When the sun came up in port Ghan the city started to stir, the hem-fringes of the docks first, where the poorest people lived. The warehouses were secure. But the loading equipment and the stacked pallets were not always watched as carefully, and there were almost always bargains to be had where produce was off-loaded — fruit and vegetables that would not survive the handling between the docks and the markets in the outreaches of the port, the green and gracious suburbs where the wealthier people lived beyond the towering sound-walls that shut away most of the noise and stink of an active launch-field. Ghan was in a desert; that was why the launch-fields were there, built first and foremost in the early days where the ground was already flat and hard and packed down solid by the years of sun and heat so that the job of thermal hardening had been half-done already.
Out in ever-widening circles from the launch-fields the residence areas and the business districts went, more expensive in relation to how far they were from the launch-field. There were good livings to be had in Ghan, though, even near the docks — the inverse relationship between proximity and price could work in a family’s favor, and the important thing was to save enough money to be able to send the children into the mountains in the summer where they could play in the green woods and the clear water.
Little things like siphoning off excess fuel-vapors that might otherwise be wasted helped to save money and the green woods at one and the same time, because excess fuel vapors were no better for the health of lakes and streams in the far hills than they were for the people who serviced the transport craft deep in the heart of the city.
It was not time to send the children into the mountains. It was still early in the spring, and it was cold at night. People turned on their heating when they got up to warm their houses while they roused the children and made mid-meals to be carried to the workplace to save the cost of buying expensive tidbits from the street-carts. The municipal utilities were no less ready to take advantage of a savings than the people that they served, and there were places where fuel-scrubbers had been tucked away ready and waiting to take in heavier-than-air vapors from the launch-fields that could be denatured and rendered harmless for heating. Everybody knew that. Nobody cared. But everybody knew.
There was no way in which the introduction of the poison into the fuel-mains could have been accidental.
When the sun came up in port Ghan that morning people rose and went to wash and cook their meals, turning on the fuel-vents, opening up the feeder-lines into their furnaces, starting up their stoves. Port Ghan ran on liligas because it was cheap and plentiful, environmentally friendly, easy to use and safe. The chemical marker that had been added to the fuel so that people would be able to smell a leak before it could get dangerous was more than enough to cover the subtle perfume of the poison in the lines.
It had been carefully planned, carefully done, and still luck played a part. It had been colder than usual; almost everybody turned on their heat, when they got up. And it was a rest-day, so the city’s custodians weren’t expecting a morning rush, and were inclined at first to chalk up the failure of the morning shift to come to duty as a worse-than-usual instance of excess celebrations the night before.
When supervisors tried to contact their crews, no-one answered at their homes. When people went to look for their reliefs they didn’t return, but they didn’t call in, either, so there was at first no panic — no understanding that an atrocity was in progress.
The civic shelters were warmed at night and in the morning as though they had been someone’s home, and the floating indigent population of the city could be counted on to come out into the streets even on holidays to make their ways to the day-labor shops and the places where they could find a free meal. But the only people who were on the street that morning as the sun rose had been on the street all night.
Nobody came away from the municipal shelters. Nobody came away at all. Only the people who had already accepted that they were going to be cold, that they were not going to be able to warm themselves in any way, only those people survived the morning.
By the time enough of the poison had escaped to set off the alarms in the streets there were more than three thousand dead, women, children, men, and two thousand more who died in the horrible two days that followed, between the poison and the panic and the rioting.
No final tally was ever agreed upon. The rioting spread across the planet, and then across the system. Fleet did not have the resources to contain the panic because Fleet was already trying to contain civil unrest in too many other areas, and there was only so much the Jurisdiction Fleet could do, in the absence of a strong central authority. The First Judge was dead. It had been a year, and there was no new First Judge. The Bench was rudderless.
Port Ghan, however, was at peace. It was the peace of the dead, but it was unquestionably the quietest place on the entire world, an open tomb; it was its own memorial. No single culprit was ever identified, and after so many dead it ceased to really matter. Whoever had done it gained no advantage from the crime, because the killing that erupted in reaction to the massacre harvested across all of Ghan’s populations equally.
The true horror of what had happened at Port Ghan was not the thousands dead, and the hundreds or thousands more who died in the months that followed.
The horror of Port Ghan was that it was just another incident, just another symptom of the uncertainty that plagued all of Jurisdiction Space in the absence of a First Judge to lay down the rule of Law and to enforce it.
Andrej Koscuisko, chief medical officer on board of the Jurisdiction Fleet Ship Ragnarok, sat at his desk in his office doing his best to concentrate on the controversy over whether an increased incidence of a peculiar skin rash meant that there was a mutant fungus on board, or simply that they were brewing with mother-of-grain in Engineering, or both.
When the talk-alert sounded he did not answer right away. He wasn’t sure how to face what it might bring; and yet he had brought it on himself. Staff would expect him to answer promptly, however, unless he were in the washroom or possibly passed out drunk, which had not happened on duty for simply months now.
“Koscuisko, here.” Therefore in order to cover his tracks as completely as possible it was necessary to respond. There were four procedures yet to accomplish, somehow. Would he be detected? If only he could ward off accusation for long enough it would not matter.
“Robert says Lek’s up, sir.” That was one of his surgical crew leaders. She didn’t sound as though she were suspicious; Andrej took a deep breath, careful to exhale as quietly as possible. “‘Respectfully requests an audience with the officer at his convenience,’ I think it was. Are you available, your Excellency?”
Senior officers didn’t usually come when they were called, especially not when called by bond-involuntaries, who had no rank to speak of. No status, either. Well, they had status, but it was as property.
“I am coming directly. Thank you, Jahan.” At the same time he had performed the procedure himself, and people were accustomed to the display of a possessive instinct on his part where Security were concerned. The Bench had created them to serve a Ship’s Inquisitor, after all. What was more reasonable than that he should think of them as his?
He tried not to hurry as he left his office for sterile quarantine, where patients were sent to recover from procedures that tapped a spine or crossed the blood-brain barrier. Telbut brain-slug was something that could happen to anybody, and among persons inhabiting worlds within the trading entity known as the Dolgorukij Combine it was more rather than less likely to turn up in Sarvaw because of the poverty of the world and their general suspicion of authority, doctors, teachers, law enforcement officers. It kept them from seeking periodic care as freely as they should.
He could see Fantin coming from the other direction with her tray of doses in her hand, and he quickened his pace a bit as he approached the enclosed bay in which his patient lay waiting. He dared not risk so much on Lek’s self-control, not so soon.
“What is this?” he asked Fantin, cordially standing in front of the door. “Oh, good. I am just going in, will you trust me to see the doses put through?”
She looked up at him a little startled, apparently, and for one moment Andrej wondered whether he had gone too far. The moment passed, however; she smiled and surrendered the doses with a clear eye and a serene countenance. “Of course, sir,” she said, in that familiar “we-know-how-you-worry” tone of voice. “If you’d just post to the log, though, so we know how he’s doing. Ugh.”
“You are very kind,” he assured her, with genuine gratitude. “I will unfailingly perform this duty.” Yes, brain-slugs were moderately disgusting, in theory. That didn’t matter. All that mattered was that in order to extract the sexually mature symbiot before it multiplied, a man had to lie on his belly and let the surgeon send a probe up through the place in his skull where his spine descended, and lure the greedy thing out of the brain in pursuit of a supposed mate.
Fantin went away about her business without any apparent second thoughts. Andrej collected himself; then turned, and opened up the door. Robert was there. Robert did not look happy. Had something gone wrong? They would have called him. They couldn’t not have called him. They weren’t supposed to know what he had drawn out of Lek Kerenko’s skull, instead of a non-existent brain-slug.
Lek pushed away from the cradle-chair in which he had been laid to rest six hours ago, after the procedure; pushed himself up and away with such violence that Robert was hard pressed to restrain him, even though Robert had the advantage of leverage, since Robert was already standing.
For a moment Andrej was afraid that Lek would say something incautious. “This troop respectfully wishes the officer good-greeting,” Lek said; he should have known better, Andrej told himself, than to fear that Lek would abandon his self-discipline. On the one hand, whether or not Lek knew what Andrej had done to him, he was still the product of careful training and years of experience in living with a governor in his brain to see to it that he followed orders.
On the other hand, Lek also knew that to speak to his officer of assignment — which was to say, Andrej himself — with such elaborate formality carried an unspoken message that did not need to be translated. With respect, your Excellency, I could perhaps be more angry at you than I am right now, but I’m not sure how.
“Do not be annoyed with me, Lek.” Andrej set a humorous and affectionate tone to his voice, so that nobody who chanced to overhear would wonder if something were genuinely wrong. “I think no less of you for having one. Many decent people in this life have found themselves infected, and through no fault of their own.”
It was too soon to be talking to Lek; he was overwhelmed by his realization, and still somewhat befuddled by the meds Andrej had used. “But it’s been part of my life for so long.” Lek was doing his best to keep his own tone of voice light, but Andrej could read his tension from a fair distance and more clearly as he came nearer. “How am I ever going to learn to live without it? Always there. And it’ll come back, sooner or later, I know it will.”
Andrej had been unable to discuss any of this with Lek beforehand, and he dared not risk any very frank language now. There was a good chance he could get away with Lek, at least for now. How he was going to take care of Godsalt, Pyotr, Garrity, and Hirsel he did not know.
“Well, that’s up to you,” Andrej said sternly. “Stay out of insalubrious environments. Clean living, friend Lek. If you don’t want to have a brain slug pulled out of your head again all you really have to do is stay away from places where there are such things, and that can’t be too difficult, can it?”
There were governors to be had in major administrative centers throughout Jurisdiction space. How was Lek to avoid them? By getting out of Jurisdiction space, of course. Simple.
Of course it wasn’t all so easy as that. Lek knew it; Andrej could tell. He desperately needed to be able to talk to Lek some place where there would be no danger of being overheard; but there was only one such place on board the Ragnarok, and he was not about to take Lek to Secured Medical.
For one, he meant to never enter the torturer’s chamber in which he had exercised his Writ to Inquire ever again. For another, the Captain could over-ride even there, and people would be curious. The temptation to see what could bring Andrej Koscuisko to Secured Medical, especially with one of his bond-involuntaries, would be too much to expect anyone to withstand.
“Now. Robert will sit with you, and keep you company. It is a minor procedure, but there is no taking chances with brains, and I mean you to stay quiet and rest. My cousin Stanoczk will be joining the ship at any hour, and you must conserve your energies for the inevitable excitement.”
Lek Kerenko was Sarvaw. He knew that Andrej’s cousin was a Malcontent — an agent of the secret service of the Dolgorukij church, a slave of the Saint and typically up to all sorts of mischief. Andrej had some very particular mischief in mind, and Stoshi was coming to tell him whether the freighter would be waiting at Emandis Station to take Lek and Robert and the others far, far away from places where people could be placed under governor for crimes against the Judicial order.
What if Stoshi should fail him?
Stoshi would not fail. Andrej was the inheriting son of his father, the Koscuisko prince, the single man who could direct the resources of the entire Koscuisko familial corporation. More than that, Andrej was the father of an acknowledged inheriting son of his own, and while a line of inheritance could be directed away from a man with no sons it had almost never failed to accord with tradition in cases where there was already an heir’s heir in training.
If he had been killed before he had made Marana his wife, and their son his heir, the position of inheriting son might have devolved upon Iosev — the next oldest of their father’s sons. Andrej wondered what Iosev’s son felt about that.
He was brooding, and he had no business doing so. With a cordial nod to Lek — who sat there watching as though to read his mind by main force of will — Andrej shifted his weight, ready to turn and go. The gesture seemed to provoke Lek beyond all hope of self-discipline; Lek was on his feet and face-to-face with Andrej before Andrej had had time to realize that the sound of falling objects that he heard was Robert, knocked backwards by the impact of Lek’s swift lunge.
Lek didn’t speak. Instead he reached for Andrej’s hand and grasped it in his two hands, trembling. “No, don’t leave me here with Robert,” Lek said, with a tremor in his voice that matched the shaking of his shoulders. “Please. Sir. He’ll want to sing. I’ve done nothing to deserve it.”
It was very forward of Lek to touch him, let alone restrain him in any manner. Lek’s fingers moved against the backs of Andrej’s own, but not because Lek was overcome with emotion. Finger-code. Andrej did not read finger-code very well, but Lek used small words, easy to understand. All of us?
“And yet that is my firm determination, Lek, and you may as well resign yourself to it.” He meant to steal all of them. “Perhaps you will be the first to hear the saga with which he has so often threatened us. What is it, Robert? That of the exceptionally wayward flock, and the male animal of unusual endowment?”
But you’re the first one. Andrej hoped Lek could find the meaning in his words, because he himself was not much good at finger-code.
“I’m insulted,” Robert grumbled, picking himself up off the floor. “My tender feelings are cruelly bruised, your Excellency. Just for that I’m going to wait. Some day. When we’re all together. Then I’ll have a tale to tell.”
“Later, then, Robert,” Andrej agreed.
This is too much, Lek said, finger to flesh, Andrej’s hand held in his own. Can’t believe it. Why?
“Perhaps once we have reached Emandis Station, and you are all to come with me to visit Joslire’s grave-place.” Where they would be, temporarily, not under threat of random surveillance, in a burial yard. A funeral orchard. Whatever. “Then we will all have cause to mourn together, and his spirit will be appeased.”
Joslire had preferred to die and be free of his governor than live as a Security slave. Even when Andrej had told him that there was an official petition to free him and the others whose quick action had saved the Scylla from sabotage, even then Joslire had been fixed in his mind on freedom and had embraced his own death with joy.
Whether Joslire would have approved of what Andrej was doing Andrej was not sure; it was theft, after all, in a way. But Joslire had been dead for more than six years, and was therefore unlikely to interfere in any material fashion.
Lek nodded. We’ll talk about it when we can. Very well, sir. The fury had gone out of him; face to face with the enormity of what Andrej had done to him Lek staggered, and fell back against Robert who stood ready there to steady him. “Holy Mother,” Lek said, in a voice whose sincerity resounded clear and pure and true. “Begging the officer’s pardon, your Excellency. My head. Herds of — herds — trampling — ”
It was not the surgery itself that was giving Lek a headache. It was the realization that the grim enforcer with which he had lived in intimate contact for years was gone. Robert passed him a dose over Lek’s shoulder, and Andrej put it through.
“Rest and be still,” Andrej ordered Lek. “I will be by to check on you again later.”
Lek nodded, clearly beginning to feel the action of the drug. Robert took charge, herding Lek over to the cradle-chair to lie down as he had been ordered. Andrej left Lek in Robert’s capable hands — hoping with great fervency that Robert would not attempt to sing — and let himself out of the room to go and see whether the Ragnarok had dropped vector at Connaught, where Stoshi was to meet them with letters from home and word on the progress of a plan to steal the Bench’s property.
The room was dark, the air warm and still. When her talk-alert went off Vaal woke with a start that shook her whole body, and she slapped at the respond with vehement force.
“What do you want?”
Her lights came up in response to her activity. Yes. Same room. Nothing had changed. She was still at the Connaught Vector Authority. None of the problems with which she had been wrestling had gone away, and the only thing that an emergency call during her sleep-shift could possibly mean were more problems, even juicier ones than she had already. A five-ship civil mercantile fleet outbound for Emandisan space, but Fleet wanted everybody stopped and searched and interrogated over any irregularities, and something horrible had happened in Port Ghan. She didn’t have facilities for interrogation. She was going to have to call on Fleet.
Jalmers was on the duty boards; he sounded nervous, very nervous. “Sorry to intrude, ma’am. Ship off vector not responding to hail.”
Ridiculous. “So web it out and wait, or what aren’t you telling me?” Standard procedure. Ships came off vector without responding to hail, you locked their navs with a seizer. Few ships were willing to hit a vector with their navs off-line, especially the Connaught vector, which was a little less tolerant than most.
“Um. Shielded navs, ma’am. Respectfully suggest the situation requires your presence.”
Shielded navs? Well, there were other ways to stop a ship. Technically speaking shielded navs were slightly illegal, though nobody worried too much about little things like that with all of Jurisdiction in an uproar over the still-undecided issue of who was to be the next First Judge. If she’d been a terrorist, though, fleeing from an attack on the great granaries in the Narim asteroid belt or the water treatment facilities at Lucis, she would certainly be tempted to shield her navs so that tracing her to the scene of the crime would be more difficult. That commercial fleet they’d stopped earlier today had had respectfully naked navs, but it would do them no good when the Fleet sent an Inquisitor to find out the truth about who they were and where they were going. Vaal sighed.
“Takame eight. Away, here.” By the marks on the chrono she’d just barely gotten to sleep, too. She was having a bad day. A bad year. All of Jurisdiction was having a bad year. But she was the one who was going to have to place those people in the hands of professional torturers.
She pulled her boots back on — cold and clammy from the shift’s sweat — and went out of her small room in quarters into the narrow hallways of the station. Vector Control was an administrative station, small, out of the way, of little interest to anybody. Vaal had enough armed escort craft to control five more ships, but that was about the limit of her power. Fleet had planned to expand the Connaught Vector Authority — there was a station under development near the vector, residential facilities, recreation, schools, a clinic — but plans for the future of the station were on hold. There was no First Judge. There was no unified central authority. People still paid their taxes and Fleet still regulated trade, but it was not the time to call for any special levies that might not be supported. That was just asking for trouble.
When she reached her command station she found her crew tense, white-faced, and unhappy; and as she moved toward her seat — looking to the main screens at a visual of the problem — she could understand why. “Give me hailing,” she said, hoping that the hails were not already open because it was so embarrassing when that happened. “Unidentified ship. I can see that you’re a cruiser-killer. Please respond.”
It was huge, onscreen. It was huge in actual fact, Vaal knew that. She’d toured a cruiser-killer class battlewagon as a part of her orientation, only three years ago. Battlewagons were serious business. She hated the idea of getting in one’s way, and yet she had no choice. If her duty required her to stop that mercantile fleet outbound for Emandis space, it certainly required her to confront any resource of this size trying to use the vector for which she was responsible without so much as logging its idents.
“Look — ” somebody whispered, loudly enough for Vaal to overhear. The belly of the ship on screen was still hulled over from its vector transit. The panels that covered the maintenance atmosphere — the great glossy expanse of the carapace above — weren’t really black, technically speaking, but it was black hull technology.
It had been all over the research braids, when she’d been a child. Black hull technology, the enlightened investment of the First Judge at Fontailloe, the enormous outlay required to integrate a new propulsion and navigation and communication paradigm onto the only test bed that could truly test its promise, a Jurisdiction Fleet Ship of the top class deployed but never commissioned. Jurisdiction Fleet Ship Ragnarok.
There was a clear-tone, and an answering feed came through. It was not reassuring. “You’re mistaken,” the comm said. It was a man’s voice, calm, even soothing. “You don’t see anything of the sort. Why? Because we’re invisible, that’s why. And everybody will be much better off if it’s left that way.”
The on-screen cleared. Vaal knew that the man was an Engineer, because he was on the Engineering bridge — which she recognized from her orientation. She knew he was Chigan by his height and the calm serenity of his expression. And she knew he was Serge of Wheatfields because that was the name of the Ragnarok’s Ship’s Engineer. Vaal fought the temptation to close her eyes in pain. She didn’t want to be here. She didn’t want to do this. She didn’t want to try to tell a senior Fleet officer that he was blowing smoke, and especially she didn’t want to have anything to do with the Ragnarok, because where the Ragnarok went, trouble followed.
“I have an assigned duty to see you.” The on-screen Engineer relaxed back in his seat with an expression of amused pity on his face. She had to go on, regardless. “And to survey your whereabouts over the past eighty shifts, by executive order. You will unshield your navs, please, your Excellency.”
Now her people were staring at her as though she had taken leave of her senses. It was a Fleet ship. She could see that it was a Fleet ship. She would never dare challenge a Fleet ship, but without verification and validation orders, did she know it was really what it appeared to be?
“Not likely,” the Ragnarok’s engineer said. “I’d suggest you take our word for it. Or not. Since we’re invisible. We’ll be a few days to make a rendezvous at Connaught Yards and then we’ll be out of your way. Nobody wants any trouble, needless to say.”
She was supposed to stop ships that would not verify. She was supposed to close the vector and send an emergency call to Fleet. How could she send an emergency call to Fleet over a Fleet ship? She could close the vector by activating its defensive fortifications. Jurisdiction Fleet Audit Appeals Authority had tried to stop the Ragnarok with a mine field at Taisheki Station, a year ago. It hadn’t worked. Taisheki had only lost its mine field, and those things were expensive.
“Reluctantly unable to authorize docking and use of facilities.” What she could do? The Ragnarok could still get what it wanted at Connaught, though — whatever it wanted. If it couldn’t dock it could board. There was a Security force at Connaught Yards but it was not a big one.
If she went into lock-down, the Ragnarok would have to blow the yards to pieces to get at supply, and who was to say that the Ragnarok wouldn’t do just that? Rumor had it that the Ragnarok had mutinied. Or not. Rumor failed to agree, and there was no official Bench position on the issue because without a First Judge the Bench was not in order.
The engineer on screen sighed, and shook his head. “I hoped it wouldn’t come to this,” he said. “But I’m going to have to tell my Captain on you. How long have you been at Connaught Station? Not counting tomorrow?”
There wasn’t room for the Ragnarok at Connaught Station. She didn’t have facilities. She had five merchant ships on impound, there, harmless traders by every indication, waiting for Fleet to send an Inquisitor to find out who they were and where they were going. They said they’d come from Wahken, but that had to be by way of Ghan, and there had been murder done there, and atrocity. She could not release those ships without legal verification of their route and identities. She had an idea. “With respect, your Excellency.”
He had been about to cut his transmission and stand up, by the looks of things; he let his weight back down with an expression of mild surprise on his face that he kept politely clear of any petty gratification. No. She couldn’t let him go to his Captain. She didn’t know what she would do if she was faced with the acting Captain of a possibly mutinous ship attempting to give her a legal order. She would have to call for Fleet convoy. That was expensive and would probably not arrive until after the Ragnarok had gone wherever it was going and would only annoy everybody.
“Let me explain.”
The Ragnarok had more notoriety than just that gained by the rash actions of a brevet Captain. Before Jennet ap Rhiannon the Ragnarok had been commanded by Griers Verigson Lowden, a thoroughly unpleasant man with thoroughly unpleasant manners. Lowden had in turn commanded the Ragnarok’s Inquisitor, and the Ragnarok’s Inquisitor was just the man she wanted for the job — if his services could be had.
“I’m holding ships in quarantine. I can’t release them without official clearance. There’s someone on board of your ship who could help.”
Andrej Koscuisko, the Ragnarok’s Chief Medical Officer — ship’s surgeon, Ship’s Inquisitor. There was not a more fearful name in the entire inventory, but there was something about Koscuisko, about his reputation. One of those ships had come from Rudistal. Koscuisko had history there. It could work.
Maybe she was going to be able to get those people away from here before Fleet sent Inquisitors, after all.
Dierryk Rukota was an artilleryman, on board the Ragnarok by accident — more or less — but remaining of his own free will. They’d tried to get rid of him; they’d tried to get rid of Koscuisko, come to that, once Koscuisko had returned to his ship from home leave in a hurry with an explosive piece of evidence in his possession.
Koscuisko had stubbornly declined to go, even when the ship’s status had trended slowly and almost irreversibly from unhappy to mutinous. He had more to lose than anyone on board, at least in material terms. As for Rukota he had nothing to fear for his family, and little to lose that he had not already given away for the sake of his duty and his honor.
The First Secretary with whom his spectacularly beautiful wife had so intimate an understanding had not been Sindha Verlaine and was consequently not dead, but still fully capable of protecting both dear friend and her children.
Rukota’s career had been all but over when he’d arrived here, the victim of one too many self-inflicted wounds. What future he might have been able to salvage in Fleet had disappeared the moment he had decided not to accompany the rest of Admiral Sandri Brecinn’s corrupt audit team back to Taisheki Station.
There was therefore no reason why he should not remain on the Ragnarok, unlike Koscuisko who had property and position and who was worried about his new-made wife and his son. The truth of the matter, however, the real reason Rukota stayed, was simpler even than that; he was having fun. He was having more fun than he could remember having for a long, long time.
This ship had a humorless crèche-bred maniac for a captain, a First Officer with no sense of political expediency, a chief medical officer widely understood to be a flaming psychotic, and an Engineer with a disconcerting but honestly-earned reputation for making pretzels out of Fleet bureaucrats who looked cross-wise at him; the Intelligence officer was a bat. A girl bat.
An old bat, he had been given to understand, but one whose personality was so cheerfully idiosyncratic that after these few months on board Rukota was beginning to forget that he had always been uncomfortable around Desmodontae. It was nothing personal. Something to do with the gleaming canine teeth in the smiling black muzzle and the fact that Desmodontae in their native system farmed hominids for cattle.
He had no business being here. This was a Jurisdiction battle-wagon, a cruiser-killer class warship; he was an artilleryman. His expertise was in artillery platforms and mine fields and even old-fashioned terrestrial field pieces, because sometimes there was just no substitute for a good old-fashioned siege piece. Or two. Or three. But the Ragnarok was short of Command Branch officers, and he was one; the ship had never been armed, it was an experimental test bed, so they needed him to talk about cannon. The main battle cannon. Was a ship of war all of that different from an artiplat? It moved a great deal more than an artiplat in geosync was supposed to do, but Rukota wasn’t sure that really made much difference, for his purposes.
He’d been ap Rhiannon’s commanding officer once upon a time, and had been marked for life, not to say traumatized, accordingly. Now she was the brevet captain of the Ragnarok by default — the most senior of the total of two Command Branch officers left assigned — and that made her the boss. That didn’t bother Rukota. He could still pull rank if he had to, within the context of military courtesy of course, but so long as she didn’t try to take him to bed he foresaw no problem.
He spent most of his time with Engineering and Security working on the ship’s manifest. Infirmary — the generic term covered all of the Ragnarok’s medical facilities — was less familiar to him; but he knew how to interpret the quickly smoothed-over frowns, the quick glimpses of boots and smocks’ tails disappearing around corners. The staff was unhappy. They knew why he was coming — and they meant to be sure that Koscuisko was forewarned, or he missed his guess.
It cheered Rukota enormously to be conspired against, in this manner. In the increasingly ugly, competitive, each-for-his-own world of Fleet, a unit that remembered how to come together was as good as a cold drink on a hot day: refreshing.
Turning a corner — he’d made sure to get a schematic from Intelligence, he knew where he was going — Rukota heard footsteps behind him, but declined to rise to the bait and turn around. Someone had been detailed to slow him down and divert him, so much was clear. Now, who would it be, and what kind of story would they try to sell him?
Whoever it was behind him broke into a sort of a jog-trot to close the distance. Rukota knew that signal: Security. That was a Security pace, suitable for situations where one wished to move quickly but not so quickly that anyone got left behind an obstacle. His first real acquaintance on board the Ragnarok, if it could be so described, had been made with Koscuisko’s bond-involuntary Security, the ones Koscuisko had meant to take home with him on leave and been obliged to leave behind at the last minute. That substitution had turned out to be fortunate, and the saving of several lives at least.
“Good-greeting, General Rukota,” the Security troop said, slowing to a respectfully matched pace half-a-step behind Rukota and to his left. He was right-hand dominant; most hominids were. Koscuisko was left-handed, and it was only one of the many perverse things about the man, but that was not the troop’s fault. Robert St. Clare. Nurail. There’d been a problem with St. Clare’s governor at Port Burkhayden, Rukota understood; his governor had died on him, and St. Clare had been lucky that he hadn’t died with it.
“And you, Robert. Are you here on fifthweek?”
Everybody on the Ragnarok did fifthweek, a periodic rotation from their normal assigned duty station to somewhere different. Bond-involuntaries could only do their fifthweek in Infirmary, though, because they needed specific medical skills to support their officer — and to keep them close to their officer, as well, for their mutual protection.
St. Clare was not wearing Infirmary whites, however, but his Security colors. St. Clare didn’t blush, no, he answered Rukota candid and open-faced as any man, and Rukota’s sense of respect — and amusement — only grew.
“Sent to fetch his Excellency for laps, if the General please.” It was an inside joke, Rukota had gathered, Security Chief Stildyne, and Koscuisko, and laps. “The officer saw Ship’s Engineer on the tracks the other day and has refused to return. This troop is to tell the officer that a Security detachment will be standing by to prevent any accidental mechanical, ah, accidents.”
There was no real need for St. Clare to choose his words carefully so as to avoid falling into error; there was no governor there to punish him, but bond-involuntaries were carefully trained, thoroughly conditioned. Maybe it didn’t really even matter that the governor was gone. It took months of adjustment to prepare the occasional man who survived his sentence to be returned to normal life, after all.
Rukota stopped, and held up his hand. “Let’s just pause for a moment,” he suggested. “And I’ll predict the future. We’ll get around the corner, but at some point between the next turning and the one after that you’ll lose your footing and knock into me. It’ll be an accident, of course, and you’ll be horrified, and I’ll quite naturally take appropriate pains to assure you that there has been no violation.”
Operant conditioning didn’t require unfailing negative reinforcement. So long as the negative reinforcement was negative enough it didn’t really matter whether it was there every time. The strength and persistence of the conditioned behavior depended on the intensity of the stimulus that either rewarded or punished it, and if there was anything that could do a better job of negative reinforcement than an artificial intelligence with direct linkages into pain receptors in a man’s brain, Rukota didn’t know what it was.
“If I don’t take long enough to do that, you’ll suddenly realize that you’ve wrenched your ankle, but very oddly there won’t be a soul in corridors, not even though we’re between Pharmacy Restock and Issues, which by the breadth of these corridors is generally well-traveled. And it’s all so unnecessary. I don’t want to ambush your officer. I do have to pass on a message to him.”
If he was wrong he might have just done an unkind thing, the sort of thing he himself had never tolerated — bullying a bond-involuntary troop, pressuring them until the stress convinced the governor that something was wrong and punishment was in order. He waited; then he turned his head. St. Clare was looking straight ahead, and the only part of his face that was smiling was such a minute number of muscles in his eyelids that he couldn’t be accused of smiling at all by any reasonable soul. But he was smiling. For a bond-involuntary it was as good as a broad grin.
“With respect, General. This troop regrets having no idea what the officer means to imply, due to this troop’s limited understanding and inability to grasp advanced concepts of cause and effect. Had considered attempting to lock the officer in a stores-room, but not the officer’s suggestion. Request permission to offer thanks. This troop appreciates the opportunity to benefit from superior wisdom and understanding of tactics and strategy. Sir.”
Oh, very good. “What’s the plan, then? Do I hunt him through Infirmary, or lay in wait outside of quarters?” Rukota started moving again, confident that he and St. Clare understood each other. He might still get knocked to the floor or locked in a stores-room, but at least he and St. Clare were clear on whether or not it would be an accident. It was a pity, in a sense. It might have been worth being locked in stores to hear what story St. Clare could possibly have come up with to cover.
“His Excellency is usually in his office at this point in shift, if the officer please,” St. Clare said blandly, as coolly as could be imagined. “Which is why this troop was sent to fetch him from there for laps. If the officer will follow me.”
It was with a sinking feeling in his gut of having been played for a fool, and richly deserving it, that Rukota followed St. Clare the rest of the way through Infirmary to Koscuisko’s office. In which Koscuisko sat, as calmly as could be imagined, apparently hard at work on clinic reports — but in Infirmary whites, rather than his duty blacks. Medical officers didn’t wear Infirmary whites unless they were actually in Infirmary. For a moment Rukota thought he remembered a whisper of a recent rumor about Koscuisko and bond-involuntaries, but it was gone before he could grasp it.
One way or another, he’d been out-maneuvered, for whatever reason. There was no shame in that. It was just too bad that such successful strategic misdirection could be done by bond-involuntary troops and not fifteen out of sixteen of the junior officers that Rukota had been privileged to know — though perhaps ap Rhiannon herself might be admitted as belonging to the one out of sixteen category.
“Your Excellency,” Rukota said. He was senior in rank on the face of it, but he was not the senior Command Branch officer on board. That was ap Rhiannon, by default. And therefore, in the hierarchy of military courtesy, he was to address Koscuisko respectfully by title, whereas Koscuisko was free to address him by rank. Which was respectful enough. “The Captain expects you on the courier launch apron in order to brief you prior to your immediate departure for Connaught Station. There is a call on your professional services.”
Of which fact Koscuisko had clearly already been apprised, even if the Captain wished to respect his dignity — and ensure that her instructions were perfectly clear — by sending Rukota to communicate the information to him personally, face-to-face. Koscuisko stood up. “Has Stildyne been told?” Koscuisko asked, but Rukota was certain that it was just for form’s sake. “I shall need my kit.”
Koscuisko knew that someone wanted information, but Koscuisko was annoyed, not worried. Ap Rhiannon had been very clear on what she expected from him as far as Inquiry was concerned, and Secured Medical had been converted into storage space for some time.
“I’ve no doubt that Chief Stildyne will be meeting you on the docks, your Excellency. Perhaps you should take Robert with you, as well.” Because an Inquisitor was accompanied by bond-involuntaries any time he left the ship — both for his own protection and because the only reason an Inquisitor left his ship unless he was on leave was in order to execute the Protocols against an accused, and the Bench had made bond-involuntaries specifically to give Inquisitors captive hands with which to do the dirty work.
Rukota wondered suddenly whether Koscuisko’s man Pyotr would be allowed to travel; he remembered the whisper, now. There had been a rumor about bond-involuntaries. One of them had been suddenly diagnosed with a brain-slug, and another almost as suddenly came down with a moderately rare case of crystallization of matter in the limbic system or something of the sort. It was none of his business, however.
“We’d best not keep the Captain waiting, Robert,” Koscuisko said, sorting his documents-cubes into a tidy array and standing up. “Let us be going directly. Thank you, General.”
Speculation and rumor were just that. Where there was a dust cloud, there was a dust cloud; no more, no less. Surrendering any residual curiosity to the basic good sense of minding his own business Rukota went whistling down the narrow corridors of the Ragnarok to go see the Ship’s Engineer and review the requirements for the Ragnarok’s battle cannon.
“This then is the officer in charge at the Connaught vector control,” Andrej Koscuisko said, with his arms folded across his chest and one hand wrapped around his elbow to keep a firm grip on his upper arm. To prevent himself from hitting her absent-mindedly, Vaal thought; but did her best to keep her military bearing. Of course she was afraid of him. That was Andrej Koscuisko, and everybody knew that he was either completely out of his mind or ought to be. “Tell to me again what service you mean me to perform for you.”
Her people had gotten her up altogether too early into her rest-period, and after that things had gone very quickly. She was supposed to be asleep, not standing in her office face-to-face with a notorious painmaster. A professional torturer. The opportunity that Koscuisko’s presence suggested could not be wasted, no matter how much it upset her to be talking to a man with his history.
“Thank you for coming, your Excellency.” It hadn’t been his sleep-shift. No, he looked fresh and rested, and the beautifully tailored curve of the black fabric of his over-blouse seemed to breathe a clean bright fragrance of citrus and snow. That was nonsense, it had to be. Snow didn’t have any fragrance. It was just fluffy ice. “We have orders pertinent to the terrorist attack at Ghan that require us to stop any specified traffic through the vector that doesn’t have a valid audit stamp.”
Ghan was different from other recent mass casualties. Someone had gone to great lengths to maximize murder, and there seemed to be no sense to it, but was there ever any sense to terrorist activity? The fuel pipes could have been poisoned at any time over a period of days, with the right time-release, and up until the morning on which the port had died traffic had been leaving Ghan on the usual closely timed schedule of a busy mercantile port. There had been a lot of traffic, and the records were for the most part unrecoverable, destroyed in the fires that panicked rioters had set.
“And you have to feed them until Fleet can spare an Inquisitor,” Koscuisko added. His tone was not very cordial. Officers at his level of rank didn’t have to be cordial, unless it was to their own senior officers. Few people under Jurisdiction outranked a Ship’s Inquisitor.
Andrej Koscuisko was more than just a Ship’s Inquisitor. Andrej Koscuisko was widely reputed to have the truth-sense on him. Whether there were such a thing as truth-sense or not Vaal neither knew nor cared. He was a professional uncoverer of secrets. He would know if she was keeping any.
“When you’re a maintenance technician everything looks like a salvage job, your Excellency.” When you were an officer who dealt with sabotage and treason, everything looked like the one thing or the other. Inquisitors saw everybody as guilty, in part because once an Inquisitor was called in everybody either confessed or died. Usually one, and then the other. By a quick flash in Koscuisko’s very pale eyes Vaal deduced that he had taken her meaning; she hurried on while she still had the nerve.
“Five of the ships we’re holding are from Port Rudistal outbound for Emandis space, your Excellency. The story is that they are to establish a mining colony on one of the slow-moons in system.” The truth was that they meant to take the vector through Emandis to Gonebeyond space, and escape from Jurisdiction entirely. That had been her conclusion, at any rate. “If you could just verify their story, sir. We could let them go on about their business.”
She had to feed them, yes. That was so. She had a legitimate reason for wanting them out of here as soon as possible. Technically speaking Nurail were classed as displaced persons confined to a limited number of systems where labor was in short supply.
The Domitt Prison was closed — Andrej Koscuisko had closed it, years ago, and exposed a catalog of horrors that remained one of the blackest blights on Jurisdiction in recent history. Hadn’t the Nurail earned the right to flee the Bench for Gonebeyond if they could? The Domitt Prison was drenched in the blood of Nurail men and women who had, in the end, been guilty of no crime but that of wanting to be free.
“Take me to your facilities, then,” Koscuisko said, unfolding his arms. His voice was no longer quite so glacially superior. “Have you a manifest of the cargo?”
She had. “There are one or two anomalies,” she admitted. “Some of the equipment appears to be make-shift. Ore-crushers are expensive. I expect a good mechanic could make do with a lighter, more portable vehicle.” Agricultural equipment ran significantly smaller and lighter than mining equipment. Nurail had limited funds. It only made sense that they’d had to pool their resources and buy what they could, knowing they’d have to retool when they got to the mines. And if they never got to the mines, but ended up somewhere else — oh, well. There were no economic enterprises without risk.
“No matter,” Koscuisko said, and waited while his silent standing Security opened the door to Vaal’s office to let them all out. “I will take the manifests as audited. Send to me your persons of interest. Have you holding facilities?”
It was with difficulty that Vaal mastered the warm rush of gratitude that she felt. It would not do to show any unexpected emotion. People might think. Koscuisko was going to play along, he’d said so. Well, he’d said send to me your persons of interest, but it amounted to the same thing.
“No cells at the hospital, your Excellency, but we can hold people in a clinic wing. Since there’s nothing there. You will wish to use — ah — ”
There was no Secured Medical, no dedicated torture room. Not in a small hospital at an administrative station. Koscuisko smiled — yes, actually smiled — and preceded her out of the room, according to the protocols of military rank-courtesy.
“I will want bedding enough to keep my people,” Koscuisko said. “Also open for me a field kitchen so that people may eat. I do not need Secured Medical, Vaalkarinnen. I am accustomed to working with minimal infrastructural support. That is why the Bench has granted to me Security.”
Bond-involuntary security, yes, of course. Green-sleeves, marked as Security slaves by the thin edge of poison-green piping that trimmed the cuffs and collars of their uniforms. She wished he hadn’t said that, about infrastructure; some of the most famous horror stories about Andrej Koscuisko had to do with his genius for improvisation.
“As you say, your Excellency.” It was too late now, one way or the other. She had called for Andrej Koscuisko. She would simply have to trust that nothing would go awry. If it did, it would be her fault.
If it all worked out, though, she need have nothing in her memory to accuse her. She would put her trust in Koscuisko’s reputation for anarchy — and for having a weak spot for Nurail after so many of them had been cruelly murdered, a significant number by Koscuisko himself, at the Domitt Prison in Port Rudistal, so many years ago.