Hour of Judgment: Ghost Chapters
This text is comprised of alternate versions of scenes in =Hour of Judgment= together with a great deal of relationship or character development that was eventually excised for very good reasons (as you will see as you attempt to slog your way through them). Some of the bits of business I quite liked, though.
[The novel originally starts out with a heavy whack of relationship & characterization, including this scene of Andrej being all doctor-y, to kind of buffer from the scenes that are coming up of Andrej being anything but.]
Eamons sat anxious and still on the levels in her white under-tunic, waiting for the word that would decide her future. The imager that was aimed at her back from close behind her spun its surrogate model within the survey cube on the frame-table, while Andrej squinted cautiously into its depths. Three weeks had passed since Jevan Eamons — a Security troop on the Intelligence Officer’s 3.2 team — had suffered her messy and unfortunate collision with an unsecured crane-lift down in the Ragnarok’s maintenance atmosphere. The damage had been severe but not been hopeless; still, they’d had to wait until the rest of her injuries had been stabilized before the critical reconstruction of the neural networks in her back and neck could be commenced in earnest. Eamons was a young woman, attractive and competent, with a solid career ahead of her; a career that would run into sudden violent shutdown if she were to be unable to go back on Line.
This scan was to tell them which it was to be.
The surrogate stabilized, displaying an enlarged three-dimensional detail of Eamons’ spine at the upper portion of her back. Andrej reached into the survey cube to turn the surrogate in his hands, prying the weightless pseudo-flesh apart carefully. So far, so good; good tendon rebuild, good dense bone recovery. The nerves were what really interested him, of course. That was his part of the job. Smoothing his frown of concentration over into a reassuring face — Eamons was watching him, and he didn’t want to give her the wrong idea — Andrej nodded to the technician to increase the level of detail, so that he could focus on how well the neural network had taken to his surgical intervention.
The surrogate blossomed slowly under his hands, the opaque layers of pseudo-flesh dissolving into a new image on a finer level. Now the image of the primary damage site was as big as the simple spinal cross-section had been before, and Andrej could stroke his fingers down the tertiary romeit process from second to fifth bundle and find it smooth and fat beneath his touch. It had worked, then. The body had forgiven them for the injury. The integrity of the system would recover without recourse to non-organic bridging. Just as well. Andrej didn’t trust cyborg augmentation as far as he could throw it. And he couldn’t throw cyborg augmentation very far. Heavy.
“To me it seems quite promising,” he said to Gille Memakem, who stood beside him studying the recovery-pattern in the survey-cube. Memakem was the most senior physician in the entire Section, and Andrej valued his medical judgment as much as he relied upon Memakem’s administrative skills. It fell to Gille Memakem to keep things well in hand when Andrej himself was away from Section performing what was so euphemistically described as ‘other duties as assigned in support of the Judicial process.’ “Eamons, you must promise me, physical therapy will be very important. But it looks good, what do you think, Gille?”
“He’s happy.” Memakem spoke directly to Eamons, translating for her benefit. It always embarrassed Andrej a little when Gille felt that he had to translate. “He’s got a right to be. But he hates to make any promises, just in case he’s made a mistake for the first time since he’s got here. It looks very solid, Miss Eamons. You’ll be back on Line in no time. Derida, go ahead and escort her to Consult One, I’ll join you there shortly.”
Memakem’s flattery made Andrej even more uncomfortable than his translating, even after all this time. It had been almost four years now since he had been posted to the Jurisdiction Fleet Ship Ragnarok as its Ship’s Surgeon. Almost four years as Memakem’s administrative superior officer, conscious as he was of his relative inexperience. Almost, almost, almost four years. When four years were finally finished he could be gone.
When the last of the eight years that he had sworn to Fleet were finished he would no longer have to serve as Ship’s Inquisitor.
The orderly Derida helped Eamons into her over-blouse, keeping a sharp eye on her range of motion. Wheam — the technician — started shutting down the imager, while Derida escorted Eamons out of the examination area. Putting out his hand to Memakem’s sleeve Andrej drew the man aside, no more comfortable with what he had to say than he had ever been — no matter how many occasions Captain Lowden had provided to him for practice. “There is an assignment for me, Gille. I will not be able to receive the morning reports, you must fill in for me, again.”
Memakem glanced quickly at Andrej’s face and then away toward the wall, keeping his square fleshy face carefully clear of all emotion. “What’s the Level to be this time, your Excellency? Not at the Advanced, I hope.”
Andrej shook his head. “A Sixth Level, bad enough. Conspiracy against the local Judiciary, possibly against Judicial order. But if we’re lucky it won’t go any further than the local charges.”
He was lying when he pretended that he hoped the interrogation would go so far and no further. If he was lucky it would go further, it would go much further, he would have an Eighth Level with which to gratify the obscene lust that had come to define his life. It was polite of Memakem to pretend otherwise, but Memakem knew as well as Andrej did of his shame. The Captain would prefer the Advanced Levels. The Captain always preferred the Advanced Levels, and he owed the Captain for special favors this time — for giving him leave to do his surgery with Eamons, before he went to work. Lowden would have been within his rights to demand Andrej’s immediate attention in Secured Medical. If Lowden had insisted on that, it would have been days and days before Andrej could have faced a surgery; and if they had been forced to delay the neural surgery phase of Eamon’s care by so many as four days past the optimal point the chances of a good success would have been very much diminished. With Eamons’ hopes for her future in Fleet into the bargain.
“Very good, your Excellency.” Memakem gave him the bow in salute, and Andrej returned the courtesy. The surgery was done, Eamons would heal. His prisoner was waiting.
He would call for his Security and begin.
Brachi Stildyne had been waiting for the signal for four days past now. He was standing in the exercise area watching one of his teams at drill when the prickling along his shoulders warned him of incoming transmit; then the talk-alert sounded.
“Chief Medical. For Security Chief Stildyne.”
The Security team engaged in combat drill out on the mat floor stopped abruptly in mid-exercise, each of them as tense as a clenched fist. They had all been waiting as well, wondering whose turn it would be this time to accompany his Excellency down to Secured Medical. Wondering when it would begin.
“Security Chief Stildyne, your Excellency.”
“Chief, there is an assignment, I should be started. Who is to meet me?”
Not the team on the floor, no. None of them were bond-involuntaries. Stildyne had his duty team on stand-by, waiting for the time. “Pyotr, your Excellency. Kerenko, Godsalt, Hirsel.” As if Koscuisko didn’t know the assignments as well as he did, by now. “Secured Medical, sir? I’ll dispatch immediately.”
By the time Koscuisko was at the point of getting started he was generally in a hurry to begin. Because he usually managed to put it off until the last possible moment, for one. Because he hated what he did so much, and had to seize what artificial momentum he could create out of an approaching deadline to help impel him forward to his duty. Because once he had surrendered to the inevitability of the requirement he started to get anxious to begin, impatient in anticipation of the pleasures that the torture held for him — profound and intense during the course of the interrogation in direct proportion to how he suffered out of remorse for his cruelty once it was all over.
Stildyne could read that familiar conflict in the little space of measured silence that intervened before Koscuisko spoke again.
“I’ll want the brief from Two, on your way down. Check to see whether she’s got a preference for the recorder.” Less hesitation by the moment, more keen thirst. And yet Koscuisko would not surrender his struggle against himself until he knew that there was no other way. The Intelligence Officer’s brief would specify the crimes of which the prisoner was accused, and of which merely suspected, and provide a lower limit on the required confession to be obtained in language more than clear for a man with Koscuisko’s experience.
To call for the brief so late — so close to starting — meant that Koscuisko was still hoping to maintain his self-control. Pointless, in Stildyne’s view, if commendable. One of the first things that he had learned about his officer was that it was as difficult for Koscuisko himself to stand against his passion as it was for any of his prisoners to resist and to deny him.
“Very good, your Excellency. Stildyne, away.”
Prisoners who succeeded, prisoners who were capable of suffering under Koscuisko’s hand and holding to their truth despite it all were rather rare, and died of the effort — mercifully. As for Koscuisko, Koscuisko still tried to find his way out of his life from time to time. But Koscuisko suffered his passion without the certain knowledge of eventual oblivion that formed a stubborn prisoner’s last defense.
“Carry on, Ivish.” There would be plenty of time later to brood about it, and he nearly always did.
For now he had his orders. Time to move.
The place was familiar, after these almost four years — familiar even longer than that, since Scylla had been furnished with a similar standardized facility. Four years on Scylla, although Captain Irshah Parmin had not made much use of his Writ there, apart from lending him out when Fleet politics forced him to accede to Bench requests. Four years on Ragnarok, and Captain Lowden sent him down to Secured Medical with numbing frequency. Andrej knew every corner of the interrogation area by heart, could see each bolted shackle or wall-mount in his sleep; and did, night after night.
It still made him nervous to be here.
Secured Medical was in one of the ship’s stores areas forward, on a storage deck set close beneath the carapace hull of great Ragnarok and well removed from the more well-trafficked corridors in Operations. No one passed by here through the narrow corridors unless they had a specific purpose; it was better that way. A small ready-room separated the theater from the entrance, with an intervening door on interlock with the outer one; so that even if someone did chance to pass — when the door opened, for whatever reason — no one would hear anything of the torture going on, no one would see something they would rather not have thought about. A ready-room, and on the other side of the theater a holding cell for the prisoner. There was a trap in the decking that could be vented directly into ship’s conversion furnaces when mutilated bodies were to be disposed of rather than returned to the civil authority for display. No one ever went into the interrogation theater at all, if they could help it.
And yet for four years Andrej had all but lived here. Exercised himself to torment his Captain’s prisoners for information that meant nothing to him one way or the other. Taken his meals and his lefrols sitting in his chair in the room beyond, considering how next to set his prisoner to suffering. Spent long hours in the night trapped with his own work in his dreams, rehearsing the bloody pattern of his life despite his most desperate efforts to drink himself into so much as a few scant eighths’ worth of sweet oblivion.
Now there was a prisoner waiting for him, and the Protocols to be exercised, and Andrej knew better than anyone that his nervousness was equal parts of reluctance and anticipation. Torture was a horror to contemplate, a horror to face, even if one was to inflict the suffering rather than bear it. Torture was a stain upon his healing, a sin against his own compassionate nature that deprived him of hope and rest alike. But at the same time torture was the single most addictive drug that Andrej Koscuisko had ever been exposed to in all of his medical career, and Captain Lowden’s strict enforcement of the Judicial order provided such a wealth of bright new pain for Andrej’s pleasure that he sometimes thought he had been lost in the black ecstasy of it for his whole life.
Standing at the scroller, Andrej studied the prisoner’s Brief one final time before he went through to his work. A young man of no particular sub-citizenship, a his genotype a mongrel intermix of several lineages of category three hominids. Referred by the Toh Judiciary on Charges of conspiracy to overthrow the Bench — or to assassinate a local Judge, which the Bench tended to treat as an equivalent offense.
“Very well, gentles, let us be started. Come along, Mr. Pyotr, Mr. Garrity.” He had a thought about how he wanted to begin, already. He only rarely lacked for good ideas, along that line. “Mister Kerenko, is there rhyti? Of course there is. Good man.”
He had his Security here with him, silent and waiting for his word. They were a great comfort to him, his Security were, even though he wanted their actual assistance only rarely for the torture itself. Andrej had never liked involving his Security, not even when Fleet had still posted only bond-involuntary troops — Security slaves — to a Chief Medical Officer’s teams. Things had changed. There were only six bond-involuntary troops assigned to him, now, out of twenty-five in total.
Bond-involuntaries were getting harder to come by every year, but it didn’t matter to Andrej, because he shied away from drawing anyone else into his shame. Partly because of the horror that he had of the idea — people who were required to do anything they were told no matter how abhorrent, or risk the ferocious consequences of a Class Two violation. But mostly out of sheer selfishness, and his desire to have as much of the lovely drug as he could lawfully obtain all for himself.
The inner door that separated the relative safety of the outer room from the uncompromising horror of the inner one slid open beneath his hand.
Andrej stepped through.
“The prisoner, if you please,” he nodded, gesturing to the other door at the far end of the room. It was a bigger room than most of the ship’s work-spaces, if one didn’t count Engineering’s lofty bays or the Security hangars. Bigger than his office, at any rate, bigger than his living quarters, and bare. There was a chair for him on a raised space, padded and comfortable, with his rhyti standing ready for him on the side table. Loosening the first fastening of his duty blouse, Andrej sat down in his chair, to take a glass of rhyti and think about things while Pyotr and Garrity brought his prisoner for him.
Someone else had seen to the preliminary details. The man had already been stripped, and came to him naked and barefoot beneath the token covering of a thin disposable tabard. Security walked him to the middle of the room; Andrej pointed to the place, and Security wrestled the prisoner to his knees, shackling his wrists behind his back before they chained his manacles to the anchor-bolt in the cold unforgiving floor. They were good. Andrej admired their technique. They were efficient. Their task completed, Garrity and Pyotr stepped away from the prisoner to wait for instruction; and Andrej released them with an impatient wave of his hand.
“Yes, thank you, very good. Go away, now. I will call you when I want you.” For his supper, for his rhyti. They were too well trained to show him any reaction, bowing to him politely before they removed themselves; but Andrej knew that they were anxious to be out of there.
It didn’t matter.
The door was closed; he was alone with his prisoner. Alone, and only the Recorder and his rhyti to keep him company. “So.” Eyeing the man over the rim of his upraised rhyti-glass Andrej considered his assignment, distracted by a number of pleasant possibilities. “I am Andrej Koscuisko, and I hold the Writ to which you must answer. Tell to me your name.”
There was no sound in response, although the prisoner seemed to be making an effort. Fear? Or hadn’t he been watered recently? Prisoners were generally kept on meager rations, that was true. Andrej rose to his feet and closed the small distance between his chair and the chained man, offering his tipped glass of rhyti with fastidious care. Yes. Thirsty. He wiped the lip of the glass with his whitesquare and finished it off himself.
“Riveg Ndsi, your Excellency.”
Tentative and fearful, the prisoner found his voice, and Andrej could have smiled at him, fond of him already. No, it would be misinterpreted. “Let us be clear with each other for the Record’s sake. You are on Record. Surely you know better than to answer me like that, when it is the Bench’s Writ that demands your testimony.”
Every decent citizen would know. Such expectations were clearly described and explained in civic briefings at every level, after all. And every citizen less than honest would surely know, too — having had it beaten into them, sooner or later. Generally speaking Andrej had seldom found lack of education to be a problem.
“Yes, your Excellency. Sorry. Ah — the prisoner’s name is Riveg Ndsi, your Excellency — “
So far so good. “Do you know what Charges are Recorded against you, Ndsi? Tell me.”
This prisoner was meek and biddable, as far as that went. Not very far; but Andrej didn’t need much of a start on biddability.
“Ah, there was the Provost Judge. Deserves to die, but — “
An initial intense struggle, an instinct to deny — to assert innocence — in conflict with Andrej’s warning about the Record. Andrej watched with interest as the prisoner called his words back, and started over in a more correct format. “Yes, your Excellency. This prisoner.” It always seemed so difficult for them to use the bluntly impersonal phrasing. So difficult to deny their own individuality with that particular Standard-specific neuter third person, “this prisoner,” instead of “I.” And yet much more would be required of the prisoner before Andrej was done with him, and it would be more difficult, sometimes difficult beyond what Ndsi had probably ever imagined. Andrej had time. He could afford to be indulgent.
“ — This prisoner is accused of plotting to kill a Judge. Provost Judge. Toh Judiciary.”
Yes, indeed. Andrej set his rhyti glass down and wandered over to the wall behind the chair, almost absentmindedly. He didn’t like opening up his equipment racks until his Security were gone; they had to face enough unpleasantness as it was — most of it from him, or on his behalf. There was no one in the room except for himself and his prisoner, now, and the ever-present Record making its careful tapes of his proceedings. Unlatching one of the racks, Andrej pulled it open and away from the wall, thoughtfully. Drugs, wake-keepers, pain-maintenance. Too early. He left the rack open, though, fully displayed for the prisoner’s benefit as he went for the next one. The prisoner didn’t need to know what the drugs were. Everybody knew about the Controlled List; anybody with any sense would be sensibly terrified to be reminded about the potential horrors that the Controlled List represented.
“What came of these Charges in Preliminary, then? You must have been referred for something.” Other tools, other toys. Firepoints. Three-vices. Eight-straps. Pincers, torcs, clamps. Andrej stroked the shining instruments absentmindedly, his attention divided between his prisoner and his plans for the next few hours.
“Your Excellency. They told — this prisoner — that there was evidence, circumstantial evidence. And an informer. They explained to — this prisoner — that the Bench will not condemn on the basis of what they had, that a confession would be required.”
You’re guilty anyway, so confess. So that we can prove you’re guilty by your own confession. Andrej knew how to interpret Ndsi’s information; the circumstantial evidence was not very strong, and the informer either biased or otherwise unreliable. Yes. “One takes it that you declined to oblige with the confession.”
“I didn’t do anything.” There was genuine pain there, in that spontaneous protest. Andrej was impressed, but otherwise unmoved. For one thing, Ndsi wasn’t Charged with having done anything, only with having plotted — a distinction which frequently escaped the Bench. For another, it really didn’t matter how sincere Ndsi was; there were Charges, and they had to be tested against the Protocols, and that usually resulted in a confession sooner or later. That was the whole idea, after all.
Andrej abandoned a glittering set of three-vices after a final caress and went to yet a third rack, opening it carefully, telling the instruments over in his mind. The handshake. The lictor. The rake, with its multiple tails. The driver, coiled and black and ugly, his close companion from the start of his career in Inquiry. The peony, the ugliest of them all, as thick and smooth of braid as the handshake, almost as long as the driver, heavy as the rake, a whip fit to flay a man alive and kill him in as few as four-and-forty.
“I trust you understand, it is my place to test your claim to its utmost limit. You are referred to me at the Sixth Level, do you know what that means?” Confession had to precede Execution. The peony was for later. For now the prisoner merely bowed his head, stubbornly, and repeated his insistence on his innocence.
“This prisoner is not guilty of any plot. Your Excellency.”
He could start with the handshake, at this level, and move up to the driver, which did require he practice with it constantly or risk going off his form. There would be the truncheon and quite possibly the flensing-knife before he was well finished, perhaps a little of the firepoint. It was the Sixth Level. He could break bone and tear joints, but the firepoint did not truly come into its own until the Seventh, the first of the Execution Levels. The handshake, then, to start.
“Permit me to be the judge of that,” Andrej advised, kindly enough. The handshake, to warm things up. Ndsi’s tabard would tear easily, and presented no real barrier to the lash against bare flesh. One could work more closely, with the handshake, face-to-face with one’s dancing-partner, the better to gauge the progress of the exercise.
“Let us begin at the starting place, then. The Record says you meet with known Free Government sympathizers.” Andrej took the whip up into his hand, raising it to eye-level and saluting its promise with satisfaction. “Be so good as to describe these meetings, to me.”
And wherever they met, whomever they met with, would become by that token equally suspect of Free Government sympathies, but that was nothing to do with Andrej. One had to start somewhere. And the handshake sang like a thrown knife and cut like wire, and his body knew the smell of blood and fear and savored the pain gratefully.
He owed Captain Lowden a favor for permitting him to put this off while he completed his surgical duties.
Andrej Ulexeievitch Koscuisko always repaid his debts in kind, with careful interest.
[This was kind of a peculiar scene, came at me from an unexpected angle. At this point I’m unwilling to either confirm or deny its place in the canon. You’ll notice there’s a non-hominid Security troop – I discarded the use of several non-hominid Security troops as distracting from my central focus on the protagonist and his central conflicts.]
Godsalt checked the chrono in the door-panel with an absent-minded glance. Shift had changed hours ago, and the officer had been conducting his interrogation for even longer than that. He’d started early on in Second, and it was nearing the end of Third, and that meant fourteen hours at minimum. They would be reaching a crisis point of some sort, Godsalt knew that from experience. Other Inquisitors he had supported broke their Intermediate Level exercises up as much as possible, and only ran at three to four eights at a time. Koscuisko tended to get lost, to forget the hour and run his Inquiries out in one straight bloody line from start to finish. Sometimes Koscuisko didn’t bother to so much as leave Secured Medical for days. It made him all the more efficient, Godsalt supposed.
There were worse ways to spend a duty shift than standing ready with hot rhyti in the antechamber to Secured Medical. VanTalb had a clean uniform folded and set out for Koscuisko when he wanted it; since everything was prepared there was nothing in particular to do. They had to be present. Koscuisko could potentially call for their assistance at any time. Koscuisko very seldom wanted them within, though, so it was almost like an extra rest-shift, really. Almost.
The antechamber was bright and clean, the other members of their team familiar as the situation itself. He was the second senior, Pyotr the senior man; VanTalb of the furry ears and clawed hands was there, and Hirsel at the bottom of the hierarchy, asleep on his feet by the outer door.
Through the open door to the washroom Godsalt could see toweling stashed and ready, a nail-board, a comb, all that a man could want to clean himself. In the beginning — when Koscuisko had first been posted here to Ragnarok, bringing St. Clare with him — he had invariably stopped to wash and change even after the worst of his interrogations, anxious to ensure that his appearance would present no unpleasant hints about where he’d been or what he’d been doing there. Lately it did not seem to matter quite so much. Lately Koscuisko could be in too much of a hurry to get away — to get back to his quarters and seek the numbing distance alcohol provided him — to waste precious time in just washing. It didn’t matter. It was the look on Koscuisko’s face that told the truth of where he had been, and there was no washing that horror out of Koscuisko’s pale eyes, no matter how much time he took to try to set himself to rights before he left.
There was a warning tone at the inner door. Straightening to rest-attention with automatic ease, Godsalt stepped away from the door, alert for the follow-up order. Koscuisko would want his rhyti, or Koscuisko would want other support — a lefrol perhaps, or potentially an extra pair of hands, rare though that was. Or Koscuisko was simply coming out and wanted them to be on guard, so that they would not be unprepared for whatever noise or stench might come from the inner room.
The door parted along its diagonal, sliding open noiselessly. Koscuisko was standing in the doorway, his figure blocking any casual glance into the room beyond. Godsalt kept his gaze fixed respectfully on Koscuisko’s face, making his bow, making his assessment at the same time. There was blood, of course, blood on Koscuisko’s face, blood on his white under-blouse beneath his open duty-tunic, blood on his boots and on his trousers. So much was only to be expected.
Koscuisko was not meeting his eyes, however.
Stepping through the door while it was only half open — Koscuisko could do that, Koscuisko was shorter than the rest of them — Koscuisko struck the door-panel to close it again, turning his back to them, laying his gloved hands on either side of the door and leaning against the wall there with his head down. It was quiet, in the outer room, and Godsalt could hear Koscuisko’s breathing, shaky and gasping, as Koscuisko’s body trembled. He had not finished, then. He had taken as much of a confession as he felt was required; and he had come out now, with his prisoner yet living, holding himself to his own strict standard while he could.
“Duty officer. This is Koscuisko.” The message would go out on a secured line, rather than the standard ship’s dircast. Nothing went out from Secured Medical without careful restriction on its access codes. “Send me a team, to Secured Medical. Support lacerations. Soft tissue damage. Multiple contusions, minor bone damage. A few burn injuries, non-primary in nature. Bleeding, and traumatic shock, and I won’t have Sinspan, do you hear?”
Over the years, Godsalt had learned quite a bit about the Medical staff, being so closely associated with the Chief Medical Officer. Sinspan was not a bad medic; Koscuisko seemed to have a fairly good opinion of her medical skills. But she was dead certain that anyone referred on Charges was getting exactly what they deserved, and not enough of it, which meant that she and her superior officer disagreed on the most basic of levels. Koscuisko didn’t trust her to handle injured prisoners as gently as he liked. Let alone tortured ones.
“Yes, your Excellency. Your team is on its way.”
“Koscuisko away, here.” There was a little catch of hesitation in Koscuisko’s voice as he acknowledged the duty officer’s reply that witnessed to the struggle going on within him. Godsalt had never understood why Koscuisko bothered to school himself against indulgence when seven out of eight times Captain Lowden only sent him back in anyway. Of course it didn’t make any difference whether he understood Koscuisko’s internal struggles or not. Their job was to provide support, not stand in judgment. If Koscuisko wanted to protect the prisoner from the extravagances of his own appetite there were things that they could do, to make it easier —
Pyotr stood to Koscuisko’s left, Godsalt to his right. Meeting Godsalt’s eyes, Pyotr signaled almost imperceptibly. Godsalt matched his movements to Pyotr’s, moving in on Koscuisko where he stood leaning against the wall with his gloved hands leaving bloody smudges against the door-frame. Koscuisko did not protest when they moved him away from the wall, turning him to face into the room away from the theater’s closed door. Meek and unresisting, Koscuisko merely rested himself against them, securely supported by their arms behind his back, weary, exhausted. It was so hard for him to stop once he had got well started. There was all of that energy, all of that passion, checked and thwarted and denied release only because Koscuisko was determined not to indulge his passion — it had to go somewhere.
It was much easier for Koscuisko when they managed to find an outlet for his arousal.
And the clothing would have to come off anyway, with all of that blood. Koscuisko was a fastidious man, under other circumstances. He would not want to be seen in such a filthy uniform.
Godsalt took a handful of Koscuisko’s under-blouse in his free hand, pulling it free from the waistband of Koscuisko’s trousers by the fistful. Pyotr worked the fastenings open down the front of the undergarment, murmuring comfortingly in Koscuisko’s ear, and vanTalb — moving close, in front of them — sniffed at the blood-stains on Koscuisko’s naked chest with interest before setting to work to clean the bare white skin with his raspy feline tongue.
For a long moment it seemed as if it was going to work. Koscuisko submitted himself to their caresses, suffering them to restrain his instinctive gesture of rejection, yielding to the hand that Pyotr put out to turn Koscuisko’s face up for a thirsty kiss whose ferocity expressed — and, if they were lucky, would relieve — the savagery of Koscuisko’s passion, fed and stoked in Inquiry, denied its ultimate expression by Koscuisko’s own misplaced sense of fairness.
And they had made it work, too, from time to time, when Koscuisko was too far gone to want to deny them — but not this time.
Koscuisko turned his head away, his mouth a grim hard self-disgusted grimace. Godsalt could feel the balance of Koscuisko’s weight changing from exhausted and submissive reliance on their arms to hold him up to firm, defiant, self-contained control.
“No. Thank you, gentlemen.”
It wasn’t going to come off, not this time. There was no mistaking that tone of voice, even if it took a second admonition to distract VanTalb from what he was doing. “Be so good as to stand away, I need to wash.”
Godsalt didn’t blame VanTalb; the cat thought with his nose, after all, and body-grooming was offered to seniors by subordinates as a matter of course among VanTalb’s people. Not among Azanry Dolgorukij. Even when Koscuisko was desperate enough to accept offers of comfort under such circumstances he suffered, after the infrequent fact, and accused himself so bitterly of taking indecent liberties with subordinate flesh that the entire incident inevitably took on overtones of rape. It was only the identity of the offending party that varied: Koscuisko accused himself of committing the offense; and Security Chief Stildyne accused Security.
Just as well, perhaps, that Koscuisko had rejected them — there were Chief Stildyne’s feelings to consider, after all. Godsalt knelt to take Koscuisko’s boots, knowing better than to argue. They were lucky that Koscuisko was as tolerant as he was. Others Godsalt had known in Koscuisko’s position had been all too likely to take offense at much lesser liberties than the ones Koscuisko permitted as of no consequence.
In his bare feet now, Koscuisko started for the open washroom door, stumbling a little in his weariness. “Engage the Captain’s scheduler, Pyotr, if you will. I’ll need to make report.” Stripping as he spoke, Koscuisko crushed the discarded clothing across the ready-rail in the washroom piece by piece. “Try for the morning. And send my meal to quarters, I should like to get drunk.”
That went without saying, but Pyotr saluted the washroom door regardless. “Instruction received is instruction implemented, your Excellency.”
Godsalt wondered what Koscuisko’s successor would be like. Captain Lowden had destroyed several Ship’s Inquisitors before Koscuisko had come; which fact was widely held in Security circles to be a significant accomplishment on Lowden’s part, since the Ragnarok had only been on active status for ten years Standard even now.
Was the Captain feeling frustrated, that Koscuisko had lived out his term?
Was that why there had been so many extra exercises, within the past months?
It wasn’t any of his business either way, Godsalt reminded himself. He had the uniform and boots and gloves to turn in for cleaning, and a meal to order up, and he had to be back before Koscuisko was out of the wash-room.
Uniforms and meals were all he was expected to even think about.
[A lot of this material was intended to simply demonstrate how far Andrej’s psychological deterioration had gotten since we saw him last at the end of Prisoner of Conscience, where he wasn’t really doing so badly. Didn’t have anything directly to do with the action of the story, but taking it out (because the story didn’t really start until we got to Burkhayden, in a sense) left Andrej’s action for the rest of the novel less well motivated than it might have been, on account of how I didn’t manage to get that psychological frayed edge fully into the remaining text. Live and learn.]
Andrej Koscuisko awoke to confusion in the stuffy twilight of a dimly-lit room. Lying on his back, tangled in bedclothes, he stared at the ceiling in dread and dazed wonder for several moments before he realized that he wasn’t alone.
There was someone with him.
There was a monolith filling the doorway between the bedroom and the outer room. A great grotesque statue made up of black horror, and Andrej tried to fathom what it might be, puzzling it out in fits and starts while he struggled with all of the other questions that had to be answered before he could go on.
A monolith, yes. Between two rooms: so there were two rooms there, but that told him nothing. Senior ship’s officers had two rooms to live in. So he was a senior ship’s officer, he knew that, but why should there be a monolith in quarters? What manner of monolith would Engineering tolerate to stand in a doorway between rooms? Wouldn’t it interfere with evacuation, to say nothing of normal traffic patterns?
Oh, this was ridiculous, Andrej told himself, almost too disgusted at his own confusion to be afraid. If the black monolith was friendly he could ask it for breakfast. And if it wasn’t — if the black monolith was Vengeance incarnate, come for him finally after so many years spent wallowing in sin — then there would be no escaping it.
He had to get up.
He tried to move, but he was too thoroughly tangled in bedding to make much headway. The black monolith stirred, finally, and started forward, coalescing from an ambiguous shadow of unknown intent into the familiar and friendly framework that housed the Nurail bond-involuntary Security troop, Robert St. Clare.
“I’ll help you with that, sir. With your permission.”
With the doorway clear there was more light in the room, and Andrej could make more sense of what he saw. The head of the sleep-shelf was in the corner; he could look across the room, to his left, and see the side-table next to the sleep-shelf where he kept his lefrols and liquor, the open doorway into the next room, the half-open doorway into the washroom at the other end. There were the storage closets along the back end of the room where his uniforms were kept, and the icon-table in the far corner.
His uniform was already arrayed in proper order on the valet-stand, waiting for him, but the light from the lamp on the icon-table was dim. It was only enough to point up the sanctimoniously ghastly features of St. Andrej Filial Piety, after whom Andrej had been named. It wasn’t enough to illuminate the ship’s mark on the front right shoulder of the uniform’s over-blouse. No hope for a clue there.
He still didn’t know where he was.
Robert stooped over him, calm and reassuring, working the wadded bedding free from the crevices into which Andrej had compacted it during the course of his uneasy sleep. Robert was safe. He trusted Robert. He could ask.
His voice was a hoarse croak in his own ears. Robert paused in his work of unpacking Andrej from the tangle he’d trapped himself in to take up a flask from the bedside table, holding it carefully for Andrej to drink. It was tepid rhyti, but it was wet. Andrej was grateful.
When the flask was empty he tried again.
“Where are we. What’s going on. What time is it.” Who am I. But he didn’t ask the last one. He already knew some pieces of the answer, and there were good odds he’d have the rest of the information soon enough.
“The officer is Anders, son of Ilex.” Robert’s voice was quiet and soothing, calming without condescending. “Which is to say, sir, his Excellency, Andrej Ulexeievitch Koscuisko. No offense, your Excellency.”
None taken. He and Robert had known each other for too long. Not even the constraint imposed by Robert’s governor could damp the trust and confidence they had in one another: and there was the fact that Robert’s governor had somehow never worked quite right, from the earliest Andrej had known him.
“Out with the rest of it, then, man.” Unlike many of the souls under Jurisdiction, Robert hadn’t learned Standard until quite late in life — his seventeenth year, from what Andrej had gathered. Robert had more of an accent accordingly. It always tickled Andrej’s ear to hear Robert struggle to pronounce his name. “I’m hungry.”
He was fully untangled from his bedclothes, now, and Robert helped Andrej to sit up on the side of the bed, crouching down beside him to steady him where he sat. Robert was much taller than he was. Their faces were still almost on a level. Robert’s face had changed, in the years Andrej had known him; how many years was that?
When he had met Robert, Robert had been short of twenty years Standard, painfully young for the use to which Fleet had condemned him. Robert did not wear a beard even now, since he had no Fleet exception to do so, and Nurail men from Robert’s particular clan-group only grew beards once they were married. There was still no question but that Robert was a grown man, if a young man still. His face had lost weight and gained gravity.
“Oh board of the Jurisdiction Fleet Ship Ragnarok, as the officer please. Fleet Captain Griers Verigson Lowden, commanding.”
Oh, it was bad, then. Captain Lowden. Burying his face in his hands Andrej rubbed at his forehead with his fingertips, trying to massage his brain through his skull. He needed to think.
“And it’s just coming up on first-shift, which means you’re to sit at Mast in three eights. There’s fast-meal. Chief Stildyne will be wanting you for laps.”
Chief Stildyne was always after him for his laps. Andrej wasn’t interested: but he knew that it was one of the things he relied upon to keep him going, to give his life order and meaning in the face of — what?
“And you’re to see Captain after Mast, there’s the Record to be endorsed. Sir.” Robert’s voice was careful and neutral, breaking only momentarily over the word “record” as he helped Andrej to his feet. Yes. That was right. The Record.
It all came back to Andrej, the torture-work that was his life, the soul who lay constrained in agony in Secured Medical even now, the savage greed for pain that their Captain indulged so mercilessly in the name of the Judicial order.
He was Andrej Ulexeievitch Koscuisko, Ship’s Surgeon, Ship’s Inquisitor, on board of Jurisdiction Fleet Ship Ragnarok. He was getting up and getting dressed because he had work to do, and because his fast-meal would get cold.
But there was more.
He had been Ship’s Surgeon for eight years, his term was to expire within two month’s time.
As long as it had been, as horrible as it had been, as many crimes as he had committed in the name of lawful duty, it was over. He was going home.
On his feet, now, Andrej patted Robert’s arm by way of thanks, and staggered off to the washroom under his own power. Free. Two months, and he was going home.
What was to become of Robert and the other bond-involuntary troops once left without protection, exposed to Captain Lowden’s whims by the uncaring indifference of the next Inquisitor assigned?
There was nothing he could do about that.
Andrej switched the wet-shower to its coldest extreme and turned his face up full into its brutal blast to shut the voice of anguished impotence away in his mind. Nothing he could do. He had exhausted all of the options at his disposal, trying. Best not to dwell on it.
He still had two more months to get through somehow before he could go home.
[So, you’ll notice that in the previous scene Robert tells us that Andrej’s going to see Captain Lowden after Mast, and here he’s on his way to see the Captain first thing in the morning. Two different drafts. I wrote this thing five, six times, over the course of the years. Continuity has always been a challenge for me.]
Morning, and Andrej Koscuisko made his way to his Captain’s office with a short-team escort behind him. He’d had a long night of it, but he’d expected that, so that was just an aggravation — not a problem in and of itself. Captain Lowden was a problem, of course. Captain Lowden was more likely than not to order him back to the torture of Riveg Ndsi, and Andrej had mixed feelings about that. There was that in him which was afraid he would be instructed to return to torture, and hoped that Lowden would not chose to do so, just this once.
And there was that in him which hoped that Captain Lowden would order him back to Secured Medical, and was afraid that he would be denied his treat, this time.
Command Administrative was a quieter area than most, fewer people, wider corridors — room enough for four people to walk abreast, perhaps — and deep within the shielded core of one the Ragnarok’s operations areas. Andrej stopped in front of the Captain’s office door, waiting while his man Garrity announced him.
“Chief Medical Officer reports to Captain Lowden. As scheduled, review of interrogation exercise.”
Two Security flanked the doorway on standard post, and one of them Andrej knew — Janisib, tall and brown and formidable. She had been on one of his teams when he’d got here, and she’d done him good duty for a year or more; but the work had gotten to be too much for her. Since she wasn’t bond involuntary she’d been allowed to transfer, and Andrej hadn’t blamed her. Her decision had come shortly after she’d been posted with him on a set of field exercises. Those could be among the most difficult for Security because they had to be improvised.
The work was too much for him, at least in a sense, but he was not permitted to transfer out — not until his term was up. Only a matter of weeks, now, and his father had not forbidden him to leave, had not required that he extend his sworn commitment. It didn’t matter to Andrej any more if his father thought he was a coward. All he wanted to do was get away. Janisib had gotten away; and if there was anything she was it wasn’t any kind of a coward.
The doors slid open, and he winked up at her broad silent face and went through.
Lowden was finishing some document or other with his back turned to the room, studying the reader. There was fast-meal set out on the broad-board against the wall, Andrej was glad to note. He’d had breakfast, yes, but he was still hungry — or perhaps he’d not quite had breakfast, perhaps he hadn’t managed to keep anything down for the past few hours. That would explain being hungry, for a fact. There were plenty of his favorites here, fatmeat, brodtoast, rhyti, fruit, sweetspread. Captain Lowden was a thoroughly contemptible man, and he had done his best to make Andrej’s life a ceaseless torment for the past four years, and he had done a very good job of it, too. On the other hand he did take good care of his Chief Medical Officer — in his own perverted fashion.
Andrej piled a palm-sized plate full of little snacks, all of them less than healthy for a man, and took a seat at the conference-rail, licking sugar-frosting off of the fingers of one hand absentmindedly. Rhyti was a wonderful thing. One felt a new man.
Lowden turned in his chair, as if he’d only just now realized that he was no longer alone. “Good greeting to you, Andrej, have you slept well?”
As if Lowden didn’t know. Andrej waved a bit of pastry at the Captain in response, swallowing a mouthful of hot sweet rhyti before he answered. “As any sinner. You’ve had a look at the cube, I imagine.”
Now Lowden dropped his gaze, turning his head down to look at his desk. The lights picked up the red in Lowden’s brown hair; he was getting old, Andrej noted uncharitably. He’d be completely red-haired in no time. “Well, now, Andrej, I need to speak to you, about that.”
Of course he did. Captain Lowden was as obvious as he was tall; and he was very tall. Not as tall as Wheatfields, no, of course not — Lowden could stand up straight even in quarters without knocking his head against the light-fixtures. The fact remained; Andrej could see right through him. He took a few bites of fatmeat, waiting.
“There’s a little confusion here, Andrej, don’t you think? I mean, this man, he was referred on conspiracy. I know that starts at the Sixth Level, Andrej, but it looks as if you left it there. Am I missing something?”
Yes, naturally he was missing something. He was missing the torture that he so enjoyed, the blood and the screaming. But Andrej could not honestly contemn him for that — not when they had so much in common. “The confession should have been appended, Captain, is your copy of the Record not complete?”
He was being provoking, and he knew it. But he was drunk, and tired, and Lowden would do whatever Lowden had decided to do no matter what Andrej had said to him about it. There were only a few more months, only a matter of weeks . . .
Now Lowden let himself show irritation. “There’s a confession, all right, Andrej. But I wouldn’t have expected you to turn in such an incomplete piece of work. I’m sorry to have to say this. I understand how hard it must be for you to keep your mind on your duty when you’re so close to being relieved of your assigned tasks. I’m still forced to describe the conduct of this interrogation as unprofessional.”
As if Andrej cared. As if Lowden were an authority figure, a parental figure, to whose disapproval Andrej would be vulnerable. Lowden was an authority figure of a sort, to be sure. But Andrej despised him too much to be moved by his transparent attempts at psychological manipulation.
“Is it indeed so, Captain Lowden? And here I had thought, there are the Charges, here is the confession as Charged, we are finished.”
The Captain pushed himself away from the desk, going over to the fast-meal service for a glass of annerbe-solution. Andrej rather wished Lowden hadn’t chosen annerbe; the milky fluid invariably ended up in Lowden’s pathetic excuse for a mustache, emphasizing the sparseness of the growth and Lowden’s casual disdain for good grooming at one and the same time. If a man was going to drink annerbe-solution the least a man could do was remember the use and function of a napkin. On the other hand it was hardly Andrej’s place to say as much, even as close — as intimate — as he and his great good friend and guide had been, these four years past.
“And that’s good enough for most people, Andrej, that’s true.” Sitting down across from Andrej, now, Lowden leaned forward, confidentially. “But you’re better than that, and we both know it. I can’t pretend that what’s acceptable from anyone else is anything like up to your standard.”
The admonitory tone was really wonderful. Believable. One of Lowden’s very best tricks. And it did make Andrej feel regretful, right enough — not the tone of voice, so much, not the words, but the fact that the closer Captain Lowden was to him the more difficult it was for Andrej to ignore how much he hated Lowden for what he had put Andrej to. For himself, but also for all of the prisoners Lowden had dug up for him, demanding proofs of guilt, degrees of Execution, the constant exercise of the Protocols in all their horror. It was difficult to enjoy his fast-meal treats with Lowden so close to him.
“Now, I want you to just go back and finish the job up right, Andrej. I know you can be a professional about this if you just put your mind to it.”
There it was, and it turned the delicious oily savor of the fatmeat into a leaden ball of acid in Andrej’s belly. “What for? There isn’t anything else there. Captain.”
“How can you say that? Even I know better than that, Andrej — ”
And Lowden did “know better,” right enough. Lowden had studied the Protocols, knew them as well as Andrej himself did. Because Lowden enjoyed them. Because Lowden liked to watch. “There’s an entire section of implied collaterals when there’s been a confession of local plotting, Andrej. And you didn’t even ask him about his family, his friends, anything else. Nothing. You’re losing it.”
He hadn’t asked, no. At the end of a properly executed Sixth Level the answer to any question would be an affirmative one, because the pain was so bad that the fear of more pain removed any realization of endangering others from all but the very most stubborn of minds. Or from Nurail. Andrej remembered in the Domitt prison, while he’d been with Scylla — one of his prisoners, somebody’s father, with a potentially politically dangerous son at large. The bargain they had made. His pledge not to ask, if the man could only manage to keep fair silence long enough. Until whomever’s father had no longer been capable of speech coherent enough to condemn anyone; and then Andrej had asked, and sent the man to his death with his family still unidentified and unlocated. At fearful cost to himself, but the Nurail had done it . . .
“I didn’t ask for implied collaterals because I don’t think there are any. It’s a clear confession. Implied collaterals are only required at the next Level, Captain. Which you know, of course.”
And they both knew what Lowden’s response would be. And they both knew that Andrej had no legal recourse but to obey.
“You’re not looking hard enough, you’re going soft, but you’re still on active status, Andrej. Command elevation. Take it to the Seventh Level, and give me those names.”
He couldn’t swear to certainty that there were not names to get, no, he could be mistaken about that. There could be information, hidden there. It was just possible that there were Free Government plots to be exposed. Andrej didn’t think so. The only real issue was Captain Lowden’s private greed, and the implication — and subsequent torture, murder — of possibly innocent people. If Lowden demanded names Andrej would get names, they both knew that. Andrej could get anything he wanted from Ndsi, at this point. It wasn’t what he wanted that was at issue; and Lowden knew exactly how to bring Andrej around, Andrej had to grant him that, ungrudgingly.
“Yes, but which do you want more? The names? Or the Seventh Level?”
Ndsi was a pawn, now, nothing more. The poor victim of Captain Lowden’s lust, and Andrej’s lust as well. Lowden clearly meant for him to die, one way or the other. If Lowden mandated implied collaterals Andrej would have to implement, and there would be more victims. But Lowden could usually be persuaded to let Andrej whore for him, instead, and if it meant Hell for Ndsi at least it did not mean as much for every unfortunate whose name a tortured man could bring to mind and put on Record in a mindless and insane attempt to please his torturer and make it stop.
“Andrej, you shouldn’t even joke like that. You know better.” Lowden didn’t bother to hide his self-satisfied smile, rising to his feet, towering over Andrej where he sat to give one of his shoulders an indulgent shake. “We never take such a drastic step without a clear Judicial mandate, never. Think of what it means to your prisoner, after all. But — under the circumstances — ”
Yes, of course. Under the circumstances.
“ — if you haven’t gotten anywhere with implied collaterals by the middle of the Eighth, Andrej, I’m afraid we’ll have to admit defeat. We simply can’t justify going any further than that without results.”
The Eighth Level, the middle of the Advanced. Andrej drained his flask of rhyti and set it down on a side-table, with his half-emptied plate. The Eighth Level . . . but at least they were half-way there, already. And there would not be any more names, not from this interrogation. Andrej was willing to accept an Eighth Level, unfair as it was to Ndsi. He had no other option but to terminate prematurely, under cover of an accident. The first time he’d tried that way out with Captain Lowden had been the last. Captain Lowden had seen to it that every single one of Andrej’s bond-involuntary Security was put on Report and threatened with Charges, and Andrej had realized even so long ago that the Captain was more than a match for him.
“How much of an Eighth Level does the Captain consider appropriate, prior to termination?”
He didn’t like thinking about what it had cost him to keep them from the whip. He certainly could not afford to give Lowden cause to threaten his Security again, since he would not be here much longer to plead for an Exception.
“Well, now, that’s not an easy question, is it?” Lowden would know exactly what was going on in Andrej’s mind. They understood each other far too well — to Andrej’s shame. “It’s a pretty solid Sixth. I’d say — take a couple of hours at the Eighth Level, then terminate. Let’s make it four eights at the Eighth Level, you can manage that, Andrej, can’t you?”
Of course he could. And part of him would even enjoy it. “I’d like to check into Section for an hour or so before I continue. With the Captain’s permission.” He didn’t have any impudence left in him, not any more. It wasn’t as though it was a game between he and Captain Lowden. Or even though it was a game it was other people who would suffer as a result of Lowden’s frustrated displeasure, and that took all of the sport out of the contest.
“Don’t wait too long, Andrej. I’ll want a complete Record from you by Second next, day after tomorrow. That’ll be all.”
Back at his desk, now, Lowden turned his attention to something on his screen, and Andrej bowed to Lowden’s oblivious back and left the room. What did it matter, if Lowden should dismiss him like a servant? He was a servant, a lackey, an errand-boy. A whore. Captain Lowden’s whore. And because Captain Lowden cherished tapes of inhuman torture, he had just agreed to brutalize a man who had already confessed, merely to try to keep yet more names off Record. If he could keep anyone’s name off Record, at all. If the Bench hadn’t already taken everyone who might know anything about Ndsi’s supposed plots in hand, and to the torture . . .
Jan was trying to catch his eye, but he had no humor now to wink at her.
An hour in Section, to update Memakem.
And then he would go back to Secured Medical, and it would start all over again. Two days, and four hours to be at the Eighth Level. Time stopped for the tormented, and there were no hours for people in such pain that centuries could pass between the drawing of one breath and the next, the outraged spirit reluctant to keep breathing. Four hours was as good as four weeks, four months, four years. Two days was an eternity.
Only a few more weeks, and he could go home, and be done with such horrors for the rest of his life.
A few more weeks.
He had to survive for just a few more weeks.
[It’s an interesting dynamic between Andrej and Lowden, because there’s an extent to which Lowden really does take very good care of Andrej Koscuisko. In a sick and twisted sense. I’m not saying he didn’t deserve to die, mind you.]
Ralph Mendez presided over Ship’s Disciplinary Hearing once a week, whether he needed to or not. As the senior Security officer on board it fell to him to review the periodic roster of offenses reported, violations committed, adjustments required in the day-to-day workings of a ship of war; and the Ragnarok — was not one. No, the Ragnarok was an experimental ship still in the final stages of proving out its still-controversial black-hull technology and a sixteen atop thirty-two lesser innovations: but there was discipline to be maintained all the same. Ship’s First Officer, Ralph Manil Mendez, son and grandson of men so named, to sit in judgment. Ship’s Inquisitor, Andrej Koscuisko, to weigh the penalty, because the only Bench officer on board was the Chief Medical Officer, and Koscuisko would be tasked with the administration of any corporal punishment deemed appropriate. Or its delegation; but Koscuisko was selfish about the beatings, and held them all for himself. Four years ago Mendez had supposed that was because Koscuisko had a particular taste for the work. Koscuisko claimed that as his excuse still.
Mendez no longer quite believed him.
Six-and-sixty at Koscuisko’s hand was brutal, was ferocious punishment, but it was survivable — Mendez had seen that. Six-and-sixty from anybody else was a death sentence. Koscuisko knew what he was doing with a whip.
That was why the Bench had first mandated the restriction and ruled that only medical officers were to execute the Protocols.
Ship’s First, the Chief Medical Officer, and usually some representative from Command Branch sat at Ship’s Disciplinary Hearing to round out the panel. Today it was the senior of two third lieutenants on board, Jennet ap Rhiannon, crèche-bred, newly assigned, and a little impatient. Koscuisko wasn’t quite arrived, not yet.
“We have — how many cases this morning, First Officer?” ap Rhiannon asked carefully, reaching across the table for the rack of cubes. “Five?”
Crèche-bred Command Branch. A tricky piece of business, the third lieutenant, short, stocky, dark hair, full oval face, blue eyes. More or less. No nonsense about her, but she was polite; she hadn’t asked him why Koscuisko was late, not in so many words. So far.
Koscuisko was just now coming through the far doors into the senior mess room that served for this and other administrative functions between the four meals that the ship served daily. It was early on in Koscuisko’s most recent interrogation, Mendez noted; Koscuisko still seemed fairly fresh and rested. Clean linen was a universal restorative, and Koscuisko’s people took good care of him — as Koscuisko of them.
“My excuses, First Officer, I mean to say apologies. I have overslept. It is not Robert’s fault, he tried to wake me, and I believe I have locked him into the wardrobe. Good-greeting, Lieutenant, ap Rhiannon I think?”
ap Rhiannon was on her feet, politely standing to attention for the entry of a superior officer. Koscuisko nodded to her, climbing the low steps that separated the back end of the mess area on its raised platform from the more general area where the senior warrants and junior officers took their meals. Yes, brisk and genial, and unless a man knew to look he could easily miss the fathomless pit of desperation behind Koscuisko’s pale eyes entirely.
“I hate it when that happens,” Mendez replied, to make conversation. “Hope you remembered to let him out, Andrej, he’ll get a crick in his neck. Well.”
Koscuisko took his seat to Mendez’ left, on the middle of the board. ap Rhiannon waited till Koscuisko had settled himself to sit down. Mendez caught ap Rhiannon’s gaze lingering on Koscuisko’s face as she sat, and suppressed a grin of recognition. Yes, Koscuisko let his hair go out of Standard tolerance from time to time. No, it wasn’t up to any Command Branch officer on board except for Captain Lowden himself to say anything to Koscuisko about it.
“I saw Wheatfields in the corridor, First Officer, perhaps if we started in Engineering and got it out of the way?” Koscuisko suggested.
Naturally Koscuisko wanted Wheatfields well clear of the area before he left the room. In the four years that Koscuisko had served on board of Ragnarok he had gradually developed a relationship of grudging mutual respect with the moody Chigan whose partner had been murdered by one of Koscuisko’s fellows so many years ago. Wheatfields still had a tendency to knock Koscuisko into the nearest wall from time to time for no particular reason. It was nothing personal.
Mendez nodded at the lieutenant. She called out to the sergeant at arms, her voice clear and neutral — chilling, almost, in its professionalism.
“His Excellency, Serge of Wheatfields, Ship’s Engineer. Willful disregard for standard repair procedures on status checks resulting in avoidable physical damage to the fabric of this ship.”
Ship’s Engineer had to duck his over-tall Chigan head to step into the room. The accused came behind his senior officer under Security escort; a junior maintenance tech, pale but defiant. Mendez had the scenario at once. Wheatfields was past his patience, and wanted to make the point with the technician; who — to judge by his previous history at Mast — had an attention deficit disorder of some sort.
“Technician second class Hixson. State your name, your identification, and the nature of the issue on which you have been called to answer.”
Koscuisko’s turn. Chief Medical knew the formal legal language cold, and could probably recite it in his sleep. It should have given Hixson pause to realize that he was faced with the man who held the Writ to Inquire on Ragnarok. Unfortunately Hixson did not seem to be impressed.
“Yes, your Excellency. Sallie Hixson, as previously identified. Gross structural components forward, carapace hull, third-shift. Sir.” Hixson sounded bored: careful enough to express all due respect, but beneath it all — as he finished his recitation — Hixson clearly was not convinced that what he’d done was all that important to the safety of the ship.
“Towards the end of duty shift two days ago this troop failed to complete items sixteen through twenty on pre-seal survey and failed to so note on documentation, falsely attesting to completion of task. Bulkhead subsequently failed under random test, resulting in physical damage to fabric of ship. Sir.”
Mendez could empathize, to a certain extent. If Hixson had never served under fire he had no personal experience of catastrophic hull failure during a firefight. Unfortunately there was no margin under Fleet protocols for learning the serious nature of a hull failure on the job: a person was expected to take it as a given.
“Third offense,” Wheatfields reminded them, just in case they hadn’t noticed from the record. “You’ll remember the conversation we had last time, Hixson?”
It was for Koscuisko to carry the inquiry forward, but Koscuisko prudently kept shut. This had more to do with Engineering anyway.
“Yes, your Excellency.” Hixson had begun to sweat a little. “But, ah, under the circumstances, sir. No harm done, after all, no need for extreme sanctions.”
“I decide whether or not harm was done, Technician.” Mendez was impressed. Wheatfields was angry. “We were lucky. You could have gotten someone killed.” Wheatfields had been standing behind Hixson and his escort, while Hixson made his statement. Now Wheatfields closed the distance between the accused and the Bar. “You and I have had this conversation before and I’m tired of hearing excuses. We agreed on assessment of penalty last time, Hixson.”
Mendez checked his ticket, casually. Yes. They had. Wheatfields had waived his right to demand blood. Hixson had promised it wouldn’t happen again.
“Yes, sir. We did, sir. Guilty as charged, sir.”
Not as if that would make a difference if Wheatfields had decided to give up on Hixson. Ship’s Engineer was within his rights to summarily dismiss Hixson from duty in section on board of Ragnarok, forever. That would mean reassignment for Hixson, under less than auspicious circumstances. And Hixson had just about exhausted his issued ration of second chances before he’d even got to the Ragnarok.
Wheatfields turned around, away from Hixson, nose-to-nose with Koscuisko where he sat, leaning over the table from the other side. Koscuisko did a good job of not looking startled. “What’s my range, Chief Medical?”
Technically speaking — once again — that was up to the Bench officer to decide. Koscuisko just frowned a little, thinking. “Couldn’t really see one-and-ten at this point, Serge. You’re going to have to start at two-and-twenty. It’ll take up to eight-and-eighty, depending on how dangerous the failure might hypothetically have been. But that’s pushing it.”
Koscuisko spoke quietly, but it was a small room. Still Hixson had been warned: and if Hixson couldn’t quite believe that he could be put to death for faking a check-off list on an inspection chit he was a least beginning to think a little harder about why inspection chits were important.
“I want four-and-forty from the son of a bitch,” Wheatfields said firmly. “It’s going to take four shifts to get structural integrity restored along that piece of wall. But I want him back on duty before we make Burkhayden, too.”
“You’ll have to make do with three-and-thirty, then.” Koscuisko’s voice was regretful, but firm — as if he wasn’t simply stating what Wheatfields had been after all along. “Three-and-thirty, and I can see return to duty in five days. Deal?”
Three-and-thirty was enough to get anyone’s attention, whether or not the Bench standard saw it the same way. Mendez cleared his throat. This was his Mast, after all, when it came down to it.
“All right. Hixson, your senior officer has asked for three-and-thirty in consideration of the failure in duty you have acknowledged. Chief Medical states five days are to be provided for recovery.” If Hixson had been bond-involuntary, now, rather than a free man, Lowden would cut that recovery time in half as a matter of course. “What’s your call?”
“Sir. Chief Engineer is within his rights, sir, we had agreed. Just and judicious that it should be so, First Officer, three-and-thirty prudent and proper as penalty. Sir.”
Maybe it would work.
Hixson wasn’t stupid. He could interpret negotiation as well as anyone. Wheatfields wanted to salvage him for the Ragnarok. But Wheatfields was tired of making excuses for him.
“Let the Record show, then. Thank you, gentles, return Hixson to duty-ward pending execution of penalty assessed. Good-greeting, Serge.”
Four to go.
All fairly innocuous, especially after the first. Brawling in common-room over an opprobrious name which might or might not have been spoken aloud. Extra duty to be performed to balance out having evaded an assigned duty shift without taking adequate care to ensure that arrangements for coverage were honored.
Sloppy cleaning in the recyclers in mess leading to the loss of a day’s run on one of the ration lines, no great loss as far as Mendez was concerned but rules were rules. Extra maintenance for three weeks to be performed by one of Two’s people, caught napping on duty station after celebrating too hard over a co-worker’s promotion.
This was the daily stuff of discipline and punishment on a ship of war, and if it hadn’t been for the relatively unusual occurrence of Wheatfields’ invocation of corporal punishment Mendez could have slept through it himself and not felt any harm done.
“That’s it for today, then?” Koscuisko asked, gathering a set of disposition tickets into his left hand as he rose. “I’ll take these to Captain, First Officer, I’m on the agenda anyway. Lieutenant.”
ap Rhiannon stood in turn a little abruptly, as though surprised at Koscuisko’s relative informality. She was new. And crèche-bred stood on their dignity far more frequently than even other Command Branch officers. Mendez was perfectly comfortable with letting Koscuisko take the report forward: he and Captain Lowden had years of negotiation between them, now, they had it down to a fine art.
“Captain will go with three-and-thirty, do you think? Andrej?”
Captain Lowden was a relatively strict disciplinarian: prior to Koscuisko’s arrival had been a ferociously strict, by-the-book assessor of the maximum available penalty for a given offense. That was part of the negotiations between Koscuisko and the Captain that had nothing to do with any softening on Lowden’s part and everything to do with the alternative entertainment Koscuisko could offer down in Secured Medical to while away the long hours of Lowden’s usually uneventful days.
Mendez knew it went on.
He just didn’t want to know anything more about it, since there wasn’t anything he could do.
“Good odds, First Officer, depending. I think it’ll be all right. Good-greeting, I’m late.”
The door at the far end of the room closed behind Koscuisko’s back.
Jennet ap Rhiannon sat back down.
Mendez waited, curious as to what she would say.
“There’s a prisoner in Secured Medical, First Officer.” Interesting choice. No question about why it was Ship’s First who asked Chief Medical about what decision the Captain would make on a disciplinary issue, rather than the other way around. “This is the first time I’ve been assigned to a rated warship. I’d like to have a look at what goes on, as long as there’s an Inquiry in process.”
She’d already been to Secured Medical to have a look, in fact — Mendez had Stildyne’s morning report. But Secured Medical was just that: secured. Nobody went into Secured Medical without prior and explicit authorization from Chief Medical.
To her credit she hadn’t tried to bully her way past the bond-involuntary Security on watch over the prisoner.
“Surely they covered it in orientation, Lieutenant.” That didn’t mean he had to make things easy for her. It was bad enough that the Captain treated Koscuisko’s Judicial function as recreation. There was no reason to tolerate any similar tendency in junior officers. “What’s to see?”
The lieutenant frowned. “True, First Officer. But I’ve been active now for four, five years. And if I’m to be responsible, one day, I’d like to know what I’m to be responsible for.”
All right, maybe it wasn’t prurient interest, maybe it was a misplaced sense of responsibility. “Best bet is to let Stildyne know, he can pass the word on to his officer. I’ll tell Chief, Lieutenant. Is that all?”
Koscuisko’s Chief of Security could find the best time to put her request before Koscuisko. Koscuisko listened to Stildyne. Koscuisko didn’t listen to lieutenants, Command Branch or no. Koscuisko hardly listened to him, Ralph Mendez, and he was senior; it wasn’t insubordination, though, not really. Captain Lowden simply kept Koscuisko strung out too taut to operate on anything more than a very basic level.
“Thank you, your Excellency.”
If Koscuisko got Lowden to accept so mild a punishment as three-and-thirty for Wheatfields’ technician it would be because Lowden expected to split the difference with the prisoner in Secured Medical —
None of his business.
And nothing he could do about it either way.
Ralph Mendez put the familiar resentment away and left the room to return to his office and prepare for staff in two eights.
[The foregoing scene just disappeared from the final text, though – again – I thought it was interesting from a Day in the Life sort of point of view. The following scene is in the final text, but from Lowden’s point of view, and I like Ralph’s point of view, and appreciate my chances to use it.]
Command Branch and Ship’s Primes, Jurisdiction Fleet Ship Ragnarok. Captain Griers Verigson Lowden, commanding. Ship’s Executive Ralph Manil Mendez, Third, bored halfway to sundown, and disgusted with the lot of them.
Not their fault, of course, Mendez reminded himself, cocking an eye down the staff table at his fellows. Not Wheatfields’ fault, the Engineer kept to his own corridors and minded his own business. Not the Intelligence Officer’s fault, either. Two was actually more of a help to him than anyone else here, even if she did look like an oversized vulpine with the great leathery wings of a night-glider. As near as Mendez had ever been able to figure out Two had no hidden agendas, no disguised motives; and that made her unique, on board this ship.
Two caught his eye and clashed the sharp white teeth in her delicate black muzzle in his direction, cheerfully. Mendez was not about to let himself be cajoled out of his mood, however. For one, Memakem was sitting in for Koscuisko again, and everyone knew what that meant. For another Lowden was late, as always, and as obvious as the unsubtle reminder of rank had always been it frequently still managed to aggravate Mendez. He had work to do, and more than he should have, in his estimation. The political games that Command Branch seemed to relish with such enjoyment were all so much dried-up day-old dung to Ralph Mendez.
The door to the officer’s mess room opened, and Mendez glanced up across the room to confirm identity before he bothered to stand up. He didn’t need Ship’s Third Lieutenant to remind him. Of course ap Rhiannon was required to call the command anyway.
“Stand to attention for the Captain, Lowden, commanding.”
She got the job of calling it because she was the junior Command Branch officer here, but if Brem and Wyrlann — Ship’s Second and First Lieutenants, respectively — expected her junior status to keep her in her subordinate place they had another think coming. Brem and Wyrlann were technically senior, true. But ap Rhiannon was crèche-bred, and crèche-bred Command Branch were sewer sharks in Fleet braid. Acid ambition and the cold certainty of absolute authority were fed into them almost from their birth. Captain Lowden didn’t pay her any mind, but Lowden probably was safe even from crèche-bred Command Branch, with his connections. It was the other officers without powerful friends whose interests were at risk.
“Good greeting, good greeting. Be seated.” Lowden was never in a hurry to step up to the table, to give the at-ease. Ralph Mendez was too old to care one way or the other, and their guests were Bench Intelligence, too professional to show a hint of any sort of feeling whatever. He wondered what Two knew about them.
Taking his time, again, Lowden poured himself a dish of vellme before he proceeded. “Well, we’ve got a pretty full list, here, today. And I don’t want to keep any of you, I know you’re all busy.” Which was, of course, why he was late. Because they were busy. Because he could make them wait. Getting irritated about it only played to Lowden’s rules. “Let’s have report, shall we? Ralph?”
That’s First Officer to you, son, Mendez thought. You useless excuse for a Ship’s Captain. “Nothing to report, your Excellency. Maintenance on schedule, readiness status at Line standard.” It wasn’t really fair of him to feel that way about Captain Lowden, though, not really. He wasn’t an ineffective Captain. He just wasn’t one that Mendez could have any respect for, and that was for purely personal reasons, not any professional failing on Lowden’s part. “No major infractions during the last period. Inventory down five in Engineering, three in Intelligence, eight in Security, five in Medical.”
“Eight in Security?” Yes, he’d expected a question from Lowden on that one. “I thought we were only expecting seven replacements.”
“There’s a Fleet requisition out for Chief Stildyne, your Excellency. New from day before yesterday. He’s offered an Executive slot on the Edeslock Line, JFS Sceppan.”
And Lowden thought it was funny. Too bad. But Lowden just couldn’t seem to let Koscuisko be, whether Koscuisko was there or not. “Oh, our good Chief Medical isn’t going to like that, is he? I mean what with their close personal relationship, and all. Has Andrej been notified? No, that’s right. He’s — busy.”
They didn’t need to talk about that. Really they didn’t. “As you say, your Excellency. I haven’t had a chance to speak to Chief Medical yet.” And he wasn’t going to, either, not until Chief Stildyne had a chance. But Stildyne would take the berth; Mendez was certain of that. It was a good berth. Stildyne had earned the promotion. Also, Koscuisko’s time was nearly up, Koscuisko would be leaving, going home to Azanry or wherever the hell it was that he was from. And once Koscuisko had left there would be nothing to keep Stildyne on the Ragnarok.
“Well, it’ll be two or three days yet, I hope Stildyne doesn’t mind. Thanks, Ralph, what’ve you got to say for yourself this morning, Two?”
Two shifted on her chair — she stood on the seat rather than sitting on it, since as near as Mendez had ever been able to tell she couldn’t sit at all in the conventional sense — and chattered her teeth a little more rapidly, her pink-and-black tongue flickering back and forth in a disconcertingly random manner. In a moment her translator began to process, but by that time she had finished speaking; and rested her primary wing-joint with its little clawed three-fingered hand against the table’s surface, patiently, waiting 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, Jils Ivers, Karol 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.”
Mendez had wondered, from time to time, 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. He’d known her since he’d got here, going on ten years ago. He liked her, but he’d never been able to figure her out.
“You’re turning your chit over to your guests, is that it?”
It was obvious enough to Ralph. But maybe — he decided — Lowden was only giving Two’s visitors their cue, their permission to speak.
“The Intelligence Officer forwarded his Excellency’s request for a status report.” 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, Ralph guessed. But maybe he was just from one of the lineages that got smooth-skulled early. “We’re almost to the halfway point, due to cross into Meghilder territorial space within two days time, Standard. His Excellency may feel that an update briefing is in order.”
Neither of them wore any rank, consistent with Bench Intelligence practice. Mendez couldn’t help but wonder which was which, Vogel and Ivers. The woman — black eyes, black hair, a little shorter than her partner and as ready to take on any given eight assailants, if her job was any indication — betrayed no sign of Iversness or Vogelicity, any more than the man looked Iverish or Vogellic. Two’s descriptive statements frequently lacked precision, in translation. Mendez was convinced that she planned it that way.
Lowden was nodding his head in moderately impatient agreement. “I would have thought you’d have offered before now. After all, I’m expected to send my First Lieutenant out to port Burkhayden with a prep team, and we don’t yet know what’s waiting for us when we get there.”
That was a little unreasonable, in Mendez’ opinion. The briefing they’d both read had seemed clear enough to him. The Nurail population of Meghilder, a Bench subject class since the Grazer rebellions; and world bound over to a Combine business interest under the Political Stabilization Acts. A symbolic Fleet escort to the principle port, and formal transfer of control to take place upon arrival. That hadn’t been Lowden’s point, though. Lowden’s point had simply been that he could be as rude as he liked, even to Bench Intelligence, and get away with it. He was the Captain of the Ragnarok, the supreme representative of the Jurisdiction Bench, absolute authority — civil no less than military — wherever he chose to go on Line, in the absence of his Fleet or Judicial superiors. That was the point.
The Intelligence Specialist didn’t seem to have noticed.
“Which points in particular did his Excellency wish to have clarified?”
It was a direct challenge, but Lowden waved it off. Lowden was accustomed to waving challenges off; it hadn’t ever done Koscuisko any good to argue with Lowden, as far as Mendez had been able to tell. “Oh, just give us a run-down, what’s going to happen. Starting from now, for instance.”
The man nodded. “Very well. Transfer of material civil authority and associated economic development responsibilities, port Burkhayden as surrogate for Meghilder, Nurail protected world number ICFEZ9-372. Intelligence specialist second sub seven Karol Aphon Vogel, administrative audit authority, reporting.”
So the man was Vogel, his partner Ivers. For all the difference it made. But if Vogel was the audit agent, why was Ivers here at all? Bench Intelligence weren’t usually double-teamed, as a matter of practice. Any given one of them was usually all the Bench needed to fulfill its purpose, whatever that was. One Judicial Irregularity, one Bench Intelligence Specialist.
“Under the provisions of the Political Stabilization Acts a Combine familial corporation under the delegated authority of the prince inheritor Paval I’shenko Danzilar has been granted its petition for stewardship of reference protected world. Contract to be subject to normal audit requirements, including, but not limited to, maintenance of basic social services, preservation of the Judicial order, and remittance of assessed tax revenues to the Bench, for the duration of the contract.”
Koscuisko was a prince inheritor too, Mendez remembered that. The oldest son of the Koscuisko prince, not that that seemed to have done Andrej any good, over the last four years. Mendez had wondered whether that had actually hurt Koscuisko, in his relations with Captain Lowden. The Captain was a petty tyrant with a ship — and subject worlds — to play with. Koscuisko was a Dolgorukij autocrat, which placed him well ahead of any Fleet Captain for assessment of relative tyranny, if any of the Sarvaw that Mendez had ever known could be relied upon. That was a thought. Lowden wasn’t just a petty tyrant. He was a jealous, insecure petty tyrant, and a man like Koscuisko — with centuries of absolute power behind him, on top of medical ability officially noted on more than one occasion — probably annoyed him just by breathing.
“Which duration of contract is defined as fifty years, Standard, or Judicial mandate, whichever expires first. At which time said Combine familial corporation in the person of the prince inheritor Paval I’shenko Danzilar or his legal heirs to be permitted to purchase a perpetual interest in said protected world upon payment of net present value of tax revenues for an additional period of fifty years, provided that a neutral survey of social welfare indicators remains satisfactory.”
Whether or not the subject population, the enslaved Nurail population, wanted it that way. If there were any of them left, after fifty years. There had been an aboriginal population on Azanry when the Dolgorukij had arrived, from what little Mendez understood of Combine history. None of them seemed to have survived; of course it had been several centuries. Two and Koscuisko had been talking about color, one day, not long after their Chief Medical Officer had been posted to the Ragnarok. Two had asked Koscuisko if all of his category of hominid were as pale as Koscuisko was; and Koscuisko had shrugged, and said something about paleozoology that Mendez had not liked.
“Transfer of local authority initiated with the exchange of the first five years’ worth of tax revenue guarantees at face value. The Bench retains full responsibility for security of franchise party to the inner limit of Meghilder local space. Fleet escort to travel as franchise guest from that period to planetfall, at which time formal transfer of the balance of local authorities is to be effected.”
Vogel recited the lot of it dryly, without much inflection, his eyes fixed on a point on the wall behind Captain Lowden’s head. Through Captain Lowden’s head. Lowden was making a fine show of ignoring Vogel completely; but he had asked, and so it seemed that not even Lowden dared to cut Vogel off.
“Per agreements executed at the Bench level when Fleet escort reaches local boundary the senior Ship’s Lieutenant will proceed to port Burkhayden ahead of convoy to ensure that all appropriate steps have been completed for satisfactory transfer of authority. The administrative audit authority, acting as Bench proxy, will verify readiness not later than thirty-two hours Standard prior to arrival of the convoy.”
Wyrlann’s job would be to make sure that there were no Bench resources left unaccounted for, no item of moveable value that the Bench could claim left carelessly in a place where Danzilar might be able to use it. The process would have begun almost a year ago, the Bench stripping out resources planet-wide, Danzilar’s people pumping money and material in behind them as quickly as they could to prevent the economy from collapsing before Danzilar even got there. Koscuisko had made some comments about Danzilar, when they’d first heard about this mission — something to the effect that Danzilar’s great-great-grandmother had been a younger sister, which Koscuisko had seemed to believe explained why Danzilar was so poor that he had to take a gamble on this whole thing. All Mendez had to say about it was that if the Danzilar familial corporation hadn’t been poor before, it was certainly going to get close to the experience once it had paid out tax guarantees at face value and replaced all the resources the Bench was taking back.
“Bench relinquishes responsibility to the prince inheritor Paval I’shenko Danzilar upon execution of final audit agreement, Griers Verigson Lowden as Bench proxy. To be completed not more than thirty-six hours after arrival of convoy, Burkhayden space.”
So they’d get there and the Captain would turn over the comp-keys to the security markers and they’d leave. Once Danzilar was in possession of his planet any Fleet support rendered, whether directly or indirectly, was just so much wasted money, as far as Fleet was concerned. Oh, they would stretch it as far as to come to Danzilar’s party — they could hardly refuse to make an appearance, since Danzilar was specifically celebrating his arrival. But they’d be out of there the morning after, damn straight.
“Yes, yes, yes. We know all that, Vogel.” Lowden apparently felt it was safe to interrupt, now. Now that Vogel had said everything anyone might need to know about the mission, and nothing that they hadn’t all already known before Lowden had demanded a briefing. “But where am I supposed to send my prep team? We need coordinates. Reference points. Logistics, Vogel, Fleet can’t be expected to carry this off for you if the Bench can’t pay attention to the details.”
He’d been with Captain Lowden for ten years. He’d gotten past being embarrassed to be associated with the man, Mendez reminded himself, firmly. If Vogel was a Bench Intelligence Specialist he knew as much about Mendez’ own background as Mendez himself did; maybe more. He ought to try to get a word with Vogel, Ralph decided, the idea sparking into his mind full of sudden speculative interest. Perhaps Vogel would be able to tell him what he’d done to be stuck with Captain Lowden for ten years.
“With respect, Captain Lowden. The Intelligence Officer has confirmed your receipt of that information. You and Lieutenant Wyrlann countersigned for it a week ago. Are there any further questions?”
Respectful language, but no backing down from the basic message. Listen, fellow, if that’s your game, I’m not playing. I’ve got work to do.
But Lowden recovered very nicely. “What’s she doing here?” he demanded belligerently, indicating Ivers with a jab of his chin. “Auditing the auditor? You on training assignment, or what? There’s something you’re not telling us, Vogel.”
Ivers had sat silent and poised during Vogel’s dry recitation. Looking Lowden in the eye, now, she answered with a faint note of confusion that was too deliberate to be spontaneous. “We’ve scheduled a courtesy call with you, Captain Lowden, re-confirmed this shift. It is customary, when the Bench wishes to contact a subordinate officer.”
And Lowden hadn’t been paying attention, distracted as he had probably been by running Koscuisko. The timing would have been about right; Stildyne had reported that Koscuisko was due to see Lowden about that Sixth Level of his, this morning. The latest Sixth Level, that Lowden had clearly elevated to the Seventh, or beyond.
Lowden smiled. “I’m sure you understand, Ivers. When a man’s got a real job to do, a man doesn’t always keep on top of his scheduler. You’re from?”
“Chilleau Judiciary, Captain. Second Judge Sem Por Harr, presiding. Secretary Verlaine, command and administrative staff, with a brief to be presented to his Excellency, Andrej Ulexeievitch Koscuisko.”
The Second Judge — and Verlaine had been with her every step of the way, too. Secretary Verlaine. Two had dropped hints about Koscuisko having gotten sideways of Por Harr’s First Secretary, from the very start of his career — well before that ugly business at the Domitt Prison.
“Well, I’m not about to waste valuable staff time hearing about it. Thank you, Ivers, Vogel. That’ll be all.” Having apparently come to a decision about something, Lowden dismissed the pair of them summarily. As if they’d been imposed on him, instead of the other way around. These sorts of games amused Lowden no end. “Doctor Memakem, filling in for Andrej, I understand? And how are things, in Section?”
Mendez could tell him the answer to that. Doing as well as could be expected, under the circumstances. It hadn’t been too bad, before Koscuisko, because the people they’d had to fill the slot before that been competent physicians of one sort or another, but only that. Not people who actually made a critical difference to Medical Staff. Not people whose absences could be so keenly felt, if not resented, because of how much they could contribute when left alone to practice medicine.
“Two very serious beds, one upgraded from critical within the last period. Five traumatic injuries, two severe. Pharmacy stores at surplus, budget is at superoptimal. With respect, Captain, is there any word about his Excellency’s replacement, yet?”
Mendez made a mental note to himself, only half-listening to Memakem.
He was going to want to ask Two about Jils Ivers.
It was quiet in the corridor outside Secured Medical, so Stildyne heard Koscuisko’s approach before the party cleared the corridor’s turning. Koscuisko and two Security: that would logically be Lek Kerenko and Pyotr Micmac. Koscuisko would not be expecting any company.
Stildyne bowed to his approaching officer, conscious of the Lieutenant waiting beside him making her salute as well. Koscuisko gave her the nod in return but fixed his attention on Stildyne.
“What is the meaning of this, Chief?”
Koscuisko had to look up at him; but the challenge in the officer’s pale gray eyes was untainted by any confusion over relative size as a measure of personal dominance or relative rank. Koscuisko was not tall. But Koscuisko was three times an autocrat, once in Medical, twice in Secured Medical, and three times in his birth and breeding.
Stildyne was just a Chief Warrant Officer in Security, a mongrel from nowhere with nowhere to go when his tour of service was up. Sceppan would be a distraction, but Stildyne knew that it wouldn’t be half the challenge that keeping after Andrej Koscuisko had been. Because there was no such thing.
“First Officer presents his respects, your Excellency.” Now Koscuisko was to go home. Stildyne could hardly imagine what it might be like to have a home to go to. “Respectfully endorsing Fleet Lieutenant ap Rhiannon’s request for a brief orientation in Secured Medical for educational purposes. Sir.”
An orientation. Stildyne could almost hear the phrase repeated in Koscuisko’s clear tenor, suspicion dripping off every syllable. Koscuisko turned his head to confront the Lieutenant rather than mock her, however. They were much more of a size than he was. Koscuisko even had the advantage of height over the Lieutenant, and that was unusual, Koscuisko being somewhat to the short side of the Jurisdiction standard.
“What could possibly be of interest in a torture-room, Lieutenant? Tours are not usually on the agenda.”
Koscuisko made the Lieutenant uncomfortable. Stildyne could sympathize. The instability in Koscuisko’s psychological makeup that made him so effective a torturer communicated itself to other sentient souls as something to fear, whether or not they were in any danger of coming under Koscuisko’s hand. Koscuisko’s own Security were afraid of him; and they had more reason to know than anybody how desperately Koscuisko was determined not to hurt them.
“I’ve never been posted to a rated warship, sir. And I was taught to be sure I knew what I was asking when I issued an order. I thought it was a good opportunity, your Excellency.”
Something in what she said or how she said it caught Koscuisko’s fancy; Stildyne knew it from the sudden gesture Koscuisko made, cocking his head to one side and looking sidewise at her.
“H’mm. I cannot but endorse the instinct on principle. Come in, then, Lieutenant, you shall have hands-on experience here and now, and Mister Micmac shall show you how I wish the prisoner prepared for further Inquiry.”
She looked a little startled at this. Stildyne was a little startled himself: but Koscuisko took the Lieutenant by the elbow and walked her to the cell-door, talking as he went.
“To give the order is as much as to do the deed, after all, Lieutenant. So you may watch, but you shall also work. Have you in torture-cell before ever been?”
Koscuisko keyed the admit, and the door opened along its diagonal. The Lieutenant shook her head. “There were confinement cells at crèche, sir, but no such function on site. No.”
“All to the good. It will all be new and interesting.”
Something happened to Koscuisko when he went into a torture-cell, as the struggle in his soul between horror and hunger began to tip to the side of passion rather than revulsion. It made the officer a little drunk; and frequently very fey.
“Now. Here is a man, his name is Riveg Ndisi. You will note that he has been injured, and also that he is asleep. He and I have together completed the Sixth Level of the Question.”
After which Koscuisko had performed emergency stabilization, and fed the prisoner enough drugs to keep him pain-free if unconscious until Captain Lowden made a decision as to the final disposition of the Brief. The prisoner had clearly not stirred since Koscuisko had left him yesterday at fourth-shift. The fetters that bound him to the wall by his ankle-chains still lay neatly arranged at the foot of the sleep-rack.
It was too bad that he was not to be permitted to lie quietly in his bed — meager though it was — and die of a hygienic overdose of a narcotic. But that was none of Stildyne’s business.
“Now Mister Kerenko and Mister Micmac would usually move this man into the inner room, for me. But you are here. Be pleased to take direction from Pyotr, gentlemen, proceed.”
The inner room, Secured Medical proper. There was another way in to Secured Medical, on the other side of the inner chamber; a ready-room, with a washroom. Once Koscuisko had dismissed them Lek and Pyotr would go there to wait, and would make sure that the washroom had clean toweling on the warming-rack and clean linen waiting for Koscuisko when he changed.
Koscuisko had a horror of being seen with blood on his uniform. He was much happier when he could pretend that other people could pretend that they didn’t know just where he’d been, and what he’d been doing there.
Stildyne didn’t know why Koscuisko bothered, even so. It was the look on Koscuisko’s face that told the truth of where he had been, and there was no washing that horror out of Koscuisko’s haunted eyes, no matter how much time he took to try to set himself to rights before he left.
Koscuisko palmed the counterseal — it would only accept Koscuisko’s authorization, absent Captain Lowden’s direct intervention — and stepped through into Secured Medical while Pyotr guided the hesitant Lieutenant through the steps involved in raising an unconscious man to carry him to the torture. It interested Stildyne to note that though she clearly found the situation distasteful she neither shrank from the task Koscuisko had set her to nor refused guidance coming from a bond-involuntary.
Koscuisko went to the middle of the wall to the right of the room and crouched down to pull a floor-panel open, toggling some switches beneath the tile. The Wall descended from its storage-place, rotating as it tracked across the ceiling to come to rest in an inclined upright position on the floor. It was really more of a grid than a wall. And could serve as a table, when desired, but obviously Koscuisko wanted it standing, just for now.
Koscuisko didn’t bother with anything so tedious as instructions. His people knew what to do with a prisoner and the Wall. Strolling to the opposite side of the room, Koscuisko unlatched his drugs-caches and his equipment-racks from their concealed storage within the smooth white wall-panels of this sterile room. For the Lieutenant’s benefit, no doubt, Stildyne told himself. Ordinarily Koscuisko restricted the amount of time his people had to spend in the same room with instruments of torture: at least when he was thinking about it.
Since the Lieutenant was short and Pyotr’s partner Lek was not Pyotr helped a bit, the weight of the unconscious man’s body being too unequally distributed between her and Lek for efficiency. Once they had carried the prisoner through to the workroom, however, Pyotr stepped back, and gave directions with wordless gestures designed to communicate without drawing too much attention to themselves.
The Lieutenant bound the prisoner’s limbs to the grid with iron bands, watching Pyotr for approval, watching Lek. Matching Lek’s actions move for move. The Lieutenant set the straps and closed the vices, and although she stared for one long moment in disbelief and disgust at what Lek was showing her was to be done the Lieutenant set the clamps and tightened the screws as well.
If she hadn’t been crèche-bred Stildyne might have acknowledged himself impressed at her self-discipline — if only to himself. But everybody knew that crèche-bred lacked any real understanding that other hominids were people too, who by extension suffered. It was an artifact of their upbringing: the long years of relentless indoctrination, the single-minded focus on the rule of Law.
By the time the Lieutenant and Lek had finished their placement of the prisoner Koscuisko had found the drug he wanted. Standing by his chair, waiting for them, Koscuisko caught Stildyne’s eye; and winked. Stildyne knew the signs. The officer was well past his initial reluctance to face his Judicial function. The officer was beginning to enjoy himself, in anticipation.
The bond-involuntaries and the Lieutenant stood away from the Wall; Pyotr bowed, to signify that all was as his Excellency would wish. Koscuisko held up the stylus with the dose. “You are to put this through at the groin,” Koscuisko told ap Rhiannon. “You know where to find the femoral artery? Very well. Proceed.”
He was confusing her. Taking the stylus, she put the dose through a little awkwardly; but held it rather than returning it to Koscuisko, clearly uncertain about what she was being told to do.
“If his Excellency would entertain a question. Sir.”
Crèche-bred could be as formal as bond-involuntaries. Until Stildyne had met the Lieutenant he hadn’t realized that anyone could be as formal as a bond-involuntary. It made him wonder whether crèche-bred were a species of bond-involuntaries at base; without governors, of course, or if crèche-bred had governors it was the best-kept secret in Jurisdiction space.
“Thank you, Pyotr, Lek. I do not see my rhyti, if you hurry we can remedy that before my Riveg wakes up. Yes. Lieutenant.”
There was a raised platform in the middle of the room, and a large comfortable chair on that platform. With a side-table, where Koscuisko kept his rhyti while he worked, and where Security would set his meals out when Koscuisko did not care to interrupt an exercise to eat. The tabletop was bare: Pyotr and Lek hastened for the ready-room through the door at the far end of Secured Medical to take care of that problem.
The Lieutenant waited until they were gone to ask her question.
“Why the drug, sir. Given the Wall.”
An intelligent question, really. It did her credit. Koscuisko smiled, nodding his head to indicate that he understood her confusion. “You take the drug for an instrument of Inquiry from the Controlled List, Lieutenant? And not unreasonably so.”
And if the drug had been an instrument of Inquiry from the Controlled List, why would Koscuisko have given orders to prepare his prisoner for the more direct and grossly physical torment of the Wall? There was no reason why she would know. Koscuisko had very little to do with the Controlled List. Captain Lowden was interested in punishment, in deterrent horror. Actual information was rather low on Captain Lowden’s list of priorities.
“I will explain myself, Lieutenant. It is only a stimulant to counteract the narcotics with which I sent this man to sleep, yesterday. Or was it instead perhaps this morning, already? I require his attention, and that means he must wake up. But the drug is not in and of itself torture.”
Taking her arm once more Koscuisko strolled over to the far end of the room, pausing next to the door to open up a cabinet and display the Record. Talking all the while.
“There is a school of thought which holds that dirty work cleanly done does not soil, and that the Controlled List is an elegant solution to the problem of getting one’s hands dirty. For myself I cannot respect that way of thinking. If I am to murder Riveg Ndisi at length the very least I owe him is to know the smell of his blood for what it is, and acknowledge myself soiled well and truly, body and soul. Read from here, please, Lieutenant.”
He pointed her at the Record; the Lieutenant frowned at what she saw on the scroller. “With respect, your Excellency. This states confession in good form has been accepted and logged. Why are we here?”
Koscuisko’s point exactly, if the Lieutenant but knew. And she would guess. If not now, then later. “No, you must read it out loud, you are to be on Record. Proceed. If you please, Lieutenant.”
He’d left her few options. Frowning, ap Rhiannon scowled at the scroller. “For the Record. In the matter of Riveg Ndisi, accused. Command override has been issued for implied collaterals, the Eight Level is authorized. By Fleet Captain Griers Verigson Lowden, Jurisdiction Fleet Ship Ragnarok, commanding the Writ of Andrej Ulexeievitch Koscuisko, duly assigned.”
Nodding with approval now Koscuisko switched the scroller to neutral. “Your question is answered?”
“Sir. I hadn’t realized. But as long as the Captain has more personal knowledge of what this prisoner may know — “
“Riveg Ndisi,” Koscuisko interrupted her firmly. “Not ‘this prisoner,’ Lieutenant. Never ‘this prisoner.’ If you give the orders you must remember the name, it is not ‘this prisoner,’ it is a man, and he is called Riveg Ndisi. You will need to know this information. It is useful to be able to greet them by their names, when they visit you at night. Once they are dead.”
She didn’t know how to interpret this apparently nonsensical claim on Koscuisko’s part. Her look of confusion didn’t seem to disturb Koscuisko; he simply drove his point home with what he clearly felt to be a cogent argument.
“And they will visit you at night, Lieutenant, you can my word accept on this. I have experience.”
The Lieutenant might have heard rumors about Koscuisko; she might not have. Koscuisko’s people were possessive, careful of their officer’s dignity. And still there were rumors, because to have once heard Koscuisko screaming in his sleep was to believe in the existence of a living Hell.
And it was hard for decent people to hold the horror of that revelation within themselves without succumbing to the temptation to diminish the horror by witnessing to it with their fellows. Calling it by its name, as Koscuisko called his dead by name, pleading with them to understand that they were dead and were no longer suffering. That there was nothing that he could do to end their suffering. That they were dead.
She accepted Koscuisko’s calm assurances with a calm of her own that was good enough that Stildyne couldn’t tell if it was real or feigned. “Thank you, your Excellency, and I’ll remember. It’s Riveg Ndisi. Sir. What next?”
Maybe she’d decided to humor him, without spending too much time analyzing what he’d actually said. Koscuisko seemed to be satisfied either way.
“Next it is that you and Chief Stildyne leave, Lieutenant. I have work to do, and the period for orientation tour is over now. Good-greeting. Chief, if there is to be rhyti, please be so good as to hurry it, but kindly. Ndisi will be waking soon. I should like to be alone, before then.”
Of course. He’d always known how to hurry people. Only since Koscuisko had come to Ragnarok had it ever occurred to him to do it kindly; and the only reason he bothered even now was because Koscuisko would think less of him if he handled Koscuisko’s bond-involuntaries any less carefully than Koscuisko himself did. There were times when Stildyne stopped to look at his life, and how Koscuisko had changed it, and felt that Andrej Koscuisko had been a disaster as unforeseen as it was absolute.
“According to his Excellency’s good pleasure. Hurrying.” Behind them, on the Wall, the prisoner was beginning to stir, or to try to stir, groaning. High time they were out of there. “Lieutenant.”
“Thank you for the opportunity, your Excellency.” Her salute was careful, formal, and precise. And perhaps just a little wary. Or maybe — Stildyne told himself — he was imagining things. “Good-greeting, sir.”
The door from the ready-room, next to the Record, opened abruptly, and Pyotr stepped through with a rhyti-service on a tray. The Lieutenant went out the way Pyotr had come in as soon as Pyotr cleared the entryway: Stildyne followed after.
When Koscuisko went home who would wake him when he dreamt?
When Koscuisko went home would he dream?
Stildyne accompanied the Lieutenant out of the area, silent and brooding.
He wouldn’t know.
That was the worst of it.
Koscuisko would go home; and Stildyne would never hear from him again.
Andrej pushed the bedclothes away from him and onto the floor, restlessly. Oh, he could not sleep. He never could sleep, not — not during. He tried, because he knew that he ought, because it meant a respite of sorts when he slept — for his prisoner. A few breaths, a few hours to lie in fear and trembling, enslaved by the merciless action of a fearful drug . . . He couldn’t sleep. He had to get up, to go back. He was at the end of the Seventh Level. A few hours at the Eighth and young Ndsi would be free to go — to go and wait for him, to stand against him when he came to Reckoning —
It didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was that he was free, inside of a few more hours, to put an end to the horror that he had made of Ndsi’s life, free to put an end to it all. This time.
“His Excellency requires?”
There was a familiar shadow in his doorway, a familiar voice. He’d had St. Clare with him for as long as he’d been at this ferocious business — oh, almost eight years. And St. Clare had been the only one they’d let him have, the only one they’d let him keep, the only one.
“Thank you, Robert. I think I will get up, now. A bit of a fast-meal. Unfinished business, you know how it is.”
But Robert only bowed, polite and professional, and withdrew into the outer room. The only one they’d let him save. There were six bond-involuntary troops that belonged to him, now, and what was to come of them when he was gone? Captain Lowden had always made such a point, about them. About Robert, because Robert had come with him from Scylla. Captain Lowden was as contemptible an excuse for a man to hold power as any Andrej had ever known, but Andrej had come to know him, and when Lowden got bored —
Sitting up on the edge of his rumpled bed Andrej buried his face between his two hands, in a sudden weariness of despair. When Lowden got bored. Oh, when Lowden got bored. When Lowden got bored —
Perhaps if he gave Captain Lowden what he wanted Lowden wouldn’t get bored, or at least not too soon. Not badly. Or maybe they expected him to go away without a thought for the souls that were left behind him in bondage, exactly as he had been expected to do with St. Clare all those years ago.
No, he couldn’t afford to let himself be distracted. Straightening, standing up, he put the hair up away from his face with the splayed fingers of his right hand, concentrating on self-discipline. He was going to get up and have something to eat, and then he was going to go back to Secured Medical and be finished. Finished with Ndsi.
From then it couldn’t be more than three days, surely, before Ndsi would be finished with him — at least for the time being — and he would be able to set his energies to simply getting through the last few weeks.
A man could put up with anything, if only there was to be an end to it.
Only a few more weeks.
It was the eighth Level of Inquiry, the second of the three Advanced Levels; consisting of the Inquiry appropriate at the Preliminary Levels, the Confirmation expected at the Intermediate Levels, and Execution, restricted to the seventh Level and above. Inquiry had been completed day before yesterday, Confirmation obtained — to the extent that it could be said to be required — yesterday.
And now, in the early hours of Andrej’s sleep-shift, there was nothing left to do but Execute.
And Inquiry was what Andrej liked best; but Confirmation had its allure; and Execution could be so intense a pleasure that a man was tempted to hope that the prisoner would merit such punishment, rather than simply being referred back to the nearest Judiciary, rather than being turned over to the hopeless prison system to die of neglect in a cold cell somewhere, as had fallen to so many Nurail at the Domitt Prison. Captain Lowden understood how much a conservative man hated to waste all of that lovely, lovely agony.
Ndsi was a young man, and had been reasonably well put together, once upon a time. Andrej had tested Ndsi’s voice time and again during the course of his interrogation; and Ndsi had gained from instruction till Andrej could find no flaw or fault with how sweetly he could sing. Ndsi wept for Andrej even now, a generous present of pure unselfish anguish, and Andrej was careful to return gift for a gift.
He had had a decent upbringing, he knew what simple politeness required of him.
Ndsi cried, because a shock-rod was a brutal thing to begin with, and when it was applied to a muscle whose primary joint had been compromised the reflex spasm of the body pulled the injured knee or hip or wrist just so much further out of normal alignment, so that the little bits of splintered bone caught up within the muscle tissue cut like eight-and-eighty razor-sharp fragments of knife-matrix flint. There was no sense in even trying to stand against such pain. Ndsi was not a weak man, not a cowardly person — or had not been when they had started, at any rate — but still he could not keep silent, in his agony.
Ndsi lay on his belly on the floor, naked and bloody, with his cheek flat against the pebbly metal of the decking so that Andrej could admire his profile as Ndsi wept. Andrej had a firepoint in the equipment-rack, true, but a lefrol burned as hot to the same purpose, and since a man did not want to lose track of himself — too soon — it was just as well if he were to use his lefrol instead, wasn’t it? Prudence. Prudence, and temperance. Ndsi’s hands were cut and bleeding, mutilated; there was no more potential there, in Ndsi’s hands, unless it was to test his lefrol against the benchmark of the firepoint, to judge which one might have the most effect.
Andrej knelt down against the body of his prisoner, setting his knee firmly against the small of Ndsi’s flayed back; and drew one of his prisoner’s hands up and around, twisting the palm uppermost, beguiling himself with his prisoner’s hopeless — helpless — pain. And a lefrol. The odor was not the most pleasing, perhaps, but burnt flesh smelled as foul with a firepoint as with a lefrol, and his lefrol made it all so much more personal, to Andrej. Intimate. He had been torturer for eight years, he had prejudices and superstitions and rationalizations about his work, and one of his most stubbornly held convictions was that only a coward kept a sanitary distance between himself and his prisoner.
It was quite true that there were drugs that could be used to create pain, drugs that made terror, drugs that could reduce a man to whimpering incoherence, and all without a single drop of blood spilt in violence.
Drug-assisted inquiry only disgusted Andrej.
A man had to have respect for pain, respect for suffering, respect for blood. It was dishonest to pretend that a man did not soil himself, to do this work, and disrespectful to decline to dirty one’s hands. And therefore Andrej submitted himself to the stink of butchery, suffering the shamefulness of his deeply personal involvement in inhuman torture, and told himself that it was respect for his prisoner’s suffering that required he accept responsibility for what he did on his knees beside his prisoner and panting with the terrible intensity of it.
He told himself that it was a gesture of humility to come down to the floor of Secured Medical, to do his rapes himself with the butt end of a driver when he had Security that he could have used instead to the same purpose, holding himself aloof. He told himself that if a man was to die under torture — or a woman, for that matter, he had murdered enough of either sex to judge — that it was easier to die the victim of a person, of a man subject to the same mortality, rather than to suffer in sterile isolation from the action of an unthinking drug.
Andrej told himself all of these things, before, after.
During, he knew better.
During, Andrej knew that he had to feel the tormented flesh beneath his gloved hand because he could not bear to do the thing at all, unless he could find temporary oblivion in the white heat of his own passion. During, Andrej Koscuisko knew that all of his rationalizations were just pathetic sops to the compassionate portion of his nature, and the compassionate portion of his nature was no match for his deeper will to dominate. Empathy and training, skill, knowledge, learning, pity, keen sensitivity to the pain of others — all of what he was was only fodder, for the beast. He was a beast. And there were times when he wondered why he even wanted to deny the fact to himself. It made things so much easier, to surrender to his lust.
Andrej had learned how to be generous with himself over the years, how to prolong the pleasure of it while the Protocols demanded he continue, how to hold satiation safely at an arm’s length until he knew that he was clear to terminate. It was his only protection against the horror in himself. If he should mistake the progress far enough to let the vicious appetite glut itself and go to sleep, before he had fulfilled the Bench requirements — then when he came to himself again there would be nothing in the room to stand between his pitying self, the weak and anguished empathetic self that he could not afford to acknowledge, and the near and present witness to his own atrocities.
And when that happened he could not make a good exercise.
And when he did not make a good exercise Captain Lowden became concerned that he was losing his touch for lack of practice, and called in prisoners for him to hone his clearly dulled technique upon until there was nothing in his life at all but blood and screaming. So it was important to make a good exercise. Captain Lowden was watching. Captain Lowden was always watching. And if Captain Lowden was not satisfied . . .
His lefrol had burned down to a ragged butt and gone out at the last. It was time he found his finish and let go of young Ndsi, as beguiling as his prisoner had been — as satisfying as his submission was to the pain that Andrej nurtured in him carefully. It was his final moment, and Andrej trembled for it, aching with his need to spring the awful coiled tension within him with one final cruelty.
Andrej shifted his weight to one side, his right foot numb with lack of circulation. Rising awkwardly, standing on one foot, he thought about the way it was to be, this time. The Captain had said it would be adequate if he were to go four hours at the Eighth. Andrej was afraid he’d overstepped that minimum, again, oh, again, surely he had come here five hours gone and more; but if the extra hour had been unnecessary burden to his prisoner, it was still over, with no calling of it back. His regrettable indulgence would not displease his Captain.
He could go quick and cleanly to the kill, then, there was a drug suitable for such a purpose, he had already selected it. Ndsi had earned his death fairly, with sweat and labor. And the tasks had all been strict; and Andrej had allowed him no margin for error, none at all.
A suitable drug, yes, here, the dose premeasured to his hand. Andrej stood at his instrument rack for a long moment, confusion in his mind. It would be quick, it would be easy, but Ndsi cried so prettily for him, and even with the extra hour it had not been enough. He wanted both things, both Ndsi’s pain and his quick release, and he could not decide how he was to make his final choice between them.
Taking the stylus with its measured dose he returned to his victim where Ndsi lay, and the small sound of fear and helpless desperation that Ndsi made at his approach only stiffened his resolve to take his satisfaction. Kneeling down, again, at Ndsi’s head, Andrej turned the prisoner’s body so that he lay upon his back, taking Ndsi up into his arms, cradling the dying man to him with utmost care. There wasn’t much sound left, in his prisoner, not after all this time. But there was still clear communication, the look in his eyes, the agony and the terror, and the hopeless supplication.
Andrej touched Ndsi’s face carefully, noting how his prisoner tracked the movement of his gloved hand with eyes full of dread. Oh, it was fine. A little pressure where the cheek was scraped down to the bone, and Ndsi swallowed and tried hard to speak, except that he could not speak, any longer. And all of the little signs of pain, all of the body’s betrayals of its fear, spoke to the need in Andrej’s flesh directly, with transcendent power.
He gathered up one of Ndsi’s broken hands, carrying it to rest against his body, tenderly.
And closed his fist.
The brilliant white extremity of Ndsi’s pain was his, was as intense, was as eternal. Was final and ferocious, all-consuming, all-surrounding.
And when Andrej could breathe again the passion had gone out of him, and left him nothing. Nothing, but to crouch alone in his shame on the cold bare floor of Secured Medical, holding a poor tormented creature in his arms and cowering once again in the clear unforgiving certainty of abysmal sin.
He found the stylus where it had dropped to the floor and checked its dosage, and its primary charge. Yes, all quite correct, all as a man could wish. He’d loaded it himself. He knew his indicators. He settled Ndsi’s head against his shoulder, forcing himself to meet Ndsi’s gaze this one last time. There was no one there behind Ndsi’s eyes, not any more. No witness to his shame.
No chance to ever try to tell the tortured man that it was over, now, that he had kept his peace as well as any could have done, that he had not accused the innocent. That he could die in honor. No hope of catching some stray glimpse, some hinted hope that he could be forgiven. Andrej knew that he could not be forgiven, he knew there was no sense in even thinking about that, and still he could never stop himself from hoping. Because he was a coward, although Ndsi wasn’t; a coward, as well as a whore. Because he wanted to be able to take his pleasure as brutally as he liked and still be pitied, after, and simply on account of his bad dreams.
He set the stylus to Ndsi’s throat and thumbed the subdermal with a practiced hand. The drug would bring euphoria for as long as consciousness persisted. And then it would bring unconsciousness; and then there would be an end. Andrej held his prisoner’s body while Ndsi died, and knew himself with bitter certainty to be more obscene a monster than his Captain had ever been.
The body cooled, and Andrej’s legs were cramped, in his uncomfortably still position. There was nothing left for him in this place, nothing at all.
So he decided that it might be a good idea to get drunk, now. Stumbling to his feet, leaning over his chair to find his over-blouse, overturning the table and spilling the flask of rhyti in an awkward attempt to find his balance, Andrej made his way across the room, to find the door. To leave, to get away. To try to keep on breathing for just a while longer, just a little while longer, only a short while longer.
If he could only keep on breathing for just a few more weeks he could be away from here. Physically. Spiritually — never.
Garrity and Pyotr had his Excellency safely away in quarters, docile and quiet in the null time between the end of an interrogation and his struggle to find sleep. Robert St. Clare stood patiently at the back of Central Admitting, waiting for the orderly to notice him. He didn’t like to go up to the desk, and call attention to his mission so explicitly. If he just waited they would understand, and no words — no words as such, no pertinent and specific words — would need to be spoken.
They’d been expecting him, too, Robert could tell by the nervous start the duty technician gave when they made eye contact. Yes, just as well. He lowered his eyes in the gesture of a bow, shorthand for gratitude in advance for their cooperation. He didn’t need to hear the hurried conversation that the duty tech had with his desk relay to know what was being said. They’d all been through this drill before, too many times.
Looking up, again, the technician sought his face, and nodded in token of clearance to proceed. The way was familiar enough, if apart from the way St. Clare would go if he were here on his own behalf for some reason or another. Through the security doors, into Stores and Issue. Down to the end of the long corridor, not minding that the staff didn’t want to look at him, even when he was welcome enough with some of them — some of the women, particularly — at any other time. To the right, once, and to the back of a small set of examination rooms, where Alika Sudepisct — his Excellency’s Chief of Pharmacy, one of Koscuisko’s senior officers of direct report — was waiting for him, with the things he wanted ready to take out.
She all but brushed his polite salute off, impatient. Angry. Not at him; he knew that, even while it made a man uncomfortable when officers were angry in the same room as he was. His Excellency had explained it to him, before; there was something the matter with his governor, the primitive behavioral editor that bond-involuntaries wore inside their skulls to monitor their internal state and ensure their compliance. It probably needed to be adjusted, his Excellency had said, but the potential risk of trying that without clearance was greater than the trouble he got into as it was, and they had left him alone for all this time. Freer than the most of the others on his team. A little timid of his superiors’ wrath, at unpredictable intervals.
“Here’s what you’ll be wanting, and I’m sending some of this with you this time as well.” The packet that she pushed across the table toward him was familiar to him, its contents reassuring and well-known inside the fabric pouch with its open flaps. Somewhat to feed his maister, tonight, tomorrow, to fortify Koscuisko’s body against the damage that the wodac would be doing to him. Somewhat to offer to his maister for the pain of the surfeit of alcohol, in hopes that Koscuisko would be a little pitiful with himself and condescend to take an anodyne. Somewhat to keep back, hidden, in reserve, in case the screaming fits should not abate, to force upon his maister while he fought, to quiet and control him so that they would not need other restraints. And always somewhat else, offered each time, each time accepted with grave gratitude, each time rejected by his maister. St. Clare took the stylus-packet that she was holding out to him; he would pretend, for Doctor Sudepisct’s peace of mind. They would pretend, the both of them.
“What am I to say to Mister Stildyne about these, Doctor Sudepisct?”
“Antidepressant, specific to his Excellency’s ethnic subgroup. It suppresses violent emotion over a period of hours, provides a holding period so that an initial emotional shock has a chance to subside without going into a vortex-loop.” And they both knew what shock it was, and what emotions — both those that St. Clare understood and those that remained alien to him. They neither of them would say, however. “One each, premeasured dose, every six hours. If you can. It’ll be much easier that way.”
Koscuisko would not accept “easier.” Koscuisko only rejected the idea, determined not to permit himself quick careless ease for the things that he had done. The crimes. Or else sometimes Koscuisko mistook the gesture, and mistook the drug, and was afraid of it, because Koscuisko knew what torment could come in a simple stylus. Koscuisko had himself defined some such for the Controlled List, even if Koscuisko would not stoop to using them — most of the time.
“Thank you, Doctor. I’ll be gone, if I may be excused.”
There was a hesitation, now, and he could not go without leave. He waited, expressionless, while the compassion fought with the instinct for self-preservation and protection in Sudepisct’s face — her first impulse to ask, how bad is it; her second, almost as immediate, to take the question back. Because she did not want to know. Because how bad it was to be had an immediate and direct relationship to how bad the other thing, that which preceded it, had been, for Koscuisko’s prisoner.
“I’ll leave the rest of it with the front counter. Thank you, St. Clare, that will be all, for now.”
Refills, in case the situation should wear on. His Excellency’s staff cared well for him, though it was hard sometimes — because of the other thing. Robert understood how such things worked. He’d known from almost the very beginning that Koscuisko wore two pairs of hands, and was not to be permitted to forgo the use of the wrong ones just because he had a decent horror of himself.
Saluting once more St. Clare took the medication he had come for and went out down the long narrow corridor again to go and see how things were in Koscuisko’s quarters. He’d give the stylus-packet to Chief Stildyne. If it was bad enough — if it went long enough — if Stildyne got desperate enough, Stildyne was capable of using force against his Excellency. The difficult decisions were up to him. That was why they’d given Stildyne rank, after all, so that he could make all of the hard choices, and leave them with the easy part. All they had to do was to obey.
For himself he did not have the heart to impose even so well-intentioned a device upon his maister.
There was too much else of imposed constraint in Koscuisko’s life as it was.
What time was it? Early yet, surely. Andrej squinted at the timekeeper on his work-set, across the room, but he couldn’t quite manage to focus on it, somehow. Not that it mattered, when there was . . . when there was what? Oh. Yes. Right. He was wearing a timekeeper as near as the decorative button on his collar. Stupid of him.
Suddenly it wasn’t worth the effort, any more. He’d have to raise his hand and find the collar-stud, and then he’d have to tap it with his thumb, and it was all too complicated. Here was liquor, in his glass; that was simple enough, he could manage that. For the first few eighths’ drinking he liked to use a glass. It helped him to remember that he was a civilized man; who only incidentally had spent the last few hours beguiling himself with frightful tortures —
He drank the first half of the glassful down and shuddered, more at his thought than even the sharp stinging bite of the poison that he so eagerly consumed. Overproof wodac, and that man Ndsi, that boy. If he was stupid enough to close his eyes he could see the blood, the livid wounds, and he seemed to hear the voice already. They told me that there would be papers to sign. Give me papers to sign, Excellency, and I will sign them. Please. Let me acknowledge sin, and be set free of this —
It wasn’t quite fair that it was starting so early, was it? Ndsi was supposed to give him a few hours’ head start with the chase, surely. He’d have to complain about the breach in protocol, he had respect for the Protocols, surely young Ndsi had learned to hold the Levels in respect, while . . .
A cloud crossed Andrej’s mind, a wave of nausea washing his thought away. He took another drink. While what? He’d lost track of himself, again, the voices — visions — came ever more quickly, these days. It hadn’t always been this way, Andrej was almost certain of that. He almost believed that there had been a time when he had slept after a termination, and only woken up from time to time with dreams during the night. Joslire would know for certain; he could ask Joslire — no, that wasn’t going to work, either. Joslire was dead. Joslire had claimed the Day, oh, years ago.
How many years?
It just kept getting worse, and what was he to do when they came for him during his duty hours, while he was in staff, while he was seeing a patient? He was private, he was safe here in his quarters. But they would not be satisfied forever with the vengeance that they had on him while he drank.
Andrej had planned for the day when he would forget where he was in the middle of patient care; it was so obvious a danger that it would have been foolish of him not to realize that it was only a matter of time before he made his first mistake. Came in to clinic wearing the wrong pair of hands, as Robert would say. He was a prudent and foresighted man, he was prepared — except that Stildyne always seemed to find his secret caches, no matter how carefully he hid the drugs.
Almost a game, really, and the joke was that while Stildyne hunted out his hopeful hoards of poison Andrej was free to sit here and take glassful upon glassful of a perfectly good substitute, just as efficacious. All he had to do was figure out the correct proportion and he could be done with it all. Andrej frowned at his glass, which seemed to have got empty while he’d not been looking; and waved it irritably at Godsalt, who was supposed to be paying better attention than that. There. Better.
Happier now, Andrej raised his glass in silent salute to his poor friend Ndsi, whom he could see quite clearly cowering at his feet there on the floor in front of him. Godsalt wouldn’t notice. Security never seemed to notice. Between the raising and the lowering of the glass he lost sight of Ndsi; and he searched the bright room anxiously, squinting a little because of the light. Where had Ndsi got off to? Oh, there he was. Again. On his knees at Andrej’s feet, unpleasantly close, reaching up his wounded hands, crying for pity.
Andrej wanted to tell him that there wasn’t anything Andrej could do for him, not any more. It would do no good, he knew that; Ndsi would not believe him. They never did believe him, when he tried to tell them that they were dead, and that he could do nothing to relieve their suffering. Miserably skeptical, untrusting souls, his dead — phantoms and furies, nightmares, restless spirits, and they all got angry with him sooner or later, when he could not make them understand that they were beyond any help from him.
Then they would go into rehearsal. As if they could convince him they were suffering by going through the entire frightful ordeal over again, and over again, again and again until he had managed to drink enough liquor to poison himself into unconsciousness.
And the latest of the lot of them fell away from him, to writhe in too-real suffering beneath the invisible lash of a remembered whip. Ndsi was crying, again. The voice was too loud, too clear in Andrej’s ears to be mere hallucination; he was sure of that. Excellency, please, in the name of empty Space. Oh, no more, no more. Andrej really admired Godsalt’s discipline, Godsalt’s ability to step right through Ndsi’s torn back as if there had been nothing there to fill his glass, again. Oh, good. He needed a great deal more of that. He could hear Ndsi very clearly, and he didn’t want to.
Excellency, this prisoner requests, permission to make full and free confession . . . please —
Staring dully at the figure on the floor, Andrej could only shake his head in weary resignation. Hopeless. No answer that he could make, because he had already said everything that Ndsi could actually have heard hours and hours ago; but still Ndsi insisted on repeating the whole sorry mess. Bleeding all over his carpet. It never failed to amaze Andrej how these souls could come in and bleed to death in his front room, in his bedroom, or even — most horribly — embracing him obscenely in his very bed, and leave no trace of blood to mark their presence.
There were obviously different rules for ghosts.
Perhaps he ought to move. He could go and sit down in the corner, just him and his glass of over-proof wodac. If he was lucky perhaps he’d get a good start on oblivion after all, before Ndsi found him in the corner. Ndsi was going to find him. They always did, sooner or later.
If he was lucky he’d be too drunk by then to remember the full horror of it, later on.
“Bench Intelligence Specialist Jils Ivers. Reporting at the Captain’s pleasure, per previous scheduling.”
Fleet Captain Lowden looked up from his desk blank-faced, as if he had forgotten all about her and her appointment. Not that he had, of course. In fact he’d been rather looking forward to this.
“Ah — yes, yes, of course. Specialist Ivers. Thank you, be at ease, sit down.”
Short and dark, composed and centered, Ivers’ salute had something of her quarry in it. She and Andrej both knew how to make a bow an insult, as it seemed. Bench Specialists didn’t have to acknowledge rank, however. Unlike Chief Medical Officers.
“Fleet Protocols require — ”
He waited until she started to speak, so that he could interrupt her. “Would you care for a dish of latifer? They’ve just brought fresh.” She wouldn’t speak over him, of course. Rising to his feet Lowden made for the drink-set, curious as to how she would react to his purposely transparent power-play.
Nor did she disappoint. “ — a Bench Specialist on assignment to make her presence known to the chain of command. You’ve been notified as to the purpose of this visit.”
Right from where she had left off, without a hint that anything had intervened. Well, all right, he’d grant her the first skirmish. Now to broaden the scope of the competition.
He fixed two dishes of latifer, even though it wasn’t very good. Rather stale. Latifer started to congeal when it got stale. Offering one of the dishes to the seated woman, Lowden tested the atmosphere for mix.
“You and Vogel are on the convoy mission, that’s right.” Waiting with an expression of expectancy, he held the dish out to her. She sat still and silent, staring up at him, betraying no sign of feeling any discomfort — any awkwardness. She was Bench Intelligence, true. It looked as if he would have to find some fun on a different vector; he shrugged, capitulating, and sat down in a chair facing her, a dish of latifer in either hand.
“Not exactly. I did mean for this to be a short visit, your Excellency.”
If he’d wanted a dish of latifer he would have sweetened it. He put them down in the seat of the chair next to him. “Secretary Verlaine sent you to talk to my Chief Medical. I’d like to know what’s on the agenda, professional responsibility for his career and so forth.”
She didn’t laugh, but she didn’t give, either. “The interview is secured, of course, by the Bench instruction. When may I arrange to see his Excellency, Captain? The First Secretary is waiting for my report.”
Lowden determined to amuse himself, at least, since she did not seem interested in playing. “It could be a day or two. Three. We’re never quite certain how long he’ll be out on a drunk, when he takes to the bottle. You’ll find him in his quarters, though, if the First Secretary is really anxious for that report. Frigging with his Security.”
At least as far as he knew that was exactly what Koscuisko did, shut up with his little pets for all that time. He’d had his suspicions about Koscuisko from the beginning, Lowden had.
“With your permission, Captain, I’ll make direct contact with the Chief Medical Officer’s scheduler. I anticipate two visits, one to discuss the agenda and one to follow up as may be necessary.”
No reaction from Ivers, once again. Every bit as boring as Koscuisko with his Security, for a fact. If it weren’t for Koscuisko’s prejudices his behavior might have become interesting by now. The problem there was that Koscuisko suffered from an all-too-obvious conviction that what other people did was perfectly fine for them, but decently bred Aznir Dolgorukij kept their hands to themselves where people of the same sex were concerned.
“You’ll come and see me afterward, I hope. Before you and your partner go ahead to Burkhayden.” Plenty of time for Koscuisko to recover from his little self-indulgences. More than a week. Ivers and Vogel would not be leaving the convoy until they were less than three days from standard planetary.
“As you wish, Captain Lowden.” Not as if she intended to tell him any more then than she had now, from the cool expression on her face. Maybe his language had offended her, but she wasn’t in a position to object to it, so what difference could it make to him? And if frigging with his Security was not what kept Andrej so occupied then Andrej’s Captain had a right to know. If Koscuisko hadn’t been so good at the Question he’d have put his Ship’s Surgeon on report long before this, for excessive absence without leave from his place of duty.
Nothing more to say to Ivers. Lowden dismissed her from his mind, returning to his desk. He’d save so much energy, Andrej would, if he’d just face up to the obvious fact that he liked them tall, broad, and subservient, and get on with his life. Chief Stildyne might appreciate that, as well, but then Stildyne really didn’t have a decent chance either way it went. Ugly. Very ugly.
What would Verlaine want out of Koscuisko?
Why had Koscuisko ever been sent to the Ragnarok, in the first place? They didn’t have an active combat mission; they were only periodically on the Line. Technically the Ragnarok was only in the first part of the second phase of her proving-cruise. Fleet Protocols demanded a full evaluation, when there were tactical innovations to test; which meant they served a wider variety of unusual postings than normal, but there wasn’t as much glamour to life on a prototype as in life on the Line.
Lowden would have expected an Aznir Dolgorukij to go for the flashy postings, the colorful postings, since Aznir Dolgorukij seemed to like to make the biggest possible noise in other areas of public life. Danzilar, as an example, just a Dohan Dolgorukij, but he’d brought an army with him, and musicians. Brewmistresses. Perfumers, no less. No sense of proportion.
Maybe Koscuisko had just been ready for a rest, after Scylla. Lowden had known Fleet Captain Irshah Parmin when he’d been younger. He knew that Parmin lacked the requisite imagination to have realized what Andrej Koscuisko was capable of, if managed properly; but Scylla had certainly been an active ship as far as Line duty was concerned. Koscuisko would have had plenty to keep him occupied, on Scylla.
But little of the work that he so obviously liked best.
And Koscuisko hated to be reminded that he was actually more interested in torture.
So maybe someone had wanted to make a point of that little quirk, with Koscuisko? A long-standing conflict, of some sort? First Secretary Verlaine had a long memory, and a reputation for keeping a tenacious hold on a grudge.
He’d find out soon enough, Lowden was confident of that much. Koscuisko’s office was not privacy-secured, as Koscuisko’s quarters so unfortunately were. There was no reason why he shouldn’t just listen in, with Two, when Ivers paid her visit. Presented her agenda. Lowden made a note to scheduler to speak to Ship’s Intelligence about it.
In the meantime there were these tapes of Ndsi’s interrogation, to hold him over. And calculating their worth on the black market was more than enough to soothe any residual irritation Lowden might have had at Ivers’ refusal to play along with him.
Drunk, he was drunk. He was quite drunk, he was very drunk, and he suspected — he could prove nothing, but he still suspected — that his shirt-tails had come untucked, at some point. Either that or perhaps he was not wearing his shirt, any longer. That happened — from time to time — when he was drunk.
It was bright, in his little room. There was a shadow between him and the light-source on the wall but there was still enough light, so that didn’t bother him. A shadow? Pyotr. He thought it was Pyotr. He knew he wanted light, but he couldn’t be bothered to think about why. As long as he was drunk he didn’t have to think about why he was drunk. As long as he could stay drunk. Where was to drink?
Nothing in his hand, no taste in his mouth — an inauspicious combination. It meant that he wasn’t drinking at the moment. Not a good omen for a man with his degree of professional skill at getting drunk, because one of the unfortunate restrictions involved with being as drunk as he sincerely hoped to be was that the drunker he got the harder it was to stay that way. And he needed to stay that way. Because as long as he could stay that way he knew that all he had to worry about was staying that way.
He needed to find out why he wasn’t drinking.
Slowly, with great concentration, Andrej lifted his hand in front of his face, to find out why he wasn’t drinking. It took him several tries to get it right; his hand kept disappearing from his view, only to reveal itself dragging along the carpet over the edge of the bed, where it had no business being. He succeeded at last, though, and glared at the offending member angrily. There was nothing in his hand. Turning it back to front he studied it carefully, but it was no use; empty.
How could he be expected to drink, without a drink in his hand? There were limits. Not even Andrej Koscuisko — Andrej Ulexeievitch Koscuisko, Surgeon and Inquisitor, and prince inheritor of the Koscuisko familial corporation — could be asked to maintain a decent state of intoxication without a drink in his hand. It was beyond unfair to expect him to try.
This meant that he had to take action. Unfortunately. And he had to hurry. He was beginning to get a clear focus on his hand, which meant that if he didn’t find some more liquor soon he was going to be unable to ignore the fact that there was a tortured man clinging to the foot of his bed whose face was a hideous mass of wounds, his mouth an open angry soundless gaping accusation.
Andrej wasn’t interested in trying to find out what Beilerog wanted out of him. He wasn’t interested in even thinking about Beilerog. Or any of them. He hadn’t seen Beilerog for a while, as far as he could remember, but he couldn’t for the life of him decide if that meant six minutes or six years. And it wouldn’t matter, either, once he found out where some liquor was.
He rolled over onto his stomach to prepare for getting up. There was another problem. He’d rolled too far, which was a bit of a surprise, because he hadn’t expected the floor, although it was humorous to find himself there, so suddenly. He started to laugh at that, because it was a good joke; but his laughter only brought an unpleasant taste into his mouth. He decided not to laugh. Too close to vomiting, which was not a novelty just at present.
His slight miscalculation had left him lying on his back on the floor, which was yet a third little complication. The Pyotr-shadow had gotten up and moved itself away, and there was some sort of a noise in the background, like a muffled underwater throbbing of some sort. Or somebody talking to him, Andrej supposed. It didn’t matter, because he didn’t have any idea who was talking, or what it meant, or even what language it was. He needed all of his wits about him to decide what to do about the light.
Of course if he could just once get under the bed he would be fine. There wasn’t any room down there for anybody else but him, which was a very appealing concept. Beilerog or whomever was creeping up on him, trying to put his hands to Andrej’s ankle in supplication. No, it couldn’t be Beilerog, because it was a woman. Ursh Aamot. That had been her name. She was nothing to do with Beilerog, which rather exasperated Andrej. If they were going to come and see him the least courtesy they could show would be to confine themselves to a rough chronology, of some sort. At least that way he’d be able to figure out what time it was, in a manner of speaking.
As it was he wasn’t quite sure what year it might be, or whether this was his bedroom on Scylla, or at the Domitt Prison, or on the Ragnarok, or any other of the temporary postings with which the Jurisdiction Fleet — and Secretary Verlaine — had been so generous for all of these years.
He did know that Ursh Aamot had no business with his ankle. He kicked her away from him, ungraciously, and the momentum carried him over onto his stomach again beside his bed. He couldn’t get under the bed. It didn’t have an under, sitting on a storage-bin the way it did.
There were his boots, though.
Not the ones he’d worn earlier today, he was certain of that — those generally disappeared almost immediately, along with his over-blouse. And his trousers, if he wasn’t careful. This time there was something important about his boots being here, and it couldn’t be simply that no one had cleaned them yet, because Andrej was certain that he hadn’t given anyone the time. What was it? He liked the idea of his boots being here, but what was it that he liked? If he could just get the room to stop spinning, for just one moment, surely he would remember, surely he could understand —
His boots. Oh, what he carried in his boots. He seldom wore all five of Joslire’s knives; a man felt a little self-conscious to be armed to the teeth with nothing more threatening than the duty roster to contend with. His backsheath knife and his throwing knives, and if he remembered even one of his boot-knives, were at this moment in Chief Stildyne’s jealous keeping, safely sequestered, out of the way. Stildyne hadn’t been thinking about the other boot-knife.
Andrej knew it was there, because he’d been aware of it when he’d put his boots on this morning, or whenever it was that he’d last dressed himself. Different boots. And Stildyne had been distracted. And there was no one in the room — except for him; and a killing weapon convenient to his hand, a lovely — long and narrow — triangular blade with the sauciest of blood-grooves down its shining length, and its point as sharp almost as surgeon’s flint, the edge keen as a firepoint.
The room had stopped spinning.
He could hear voices in the other room, Pyotr and St. Clare, talking about liquor. Oh, if he could only make it work. He knew from sad experience that they wouldn’t give him very much time.
Andrej tilted the boot so that it lay flat on the floor, careful not to make more noise than he had to. The conversation outside seemed to be continuing unchanged, but he had to be quick. The knife lay nestled in the side-seam on the outside, just where the subtle shadow of a calf-muscle disguised its little bulge. So slim. So flat. So beautiful. Joslire would not have allowed it, not ever, but Joslire was dead. Wasn’t he?
The knife slid free and into Andrej’s hand; he drew it close to his body, testing the point against the nearest wrist greedily. Lovely things, knives. Useful. So much potential. A man ought to be able to come up with any number of productive applications. Especially if a man was tired, so tired, and sick to death of his life and of himself for being a part of it, and never, ever, wanted to go down to Secured Medical, ever again —
People were coming, and he had a suspicion that he knew who they were, too. Andrej tucked the knife flat against his forearm down by his wrist, anchoring the grip with his thumb folded into his palm. If he could just manage without them getting suspicious . . . They turned him over onto his back, they lifted him carefully, and he was quiet and did not remonstrate with them for handling him as if he were a sheaf of grain for threshing, because he had to concentrate on the knife. But someone guessed. There was a sudden movement, a raised voice, and although Andrej could assign no meaning to the words the words themselves were clear enough.
— ’s bleeding, what’s he got, there? Pyotr — ”
They wanted his knife, but he wasn’t about to give it up without a struggle. It was his knife. Joslire had given it to him, and they had no right to try to take it away. But he was drunk, and there were too many of them, and they seemed to know exactly what he would try to do next just that crucial moment before he did. They were too much for him, finally, they pinned him to the floor and pried the knife out of his desperate grip. Andrej wept in impotent frustrated rage, too weak to protest to any real effect against this shameful robbery.
All around him, and they would not let him move. His arm hurt, although he wasn’t certain why. Someone lifted him up a bit; he was leaning up against St. Clare, and there was liquor. He could smell the sickening bite of overproof wodac, and the shape of the flask was grateful and familiar to his hand. Andrej had a drink, and wondered why his arm seemed to hurt so much, letting the fragments of phrases he heard travel across his mind and out of recollection without paying any attention to whatever meaning they might once have had.
Made it work, this time. Too drunk, and a good thing, too. Chief’s going to be un-happy. No, fairly shallow, we’re lucky. Better not tell. Chief. About the blood, though.
None of it mattered. Why should it? There was liquor, and he was drunk. Nothing mattered as long as he could be drunk. They wanted him to stand up, fine, he would stand up, he would go with them wherever it was, so long as they did not try to come between him and his wodac. The washroom, he thought. Well, of course it was the washroom, he was going to be sick, and a washroom was where a man wanted to be when he suspected that he was about to vomit, wasn’t it?
He let himself be helped into the washroom, and someone held his head for him, carefully, gently, as his stomach rejected its contents and rejected its own fluids and rejected the very idea of anything else to eat or to drink forever. Then there was the shower, with its soothing cleansing warmth, when he was finally through with being sick; and his Excellency, Andrej Ulexeievitch Koscuisko, Surgeon and Inquisitor and prince inheritor of the Koscuisko familial corporation, hung submissively in the embrace of these people he was almost certain that he knew and passed out cold.
[I really hated to let that “ . . . hung submissively in the embrace of these people he was almost certain that he knew and passed out cold” line go. I tried it several ways and just couldn’t get it to stick.]
Security Chief Stildyne let himself in to Koscuisko’s quarters with his bypass code on set unique override. He certainly didn’t want anyone else walking in on Koscuisko unannounced and unapproved. They hadn’t had to call a trauma cart, not this time — although it had almost come to that, and the margin had been too close for comfort. Koscuisko should not have been permitted to find that knife: Stildyne was still furious with himself for not having paid more attention to that potential disaster. He knew better, after all. The problem was just that the weapon was so customary and congruent to his Excellency’s aristocratic nature at any other time that it was hard to reset one’s thinking, even now, to remember that an article of dress or even of adornment under one definition might appear to Koscuisko in quite a different light, at times.
The front room had been picked up, cleaned up, straightened up. He’d gotten the work-set in on emergency request with Engineering, and there was every chance that Koscuisko wouldn’t remember it ever having been damaged. There was no telling how many of their expedients Koscuisko noticed, and declined to mention. On the other hand, after four years of this there wasn’t much left in Koscuisko’s quarters that hadn’t been locked up, torn up, smashed up, at one point or another.
Taking a quick survey Stildyne found nothing to disapprove of, nothing that called attention to itself by being too new or too different from what had been there before; even the drinks stores were back to normal — which meant stocked at two eights, for Koscuisko. It didn’t matter. Pharmacy was at full load, and Lowden didn’t even raise an eyebrow at the quantity of alcohol that disappeared into Koscuisko’s quarters, any more.
Well, there was nothing left to do but to go through and find out if Koscuisko was interested in getting up, yet.
St. Clare was leaning against the wall just outside the open doorway, watching him with bland inoffensive curiosity. St. Clare looked tired, but unbruised; Koscuisko had been relatively easy to manage this time — even with the problem with the knife taken into account. Nodding at the man, Stildyne went through to stand on the threshold of Koscuisko’s inner room. Tidy, spare, and clean enough; someone had scrubbed the washroom out and sweetened the air, judging from the absence of unsubtle olfactory hints about how drunk Koscuisko had been. And for how long.
Andrej Koscuisko’s sleeping space had never declared the man. His personal effects were restricted to a rack of reading material, a stack of holograph notes bound into folio, and the icon-screen in the corner with its lamp and fringe, its cluttered surface ajumble with odds and ends. A scrap of cloth. A bit of dried greenery. The empty shell of an expired Bond.
Koscuisko’s predecessor had packed his quarters full of reminders of his home space in an ultimately futile attempt to pretend that he was safe inside his room. Koscuisko’s approach was more severe, almost ascetic, though the sense of that did not accord with the sensuality of Koscuisko’s nature. Koscuisko declined to put too much of his personality into his living space as a way of denying that he was here at all, on some deep level.
Koscuisko was here, of course, tangled in a heap of crumpled bed-linen, sunk deep into the still unmoving sleep that followed on a truly monumental alcoholic binge. But Koscuisko was going to get away, unlike the man before him, and the man before that. Koscuisko had survived his Term. Koscuisko could leave, finally, and pretend that nothing of what had happened to him over the past eight years had ever been, if he so chose.
What Koscuisko couldn’t do was sleep through his shift, though. He had appointments. And there wasn’t anything that Stildyne could do about Koscuisko’s scheduler; so Koscuisko had to wake up, and if it meant drugs to get him on his feet and operational — that was what it meant, and that was all there was to it.
“Robert, would you order up his breakfast, I’ll see what I can do with Himself.”
There was a fractional hesitation on Robert’s part that was too deliberate to be real. Then St. Clare answered him, all polite neutrality — “Yes, Chief. Right away, Chief.” It was St. Clare’s idea of a joke to pretend to hesitate, to pretend to be unsure whether Stildyne was to be trusted alone with Koscuisko. He’d made the wrong assumption about the Chief Medical Officer, years ago. A perfectly reasonable mistake, and Koscuisko had never spoken of it again, and St. Clare had never let him forget it, either. Stupid Nurail idea of a joke, Stildyne thought to himself, sourly. As if anyone would want to have anything to do with Koscuisko, in his present condition.
As if he’d hesitate for a moment, if it was anybody else, because a man was entitled to take what he needed if he couldn’t get it any other way. Wasn’t he? And it was hard to mind his own business, every time. The fact that he could do as he liked with impunity made it no easier, not really. If he ever was to take liberties Koscuisko would never know, in the state Koscuisko got himself into —
He could hear St. Clear going out of the front room into the corridor behind him, heard the door slide closed once more. For a moment Stildyne was tempted to forget his mission, and just let Koscuisko rest. With so little time left under Fleet’s authority, what could it matter if he were to sleep an extra shift? What could one extra skipped shift possibly cost him, after so many lost with never a question asked?
You know better than that, Stildyne reminded himself. The Captain had cleared the meeting to Koscuisko’s scheduler. That meant that there was no way around the fact that Koscuisko was going to have to find his way back on Line one way or another.
“Excellency, it’s first-shift, and you’ve got an interview scheduled in four hours.”
He moved slowly, speaking carefully and distinctly. Koscuisko startled too easily in his sleep, and it was difficult not to realize what Koscuisko had been dreaming when that happened. Koscuisko had to be awakened as gently as possible. Keying the controller at the door, Stildyne brought the lights up gradually from warm soft glow to clear white illumination, checking to see that everything was ready for Koscuisko’s rising, talking all the while — almost to himself.
“Bench Intelligence Specialist, your Excellency. One of the better ones I’ve known, if you could say you knew any of them. Ivers, Jils Ivers, you’re to see her this morning. You’ll want to get started.”
There were Koscuisko’s uniforms, racked in array; clean linen, folded and waiting. Koscuisko’s boots, and Koscuisko’s five-knives where he’d expect to find them, now that he’d finally worked his way past the dangerous period once more.
And finally there was Koscuisko himself, an unstrung heap of unresponsive lumpiness in the bed. Not moving. Not waking up, either. Breathing, yes, it wasn’t that kind of a problem, but Stildyne didn’t have the option of letting Koscuisko succeed in ignoring his waking-call. Stildyne hunkered down on his heels near Koscuisko’s head, using his very best muscle-beats-rank tone of voice for emphasis. “Your pardon, sir, you’re going to have to wake up. Now. There are matters in Section that require your attention.”
Koscuisko didn’t stir for a long moment. Slipping his hand beneath Koscuisko’s back, Stildyne gave the officer’s shoulder an emphatic shake. The gesture elicited a sleepy curse from Koscuisko, who swore at him drowsily without bothering to open his eyes — at least it sounded like a curse, though Stildyne didn’t speak any Dolgorukij — but settled back against Stildyne’s hand almost immediately, clearly prepared to lapse back into a deeper sleep.
“Excellency. I regret that the officer would expect me to insist. Wake up, it’s first-shift, and you’ve got appointments.”
Koscuisko’s breathing had changed now. He was waking up, and Koscuisko would know that Stildyne knew that, from long experience of having to wake him up. Frowning, Koscuisko lay with his eyes closed, as if he was still thinking about it. Now that he’d got Koscuisko’s attention, though, Stildyne was content to wait for Koscuisko to decide to submit to the inevitable.
And finally Koscuisko levered himself up against Stildyne’s arm, sat up, putting his legs over the edge of the bed to the floor. “Stildyne, your father had no children of his body, and for a long time I have suspected that your mother’s parents may not have been quite married. Have I ever told you that? It has been on my mind.”
It usually was, at about this stage of the game. Stildyne stood close, ready to move should Koscuisko’s balance fail him. “His Excellency has expressed similar doubts. From time to time.” With his hair in every direction and his eyes puffed halfway shut with sleepiness, his color more an unhealthy shade of gray than even his usual blue-tinted pallor, his cheek marked with creasing from the bedclothes and his sleep-shirt falling off across one shoulder, Andrej Koscuisko looked as unlike the deadly menace of his Writ as anything that Stildyne could imagine. And he’d never understood why Koscuisko wore clothes to bed. Never.
“I am sorry to purvey the painful facts, Brachi. But a man must speak his truth, so speak to me gently, and of breakfast.”
On the other hand Koscuisko was still Koscuisko, whether drunk or sober, in rest-dress or in bed-dress or in uniform, in Infirmary or in Secured Medical. Koscuisko was himself, and not even the cumulative effects of alcohol and horror could grind the idiosyncratic spark out of his personality.
“Robert’s gone for you, sir, you might want to get a wash in beforehand. You know how fussy he can get.” Which was odd, since Nurail left to their own devices ate slabs of unseasoned cold-meal mush for fast-meal. By choice. Complaining about the depth of steep in Koscuisko’s rhyti would give St. Clare a chance to chat up his latest love-interest, however; Koscuisko grinned at the shared joke, and rubbed the side of his face with one hand, as if trying to chafe the feeling back into his cheek.
“Let’s try this, then, are you ready?” Not waiting for a response, Koscuisko pushed himself up off the bed’s surface, gingerly. It was a crucial moment in the waking process; because whether or not Koscuisko were no longer drunk, he would still be sick of the surfeit for a day or two to come. Falling on one’s face had a certain discouraging effect on a man who was trying to decide to go on living. Koscuisko made it up, onto his feet, staggering; reached an arm out to Stildyne, steadying himself, and took a deep breath.
“You would oblige me,” Koscuisko noted, managing first one unassisted step, and then another. “ — by calling in a tactical strike on every wodac distillery within the Judiciary. Do please see if it can be done, and report to me direct as the task is completed, yes?”
“According to his Excellency’s good pleasure.”
But Koscuisko had staggered into the washroom, now, and would not hear him over the noise that the cycler made.
Stildyne decided that if Koscuisko made it past his morning’s interview he would be clear to talk to him about his proposed promotion to the JFS Sceppan.
[And, just for the sake of being tiresome, Almost the Exact Same Scene, but from Andrej’s POV and with more gratuitous angst. This was an earlier draft.]
Slowly the dark deeps of his dreaming ebbed from the bed in which he lay. Andrej Koscuisko felt pain as a stinging at his throat, at the base of his neck, and knew there was a message for him there — but what could it be?
Something told him he knew.
He set his mind to the puzzling of the problem, fretful and frightened by the uncertainty. Pain, like the prick of a knife, like the sting of an insect disturbed at its feeding and angry about it. It was a wonder he felt anything, as wracked as he was with an excess of drink.
The solution exactly, Andrej realized.
The surfeit of wodac.
He should be blind drunk yet, and if he was sober he should be in agony body and soul in the aftermath of having consumed so much poison. So why wasn’t he? How did it come that he could feel a stabbing of pain, small though it was, through the larger ache of his body from alcohol?
What time was it?
People were holding him. That made him nervous. They weren’t hurting him, but he couldn’t move, pinned elbow and wrist in a firm grasp on either side. This wasn’t good, Andrej told himself. This was the way one’s prisoners might be restrained, while one put through a dose.
Someone laid hands on him, put the palm of a hand underneath his chin to stretch his neck and move his head to one side. Pressing his face against something warm, with a fragrance of newly laundered fabric — someone’s uniform.
He felt the cool touch of an osmo-stylus against his throat, on the other side this time.
It was the Controlled List, there could be no other reasonable explanation. Restrained. And compelled by whatever drug, to do — what?
What did it matter? He knew what was happening, hadn’t he invoked a wake-keeper himself, often enough? He couldn’t lay here and let himself meekly be poisoned and drugged, regardless of the reason. Andrej struggled against the strong hands that restrained him, twisting his head to evade the osmo-stylus that held the drug. The effort exhausted him, and it was no good. There were too many hands. They just held him more firmly, and there were more of them; but that wasn’t all.
They were talking to him.
“Sir. Your Excellency. It’s all right, no one’s going to hurt you. Don’t make this any harder for you than it has to be. Sir.”
Polite language, right enough. Andrej wasn’t convinced. The words meant nothing; it was action that counted, and for all the calm soothing petition he heard in whomever’s voice that hand turned his chin once again, being careful, stretching the skin of his throat. For a good dosing. The nub-end of the stylus was cold against his skin, and Andrej heard the hissing as it discharged its dose of whatever drug it would turn out to be and wept in uttermost desolation.
Oh, holy Mother. He was lost.
What were they going to do to him?
What did he not all-too-richly deserve, for his sins?
The restraining force of the hands that held to him lessened. His captors laid him down gently on his bed, and supported his head with anxious care as they arranged the pillows for it to rest on.
What information could he possibly have, in order for such measures to be taken?
Because — as frightened as he was of drugs and osmos, knowing what he knew — nobody seemed to wish him harm or intend ill. Andrej could sense it.
A cozy warmth of secure well-being rose in Andrej’s breast; and he relaxed, despite himself. The drugs. Of course. But because he was drugged he couldn’t quite manage to be worried about it.
People were talking amongst themselves, now.
Andrej tried hard to make sense of what they were saying, frowning with the effort. He could find out why he’d been drugged, perhaps.
“You’re not going to expect him to put on those boots, surely.” Security Chief Stildyne; there was no mistaking the voice. Quiet and deep, and rough around the edges, subtly breathy with the hissing of air through a vocal apparatus that had been so compromised by so many blows it no longer quite worked. Chief Stildyne had come out of mean streets and up through the ranks, and his face showed it.
“Sorry, Chief, I’ll get right on it. Everything else in order? Right.”
Female voice. That was odd. No, that was Miss Smath, that’s who that was. She wasn’t Bonded; less than half of the twenty-five souls in Security 5 were. But she had her fifth-day for orderly duty Bonded or no, the same as all the others. Well. That made sense.
Things started to come together in Andrej’s mind, increasingly alert even while he was drugged. Had one of the drugs been a stimulant? He wasn’t in a cell. He was in quarters. This was his bed. The voices belonged to his Security.
Oh, they had had a wearying time of it, then, if he’d been drunk. Frowning, Andrej concentrated. Feet, knees, and groin. Belly and wrists. Throat. He couldn’t detect any hints of fresh bandaging, nothing seemed to hurt. All to the good. A man took strange notions into his mind when he was drunk. Andrej hated waking up to find that he’d made a scene. It never did any good. And only upset people.
“I’m sorry, sir.”
Stildyne’s voice, again. Standing at the bedside, from the sound of it. Stildyne was very tall. His voice seemed to come from a long way off. “You’ve got appointments, your Excellency. Captain’s cleared them to your scheduler.”
This would start to make sense in a minute, Andrej was sure of it. Stildyne had always been a practical man. Andrej had had no complaints to make about Stildyne’s performance, not in all these years — not once they’d resolved one or two points of interpretation. And that had been years ago.
“Bench intelligence specialist, your Excellency, name of Jils Ivers. As a matter of fact I was on mission with her once, years ago.” Stildyne had hunkered down to squat on his heels by the side of the bed. His voice was much closer. “So I’m sorry. But there’s no help for it. You’ve got to wake up, sir. You’re meeting with Ivers in four eights, Captain’s orders.”
What could Stildyne be saying? He was awake. But, Andrej realized, he hadn’t moved; how would Stildyne know?
At least he understood what was happening, now.
The drugs had come from his Chief of Pharmacy. Stildyne had done this to him once before, when Lowden had wanted him. Never again: Lowden had left him alone, over the years, once Lowden had gotten what Lowden wanted.
The prisoner, in Secured Medical —
Andrej was there, he was in Secured Medical. He saw the suffering body of his prisoner and fell to his knees on the decking once again, overwhelmed with pleasure in Ndisi’s pain.
He turned his mind away from the image with a stern effort. Ndisi was dead. Captain Lowden had the Record.
And Stildyne had little choice but to rouse him, one way or the other, if the Captain had cleared an appointment with anyone. There were no Fleet precedents for indulging drunken Inquisitors as they wallowed in self-pity and alcohol. Fleet discipline had to be maintained.
“Mister Stildyne.” He meant to speak it; but it came out of his mouth a cry, or an anguished gasp. Someone fed him tepid rhyti to drink, and it caught in his throat so that he coughed and had to force himself to swallow, but he got it down. The metallic taste in his throat told him everything he needed to know about why he was wracked with thirst. It was drink that rasped a man’s throat raw like that, the sharp bite of alcohol as it went down, the cyanide tang of liquor mixed with gastric fluid as it came up again.
Andrej put his hand up to his face, worried that a cough might go astray; and someone tucked a whitesquare into his grasp. Probably Stildyne.
“I am.” His voice sounded a little stronger in his own ears. Where was rhyti? Yes. Good. “ — I am going to sit. Up. Mister Stildyne.”
There were familiar arms to help him, but he could not hold his peace against the agony in his belly when he sat up. Andrej bit off his shout of pain, concentrating on balancing himself carefully enough that the muscles that would have to move were kept to an absolute minimum. There was an osmo, again; but Andrej was resigned to it now.
Pain receded into the background of his consciousness, and then from consciousness altogether. Andrej floated within his body in a gauzy cocoon of euphoria induced by simple anodyne. He was going to pay for this later, when the drug wore off; because he would be awake and hung over, alert and hung over, in full possession of all his faculties and cataclysmically sick with ethanol poisoning. But it wasn’t Stildyne’s fault. Speaking of whom —
Opening his eyes at last in a careful squint Andrej faced the light, dim though it was. It hurt to open up his eyes and look at things. How much more to face the white light outside quarters, when the friendly muted amber from his icon-screen seemed so harsh and piercing?
“Stildyne. Your father had no children of his body, and for a long time I have suspected that your parents were not quite married.” He dared not look at Stildyne; such a sight as Stildyne’s face was not lightly to be met with, on a drunk. He concentrated on swallowing some more rhyti instead, grateful for the increasing hold the drugs took over him even while he knew they’d be revenged upon him later. “Have I ever mentioned this to you? It has often been on my mind.”
He had to be careful, swearing at Stildyne. He was never quite sure when something he said was going to strike unintendedly deep. Stildyne was a very odd sort. For now — fortunately — Stildyne seemed only amused to be sworn at.
“Something of the sort is frequently on your mind about this hour of the morning, sir. Are you up for walking yet, or do we wait another few moments? Another dose?”
No, Andrej didn’t think he needed a few moments to steel himself to walk to the washroom, and he was quite certain he didn’t want another dose. He didn’t need another dose. He could walk to the washroom with the best of them. He could levitate. He could fly.
He felt wonderful.
He wanted to shriek, but that would only split his skull, and there was no percentage in forcing Miss Smath to clean up the mess on the carpet that the writhing nest of rotting vipers in his brain would make on the floor if he did that.
“Let’s give it a try. All right. Standing up. Yes.” He had no balance to speak of, but his arms and legs all worked. Stildyne walked with him across the room, holding him carefully, and Andrej gained new control over his body with ever step he took.
“Bench specialist,” Andrej repeated, to make conversation. Hadn’t Stildyne said something about a Bench specialist? “What time is it? What day is it? Why a Bench specialist?”
Not that any of it really mattered. What time it was, what day it was was meaningless. And whatever Stildyne might be able to tell him about any given Bench specialist was hardly less so. “Never mind. Tell me later. If I’m not out in a week send a search party.”
Andrej stumbled into his washroom, and Stildyne declined to prevent him from closing the door. Maybe — Andrej thought — maybe he sounded that much better than he felt. If Stildyne knew how uncertain he felt about his condition yet Stildyne would not have permitted him to so much as spit by himself. It wasn’t that Stildyne didn’t respect a man’s privacy, just that washroom walls were tiled and tiles were hard, so that if one knocked one’s head up against them while one wasn’t looking one tended to lose a good deal of blood in a regrettable hurry.
The drugs were in his system, whether or not he had consented to consume them. It was done. Stildyne wouldn’t have done it if Stildyne had thought there was any other way.
Best to get whatever over with: then he could crawl back into quarters and suffer the waning of the support the drugs provided.
[This scene was intended to come after Andrej has rushed in to Two’s office and heard the bad news about the only way he’s going to be able to stay away from Verlaine. He said something about going back to his place to wait for the documentation that Mendez was going to send him; then, in this draft, he disappeared.]
Brachi Stildyne knew fear as an old friend, something so familiar that it could be ignored completely once it was acknowledged. This fear was different. This fear was new and fierce, as unsettling as the first fears he had ever known, and almost as destructive of self-control and concentration. Fortunately, he had the advantage of this fear; he had years of experience. He could still carry on. He could speak to Ship’s Intelligence Officer with a clear voice, and be confident that his words still did make sense.
“Thank you for seeing me, your Excellency. I’m hoping that you’ll be able to help me out on something.”
He wasn’t “seeing” her at all, not strictly speaking. He was standing outside of chapel with a set of documents clutched sternly in one fist, and she was on monitor. Still, he could all but actually see her, in her office, rocking gently to and fro from the ceiling as she spoke.
“There will be an extra charge, of course, and I take bribes in custard, as you know. Which you must swear not to speak of to Andrej. What is the problem?”
It was her sweet tooth talking. Two was notoriously fond of custard, and notorious also for the running argument that she had with Chief Medical on the subject. Custard was hell on her digestive system, and Koscuisko’s stated opinion was that people who couldn’t tolerate milk sugars should simply stay away from them rather than demanding support from his overworked clinical staff every time they came down with a belly-ache. Stildyne was grateful to Two, for the allusion. The joke helped him to keep a firm grip on his fear.
“Chief Medical, your Excellency. First Officer has tasked me with bringing him some documents he needs, urgent, he tells me. But I can’t find him. Can you help me out?”
Not in his office, not in clinic, where they hadn’t seen him all day. Not in his quarters, where all was just as Godsalt or St. Clare or whomever had left it made up after Koscuisko’s fast-meal this morning. Not in sauna. Not at exercise. Not with Captain Lowden, or even Ship’s Engineer, or — the last place Stildyne had checked, in desperation — or even in chapel. Mendez had told him what was going on. And Stildyne was afraid.
“What did he say to us, he confided that he was returning to his place. I think that was where he said, but have you looked?”
Mendez had told him that, too. “I haven’t had any luck. I don’t know where to look next. Can you tell me if he’s on scan, anywhere in the ship.”
It didn’t sound like the question he had meant it to be; it sounded more like a demand, to Stildyne. Fortunately for him Two didn’t seem to have noticed. “People who can’t keep track of their Excellencies don’t deserve to have any. You can find him very easily, in Secured Medical.”
No, he hadn’t looked there, he hadn’t even thought of looking there. Koscuisko never went there, not unless he had to. If that was what Koscuisko had meant by saying that he was going to his place then Koscuisko was in worse shape than Stildyne had thought, and the fear within him only made it worse.
“Thank you, your Excellency. Stildyne, away.”
She was keeping an eye on Koscuisko, then. Because there was not supposed to be any surveillance of Secured Medical. She would call in an emergency team, surely, should anything happen, during the time it would take him to get from where he was to where he needed to be.
But he was in a hurry to get there, all the same.
It was a good distance from the corridor outside the chapel to Secured Medical. Stildyne knew better than to run, but he moved as fast as he could short of jogging it. The door was closed, of course it was closed, but it was not secured, and he squeezed through before it was well open, knowing that he would have to wait for it to close again before he could go in to theater.
Cursing the time, the careful interdependence of the doorlocks, Stildyne waited, his knuckles pressed firmly to the inner admit in order to be sure that it would engage at the earliest possible moment. Koscuisko could have locked himself in, he had the authority, he had the right to deny anybody entrance to the inner room. Mendez would have to clear an over-ride, if Koscuisko had locked himself in. Lowden would have to review and approve an over-ride, even if after the fact —
Koscuisko had not locked himself in. Ducking his head anxiously, Stildyne peered through the door’s first minute gap as soon as there was a sliver there to see through, dreading what he might see. He saw nothing. The lights were dim, the silent waiting chair in the middle of the room was empty. Nothing. No blood, which was good, and yet his Excellency had direct access to restricted pharmacy stores from here, a fact which had worried Stildyne on and off for years.
It was awkward, crawling through the slowly increasing portal, but he couldn’t wait a moment longer, he did not dare.
It was quiet and dark in Secured Medical. No sign of its last victim remained on the rough decking, on the blank walls. Koscuisko stood facing the wall, in front of the chair, his hands clasped behind his bent neck, his feet spread shoulders’-width apart for balance.
The image struck too close to Stildyne’s heart for self-control. Struggling in his mind between reason and denial, Stildyne stood silent for a long moment, wondering and speculating, full of dread and horror. Koscuisko’s attitude was too perfect, too damnably precise to be an accidental echo of a bound prisoner’s stance. If Koscuisko had lost his footing on the narrow path between his sadism and his sanity, under the frightful shock of the sudden catastrophe that had befallen him — he might fall just on such a side of madness, since from what little Stildyne had learned of Koscuisko’s peculiar spirituality Koscuisko fully anticipating suffering as a victim of his own cruelties, when he was dead.
Koscuisko was not dead yet.
And Stildyne wasn’t about to let him go, to let him slide quietly into the sanctuary space that madness might afford him. Not after four years of watching Koscuisko fight, day in, day out, to hold to his self-determination, to maintain his own proper thinking — feeling — self on his own terms, even between medicine and murder.
“Your Excellency,” Stildyne said, starting forward to approach the dark still figure at the wall. “There’s documents for you, sir, from First Officer. Requiring his Excellency’s immediate attention.”
Slowly, slowly, Koscuisko raised his head, staring at the shackle-anchor higher up on the wall. “They told me that there would be papers to sign.” Well, no, not exactly, and it sounded almost like an incantation of some sort, to Stildyne. “Give me papers to sign. Please. And I will sign them.”
Seizing Koscuisko’s hands with sudden and determined desperation Stildyne pulled the frozen vise of Koscuisko’s interlocked fingers apart with savage force, not caring if he bruised or tore the skin. He would not let Koscuisko get away with this. He would not tolerate it. “Documents, your Excellency, not papers, and you requested them this morning. Damn you. Andrej. Not papers. Documents.”
Koscuisko staggered forward, set off balance by Stildyne’s fierce assault. Stildyne caught him from behind, holding him away from the wall. He would not let Koscuisko touch that wall. Prisoners were stretched there, chained there, scourged there, tortured there. Koscuisko could seek the wall all he wanted. Stildyne was not going to let him find his way there, not while Stildyne could stop him.
A fit of trembling seized Koscuisko, and for a moment Stildyne wondered if he was too deep in his tortured day-dream to understand that Stildyne would not harm him. The moment passed, this time; but if there were to be eight years more, they would come to the time when the confusion in Koscuisko’s mind could no longer be set aside so easily. A man hated to see so gallant a struggle lost. At least Stildyne hated the very idea.
“Well — yes — documents. Of course. Already? Brachi, I cannot breathe, do please let me sit down.”
The twilight place, the shadow-land of confused disorientation, the “between” hours. Maybe they’d just got him out of bed too soon after his last interrogation. Maybe that was all that there had been to it. Maybe St. Clare was a Shulammite temple-dancer, for that matter. Stildyne willed himself to relax, guiding Koscuisko the short distance to the chair.
“It has been four hours since you spoke to First Officer, your Excellency. I have the documents — ” they were on the floor in the outer room where he’d dropped them on his way in, as a matter of fact — “but perhaps his Excellency would be more comfortable reviewing them, in his office?”
Frowning in his concentration Koscuisko glanced sidewise toward the prisoner’s door, his right shoulder hunched against his body as if to protect himself. “There is not — there, no one waits?”
Stildyne moved to the right side of Koscuisko’s chair to put a barrier between his officer and that potentially all-absorbing distraction. “No one waits, sir. Nothing keeps you, not this time. Let’s leave, you can have your sauna, you know you like your sauna. I’ll give you a massage, if it will help.”
Trembling a little, Koscuisko stood up from his place once more. His place. Stildyne could have kicked himself for not having guessed what Koscuisko had meant. “I. Am not sure, exactly. Of where I am.”
It was marginally better than being convinced that he knew precisely where he was, given the places that Andrej Koscuisko frequented in his dreams. And still it was almost more than Stildyne could tolerate. Stepping closer to Koscuisko, he put a tentative hand out to his officer’s shoulder.
“Emotional shock, sir, you’ve had a brutal one, that’s all. There’s nothing to worry about. You’ll sort yourself out in no time, once you’ve had a chance to adjust.” Oh, he was a liar. He couldn’t afford to tell Koscuisko the truth, that he was beginning to be afraid that Koscuisko would reach the point where he could no longer hope to sort himself out at all, ever. Especially now. Especially if he were to stay with Captain Lowden, who understood him so hellishly well.
Raising an uncertain hand now Koscuisko lay it to one side of Stildyne’s throat. “Kiss me, Mister Stildyne, I am very depressed.” Nor was there any resentment, any rejection, in Koscuisko’s voice. Stildyne knew better than to take the invitation as a uniquely special intimacy — Koscuisko was a physically affectionate man, for whom a kiss was as natural and asexual as a handclasp on a contract, under Jurisdiction. He accepted the offered privilege with grave and absolute chastity, and kissed Koscuisko on his shadowed temples, twice.
Then he stood away. Koscuisko sighed, and rubbed at the back of his neck with one hand as if he could not imagine why the muscles there might have stiffened in the course of the past few hours. “I’d best get documents returned to First Officer, hadn’t I?”
Gesturing for Stildyne to follow him, he started out of the room, his voice a little louder than usual — as if to make a show of being on top of things. It seemed to work; Koscuisko’s voice grew stronger step by step, as he crossed the room. Almost normal, as he stood before the door. Very nearly his usual self to hear him, with the door closing behind him. “And thank you for the offer, Chief, but if it’s midshift already. I’ve probably got more than enough to do, in Section, and you know that if I indulge myself in massage I will just fall to sleep.”
Knew it. Valued it. Treasured the time that he was permitted to spend alone with Koscuisko trusting — dozing — underneath his hands, making love to Koscuisko’s body with carefully neutral caresses.
“I’ll send Lek to you with your mid-meal, if you’d like. Sir. You’ll want to sit down with these, soonest.”
Koscuisko accepted the documents Stildyne retrieved from the floor with a brisk nod, now so close to in control that it probably didn’t even matter. “Of course. Walk me to Section, if you would, Brachi. I should not like to lose so much more of the day, there isn’t time.”
So close, and even so aware of the danger that he was still in, the dislocation of his mind and spirit brought on by the sudden shock he had sustained.
Yes, he would send Lek to Koscuisko with mid-meal, and Pyotr with third-meal, and Godsalt to escort Koscuisko to quarters when his sleep-shift came, when Shelastan would be there to keep the watch. Yes, he would be sure that it would not happen again.
No, he did not want to wonder what had been in Koscuisko’s mind, four hours lost locked up in Secured Medical.
“According to his Excellency’s good pleasure. After you, sir.”
[Sort of anticlimactic after the earlier fireworks in Two’s office, but this next was an opportunity to let Andrej and Wheatfields snarl at each other, something that I always enjoy.]
Two had dropped by to enjoy a custard that Stildyne had left for her, for whatever inscrutable reasons of his own. Mendez supposed that his office made a more neutral territory for her, one in which Koscuisko was less likely to make an issue of the forbidden treat; but Koscuisko — to look at him, in the open doorway — was in no condition to so much as notice.
“Yes, Andrej, of course. Come in. Sit down?”
The signal at the door had not been entirely unexpected, and Two had had ample time in which to conceal the contraband dish in her wing before Koscuisko actually came in. Only just this morning, they’d seen him in Two’s office only just this morning. Koscuisko looked fifteen years older. Four eights thinner. Unhealthy, one way or another, and if he felt the way he looked now, how was he going to feel when Stildyne told him — whatever Stildyne was going to decide to tell him, about his promotion to Sceppan?
“First Officer.” Damn the man for a cold saddle anyway. After four years Koscuisko was as formally reserved as ever, which meant that there wasn’t much room to extend a helpful offer; too superior for that, Mendez supposed, with disgust. On the other hand the Ship’s Engineer, Serge of Wheatfields, had stopped by as well to find out why Stildyne had been looking for Koscuisko in Engineering of all places, and Wheatfields and Koscuisko brought out the worst in each other. “I’ve brought these — documents. If you would be so kind.”
Wheatfields swung his bony knee out of Koscuisko’s way without comment so that Koscuisko could come through to the desk. There was only one other place to sit, and that was between the squat little jug of tlactlac on Mendez’ desk and Wheatfields. Koscuisko seemed to prefer the tlactlac for company, which — if it stank — was at least alcoholic. Mellowing to a man. Judging from the angle of Koscuisko’s body as he sat, that was — as far away from Wheatfields as possible.
Mendez went through the package quickly. All complete, and all correct, but he hated to take it forward even so, knowing how Koscuisko had been battered down here in the past four years. “Listen, Andrej, you’re the only one who can make the call. But I’ve got to ask. Is it really the only way? Besides argue with your daddy, I mean?”
Nobody had asked him to ask such a personal question, but he was the First Officer, and he could ask it if he damn pleased. It wasn’t as if his relationship with the Chief Medical Officer would suffer, if he offended the man. He probably wouldn’t even be able to tell the difference.
Still, he was a little bit ashamed of himself, because it seemed that Koscuisko actually winced. “You cannot mean to suggest I soil my parents’ names in such a way. If it were only that I should be disgraced it would not be impossible. But to flout my father’s will, it would be to condemn him before the Canopy for having raised an unfilial child. I cannot expose my father to such humiliation.”
“And he would know, wouldn’t he? Being the resident expert on humiliation,” Wheatfields interrupted, slumped in the low-backed chair with his arms folded across his attitude. Mendez didn’t have any chairs that Wheatfields could be really comfortable in, since he topped Captain Lowden by a good head, with that stout Chigan neck thrown into the bargain. “You’re not doing yourself any favors, Andrej, you’re just going to annoy the First Secretary all over again. What do you think you’re going to do eight years from now? Hope your father’s changed his mind?”
Wheatfields had called Koscuisko by his first name from the moment that he’d realized that Koscuisko found it irritating. For himself Mendez had mused on and off that it was a shame that Koscuisko was the way he was about his sex life. He and Wheatfields were so perfectly matched, on any one of a number of levels — starting with aggravation, proceeding to irritating, with several stops for impolite behavior on the way to out-and-out infuriating. They should have been related. They deserved each other.
Except that this was one of the times that Koscuisko didn’t seem to want to play. “I can only trust my wife to see to it,” Koscuisko answered, somberly enough. And Mendez had been under the impression that Koscuisko wasn’t married — “It has been more than twelve years, already, since she was promised a child of my body, before the Holy Mother. Such things are seldom left to wait for more than twenty years, there would be too much of a scandal, if I were to go away again.”
He was almost certain that Two had mentioned existing children. But it was none of his business. “Didn’t know you were married, Andrej.”
He felt tired and disgusted enough at life to be a little irritating himself, which only made it the more frustrating when Koscuisko didn’t seem to notice that he’d used the Aristocratic Name twice in one day, without dispensation. “Indeed not yet, First Officer. Promised, sworn, betrothed, how is it said? A bride may be asked to wait for her husband, it is a familial duty. Only there were many exchanges of trade and contracts at the same time, and her family does not begin to benefit, until the thing is done.”
He’d been sold to someone for a stallion, was what he meant. Ralph guessed.
“You’re disgusting, Andrej, do you know that? You almost had me convinced that you really didn’t just plain enjoy your work.”
And now that Koscuisko had declined to swear back at Wheatfields Mendez had the oddest feeling that the Engineer was trying to push Koscuisko as far as he would go, to make a breakthrough of some sort. All right, so he needed another three fingers of tlactlac. He was obviously beginning to imagine things.
“As if you couldn’t manage to stand up for yourself in front of your father. After all the other dirty little things that you’ve proved so thoroughly capable of doing.”
“Yes, and you could fuck your mother on the brothel’s altar easily enough, and why not? Your brother’s done, after all, hasn’t she?”
The silence reverberated in the room like the moment after an explosion, before a man’s ears recovered from the shock wave and started registering sound again. Ralph was impressed. It was a truly ferocious obscenity, from a Chigan point of view. Men didn’t have to do with women at all, where Wheatfields came from; let alone in a church, whether or not it might look like something else to Andrej Koscuisko. There were hardly any Chigan women to begin with, and fewer still who were capable of conception. Which in turn meant that Koscuisko’s reference to one of Wheatfields’ brothers as “she” implied the greatest blow that could come to a Chigan family, that of producing a female child who was — most tragically — sterile.
After a moment Wheatfields spoke, and there was the genuine respect in his voice due to a man who could conceive of anything so absolutely offensive. “Truly?”
Koscuisko nodded. The spark had gone out of him, Mendez was sorry to see; the man was looking even older than he had when he’d come in. “As bad as that, or I mistake it — truly. And may I be married to you and all of your brothers, if I can think of any other way around the problem.”
Two was keeping quiet with her dish of custard in her wing. As if the sweet would cry out against her, if she raised her voice. Wheatfields got up slowly, unfolding his long legs carefully as he straightened; and stared down at Koscuisko from his full height of nearly seven eights.
“Sorry to hear that.” Just for once no threat, no sneer, no joke. Mendez was alarmed; but things would soon get back to normal — surely things would get back to normal. If Wheatfields was going to have to stop picking at Koscuisko every chance he got it could only mean that there was no hope at all for Chief Medical, no chance of survival. Mendez realized suddenly that he’d come to rely on Wheatfields to keep Koscuisko angry enough to keep on fighting — “Make it your mother, Andrej, and I’ll consider it. Good sleeping, Ralph, I’m going back to Engineering.”
Koscuisko couldn’t defend himself against Captain Lowden, and he wouldn’t defend himself against his own sense of guilt. Wheatfields had a special place in Koscuisko’s life on board of the Ragnarok. Wheatfields was the closest thing Koscuisko had to someone he could hit without needing to feel remorseful for the deed. Mendez glanced at Koscuisko, a little worried, and found him with his eyes closed and his lip glued to the upturned rim of the tlactlac flask, pretending that he hadn’t heard. Well, that was reassuring. As far as it went.
Once Wheatfields had gone Koscuisko set the flask back down with a grimace. “This is disgusting stuff, First Officer. And only disgusting people would consume such a beverage by choice. I should go back to my place, I have to have a word with Mister Stildyne.”
Yes, but which place did Koscuisko mean? Two had told him about Koscuisko’s behavior earlier today, standing by himself alone in the dark down in Secured Medical. It gave him a very bad feeling; but if Koscuisko was to be seeing Stildyne it would probably be all right. “These’ll go out this evening, Andrej, I’ll take them to the duty officer. As long as this is the way it’s got to be, and you’re sure about that.”
Koscuisko shuddered, the second time today that Mendez had seen him shudder. “I must tell Captain Lowden, I suppose?”
Well, sooner or later Lowden was going to find out. “It’ll be in his morning report, Andrej. So he’ll find out in the morning.” If he read his morning report, that was to say.
Koscuisko stood up. “I am not being very coherent, First Officer. But it is difficult for me to do this.”
It sounded like there was more to come, and Mendez waited.
“Except that I will not have to do with the Domitt Prison. No matter how hard it may be with Captain Lowden, here there is only ever one at a time. With your permission?”
Koscuisko didn’t need Mendez’ permission. Technically speaking he only needed Mendez’ permission when the Captain and all three of his Lieutenants were away from the ship. But Koscuisko was funny that way. Cold, formal, remote, in agony. Maybe it wasn’t very funny, after all.
“Good sleeping, Andrej, try to get some rest.” Through the open door Mendez could see the diminutive Shimiro sword-warrior Shelastan waiting with perfect patience for her “dracir;” so he didn’t need to worry about Koscuisko getting lost. Well, not physically. Koscuisko left, and Mendez toggled the door closed, and Two retrieved her dish of custard from within her wing and lapped at it thoughtfully for a long quiet moment.
“Nobody told me that he was crazy.”
The old complaint, as unanswerable as ever. Two simply concentrated on her custard with a fine air of not having heard a thing.
“It isn’t as if we’re on Line. They ought to take the sorry son of his mother, and they ought to wrap him up in a soft-woolie and put him away someplace where nobody would come looking for him with things to do and people to kill.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Finally Two granted him the favor of a response, her expression of dignified affront somewhat less effective than it might have been had she not had the suspicion of a custard-mustache on her dainty little muzzle. “There is nothing wrong with our Andrej. Fleet considers him highly qualified for his post, surely you do not mean to suggest that Fleet does not hold his best interest more closely to its bosom than any venal considerations of supply, and demand, and the shortage of Ship’s Inquisitors.”
“If there was any plain justice in this world he’d be out on a self-destructive so fast that — “
“Yes, like our Engineer.” Two’s artless suggestion shut him up, in frustration. “After all, the shock that he sustained, brutal as any that Andrej must suffer, if not worse. And certainly Fleet did not try to keep him on Line, while he grieved, not once they’d prevented him from murder. No, he was seen to, provided supportive care, given every consideration. We are not a bureaucracy without compassion, after all.”
There was no answer to that one, because it hadn’t happened that way at all. Someone in the hierarchy had protected Wheatfields from himself at the point when he would probably have killed the entire Fleet Interrogations Group at wherever it had been, and himself along with them. Protected him, made sure that nothing that his lover had said under the torture before dying such an ugly — carefully recorded — death was used against him, and sent him away to the Ragnarok to keep him out of trouble.
Sent Lowden to the Ragnarok too, which did seem a lapse of good taste. But as far as Mendez had ever been able to find out there had never been any formal notice taken of that confusing little adventure in which Wheatfields had decided on his own insufficient authority to move the ship from the Jallarde Shipyards all the way the hell out to Safehaven space and back, for an absolutely unsanctioned, unneeded, useless, maintenance run. That might or might not have left Jallarde Shipyards with a master mech-linguist on board and come back from Safehaven’s neutral ground without him just at the point where the mech-linguist in question had been becoming very, very interesting to the authorities charged with the oversight of the Bench’s monetary systems.
Or, in other words — making the long of it short — Fleet had protected Wheatfields from prosecution, but for Wheatfields himself and his brutally murdered lover they had done absolutely nothing. And Fleet would protect its interest in the person of Andrej Koscuisko, but for Andrej Koscuisko himself — a desperate man, in desperate straits — Fleet would do nothing, because Fleet’s interest lay in precisely the professional skills that were destroying Koscuisko with such slow certitude. They’d keep him going for as long as he could continue to execute the Protocols. And then they’d probably package him up and send him to Verlaine for a peace-offering, once he was too far gone to be of any conceivable use to anybody.
Koscuisko was a doctor, a skilled battle surgeon, and the Bench needed battle surgeons.
But the Bench liked its Inquisitors more, and didn’t care what it meant to Koscuisko one way or the other.
“Custard’s going to give you the bellyache.” So instead of arguing with her Ralph only warned Two of the perfectly obvious fact, one they both knew, one which also made no difference. “I’d stay out of Andrej’s way in the morning, if I were you.”
She licked the last of the dish out with a delicate and defiant flare and set the empty container on his desk. “Oh, it is sad, to see a man made bitter by defeat. Petty. I retreat with my dignity intact, and hope for the morrow.”
So what did she mean by that?
Apart from the obvious?
He’d had a long day, too long a day to have to puzzle Two out at the end of it.
A word or two with the duty officer, and then he was going to bed.
And when Chief Stildyne had awakened him this morning he had thought that there would be nothing to his day any more unpleasant than the sickness in his body and the weariness in his heart. Andrej was tired, bone-weary, half-blind with exhaustion, and he could not so much as hope that there were no dreams waiting for him in quarters.
Shelastan saw him back to his own room, Shelastan was on duty tonight as officer’s orderly. The duty was shared by shifts among the souls assigned to his Security, as part of their secondary duty rotations. Their primary duty was to fly the Wolnadis in the tactical defense of the ship, of course; but what could his primary mission be said to be?
To entertain the Captain?
There had been a time when he’d been willing to accept that trade-off as the cost of being permitted to practice his medicine. But there was too much of the one, and that kept him from the other. Andrej was beginning to become convinced that even if he never struck another helpless prisoner in his life he would never be able to restore the balance. No single person, no matter how devoted to his surgery, could possibly do as much good as he had done harm within these past eight years that he had been sworn to Fleet; and with eight years more to come – oh, he was lost.
He wanted to have a word with Chief Stildyne, and Stildyne was in quarters, waiting for him. That was convenient, if confusing, because Andrej wasn’t certain that he’d got around to asking for him, yet.
“Yes, hello, Chief, good-greeting, what are you doing here?”
Stildyne had risen as he’d entered the room, and the lights seemed a little bright to Andrej. Squinting up into Stildyne’s face was a little uncomfortable.
“Thanks, ‘Astan.” Stildyne didn’t seem to be looking at him anyway. “Take a break. Take a long one. I’ll sit here for a while.”
Well, he hadn’t been invited, but there was no sense in arguing with one’s Security. Especially with one’s Chief of Security, who had to watch out for one’s people when one had gone home. Though one was not in fact leaving after all, but Stildyne already knew that. Stildyne knew everything.
The door was closing, and Stildyne stood behind him to lay very large — very practiced — hands across the back of Andrej’s shoulders, the thumbs tucked precisely where the muscle tended to seize up. It was a temptation, to collapse into the pure pleasure of it, to indulge himself in Stildyne’s caretaking. But there was something that he needed to say, and it did need to be said soon, because he had a very good notion that he would have forgotten all about it in the morning. It was a species of self-protection, Andrej had decided. There were things he simply did not seem to be able to quite remember, although the torture was not one of those things. He had no right to forget that. The suffering he inflicted he hung on to, grimly. The suffering he endured could only be pathetically inconsequential by comparison, not worth retaining, and it was an insult to the sufferings of the dead to even consider it.
“No, please, I’ll lose my concentration. Sit down, Chief, is there rhyti, about?”
There nearly always was, and Stildyne’s careful hand did not quite leave his back until Andrej was seated at the little table there in his front room. There was rhyti, waiting for him. Several medicinal doses, which he probably should take; for the alcohol poisoning, for the stress he lived with, for a few hours of sleep. A few hours of sleep? He frowned at that, and set the dose aside.
Stildyne sat down, pushing the dose back toward him. “You should rest,” Stildyne said. “You’ve had a long day.” It was the habit of Stildyne’s life that made all of his suggestions sound just a bit like threats. Stildyne didn’t make him feel threatened, quite the reverse. But Stildyne did make him feel like a very young person from time to time.
“I do not know how long I was down there.” That was part of what he needed to talk to Stildyne about, true. “I am not quite sure where I thought I was. Or what I thought was happening. I do not like to think — “
“His Excellency should let it go, it’s over, don’t waste any time on it.”
Soothing and helpfully suggestive, as if he’d been a child. Perhaps that was unfair; perhaps it was only his own sense of vulnerability that made him feel on such an unequal footing with a man who was, after all, his subordinate, technically speaking. Or Mendez’ subordinate, which could be said to amount to the same thing, couldn’t it?
“I do not like to think.” Raising his voice, Andrej repeated the phrase stubbornly. “Where I would have been, and how disposed, had it not been for your help these four years past, Mister Stildyne. I do not know how the debt may be described, much less discharged, and the obligation troubles me, because — I am reminded — it is my life, that you have kept for me.”
His previous Chief of Security had been Miss Samons, on board of Scylla. Caleigh Samons. There had not been so much to do, for her, and Robert and Joslire had tended him well between the two of them until he had come back from the Domitt Prison and been sent here.
It seemed to Andrej that it had started to get very much worse for him after he had come back from the Domitt.
It seemed to Andrej also that Stildyne had some confusion in replying.
“His Excellency owes no obligation.” Stildyne had a slow quiet habit of speech, soft and deep, because he had been struck in the throat one too many times when he’d been younger, brawling — fighting with his fists and his feet. It had damaged his voice. His voice, his face, which abstractly speaking was unlovely to look upon, his nose smashed flat and his cheekbones uneven, his eyebrows irregularly spaced across the frequent gaps of otherwise unnoticeable scar tissue. “What a man does of his duty is his duty. What a man might do out of concern is only what he’d do for anybody, under the same set of circumstances, and his own business either way. So you don’t owe me anything.”
Hypothetically speaking perhaps Stildyne was right. Putting it into words didn’t solve any of the problems that Andrej felt he faced, however. For some time now he had suspected — or, more truthfully, he had believed that he had known — that there were unspoken reasons for the comfort he took in Chief Stildyne’s care-taking, the security he felt in Stildyne’s company. For the absolute conviction in the depths of the most dreadful of his episodes that he was safe in Stildyne’s presence, that Stildyne would never change his face and hurt him. The particular problem was that whether or not there was an obligation — and Stildyne, typically enough, would not admit to a debt of any kind owed him — the gift once given could not be ignored, since it had been accepted. And he had been ignoring it, selfishly, willfully, for years.
“To accept what is offered, without acknowledging its source — it is not well done.” He was supposed to be a fair field psychologist, praised by teachers in both of the disciplines that he had pursued for his respectable degree of empathic perception. Why was this so difficult? Because he was tired? “Listen to me, Brachi. We’ve never spoken together about this, but there’s no use pretending that the care you take is mere professionalism on your part. It may be that I thought it would not matter because I would leave. But I am not to leave. And you are neither a bond-involuntary that belongs to me nor a sworn man of my father’s Household. I have no rules for understanding this kind of relationship.”
Stildyne had folded his hands in front of him on the table, and was staring at his scarred knuckles. “I’ve been offered the position of First Officer on another ship, your Excellency. The Jurisdiction Fleet Ship Sceppan.”
Well, if Stildyne was leaving, then the future was perhaps not so much important. But there were still past amends to be made. “I have not heard of Sceppan, is it an interstice-class ship? Which is its Lane?”
With Stildyne gone there would be no one to seek him out in Secured Medical, no one to pull him away from the dark prison of his own mind and open up the door to a reprieve, howsoever brief. His bond-involuntaries could not do it. They were imprisoned as well, and far more cruelly than he was.
“Interstice-class, yes, your Excellency. On the Edeslock Line. Three hundred and twenty souls. I won’t pretend it isn’t a good post. But I’m not going.”
Andrej frowned, and Stildyne met his eyes with a look of curious petition as he continued.
“When Captain gets the report from First Officer he’ll want to see you. And when he sees you he’s likely to make a remark, you know how Captain is. I wouldn’t have discussed it with you else. I’m not going.”
And it was a good thing, too, because he needed Stildyne here, with him. Of course that led right back to the original problem. “Stildyne, such promotions do not come plentifully in Fleet these days. I hope you don’t think I cannot sort without you?”
But Stildyne would not back down. “It’s an opportunity for more responsibility, more money, yes. It just doesn’t make the difference that it might have done four years ago. I’m not going.”
This was all to the good, because he was going to need all the help he could get; and the prospect of trying to live through his next few years without Stildyne’s assistance did not appeal to Andrej. “I am tired, Mister Stildyne,” Andrej admitted, finally. He probably wasn’t thinking very well. “I am confused, and I am depressed. You have taken rather better care of me than your duty would suffice to explain. It is only that I cannot think it worth your while to abandon a promotion — and for nothing.”
Stildyne stood up, turning his face away so that Andrej could not see his expression. “You need to get some sleep. You’d best use the dose that Doctor Sudepisct sent you, your Excellency.”
No, he had made a mistake, somewhere. Perhaps Stildyne was insulted at the implication that he needed to be recognized for doing his job, even in so superlative a manner. “I do not know how to find the balance here, between us.”
Stildyne took up the dose that Andrej had rejected, and held it out to him demandingly. “My duty is up to me to shift and balance. But you could make it easier, if you cared to. You could be a little gentle with yourself.”
Andrej hesitated for a moment. He did not deserve the offered comfort, since he had permitted it to none. He deserved to sweat his sleep-shift out in torment, since that was what he had inflicted on so many others . . . but he was very tired. And Stildyne was still talking, and there was something in his tone that convinced Andrej that Chief Stildyne meant exactly what he said, no more, no less.
“Let me take care of you, a little. And leave me to decide what’s worthwhile in my life, because it is my life, and I can do whatever I want with it.”
Stildyne had been taking care of him from the first shift that he’d stood on Ragnarok, more or less. There was no question but that Stildyne had earned the right to demand concessions of a sort, Andrej admitted to himself; and set the dose into the hollow of his elbow, pressing it through. Oh, he was weary, he needed to sleep. Had he said the thing that he had wanted to say, to Chief Stildyne?
“Have it your own way, then.” No, that hadn’t been it. “You are not my man that belongs to me. Nor am I your master. I have no sense of how to express gratitude.” There, that had been what he’d wanted to tell Stildyne. He thought. He had a suspicion that there were still pieces missing, here and there, but Stildyne was working at the pain between his shoulders once again, and the sheer physical pleasure of that relief for the ache made Andrej feel a little drunk. That and the fact that he was tired. And the drug.
“You haven’t been paying attention.” Stildyne sounded amused now, more than anything else. Andrej hoped that was a good sign. “Gratitude is for favors, and I haven’t done you any. This is my job, remember, and I don’t mean to have any argument from you about how I chose to do it. Any more than I’d take complaints from Kerenko. Pyotr. Pyotr. Anybody.”
It could be that Stildyne had a point, there. He put up with a certain amount of bullying from Stildyne, and certainly more intimacy than he was comfortable permitting to anybody else. Andrej was surprised at how much sense it all made, once put into words in such a way.
“If you really want to make some kind of point about it all, you’ll shut up and stop worrying and go to sleep.” Stildyne’s voice was beginning to fade out into the encroaching — the welcoming, not threatening — darkness. “Be a little gentle with yourself. Do that for me, and I’ll never ask you for anything else — “
Pushing the rhyti away from him cautiously, Andrej folded his arms across the tabletop and let his head down to rest against his crossed forearms. He could vaguely hear Stildyne still talking, the sound a shield between his dreams and horror.
“ — except maybe to tell me, some day, what it is with you and Robert St. Clare.”
He was asleep, and heard no more of it.
Under normal circumstances Captain Lowden would not have found Vogel’s call nearly as amusing as he did, this morning. The report from the duty officer was on his desk, however, with its very intriguing note about Koscuisko’s extension application; Lowden didn’t need to consult his Intelligence Officer in order to be able to interpret exactly what was going on with that.
“This is Captain Lowden, on line per Bench Intelligence Specialist Vogel’s request. Go ahead.”
Vogel had forced an audio through, rather than make a physical transit across the relatively narrow corridor of space that stood between the Danzilar prince’s convoy and the Ragnarok. Just as well. Lowden could make all the faces he wanted with no one the wiser, and if any offense was to be taken at his tone — well, he would just claim audio distortion, that was all.
“Captain Lowden. This is Vogel. There’s a problem.”
He’d say Vogel had more than one problem, he would. Vogel’s compeer Ivers had come all of this way to see Andrej Koscuisko at Secretary Verlaine’s special direction. Obviously she had come to offer Andrej a job. Obviously she had felt that she’d made him an offer that he would have no way of refusing. And obviously she’d made a mistake somewhere.
“I’m listening.” And it must have been a real gem of an error, as well, if Koscuisko had taken so drastic a step to defeat her purpose. He’d talked to Koscuisko about extending; he was expected to — required to — by Fleet personnel practices. He’d been expected to make a special effort to keep Koscuisko on because of the position that Koscuisko filled. He hadn’t expected Koscuisko to give him so much as the thanks due the effort, and Koscuisko had fulfilled that anti-expectation well and truly.
“We’ve received a formal complaint, Captain, that has to do with an act of vandalism performed by your First Lieutenant at Burkhayden. It’s a very serious issue, I’m afraid.”
But not as serious as the reaction at Chilleau Judiciary was going to be when Verlaine found out how badly Ivers had failed. It was the only interpretation possible; she’d backed Koscuisko into a corner, and Koscuisko had been so desperate that he’d gone ahead and done exactly what Lowden himself would never have been able to talk him into. And Fleet probably didn’t know about Verlaine’s little expedition. Lowden could safely glean considerable credit for himself out of this.
“What’s the bastard gone and done this time?” He hadn’t expected trouble with Wyrlann, particularly, but Wyrlann did have his weak spots. Maybe he’d shot one of the Port Authority for an insufficiently respectful salute; but Vogel had said vandalism, that meant property.
“He raped a woman who belongs to the local service facility, a service bond-involuntary. And he wasn’t particularly couth about it, either.”
Oh, well, if that was all. So he’d beaten up another little whore. He’d have to put a reprimand on file if this went on much longer; how many did this make? Six, he thought. “You don’t need me to process the credit, Vogel, what’s the point of all this?” They started to add up, after a while. Some hundred thousand Standard here, some hundred thousand Standard there, and the next thing you knew your whole Command was under rebuke for failure to take due care to conserve valuable Fleet resources. Of course technically speaking Service bond-involuntaries were still Bench resources, not Fleet resources. There was a principle involved either way.
“The Danzilar prince doesn’t want credit on the body. The Danzilar prince wants the problem fixed. It’s his call, as you know, Captain. And he wants you to send your very best out to Burkhayden to put the woman right. I’ve taken the liberty of assuring him that Koscuisko will be leaving with me this second-shift.”
Had he, indeed. Lowden leaned back from his desk, considering. Vogel clearly believed that he was in a position to promise Lowden’s staff. Vogel probably did have the authority, under such special circumstances as these. He could argue about it, of course, but he had an idea, instead.
“Quite proper, I’m sure, Vogel. What exactly did you commit to? Andrej, and a surgical unit, I imagine?”
If Vogel had expected opposition there was no trace of it in his response. “That’s about the size of it. Shall I channel through to your Chief Medical? Scheduled departure is for eleven today, but we’ll need to make it earlier if we’re stopping first to load your surgical unit.”
Eleven. It was already six now, only two hours left in first-shift. Not enough time for Vogel to really feel he could insist on talking to Koscuisko in person. Lowden was beginning to have an idea for a really good joke, even on top of letting Ivers find out about Koscuisko’s decision the hard way — from Koscuisko. Stuck in transit to Burkhayden for how many hours, with one thoroughly irate Inquisitor for company . . . Koscuisko could be genuinely unpleasant with people when the mood was on him. It was one of the things that Lowden liked most about Andrej Koscuisko.
“Not necessary, Vogel, I’ll handle it myself. Have your courier in my loading area by ten, I’ll have someone with the diagnostics on the surgical unit. You understand that I can’t let Koscuisko off to Burkhayden without a Security team?”
Fairly standard, but he needed there to be no question for his joke to work. There shouldn’t be any question; no, Burkhayden was no longer a secured Port, speaking in the strictest sense, and there were persistent rumors of Free Government activity to spice the atmosphere up a bit. Any sensible man would realize immediately that Koscuisko was at risk nearly anywhere for being an Inquisitor; at greater risk at a Nurail station; and at greater risk still as an Inquisitor from the Ragnarok at the Nurail station where another of the Ragnarok’s officers had just beaten up a service bond-involuntary.
“Wouldn’t have it any other way. Your loading area by ten for Koscuisko, his Security, and a surgical unit. Understood and away, here.”
Unless it was just his imagination — Lowden told himself, gleefully — Vogel sounded just a little bit confused. He’d probably, almost certainly, expected some resistance out of Lowden. That was all right. If Vogel was confused now it was nothing to compared to how confused he was going to be once he got Koscuisko on board of his courier.
Forty-eight hours’ transit, from the Ragnarok to Burkhayden, leaving at eleven. A day and a half, all told.
He wondered how long it was going to take them all to realize that there had been an — oh, surely innocent — miscommunication.
An hour short of shift-change yet, and Andrej was going through the status-reports. He’d been actually working since about one-and-forty, too, which meant that he was going to catch up any year now. Gille Memakem stood at the threshold of his open door and spoke very carefully, as if he wasn’t quite sure what was going on.
“Come in, come in. Good greeting.” It was Gille who usually got stuck with the midshift status reports when Andrej wasn’t in on time in the morning. Eight years under Fleet scheduling, and Andrej still thought of first-shift as the “morning,” whether or not it had any correspondence with the hypothetical planetary horizon of the nearest inhabitable planet.
Memakem looked cautious and guarded, his expression equal parts of assessment and determination. “There’s a rumor in the wards, your Excellency.”
“Yes, of course there is.” Two more lines, and then Andrej stopped to pay attention to Memakem’s point. “This rumor. Perhaps we had better take a moment of privacy, to assure that the rumor will retain its interest.” He toggled the door closed with a decisive stab of his finger at his desk-com and rose to his feet, to take Gille’s arm and walk with him toward the conference area. He and Gille had spent many hours in conference here, in his office, Gille trying to bring him back on Line in his own Section after yet another absence of days.
“We’ve all been anticipating his Excellency’s departure. The stresses of his Excellency’s assigned duties . . . “ Memakem gestured uncomfortably. They were all glad to see him go, was what Gille meant — oh, not in an unkind way, of course. In the most charitable of senses, in fact. Andrej held up his hand, unwilling to let Memakem stumble over the words.
“And I have also been anticipating an escape. There has been a problem, Gille, is it that I can explain, or does it matter?”
Because there was a fine distinction to be drawn between what his staff had a right to know and what his staff really preferred not to be bothered with. Although that wasn’t entirely fair. And Gille looked a little grim.
“There are some questions, if his Excellency permits. The choice seems inconsistent.”
Wheatfields had said as much, hadn’t he? You almost had me convinced that you really didn’t just plain enjoy your work. It was important to explain, then, because the good opinion of his staff was valuable and comforting to Andrej, whether he deserved it or not.
It took him a moment to try to set it all into simple language, straight and clear. “You know how it was in the Domitt Prison, Gille?”
The warning-tone on the talk-alert surprised them both, before Memakem had a chance to answer one way or the other. It was a particularly unpleasant surprise to Andrej, because the pitch and intensity of the tone identified its point of origin even before the Captain had spoken.
“Captain Lowden for Chief Medical. Good greeting, Andrej, are you awake or still sleeping it off in quarters?”
“Chief Medical here, your Excellency, and Gille Memakem as well. I am awake.” Not happy to be where Lowden could find him, but awake. Maybe Stildyne had a point about getting some rest. On the other hand it was such an easy out to let himself take advantage of all the comforts that his staff could offer that he could expect himself to rationalize his weakness quite thoroughly by way of excusing the indulgence.
“Well, good, because he’ll have to cover for you for a few days. You’re needed in Burkhayden right away, Andrej, our Bench audit authority has got a job for you.”
He couldn’t take another. Not so soon. Did Ivers think that Verlaine had already won, so that she wished to take advantage of him even before he had so much as left the dubious protection of Lowden’s command? “A job.” It was clear enough what the phrase meant. “And can he not wait even until we make standard planetary? With respect, your Excellency, I could feel as if I merited a space of time in which to recover myself, between such tasks.”
Lowden was generally good about that, unless Andrej was being punished for some failure to produce. Under normal circumstances Andrej was safe in counting on a space of days, two weeks, three weeks, to separate the Captain’s special projects from each other — so much as two months sometimes if Lowden felt he had done particularly well or if the prisons could not be made to yield a victim suitable for Lowden’s purpose. Insulating space. “If it was me, Andrej, you know it would be different. But Vogel says now, and he’ll be here at ten. You can meet your Security in the loading area — three down and one over, I think — at ten-and-twenty-four, to leave. Got that?”
There was no sense in challenging Vogel’s authority to send him out on a job, because Lowden had apparently accepted Vogel’s demand, and Lowden was the ultimate authority. “Loading area three down and one over, at ten-and-twenty-four, your Excellency. Understood.”
If it was the Bench audit authority’s job — Vogel’s job — then Vogel would have the prisoner’s brief. Andrej didn’t think he’d met this Vogel, although he had heard his name. Traveling with Ivers. Andrej didn’t think he liked either of them, although to be fair it was nothing personal.
“Good man. Carry on, Lowden, away.”
The tension went straight through to Andrej’s brain, a white-hot core of brilliant pain stabbing into his mind like knives into his eyes. Andrej pressed the narrow space between his eyebrows with the thumb and forefingers of his left hand, overwhelmed for one moment by the utter futility of all of his attempts to get free from this loathsome life. He would never get away. He should have known better than to ever have imagined that he could get away. Why did he even want to get away?
Why should he wish to soil the clean fields of his home with his presence, when everywhere he went he would still be Andrej Koscuisko?
At least Lowden’s promised job meant only pure obscenity to him for now. There was no treacherous tingling of anticipation to sabotage his revulsion for the work, and his role in it.
Or not yet, anyway.
“It’s understood that his Excellency’s experience at the Domitt Prison was not an enviable one.”
Memakem’s careful neutral comment gave Andrej the support he needed to hang on to himself. He had to think a moment, true, but after only a moment he remembered that he’d asked Gille a question, that was right. And Gille was answering him.
“There is a thing about which I thought little at the time, and regret most bitterly. An old quarrel between Fleet and First Secretary Verlaine, and I cleverly managed to become involved as a token, I am still not quite certain how.” Well, he had ideas, that was true. They were not pertinent, however, and there was no reason to bore Gille with them. “But what it comes to is this. Verlaine would like me to come and work for him, and I do not want to go, and the only way around it — that Two and the First Officer could find — was to pledge to Fleet, again, and hope that the two of them continue to quarrel.” A wager at good odds, but a gamble, none the less.
“Well, we’re sorry to hear that it has to be that way for you, sir,” Memakem said, somberly. “We’ll be better off for it, because they weren’t going to send us another Ship’s Surgeon, not any time soon. Do you want me to keep shut, or do you mind me talking?”
“As you think best.” And, oh, but he was tired. “Please, Gille, if you could wait until after eleven. I anticipate congratulations, and I cannot face it, truly I cannot.” He had grown weary of resenting the enthusiasm of certain of his staff for the Inquisitorial function. He could not seem to explain to them that the punishment too far outweighed the worst of crimes, and after a point he had stopped wanting to. His good Senior Technician Sinspan was a woman innocent of any real understanding of the horrors that she so vocally endorsed; and Andrej had finally realized that he preferred it that way, because such innocence — howsoever offensive it was to him — was still a species of innocence to be protected as best he could. He was so thirsty for that blessed state, that no reminder was too indirect but that he would cherish it, as he cherished the great and abiding — fundamental — innocence that made St. Clare such a comfort to him. Robert had a temper, and he was not perhaps among the best of intellects, and he suffered from a chronic impulsiveness of nature; but Robert had preserved his innocence by the astonishing absence of hatred, and for that alone Andrej would have loved him.
“As his Excellency prefers. Sir — “
Hesitation, and Andrej wondered what was wrong, what was wrong now. “Gille, it would be very generous of you, if you would sometimes condescend to call me by my name.” The irritation he could hear in his own voice seemed to surprise Gille as much as it did him. Where had that come from?
Hadn’t Stildyne called him by his name, not too long ago?
“Very well, Andrej, thank you. Will you let Alika send some doses with you? And I mean, will you use them if she does, you’ve got to get your balance back somehow.”
Was he off-balance, did Gille mean that? “At this point I will be glad of any help that I can get. I would not have thought to be sent for, not so soon.”
He would take dose upon dose until he was stupefied if only he did not have to go back to Secured Medical. But Gille meant well, and it was kind of him. “It’ll make us feel better too, your Excellency. Andrej.” Gille sounded utterly sincere, and Andrej reminded himself that Memakem held the tertiary rating of a psychotech. Not the ranking psychotech on board, no, Memakem was their chief bone man, first and foremost. Bones, and bone-headed Ship’s Surgeons, paranoid and suspicious of the slightest supportive gesture. This life was killing him . . . “We feel more in control of our environment when we can do something that impacts it. I’ll send someone down to the loading bay by ten-and-sixteen.”
Was Memakem humoring him, presuming so far as to try to treat him, as if he’d been a patient — and not Gille’s superior —
No, he was going to accept what was offered, and he was going to accept the impulse behind the offer with humility. All of the impulses behind the offer, whether he liked to think of himself as dangerously close to uncharted psychosis or not.
“Thank you, Gille, I have promised Chief Stildyne to take better care. I had better see what the desk looks like, now, if I am to be away from it for another week yet.”
Memakem took the hint, rising with a bow to leave. Andrej waited until he was alone in his office, noticing with gratitude that Gille made sure to secure the door behind him.
Psychosis was surrender, was defeat. He was not going to yield to the division in his own spirit. He was going to claim the life that was his with open eyes and a strong grip, and he was not going to give in, not to Lowden, not to Verlaine, not to the mutilated and avenging specters of his dreams.
“Chief Medical, for Security Chief Stildyne. If you could spare me a moment, Chief, there is a problem.”
He was Andrej Koscuisko, and he would prevail, because there was no middle ground between affirmation and annihilation, and there was no hope of making his protest heard if he went quietly into himself and stayed there. It had been given to him to make his protest heard once, in the black deeps of the Domitt Prison. The time would come when he could cry out against Verlaine, and Lowden too, and be satisfied at last. The time would come.
“Stildyne here, at his Excellency’s disposal. Your office, sir?”
He would do what he had to do to survive until then.
[Then comes the scene on the loading docks where Jils and Garol see Andrej loading his interrogations kit. In the published novel, nothing much happens after the confrontation between Andrej and Stildyne, and Andrej’s arrival in Burkhayden. These scenes are en route to Burkhayden.]
Andrej Koscuisko sat at his ease in the padded chair central to the cell, one boot resting comfortably against the shoulder of the man who lay cowering at his feet. Drawing at the lefrol he smoked with a sigh of contentment he admired his handiwork chained there before him. The prisoner had made him work for confession, but Andrej very much preferred it that way. Pain in itself was beguiling, true. But pain laid over defiance, to erode the will and enforce submission to Andrej’s hand — that was even better.
And there was so much, here.
Cell after cell full of Nurail Borderers, hillfolk and townfolk, people with the stink of the herd still upon them, newly taken captive into Jurisdiction to slake the thirsty maw of the Bench with their blood — eight eighties of people, and more every day, till the Domitt was packed far beyond its capacity with wounded and dying.
The Domitt Prison.
“Please, can I go now?”
The sound of that pleading was something to savor, and Andrej arranged the man’s head with the toe of his boot so that he could enjoy it. The light wasn’t good, but it didn’t need to be. It was good enough.
“Well, I think so. We’ve covered everything I had in mind.” He had the confession; he had the weave, written down in his book and tucked into his overblouse. His little book. There had been seven of them in the end, Andrej thought. Seven manuscript volumes full of dying weaves. He’d been interested. And once they found out he was writing them down they’d done what they could to give him what he wanted, defy him as they tried in all other areas.
There was nobody left in the cell. The cleaners must have come for the body, to take it to the disposal mill. Andrej frowned. He’d promised the prisoner; he hated it when the cleaners carried the bodies away before they were dead. He had agreed. He had promised to see that the man was well dead before his flesh was consigned to the furnace; he had to go catch them.
He rose to his feet.
The cleaners were just outside, there, in the hall, and the body they had was quite decently dead. He wasn’t sure it was the man he’d expected, but all seemed in order. Perhaps he’d been drunk. They had strict orders to be sure of the bodies before they destroyed them; why should he worry?
Because this was the Domitt —
Well, maybe he would go and lie down in quarters. He was tired, after all. The cleaners saluted, Security bowed him politely through the halls; he went down the long corridor toward the exit.
He couldn’t find it.
He knew what kind of dream this was, now, and he was annoyed at it. So predictable. Every door only opened into the next cell; he’d had this dream for years, he was almost bored with it. Sooner or later he would wake up; and when he woke up he’d be out of the Domitt.
All that he had to do was wake up.
He shook himself awake with a sudden start, irritated at himself for having fallen asleep. It was smoking lefrols on top of hard exercise, it addled the wits and cut loose one’s moorings. The prisoner had been much too cowed to move a muscle, and Andrej gave the man’s shoulder an impatient shove. He had perfectly good quarters to go to. He didn’t have to take his naps in the cells. St. Clare rose to his feet gracefully, bowing in acceptance of the rebuke; what was Robert doing here? He’d not been at the Domitt. Captain Irshah Parmin had kept Robert back, and once Andrej had got here he’d understood. And he’d agreed. The Domitt Prison was no place for a Nurail, especially not for a bond-involuntary. There were too many Nurail here already. There could too easily be an error, made.
This was ridiculous.
He was just dreaming.
Standing up from his chair with stern determination he pulled open the black door to go into the hall. There had to be some trick he could use to break out of this. There were Security coming through the hall; he would enlist their assistance, he could follow them out once they had done what they’d come here to do. He knew these Security. He thought he knew them. He hadn’t seen them since before the Domitt, but didn’t he recognize some of these people?
He followed them into the cell, to be sure that he wouldn’t miss his chance to get away with them. They were waiting for him. They had his prisoner, stripped and in chains, and St. Clare’s face was bleeding. That was a start, but only the beginning, before they were through there would be so much more blood —
No. He was dreaming. He fled from the room and out through the door, but the door only led to another black cell, with another prisoner. Why shouldn’t it? He was just dreaming. At least it wasn’t St. Clare he was beating — but he knew the man, even naked and in chains. He’d only gone four-and-forty before. There was so much more that he could do now. It could not be St. Clare. This was the Domitt, and Captain Parmin had not allowed St. Clare to go with him. Only a Nurail. Yes, that was right, only a Nurail, they all looked alike to him —
The whip was in his hand. St. Clare hung half-conscious in chains from the ceiling, catching his breath in great gasping sobs. His injured shoulder — Andrej called for them to take the man down and hurried in horror to cradle Robert to him, rocking St. Clare’s brutalized body and weeping helplessly in bitter protest. Worse than just whipped, St. Clare had been tortured, and who knew better than Andrej Koscuisko what each bruise and burn and bloody welt represented?
He knelt on the ground with the shattered body of a Nurail in his arms, Ndsi, he thought it was. He hoped it was Ndsi. Had Ndsi been Nurail? What did it matter? And Ndsi could not speak, but Ndsi could not die, either. Ndsi belonged to him, and could not get away until he had given Andrej satisfaction.
He kissed the bitten mouth of the tortured man, forcing the obedience of Ndsi’s tongue with the savage grip of his gloved fist, working St. Clare’s shattered hand with ferocious pleasure. St. Clare cried for him, in agony that escalated into shrieks of purest pain; and Andrej was content, because Ndsi was his, and was never going to get away from him, now.
He was never going to get clear of the Domitt Prison.
Why keep pretending he wanted to?
There was a sound in the ship that shook Karol Vogel out of his drowsing dreams over the latest intelligence reports and onto his feet, out of the control area, before he had well awakened. He knew that sound. He was a professional, he had survived for longer than usual in an elite group of agents responsible for sometimes surprisingly dirty work, and he’d heard enough of sounds like that to know them immediately for what they were.
The shriek of a soul in agony, in uttermost despair — it had a higher, cleaner edge than simple physical torment, there was a sound that only helpless anguish could produce. The voice of a man who could not say what he was asked to say, who did not know what he was presumed to know, who could only suffer without any hope of a reprieve –
Back to the sleeping-rooms, seven of them on the courier. Straight into something solid, something immovable — a Security troop, one of Koscuisko’s Security troops, and there was more of the same sort of noise coming from where Koscuisko had sequestered himself with his Security early on in transit.
Not so loud any more.
Muted and absolutely desolate, and Karol knew that he wasn’t entirely rational on the subject, but before the impersonal deities of uncaring Space any man who couldn’t recognize that surrender when he heard it deserved to die, and the sooner the better —
Jils was in front of him, trying to get his attention, peering around the shoulder of the Security troop who was holding him cautiously at an arm’s-length. Jils could hear it just as well as he could, what was the matter with her? She felt guilty about Koscuisko, she had a right to, but that shouldn’t mean that she was willing to let Koscuisko take it out on his Security, whether or not they were just bond-involuntaries, whether or not Fleet didn’t care one way or the other.
“Karol, disengage, now.”
Except of course that none of these poor bastards looked the least bit Dolgorukij to Karol. And there was no mistaking the accent, the soft guttural clean and free from the hissing sibilants of the trade-version of the language — the beautiful cadence of the purest of all Aznir Dolgorukij dialects. Nor any mistaking the words, either, so Karol let them pass without recognition, not wishing to stop them for so much as a single instant in his mind.
Oh, Holy Mother, please, what I have done. What I have done. And it is true, all true, please in the name of all Saints let it be not so, you weren’t even there — how can Captain Lowden have sent you to this place when you weren’t even there, I cannot have beaten you — Robert, I cannot have —
Karol took his hand away from the throat of the man who was restraining him, a little surprised to see how serious he’d been by the whitened marks his fingers had left on the troop’s neck. “Sorry,” he muttered grudgingly, shaking himself to settle his uniform and his attitude alike back to where they were supposed to be. “Was asleep. Only just now waking up. I’d better go in.”
Jils was surprised now at his lack of tact, but Karol didn’t care. He could explain later. Security was going to be a problem, but that he could deal with.
“Sorry, sir, really not advised, sir. His Excellency’s privacy to be respected, with the officer’s permission.”
Bond-involuntaries. Karol hated the whole thing. Not even allowed to speak directly enough to make good sense. “Listen, do any of you speak the language?”
The troop took a step back toward the door, blocking it. But the sound from within the room was not sufficiently muted by the gesture for it to do Karol any good. “Sir?”
“All right, I won’t go in. Which one’s Robert? What good does it do anybody, if you don’t know what’s on his mind?”
“St. Clare,” Jils said. “Robert St. Clare.”
Well, at least they were getting somewhere. “Beats him often, does he?”
The troop went white with fury. Karol was impressed. “Never, with the officer’s permission. Respectfully request the officer take no further thought — “
“No chance.” No thought of such a cry as he had heard? “Stand aside, and that’s an order, I mean a direct legal order, do it.” As long as they were going to be slaves anyway he was perfectly willing to take advantage of their programming when he had to. The troop staggered half-a-pace, clearly struggling with his governor; but the governor would win. Won. The troop stood aside to let Karol pass, with a look of shame and self-reproach that Karol really didn’t need.
“Hey, you can come too, I’m not going to hurt him.”
Offering this privilege as a sop to his own conscience Karol went through into the room. It was a mess; three big Security holding on to one half-dressed Inquisitor as if for dear life, while the officer in question raved on in language that they clearly didn’t understand from the sleeping-hammock in which they had him so securely wrapped.
“Excellency,” Karol said, in his very best Aznir, going down on one knee to be close to the head of the hammock where Koscuisko lay. He ignored the savage looks he got from the Security; maybe he had no right to be here, but he was here, and he’d had about enough of this nonsense. “His Excellency has only been dreaming, no harm has come to his Excellency’s man. Be assured of it, sir.”
No, please, no, please, four-and-forty was agreed upon, I cannot go eight-and-eighty, it will kill him, and it was not his fault —
It was just possible that Koscuisko had heard, and was answering him. Karol pressed on, regretting having gotten so far involved as he had in what was — after all — none of his business. He should have listened to the Security troop, he should have just turned around and walked away. Except that when he came to being able to turn around and walk away from pain like that it was time for him to turn in any pretense he had left to common decency.
“Excellency, listen to me.” He hoped he had enough of the basics left for Koscuisko to be able to comprehend what he was trying to say. Dolgorukij could be so elitist, about their language — “There is no four-and-forty, no eight-and-eighty. You are dreaming, sir, I can see your man Robert right here in front of me, and no one’s so much as laid a hand on him. I promise.”
The body quieted; Koscuisko lay still. It has been years, Koscuisko said, as if to him, as if no longer supplicating at the feet of some imagined tormentor. At the very beginning. It was that I should punish him, or that they would send him away, for a Second Level violation. Four-and-forty, my Tutor required of me, but the Administrator said six-and-sixty, and I was — so afraid for him.
Hard to imagine. A Second Level violation meant a Seventh Level ordeal, the way the Bench had it stacked for bond-involuntaries. “Then his Excellency has been having a flashback, because St. Clare doesn’t look anything like a man who’s had so much as four-and-forty any time recently. He is curious about what we’re talking about, though.”
Koscuisko sat up, the horror of whatever he had been dreaming still clear in his face. I tried very hard, but a man cannot be beaten without pain. And Lowden would like to have it done all over again, and all of them, and frequently.
Karol thought he was awake, but he couldn’t tell for certain. A species of psychosis behaved like that, so that a man could not tell whether he was waking or dreaming.
“His Excellency should not trouble himself about Captain Lowden. I’m sure it will be all right, whatever happens.” A mistake, he should not have said that, even in Aznir Dolgorukij, even if Koscuisko was too far gone to remember. He’d have to check the ship’s monitors, make sure the record was erased. He hadn’t gotten to where he was by being clumsy enough to leave any such hints where somebody might find them.
“Go away, Specialist Vogel.” In plain Standard now, so that everybody would know what he was saying. So Koscuisko was coming out of it at last, whatever it had been. “And don’t come back until you can handle the gerund form without spitting it halfway onto the floor. It is disgraceful, what passes for good Dolgorukij these days.”
Dismissed, and absolutely. Karol could not resent it, not really, not when he had presumed so far as to get himself involved in the first place. Rising to his feet, he bowed a little stiffly; there really wasn’t anything more that he could say, having said rather too much already.
Jils was near the door waiting for him. Pausing to look back as he went through Karol saw Koscuisko put his hand out to the shoulder of one of his Security, Koscuisko’s face hidden behind the man’s body.
It seemed to Karol that Koscuisko might be weeping.
But it wasn’t any business of his.
He was just as glad that it hadn’t been his job to break the news to Koscuisko about Secretary Verlaine’s bright plans for his future.
[At this point, we return you to the text of the novel as written.]