It was early evening in Port Burkhayden. The air currents that blew toward the bay in the morning hours had stilled and reversed themselves, and the breeze grew colder by the day; but it was warm on the back steps still, sheltered from the wind by the bulk of the great house behind them.
“All right, then,” the gardener said, his tone light and challenging. Almost Sylyphe wanted to call it affectionate; but that wouldn’t be proper, not with the distance between them. Skelern Hanner was a good gardener. But that was all he was.
Plucking a bit of black-twigged greenery out of the little pile that lay between them on the steps, Hanner continued to quiz. “You’re solid on the sdotz, one and all. Sdotz are good for color, but delicate tones need background, don’t they now?”
It was Hanner’s game to tease her, when all she’d ever done was ask him questions about his gardening. He didn’t take her seriously. Why should he? Because she had been to school, and he had not — but there was no question that he knew much more about his garden than she did.
“Markept-branch?” she guessed, eagerly, frowning at the twig of evergreen Hanner held out to her. “Or — no, it’s markept-branch. Surely. Oh, tell, Skelern.”
He laughed at her eagerness, and Sylyphe blushed, wishing the breeze would turn and carry the prickling heat of her own gaucherie away from her face. She hated to see herself blush, She blushed in splotches, obvious and awkward, and it always made her blush when Skelern laughed. She wasn’t certain why. She only suspected that it had to do with the suddenness of the sight of his white teeth, when the rest of him was ruddy-brown with sun or sweat.
“Perfect marks, little maistress, markept—branch it is, and from the far reaches. From Perkipsie, in fact, come across the Senterif vector to Burkhayden before the Bench came down upon us.”
If she was right, why had he laughed? He teased her too often. It was unkind of him. She didn’t know why she tolerated his impudence; and yet she’d had nobody else to talk to, not these six months gone past. Standard.
“The Danzilar fleet is only four weeks out, they say.” The Senterif vector, somewhere past Burkhayden’s pale new moon this time of year. Sylyphe frowned into the darkening sky, wondering where to place the space-lane’s terminus. “There will be an end to the Bench, Skelern, in a sense at least. That will be good, won’t it?”
The Danzilar fleet was what had brought her mother here six months ago, to position Iaccary Cordage and Textile among the industries eager to enter into partnership with prince Paval I’shenko Danzilar to exploit his newly indentured world. The Bench had been sending Nurail into exile here for longer than that; but Skelern Hanner himself was a native, bred and born in Burkhayden.
And bitter about what had become of Nurail under Jurisdiction, for all that he did not seem to blame her for it. Not personally. “Sold is sold, sweet Sylyphe. I wasn’t born cattle. And I had a mother and a father, once.”
It was hard to blame him. He had suffered loss and privation under Jurisdiction. It had all been for the preservation of the Judicial order, she was sure of that; though it was hard to understand what threat a gardener could have posed the Bench.
“All the same.” She didn’t like to argue with him, especially when she felt he might have good cause to feel resentful. But she wished he wouldn’t sulk. There was nothing either of them could do about it, after all. “The first step toward citizenship, Skelern. They’re odd people, from what I’ve heard, but practical.”
Well, perhaps that was a little overgenerous of her. Dolgorukij were practical, yes. But more than that, Dolgorukij were ferocious competitors, notorious for milking any commercial exchange for everything it might be worth. Not people one would chose as one’s employer, if one had the choice; and it would only depress Skelern to remind him that he had none.
Why had she tried to say anything?
Sylyphe hugged her knees to her bosom and frowned at the back of the garden, disgusted at herself.
Hanner spent some moments picking out pieces of grass and fern with a great show of concentration on his dark sharp-chinned face. “The Danzilar fleet. Well. There’ll be parties, little maistress, you’ll want for a corsage.”
The suggestion startled her into turning her head, meeting his black eyes over the posy he offered. It was a perfect little bouquet, wrapped in a leaf and pinned into a tidy bundle with a thorn. Beautiful. Sylyphe took the delicate favor with confused delight, admiring it in the failing light as Hanner spoke on.
“And with the fleet. An escort ship, the Ragnarok, have you heard of the Jurisdiction Fleet Ship Ragnarok, Sylyphe? It’s a man with the blood of Nurail souls on his hands that carries the surgery there, him from the Domitt Prison. Black Andrej.”
The Domitt Prison . . . it had been years ago, five years; she’d been much younger. The Judicial briefings had mesmerized her mother, and Sylyphe hadn’t ever quite understood what the fuss had been about; and still —
“Andrej Koscuisko, do you mean, Skelern?” And still she could recall one image among many, one image that sprang up readily before her mind’s eye. A slim young officer, blond, and wearing the black of a Ship’s Prime officer — the Ship’s Inquisitor, Jurisdiction Fleet Ship Scylla. Andrej Koscuisko. I have cried Failure of Writ against the administration of the Domitt Prison, and I will hazard my life against the justice of my plea.
“The same.” Skelern was looking at her with rather an odd expression on his face. She blushed once more, without knowing quite why. “And there’s more than several here in Burkhayden in these days to remember him from Rudistal, but he’s got nothing to fear from us. Not after the Domitt. Unlike young Skelern, now — ”
Tumbling the pile of flowers into her lap with one swift gesture Hanner rose to his feet, talking as he went. “ — who’s much to fear from my respected maistress your lady mither, if I don’t get the turves trimmed up in the tea-garden before the morning comes. I’m off.”
And in a bit of a hurry all of a sudden, as well. What was on his mind? Sylyphe gathered the cuttings into a loose bunch, careful to keep her posy from being crushed. “Black” Andrej Koscuisko. It had a wicked sort of resonance to it.
The Court had awarded him execution of the sentences passed down at the conclusion of the hearings; he had killed men, and at the Tenth Level of the Question. Taken vengeance for the Bench against the criminals judged responsible for the Domitt Prison. There was a measure of attractiveness to the idea of such a man — an indistinct figure of glittering menace, irresistible with the demonic allure of all of one’s darkest nightmares . . . an Inquisitor. Torturer. Executioner.
Perhaps she would meet him at a party, since there were to be so many when the Fleet arrived at last. She would be presented, he would bow; she would return the courtesy with calm – self-possessed — fearless maturity, and he would check himself and look more closely at her, struck by her unusual poise, her womanly grace. . . .
The sun was going down. The breeze from the hills behind Port Burkhayden worried at the leaf — laden branches of the trees at the back of the garden, and the summer’s growth of climbing-rose canes bowed anxiously down before the wind’s whisper of ice as if in supplication. Sylyphe tucked her armful of cuttings under her arm and stood up, putting her idle fantasies away from her with a mixture of regret and childish guilt.
Enough was enough.
She went into the house to set the cuttings in a vase, to wait for her mother to come and arrange them.
Captain Griers Verigson Lowden — tall and thin, big bones, brown mustache — strolled down the halls towards the senior mess area with all deliberate speed, fuming. The news from the Bench was not at all satisfactory: no Inquisitor to be assigned, not any time soon. No Inquisitor was even identified for assignment yet, since the latest class at Fleet Orientation Station Medical wasn’t scheduled to begin for several weeks yet. If he’d convinced Koscuisko to commit to an additional term of service . . . but he hadn’t; and the Bench meant him to suffer the lack accordingly.
Nor was he so naive as to believe that the two Bench intelligence specialists who were visiting from the Danzilar fleet had no ulterior motives. He knew all about Koscuisko’s appeals to the Bench. He had connections, and paid well for information pertinent to his survival and prosperity. Koscuisko had been trying to get the Ragnarok declassified for Writ for years now: to no effect.
What would Koscuisko do, Lowden wondered, if Koscuisko ever realized that the money that thwarted his purpose at every turn, the money that did such a good job of protecting Captain Lowden against the best of Koscuisko’s arguments, the secret influence that baffled Koscuisko time and again was funded directly out of Koscuisko’s own handiwork?
Copies of the Record, copies of interrogation cubes, were the property of the Bench, and were to be strictly controlled and accounted for at all times.
That only made them more valuable.
And whether or not torture at Koscuisko’s level of expertise was functionally restricted to the Protocols — there being no law to interfere with religious practice under Jurisdiction, should religion demand frightful contrition rituals — there was no question but that Koscuisko was a genuine artist in his field. Captain Lowden had never seen anything quite like Andrej Koscuisko in Inquiry. The man was phenomenal. His tapes had proved phenomenally lucrative in turn, over the years.
Now Koscuisko was leaving, and that would be an end to new material. And though Lowden knew he could live quite comfortably off his banked proceeds, he couldn’t help but resent the fact that Andrej Koscuisko was to leave him alone on the Ragnarok with not so much as a replacement Inquisitor to remember him by.
Sour as his mood was, Lowden almost looked forward to staff meeting. There were good odds that he’d find an outlet for his irritation before the eight was up; and in that hope Captain Lowden went into the room.
They were waiting for him, of course. His senior officers were already rising to their feet as the lowest-ranking officer in the room — Jennet ap Rhiannon, newly assigned — called the formal alert.
“Stand to attention for the Captain, Lowden, commanding.”
Command and Ship’s Primes, Jurisdiction Fleet Ship Ragnarok. Here were Ralph Mendez, the Ragnarok’s First Officer, to whom the bulk of the daily tasks involving the operation of a ship of war — or even an experimental ship on its proving-cruise — devolved, by Lowden’s own benign neglect and implicit order.
The Ship’s Engineer, Serge of Wheatfields, the over-tall Chigan responsible for moving the ship from place to place and keeping the cyclers up.
Ship’s Intelligence, the Desmodontae known as Two, one of the few non-hominids with senior Fleet rank under Jurisdiction; two strangers with her, male and female, wearing unmarked uniforms of the peculiar shade of charcoal gray that identified them as Bench intelligence specialists.
His Lieutenants, and finally his Ship’s Inquisitor, Andrej Ulexeievitch Koscuisko, the youngest of his senior officers and by far the most valuable — as well as most high-maintenance.
“Well, let’s be started,” Lowden suggested, pausing on his way into the room to draw a flask of vellme. Plenty of shredded ciraby on top. “You’ve all got work to do. I don’t want to keep you from your tasks. First Officer, report.”
Mendez was a tall, long, green-eyed sort of Santone, his face tanned and deeply lined from youth spent under the dry glare of the Gohander desert sun. “Ship’s Mast and staffing, Captain. Ship’s Mast. Violation of critical safety protocol cried by Ship’s Engineer against technician second class Hixson. Adjudication of penalty recommended at three and thirty. Your endorsement, your Excellency.”
Passing the record cube across the table, Mendez recited the Charges drily, sounding bored. Lowden turned the cube in his fingers for a moment or two. Should he press Mendez on this? It would be perceived as merely petty, to squeeze Koscuisko for an extra ration of punishment so close to Koscuisko’s departure date. Koscuisko would enjoy it, but he would hate enjoying it. No. Too obvious. Lowden coded his counter-seal on the record cube and tossed it back without comment.
Nor did Mendez insult him by looking surprised. Mendez knew better. His First Officer had been part of the Ragnarok’s original proving crew, a good First Officer, a competent officer, but one who had stood on principle one too many times for there to be any real chance of a Command in his future. “Very good, Captain. Staffing, a new requirement just in, Chief Warrant Officer Brachi Stildyne has been offered a First Officer’s berth on the JFS Sceppan.”
Had he indeed? Lowden glanced quickly at his Ship’s Surgeon out of the corner of his eye. The four-year association between Andrej Koscuisko and his Chief of Security had been marked by conflict, misunderstanding, even a species of power struggle — great fun, all in all. If Koscuisko were not leaving he might be glad to replace Stildyne or he might be reluctant to face the breaking-in of a new Chief of Security. But Koscuisko was leaving. Koscuisko didn’t care. Or Mendez had tipped Koscuisko off; or both.
What a bore.
“Well, congratulations are in order for Stildyne. Please pass them on to him from me. He’s done good work for us.” And we’re sure that Koscuisko has no cause to complain of him, Lowden wanted to add, but restrained himself. Once again the provocation would be too obvious. “Very well. Serge? No? Two, then.”
Desmodontae were newly integrated under Jurisdiction, an intelligent species of night-gliding mammals that subsisted on the protein-rich blood of a species of cattle they nurtured for that purpose. Very short compared to most hominids, Two stood in chairs rather than sitting in them; as far as Lowden had ever been able to tell she couldn’t sit at all, in the conventional sense.
Standing in her chair now, Two dipped her velvety black head sharply in token of having heard and commenced to respond, clashing the sharp white teeth in her delicate black muzzle in his direction rapidly, her pink-and-black tongue flickering back and forth in a disconcertingly random manner.
In a moment her translator began to process. By that time Two had finished speaking; and rested her primary wing-joint with its little clawed three-fingered hand against the table’s surface, waiting patiently for the translator to catch up.
“I have here some guests for us, to tell us all the gossip, what it is. Bench intelligence specialists Ivers and Vogel; and this means I do not need to give my report after all, because you are distracted by their information. Yes? Of course yes. I admire this cunning, in myself.”
Lowden never decided how much of the personality in Two’s language was actually hers, and how much an artifact of her translator. They had to have a translator; whether or not Two was capable of speaking Standard — and there was no particular reason why she should not be, when other non-hominid species had learned to manage — few of them were capable of hearing her, since her voice’s natural range dropped down into the upper limits of audible tones Standard only occasionally.
“Specialist Vogel, then,” Lowden suggested. “We’ve been expecting you?” He had no clue as to which was which, Vogel and Ivers. The woman — black eyes, black hair, a little shorter than her partner — betrayed no sign of Iversness or Vogelicity, any more than the man looked Iversish or Vogellic. Two’s descriptive statements frequently lacked precision, in translation. Lowden had decided years ago that she planned it that way.
“Transfer of preliminary defense locks to your shuttle.” Of the two of them at the end of the table it was the man who spoke. Middling tall, middling bald, with a voice that gave neither cause for offense nor any other information younger than his hairline, Lowden guessed. So he was Vogel. “For transport ahead of the Danzilar fleet, to be ready when prince Paval I’shenko arrives. You’re sending?”
Bench intelligence specialists didn’t observe rank, didn’t conform to the norms of military titles or respectful address. They didn’t have to. They were Bench-level operatives chartered on an individual basis by the Bench itself and accountable not to any given Judge, but only to the Jurisdiction’s Bench in formal convocation,
“My First Lieutenant. G’herm Wyrlann.” Who fortunately had the good sense to rise to his feet and salute when his name was called. Whatever unspecified rank a Bench intelligence specialist might hold it was good odds Vogel outranked a mere Command Branch First Lieutenant. “The shuttle’s loaded and waiting for immediate dispatch, Specialist, ready bay five down three over? Serge? Yes.”
They needed to get Wyrlann to Burkhayden as soon as possible. It was to be Wyrlann’s formal responsibility to complete the final inventory that would be incorporated into the formal contract between Danzilar and the Bench. “If you’d care to accompany Lieutenant Wyrlann, Specialist.”
Bench Indentured World, Burkhayden, Meghilder space. Danzilar to be planetary governor, and responsible to the Bench for tax revenues; to be left to himself to exploit Burkhayden as he saw fit as long as the cash continued to flow. Lowden wished Danzilar luck with his enterprise. There was nothing left worth taking off Burkhayden that the Bench hadn’t taken — and nobody there but Nurail, resettled from the dregs and scrapings of the Nurail worlds in the bloody aftermath of the promulgation of the Political Stabilization Acts.
Vogel bowed and cocked an eyebrow at Wyrlann, who took his cue and started for the door. Just as they reached the doorway Lowden remembered the advice he had meant to give; important advice, in light of Wyrlann’s history on ground detach.
“Lieutenant. Let’s be prudent this time around. There are still Bench resources at Burkhayden.” And you don’t want to go breaking anything while Fleet still has to pay for it. Lowden hoped and trusted that the point would be taken, even implicit as it was. Wyrlann had a heavy hand at times. He had to learn prudence in the timing of his little exercises of authority.
Wyrlann didn’t like being reminded.
But there was nothing he could do but accept the rebuke and go.
Once the door closed again Lowden turned his attention to the remaining Bench specialist, who by process of elimination could only be Jils Ivers. “And your role in this convoy would be . . . ?”
Convoy was perhaps not the right word. There were eights of ships in the Danzilar fleet, and its flagship — prince Paval I’shenko’s Lady Gechutrian — displaced space at twice the volume of a mere cruiser-killer in the Ragnarok’s class. One Fleet ship in escort was a mere token, its ceremonial nature emphasized by the fact that the Ragnarok was not a chartered warship but an experimental test bed sized and shaped like one.
“In this instance to pay my respects to your Chief Medical Officer.” Ivers’ voice was level and uninflected. Unrevealing. Unimpressed. “And to present the First Secretary’s compliments. You may recall having cleared the interview, Captain?”
Well. Perhaps. If he thought about it. He’d wondered at the time why Chilleau Judiciary bothered to send an envoy to Koscuisko. They could hardly hope to succeed where Lowden himself had failed, and persuade Koscuisko to renew his term.
Koscuisko himself had half-turned in his place to frown at Ivers skeptically, ignoring for once the unwisdom of turning one’s back on Serge of Wheatfields if one was Ship’s Inquisitor. Wheatfields only glared down at the back of Koscuisko’s bared neck in turn. Maybe Wheatfields was mellowing. Maybe not.
“I, er, may have neglected to forward the appointment through to Andrej’s scheduler, now that you mention it.” His turn to come under that mirror-silver glare of Koscuisko’s, but Koscuisko was too well trained to let any real displeasure show. Koscuisko was autocrat, surgeon and Inquisitor. But Captain Lowden was his master, and Koscuisko knew it. “Sorry, Andrej. Recent excitement and all, I suppose. Do you have time for Specialist Ivers this shift? Now, for instance.”
Koscuisko hadn’t had a prisoner in Secured Medical for upwards of two weeks. All Koscuisko had on his scheduler was running his Infirmary. Koscuisko could make time. Koscuisko would.
“Of course, Captain.” Koscuisko’s clear tenor matched Ivers’s own tone for inscrutability. Being irritated about it would get Koscuisko precisely nowhere. It only amused Captain Lowden to see how easily Koscuisko could be annoyed. “If you like, Specialist. My office?”
Koscuisko almost didn’t even pretend to wait for an answer, rising as he spoke. “If the Captain will excuse us, of course.”
Lowden nodded in reply to Koscuisko’s perfunctory bow, secretly delighted. He had not thought to have this much amusement at staff. He was going to genuinely miss Koscuisko when Koscuisko was gone. “Quite so. Good-greeting, Specialist Ivers. Andrej, ward report, my office, second and six.”
Could he get rid of the rest of his staff in time to have Two open a channel into Koscuisko’s office?
Or should he rather let this staff play out, and pump Koscuisko for the details afterward?
He hadn’t heard anything from his Lieutenants. And he was supposed to be paying attention.
“Lieutenant Brem. There’s an inventory shortage on the Wolnadi line, I understand, and you were to have a report for me this morning.”
Resigning himself to an indulgence postponed, Lowden set his concentration on analyzing cargo loads, and put Andrej Koscuisko to the back of his mind for later.
If he thought about it, Andrej believed he might remember this woman. She was shorter than he was, and many women weren’t, since he himself was to the short side of the Jurisdiction Standard. Chilleau Judiciary had sent two Bench specialists to the Domitt Prison at port Rudistal, these five years past; they’d arrived in time to assist the inquiry into the Administration’s crimes, but Andrej had never managed to convince himself that they hadn’t been originally dispatched to cover things up.
“So, then, Specialist. You travel with my cousin Danzilar’s fleet to Burkhayden.”
Strolling through the corridors of great Ragnarok, on the way to Infirmary and his office. There was no sense in being gratuitously unpleasant. He was going home, after all. He was to be free from all this within a very few weeks’ time. He could afford to let bygones be bygones, just this once. Justice had been done at the Domitt Prison at last, whether with the help of or despite these Bench specialists. He should be at least polite.
“Audit authority, your Excellency. One last check on inventory before everything goes to Danzilar. Your cousin? Don’t tell me, sir, Dolgorukij aristocratic genealogies make my head hurt.”
As a matter of fact they did his, as well. “It is either third cousin four times removed or fourth cousin three times removed. I do not know which. It is safest to call them all cousin and forget about it.”
He was to go home because eight years had passed since he had sworn his oath to Fleet, and eight years was all Fleet and his father could demand of him. Well, Fleet would have kept him on, because there were not enough Ship’s Inquisitors to go around; but eight years had been agreed upon and eight years had been suffered and eight years were passed.
He was never going to be able to forget them.
“The Danzilar prince sends his regards, sir. And said something about cortac brandy. An armful, I think he said.”
Had Shiki brought liquor? Well, of course Shiki had. “A crook of liquor, Specialist, four bottles, three under one’s arm and one in one’s fist. Very promising of Shiki. It is through here; sit down, do you take rhyti?”
Hearing himself engaged for an interview with a Bench specialist had not been a very welcome piece of news, just now. But his office was his own territory. He felt more comfortable just stepping across the threshold, and more inclined to be hospitable accordingly.
“Thank you, your Excellency, no. With respect, sir, I’ll come straight out with what I have to say.”
He did remember her from the Domitt Prison. Surely he was being paranoid to blame either Ivers or Vogel for crimes that Chilleau Judiciary should have noted and prevented long before his own arrival. Bench specialists were not partisan players. They would have done the same as he, had they found themselves in the same position. Surely.
“Excuse me that I draw a flask, then, I am thirsty. Out with what, yes, I listen.”
Once he’d had a moment or two to think about it he didn’t even feel she’d changed. That hint of a frown was something that Andrej could remember having found rather fetching, before, for no particular reason.
“Very well.” She waited for him to join her in the conference zone of his office, watching him set his flask of rhyti down on the low table between them with an air of concentrating on her thought. “Your Excellency. The term of your initial tour of duty is due to expire very shortly. It is understood that you have not been very satisfied with your placement here on Ragnarok, in recent years.”
No, he had been critically dissatisfied with his tour of duty on the Ragnarok from the moment he’d first set foot to decking. Andrej settled back in the slatwood chair, templing his fingers in front of him, suspicious. What did she mean, his “initial” tour of duty?
“Captain Lowden is not fit to direct my Writ, or any other. So I have pled. I am sure the documentation has been made available for your review.”
Captain Lowden was not a support to the rule of Law. It was precisely abuses of power of the sort that Captain Lowden indulged so shamelessly that gave subversion its ever-increasing numbers of champions under Jurisdiction. The Bench had heard his cry against the Domitt Prison; why did the Bench not hear his complaint against his Captain?
But Andrej knew the answer to that question already. It was Fleet and the Bench, this time. “You have not come all this way to give me a going-away present related to this issue, Specialist Ivers?”
Not likely. He was a Bench officer, to the extent that he held the Writ. He was also a Fleet officer under Captain Lowden’s authority. Fleet resisted the Bench on principle, regardless of the merits of the case.
Ivers smiled politely, but her smile ended well short of her eyes. “To the extent of assuring his Excellency that no Inquisitor has been identified for immediate assignment, yes.” She sat carefully at the edge of her seat, and her back was as straight as an abbess’s. “His Excellency has declined to renew his term with Fleet and the Bench.”
Indeed he had. And it was in the poorest possible taste to have even expected otherwise. There was a shortage of Ship’s Inquisitors? Very well. There should properly be a shortage of Ship’s Inquisitors. There should properly be no Ship’s Inquisitors at all, especially under Lowden’s direction; but Andrej wasn’t going to say as much out loud. There were limits.
“Fleet does nothing to protect the bond-involuntaries, Specialist. Tell me that they are all to be reassigned and I will be well satisfied. What is your point?” Because after all they both already knew that he’d refused the offer of a second term. And if she had no news but for the denial of yet another appeal against Griers Verigson Lowden she need not have wasted time and effort telling him how carefully the Bench had considered the merits of his plea.
“The Bench cannot afford the loss of critical skills, your Excellency. The Free Government grows more persuasive daily. Sabotage takes the lives of increasing numbers of loyal citizens, and the Bench must have the weapons it needs to fight the battle against this — one could hardly dignify the Free Government by the name of ‘enemy.’”
Ivers’s hatred and contempt was clear in her words, regardless of how calm and level her voice was. Andrej could empathize to an extent: terrorism was terrorism, and never to be condoned. It was just that the Bench itself also practiced terrorism, and against its own, against the self-same loyal citizens it claimed to be protecting. Torture was terrorism. Andrej set his hands to the armrests and straightened his spine, decisively.
“Then the Bench must criticize its moral self, Specialist Ivers. Fearlessly.” When would the Bench realize that the practice of institutionalized torture as an instrument of statecraft and the maintenance of civil order had just the opposite effect from that intended? “It is by the health and contentment of the body politic that one is to evaluate the rectitude of the State.”
Skating perhaps a little close to politically questionable discourse, but nothing actionable. Ivers seemed annoyed.
“Resources must be carefully husbanded in unsettled times, your Excellency. As you may be aware the Bench can exercise the power of annexation of critical resources. According to the provisions of the Political Stabilization Acts the Writ to Inquire is a Bench-critical resource.”
Now of a sudden the flooring fell away from underneath his chair, and Andrej knew he dared not so much as glance into the bottomless chasm that gaped open at his feet or else he would fall in. He gripped the armrests of his chair desperately. He could feel the suction of the moiling vortex of black Hell: He had to hang on.
“Annex critical. Resources. Name of all Saints, Specialist, what are you saying?” It had been eight years, eight years, eight years, he was done with this, he had fulfilled his term, he was free to go —
“His Excellency declines to continue service in Fleet. That is understandable in light of his Excellency’s stated convictions and dissatisfaction with his post. The Bench cannot afford to lose your skills, sir.” She could not see the abyss that yawned hugely between them. She could not have spoken so calmly had she done. “First Secretary Verlaine offers you pride of place at Chilleau Judiciary, command of the sector’s medical resources and all the rights and emoluments accruing thereunto. The need is too great, your Excellency. The Bench must make difficult decisions for the greater good of all under the rule of Law.”
Andrej swallowed hard, focusing on the talk-alert on the far wall to anchor himself in the world. He had to control himself. He could not panic. There was no reason to panic. She could not mean what she seemed to be saying. It was intolerable.
“Specialist, no one could wish me to this work a single day the longer, Judicial Order or no. Not even for my sins should it be wished on me, and you must know that they are many, and grievous.”
Her expression was pained, almost irritated. Andrej didn’t care. The rule of Law was no excuse for torture. He had to press what advantage he had, while he could still feel that he had the advantage —
“Say therefore to First Secretary Verlaine that I would rather sell myself to a Chigan brothel and suckle at fish than have anything to do with Chilleau Judiciary. Or the Protocols. Not one day the longer, Specialist Ivers. It has been eight years.”
Irritation had shaded over into stubbornness in her face, somehow. Andrej wasn’t quite sure how that had happened.
“You’ve earned a rest, sir. No one dreams of disputing that. You have three eighths of a years’ worth of accumulated leave, and I have the privilege of bringing word from the prince your father” — reaching into her over-tunic, as Andrej stared in horror — “with a personal message. Your Excellency.”
Holding out a heavy square of folded paper she waited. Andrej was afraid of that message, suddenly. He didn’t want to disgrace himself by showing his fear in front of the Bench specialist. It was an effort, but he forced himself to reach out his hand in turn to receive the note, his hand almost absolutely steady. There was his name on the note, in script so black against the clotted fabric of the writing-cloth that it was almost red. And bled as Andrej stared at it, the blood draining from the letter to stain his hand and overflow his fist down to the floor.
It will be good to see you again, child. We are glad of the First Secretary’s charitable gesture, in letting the past forget itself. Come home and kneel for your mother’s blessing before you go to Chilleau Judiciary.
His father’s hand, his father’s voice, more loving than it had been these past eight years, and as much as Andrej ached for his father’s blessing he could not force himself to accept that he would have to pay so high a price to purchase it.
“I cannot go.” He whispered it half to himself, half to the room, transfixed with horror. “Oh, it is too much. I cannot be made to go, Specialist Ivers, surely. And my family. I owe duty there that I have much neglected.”
Ivers sat unmoving in her chair, straight-backed, formal. Unyielding. “And the First Secretary understands, sir. There need be no impediment to a long and well-earned duty leave to see to personal business. The facilities at Chilleau Judiciary will be awaiting your arrival upon the conclusion of your leave. I’m sorry, sir — ”
She hesitated, but she said it anyway. What, did she see the roiling pit at last, and hear the tortured screams of damned souls in horrific torment? “I’m sorry, your Excellency. Secretary Verlaine has communicated with your family, and has taken great pains to explain the value of your technical qualifications to your father. How much Chilleau Judiciary needs your skills. And it is a Bench prerogative to annex, sir.”
He had known that he could not escape his dead, he had known it all along. He almost didn’t want to escape them — they had a natural right to be revenged. That was right. It was proper. It was decent and moral. But he had been certain that there would be no more of them once eight years were finally over, finished, done.
The enormity of this disaster left him without the capacity for coherent thought.
“It is intolerable to suggest that I should be punished in this manner. I have done my duty and upheld my Writ, and if the Bench has not heard me to disenfranchise Captain Lowden of my Bonds nor has the Bench any complaint to make of my performance — ”
Except. Except, that he had cried to Heaven at the Domitt Prison, and been heard. And Chilleau Judiciary had held the responsibility for the Domitt Prison. Was it for the pride of Secretary Verlaine that this carefully planned torture had been prepared for him?
“Indeed no such thing is contemplated, your Excellency.” It seemed that he had genuinely startled her; Ivers spoke slowly, as if putting her thoughts together with care. “The First Secretary holds no grudge of whatever sort associated with the unpleasantness at the Domitt Prison.”
He could not sit here for a moment longer.
This horror was too huge and terrible for him.
“Very well, Specialist Ivers.” Reaching for his rhyti flask he drained it in one half-convulsive draught, letting the sharpness of the heat in his throat pull his energies into one solid and protective core within him. “You have come to me, and told me. I am not to be permitted to go home to my child.”
Why had he ever imagined anything different? He could not go home. How could a man so much as look on his child, with such a stain on him? “Very well, I have of this understanding, and you have delivered your message.”
Rising to his feet, Andrej reached out his hand to help Ivers up, politely. There was a peculiar ring of chafed skin around her wrist beneath her sleeve, showing for a brief moment as she moved. Chafed from cold? Or had she recently been in manacles?
“Now it remains only for you to explain how it is that I am to get around it. I do not believe that I can go to Chilleau Judiciary and live, Specialist Ivers. I have only this long survived because the longer it was, the nearer to the end it became.”
Was that grammatical? Did it make any sense? Did it matter?
Andrej hardly knew what he was saying. It surprised him to realize that he was trembling; but whether it was fury or horror or a combination of the two Andrej could not begin to guess. “Tell me the way out of this, Specialist Ivers, or I am lost.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” Ivers repeated. She sounded as though she was surprised at the evident sincerity in her own voice. “In my professional opinion the First Secretary has covered all vectors of approach. I have no advice for you except to enjoy the perks, because as far as I can see you’re to be genuinely stuck with the duty whether you enjoy the perks or not.”
Polite of her, to gloss over that issue of enjoyment so delicately. She was a Bench intelligence specialist. She probably knew as much as his own gentlemen about what Andrej enjoyed, and how, and when. Or where. And yet her reference was utterly innocent: oh, yes, very delicately done indeed.
“Good-greeting, then, Specialist Ivers. You will excuse me. I must to someone go speak, to understand the meaning of what you have just told me.”
Nodding gravely in acceptance of her dismissal, Ivers gave him the bow without another word. Just as well. Too much had been said already. Andrej accepted Ivers’s salute in turn with a nod of his head, and she left the room with swift silent dispatch.
He was alone, and the enormity of the disaster that had just overtaken him weighted him down until he could hardly so much as breathe. A sleep-shirt made of lead. An atmosphere of viscous fluid of some sort, that sat in a man’s lungs and gave no air, but could not be coughed loose.
He could not stand here in his office. He would choke.
Possessed with dread and driven by horror Andrej fled the room for the one place on board of all Ragnarok where hope could be found — if there was any hope, any hope for him at all.
It was a quiet morning, all in all, now that Lowden’s staff meeting was out of the way. Convoy duty was not very challenging; things were quiet in Section. Ralph Mendez was treating himself to a little inconsequential talk with Ship’s Intelligence when Koscuisko — as blue in the face as a man near-dead of cold — staggered through the open door into Two’s office, palming the secure on his way past with so much force that Mendez half-expected he’d put a dent in it.
“I cannot endure it,” Koscuisko said. “I will not be asked to tolerate. Your pardon, First Officer, Two, you will tell me, if there is to be no way out of this?”
Straightening in his seat, Mendez waved Koscuisko’s apology off, interested. He didn’t usually see Koscuisko so exercised in spirit. Angry, yes, and from time to time in an ugly sort of state of savage amusement — when Lowden was working him particularly hard.
This didn’t look like angry, or frustrated, or hostile, or otherwise distracted. This looked like somebody’s mother was due to be sold to the tinkers for a drab, and no seven-hundred-thousand tinkers Mendez could imagine could possibly begin to afford the mother of the prince inheritor to the Koscuisko familial corporation. Not even if they pooled all their resources.
Two rearranged herself in a rustling of wings from her anchor-perch in the ceiling, and her translator sounded — its calm precise Standard diction at odds with the peculiar idiom of Two’s speech. “To you I will certainly tell, Andrej; but a hint would be much appreciated, what ‘this’ is it?” No telling whether she could catch Koscuisko’s state of mind or not. As difficult as it was to decipher Two’s expression when she was on the ground, it was next to impossible when she was at her ease hanging upside down in her office.
Koscuisko paced the floor between them, gesturing with his small white hands raised beside his face as if what he really wanted to do was tear his own head off. “This woman that Verlaine has sent, Two, she claims that I can be requisitioned to the Bench, if my father permits. And I cannot trust my father to understand, so you must tell me.”
What Koscuisko’s father had to do with things Mendez had never quite understood. He’d loved his father too, as far as it went — which didn’t go anything like as far as it seemed to go with Koscuisko. No accounting for culture.
Two reached a wing out casually to the far wall to code up a display on her speakers. Mendez knew she couldn’t actually see that far; it only made the unerring precision with which she found her target all the more unnerving — that, and the fact that her wings spanned the entire room when she stretched them.
“Well. There is a plot in motion, Andrej. I have not discussed it with our Captain because he is cross enough about the issue of your replacement.”
Didn’t that call for a question? Ralph wondered. If she had known of plots in motion —
“Two, if there were things of which I needed to be apprised — I cannot understand, why was I not warned. Surely you could not have thought of it as of no interest — ”
Koscuisko was still pacing, visibly tense with unexpressed conflict. But at least the level of the body language had toned down a bit.
“I am uncommonly clever, Andrej, it is true, but I cannot see more than three days into tomorrow,” Two scolded. “And it is not established that the draft would be approved. So Specialist Ivers has been just a little forward, if she told you that it was done.”
Finally Koscuisko stopped, and sat. Threw himself into a seat, pushing the fine fringe of blond hair up from off his forehead with one hand as he did so. Mendez was just as glad that the cup of konghu that he had on the side-table was half-empty, the way it shook.
“She did not say that it was done.” Koscuisko needed a haircut; Koscuisko usually did. Nothing to do with actual length, and everything to do with straying from its place. “She said that it would be accomplished, if Verlaine had anything to say about it. Is there nothing to be done, except be damned?”
“It is metaphorical, this ‘damned’?” Two demanded. Not unreasonably. “If you are not pleased to be desired you are certainly in a bad place, Andrej.”
Mendez felt it was high time he found out exactly what was going on between his officers. Between Two and Koscuisko, that was to say. Nothing went on between Koscuisko and Wheatfields except for bad language, and the occasional physical assault.
“Somebody fill in the First Officer?”
“The maddening thing is that it was not even anything that I did, in the beginning at least,” Koscuisko replied. As if he was explaining. “There was a student in orientation with me. She puffed me up to her Patron out of spite, and Fleet gave me the choice to wait for him to requisition me or leave for Scylla before the Term was ended.”
Which in turn had meant that Koscuisko had had to perform his final exercise, his benchmark Tenth Level Command Termination exercise, when he was already on active duty. Mendez had heard about Koscuisko’s Tenth Level even before Koscuisko had been posted to the Ragnarok. He’d wondered what kind of psychopathic maniac Koscuisko was at the time; but now that he knew Koscuisko a little better — after four years of breathing the same air — he was regretfully aware of the fact that the question was a little more complicated than that. “You went to Scylla, he took it personally, and that business with the Domitt didn’t sweeten him on you?”
Koscuisko shuddered. “I cannot go back to the Domitt, First Officer, I swear it. Not in one lifetime. And to submit to the First Secretary would mean the same, even if the name of the place itself were to be different.”
No need to ask whether Koscuisko had believed the testimony presented to the Bench about poor decisions made by subordinates, errors concealed from the audit branch, abuses not sanctioned.
“But Verlaine’s set up to draft his Writ.” Now that he felt he understood the background maybe Two’s information would benefit both of them. She cocked her head at one corner of her room, listening to the speaker — he assumed, since he couldn’t hear a damned thing. Then she nodded, which always gave him the chuckles, when she was upside down.
“It is confirmed, yes. Very much does Verlaine want Andrej Koscuisko. He has spent many favors which I am not at liberty to divulge, many of them irreplaceable. Once our Andrej leaves this ship — there are several months of accumulated leave, you could go and visit my children, the cave is large. It would perhaps be possible for you to become lost.”
The humor did not appear to penetrate far enough to touch Koscuisko in the state of mind that he was in. “If I could have known. It might have been better to have gone to the Bench in the first place. I did not understand that such a place was even possible, as the Domitt Prison.”
“So tell me, Two, if Andrej is too depressed to ask.” Moral support. “Is there a way out of Verlaine’s draft?”
It was of only abstract interest to him, of course. Koscuisko wasn’t a bad sort as a Chief Medical Officer, once one got past his personal quirks in the Secured Medical area. But Mendez wasn’t sure he really cared one way or the other.
“It is a problem for Andrej. No one can decide it for him.” Two had learned to shrug as an old woman, she had told him, and he was to treat her accomplishment with the respect due to the aged instead of asking her if she needed her back scratched between the shoulder-blades. “If the Combine protested there would be difficulty, and perhaps Verlaine would not be able to accomplish his goal. But the Combine has received many benefits from Chilleau Judiciary. Especially recently.”
“My father wrote to me, after the trials.” Koscuisko’s sudden interruption startled Mendez, since Koscuisko had seemed well sunk in silent gloom a moment ago. “He said that I had done well, that he was proud. That I should also behave with more humility, in future, because when all was said and sung a man should have respect for authority, and it did not present a pleasingly filial appearance for me to have appealed to the First Judge in so public a manner.”
Mendez winced. If Koscuisko’s people could say something like that to him, after those trials, then they simply didn’t live in the same world as that in which the Domitt Prison had existed, and that was all there was to it.
Respect for authority, yes.
Complicity of silence in atrocities of that nature — well, no.
“Well, there.” Two let so long a pause develop that Mendez wondered if her translator had failed; but no. She seemed to be expecting a response of some sort, her beautiful brilliant little black eyes fixed on Koscuisko’s face. Koscuisko made a gesture with his hands of either helplessness or confusion, and that seemed to clue Two in that she hadn’t made her point.
“You are clever, Andrej, you can see. There are four things that you can do, and one of them is to go to work for the very influential First Secretary — who wants you very badly — of the woman who will quite possibly be First Judge someday. You could make your practice in the border worlds, but there are people out there who might recognize you, and you are not much qualified for such a life of crime.”
So Two didn’t think that voluntary self-imposed exile was a viable option. “Of course you could also go to your home, and — what is the phrase — slide on the ice into fruit-butter, because your life has no more astringent seedlings. Is this the Standard? I am not sure I translate the idiom correctly.”
For himself Mendez was almost certain that she hadn’t, but her meaning was clear enough. Still, she’d said four things, and Koscuisko was waiting.
“Or there is only one other thing. I must come down to you for this so as to gauge my effect. It will be one moment.”
Walking across the ceiling like an impossibly large stalking insect, shifting her weight easily between her strong little feet and the steely three-fingered hands at the first joint of her great leathery wings. Reaching the ground with a final hop from her ladder on the wall. Crawling up onto the surface of the table beneath her anchor-perch, sweeping it clear of its litter of bits of document-cubes and the stray container of fruit that had been dropped onto it from the ceiling with a gesture of one wing as she settled herself once more.
“Because it will be a joke, and it is good to share humor with others, it helps one to remember not to harvest from them. The joke is about the shortage of replacements for our Andrej. It is a thin joke, because the shortage is very short.”
“No.” Koscuisko stared at her, his face full of blank horror and disbelief. Two stretched out her wings and put her tertiary flanges over Koscuisko’s shoulders where he sat; a curiously tender gesture, a Desmodontae embrace, of sorts.
“It is of course not funny, as a joke, but such is the way of things. And it could be that there would be a transfer away from here, since you would volunteer, and you would be more useful on an active-duty craft.”
Mendez decided that he didn’t want to look at Koscuisko, just at present. Inspecting his manicure instead, he found the point that Two was making all too obvious, even if written in a scant thumbnail’s space.
Koscuisko had put Fleet between himself and Secretary Verlaine, at the beginning.
Fleet had loaned him out only grudgingly over the years, because a good battle surgeon was almost as hard to find as people who could live with themselves as Inquisitors, if what Koscuisko’s life had come down to could be called living.
And now, just at the point when Koscuisko had thought that he was clear, just at the moment when Koscuisko had believed he could get away — Verlaine blocked his path.
And only Fleet could stand between Andrej Koscuisko and First Secretary Verlaine.
“What must I do?” The voice sounded more than half-strangled, but it was not Two’s voice, so it had to be Koscuisko. “First Officer?”
“You’ll be obliged to write a statement explaining why you changed your mind about renewing.” He still didn’t want to look at the man, because his sympathies were engaged. That annoyed him. Koscuisko was smarter than he was, richer than he was, better educated, even better dressed, within the constraints of uniform.
Koscuisko was also put to it more brutally than any bond-involuntary by this turn. Well, more brutally than any bond-involuntary on the Ragnarok since Koscuisko’s arrival, at any rate, Koscuisko being a little odd about his people.
Stildyne was going to need to know about this.
“Oh, holy Mother.”
Now that he had to look — now that the naked despair in Koscuisko’s strangled voice demanded attention — he couldn’t see, because Two had Koscuisko covered over with her wings, sheltered within a matte-black cocoon of rustling skin.
“I will never get away from here.”
A pause, and Koscuisko’s voice strengthened, leveled out. “Thank you, First Officer. I would . . . rather . . . even whore for Captain Lowden than for the man who should have known about the Domitt Prison.”
Stildyne needed to know because Stildyne wasn’t going to want to leave the Ragnarok with Koscuisko still on it. Stildyne needed to know because Koscuisko was clearly in desperate need of moral support, and Mendez was not in a position to provide it. Koscuisko was closer to his Security than anyone else on board of Ragnarok.
Though whether or not Stildyne himself had ever been admitted to that intimacy was something that Koscuisko and Stildyne were apparently still negotiating, and none of Mendez’s business either way.
“I’ll send Stildyne with the documentation, Andrej. Soonest. Two, send a stop order on the termination payments, tell Fleet Medical we’re processing a variance in lieu of replacement.”
Koscuisko would get a significant increase in pay for renewing his term. It probably wasn’t a good time to mention that. As if an increase in pay meant anything to a man like Koscuisko, who had once offered the Bench to buy his bond-involuntaries out — all nine of them, two hundred and fifty thousand Standard each.
Too bad, Mendez told himself, with fleeting regret.
Too bad he couldn’t just arrange to have the signing bonus and the longevity increase credited against his own pay records, as long as Koscuisko was not paying attention.
Unfolding her wings slowly, Two kept one delicate little claw on Koscuisko’s shoulder, either following him as he stood up or steadying him. Mendez couldn’t tell which.
“I will go back to my place, then, and wait.”
He’d best be started himself, and call for Stildyne.
He was almost certain that Captain Lowden would be too surprised to even gloat.
Garol Vogel pushed his duty cap up off of his forehead irritably, rubbing the little tuft of hair that was all that remained to cover the dome of his balding head. “One more seal on the dead-box, and Burkhayden will be out of our hands. That Lieutenant’s got a dirty reputation.”
Their quarters on the Lady Gechutrian were ornate and luxurious in proportion with their Bench status. It annoyed him, all the padding and carving. Jils came out of the washroom in her towel-wrap and sat down on one of the heavy wooden chairs to comb out her hair, cocking an eyebrow at him. “That whole ship. The Lieutenant’s small game. Problem?”
He had claimed the least padded chair as his from the moment they’d joined the Danzilar fleet. He tilted the chair back against the liquor cabinet, now, trying to ignore the clinking of bottles as he did so. Bottles. Glass, actual breakable silica-based crystal for drinking out of. Wooden furniture. Thick napped carpeting made out of animal hair, hand-loomed by virgins dedicate, for all he knew. These people had too much money for their own good, and they disgusted him deeply, in an abstract sort of way.
“No problem. No new problem.” It was an old problem. She was probably as bored with it as he was. “How’d it go on your end?”
Jils declined to look at him, working on a tangle. “He’s unstable. We knew that. But he’s not stupid, and Verlaine’s got him pretty much locked this time.”
“Listen. Jils.” That was another problem, though she didn’t know the extent of it yet. And he had to be careful. “Are you sure it’s all to the good of the Judicial order? Koscuisko, I mean. Uncharacteristically petty of Verlaine.”
They’d known each other too long for him to risk an overt deception. They understood each other too well. Intimately, if not sexually so, but as far as Garol was concerned once you’d been stuck with the same person in a burrow on Sillpogie for a week sex could only be a letdown.
Jils didn’t answer him immediately, concentrating on her plait. She was still getting used to having to deal with the traditional Arakcheek-style working-braid that she’d selected for propriety’s sake. Dolgorukij women of rank wore their hair long, so Jils had gone for a quick forced-patch before she’d reported. The more they looked like Dolgorukij the less notice would be taken of them; and that could be one of the most valuable weapons in the inventory. “Koscuisko’s got the juice, Garol, you know it. One of the few Inquisitors in the inventory you can count on when you have to get actual answers, and not trash.”
She wasn’t answering his question, but he couldn’t push it. He was unhappy about what he thought might be happening at Chilleau Judiciary, but he couldn’t really explain all of the details without compromising his Brief. If it was a Brief. If the Warrant he carried for the life of Andrej Koscuisko was a true Warrant. Things just didn’t add up. Or what they seemed to add up to was not an issue he was willing to face just yet.
“So he’s good.” An argument would cover any hesitation she might detect in his manner. “He should be rewarded, not punished for it. We should let him go home.”
Why would Chilleau Judiciary have issued a Warrant on Koscuisko’s life if the First Secretary was to have what he wanted from the man?
“Personal sacrifices are sometimes required in support of the greater good. You know that.” No, Jils wasn’t quite convinced, but she’d get stubborn if he pushed her.
“And if you think this has anything to do with the Judicial order instead of Verlaine’s pride you’re wrong.”
This was working to distract her — a bit too well. He was picking a fight, again. Why shouldn’t he? Wasn’t conflict just a part of that constant honing of wit and interplay that made Bench intelligence specialists so good at what they did? Yeah. Right.
“One way or the other.” Jils, being charitable, was ignoring his best attempts to be irritating. “We can’t afford to let a resource of that magnitude escape us, Garol.”
Resource his ass. But that was the problem, right there. Koscuisko had the potential to be a resource; and Koscuisko was unquestionably the inheriting son of a very influential family within a respectably powerful bloc in Sant-Dasidar Judiciary.
People like Andrej Koscuisko couldn’t be quietly assassinated without someone noticing; and there was the Malcontent — the secret service of the Aznir church, the slaves of St. Andrej Malcontent — to consider.
“Crazy people, she means. A man with his surgical qualifications, and all Lowden ever uses him for is taking people apart. There’s intelligence out on Lowden. You know it.”
She’d finished dressing, now, and threw his exercise uniform at him from across the room. “Crazy is as crazy does. Four years with Captain Lowden, and he’s still alive, and that’s more than can be said of the last three. Where there’s survival there’s got to be a species of sanity. Come on.”
It was a point, about Lowden. Unfortunately part of the point could as easily be that Koscuisko had opted to survive by forgetting that he’d ever wanted to be a doctor. “You got a mind-sifter on it that you haven’t told me about?”
“Garol — ”
Oh. He’d pushed too hard, then. Finally. He was in for it now, and only himself to blame. Yes, he knew that he and Jils trained well together, and that was eighty-seven parts of an intel spec’s survival in an uncertain world. The Danzilar prince was going to wonder about the bruises, even so.
“Okay. Okay. I’m coming. Don’t hurt me. I take back what I said about the mind-sifter, You’re a good psychotech. You don’t need a mind-sifter. I’m coming.”
Vogel knew how good Jils really was at what she did. His respect for her professional ability was deep and sincere, and she had saved his life — not to speak of what he laughingly referred to as his career — on more than one occasion. So he didn’t really want to push her too far on this.
And the last thing he wanted to do to a friend was bring her in on a bad Warrant, if bad it turned out to be.