Read an Excerpt
I. RIFTWARD: THE FIRST COUNTERARGUMENT
Swift we sped, your Donovan and I,
Toward the Rift that rends the stars
Apart, we plied the boulevards that bind them.
Sooner far than I had sought for
Woke he from those slumbers so awarded
That he should wake when waking no more mattered.
Wroth he was at being thus abducted
And for some time the issue lay in doubt
Between us. E’en I must sleep,
And in that sleep lie open to his guile.
I shall place distance ’tween my tale
And me, and speak of Ravn as I do of others;
And thus relate as would a goddess grand
Who sits benign atop the world and, glancing down,
Sees all things in her ken with even eye.
And so … It begins.
The scarred man awoke muzzy-headed in a dark, close room, confused at where he was, and tangled in wires and tubes. The last clear thing in the jumbled closets of his mind was his buying of a ticket to Dangchao Waypoint, and for a fuddled moment he wondered if he might be within that very ship, already on his way.
But if so, he was grossly cheated, for he had purchased third-class fare on a Hadley liner and, of the many things his present accommodations were not, a third-class cabin on a Hadley liner was one. The room was barely large enough to contain the thin, hard bunk on which he lay and, when that bunk had been stowed into the wall, the room grew paradoxically smaller: a pace and a half one way; two and a half the other. It was the half pace that galled.
It was a room for keeping prisoners.
“Fool,” said the Fudir, once he had removed the catheters and intravenous feeding tubes that spiderlike had webbed him in his cot. “We’ve been shanghaied.”
“How long were we asleep?” Donovan asked.
* * *
There is this one thing that you must know about the scarred man; or rather, nine things. It is not his hooked chin, nor his sour humors, nor even the scars that interlace his scalp and leave his preternaturally whitened hair in tufts. It is that he is “a man of parts,” and those parts are the pieces of his mind, shattered like a mirror and rearranged to others’ whims. It is in the nature of the intellect to reflect upon things; and so a mirror is the proper metaphor, but the scarred man’s reflections are more kaleidoscopic than most.
The singular benefit of paraperception is that the paraperceptic can see different objects with each eye, hear independently with each ear, and quite often the right hand knows not what the left is doing. This has advantages; and would have had more had the scarred man’s masters not been ambitious or cruel.
Early in Donovan’s service to the Confederation, the Secret Name had gifted him with a second personality, the Fudir, which enabled him to live masqueraded as a petty thief in the Terran Corner of Jehovah while Donovan ran Particular Errands for Those of Name. But if two heads are better than one, ten heads must be better than two, and the Names had later, after Donovan had displeased Them in some small matter of galactic domination, split his mind still further. They had slivered his intellect and made of him something new: a paraconceptic, able not merely to perceive matters in parallel, but to conceive ideas in parallel. This was the ambition.
It was also the cruelty. They had imprinted each fragment with a complete, if rudimentary, personality, expert in some particular facet of the Espionage Art. The intent had been to create a team of specialists; though the consequence had been instead a quarrelsome committee. For the hand that split his intellect had misstruck; and the blow had split his will as well.
Though perhaps the blow had been true, deliberate, a part of his punishment. Perhaps at the last Those of Name had flinched from the prospect of too great a success. Those had made an art of punishment, and the connoisseurs among Them would often contemplate the intricacies of a punitive masterwork with something close to aesthetic joy. “Kaowèn,” they called it. The scarred man had been conceived initially as a human weapon. But who would build such a weapon without a catch?
* * *
“Fool,” said the Fudir. “We’ve been shanghaied.”
“How long were we asleep?” Donovan asked.
I’m not sure, replied the Silky Voice. I seemed to fight the drugs forever.
The Pedant rumbled and blinked gray, watery eyes. If asleep, no more than three days. If suspended, as long as three weeks.
The Sleuth eyed the life-support equipment from which they had so recently disengaged. We were in suspension he deduced, not asleep.
That could be. Suspension would affect even me, back here in the hypothalamus.
remembered Inner Child.
Yeah? said the Brute. And where was you? You’re supposed to be the lookout.
Now is not the time for recriminations, a young man wearing a chlamys told them. We must start from where we are, not from where we might have been.
The Brute grunted, unmollified. He tried the door, found the jamb-plate inactive, and struck it in several likely places. Donovan did not expect it to open, and so was not disappointed when it failed to do so. A young girl in a chiton squatted nearby on her haunches, her arms wrapped around her legs and her chin resting on her knees. We can get out of here, she said.
Donovan turned control over to the Sleuth, who went to their knees for a closer study of the jamb.
The Pedant recognized the locking mechanism from his databank. A Yarbor and Chang lock. This ship is Peripheral-built.
“Probably hijacked by our gracious hostess,” muttered the Fudir.
Which means this room was not designed as a prison cell, said the girl in the chiton, whom Donovan liked to call “Pollyanna.”
So. Retrofitted ad hoc, said the Sleuth, and likely in haste. Yarbor and Chang … so what?
Its central processor has a design flaw. A notice went out from their corporate headquarters on Gladiola two metric years ago. I remember reading it.
You remember everything, the Sleuth complained. He took the scarred man’s right arm and pointed. Pedant’s design flaw indicates that an electrical current passed across these two points—here, and here—will set up a magnetic field within the processor that resets the lock to zero.
“That’s nice,” said the Fudir. “So if we had a generator in our pocket, or a battery, and some wires, and could maybe do a bit of soldering, if we had a soldering gun—and some solder—there’s a chance we could get out of this room.”
“At which point,” said Donovan, “we would find ourselves in a ship. A bigger cell, is all.”
Hey. At least we’d have room to stretch.
“And where would we find wiring?”
And it’s not pitch dark in here.
He means there is a power source.
“I know what he means. Sleuth always has to be clever and elliptical.”
When he ain’t bein’ obtuse! The Brute laughed.
That the Brute was making obscure geometric puns irritated Donovan. Sometimes he didn’t know his own mind. Ever since his sundry selves had reintegrated, they had been learning from one another. The Brute was no longer quite so simple as he once had been; though it was not as though he had blossomed into the New Socrates.
The Fudir climbed atop the bunk, studied the Eye, unscrewed a housing with a convenient tool he kept cached in his sandal, detached the live leads—See? We didn’t need a power source—and pulled the cable, while simultaneously Donovan and the others considered what they might do once they had broken free of their prison.
“Take over the ship, I suppose,” Donovan said. “Slide to Dangchao Waypoint. See Méarana … and Bridget ban.”
“Well, it might, a little.”
I wonder why she shanghaied us, said the Sleuth.
The lamp that was lit has been lit again.
What’s that mean, Silky?
Something she said. Something I remember from a dream. Pedant? You remember everything.
The corpulent, watery-eyed version of Donovan shook his massive head. Facts are my métier, not dreams.
The Fudir applied the leads from the Eye to the doorjamb, one above, the other below the point that the Pedant had identified. This ought to work, the Sleuth commented.
Of course it will, said the girl in the chiton.
Current flowed. Magnetic fields formed. Somewhere inside the door, registers zeroed out and reset.
Or were supposed to. The door remained shut.
The Brute stood and, perforce, they all stood with him. He pressed the jamb-plate—and the door slid aside into the wall. The scarred man felt a huge satisfaction.
warned Inner Child, who took control and peered cautiously into the corridor. To the left it ran four paces, ending in a T-intersection.
To the right …
To the right stood Ravn Olafsdottr with a teaser in her hand and a splash of white teeth across her coal-black face. The teaser was pointed at Donovan’s head. “Ooh, you nooty buoy,” she said in the hooting accents of Alabaster. “Soo impatient! I wood have let you oot in the ripeness of time. Now you have brooken my door!”
“You should stop somewhere for repairs, then,” suggested the Fudir. “I was on my way to Dangchao, so you can drop me off on Die Bold if you’re going that way.”
Olafsdottr patted him gently on the cheek with her free hand. “You are a foony man, Doonoovan.”
* * *
Olafsdottr fashioned him a dinner of sorts. Food preparation was not her forte, and the results could best be described as workmanlike. However, three weeks in suspension had honed an edge to the scarred man’s appetite, and he ate with surprising relish.
The refectory was small: essentially a short hallway with a door at each end, a table running down the center, and a bench on either side built into walls of a dull, ungracious gray. “This is not the most comfortable ship,” the Fudir complained.
Olafsdottr stood in the aft doorway, a double-arm’s reach distant, and her weapon still ready in her hand. She said, “One seizes the moment.”
“And the ship.”
The vessel is a monoship, the Pedant decided. Small enough for a single pilot.
She’s alone, then.
That’s good news, said the Brute.
Means we got her outnumbered.
There were few personal memorabilia aboard that he could see, but they were not Ravn’s memorabilia. Confederal agents traveled light and took what they needed when they needed it.
The Fudir waved a spoonful of a chickenlike puree at the bench across from him. “Have a seat,” he told his captor. “You look uncomfortable.”
“Do I also look foolish?” she replied.
“Afraid I’d try to jump you?”
“I meant I was not afraid, not that you would not try.”
Donovan grunted and returned his attention to his meal. So far, he had not asked the Confederal her reasons for kidnapping him. He was a past master at the game of waiting. Either Olafsdottr wanted him to know or not. If she did, she would eventually tell him. If not, asking would not win the answer.
“I will be missed, you know,” he told her.
The Ravn’s answer was a flash of teeth. “I think noot. The Bartender, he is already sailing your drinks to oother lips. ’Tis noo skin oof his noose who buys them.”
“I was on my way to Dangchao. The Hound, Bridget ban, is expecting me. When I don’t arrive…” He allowed the consequences of his nonarrival to remain unspecified. A Hound of the League could be many things and anything, as adroit and dangerous as a Confederal Shadow, and Bridget ban not least among them.
But Olafsdottr only smiled and answered in Manjrin. “Red Hound missing many years. Some associates claim credit, though I believe their bragging empty.”
“You were right to doubt them. She has returned and awaits me even now at Clanthompson Hall.”
“Ah. If so, associates much red-faced.” Olafsdottr laughed and switched to the Gaelactic that was the lingua franca of the League. “But she hardly awaits you, darling. Detestable in the ears of Bridget ban falls the name of Donovan buigh. Old grudge?”
The Fudir grimaced. “Old love.”
“Same thing, no?”
Donovan shrugged and smiled, as if to say that even old grudges had expiration dates. Olafsdottr might not believe that Bridget ban would come looking for him. Neither did Donovan; but why not sow doubts?
The Long Game between the Confederation of Central Worlds and the United League of the Periphery might be played on a chessboard of suns, and in it this agent or that might be as a grain of sand on a broad beach; but where the agents stood “in the blood and sand,” matters were more particular, and interstellar politics only the medium in which they swam. Personal loyalties mattered. Personal grudges mattered. In the sudden flash of the barracuda’s teeth, what significance has the vast and swirling ocean?
* * *
After Donovan had eaten, Olafsdottr locked him in the ward room. It was decorated to resemble the cabin of an Agadar sloop, a sailing vessel much favored on that watery world. It was longer than it was wide, and paneled in light woods. A holostage with a play deck and swivel chair adorned one end. To its right hung a set of wall-mounted nautical instruments that, the nearest ocean being rather distant, were certainly more decorative than functional. Cabinetry and cushioned benches ran along the walls, including a bunk recessed into the wall. Two comfortable chairs occupied the middle of the room. The overall effect was “taut.”
“Stay poot,” Olafsdottr said, wagging a finger before she closed and locked the door on him. “Plainty in there to amuse you,” she added from the other side.
And so there was. The Fudir’s primary amusement on Jehovah had involved the opening of locked doors. He set to work. “Not very difficult,” he judged.
It’s a monoship, the Sleuth reminded him. Why would a one-man ship have high-end locks?
Why would it have locks at all? wondered Donovan.
What is the second-most frequent usage of monoships? asked the Pedant.
What is the most frequently annoying personality we have to share a head with? the Sleuth answered.
Funny that you should ask, the Brute said.
Second-most frequent, Silky.
Donovan sighed. Sometimes his head seemed a very crowded place. On occasion, he remembered that he had been the original and the others remained in some sense tenants, and he remembered that he had once been alone.
Perhaps, said the young man in the chlamys. But the “I” that cooks up schemes, and the “I” that remembers everything, and the “I” that is master of every martial art, and … all the rest of us … We are all the same “I,” aren’t we? We’re closer to you than your skin.
Donovan said nothing. He was not especially fond of his skin, which stretched sallow and drumhead tight across his bones. He still owned that gaunt and hollowed-out look that long years in the Bar of Jehovah had given him. He wondered if he might have always looked that way, even in the flush and vigor of his youth. Assuming he had had a youth, or that it had been flushed with vigor.
We’ll remember someday, Pollyanna assured him.
Donovan was less sure. Sometimes matters were lost past all retrieval; and maybe happily so. Some memories might best remain covered than recovered. “I liked it better when you had all fallen silent,” he said, and wondered if the drug that Olafsdottr had given him had also upset the delicate truce he had reached with himself the previous year.
“Smuggling,” snapped the Fudir, distracted from his inspection of the lock. “Smuggling and bonded courier work. All right? Now quiet down and let me work.”
Bonded couriers. Precisely. There is a popular show on Dubonnet’s World called Samples and Secrets, in which the unnamed pilot of a monoship brings each episode some package—a secret, a visitor, a treasure—that changes the recipient’s life for good or ill.
It’s why they’re sometimes called “schlepships,” the Sleuth said.
The Fudir pulled his special tool from the hidden cache in his sandal and set to work on the lock mechanism. The Pedant had been right. These were not high-security locks. The door opened onto the main hallway.
Ravn Olafsdottr was waiting outside. “Really, Donovan, where do you expect to go?”
The Fudir grinned. “Admit it, Ravn. You would have been disappointed if I hadn’t come out. If you wanted me to stay put, you would have had better locks installed.”
“I was in a hurry. But I may do so, if you do not behave yourself. You were not supposed to awake so soon. Annoy me too greatly and I will soospend you once more.”
“And forego the pleasure of our company?” He looked up and down the corridor. “You have Eyes all through the ship, don’t you?”
The Confederal shrugged a little, as if not to belabor the obvious. “And motion sensors for your restlessness. You move about, I hear the ping of your processions.”
“Then what does it matter if I stay in one room or not?”
Olafsdottr scratched the bright yellow stubble of her hair. “Who can say? Perhaps you sneak up behind, garrote me, have your wicked way, and take ship back to Jehovah.” A foolish notion, her smile said. “We will be good friends sometime, you and I; but that time is not yet.”
“Don’t be so sure I would want my way with you,” the scarred man grumbled. “I’ve been with more toothsome wenches than you in my time.”
“Ooh! Boot do they bite so wail with those tooths?” She gnashed the dentition in question and switched to Manjrin. “You stay ward room now. We past Dangchao. Be on Tightrope soon. Not jog pilot’s elbow on such road.”
Inner Child chirped with alarm, but Donovan maintained the scarred man’s composure. “The Tightrope,” he said casually. “No wonder you snatched a monoship. Anything bigger couldn’t take that road.”
“A narrow way, but correspondingly swift,” his kidnapper said in Gaelactic, “as Shree Bernoulli commanded. And speed is of the essence. Urgent matters await us on Henrietta, and the game is worth the candle.”
Donovan cocked his head attentively, but Olafsdottr did not elaborate on the nature of the candle. The Pedant volunteered that Henrietta was the sector capital of Qien-tuq, in the Confederal borderlands. Once in the Confederation, escape would become problematical.
“I’ve heard it said,” Donovan suggested, “that the speed of space on the Tightrope is so great that one can cross the Rift standing still.”
“Ooh, that is exaggeration, I am thinking! But the walls are close and the subluminal mud encroaches on the channel. It is a bad way and a treacherous one. But one unpatrolled by League corvettes.”
“Sounds like a good reason to seize control of the ship before you get us on it.”
“Ooh,” said Olafsdottr, “you are a foony man, for sure. Should I kill you now and save myself soospense?”
Donovan grinned. “You won’t do that. You went to all that trouble to sneak into the League, nab me, and commandeer a handy ship when you could have injected me with something fatal and been done with it. That means you plan to keep me alive, and that means you’re taking me somewhere. I’m a valuable cargo.”
“Valuable,” Olafsdottr admitted, “but not priceless. Don’t make your inventory cost greater than you be worth.”
* * *
That evening, before he turned the lights out, the scarred man removed a particular hologram from his scrip and studied on it.
Four figures sat at an outdoor café table on the sunlit cobbles of the Place of the Chooser, the great public square in Èlfiuji, in the Kingdom on Die Bold. Bridget ban sat in the middle turned at three-quarters but with her head fully facing the imager. Her smile, broad; her eyes seducing the viewer; her red hair captured in midflight, as if she had just then tossed her head to look at the artist. Her left arm draped Little Hugh’s shoulders; her right hand covered the Fudir’s on the table. Greystroke’s hand rested on her shoulder.
A fellowship, and a good one. He missed them all terribly. The four of them back then had been in search of the Twisting Stone, and the singular tragedy was that they had found it.
“She’s not expecting us on Dangchao, you know,” Donovan told himselves after restoring the image to his scrip and speaking the lights out. “It was a spur-of-the-moment decision to visit her. She won’t know it when we don’t show up.”
Oh, the harper will know, said the girl in the chiton. She knew we were coming before we did.
“It was going to be a surprise,” the Fudir whispered.
No surprise now. No expectation of the harper’s broad and welcoming smile. No possibility that the daughter’s smile would infect the mother. The fellowship in his hologram had been broken, and broken by his own actions. He had abandoned them, had abandoned Bridget ban, with no word and no explanation. One such desertion might be reparable; two would never be, and even the harper could lose her smile.
Unless he could take the ship from Ravn Olafsdottr.
* * *
Snug in his bunk, neatly boxed into the wall, Donovan discovered that the bed was not especially user-friendly. Between the thin pad and the short length, he turned and twisted in pursuit of an elusive relaxation. Perhaps a thicker pad would have settled him; perhaps not. But one of the twists—or one of the turns—brought him against the panel that formed the inner side of the bunk; and the pressure must have been just right, for something went snick or click and the panel slid aside, and Donovan fell off the bunk on a side that he hadn’t known it had.
He found himself in a narrow passageway between the wall of the ward room and the wall of the utility room next to it. There were pipes, ducts, and cable runs, as one normally finds in walls; but there was also crawl space and, here and there, shelves and bins. Inner Child glanced quickly fore and aft, saw nothing in the darkness, but kept watch—for seeing nothing in the dark was hardly a comfort to him.
Oho, said the Sleuth. The Rightful Owner was a smuggler. There are probably caches, passages, and hidey-holes like this all through the ship. Tyrants and democrats had escaped the people’s wrath cocooned in such ships. Secret treaties and covert agreements had traveled secure in their bosoms. Prototypes and patents had been hustled to subsidiaries—or competitors—on sundry worlds.
After this fortuitous discovery, the scarred man took to wandering the monoship at odd hours, investigating its nooks and crannies. He wondered how long the ship had been in Olafsdottr’s possession. She might know of the nooks, but perhaps not of the crannies.
Using the secret passages, he could make an end-run around Olafsdottr’s security and come upon her from an unexpected direction. Her reflexes could not be markedly inferior to his own, nor her mastery of the arts mortal. His main advantage was that she did not wish to damage him, and this might cause her to hold back if it came to that.
But not every imagined possibility is a real one. The two places where Olafsdottr spent most of her time were the two places where the passages did not run. First was the pilot room, which was in any case too small and cramped for a struggle that included a survivor. The second was her sleeping quarters, where she was most vulnerable, but which was inaccessible from the hidey-holes that otherwise swiss-cheesed the ship. Not all the caches connected. To approach her sleeping quarters meant crossing the spinal corridor, and that was alarmed by her ad hoc security system. It was not an impossible task to circumvent the system, but it would require deactivating several sensors; and that deactivation would in itself constitute an alarm.
It irritated Donovan considerably that such a wonderful discovery could not be put to immediate use.
* * *
Olafsdottr continued to be wary in his presence, and when they ate together, it was at arm’s length. In exasperation at the blandness of her cooking, Donovan one day programmed a dinner of Chicken Joe Freezing that had a bit of a bite to it, but Olafsdottr would not taste of it.
“Who knows what wicked spices you have rubbed into that poor hen?” she asked. And never mind that the meat from the protein vats had never gone through the formality of actually having once been a hen.
But even when he had divided his own serving in two and offered her the choice of halves, she demurred, and he wondered if it was not the spiciness itself rather than the possibility of being drugged that put her off.
“I am wounded,” he said, “that you do not trust me.” Later, he vomited the poison in the ward room’s lavatory. Taking the antidote beforehand was risky in any case, and he resolved to find another tactic.
* * *
Olafsdottr allowed him some limited exercise time. “Idle hands, devil’s tools,” she explained, and led him to a fitness room equipped with a variety of machines. Donovan expressed his amazement and gratitude and did not hint that he had already seen the room. The mirror on the back wall was one-way and provided anyone in the passage behind it with an excellent view.
Olafsdottr stood as usual in the doorway, and made helpful suggestions for his exercise regimen. The Brute especially enjoyed the activity; and the Silky Voice used it to work on her enzyme control. But at the conclusion, as he was toweling off, he noticed a handled insert used as a shim for changing clearances on the machine beside him. Save that it was not sharpened, it would make a fine knife. He pulled it out as if to change the forces on the pulley, and found that it had good hand-balance.
Without turning, he threw it at Olafsdottr. The Confederal twisted sideways and snatched it out of the air. She examined the slug of steel in her hands, then looked at Donovan and grinned. “You like play catch?” She slung it back at him on a flat trajectory aimed at his face. “More fun with knives,” she added.
The Brute dropped into a crouch and, thrusting his hand up, grabbed the handle as it passed overhead. Careful, he said. Ya don’t want ya should break the mirror. That’s bad luck.
As he rose, he sent the shim spinning back to Ravn. The courier spun to her left and somehow directed the pinwheeling slug back toward Donovan with barely a twitch to its motion.
Inner Child heard a sound behind them and stepped aside, so that the Brute very nearly missed catching the projectile. He tossed the shim up, caught it by the flat of the blade as it fell, and threw it on a long, lazy turn-and-a-half toward his captor.
“Oh, excellent move,” the Confederal applauded. She had to sidestep and reach behind, since the shim was coming at her blade-first. She returned the shim the same way. “But ‘crouching-ape’ catch better.”
On the next round, though, as the shim hurtled toward her, an alarm tripped and a series of sharp chimes sounded through the ship. The Ravn jerked her head around, remembered in time the deadly projectile, and dropped “boneless” to the floor, striking with the flats of her hand to reduce the impact. The shim shot through the space her skull had occupied and rang against the wall across the hall from the doorway.
She had rolled on falling, of course—the body has reasons the mind stops not to ponder—and she came out of the roll into a crouch onto the balls of her feet just as Donovan reached her. Her teaser halted the scarred man an arm’s reach away.
“Ooh, that was very clayver, sweet. You play me friendly game of threw-the-knife and betray me at crucial mooment. You play me, and not shim.”
Donovan held his hands where she could see them. “What betrayal? I ran over to see if you were all right.”
“Not even scratch, my sweet. How you kick oof mootion sensor from here?”
Donovan shook his head. “Must have been a malfunction. Your whole system is jury-rigged. I’m surprised you haven’t had false positives before now.”
By the guarded look on Olafsdottr’s face, he judged that there had been previous false positives, perhaps while he had been in suspension. He said nothing, preferring that any doubts about system reliability be spread by her own mind.
The Confederal waved her weapon. “You go before me. Left at refectory.”
The scarred man did as was told. Idea, the Sleuth said.
I hope it’s better than playing catch with a blunt instrument.
Quiet, Silky. The Ravn’s got a “no-not-me.” It damps the motion sensors in her vicinity. If we can steal it, or the Fudir can duplicate it, we can sneak up on her when she’s asleep; not set off the alarms.
Oh sure, thought the Fudir, Olafsdottr will give me the run of the machine shop.
They had reached the T-intersection. The long stem of the T ran past the ward room and the closet in which he had first awakened all the way to the exterior air locks. The cross-bar led to the refectory and, beyond that, the pilot’s saddle. Olafsdottr looked down each corridor, pursing her lips.
The alarm came from here, the Sleuth concluded. There must be a location code in the alarm pattern. The long and short beeps.
Dissatisfied, Olafsdottr marched Donovan back to the ward room. “You be a good buoy,” she said, “and stay in room.” And she closed and uselessly locked the door.
* * *
Travel time between stars was long—weeks, sometimes even months, depending on the local speed of space—and there was little to engage the attention save when entering and leaving the Roads. Consequently, the ward room was well stocked with what the great ’Saken philosopher Akobundu had called “the grand continuum of culture”—literature, music, art, travel, the enjoyment of nature, sports, fashion, social vanities, and the intoxication of the senses—though the Rightful Owner’s tastes seemed to have run more to the lower strata of that continuum. There were seven cardinal sins, Bridget ban had once told him—and the entertainment center catered to no less than five of them.
More entertaining by far, the Fudir was able to use the play deck to hack into the ship’s navigational system, from which he learned that they would be a fortnight on the Newtonian crawl through the high coopers of Abyalon. Olafsdottr would not resume the pilot’s saddle for a while. What better time for taking the ship?
Of course, if he realized that, so did his adversary. She would be more alert than ever during the next week and a half.
And so, Donovan set himself to learn about the Rightful Owner. He had no guarantee that such an education would gain him an advantage; but there was a chance that the monoship Sèan Beta had additional capabilities of which Olafsdottr was as yet unaware. A weapons cache, perhaps. As far as he knew, Olafsdottr’s teaser was the only formal weapon on board.
Of informal weapons, there were of course a plenty.
Time was growing short. After Abyalon, came the Megranome crawl. And after Megranome, the Tightrope branched off and it would be too late to turn back. There was no exit off the Tightrope until it debouched onto Confederal space at Henrietta.
* * *
The evening after the Fudir had ferreted out the name of the Rightful Owner—Rigardo-ji Edelwasser of Dumthwaite, Friesing’s World—and the refreshingly honest name of his company—Bonded Smugglers, LLC—Donovan won the game of waiting.
“It does not grow, does it?” Olafsdottr said from her usual cautious post at the door between the refectory and the pilot’s saddle. She had of course eaten earlier, and stood by now while Donovan did the same.
The scarred man had programmed a meal of tikka and naan, and ate noisily and sloppily, using the naan as mittens to pick up the chicken pieces. He looked up at her. “What doesn’t?”
“Your hair. It never grows.”
Donovan scowled and ran his hand along the tufts that spotted his scalp. “Oh, yes, missy,” he said in the Terran patois. “Names very budmash fella, but save him this-fella planti on haircuts.”
Olafsdottr nodded gravely. “I have heard this tell. You have soofered great harm.” She reached forward, almost as if to tousle the scars in Donovan’s hair; but he pulled back, and she was not so foolish as to lean closer.
“Great harm,” she continued in doleful tones, “and I speak as one expert in great harm. You are not the only Shadow to feel the nettles of their whims. It is a poor master who beats his dogs. Beat them too much and they will turn on him, as some of us now have. There is a struggle in the Lion’s Mouth.”
Donovan grunted and applied himself to his naan.
“Do you understand what I have said?” Olafsdottr said.
He looked up, his mouth dripping. “And what is Hecuba to me, or I to Hecuba?”
His captor seemed uncertain of the Terran reference. “Do you know the Lion’s Mouth? I have been told that your memory is … uncertain.”
“You mean ‘wiped.’ It’s your version of the Kennel where the Hounds train; except you breed rabid dogs.”
Olafsdottr crossed her hands over her breast. “You wound me, Donovan-san. Am I a mad dog? Well, perhaps so.” She spoke more intently. “Some of us are mad enough to challenge the Names. There is civil war among us.”
Donovan returned his attention to his meal. “Good luck then to the both of you. Let me know how it turns out.”
“We are bringing home all agents from the Periphery.”
“You’ve made a mistake then. We’re not an agent. We’ve been retired.”
“Ooh. Our retirement plan is very singular. There is oonly one way to retire.”
Donovan did not ask her what that one way was. “You forget Those of Name discarded us.”
“Then when you join with us you may take your revenge for that, and sweet will be the taking, I think.”
“Very sweet, but I had it in mind to watch from the sidelines. Revenge is a dish best served cold—and by someone else.”
Olafsdottr shook her head. “No sidelines this fight.”
Donovan wiped up the last of his sauce and stuffed the naan in his mouth. He had gotten hints of this last year from Billy Chins. “How many of you are in it?” he asked around the bread.
“Almost half have lit the lamp.”
“Almost half…” He swallowed. “Oh, that’s encouraging. Half the Lion’s Mouth against a regime in power for centuries, with total control of the police, the Protectors, and the … What of the ‘boots,’ the military? Where do they stand?”
Ravn cocked her head. “We conduct this war as we always have—with stealth, with intrigue, with assassination. Some boots,” she allowed, “may know a civil war is broken out. But there are no bloody battles; no planets bombarded. No great stupid mobs rushing about shooting at one another … and missing.”
“Not yet, anyway.” Donovan tossed his napkin into the fresher and took his dishes to the sink, where he scraped the remnants into the recycler. He turned abruptly and faced her. “Why me?” he said. “What good would I do the rebellion? I’m one, broken old man.”
“Not so old as that; and broken pieces have the sharpest edges.”
A facile response, Donovan thought. That her people meant to use him in some manner, he had no doubt; but in what manner, was as yet unclear. Perhaps as no more than a knife thrown by one side at the other.
“You think on what I have told you, Donovan,” Olafsdottr said as she marched him back to his nominal prison cell. “You will see it is the right thing to do, and you and I will be famous comrades.”
That argument, more than any of the others, planted caution in the heart of Donovan buigh. For he had never heard an agent of Those of Name cite “the right thing to do” as an argument in favor of anything.
Copyright © 2011 by Michael Flynn