Chapter One: Inquiring Minds

Grivos sat on the floor of a cell with his arms around his shins hugging his legs close to his chest, reviewing the facts at his disposal.  He was a soldier of the Biramie mercantile cartel in Gonebeyond.  He didn’t who was holding him, or where he was, or what had become of his working partner.  He didn’t know how long he’d been here; his beard was maybe four days old, but he couldn’t trust that – such things could be manipulated.  But most of all he wondered what had gone wrong and how.

He’d set up a rendezvous with his best contact from the Witt organization, a fair-haired woman of moderate height, deep brown eyes, and an accent that he’d assumed was Dolgorukij.  They’d met in Port Delgacie, at a beer-hall that had been safe the time or two before when his go-with Pilad had used the location with another working partner.  They always worked in pairs, and seldom with the same person twice in a row.  Things were more secure that way.  Personal trust relationships were formed, but there could be no collusion.

And yet betrayed they had been, drugged, unable to struggle or to fight, extracted as calmly as any Biramie enforcer ever moved in on a target of interest.  That was a hint:  they’d been targeted by professional muscle.  There were a lot of them, at least four men; that was no hint in and of itself.

When he’d woken up after the unplanned nap that had overwhelmed him on the loading ramp of some anonymous freighter, after he’d been given a meal, he’d been brought – by entirely different people – before a man of the short wiry hard-muscled kind he’d seen amongst Nurail hominids at one point or another.

Black hair down to his shoulders, curling.  Dark eyes, an ugly look on his face, with a list of questions which the man asked in sequence – ignoring Grivos’ own questions, protests, demands – before nodding to some Security to return Grivos to his cell.  More Nurail, he thought.

But why would Nurail have targeted him?  The Biramie cartel had no quarrel with Safehaven, none worth attending to.  Safehaven didn’t bother them.  They didn’t prey on Safehaven.  All had been well, and it wasn’t as though Nurail were above a spot of light smuggling or transportation of stolen goods for a modest cut of the proceeds.

Then after a while they came for him, brought him before a different interviewer, asked the same questions.  Then again, with yet another interviewer, but the same questions, as though they’d completely lost their notes.  He thought he’d slept; he’d found himself on his back on the cot they’d provided, once.

There was a toilet bolted to the wall, he’d used it, chemical digestion of waste matter – all very clean and tidy.  He’d eaten.  The food was plain but plentiful enough, and the briefings Biramie gave each of its operatives advised sleeping, eating, drinking what they were given to maintain their fitness to resist:  yes, all of that could cover introduction of drugs, but it was more efficient to flat-out drug a person and if they were to be drugged it would happen anyway.

Who’d given them up?  Their contact?  Witt was the paradigm of honorable dealing in the trade:  was that only because Witt’s organization had made any mistakes, never been betrayed themselves by treachery from within?  Or had Grivos’ partner been a hostile implant, had she been working for Witt, had she been in collusion not with Biramie but with the contact they’d come to meet, was their Witt contact even a Witt contact?

Now security came once again to Grivos’ plain windowless cell.  Was this the fourth time?  The fifth?  He couldn’t remember exactly, any more.  He’d been unable to count the turnings in the narrow corridors, to build a mind-map of where he was, but still he had a sense that they were going in a different direction.  Once they reached the interview room that, too, was different.

The only table was a small one.  There was only one chair, facing the door.  In the middle of the room stood a wooden tee-frame with its cross-post notched in two or three places and what looked like rope restraints draped across them like long bracelets; it rested in a peculiar foundation of raised slats, but it wasn’t very tall.

Although Grivos couldn’t guess what torture would come he knew as certainly as ever he’d known anything that he was to face torture, now.  By this time they knew he’d been lying, if they didn’t know – couldn’t know – exactly where the false information he’d learned so thoroughly had been hidden in his answers.  He’d had a script.  He’d been well coached in it.

They stripped him naked, well, that came as no surprise, it had been one of the preliminaries of almost every torture session he’d acted in himself.  Then they bound him.  They were careful with the exact placement of his knees, and the way they fastened his arms outstretched to the cross-bar of the tee-frame had clearly been carefully designed for maximum awkwardness.  Maximum discomfort.  They went away:  and now, Grivos told himself, now the torture would come.

Nobody came.  Time dragged on.  He tried to shift his weight up off of his knees because the pressure was all wrong, or else it was exactly right to dig against the underside of his knee-caps with a diabolical precision that grew more and more painful with every breath.  Like peeling his kneecaps up and away from his knees from underneath, but slowly, so slowly, every moment an inexorable increase in his pain.

Whatever it was they thought that he could tell them they were apparently in no hurry for the information.  That was their mistake, because codes and coordinates changed at random intervals for security purposes, and much of what he knew would be outdated within days of his capture.  He didn’t know how many days it had been.  For the first time Grivos started to worry about that.

Yes, his script referred to a fixed target, so that the organization would be alerted immediately if anybody reached out for contact, since the only place the target was identified was in the script.  And yes, contact would be acknowledged and pursued, to try to trap a would-be attacker who had already wrested the information out of a compromised soldier.

But even that information had to change.  Any enemy that could take two of them from different places at once need only compare the harvest of information from two points, and they’d know they’d been deceived:  because two agents on different missions would never be reporting to the same controller.

Then they’d know he was still lying.  Then they’d come after him with enhanced techniques and the knowledge that they’d been duped.  They’d be less likely to believe each new iteration of his story, more likely to probe harder and deeper.  Was that why they were doing this?

Time dragged on and on and on.  Someone came in; Grivos felt the draft across his bare back, his neck prickling with apprehension.  Doses?  Doses put through.  His awareness sharpened immediately, and he groaned aloud, hearing the near-sob in his own voice.  But nothing happened.  He concentrated on staying absolutely still, because any shift in his weight howsoever slight was a change in the pressure on his knees and it was agony.  He could feel his heart beat in waves of anguish, he could feel every breath he took in the trembling of his body.

Someone came in, again.  How long?  How long had it been?  And this time along with the doses – he knew what they were, in general if not in particular, there would be wake-keepers to ward off the deadening effects of stress, pain-maintenance drugs perhaps, to maintain the sharp edge of his anguish – there was a man.  He wore plain clothes, but of the very best quality, and he wore them with an air of emphatic autocracy.

Bending, slightly, to look down into Grivos’ face, he raised one booted foot to rest it against Grivos’ body.  An involuntary fit of shuddering seized Grivos, because it hurt, it hurt, it hurt.  Leaning down to speak close, the man balanced his weight against Givros’ thigh.  “Do you care to tell me what I wish to know?”

Grivos screamed, fighting to stop screaming, fighting for his voice, because he couldn’t tell anybody anything while he was screaming, no yes, no no, no fuck you with my fist down your throat and your mother twice on rest-days.  Nothing.  He couldn’t catch his breath:  surely they knew it?  Surely they had to let him talk if they wanted the answers to their questions?

“I’ll wait,” the man said.  Straightening up – pushing off Grivos’ thigh with his heel just above Givros’ knee, Grivos moaning with pain and frantic fear – the man went away, and all before Grivos could catch his breath and find enough control over his body somehow to speak in words that made sense.

“Nothing to say – give over – ”

But he knew he was lying.  He had plenty to say.  Just nothing the man hadn’t already heard.  All he had to do was stick to the story, somehow, and he would stick to the story, because the longer he held to it the better the story would stick.  And because this was torture.  He wasn’t going to give.  He owed it to himself.  He would not give them the satisfaction.  He’d outlast them.  Biramie would reward him, he’d live like a merchant in small-heavies for the rest of his life.

Unless – unless his partner hadn’t kept her mouth shut, had turned, had told, during those long stretches when he’d been left alone.  Biramie wouldn’t know which of them had betrayed their secrets.  Biramie would kill them all, if these people didn’t do it first.  These people wouldn’t.  They’d release him.  What would he have, to show?  Wounds?  He had none.  Injured knees?

How could they know what pain he was in, would he himself ever have been able to guess, wouldn’t he have assumed a man with a story as weak as his had to be was covering for collusion, and get some answers of his own from such a man before leaving him to die a slow and dishonorable death?

When Grivos heard the door opening behind him again he shouted as loudly as he could, hoping his words were comprehensible with his voice as rough and quavering as it was.  “I’ll talk, I’ll talk!”

“Oh, very well,” the man behind him said.  Coming to the front.  Familiar, somehow.  “If you must, I suppose – ”  He slowed down, on his way past.  Grivos remembered the boot pressing down on his thigh and trembled violently.

“Andrej,” somebody said, someone with a voice as rough as shards and sharp chips of concrete fractured in an explosion.  “Focus, your Excellency.”

There was a sigh.  The man walked on to seat himself in the single chair, completing his thought as he went.  “ – but I have been enjoying this.  Mister Yalta.”  Yet another person was there, behind Grivos.  He was handling Grivos’ ankles.  Grivos froze, in terror of more pain and not ashamed to be.  That would be Mister Yalta, then, since the harsh-voiced man had followed the first one past Grivos.  Unfastening Grivos’ ankles; bringing them together with something cold and heavy.  A chain.  Why wasn’t he shrieking? Grivos wondered.  Because there were drugs, obviously.  They knew he couldn’t talk when he was screaming, as well as he did.

More doses.  Pain-ease, to Grivos’ surprise.  Wake-keepers, clearly, from the way the fog cleared from his mind; that was a mistake on their part, Grivos told himself, grimly.  He found a tiny particle of strength, enough to be amused at their error.  He could think.  So he could deceive them.

The man took a lefrol out of an inner pocket of his plain tunic.  The Voice held a firepoint, to light it; then put the firepoint down on the little table, where Grivos could see it.  A standard ploy, display the brutal instruments of torture, frighten the prisoner; it wouldn’t work on Grivos, because he’d used the stratagem himself.  There was a rhyti service on the table that Grivos hadn’t seen before, and a flat-file docket that the man opened up.

“This is a record of the answers you have given to persons who wished to spare you some hours in my company.  I will ask you these questions.  You will answer them.  The magnitude of the unpleasantness Mister Yalta will inflict on my direction when I decide that you are lying is something I cannot recommend, and I do not direct him to provide a taste by way of illustration, because I confidently expect you to do your best to deny me what is mine by right.  So.  We begin.  Your name.”

Familiar, somehow.  With pain-ease came the memory:  faces a Biramie soldier was to recognize on sight, know these people.  A blond man with almost colorless blue eyes, his hair falling over his forehead, pushed out of his eyes with an impatient gesture of his hand, which sported a cyborg brace.  Witt.  Witt, himself?  Witt, in Gonebeyond, doing his own inquiries?  No.  Witt was obsessed with Andrej Koscuisko, and Koscuisko was a Ship’s Inquisitor.  Witt wasn’t in Gonebeyond Space.  Andrej Koscuisko was.

That dropped the odds in Grivos’ favor even further toward null; but he would fight.  He would resist.  It was his duty, his determination, his survival, and now it was his opportunity as well.  If he kept the truth from Andrej Koscuisko – if he held firm even face-to-face with Black Andrej – he would be celebrated, lauded, held in awe, and he would be invincible.  No one in the history of Biramie had ever survived Koscuisko:  the victory was his to win, if only he could hold on to his story.


They were several days traveling on a Langsarik deep space carrier out of Port Delgacie before the first of the prisoners had been ready to have a meaningful conversation with him.  Once his prisoner had been well started things had gone very smoothly, but Andrej was still having trouble making up his mind about whether that was the preferred outcome.

Grivos sat bound into a heavy chair, now, not so much to restrain him as to keep him from falling out of it.  His knees would take their time – there was a lot of bruised bone capsule, frayed connective tissue, sheer physical insult to recover from, and he might always know by the ache of it when the weather was going to turn:  but the conservative approach had served Andrej well.  He was no longer required to inflict thus-and-such a degree of damage in order to satisfy the Protocols.  It was no longer the case that the prisoners would be expected to die or to be killed.

The flatscreen scroller on the right of the flatfile docket strobed politely at him, once.  Follow-up question from the woman heading this team, the one he thought of as Miss Crownéd from the heavy braid she wore wrapped around her head like the wheat-crown of an unmarried Dolgorukij woman of gentle blood.  Location holding slaves.

Andrej frowned – he was going to have to suspend the debriefing until tomorrow, if Grivos’ kidneys were not to suffer irreparable damage from more doses of the babbler than Andrej wanted to administer – but put the question.  He wasn’t sure he had until “tomorrow,” whenever that was.  Fisher Wolf was due to leave the protection of its berth within the freighter and make for the Couveraine vector on its own.

“We know slaves are not held at Couveraine itself.”  Brachi Stildyne had had more chairs brought with the one Grivos was in; one for Yalta, and one for himself.  He was sitting behind Andrej making little all-but-subsonic sounds in his throat when he thought Andrej was getting distracted.  “Where are they held, before they are brought to market?”  Hundreds of them, Andrej had been told.  Captured from small independent settlements, selected for marketability, carried away.

Stildyne could bear torture rooms because Stildyne’s childhood had left him relatively unmoved at the sight of suffering and able to shield himself from empathy.  Yalta was careful not to take advantage of an opportunity to increase suffering, but his uncomplicated pleasure in the work of his hands could be difficult for Andrej to bear.  He and Yalta shared the appetite.  Andrej remembered what it tasted like, the joy of inflicting atrocious agony in the service of the Bench for the sake of pure gratification.

The days were over. He was out.  Not free; he could not have forgotten exactly who he was had he tried, but any work he did now for Nurail spymasters came with clear expectations that the dirty work would be done as cleanly as Andrej could do it.

He was free to almost hope Grivos would lie.  Then Andrej would meet Yalta’s eyes and Yalta would put the shaft of the semi-rigid cane he held across the front of Grivos’ knees gently enough – just as a reminder – to be followed up with a correction, if Grivos didn’t heed the warning, a sharp swift brutal stroke that would be so strict and stern in Grivos’ condition that it would make the predator in Andrej’s nature jump with eagerness for Yalta to strike again.

If Andrej could not in fairness let Yalta strike again, at least perhaps just press the cane more firmly against the exquisitely painful creases that the penitence-board had put deep beneath Grivos’ kneecaps, or perhaps just rub a little bit two and fro to remind Grivos that he should answer candidly.  Truthfully.

Andrej had learned that Yalta could be relied upon to not exceed the boundaries Andrej established for him.  Yalta was a natural sadist.  He’d sought out the Malcontent for the protection of those around him, praying for some way in which he could serve the Holy Mother’s purpose as she had made him.  The Saint shielded him from criminal excess, and kept him – and everybody around him – safe.

Holding pens.  Pens at Holding.  It was hard to extract meaning from Grivos’ whispered words; he was long past any normal conversational exchange.  Market prep, Biruck.

“Do better,” Andrej suggested.  “Where are these holding pens?  Where is Biruck?”  The prisoner didn’t deserve Yalta’s appetite, or Andrej’s.  He’d fought hard and stubbornly against the tortures Andrej had inflicted; but a man whose entire energy was fixed so firmly on withstanding terrific pain had little attention left to guard against the action of a speak-serum.

It was the babbler drug that had betrayed Grivos.  Andrej could have had this exhausted, fearful submission in time on the strength of the penitence board’s torture alone, but it would have been unnecessary prolongation of suffering, and there were time constraints.

He could see Yalta’s fingers tighten ever so slightly around the cane in his hand, but Andrej gave a minute little shake of his head.  Grivos was not attempting to defy him.  Grivos was simply thinking very hard.  Freighter standing off Holding and Couveraine.  Biruck.  Holding camp.  Holding.  Danais vector.  First harmonic, short hop.

Andrej waited.  He didn’t like to think of what conditions might be like in a place Givros had called a “holding pen.”  He knew the history of the Dolgorukij Combine, and of the Sarvaw nations particularly.  There’d been slave camps, holding pens, brutal “market prep.”  One of his own ancestors had been responsible for some of the worst atrocities against a captive population that Andrej had dreamed possible – before he’d joined Fleet and gained bitter knowledge of reality.

His scroller strobed once more.  New vector for Ragnarok to map.  Thank you, your Excellency, done for now, stand down and come away.

So they were done.  It was time for Givros to have stronger pain-ease, then, and be taken to the freighter’s infirmary.  Andrej wouldn’t do the examination and initial therapy himself:  he’d never made a mistake with a prisoner-turned-patient, but negative proof was no proof, and a man who knew his vulnerabilities did not take chances.

“Mister Yalta,” Andrej said, knowing that Yalta could take the message from Andrej’s tone of voice.  “Med-team, if you please.”  Behind him Andrej could sense Brachi Stildyne, standing up, stretching.  Yawning.

“I’ll go frighten up something to eat,” Stildyne said, because he’d know Andrej was going to want to stand in the shower for as long as it took to wrestle the wolf that made him who he was to heel.  “See you in gather-room?”  Where they’d join the wolf-pack, who’d once been his bond-involuntary Security assigned.  That would be good.  He was fond of them, and deeply in their debt.  “Bring a bottle.”

Before Andrej had come to Gonebeyond, he and Stildyne had been nine years together and more, officer of assignment and chief of security.  During the hell-days of Captain Lowden’s command Stildyne and the others had elected themselves Andrej’s protectors against his own ferociously self-destructive drunks, the psychosis of self-hatred that consumed him every time he’d lost himself to his own bestial appetites in Secured Medical.

It might well have been no more than their own hatred of Captain Lowden for the casual floggings he imposed on them, or for Lowden’s murder of their crew-mate Lipkie Bederico by slow torture:  at least at the beginning.  They had all become more than that to one another.

“Give me an hour,” Andrej said.  Above all there was Brachi Stildyne, his self-same on the model in the great Dolgorukij saga of Dasidar and Dyraine.  Tikhon and Dasidar had formed a bond, in the Saga, that had forever after defined the culturally honored and honorable ideal of passionate masculine romantic friendship for all of the Dolgorukij nations.

Tikhon had survived Dasidar by years in which he’d loved his wife and engendered his children; and although it was Andrej who had the wealth and the blood of a Dasidar – Stildyne who possessed the great heart of a hero – Andrej had had to face the fact that Dolgorukij outlived most hominids in years Standard, and Stildyne’s background would come to tell on him as he grew older.  It was what it was.  He wished they would all step out of harm’s way, but that wasn’t who they were.

The Malcontent’s debriefing team traveled with specialty medical personnel who knew what sorts of things could happen to people.  They took charge of the prisoner, now semi-conscious in a well-dosed haze in which there was no pain and no fear.

Yalta had taken up the cane and the penitence-board before the medical team arrived, discreetly.  Respectfully.  “Well done, Mister Yalta,” Andrej said quietly.  “As always.  I appreciate your support.”  It freed him from having to seek trained hands from other sources, and he was determined never to call upon the men he’d stolen from Jurisdiction and the Ragnarok to do him such service ever again.

Yalta bowed, formally, and left the room.  The cleaners would come.  No blood to be washed away, this time, but equipment was to be removed, the room returned to strict anonymity.  Andrej made his way to his quarters to wash and change, so that he could go and take a meal with his people.


Standing at the lip of the forward cargo loading ramp Medith Riggs chopped off on the final line item of the manifest with an only slightly exaggerated gesture of self-satisfaction, because she was temporarily by herself in Fisher Wolf’s main cargo bay and she had good reasons to be satisfied with herself.  When a person completed a complicated task in a better-than-anybody-else-could-have-done-it manner she had a right to acknowledge it, if only to herself.

Her client ship was the Kospodar thula Fisher Wolf, an elite armed courier out of the Arakcheyek shipyards in the Dolgorukij Combine; and what it was doing out here in Gonebeyond space was a peculiarity in its own right, but none of her business.  Its crew, the ex-bond-involuntaries that Andrej Koscuisko had sent out here into the safety of no-man’s-land, had a more obvious and understandable reason for being where they were:  keeping clear of Jurisdiction, yes, obviously.

It was coming to be the fashion in the Nurail and Langsarik shipping communities in which Medith worked to call the crew of the Fisher Wolf its “wolf-pack,” because “former bond-involuntary Security troops once assigned to Ship’s Inquisitor Andrej Koscuisko Jay Eff Ess Ragnarok” got to be too much to keep saying over and over again.  She’d been working cargo load for the Fisher Wolf for nearly two years now and she knew them, the wolves, their Security Chief Stildyne, and their Cousin Stanoczk who was Chief’s lover but also incidentally the Malcontent agent responsible for their custody of Fisher Wolf.

Knew the lot, but the other man less so, the one that the wolves were having a hard time figuring out how to refer to amongst themselves.  That one was Andrej Koscuisko, because as bond-involuntaries calling Koscuisko anything but “the officer” or “his Excellency” was apparently a violation of their conditioning and she wasn’t going to think about what that had once meant to them even though it didn’t any more.

They weren’t being punished by their governors for failure to do exactly as they were told in exactly the right way, any more, because Koscuisko had removed their governors.  The ingrained expectation of punishment was harder to manage, but it was getting better, over time, and she knew, because she’d been there.  So they called Koscuisko “Doctor.”  And “Koscuisko.”  Sometimes “oor Anders” when it was the Nurail Robert St. Clare talking, but never “Andrej.”  It was a work in progress.

One way or the other Medith minded her own business and kept out of theirs.  That was the code of the cargo handler’s guild, to the extent that there was one in Gonebeyond space, and it had worked well enough for her – apparently – that she’d gotten to be just about the a-number-one expert in stowing cargo on the only thula in Gonebeyond, a challenge redoubled by the existence of the shielding for a main battle cannon that ran the length of her main cargo loading bay and complicated things.

Courier ships didn’t port main battle cannons.  Main battle cannons were for cruiser-killer battlewagons like the Ragnarok.  What it was doing here was anybody’s guess but none of her business, so it really didn’t matter either way.  She collected her billable hours and her pay packets, and watched the experience mount up in her master personnel record; time on a courier like Fisher Wolf was worth three times as much on a small family freighter, because of the complexity of the task.

Fisher Wolf had certainly provided her with complex tasks in the past.  This one appeared to be a clinic of some sort, to go by its manifest; and how it had gotten to Fisher Wolf was its own added bonus in cargo complexity, because the family freighter Perigot that she’d picked up on Delgacie had unloaded on the deep-space freighter Sampran, one of the real behemoth-class freighters, and a cargo handler usually didn’t get close to one of those until they were quite a bit older than she was.

She hadn’t been surprised to find Fisher Wolf waiting, because the wolf pack had been hiding out at Delgacie with the family freighter and they went together.  She hadn’t had to stow the special cargo they’d picked up there.  It wasn’t that she didn’t know they’d brought prisoners with them; just that she knew how to keep clear.

So her part of the task load was accomplished.  She could retreat to her hammock in the main cargo bay where she liked to sling it, because the cargo bay was her domain and she didn’t care to bunk with the wolves though she’d bunked all together on real family freighters before.

The forward cargo bay was clear of special cargo, now, so she could go there too, and not be bothered by the rest of the crew supervising cabin refresh and catching up on their regularly scheduled maintenance and generally meddling as much as possible in other peoples’ tasks like ship’s crews everywhere.  Access to some of the thula’s weapons systems were through main cargo bay.  Lek Kerenko sang to himself when he was working on the swivels.

She could hear him now, through the open hatchway down into one of the swivel gun nests which she didn’t really know were there exactly.  She’d never met a swivel gun before she’d met Fisher Wolf.  Working on machinery made Lek happy.  He’d start out quietly enough, but when he got involved in his music – and apparently forgot that there was someone in the cargo bay trying to stow crates and concentrate – he got louder.

She wasn’t familiar with the tune.  No chance at the words, but it wasn’t Standard, so it was Dolgorukij of some sort obviously.  Sounded a little bit like churn all the knobs and the furnace’s gone cold again, the farmer’s in the dell and the dog’s run home.  There was a chorus.  Pay day buy some clay and go try to sculpt a garden, there’s runions in the oven and it serves them right.

Since she’d stepped back from the lip of the cargo bay to consider her hammock-slinging options she didn’t see people coming, but clearly there was someone else outside on the tarmac and closing.  Singing as well.  Clear voice, mid-range, same sort of sounds in the language; yay, hay, some would say it’s a sort of stupid way to get a cherry-apple-ba-ba-nana, any, any, day.  Koscuisko, then, which was clearly even more of a surprise to Lek than it was to her, to judge from the way his head popped up out of his swivel gun nest.

Hadn’t heard Koscuisko sing?  That couldn’t be it.  Hadn’t heard Koscuisko sing when he wasn’t drunk, maybe, because he wasn’t drunk now, as far as Medith could tell.  She hadn’t been surprised to see him coming to greet his friends on Fisher Wolf, when they’d got here.  Special cargos frequently meant Andrej Koscuisko, because he was apparently the Safehaven’s go-to guy for developing special information when things got especially urgent or complex.

Here he was, though, with Pyotr trailing, as he paused at the foot of the cargo loading ramp and called up “Permission?” as though it were a little bit of a joke.  Maybe he was a little drunk, but he was unquestionably in a good mood, which meant he’d been finished with his task for long enough now to have worked past it.

“Granted,” she called back.  Heard a little bit of a lilt in her own voice, descending tone, gran-ted, and shook herself mentally.  Lek’s tune had been ear-catching.  She’d be stuck with it for the rest of the day, now.  “Come aboard, Doctor.”  She could reasonably give permission to join her in the cargo bay.  That much lay within her area of responsibility, and besides, Pyotr had given her the nod.

“Good-greeting, Riggs,” Koscuisko said, as he came up the ramp, satchel in hand.  “Fisher Wolf is off for the next place soon, as I am told, and I wouldn’t want to omit my thanks to you for your care of the surgical suite.  It is for a combat support hospital.  I don’t know if that detail is of interest to you or not, but I’m grateful regardless.”

He called her Riggs because she’d given him her possibly affronted but you don’t know any better face when he’d called her Miss Riggs, for the first last and only time.  She hadn’t taken it personally – Garrity had explained that Koscuisko simply had a formal habit that way – and he hadn’t called her “Miss” anything, since then.  It wouldn’t have hurt her to let him, she’d decided; people came from all sorts of backgrounds, in Gonebeyond.  Some backgrounds were more different than others, and assumptions were made.

It was value-neutral, most of the time, but just now Medith thought she heard an assumption, and she determined that it was an unwarranted one from the very faintly disconcerted expression she could see on peoples’ faces.  Whether they had actually grown more expressive in the time she’d known them, or she’d simply gotten better at reading them, she hadn’t decided; but there it was, one way or another.  Koscuisko hadn’t told Pyotr this bit of his intentions, obviously enough.

“Thank you, Doctor, but I’m coming with.”  She’d had the conversation with Stildyne, one they’d had more than once now.  Stildyne would warn her about something in adequate detail for a rational and informed decision and suggest she step off and wait for the next job to turn up.  She would decline on the grounds that a variety of work environments was required for her professional development.  Stildyne would look at her for a moment or two and decide not to push his argument.

She already knew there was a war on at Couveraine, a small quiet one of limited scope; nobody had tried to conceal that from her.  She also knew that cargo handlers generally speaking were less likely to be shot at than other people, though if ships were blown up so was everybody on them which went without saying.

Pyotr coughed, gently.  Koscuisko looked back over his shoulder.  “What would we do without a cargo handler, your Excellency?”  It was the first time she’d ever heard them call Koscuisko that; and it startled her as much as it seemed to startle Koscuisko, though he was much better at recovering than she was.  “We’re looking forward to seeing where she’s going to put the job on the list of qualifying experience toward her next promotion.  She claims there’s a list.  No reason to doubt her.”

It wasn’t a your Excellency of excuse me, we think we’d like.  Certainly not anything like a please may we your Excellency sir.  It was a plain ah, actually we’ve already settled that without you, because that’s in our task set, thanks.

“There is a special column for “hazard of being shot at?”  Koscuisko asked thoughtfully.  “Intermittent metallic sideways precipitation at speed, high-impact low-ballistic missiles?”  One thing she had to give him:  he thought faster than many, weighted nuances, adjusted expectations, chose a response.  Very much in control of himself that way.  “It is not for me to say, of course, yes.  Please my excuses accept, Riggs.  With only one exception I endorse the judgment of these gentlemen absolutely.  I go away now, covered in confusion and chagrin, happy of your help in unpacking the hospital.”

There was some kind of an undercurrent of a shared stream of thought in there somewhere.  The wolves been bond-involuntaries, and Koscuisko had been Ship’s Inquisitor, so they’d seen him at his worst.  They apparently thought well of Koscuisko all the same, and Medith had a solid notion that it wasn’t simply gratitude for freeing them of governors.  Koscuisko had reservations about that, but it was an old issue, and it was between them, and she wasn’t going in the water.

“Happy to take a delayed re-transmit on that, Doctor.”  The basic impulse had been positive.  That she didn’t reject.  It was always nice to be appreciated.

So Koscuisko smiled, and went forward to stow his personal effects in the best cabin.  Pyotr smiled and went back with him.  Lek stood head-and-shoulders in the swivel gun nest looking after Koscuisko for a moment thoughtfully.  A year in Gonebeyond, and they were all still dealing with adjustment to life without little monsters in their brains; mostly very well, with the occasional explosion.

The most important person in a bond-involuntary’s life was their officer of assignment, well, apart from each other, of course.  That’s who Koscuisko had been.  Nobody had told Koscuisko where to go, no, there hadn’t seemed to be any particular resentment of Koscuisko that she’d detected.  But they might have just successfully and politely told him where to get off, which Medith took to be a milestone.

Lek dropped down out of sight into the swivel gun emplacement to pick up where he’d left off in his maintenance checklists, singing quietly to himself; and Medith went to sling her hammock in cargo bay forward, amongst the crates of Koscuisko’s surgical suite outbound for Couveraine.


Danyo Pefisct – Chief Medical Officer, Ship’s Inquisitor, on board of the Jurisdiction Fleet Ship Sondarkit, returning to his ship of assignment from down-leave – popped the last dose of a high-end if highly illegal restorative into his mouth, breaking the seal between his back teeth and sighing with satisfaction as he felt his senses sharpen.

The Captain, it seemed, wanted to see him the moment he returned to the ship.  He needed to be alert, since he was hardly rested.  It had been a good down-leave.  Haspirzak Proper, where the Third Judge had her Chambers, was always good down-leave for Danyo, because the headquarters of the completely legal Witt business empire was there, and Chancellor Witt gave the absolute best parties in known Space.

Anybody who smelled the fragrance of sweet briar-root and lilacs on his breath would know what he’d been eating.  That was part of the cachet, enjoying black-market Controlled List drugs ordinarily subject to some of the strictest pharmaceutical controls there were.  Conspicuous consumption was a Witt hallmark; and if the drug was part of a torturer’s tool-kit, what of it?  Danyo was a Judicial torturer, wasn’t he?

For prisoners in Secured Medical the medication was good for forcing the most tortured souls to full awareness of their agony.  Which meant that for anybody else it was simply the best thing after a night of possibly rather over-done revelry.  And that in turn meant that Danyo’s mind was sharp, his thinking clear, his recall of the unusual events at Witt’s feast-table last night perfect if not perfectly comprehensible.

Seated in the place of honor at dinner there’d been a woman to whom Witt had presented Danyo, rather than the other way around:  Bench Intelligence Specialist Jils Ivers.  So far as Danyo knew, she was the first Bench specialist he’d ever met – one of a few silent and shadowy agents of the Bench answerable to the First Judge alone and none other, with powers of extraordinary discretion to intervene in any crisis as they saw fit in the service of the rule of Law and the Judicial order.

But now that the First Judge was simply one among her peers, to whom did the Bench specialists report?  Was Ivers at Witt’s party because she was looking for a job?  She’d made remarks to Danyo about his job, under cover of the dessert course.  Incomprehensible suggestions with respect to the employment potentials in Gonebeyond space for Ship’s Inquisitors who had become redundant to requirements.

Through the clearwall window of the shuttle Danyo watched the activity in Sondarkit’s open maintenance atmosphere as he neared; and brooded.  He’d heard about Inquisitors who’d run away to Gonebeyond, and he’d told Ivers so.  Chancellor Witt followed the careers of Fleet’s Inquisitors like celebrities, and had all the best gossip.  Danyo himself owed his privileged position on Witt’s guest list to his Inquisitorial rank.

Why would anybody trade the privileged billet of Chief Medical Officer, Ship’s Inquisitor, for a resource-starved bare-bones clinic in Gonebeyond space, he’d asked Ivers.  He’d heard all about what had happened to Beele, when she’d deserted.  And the point, Ivers had replied, just as the after-dessert course had started coming around, is that people had heard from Doctor Beele.  Danyo hadn’t known quite how to take that:  had it been a threat, or merely a warning?  But he’d set it aside for further contemplation.

As his shuttle crossed the containment barrier into the Sondarkit’s maintenance atmosphere to dock Danyo saw there was a visiting ship, drawn up to one of the larger loading platforms.  It was larger than most courier ships, perhaps half the length of a light freighter; with a vaguely menacing profile, something like a famous aquatic monster out of the scaries in which Danyo had delighted as a child.  Primitive, efficient, and beautiful in its savagery.  Danyo recognized it.  The Kospodar thula Haspirzak, named for its Judiciary.

There were people gathered on the thula’s loading slip.  Some of Sondarkit’s crew members were clustered around what looked like a pile of bivvy-kits.  Danyo frowned.  Seven men.  He recognized them:  they were his, bond-involuntary Security slaves, and their only reason for existence was to do as he told them.  Whatever.  Whenever.  Immediately, and without question.

They were criminals, each subject to trial and execution for their crimes.  They’d been young, strong, fit, and above all psychologically resilient enough to survive being placed under Bond, survive careful conditioning to a rigorous standard of performance until they knew each requirement and expectation as thoroughly as agony and fear could instruct them.

Each of them with a surgically implanted “governor” linked into the pain centers in their brains that could cripple them with agony for hours if they gave him the slightest hint of reluctance, resistance, hesitation in doing as they’d been told.  He knew.  It was his responsibility to monitor their behavior constantly, to bring any lapses to their attention, and let the governor and their conditioning do the rest.  They were nothing more than instruments of torture.  They were his property.

And they were out of uniform.  They weren’t wearing the poison green piping at the cuffs and the collar of their overblouses, the unique distinction of a bond-involuntary.  They were not standing silently at attention-rest in perfect order awaiting instruction lawful and received.

They were moving amongst the cargo crates, instead, talking, laughing, their posture loose and relaxed as that of any free man; and when they saw him they laughed, they pointed, and one of them made an obscene gesture that would earn any man on board this ship some disciplinary action, regardless of their status.

They were on Safe.  So much was clear.  Fleet gave Safes to bond-involuntary troops who had survived to the end of their full thirty-year sentence to lull their governors into a state of suspended animation for the time it took to arrange remedial surgery.  Once they’d been worn on a cord around a man’s neck.  Now they were simply injected into the muscle beneath the skin.

Safes were the only explanation.  As for the gesture, there were other crew on the slip, Sondarkit and Haspirzak Judiciary alike; but nobody seemed to have seen it, and one or two of Sondarkit’s own crew were smiling.  Danyo didn’t know what was going on:  but he knew he didn’t have to subject himself to this kind of undisciplined behavior.

He was to go directly to the Captain’s office?  Fine.  Maybe he’d have a thing or two to say about bond-involuntary troops behaving like drunken hooligans with impunity.  Was this what Ivers had meant to suggest?  Bond-involuntaries being removed from his authority and supervision?

By the time he arrived at the Captain’s office Danyo had an approach that satisfied him, and walked through the opening slants of the door with his hands clasped behind his back, his head lowered in thought.  The attitude had worked well for him en route.  He hadn’t had to waste any powers of concentration on not-seeing the expressions on the faces of the crew he passed in the corridors, whether smugly satisfied, maliciously happy, or indifferent in a hostile sort of way.

“I’ve just seen the strangest thing, Captain – ”

No use.  The person behind Fonderell’s desk wasn’t Fonderell.  A rather young man in a perfectly tailored Judicial uniform, blond, an open expression in his clear blue eyes. It wasn’t the knee-length overblouse worn by a judge in Chambers; it was simple, modest, practical, and deep dark green.  The official, if informal, dress worn by a Bench Judge Presiding.  But the man was a man, and there hadn’t been a male deemed fit to exercise the rule of Law at its highest levels for so long it might as well have been mythological.

“Will this be Doctor Pefisct, Captain Fonderell?” the young man asked, clear-voiced, calm, with the very most subtle shading of and not before time imaginable.  “Present me, please.”

“Yes, your Honor.”  Fonderell was on his feet, standing to one side of the desk, with the First Officer beside him.  Doing a much more creditable version of “attention rest” than Danyo’s own bond-involuntaries, just now, though almost anybody would have done.  “Doctor Danyo Pefisct, our current Chief Medical Officer.  Doctor Pefisct.  This is his Honor, Bat Yorvik.  Haspirzak Judiciary.”

Danyo knew what was expected of him, and advanced to a formal two paces to bow.  “Your Honor.  My apologies for my late return.”  Yes, he was late.  So what?  Nobody had told him there’d be a Judge waiting for a word.  “Captain.  First Officer.”  Judges were introduced by the title of their courts; only Bench-level judges received the simple “Haspirzak Judiciary.”  So it was true that Yorvik was Bench-level.  Remarkable.

And the fourth person in the room, the one nearest the door, the one he hadn’t noticed – in his concentration – on his way in?  The Bench specialist with whom he’d shared Witt’s high table.  Ivers.  “Please be seated,” Yorvik said, to the Captain, to the First Officer.  Looking around him for a chair Danyo found none ready to hand, and nobody was offering one, either.

Yorvik had a flatfile docket in front of him on the Captain’s desk, with judicial seals laid open.  “I’ve come on the Third Judge’s behalf to brief you, Doctor Pefisct, on some evolutions in the relationship between the Bench and the Jurisdiction’s Fleet as a whole.  These changes have a significant impact on you, and it was the Third Judge’s wish that you be apprised in person.”

Yorvik might have been admonishing a plaintiff’s representative.  He might have been ordering his mid-meal.  He was giving Danyo nothing to go on.

“You may be aware that the budget for the Fleet is in renewal discussions?” Yorvik asked; but didn’t wait for a response from Danyo.  Of course not.  “And Haspirzak is not among the wealthier of the Judiciaries.  We must carefully reconsider the cost versus the benefit of Fleet support, in order to ensure continued funding for programs and expenses properly within the Third Judge’s purview to maintain.”

Social benefit programs.  Public-funded hospitals.  The renowned Haspirzak gardens, the jewel of Haspirzak Judiciary, to which Chancellor Witt made such generous and regular contributions, as befit any public-spirited pillar of the business community.  “Your Honor,” Danyo acknowledged, politely, because Yorvik had paused, clearly waiting.

“Good.  Now.  The Third Judge has identified several measures which, when implemented, will allow for continued full Fleet support.  There is an agreement that the Inquisitorial function is no longer necessary or useful, with today’s progress in drug-assisted interviewing techniques.”

No, Danyo thought, keeping his face respectfully expressive of mild interest alone.  The Third Judge has never liked Ship’s Inquisitors.  That’s what it’s all about.  Yorvik turned a leaf in his docket.  “I believe you may have seen the Haspirzak thula in the maintenance atmosphere, when you docked?  We’ll be relieving Sondarkit of responsibility for now-redundant Fleet resources, released by Captain Fonderell on direction.”

They weren’t Fonderell’s resources.  They were his.  Danyo clenched a figurative fist around the outrage in his gut to shut it up, until later.  “Ah, sorry, no,” he said.  He wasn’t on notice.  He could lie to a judge all he wanted to.  He knew the parameters of prohibited degrees of deception as well as any man, even a boy judge.  “Might one presume you mean my bond-involuntaries, your Honor?”

He wasn’t fooling anybody.  There wasn’t a shadow of a grin anywhere on Yorvik’s face that Danyo could detect, and yet he knew that Yorvik was smiling.  Damn him.  “The Third Judge has taken two significant measures to reduce unnecessary costs.  The first is the granting of revocation of Bond to all souls currently under Bond in Haspirzak Judiciary.  So in the strictest sense, Doctor Pefisct, no, they are no longer bond-involuntaries, and therefore not yours.”

It was no secret that bond-involuntaries were expensive.  The surgeries, the training, the indoctrination; the replacement cost, because the failure rate was high.  There was the additional cost to the Bench for every one who survived his sentence, as well:  accumulated pay with interest compounded over thirty years; full pension benefits; free transport on any Jurisdiction hull on demand.

Ivers had suggested that there was to be a surplus of Inquisitors.  He couldn’t say she hadn’t warned him, howsoever obliquely.  “One is heartily glad for them,” he said.  “I wish them all the best.”  They wouldn’t get it.  He couldn’t imagine any of those people being able to go home, not in any real sense.  They’d be too marked by their experience.  And who could say whether their homes even wanted them back, when they’d been torturers’ assistants all this time?  “The function of Ship’s Inquisitor to be made redundant, that’s your next point, yes?”

He had to be more careful.  He was being rude.  But he had a right to feel frustrated, surprised, even angry that such unilateral action had been taken with regard to men with whom he had shared a challenging assignment, without notifying him.  Maybe they’d have told him up front, if he’d come back to Sondarkit when he’d been supposed to.

Yorvik had turned another page.  There was a form, there, a printed version of a record Danyo had seen on-screen on one occasion or another; an important form, duty assignment, duty station, rank, accompanying salary.  “Haspirzak Judiciary, and I’ll be very blunt here, has no further use for Ship’s Inquisitors.  The Third Judge sees no reason why Fleet need continue to fund a senior officer whose fundamental medical qualifications are restricted to executing the Protocols.”

So he was to lose his job, as Ivers had hinted.  Danyo could see the sense of it, from Haspirzak’s point of view.  That didn’t mean he could reasonably be expected to like it; and he opened his mouth to say words like violation of employment contract and recently re-confirmed at grade and rank and things of that sort, but he didn’t get the chance.  Maybe just as well, he thought.

Yorvik was so calm.  Even mildly sympathetic.  Nothing personal, Yorvik’s tone of voice seemed to say.  Strictly efficient use of tax revenues.

“There are already senior medical officers on board every Fleet ship with the experience and abilities to perform the role of Chief Medical Officer, and most of them are being paid close to grade for Ship’s Surgeon already,” Yorvik said.  “Your role and responsibilities are to be re-evaluated, Doctor Pefisct, and a placement found for you within Infirmary at the level and specialization appropriate to your strictly medical qualifications.”

Now he was doomed.  He was to be reduced in grade, reduced in authority, broken all the way down to junior-most officer in charge of virology, except there was no dedicated virologist in Infirmary on the Jurisdiction Fleet Ship Sondarkit.  There was a specialist, a senior technician, but she’d had the benefit of years of continuing education, which meant Danyo had no hope of supplanting her.  He’d been a good student; he would have been a good virologist.  But with no practical experience since his graduation?  He didn’t have a chance.

He’d be slotted into general clinic duty.  He’d done no other hands-on medical work since he’d first taken up his Writ to Inquire:  which would logically be cancelled, as the next step, if it hadn’t been revoked already.

They’d have to give him some credit for service in that role, but he knew what the service allowances were because he was responsible for finding ways to deny people promotion – or at least that was how he’d always approached it, kind of a game – and it was a three-to-one conversion for general practice.  He’d be a supernumerary junior clinician.  His senior technicians made more money than that, and had more authority in clinic.  He’d lost everything.

“Do you have any questions about the impact of these changes on your future in Fleet?” Yorvik asked.  His voice had gentled, as if to present himself as a compassionate man.  Maybe he was compassionate.  It wasn’t every day a man was kicked in the stomach and then into the sewer, deprived of Infirmary command, robbed of the rank and authority his by right as a Fleet officer as well as a Judicial one.  “If not.  Resources will be made available to you to answer any concerns that may arise going forward.  I’ll be on my way, now, Captain.”

Yorvik stood up.  Fonderell and First Officer were on their feet in an instant.  With calm and deliberate tread, with calm and benevolent eye, Judge Yorvik left the room, nodding at each of them in turn.  The Bench specialist turned as he passed to follow him, blank-faced, without a word spoken.  To go back to his ship, a Kospodar thula, an elite courier, Haspirzak Judiciary’s own.  Taking Danyo’s bond-involuntaries with them.  He might as well be taking Danyo’s career.

“This must come as a considerable shock,” Captain Fonderell said, returning to his usual side of the desk, sitting down.  “If I’d known beforehand, I would have told you.  It’s as much of a surprise to us as to you, I’m afraid, unless you’re better connected than we are, of course.”  Fonderell wasn’t gloating, Danyo decided, for what that was worth.  There was no fellow feeling in his voice; no concern for a comrade or a peer; but no gleefulness either.  Much.

Fonderell had something more to say, apparently.  “We’ll be making a temporary appointment to the position of Chief Medical Officer, per regulation.  In light of the fact that she’s been second-in-command here, even before your arrival, I’d anticipate calling on Doctor Maparone.”  Of course.  Why not.  It didn’t matter.  “We won’t be making a ship-wide announcement until you’ve had a chance to transition with her.  We’re due at Quanto in six days.  You can take some additional leave there, if you’d like.  Come back to new quarters and a fresh start.  All right?”

New quarters.  From the suite of the Chief Medical Officer to what could only be the tiny room of an officer so junior as to be subordinate to any senior technician on board, in a practical sense.  Danyo thought fast.

“Thank you, Captain.”  He supposed he was lucky they didn’t expect him out by end of shift.  Six days?  That would give him time to sanitize his quarters carefully, to make sure he wasn’t leaving anything interesting behind.  “I’ll start to build a transition plan as soon as I’ve unpacked.  I’m not sure there’s a standard procedure in place for decommissioning Secured Medical.  I’ll try to find out.”

He owed Chancellor Witt a thank-you note.  He’d been Witt’s guest, he’d spent the night, he’d attended a gala, it would be only polite.  He’d mention expecting to see Witt at Quanto, and maybe Witt would even come himself – it wasn’t every day a suddenly surplus Ship’s Inquisitor suggested a meeting.

Witt had shared secrets with Danyo before:  his extensive entertainment library of highly illegal black-market records of Judicial torture, for instance, or his casual presents of repurposed drugs from the Controlled List.  There was an entire shadowy world to the Witt organization that almost certainly extended into Gonebeyond.

He had six days to get through somehow.  Then he’d be able to talk to some officer from Witt’s organization, offer his professional services, strike a bargain.  He wasn’t going to end up working some Bench specialist’s angle in what amounted to a charity hospital out in the back of beyond.  Witt would have much better use for him than that; and in return Witt would make arrangements to get Danyo free and clear of Fleet forever.