two groaning, stirring children on the deck. Then, bracing himself, he rose on unsteady legs to face Sir Leslie.

For all of two seconds, anyway. At which point the Captain wobbled and fell over sideways.

“I seem to be having difficulties,” the Captain said, from the floor. “Permit me a brief moment to resolve disagreements with my legs, yes?”

“I’ll spare you the trouble,” Sir Leslie said. He raised the cutlass a third time.

And promptly fell over himself. He had an excuse, at least; the entire ship pitched and roiled, caught in the thrall of some outside force, and it took a few moments for the gravity compensators to keep up.

“Ah,” the Captain observed, making a much more successful second attempt at rising. “I see you have difficulties as well.”

Slung in an invisible web of attracting forces, Sir Leslie’s ship was slowly towed out of its orbit, toward the two opposing fleets of Imperial and FLAW craft. At the opposite end of its tether, the mercenary ship — now under entirely new, if not entirely cohesive, management — chugged slowly but steadily along.

Sir Leslie scrambled to his feet, boiling out a torrent of black, curdling curses that made the Captain wince.

“Please, good sir!” Corsair protested, nodding to Dent and Pebble as they slowly regained consciousness on the deck nearby. “There are delicate ears present!”

“I’ll reserve them for the appetizers,” Sir Leslie snarled, and charged. Swordsmanship, alas, had never been his forte. His swings were wide and clumsy, a butcher’s work. The Captain, shaky but recovering quickly, parried each stroke of the cutlass with tiny, precise adjustments of his blade and his stance, like a painter adding the final touches to a sunset.

“You see there?” the Captain offered helpfully. “Your stance, it is incorrect. Set your feet slightly wider, and — ah, yes, good! Your swing has greater energy.”

“Damnable popinjay,” Sir Leslie growled, beginning to sweat beneath his heavy velvet jacket. The Special Device, for all its admirable features, did not yet incorporate climate control. “I see your manners are all you have left.”

“I begin to remember you, I think,” the Captain mused, ducking adeptly. “You were… how shall I put this delicately… amply proportioned, yes?”

“I was big boned!” Sir Leslie roared, lashing out with a boot that caught Corsair square in the chest. “It was glandular!” The Captain stumbled backward, smacking hard into the hull of his anchored stolen ship.

“I must hesitantly question your use of the past tense in that statement,” the Captain sighed, knocking aside Sir Leslie’s blade with his own. The cutlass screeched sparks in a line across the hull of the ship. “Have you perhaps consulted physicians?”

Sir Leslie’s left eyebrow twitched. His clenched teeth hummed briefly. And then, with a bellow, he thrust his cutlass toward the Captain.

“You seem to have missed,” Corsair noted, casually glancing at the blade embedded just over his shoulder in the steel skin of his stolen ship. “Have I perhaps made you angry?” He cleverly feinted to one side.

Well, he attempted to. Something tugged him back into place, and a second, more thorough look revealed that Sir Leslie’s stab had neatly pinned the Captain’s jacket to the ship behind him.

“This is regrettable,” the Captain said, moments before Sir Leslie’s skull collided with his own. It was a trick Sir Leslie had learned early in childhood, and it never failed to serve him well. Corsair’s head slammed back against the ship behind him, and the Captain sagged, dazed.

Sir Leslie smiled. He opened his mouth, and his teeth began to sing.

Then something small but surprisingly heavy leapt on his back, and Sir Leslie experienced pain in stereo.

Dent remembered the way his brother had scaled the nose of the mighty Ogodsno to deliver the final blow. He applied the same strategy to Sir Leslie, then grabbed both of his would-be captor’s ears and yanked, hard.

Sir Leslie roared in agony, stumbling backward, his arms flailing and wheeling, trying to swat the boy off. Dent, still shivering, the whole of his skin stinging from the intense cold of vacuum, just tugged harder.

And when Sir Leslie flung out one hand, Pebble grabbed hold of it, found the meatiest part, and bit down hard.

One would think that, having subjected others to the same treatment, Sir Leslie would be somewhat understanding in the event that someone else tried to see how he tasted. (Not very good, in Pebble’s estimation — all sickly-sweet and perfumey, with an edge of sweat and rancid fat.) But he did not take it well at all.

It took him a few incredibly agonizing shakes of his arm before Pebble flew off, tumbling across the deck, reflexively spitting out the terrible taste in her mouth. Sir Leslie flung a closed fist back above his head, conking poor Dent squarely on his royal skull. The boy saw stars, and did not realize he had actually let go until the deck came up to thud against his back.

Wincing, Sir Leslie sucked at the neat, child-sized teethmarks reddening the palm of his left hand, glaring black murder beneath his bristly eyebrows at Dent. The boy tried to scramble backward across the deck, but it was a very large and empty bay, and there was absolutely nowhere to hide.

“I have had problematic meals,” Sir Leslie growled. “I have had meals I regretted undertaking. But I have never, ever endured such frustration for the sake of a suitable supper.” Pebble ran at him, but he was ready for her this time. His thick, ungentlemanly hand closed fast against her small pale neck, and he swung her up into the air in a whirl of kicking legs and long silver hair.

Sir Leslie knelt down, resting his free hand on his knee, just above the opening of his boot, to look Dent in the eye. At the end of his outstretched arm, Pebble began to turn blue, clawing at the velvet of his sleeve.

“You’d better damn well be delicious,” Sir Leslie said. Dent could smell the carnivore stink of his breath, overlaid with notes of grape-onion and soot.

The boy looked beyond Sir Leslie, to see Captain Corsair approaching, his blade raised high. And he smiled, and knew that somehow, everything would work out right.

In later days, and months, and years, he would remember this moment of deadly happiness. And he would smile only in guarded, trusted company, and then rarely, and never more than he had to. It was a terrible thing to learn, and a terrible way to learn it.

For Sir Leslie, who might otherwise have been distracted by the dictates of his ravening stomach, saw Dent smile. He heard the movement behind him. From its concealment in his knee-high black boot, Sir Leslie drew a long, serrated knife.

And as Captain Corsair prepared to bring his sword down, Sir Leslie turned and drove the knife deeply and upward into the Captain’s stomach.

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