She was alone in the dispatch center in the middle of the night when the chirp of a status message alerted her to incoming voice traffic. “Freighter Byrnie, with traffic. Mavrine of my heart, Mavrine of my dreams, have you saved any apples in your stores for your one true love?”
Mavrine grinned. Teasing, he was, but she loved the sound of his voice, even badly distorted by the antiquated transceivers that were the best they could manage at Haystacks. Antiquated, but free. Everything in Gonebeyond space was salvage, including their freedom itself.
“Not for you,” she said. She’d meant to tell him before, but his last visit had been too short. Less than a day. She couldn’t keep the news from Cheber any longer. Everybody else could wait until she started to show. Then they would be married, Nurail-fashion, since it would be obvious that the union was a fertile one. “I need to save all the apples I can. To boil up, you see, when the time comes. To make applesauce.”
Silence, from Cheber. She smiled again, broadly and happily. There’d been blood feud between her people and his, once upon a time; but it didn’t matter. The Covenant that governed what passed for community in Gonebeyond, out beyond the acid-sharp claws of Jurisdiction that had done its best over the years to kill them all, that Covenant was an end to feud. History stops here. No one may pass who will not pledge an end to all old hates and retribution.
“Fit for the toothless,” Cheber said, thoughtfully. At last. Hope in his voice; hope, love, wonder, gratitude. “Oh, Mavrine. Oh, darling. — And oh, here’s the spin coming up, I can still turn back.”
He was making his final approach to the vector, then. Mavrine thought about it. “No, the news could out too soon. And I’ll need supplies.” There hadn’t had a baby since last year. Children were held almost in common, at Haystacks; they had so few. “There’ll be cloth for the wrapping, for one.”
“I’ll hurry,” he said. His signal was beginning to break up, to lose coherence. “ — soon as I can. A daughter.”
“I’ll be waiting.” But the blip that was Cheber and the freighter Byrnie was almost gone, into the black void of the vector at Broder Hoops. “Haystacks Station away, here.”
“ — away.” Pushing away from her boards Mavrine stood up and stretched, slowly, luxuriously, lengthening her limbs to their fullest reach. She’d been disappointed that he hadn’t had more time, but the job had been tightly scheduled, five of the largest cargo containers to be offloaded pending further retrieval; and away to the next job. Now Cheber knew he was working for three.
The fire alarms went off. They were always going off. Mavrine grimaced in annoyance. She wanted time to savor the memory, what she’d said, Cheber’s reactions; but a person couldn’t think with the klaxon sounding.
It was better that the sensors should mistake the faint traces of wood-smoke in the air for a real fire than that they should fail when they were honestly needed; and there was a fog on the river — she’d come to work the night-shift through the fog, acrid, moist, heavy, pressing the wood-smoke from the residential section down to the earth and trapping it there. No help for it. There’d be no thinking for her until she’d reset the alarm.
Locking her communications down she made her way out of the dispatch building and outside. Smoke hit her lungs like a lead weight; she staggered forward, doubled over with coughing. Not a false alarm. A real fire. The fog and the smoke were so thick she couldn’t make sense of where she was, completely disoriented before she’d taken three steps; she couldn’t so much as find her way back to the door.
Through the roiling clouds of smoke-blackened fog Mavrine could only just glimpse a scene of horror, fire red and golden in the night. Fighting her way forward against the smoke Mavrine dropped to her knees, remembering her training; the air was a little less choking, near the ground. She could think.
The station was on fire. She couldn’t gear up because she couldn’t tell where the fire-suits were, since she couldn’t find the dispatch building. She knew she was mere steps away, but she had no hope of finding the right direction in the disorienting haze of fog and smoke. She couldn’t help fight the fire. She had to find the collection point instead. That was a different alarm.
The klaxon shut off, suddenly; pressing her face to the ground Mavrine pulled her shirt up over her nose and mouth, waiting for the ringing in her ears to subside. There. The signal-beacon from the gather-place. No. There. Where? The fog distorted sound, muffled it, she couldn’t tell which of the signals she heard was the right one, which ones mere echoes.
Someone was here. Someone seized her by the arm, pulled her to her feet, urged her into a run. Stumbling, she fell, choking on the smothering fog; her rescuer dragged her along. She helped as best she could, her eyes swollen, her tears burning now-reddened lids and smoke-seared cornea.
Then they were clear. They’d gained the fire-safe collection area, open to still-foggy skies but shielded by the vapor-barrier airstream wall that deployed in the presence of smoke. Mavrine lay gasping on the clammy ground, hoping for a rescue inhaler. None was offered. She could hear shouting, but it was confused. Screaming. Laughter.
Laughter? Blinking to clear her eyes as best she could Mavrine struggled to her knees, trying to make sense of what she was seeing. People in rescue suits, but she didn’t recognize them, not even the suits. Someone took her by the hair, bending over her from behind; she felt the cold burn of a knife against her throat and it hurt, but why?
The knife bit no deeper. Someone had come, putting out a hand to stop Mavrine’s attacker from finishing the assault. Her rescuer pulled off his face-mask and crouched down on his heels, looking up at whoever it was behind her; said something, but not in any language Mavrine could recognize. She didn’t recognize the man either. Then he spoke to her reassuringly in Standard, humor and what seemed to be kindness in his voice.
“You bear a child,” he said. How could he know? Had he been monitoring communications? What, who, had been in the containers Cheber had just delivered? “We release it from its shame. We send you into the embrace of the Holy Mother.”
He had an accent that Mavrine thought she recognized. Dolgorukij. There’d been traders at Haystacks from the Dolgorukij Combine, recently. They’d been eager to make contracts, interested in everything about Haystacks Station. Launch-field capacity. Population. How many children; they’d brought sweets and pastries.
And suddenly Mavrine knew, even as the man pushed her so hard that she fell over onto her back on the cold hard ground. Night raiders. Devils from beyond the Broder Hoops.
Hard unforgiving hands wrenched her knees apart, held her down, tore through her worn clothing with sharp knives. She could smell raw wood, the resinous perfume of the straight-growing evergreens in Haystacks’ woods; the man spoke to her again, and his words were beyond horror. “Out of respect,” he said. “Your suffering is shortened. The child wins respite, for its mother.”
The knife cut deep between her legs. But the pain could not be compared to the pain that followed it, unimaginable, relentless. She screamed and screamed and screamed, because she understood. The smell of wood. The sharpened stake. The forest of the dead, it was a story, only a story, no grotesque savagery in the history of all the feuds ever sung in Nurail weaves had ever approached this.
“But not too shortened, because there is a point to be made, after all,” the man said. She was surrounded by obscene laughter. Someone strapped a rescue inhaler to her face, finally, air and — stimulants. Your suffering is shortened, he’d said. But there is a point.
They raised the sharpened pole with her on it and fixed it into the ground, all of her weight bearing down on that sharp point and tearing slowly — oh, so slowly — up into her body.
And then they went on to the next prisoner.
Through the black smoking Hell of homes burning in the night Fiska — Fisner Feraltz — worked his way ever more deeply into Haystacks’ residential blocks, weeping as he went. “Out, out, everybody out! Fire! Fire!” Shouting over the alarms in accented Standard Fiska shouldered through a door left unsecured into the thick haze of a narrow hall. How many people lived here? How many children?
His team spread out to his left and right, searching; setting incendiaries as they went. It didn’t take long. All they had to do was tear the children up out of their beds, and drive them away from ruin and destruction. It was for the Holy Mother to decide which of the children would survive their ordeal, but no one else was to be allowed to live.
“Three here.” One of his men came out of the black corridor, a child hardly more than a baby under one arm, dragging another by a handful of a night-dress, the child so stunned with such an awakening it seemed sleep-walking. “Diter’s got the oldest, we should go.”
“I’ll cover,” Fiska said. He was the raid leader. His position in the hierarchy demanded he share the grim realities of their work, and be seen doing it. He had to maintain his position. It was the only way to make sure that these atrocities would be avenged, that the Angel of Destruction would itself be destroyed before it had a chance to send out roots and establish itself in the new worlds of Gonebeyond, to rule there by blood and terror.
Someone else was there. Somebody’s older sister, or somebody’s young mother, coming out of the room behind Diter as Diter hurried by with a young boy clinging trustingly to his neck. “Noll?” There was an edge of hysteria in her voice. “Noll, where’s the baby, where’s Ida, did your sisters get out, who has the baby?”
Diter was gone. Fiska backed out into the street again, blocking the interior from view. She came at me with a piercer, he would say. He fired; she fell. He was a good shot. She was safely dead, but the others, were there no others he could save?
At least one of the souls in this house was dead before the fire ate them, or worse. He had to hold on to that. The Angel of Destruction understood that he might agonize over what he’d done; he could confess his pain and be absolved, though he dared not admit to any merciful murders. Yes, any decent man would feel as you do, Feraltz. And you are a decent man. The Holy Mother understands your sacrifice in Her service.
Five years working his way back into the Angel’s ranks. Five years winning trust and confidence. Now all he had to do was live somehow with what he had done for a few more weeks. Cousin Stanoczk would come. Fiska would transfer the data he’d collected so carefully, so secretly, to the man who would be his rescuer; names, locations, resources, access codes.
For now there were more houses to burn, more children to harvest, more people to save from death by slow torture if he could. They would be avenged. He would not fail.
The Holy Mother knew indeed what he did, what he had done, and why. When he had completed his task she would be merciful, and grant him peace.
General Dierryk Rukota. Artilleryman; guilty of being inconvenient to have around for people engaged in black-market arms sales; former commanding officer, now subordinate officer, of Captain Jennet ap Rhiannon of the Jurisdiction Fleet Ship Ragnarok. Renegade and mutineer, almost by accident.
In his long career upholding the rule of Law and the Judicial order he’d been places he hadn’t wanted to be, done things he’d regretted having to do, seen things he would rather not have seen. But nothing like this. This was different.
There was a little boy in his arms, an emergency blanket tucked around his trembling body, waiting for his turn. It was a beautiful day. The autumn color of the dying leaves in the lush and gracious woods was restful to an eye accustomed to the flat textured grey corridors and muted neutral tones of shipboard life. The sun was high in the sky, her gracious warmth cheering the air. There was a perfume of wood smoke in the air, overlaying a terrible base note of roasted flesh.
Autumn and dying leaves meant cold at night. The little boy had been driven from his home in his sleepers, loose long-sleeved shirt, loose trousers, no slippers on his cut and bloodied feet. They could have made a fire, but the only survivors were too young to have been taught, and had no fire-kit. And were in shock.
Three days, “Two” — the Ragnarok’s intelligence officer — had said. Three days without food or shelter. He couldn’t stand the silence. He had children, though he hadn’t seen much of them over the years. He liked children. That was one of the reasons his wife had chosen him to be their father.
He started to rock the little boy gently in his arms, murmuring an old play-rhyme soft and low. Yup shah, nar shah, podiyai, podiyai. Flinging his arms suddenly around Rukota’s neck the child buried his face against Rukota’s shoulder, and began to scream; and there was nothing Rukota could do about it.
Dr. Mahaffie beckoned. Oh, good. It was his turn. No words; Rukota held the child, and Dr. Mahaffie examined him as best he could a traumatized patient screaming in inarticulate desolation. Gille Mahaffie was Ship’s Surgeon now, since Koscuisko had gone off on his own tangent. They knew where Koscuisko was, of course; but he’d provoked the Captain, and Safehaven needed Koscuisko more than the Ragnarok did.
“Think we have something to work with, here,” Mahaffie said, and beckoned for one of his orderlies to come take the child away. Now that Mahaffie had completed his examination it was safe to give the child medicine to counteract the shock, to damp the memory of what the boy had seen — at least until the boy gained strength to survive. It was hard for Rukota to let go. He wanted to hold on to the frightened child forever, but it was too late to protect the little boy, and nothing Rukota could do could change that.
“Report, Doctor?” Captain ap Rhiannon suggested, to Rukota’s considerable surprise; because he hadn’t known she was there, and she was usually hard to miss, even if she did only come up to his shoulder. He was a tall man. She was better-looking. Her voice sounded a little strained, underneath her calm professional presence; that was new.
“Statistics from Langsarik Station suggest twenty-six children under the age of ten years Standard, your Excellency. We have nineteen. There were twenty, but one too near the end to salvage.” That would be the one Rukota had found in the first sweep, the one they’d found clinging to the blood-stained sharpened stake on which its father had died.
Ap Rhiannon hadn’t shown signs of stress before — a base level of outrage and anger, yes, but crèche-bred Command Branch had no pity in them. Trained out of them at a very early age. “How is staff holding up?” she asked, formal and almost aloof. It’s the fourth time for us, now. She didn’t have to say that part out loud for Rukota to hear it.
“Tahumos was worse,” Mahaffie said. “As I gather.” The Ragnarok hadn’t been first on the scene at Tahumos; they’d been mapping new vectors in Langsarik space, and the mining station at Tahumos had been in Sesscomb’s area of responsibility. It had been ugly at Tahumos, but it had been ugly for someone else.
Ap Rhiannon nodded. “Carry on, Doctor.” She looked up briefly to meet Rukota’s eyes; so he followed her respectfully as she walked up to the crest of the ridge. They could see the ruins spread out in front of them, from fire-gutted warehouses to food depots still smoldering. And peoples’ homes. They’d collect the bodies, and count them up as best they could to make sure no one was missed.
They’d do that once they’d found all of the children. The raiders always left the younger children behind: either to die of cold and shock and dehydration or to live in torment with their memories for the rest of their whole lives. “There’s something familiar,” ap Rhiannon said, musingly; and introspection was unlike her. “I just can’t get what it is.”
“We have seen Chorb,” he reminded her. “Palladure before that.” But ap Rhiannon shook her head.
“I’ve never walked the settlement. Until now.” She was scanning the remains of the ruined houses, frowning. “I felt like someone else, somehow. As though I was in a different body. Not this one.” She tapped the chest-plaquet of her over-blouse as she said it as if for emphasis, thumb and five fingers gathered into a loose fist.
Six digits to a hand made her a category three hominid, and Rukota had typed her as Versanjer, in his mind. The Bench took the orphaned offspring of its destroyed rebels to populate its crèches. They had to be processed very young, or their indoctrination didn’t take. How old had Jennet ap Rhiannon been? Was it possible that she remembered?
“They’re not going to get away with this,” Rukota said. “We’ll find them. Someone will find them.” Because raids like this, terrorism on this scale and consistent over time, meant organization. Needing bases of operations and supply lines. Meant someone somewhere knew something. But Gonebeyond Space was full of un-mapped vectors leading from who knew where, going to who knew where; in the year since the Ragnarok had chased after Andrej Koscuisko’s stolen bond-involuntaries the Ragnarok had just begun to scratch the surface.
“I’m going to want Koscuisko when we do,” ap Rhiannon said. To execute the murderers? Or simply to find out everything they knew, one way or another? Because nobody was better at that than Andrej Koscuisko. Everybody knew that.
Even though the Captain herself had closed Secured Medical, had mandated drug assist for any interrogations Koscuisko might be called upon to perform under her command, General Rukota could find it in his heart to wish tenth level command termination for the people who had chased that little boy into the woods and left him there, cold, starved, bereft, to live or die alone and terrified.
The patient — a man named Lens, fit, mature, well-muscled, not over-fed — sat in the embrace of the diagnostic chair, waiting for Andrej to finish studying the flimsies. There was something about the referral that didn’t add up.
“My apologies,” Andrej said, lifting his head to address his patient. Lens had traveled all the way from Fintack out near Carlin Station to get here, an eight-day trip at the very least; and there were all the right chops for a properly executed medical referral, from Carlin Station’s clinic all the way up to Safehaven Medical Center. “Aortal adhesion can be difficult to image on a consistent basis. I’m just finding the bloodwork inconsistent with cardiac tissue degeneration.”
It wasn’t his field. They had a cardiologist at the hospital, but only one, and it was Racklin’s off-shift. Since there were few calls for neurosurgery at Andrej’s level he spent most of his duty time as a general practitioner. Lens had been first in line, this morning; waiting when Andrej had come in, in fact, diagnostics and lab-work in hand.
“May I see?” Lens asked, his curiosity clearly engaged. He reached for the diagnostic flimsies as he spoke, but how would Lens be able to interpret what he saw?
Standing side by side with Lens, Andrej pointed at the data-plot that confounded him. “Here’s an index line for the standard range of healthy cardiac muscle. These are your results from this morning. High to average, yes, but yours should be somewhere up in this range.”
Lens slid his rump out of the diagnostic chair and stood up, leaning in close, tracing the line to which Andrej was pointing with his finger. “Here, d’you mean, Uncle?”
Lens had to shift his weight to reach, turning square to Andrej’s side. Suddenly Andrej knew that something wasn’t right. But it wasn’t “Uncle.” “Uncle” was simply something that Nurail called men in a position of authority, and in his case Andrej believed it was at least partially so they wouldn’t have to say his hated name.
Before Andrej had a chance to think it through Lens caught at Andrej’s shoulder to stab him. Andrej grasped Lens’ intent just as Lens struck, so he was already turning to defend himself — as Stildyne had taught him — when he felt the knife.
It didn’t stop Lens, but it saved Andrej’s life; the knife slewed wide to its mark, tearing the fabric of Andrej’s clothing — Infirmary white duty smock, underblouse — and slashing him to the skin from his chest to his belly.
Not fair, Andrej thought. He hadn’t had combat drill for a year. If Stildyne were here Stildyne would have kept him current on hand-to-hand. If Stildyne were here Andrej would have better Security, professional Security, to watch his back. How many was this, three, four almost-successful assassination attempts, in the year he’d been at Safehaven?
Lens stepped forward, trying to maintain close assault range. Andrej did a quick pivot, turning his back to put his elbow into Lens’ stomach just below the diaphragm. He had to be mindful of Lens’ diagnosis, which reduced his options. But why should he care? Lens was trying to kill him. He’d thought they were slacking off. He should have known —
Known better. Lens staggered forward after Andrej, catching Andrej’s duty whites by the back. Andrej went down hard onto his back on the floor. Cold hard floor. It needed mopping down; he’d have to say something about it, at the next staff meeting. “For Anders,” Lens said, pinning Andrej to the ground. “For my father. My uncles. My mother, my brother — ”
All Nurail, of course. That was the problem with being Andrej Koscuisko in a hospital full of Nurail. How many years had it been, since the Domitt Prison? Not enough. And of course Andrej had done more than just Nurail to a horrible death, but that had been the job description. Ship’s Surgeon; Ship’s Inquisitor. “Security!” Andrej called, but not as strongly as he might have wished. “Security — ”
Center of gravity. That was Chief Stildyne’s voice in Andrej’s head. Not yours. His. Give it a good kick. If Stildyne hadn’t come away into Gonebeyond space Andrej wouldn’t be here. He owed his Chief of Security the apology of his life, and no Nurail would-be avenger was going to stop him.
Kicked out for Lens’ knee Andrej hit him hard enough to get a good loud grunt out of the man, something that they should be able to hear clear out in the waiting area. So where were Security? Not in any hurry. That was where.
Andrej got clear while Lens was still trying to regain control of his leg; and scrambled to his feet. Flexing his foot toes-upward he got a solid strike in, the hard heel of his boot against the hinge of Lens’ wrist; the knife clattered off across the floor harmlessly, coming to rest beside the bottom shelf of one of his cabinets.
Watch yourself. That was his own voice in his internal ear, now. This is a patient, not a prisoner. Concentrate. Andrej smelled blood, his own blood, soaking the front of his duty blouse. It hurt enough to slow him down; and Lens had another knife in his shirt-front. Well, of course. What self-respecting assassin would come in armed with only one weapon?
With a look of desperate determination Lens got to his feet, bracing himself against the diagnostic imager and sending it crashing across the floor.
Red rage possessed Andrej with overwhelming strength. That was valuable equipment. It would be hard to replace, because Gonebeyond was outside of the established trading communities of Jurisdiction space and had no access worth speaking of to anything like adequate markets. People coming into his Infirmary to kill him Andrej understood. People vandalizing the equipment, however, he would not tolerate.
Taking Lens by the throat Andrej dragged him to the floor where he could hit him. Being hurt made people angry; Andrej knew that he could do much more harm when he was angry than most. Because he knew how to hurt people, he was very, very good at it, and he knew how to take pleasure in the act. He’d done without for years now, two years, more; but an addiction of such power did not go away just because Andrej had withdrawn from the execution of the Question.
“Like to make a mess, do you?” he snarled. “Come in here and throw things around, you fish-eater, you contemptible excuse for an assassin — ” He hit Lens in the face, and dazed him. Lens was trying to get up, but Andrej wasn’t having any of it. Andrej was dimly aware of sounds coming from the door, now, people apparently trying to get through without destroying the door at the same time. He ignored them.
With a brutal twist of Lens’ wrist Andrej wrenched the knife out of Lens’ hand. He knew about knives. Now. Where was he going to needle in; which excruciating pain would best express his outrage? There was a nerve-bundle at the back of the Nurail jaw that — if tampered with — set off an entire constellation of an agony so sharp that a man could not even find the breath to scream. So nobody would hear a thing.
What did Andrej care if they did? Didn’t they already know who he was, what he was, didn’t they let him live only on sufferance to start out with, and because they’d all sworn to put away the destructive fury that was blood-feud — howsoever merited — as the condition of being allowed to join Gonebeyond’s refugee communities?
And all at once Andrej missed the freedom of Secured Medical. Oh. How he missed it. Lens was down, gasping for breath, helpless; and the anguished expression on his face was the first taste Andrej had had of the drug of his addiction for more than two years.
No. He was not going to forget who he was. He was not going to give a single shadow of a nod to the wolf of his addiction. He was a doctor. He would make it work. He would preserve the only thing that was left to him of common decency, after all these years.
It was safe to get up, now. His patient wasn’t going anywhere, and Security were rattling around at the thin steel-framed slider of the clinic room’s door. The door was a joke, for security purposes. Had it not been for the stalloy honeycomb that formed its core it would be about as convincing a barrier as a piece of the cellulose-fiber toilet paper that the administration provided for his use. “Doctor Koscuisko, sir — ”
Wearily Andrej started to limp across the room. Someone surprised him by kicking the door in, with decision and dispatch; and a man Andrej thought he recognized stepped over its splintered remains into the room. For a moment Andrej was confused: the figure seemed familiar, but the uniform was not. Langsarik colors. Did he know that man? Didn’t he?
Then the kicker-in-of-doors opened his mouth and spoke. “Good-greeting,” he said, and Andrej knew who it was in an instant. “Respectfully inquiring whether the officer is in need of assistance?” Robert St. Clare, Nurail, former bond-involuntary Security slave. The man for whose life Andrej had made his first — not his last, but perhaps his most significant — compromise with his honor, all those years ago.
“Holy Mother,” Andrej said, surprised out of noticing that his body hurt and his head was spinning. “Robert. Where have you come from? It astounds me to see you.”
“Very good to see you, sir,” Robert said cheerfully, the relative informality of his language delightful to hear after all these years of dealing with the constraints a governor imposed on a man’s comportment. “I was in the neighborhood, thought I’d drop by. Have I come at a bad time?”
Andrej shook his head, extending his hand. He wasn’t going to embrace Robert, because the color of his blood would clash with the Langsarik rose-gold of Robert’s uniform. “No, it is merely a day in the life.” Security were piling into the examination room; there was a body on the floor. They probably needed to know what he expected them to do with it.
Andrej pointed. “Refer this one to Raklin, priority cardiac. He may need surgery.” Lens was still a patient, after all, unless the medical referral had been created out of whole cloth. “And call the janitors to wash the floor. It’s filthy.”
Now more than ever, what with blood all over it. There were two gurneys at the door trying to get in, with several apparently exasperated orderlies trying to muscle them through; two? Yes, of course. One was for him. “Come along with me, Robert, tell me all your news. It is so good to see you.”
There’d been times in this past year when he’d thought he’d never see Robert again. There’d been times when he hadn’t been sure he wanted to, for fear of the awkwardness between them. “There’s a lot to tell,” Robert agreed. “But it looks like you may need to be glued first, your Ex — sir.”
Because he’d been cut with a knife, and was possibly about to fall over. Sitting down on one of the waiting gurneys Andrej surrendered himself to medical necessity, his mind full of grateful wonder at Robert’s welcome presence in Safehaven.
Robert St. Clare bent his head down close to the cyborg bracing on the desk in the narrowly focused circle of light, listening as he worked. “I want that imager checked and back on line tomorrow morning,” Koscuisko was saying. “And the cabinets secured. We almost lost the last sefta-rem in Gonebeyond.”
It was Alderscote “Beauty” Sangriege, Safehaven’s provost marshal himself, who sat on the other side of the desk in Koscuisko’s quarters, arguing. “But we didn’t. You had the problem under control, well done, by the way. We’re going to need a new door.”
“So post some Security in clinic, while you’re organizing one. To remind them that there should be some,” Koscuisko said, irritably. Koscuisko was clearly annoyed and in pain — Robert could sympathize completely, the alcohol was filthy, apparently distilled as it seemed from seaweed and soggy cardboard — but Koscuisko and Sangriege apparently had a relationship that contained some elements of cordiality, howsoever deeply buried.
Robert had heard about Koscuisko, and Beauty Sangriege, and Chonniskot Dawson. There were no Nurail in Gonebeyond Space who had not heard the story; how Andrej Koscuisko had saved the life of the only surviving child of the war-leader of Darmon in a refugee relocation camp. How he’d declined to raise an alarm over some anonymous prisoners escaped from Limited Secure; how he’d treated their wounds, struck off Dawson’s chains, and walked away absent-mindedly. Fit of pique over abuse of prisoners outside of Protocols, it was said.
“There would have been Security,” Sangriege said, in what seemed to Robert to be a patient and reasonable tone of voice. They called him “Beauty” because he was scarred; clear across the face, from top to bottom. He’d been a pretty man once, by report. Even now he could boast of a fine head of hair, iron-grey and curling. “It seems they were distracted by a call from someone in passenger receiving, out at the launch-field. A curiosity, some Nurail visitor in Langsarik colors, and asking after the souvenir shops.”
Well, he couldn’t come all this way without bringing back scenic views or saltsea stickies for the others, could he? Yes, there’d been a sufficiency of mid-meal idlers in front of the clinic building when his mover had dropped him off. They’d known who he was. The only Nurail Robert had heard of wearing Langsarik colors was one of “Black” Andrej’s notorious bond-involuntaries, the ones Koscuisko himself had stolen from the Bench and sent away into Gonebeyond.
Beauty’s remark could not be allowed to pass without a response. Robert spoke up. “That would explain how a man could walk up to clinic at mid-day unchallenged, I suppose,” Robert said mildly. “With a stinger in his boot, in case he decided to kill somebody.” The point being, of course, that with respect to Safehaven’s Security, there didn’t seem to be much.
He couldn’t spare much time to enjoy the moment, however, because he had little enough time over-all and cyborg bracing was delicate equipment. Safehaven had its own med-tech maintenance department, but apparently Koscuisko hadn’t felt quite confident that if he asked them to have a look at the thing it wouldn’t come back hurting him worse than before. As a sort of a Nurail joke. He was going to have to disappoint Koscuisko, even so; there wasn’t much Robert could do with something this complex. He didn’t have the rating.
Robert hadn’t been there when Koscuisko had injured his hand; that’d been after Koscuisko had had them all smuggled away. Apparently there was some residual nerve damage, and a cyborg brace — a cobweb-light net of wires across the back of Koscuisko’s right hand, whispering encouragement to the nerve receptors through the skin — didn’t maintain itself forever.
“He’d sworn to the Covenant,” Sangriege said to Koscuisko, clearly not about to dignify Robert’s remark by acknowledging it. Robert hadn’t meant it entirely seriously. Security would have known that Koscuisko stood in no danger from him. “Nice little conspiracy, this time, six people involved at least by preliminary count. We apologize for the knives, though. I’ll have the duty officer beaten, d’you want to watch?”
“Beauty, if I wanted a man beaten I’d do it myself, and see it done properly.” An established joke between the two of them, Robert guessed. “But I want my equipment back and my dose-cabinets secured. I don’t care what Robert did to your sin-soiled and heterodox door.”
“Anything to keep the peace, and way ahead of you.” Beauty stood up. “It’ll be done by morning. Until next time, then, Doctor. I’ll see myself out.”
Robert wished him well of the endeavor. Large portions of the non-clinic areas in the hospital — dormitory and mess, among them — were clearly still under construction, raw-poured flooring and sheeted unglazed windows and all. A man could be hard-pressed to find his way around it day by day.
The door into Koscuisko’s modest suite of rooms was a hinged sheet of pressed cellulose with a hair’s-breadth layer of veneer that closed behind Sangriege’s back with a faint and almost embarrassed sigh. Robert put down the micro-hook and reached for the jeweler’s weld, discouraged. “Tell me everything,” Koscuisko said.
They hadn’t had much time to really talk since Robert had arrived. There’d been the entire examination, clean up, and close up to accomplish. Koscuisko’s wound was long, though shallow; it had frayed muscle and scraped bone, and those were muscles and bones that moved every time a man took a breath. There was no help for it hurting; a man had to breathe.
Where to start? “Your people landed us at Ripen Secht, in Langsarik space. Some cousins of yours were waiting for us there.” Malcontents — the slaves of Saint Andrej Malcontent, the secret service of the Dolgorukij church — were apparently all called “cousin,” though from what Robert had gathered the exact word used rhymed with “three rungs lower than stale shit.” “Not the officer’s Cousin Stanoczk. He came later.”
And they’d all thought it was Koscuisko come to see them, at first, because of the superficial similarities between the two men at a distance. Stildyne and Cousin Stanoczk had something going between them, though, so Robert had got comfortable with how much Cousin Stanoczk could remind a man of Andrej Koscuisko.
It had been Cousin Stanoczk who’d explained that Bench specialist Vogel had brought Koscuisko to Safehaven for safekeeping. They’d gotten pulse-messages back and forth over the past year, but always too short. “We wanted leaving to ourselves, and they did. In a week or such that thula, you remember, the Malcontent’s, turned up on the doorstep with a cheerful red ribbon tied around its center of gravity and a note that said to “please take care of my ship.”
The thula was an elite scout-courier, and it was carrying a main battle cannon just like the one on the Ragnarok. It almost made a man homesick to see it. “Then we went to support a depot at Surchanic Station. It was a good place for us, privacy, and we could make ourselves useful. Stildyne helped. He knew where we’d been.”
Under governor, that was. It’d been a lot to ask of Security Chief Stildyne, voluntary self-exile into Gonebeyond space with a crew of men he couldn’t be said to know — not with the governors removed from their brains, and long years of trained self-censorship at constant risk of punishment to get over somehow. But Stildyne had come. Because Koscuisko had asked, and there wasn’t anything Stildyne wouldn’t do for Andrej Koscuisko. “Here,” Robert said, holding out the cyborg bracing for Koscuisko to take. “I’ve done what I could. Try it on.”
Koscuisko fit the brace over the back of his right hand and tapped its core gently to engage. Robert watched Koscuisko’s face carefully, and there were the uplifted eyebrows and slightly relaxed forehead of pleased surprise, so it was better, at least. But there was still some sort of a regret that hadn’t gone away from Koscuisko’s expression.
“All of this time I have been wondering how I am to explain myself to Brachi Stildyne,” Koscuisko said. “When I realized what he had done, and I, I had not so much as told him. I ran out of time. I do not excuse myself, Robert.”
Wait one, Robert told himself, startled. “You sent him with us,” Robert said, daring Koscuisko to say any different. “Why else would he have come?” Stildyne had never said anything about it. Suddenly Robert knew why.
“Because he thought better of me than to have sent you away with no adequate arrangement.” He couldn’t see Koscuisko’s expression well enough to evaluate it, but Koscuisko’s voice was bleak. As well it should be, Robert thought, resentful for Stildyne’s sake. “And apparently wished to avoid making less of me in front of people he knows I love, or you would not ask that. And for all this time I have failed and failed again to get away from here. It has not been for lack of trying.”
Sent here for safekeeping; kept here ever since, under Safehaven’s formal protection. It made a sort of sense: if people with the most collective cause to wish him dead could stand security for his life, there was scant chance they’d let anybody else enjoy the pleasure vengeance was supposed to bring.
“We’ve been kept busy.” That was true. “Or we’d have come to see you sooner. But we’ve just been called to Langsarik Station, and I found a ride.” Someone had to stay with the thula or they’d all have come, so Robert had snuck away by himself. “Last-minute opportunity. I’ve been wearing the same boot-stockings for three days now.”
Koscuisko could extrapolate about the rest of Robert’s underwear as he cared to or not. But it was a good opening, so Robert stood up. “And now, I’m sorry, but I’ve got to go, or I won’t get back in time to make muster.” He was cutting it close, but he knew how to do that and make it work. Now more than ever he wasn’t going to let Chief Stildyne down.
“I’ve disappointed you, Robert,” Koscuisko said. “I have earned your disapproval fairly.” Robert didn’t want to part on these terms. It had been a year. He had a speech, he’d rehearsed it. He hadn’t had the chance to tell Koscuisko at Jeltaria, where he’d sent them away. All that practice, wasted.
“We’re free men, your Excellency.” He’d wondered all this time what he was going to call his officer of once-assignment; Koscuisko, Excellency, Anders. Now he didn’t have the time to think twice, and the familiar words just came out of his mouth. “You did that. Everything else is just brambles in the fleece.”
It seemed to help; sighing, Koscuisko stood up — very carefully — and offered Robert his hand. “It was good of you to come and see me, Robert,” Koscuisko said. “I hope to see you all again. Soon. I’ll beat Sangriege’s watchers and get away, somehow. And then I will have words to say to all of you, if you consent to hear them from me. Especially Stildyne.”
“Keep you well until then,” Robert nodded, clasping Koscuisko’s hand in his own for one brief but heart-felt moment before he let himself out to get back to the launch-fields. There were two days and more between here and Langsarik Station on freighter transport; and he had plenty to think about.
Whether or not he was going to let Stildyne know that he knew Stildyne’s secret. And whether he was going to tell the others.
Tired and despondent in spirit Andrej Koscuisko walked down the corridor toward his quarters; slowly, because he was sore from his neck to his knees. It had been a quiet day. He’d had several days of relative leisure to brood on what Robert had said. Stildyne hadn’t told them? Andrej had thought that he couldn’t be more ashamed of his behavior; he’d thought wrong.
Stildyne had once wanted him. Andrej knew that. Then Stildyne had invested himself body and soul in Andrej’s struggle to stay whole, complete, one fully integrated hominid soul, as Captain Lowden brought all the pressure he could to bear on Andrej, sending him prisoner after prisoner for interrogation, always demanding the most severe sanctions he could impose for the crime accused.
Andrej hadn’t seen Stildyne changing. But he’d realized that Stildyne had changed, making himself over into a man who could win Andrej’s trust. Andrej missed Stildyne, and he hadn’t had a good game of tiles — or a good argument over one — since he’d got here. But it was so much more than that, he had exploited Stildyne’s passion for him shamefully and shockingly, and to find that Stildyne had let Andrej’s gentlemen believe he’d come at Andrej’s request was absolutely the last straw.
He had seven failed escape attempts under his belt. It was time to try for eight, and make it work. He had a plan. He’d been testing it. It wasn’t quite ready, but Andrej couldn’t wait, he had to try, he had to try now — no matter how much his ribs hurt. What analgesics the hospital held in stores had to be reserved for people with more urgent need of it than he did. He was looking forward to self-medication with the liberal internal application of alcohol, but as he neared his quarters his attention snagged on something wrong and he slowed down.
The door wasn’t exactly closed. Oh, good, he told himself, disgusted. Another one. And in my room this time. Shouldn’t Security be twice as vigilant about assassins today, after their recent embarrassing lapse? He should call them, and put that question to them exact. He should turn around and go the other way. He should not raise his voice and call out to let them know he was coming and that he knew they were there.
“Whoever you are, it’s all been tried before, so go away and don’t bother me.” And all Saints damn you to Perdition for humorless catechists, but he didn’t have time to voice that thought. Security was already here, it seemed, one of the squad leaders coming out of Andrej’s room as Andrej spoke. No, of course he didn’t have any privacy. He was only the Chief of Surgery at this hospital, that was all.
“Sorry for the inconvenience, sir,” she said. Her diction was a little slurred — though it remained difficult for Andrej to tell the difference between some of the thicker Nurail accents and actual drunkenness. “No other place handy to stash these for you, just at present. Beauty said you wouldn’t mind.”
What she didn’t sound was threatened, so nobody was likely to be lurking inside his door with a mind toward murder. Andrej closed the distance between them. She was tipsy; but her breath didn’t smell of the local drinkable, or of imported drinkable, or of refined propellant, or even of wodac which these people could hardly drink anyway because it took a lifetime’s practice. No. Her breath smelled of cortac brandy, the elite beverage of choice of the Dolgorukij Combine.
Where had she come by that, when he knew perfectly well that he didn’t have any? And what personal visitors could he possibly have, apart from the ones who were trying to kill him? The women didn’t count; their interest in him was merely instrumental, and none of them tried to kill him yet. Weary him to death in pursuit of the children he owed to replenish the weaves he had vandalized, perhaps, but that was different.
“Thank you, Miss Terend.” She blushed at the implied rebuke of his formality; or maybe it was just the flush of alcohol. “That was very thoughtful of you. Who is within, if I may ask?” He didn’t wait for her reply, because by her frown of concentration she was having a little trouble remembering. Pushing the door open wide Andrej stepped across the threshold, and took stock.
His outer room was full of people and a familiar fragrance of home, comprised of food and drink and the subtle combination of nervous people with wool and Aznir whiteloomed flax. It took years of his age off Andrej’s shoulders just to take a breath, even as it filled his mind with perplexity.
Here were five people in respectable merchanters’ uniform. There was a tall stack of crates against the back wall at his right, three wide and five high, like those in which flasks of cortac brandy were customarily shipped. Against the near wall at his left someone had brought a sideboard from somewhere — wallboard on two trestles, perhaps — and draped it in snowy linen, loading it with dishes redolent of home cooking; cold red-root stew, a succulent roast in the Borevitch style, a modestly modernized rhyti server, a stack of dumplings, a pyramid of honey-soaked nut-cakes.
The strangers in his room lined themselves up, four across, at perfect attention. The fifth man went down on one knee in front of them, lowering his head respectfully to fix his gaze one hand-span in front of the toe of Andrej’s cloth-booted foot.
“Good-greeting,” Andrej said, because it was safe and it would give him a moment to call the correct phrase to his mind. He’d been long from home, except for a visit cut short more than two years ago. The only time he’d seen his son Anton. “I see you come to me from some distance; speak.”
If these people were family within five degrees of kinship, the leader would stand up. If within fifteen degrees, look up. If the leader was a petitioner with no existing relationship who’d come to either beg a boon or propose a business arrangement, he’d either bow lower over his knee or prostrate himself at length.
This one did none of those things: so he represented a family member within the fifteen degrees of kinship, but not one with exceptionally privileged status. Or else he was just being very, very careful, because he was up to something.
“Prosper all Saints to his Excellency’s purpose,” he said. He had a lovely accent, and the phrase was High Aznir, the half-archaic dialect taught only in the most elite cultural circles and increasingly less spoken even there. “We are sent with greetings from his Excellency’s brother next-born and second eldest. My name is Pravel Plebach. Your servants here before you have the honor to represent Iosev Ulexeievitch Koscuisko in embassy to his Excellency, praying to be remembered to you.”
Andrej felt an instinctive twitch of disdain, confused in the moment between the agreeable novelty of having Azanry show up so suddenly in Gonebeyond space and the contempt he had for his brother Iosev’s character. Plebach was clearly sensitive to his employer’s disgrace; it explained the posture he maintained, even though Andrej’s brother was well within the privileged five, not fifteen, degrees of kinship.
“Stand up, Pravel Plebach.” Under these circumstances, Andrej felt that a little relaxation of etiquette was in order. It wasn’t Plebach’s fault that Iosev had married twice. “Set yourself at ease, and refresh yourselves.” The traditional tribute-gift of food and drink was meant to serve a man and his whole household, so there was plenty to go around.
The supper the hospital had provided was sitting in its heat-keeper on Andrej’s desk, a sliced meat sandwich with a something brown sauce, a dish of local greens braised in fat and vinegar to break down the fibrous toughness of its stems, a carafe of something hot steeped out of something’s ground-up roots. They fed him as well as anybody here, and better in some ways. They gave him cream and sugar for his rhyti; when they had cream, when they had sugar, when they had rhyti.
Plebach stood up because he’d been told to, slowly, clearly concentrating on avoiding any hint of presumption. “Thank you, lord prince. Your kitchen has provided for us generously.” That would be the hospital center, Andrej supposed, so if Plebach’s people had gone there at all Plebach was lying. Their own ship’s mess clearly offered the better meal, going by the one they’d brought him. “May one speak?”
The problem with Andrej’s brother Iosev wasn’t that he’d married twice, not in itself. It was that he’d used the traditional and most binding form of marrying the mother of inheriting children with the full four sacred-art-thous, as Dasidar had married Dyraine in the great ancestral epic of the Dolgorukij nations. A man could only do that once.
Iosev had taken two sacred wives, concealed of necessity from one another; an act of contemptible betrayal. The wife from the inferior lineage had killed herself for shame once Iosev’s betrayal was discovered, leaving her child a bastard born of bigamy. Iosev had tried to refuse recognition to his daughter, but Andrej’s mother had put an end to that. The baby was her grand-daughter; while Iosev she only barely acknowledged as her son, the shame of what he had done was that great.
“Not yet, Plebach, I mean to fix a plate. Partake with me.” The smell of home cooking was a distraction. It was a traditional courtesy to share the tribute-meal they’d brought; still, the offer seemed to have surprised Plebach, possibly — Andrej thought — in light of Iosev’s bad odor. Andrej put five cream-rolls on a plate and held it out for Plebach to receive. One each. He was hungry. Taking some red-root stew to start Andrej sat down behind his desk and pushed his hospital-provided supper to one side with a mental apology.
He ate his dish of stew slowly to give Plebach’s party a space of time in which to eat cream rolls, which they were now obliged to do. It had been too long since he’d had homely fare, though he didn’t particularly like cold red-root stew.
This was delicious, however. The bone-extracted stock was rich with gelatin, the tang of the fermented juice was subtle, the sweetness of the roasted root pureed into the broth was complex and fully rounded in the mouth, and the herb that seasoned it over-all was popular nowhere else in known Space, sharp and challenging in the nose and on the tongue.
When he set his dish aside Plebach was waiting for his attention once again, with a subtle relaxation to the set of his shoulders that spoke of considerable relief of stress and anxiety. Perhaps Plebach had made up his mind that Andrej was not going to have him flogged. “Now,” Andrej said; and Plebach stepped forward toward Andrej’s desk, pulling a wrapped packet out of the bosom of his sober merchanter’s blouse.
“For three years the prince our master has been embarked on a special enterprise, one focused on developing markets in Gonebeyond space. For the past year he was been resident at a station near the Neshuan vector, devoted to that cause.”
Andrej frowned, concentrating. “Neshuan,” he said. “That vector access lies in Langsarik space, does it not?” He’d seen some patients in critical care not very long ago, rare survivors of an attack by night raiders at a mining station. Hadn’t they come in on Langsarik ships?
“It is as his Excellency says. Hoping to find his Excellency graciously willing to set aside a portion of the injury done his Excellency by his actions, he begs to be allowed to show his work in the service of the Blood of his Excellency’s father and mother, and hope for favor.”
Extending the packet Plebach bowed deeply. Andrej knew that Plebach would not straighten up again until he accepted it, and people leaning over his desk howsoever respectfully intruded into his personal space. So he accepted it; and turned it over in his hands once or twice, for examination.
It was an old-fashioned documents-case packaged in leather, containing a letter written in ink on thick paper. There was no monogram on the paper, no proud seal on the packet — Iosev was presenting himself humbly indeed; as well he should.
There was a great deal of formal verbiage to be got through in any such letters, and Iosev’s handwriting was very careful and therefore of a relatively large size because of all the flourishes that had to be gotten in. The ink was good. Andrej was reminded suddenly of the last letter he’d gotten from his son, from Anton Andreievitch, and it wrenched his heart.
Concentrating on the moment Andrej read the letter through. The message underneath its pretty phrases and archaic construction was straightforward enough; you’re my brother. I’ve worked hard to redeem myself. Let me show you. We’re kin.
Refolding the letter Andrej laid it down on the desk in front of him, regarding it thoughtfully. As the oldest and inheriting son, he’d had less to do with his brothers and sisters than they with each other. Still they were his family, his blood relations; they’d be in his care.
He too had violated the rules of his caste. He’d bred a child to a woman not his pre-contracted wife. He’d the appalling poor taste to marry its mother rather than the Ichogatra princess inheritrix to whom he had been promised. He’d argued with his father, and come shockingly close to actually flouting his father’s will before he’d had bowed beneath the weight of tradition and filial obedience and submitted to becoming an Inquisitor.
He’d never violated a sacred vow. But he had other crimes to lay against his account, which in the great balance outweighed any mere moral turpitude and a light handful of innocent lives. Could he really stand in sanctimonious judgment, and not be guilty of the rankest hypocrisy?
There was something else. Neshuan lay off Langsarik Station; Robert had said the thula was there. Was Pravel Plebach the last thing he needed to complete his plan, to make his escape? The last time he’d tried, he’d gotten all the way out to the new launch-fields outside the city and stayed at large for nearly a day and a half before they’d found him.
Only his inability to successfully stow away on any of the freighter-tenders, small transports, couriers had defeated him that time. Now here was Pravel Plebach with an invitation, and presumably a ship. Andrej didn’t have to go so far as to see Iosev. He only needed to get to Langsarik Station. Once he could but find Stildyne and the rest of his people he wouldn’t care if Safehaven fetched him back as soon as they found him.
He saw a flicker of guarded optimism in Plebach’s face. “Chornije’s freighter-tender is berthed at the old launch-field, scheduled to depart within eight Standard hours,” Plebach said. “We travel by way of Langsarik Station to the entrepot at Canopy Base. Dare we hope for his Excellency’s condescension?”
Andrej made a quick calculation. There were no patients currently in his surgical queue. Also no ships incoming with medical transport, not that he’d heard of. Safehaven could easily spare him for a few days. If there were any speakers of High Aznir on staff at Safehaven it was news to Andrej; he could be blunt, because he was not speaking Standard.
“I am kept very close, here,” he said. “Report some incidental laborer tardy. Have a mover on stand-bye.” That the ship was at the old launch-fields was a stroke of pure luck. The old launch fields, the original launch fields, were less than an hour’s walk from Safehaven Medical Center. He would have to walk — a mover in the street in the small hours would be sure to draw attention to itself — but walking was no obstacle. “I will come with you, if I can get away.”
“We will unfailingly perform to his Excellency’s specification,” Plebach assured Andrej solemnly. “And go to prepare a cabin. Have we your leave to go?”
“With all Saints to put this purpose forward,” Andrej agreed, fervently. They left the food behind, of course, because a food-gift once tendered was not to be carried away. Andrej knew what to do about that. It would be his good-bye party, if only he could make it work this time — and all signs seemed to be in his favor. He keyed his talk-alert.
“Canteen? Koscuisko. Someone’s left a great deal of home cooking in my quarters, if you would care to come get it before it gets cold. It may serve to supplement the board, for fourth-meal; and there may perhaps be something welcome to quench the thirst, amongst the soups.”
Something to drink, in other words. They could have it all, when he was gone. Now all he had to do was wait for shift-change, and review his plans, and hope all Saints would look with favor on his enterprise.