The morning that Eight Ball’s klaxon blared, heralding the disciples of universal night, her captain had gone fishing.
Gesar Chinfriends called him “Brick”was a relic even for a long-hauler, and he appeared almost stony astride his fishing pole, like a terra cotta warrior with a patina of grease. His only movement was to chew the betel nuts that for all twenty-fourth century dentistry still left his teeth bloody red. Each chew bobbed him slowly in freefall, like an ebbing pendulum. Just an hour out of hibernation, he still ached. And one thing he’d learned in all his dubious careers was to take the morning slow.
Never mind you hate the Gwai Lo, he told himself. Deep breaths. Remember what Wigness said, just steer the ship. Keep a grip.
So he was eyeing a fat golden pictorial velcroed open among the charts (2,000 Years of Illuminated Manuscripts) and a fat silvery fish drifting beyond the big transparent dome, when the alarm screamed as of murder, and the lighting shifted red. The cod appeared to swim in blood.
“Aiya,” Brick muttered, still chewing his nut, reflexively touching the knife at his belt. “What the hell?” he croaked. But the cod couldn’t answer. He shot it a disgusted look.
Like all Eight Ball’s crew except Kybernetes, the ship’s resident Brain, he wore a two-dimensional rendering of a black sphere from an obscure Earth game. It incorporated a radiation dosimeter and a link to the ship’s network. He tapped it and said, “Captain here. Make it good.”
“Brick,” came the cool voice of the woman he knew only as Dagger Meza, his first mate. “Kyb’s spotted an object in an intersecting solar orbit.”
This time Brick stopped chewing. “Intersecting?”
“Close enough. It’s two hundred eighty thousand klicks away now. We’ll pass within a hundred sixty thousand.”
Brick swore louder this time. The thing was already closer than Earth was to its moon. “Uncharted iceball?” he said. “Or a ship?”
“The betting pool’s going with ship, sir,” came the glum tones of Kybernetes.
“I want to have a look,” Brick said, “with my own ‘eyes.’ ”
Martian by birth, he had the winsome but weathered look of those Sino-Tibetans who first walked the red world without masks. He also bore the hoarse voice and dark goggles of old spacers whose thyroid got too many Grays and whose eyes got too many gees.
“We figured you would,” Kyb said.
Brick sighed and spat into a self-sealing cup. Then he keyed the ascent. The hatch below snapped shut. Motors whirred; silver shapes darted off, including the one that got away.
The fishing bubble doubled as the astrogation bubble, even if Eight Ball’s specs had it the other way around. Eight Ball’s denizensfour fresh-thawed baseline humans, three revived aliens, and the ever-vigilant Kybernetesdwelled in a titanium sphere about thirty-five meters across, itself sealed in a shell of carbon-steel-caged cold water, five meters thick. The water had many uses: cosmic ray shielding, heat dissipation, backup propellant. You could even drink it. But it was Brick’s innovation to stock it with Pacific cod, and to rig the bubble atop the inner sphere with a rod and reel, its handle just above the navigation charts.
The bubble rose like an elevator car in some Earthly undersea habitat. A circular panel irised upon the grey wall of the outer shell. Beyond was a special membrane that peeled away as the bubble peered through. Now the fishing rod dangled into space. The Milky Way sparkled beyond the orange lozenge of the lure. Stray water drops froze and scattered to join the stars, or drifted like snow onto the white hull around the bubble.
Eight Ball matched her name. Her outer shell was a black sphere studded with cargo modules, sensors, and heat radiators, but at the bow lay a circle of white paint threaded with a black infinity symbol. A docking port crouched inside the starboard loop; the astrogation bubble peeked from inside the port loop. Smirking dirtsiders supposed the black paint a nod to stealth, sabotaged by the white patch. In fact, both white and black were affectations. A ship’s heat glowed more livid to sensors than candy stripes. Barring odd “terrain” like dense convoys or the close vicinity of the Sun, stealth in space was a myth.
The principle worked both ways, however. No one should have gotten the drop on Eight Ball.
Grunting, Brick tapped his goggles and blinked, and the lenses responded. These were not true corrective glasses, but rather flat computer panels of a sort antiquated by direct neural links. The uniform black of the goggles absorbed photons while a computer perched above Brick’s nose tailored displays for his acceleration-damaged eyes. In effect, everything he saw was a simulation. When he glanced at his pictorial, for instance, with its swirling rendition of the Chi Rho page of the Book of Kells, the Greek letters denoting Christ filled with shimmering intricacies like some ecclesiastic fractal set; and he could choose to magnify the image, tease out the miniature animals and fanciful beasts and nearly as fanciful humans tucked within the dizzying Celtic knotwork, or delve deeper, examining the fine veining of the calfskin parchment so faithfully reproduced, or call up an annotated gloss about the original rich palette of pigments, such as iron gall, orpiment, and lapis lazuli.
He loved such explorations. But now he must look away, from illumination into darkness.
Graphical overlays crisscrossed Brick’s view of the stars. A green dot on a green line marked their destination, Kuiper Belt Object Quaoar, eight hours away and crawling with alien Gwai Lo.
A red line, thicker to indicate nearness, slashed at a slight angle across the green. Upon it pulsed a red dot, Kybernetes’ bogey.
Brick grunted, squinted, rapped, mixing the goggles’ information with Kyb’s data. He resolved a fuzzy, shadowy image. Soon he could guess its true shape, slender and tri-winged.
“Huh,” he said. “Very Flash. Gordon, that is.”
“Captain?” Dagger’s miniature face popped up in one corner of Brick’s displayor rather lack of face, since she always left her quarters shrouded in dark robe and cowl.
“Looks so out of place it’s crazy, I mean. Might as well be a sailing ship.”
Dagger’s image nodded. “We thought it might be an atmosphere-launched missile, but out here, that makes no sense.”
Brick scratched his nose beneath his goggles. “Probably a yacht,” he decided with surprise. It was hard to surprise him these days.
But it must be so. Any interplanetary vessel so sleek must be a toy of Rollers, plutocratic youth cruising the inner system before becoming Loaded, discarding flesh for electronic immortality. Even SolGov would bow to the economic wisdom of using different craft for atmospheres than for deep space.
“Who the hell is this?” Brick snarled, his thoughts now burning to his cargo. “How did he sneak up on us?”
“Working on the who-the-hell-he-is, sir,” Kyb said, her tone sparking with anger. At Brick? More likely at the Roller. There was no pop-up image of Kyb’s face, because she no longer had one. Brain-hood was a cheaper brand of immortality than Loading, and many of the elite sponsored the cybering of Brains in return for indentured servitude. That was Kybernetes’ story, until Brick had bought her freedom. But there remained the worry her Roller employer had left hidden overrides behind.
Maybe Kyb worried too.
“They can’t have chased us from the inner system,” Kyb was saying. “It can be done, but we’d have seen it.” Brick nodded. If life support was a candle, ship’s drive was a bonfire. Kyb continued, “So I would guess it was manufactured out this way. I’m searching our onboard registry. As for how sensors missed it, there’s almost no heat signature. I only spotted it because I got into a paranoid mood, and checked for star occultations.”
“Let’s hear it for moods,” Brick said. “Huh, no heat. A robot yacht?” Its appearance might be a ruse.
“Maybe, yes. But even for a robot it’s cold. If it wasn’t coming so close, I’d wonder if it was a derelict.”
Mercury “Merc” Jones, the flashily named engineer with the unassuming title Loadmaster, popped up in another corner of Brick’s display. “Been thinking about that,” said Merc, a thirtyish-looking black man leathered by years of solar exposure at Mercury’s Quicksilver Scrapyards. He bore a toothmark scar on his temple from the Eight Ball crew’s notorious barfight on Titan, where Merc accidentally switched his raw-egg drink with an Ixion’s bark juice. Though younger, the peripatetic Loadmaster had stripped and jury-rigged more ships than Brick had ever seen. “Could be running in some kind of dormant mode, you know . . . like how old space probes carried little batteries, enough to run a few instruments, not enough to easily spot. Some late twenty-first century models could run damn cold. Sneaky.”
“Assuming the ship is not built with alien stealth,” Dagger said.
“Huh.” In her own way, Dagger mistrusted Gwai Lo as much as Brick did. One of the Lagrange space colonists, her home habitat had been an economic basket case since the Contact Crash, and while unlike Brick she wasn’t alive then, L5 still suffered.
(He’d never forget her fighting off that Ixion in the Titan barfight, wielding her tequila bottle with all the passion and precision of some drunken yet dragon-slaying Joan of Arc. Even now it generated thoughts unbecoming of a captain.)
He respected her worries. The Ixions in particular had boycotted Quaoar’s All-System Exposition in disdain for the smelly tree-beasts who nominally owned the system in question. Brick could imagine the ravenous, slimy, two-meter wasp-snakes vaporizing Eight Ball for emphasis. Still, the ships of the Kuiper Belt’s great colonial Powers, and even lesser lights like the Erisians, were as distinctive as works of art. Why would aliens go slumming on a human yacht?
“Okay,” Brick said. “For now we assume they’re human pirates. Or at least human-built pirates.” He sighed. “We’d better inform Ambassador Yee.”
“We going to launch her at them?” Merc said.
“She’s SolGov,” Brick said, “and we’ve got an obligation to keep her informed. Anyway, we opted for a laser cannon, not a missile bay. Put her on.”
“Pirates?” Chodon Yee sputtered presently. Like Brick, the Special Ambassador for Inter-species Conferences was Martian-Tibetan-Chinese, but the resemblance ended there. An icy beauty, she seemed eternally young, with a talent for gathering attention like Jupiter gathered moons. If he hadn’t seen her in the flesh before hibernation, Brick would have thought the sleek image in the pop-up display some virtual avatar. She just didn’t quite seem real.
“Robot pirates,” Dagger said.
“Ahr, buzz, ahr, matey,” Brick said. There was silence for a moment, before everyone ignored him. His crew could tell when he was talking as the captain, and when he was talking as the Old Coot. Yee probably thought he sounded no more stupid than usual.
“I trust you have an explanation for this?” she said.
“Piracy in deep space is difficult,” Kyb said, “because the detection ranges are so long. But this ship may have a workaround. Imagine a controlling AI . . . or Loaded personality . . . aboard a minimally powered ship. Give it drones to recover swag. We’re highly visible even coasting, because of the heat from life support. Our robot pirate doesn’t have that problem. And so now they’re here, well within weapon range.”
“I don’t want a lecture on pirate tactics,” Yee said. “I want to know how you ignored this possibility. I have never been comfortable with SolGov’s use of private haulers. This only vindicates my concerns.”
Brick chomped a fresh betel nut. He could almost hear Merc sharpening his knife. He said quickly, “This is somewhat unprecedented, excellency.” He remembered SolGov representative Wigness assuring him the threat from piracy was nil. He wished he could bring Wigness here now. “What little space piracy goes on, goes on closer to the Sun”
“You shame your ancestors with excuses. No doubt you bring great negative karma upon this ship. You are certain it’s hostile? Have you tried hailing?”
“Madam.” Brick drummed his fingers upon the image from the Book of Kells. “It’s a ship close enough to spit on. That can’t be an accident, and I’m not taking chances. Our only advantage right now is that it might not know we know.”
Kyb tried to rescue him. “We do have another advantage, Captain. No life support means low heat profile, but only if they’re powered down . . . they’ll have to go through a power-up before threatening us with more than bad thoughts.”
Yee said, “Then there may be time for Quaoar to help us. We should alert Ambassador Wintergrue.”
Merc laughed. “Quaoar never answers maydays, excellency.” The Loadmaster wasn’t bothering to keep the scorn out of his voice. Merc disliked officialdom, piety, and dirtsiders, and Yee wrapped all three up in one glossy package. Brick gathered Merc had spent years tangled with some well-heeled, Mars-based cult, the Moddies maybe, or a human branch of the Night Readers, and this had a lot to do with his love for the outer system. “For that matter,” Merc went on, “they’re so fussy about approaches they’ll blast anything that assumes a collision course, even by accident. Fun people.”
“Even with Wintergrue on board?” Yee scoffed.
“Let’s ask,” Brick said.
“Even with me on board,” the retiring Quaoran Ambassador confirmed a minute later, its translator affecting an easy, mellow tone. “It is simply that we don’t fool around with high relative velocities. At spacecraft speeds, accidental collisions are hard to distinguish from deliberate attacks. So we don’t. Too bad for me.”
Brick bit hard on a betel nut, looking at the Quaoaran’s grotesque image in his display, so at odds with its urbane artificial voice.
A Quaoaranthe name was a convenience, for its true home was light-years awaywas like a ten-legged tarantula, stuck to the bottom of a meter-wide balloon composed of layers of spider-silk and crisscrossed with tiny, scampering young (plus robot versions of same), the whole works spray-painted white. Quaoran language was ideographic, formed of red threads dropped onto the white by those mind-linked (some sources said enslaved) younglings. So strange squiggles coiled around Wintergrue’s gasbag like bloody calligraphy, the Quaoran analog to his speech.
“Now, despite the fact that Quaoar will be no help,” Wintergrue continued, “I am curious why these pirates would choose to intercept when we’re relatively close. They could have caught you in hibernation.”
Brick frowned at the image. One of the child-spiders up top was looking quite big, almost as large as the parent.
“Maybe they’ve got a buyer at Quaoar,” Merc was saying, “you know?”
Dagger added, “And when piracy does happen, sometimes the raiders want an awakened target that will jettison cargo.”
“Excellency,” Brick put in, “pardon me for prying. But are you in danger of tipping?”
The amount of red writing on the Quaoaran gasbag tripled, but Wintergrue’s mild voice said simply, “All my young are leashed, Captain Chin. My eldest will be cut loose at Quaoar soon, before any psychotic takeover can take place. Thank you for your concern.”
Brick wanted to trust Wintergrue; horrific appearance aside, it was tolerable company, for a Gwai Lo. But Quaorans whose mind-linked young rebelled could become irrational. Sometimes the rebel could even masquerade as the parent . . .
“You’re wasting time, Captain,” Yee said. “What are you going to do about this pirate? How are you going to ensure the safety of the holy relic?”
“Holy relic?” Merc said.
“What my first mate suggested,” Brick said quickly. “Drop and run.”
“You’d jettison the cryptbox?” Yee exclaimed.
“No,” Brick snapped. “I’m talking about the outboard cargo. Kona coffee for the Quaoarans. Redwood bark for the Ixions. That sort of thing.”
“Cryptbox?” Kyb said.
Thanks, Yee, Brick thought. But I guess our pirates already know. The box was the likely target. Even as voracious as the Ixions, say, were for Earth plant matter (gluttonous omnivores though they were, the very scent of Earth meat could set them vomitinghe’d lost a good shirt to green splatter at that Titan bar), tree bark hardly justified piracy. But at least Eight Ball could shed mass.
To Kyb he said, “Later,” before tapping his badge for a shipwide announcement. “This is the captain. We’ve detected a probable hostile. All passengers to the storm cellar. All passengers to the storm cellar.” He killed the announcement. “Wait for it . . .”
The Orcan Ambassador to Quaoar (reassigned from Earth) cut in. Brick had run out of corners to stow the pop-up images, so it appeared beside Yee’s. By contrast to her chilly composed gaze, it was giving him the finger.
The Ambassador, whose name translated as Oddsgod, traveled in an aquarium about the size of Wintergrue’s gasbag, covered with extendable manipulator-claws. It made Brick think of one of H.G. Wells’ Martian war machines, with a fishbowl on top. The fishbowl’s interior frothed with smoky-looking water. Sometimes tendrils emerged into view, brushing the crystalline wall. The Orcan itself, Brick knew, dangled from an icepack mounted to the aquarium roof. It resembled an inverted blue willow tree with thousands of diminutive worms for branches, little eyeballs near the tips. Those blue tendrils were quite dextrous, so much that Oddsgod was able to make human-readable doodles just by shoving them against the crystal wall. Oddsgod’s latest masterpiece looked like a human hand with its middle finger jutting up.
“Screw that! You’re not hiding any secrets in the muck, human. You either, Wintergrue!” Oddsgod’s tendrils sketched a question mark beside a Quaoran interrogation-chop. “Say, are you about to tip?”
“I see rudeness is not confined to humanity,” Wintergrue observed.
Brick said, “I called you out of courtesy, excellency.” He sketched out the situation. “Expect a burn soon.”
“So begins the fabled All-System Exposition,” Oddsgod gloated, tentacles forming the outline of a fish floating upside down, X for an eye.
“I know you gain great prestige from any embarrassment to Quaoar,” Wintergrue said. “No need to drain a dead husk.”
“Oh, don’t worry. Time’s current will bring our own Worlds’ Fair along soon. I wager we’ll learn from your mistakes.”
“Start by learning some quiet, excellency,” Brick said. “Kyb, punch it soon as the yacht lights. No matter where the rest of us are.”
“I don’t have much propellant reserve,” Kyb said, “if we’re still going to decelerate for Quaoar rendezvous.”
“Forget rendezvous. Shoot us past Quaoar in an Oberth maneuver, close enough to wave, and get as much speed as you can. Just make it clear we won’t hit. We’ll have to hope they’ll reel us in eventually, since one of their people is on board.”
“They might do that,” Wintergrue said. “They are polite.”
“Oh, your words wound me,” Oddsgod said, tendrils doing a passable rendition of the face in Munch’s The Scream.
“Enough,” Brick said. “We give diplomats passage as a courtesy to your governments”
“A courtesy unnecessary if not for the ban on civilized tech in your deeper system,” Oddsgod shot back. “Mass-driver launch tubes! Antimatter gas core engines! Ten-year transits! Hibernation! Even the Erisians could do better.”
Yeah, Brick grunted to himself, squinting at Oddsgod’s mobile aquarium, you Orcans love your contraptions, don’t you. Come to think of it, you’re awfully fond of robotics . . .
“Captain,” Merc muttered, interrupting his thought, “where is the Erisian?”
Brick frowned. The babbling octopus-vulture-thing should have popped up by now. His excellency the babbling octopus-vulture-thing. “None of you have seen him?”
Humans and aliens communicated their one point of unanimity.
“Damn it,” Brick said. “Kyb?”
“Can’t find him,” Kyb admitted. “We’re not exactly a fortress here, Captain. And Erisians do have a reputation for sneakiness.”
“Enough. Ladies and gentlemen and indefinites, prepare for a burn.” Brick cut off contact with the diplomats. “Merc, get the VIPs to the storm cellar. Dagger, grab a scanner and find that Erisian.” He hesitated. “Grab a pistol, too.”
“You think he’s in league with the pirates?” Dagger said, her tone sharp. Brick sensed a lecture coming. “Get a grip, Brick. Erisians are annoying, but they’re honest to a fault. That’s part of why they’re annoying.”
Dagger was always telling him to get a grip. Good general advice on a spaceship, of course . . . but she meant much more.
I mistrust the aliens’ power and position, Brick, she’d said before. If I could ever find a way to get our whole system back, I’d probably kill for it. But youI think ‘foreign devil’ isn’t just an expression for you. I think you literally believe they’re monsters.
Brick snapped, “Just get ’em all into the cellar and in the rescue balls. That way if they make a fuss all they’ll do is play pool.”
“That game sounds weirder every time you talk about it, Captain,” Merc said. “Loadmaster out.”
There was a pause, then: “Dagger out.”
Brick said, “Kyb . . . keep paranoid.”
“You don’t have to ask. It’s dark out here.”
Silence and stars again. Brick frowned anew at the mystery yacht. Might it really be just a Loaded eccentric, out where he didn’t belong? Give me a clue, Brick thought.
For an instant there flickered in his goggles’ display an odd message, sandwiched between the distance and velocity estimates.
Beware the Eagle.
It was there and gone, like a quote on the Cislunar Stock Exchange.
The lack of tags made the message seem tight-beamed to the goggles, not pulled from Eight Ball’s network.
“Give me another clue,” he said hopefully. Nothing happened.
Grunting, Brick tapped his goggles and blinked. Data flickered as he tried to determine who’d sent the message. He found no trail.
Was somebody on board sending a private warning? Or . . . he frowned out at the darkness. It was unlikely, but not impossible, the message actually came from the yacht.
Brick cursed and keyed a virus purge. The world dissolved into fuzz. He pulled up the goggles. The blurry view from his gee-damaged eyes was not a huge improvement, but at least he could get around . . . and any viruses recently implanted would be caught. He raised Kyb again.
“A shipwide purge?” she repeated. “I haven’t detected any signals...”
“Guess it’s my turn to be paranoid,” Brick said. “Run it. And Kyb . . .”
“Check the registry for yachts named Eagle. Captain out.”
Brick stared a moment longer at the stars, those uncatchable bright fish, thinking of old books and ships and storms. He ran a finger along a chart book’s spine, recalling a ballad of the thirteenth century, and a knight commanded to sail in bad weather.
Murmuring aloud, Brick repeated Sir Patrick Spens’ words to his crew: “Mak hast, mak haste, my mirry men all / Our guid schip sails the morne . . .”
And he answered himself as had Spens’ crew: “O say na sae, my master deir, / For I feir a deadlie storme.”
Wet sea or dark, Brick could empathize. There was a hint in the ballad that the knight had earned enemies, and Brick could relate to that too. Out of need, but more out of anger at the Gwai Lo and the humans who kissed their tendrils/manipulators/feet, Brick once had stolen and smuggled, old books being his specialty. He had concerns about his passengers, but truth to tell, any observer who knew his past would suspect Brick first of all. If pirates were coming, that was surely his karma. Perhaps he should accept it with the solemn grace of a Sir Patrick Spens, sailing to a fifty-fathom grave.
He spat into his cup again and withdrew from the stars. He’d better check his treasure.
Back in the ship’s guts, with fish poking about the bubble, Brick slipped through the hatch below and pulled himself by handholds through the cluttered chart room. From there he nosed through the hatch into the axial ladder. Face-first, he descended.
The ladder was a twenty-five-meter crawl from bow to engine room. The trip was like a caving expedition through tangles of ducting and cables and pipes. Brick’s face felt the tug of air vents, the vibration of motors, the tickle of air freshener strips.
Brick wasn’t going all the way, just a deck down.
Everything looked as expected when he reached his office: neat and ordered, the wall displays flickering with the virus purge.
As expectedexcept for the alien crouched upon the steel-mesh desk.
The Erisian Ambassador to Earth (currently non-resident) stared with carrion-eater eyes. One hand on his blade, Brick stared back. His goggles should be fine now; he swallowed and with his free hand pulled them down. His vision clarified, and he beheld a thing out of nightmares.
The alien had its tentacles around the cryptbox like a tomb robber getting better acquainted with King Tut. Only in this case, the robber resembled some mutated Egyptian bird-god (vulture-headed, fish-gilled, bat-winged, and tentacled like an octopus shy two limbs, the whole package wrapped in corpse-grey skin); and the sarcophagus was instead a black slab proportioned like a briefcase. Red death’s-heads flickered across its surface. The cryptbox was magnetically clamped to the desk, and the ambassador did not seem to be trying so much to remove it, as caress it. That was disturbing enough.
It was even worse that the Erisian didn’t so much as glance at the box. Instead it focused on the human as though the antics of its own writhing tentacles were beneath its concern.
“Stop staring at me,” Brick said, “and attack or something.”
“I pray your forgiveness,” the alien kawed politely. “I’m waiting for your death.”
“How to explain . . . My people evolved to spy carrion littering land, or drifting listless on the sea. When you hold still, my inner scavenger snaps awake.”
Brick shivered. “You’re not exactly calming me down.”
“I am not here to kill you, Captain Chin.”
“Huh. So what are you doing, Ambassador? Excuse me: thief.”
“I am not here to steal. I came to speak to you, then heard the shipwide alarm. Fearing the worst, I investigated your office. I crave the safety of the artifact, as do you.”
As the Erisian spoke, the viewer behind it resumed its normal schematic of the solar system, with the words No Virus Detected covering the eight inner planets of SolGov and the myriad alien-settled iceworlds of the Kuiper Belt.
“Artifact?” Brick said, with a twinge more confidence. “That’s just my MacGuffin.”
“It’s a human term for old movies. This particular one is called Psycho. A classic. Ever see it?” Brick smiled evilly and drew the knife. He twisted a knob and a little display in the hilt switched from Q to E.
The Erisian closed double membranes over its multifaceted eyes, opened them again. “I know what truly occupies the box, Captain Chin. I know also that a menace occupies your vessel.”
“No shit, Sherlock. You break into my office, Ambassador Vul-ah-er . . .” As a dozen times before, Brick’s tongue tripped on his passenger’s name.
“I am Vulchuglurian Rogatnigok [SCREE] Gowlakach, of Eris and the Darkensea Aerie.”
“Ambassador Vulch. You break into my office, and you’re talking about threats? It’s all clear now. A robot pirate ship wouldn’t be half as effective without an inside man.”
“Fool,” Vulch squawked. “Pirates are not your chief concern. Grave danger lurks on board your vessel . . .”
“I’m with you there.”
“. . . a disciple of universal night, a pawn of the Devourers, an emissary of cosmic heat death. You cannot conceive your peril!”
As the Erisian spoke, a fit engulfed it. The tentacles released the cryptbox and whipped the air as though in ecstasy or terror. The motion revealed the Erisian’s marsupial-like pouch, previously concealed by the ropy limbs. Brick saw various artificial objects protruding from the lip. He saw a tentacle drift toward one. He acted.
Brick yanked himself into the room at an angle, thumbing two buttons on his hypoknife as he came astride the Erisian’s open beak.
The blade shot from his hand on a jet of compressed air, giving Brick a slight impulse backward, as he’d intended, into his bookshelf.
Meanwhile the blade sank into the Erisian’s left shoulder.
Brick plowed into his collection, somewhere between Great Martian Pulps #5: A Princess of Virginia and A Child’s Christmas on Europa. With his free hand he ripped a book from its velcro. As the Erisian, tentacles quivering, looked up, it received Volume One of the Encyclopedia Luna (A to Antimatter) square in the snout.
The Erisian cartwheeled. Ambassador Vulch was resilient, and quickly braced itself against the bulkhead. But the hypoknife still sprouted from its shoulder, and its movements slowed.
The ampoule he’d loaded was prepped for Erisians. Kyb wasn’t the only paranoid one.
“Fool!” croaked Vulch, wings aquiver. “So bigoted are you . . . you ignore the evil behind human faces.”
Adrenalin screaming in his veins, the words foamed out of Brick like water from a burst canal. “We didn’t ask you to come to our system, Gwai Lo! To crash our economy, make my family broke”
He caught his breath, mastered himself. “What do you mean? Evil behind human faces?”
“Beware,” Vulch croaked, “the Evangelist . . .” Then the membranes fluttered over its multifaceted eyes. From time to time they flickered open and closed again.
“Perfect,” Brick called to the unseen, unseeing heavens, and swore oaths against foreign devils of all species.
When his fight-haze cleared, Brick gingerly recovered the encyclopedia volume, then yanked the groaning Erisian to the office hammock. A few old fisherman’s knots and the intruder was secured. Purple drops of Erisian blood drifted like spilled wine. Brick left the hypoknife in place. If he had to stow the alien here, he might as well leave it sedated; the blade would dose Vulch at intervals. Vulch muttered something about “Logovores” and “star death” and “devouring.” Probably random nonsense.
Brick yanked the cryptbox loose from the table’s magnetic mesh. Since the box wasn’t screaming, he knew the lock was intact.
Now, just as the Great Powers could swat aside his vessel, they could sidestep mere quantum encryption. But the best Erisian tech, Brick knew, was only a step ahead of humanity’s.
And yet. He had to check.
Though Brick wanted to yank the box open, instead he located a serene haven in his psyche’s stormy sea, the image of his family’s old redoubt on Mars. In his mind’s eye he walked the island estate and found a bottle glinting in the sand. The message inside was a series of numbers which Brick (back turned to the Erisian’s fluttering eyes) traced upon the box’s metal.
This sequence, fed by an implant in Brick’s brain, matched a sequence in the lock. Implant and lock were linked by quantum entanglement, acting as one physical system, despite their separation. Spooky action at a distance, as Einstein long ago put it. Brick should relax. Old Albert had his back.
He opened the box.
Eight Ball’s portion of the Book of Kells was gone.
The worst of it, Brick thought as he regarded the empty box, was that he’d leapt to haul this treasure. Other captains back at Lagrange Four muttered SolGov had gotten giddy about this Exposition . . . that even under-armed freighters ran bloated with swag. But Brick, book-loving Brick, had been too dazzled. He still had connections from his smuggling days, and from the days he’d turned informant. They’d come through for him.
You just steer the ship, SolPol Officer Wignessnow Program Specialist for Museums and Cultural Objects Wignesshad soothed. The cryptbox will do the rest. Top-end security, maximum shock absorption, nuclear bunker plating. Trinity College wouldn’t let its treasure off-planet otherwise.
Brick slammed the box onto the desk and confronted Vulch. The alien hissed something about “rising glory” and its eyes fluttered shut.
Brick mastered his anger, searched the Erisian. Inside the marsupial-like pouch he discovered a traveler’s medkit and toolkit and . . .
There was a purple scroll covered with Ixion taste-glyphs like green puzzle pieces . . .
A pale Quaoaran memory ribbon threaded with red wormtrail writing . . .
A blue Orcan stem-husk spattered with tiny black words of autobiography . . .
And a yellowed 2076 paperback of Common Sense.
“Night Reader,” Brick murmured. “You’re a goddamned Night Reader.”
It was a little like discovering a house burglar was a Vatican scholar, or a Buddhist monk.
The Erisian said nothing more. Its wings trembled as it slept.
Beware the Eagle, huh? Vulch was the only winged being on board . . . But a Night Reader
Shaking his head, Brick sealed the office and descended the axial ladder. He passed the V-shaped upper split of the laser cannon and paralleled the grimy chrome pillar of the cannon’s main trunk, down to the spin ring. The laser was Eight Ball’s sole armament. Its main function was deterrence, not so very unlike the little plaques outside proclaiming IF YOU CAN READ THIS I HAVE WEAPONS LOCKED.
But sometimes people ignored warnings.
“Beware the Evangelist,” he muttered aloud.
“Beware what, Brick?” A glint of polished metal shone from the darkness ahead.
Brick’s eyes focused on a cloak pin, blue and gleaming like an icy stiletto. The rest of the speaker was nondescript as a medieval monk. A dark, hooded cloak shrouded her, secured with a toolbelt instead of a rope. Inside the hood brown eyes blinked on a brown face, beneath coils of black hair. A thin-cut smile curled beneath. Teeth flashed.
“ ’Lo, Dagger,” Brick said.
Dagger Meza hailed from the original L5 colonyknown commonly as the “Elf Hive.” The “Elfs” now endured such choking population density they shrouded themselves for anonymity, camouflage ranging from masks to holograms. Even Dagger clung to the mores, to the extent of going cowled.
Perversely, it was Dagger’s modesty that occasionally fanned the spark of lust hidden in her captain. Brick kept it snuffed, of course.
“I said, ‘Beware Greeks bearing gifts,’ ” Brick added, maybe too gruffly. “Or Norwegians. Shouldn’t have taken this job.”
Brick elaborated, leaving out only the “bewares.”
“So,” Dagger said, “we’ve lost the Book of Kells.”
“One fourth of it,” Brick snapped. The ninth century vellum manuscript comprised four volumes, more or less corresponding to the Christian gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John had each boarded a different ship. Eight Ball’s charge was John, the most fragmentary of the four. (Brick recalled the other three vessels, weeks behind, were more advanced and better armed.)
“I see,” Dagger shot back. “Ireland will only lynch one fourth of the crew, then. I wonder who that will be?”
“That’s why you’re my first mate,” Brick said. “All that respect. The book’s got to still be on board, or they wouldn’t bother with the yacht. I think we can rule out Ambassador Vulch . . .”
“Vulchuglurian Rogatnigok [SCREE] Gowlakach,” Dagger corrected.
“I think we can rule the Erisian out,” Brick said. “I know that’s hard to buy . . .”
“Let me shock you by agreeing,” she said. “I’ve encountered Night Readers. They are insane, sure . . . but they want only to protect the astral essences of literature from monsters from Beyond. Or something. All harmless mystic crap. Honorable fanatics. Like you.”
She smiled. “Seriously, Brick. Think of the mass we cart around in the form of books. You’re a bit obsessed.”
“Doesn’t make me a cultist.”
“No. You’re a romantic. We could be shooting at that bogey, you know. We’re powered up, they’re not.”
“We don’t have proof”
“Gunning down innocents, even Loaded innocents, that’s Gwai Lo work. Buddha notwithstanding, we’re not much better. But we’re trying, damn it.”
“Brick . . .”
“I know, I know, get a grip. It doesn’t matter. You still got a scanner on you?”
“Of course,” she said, patting her cloak. Medieval-looking or not, it had plenty of pockets.
“Then let’s help Merc with our other passengers.”
“You believe one of them is our thief ?”
“Someone beat a cryptbox. That’s got to take Great Power technology. No Ixions around, so that means Oddsgod or Wintergrue.”
Dagger nodded. “It did seem strange that we got so many diplomats on this run. If one of them is carrying illicit tech . . .”
“They’ll be in big trouble.” The Gwai Lo weren’t allowed to bring their more advanced tech inside Neptune’s orbit. Diplomatic privilege had prevented scans or searches back at Lagrange, but if someone had boarded Eight Ball with a super-device, that would have repercussions in galactic law. Of course, discovery might encourage their government to do away with the witnesses. Eight Ball wasn’t inside Neptune’s orbit now. “Let’s just hope to God that’s not really a Great Power ship out there.”
“God may be displeased that you lost the holy gospel.”
“You’re an atheist, Dagger.”
“Just an observation.”
As they descended the tangential ladder into the spin ring, they could hear the passengers arguing with Merc.
The spin ring boasted a sixteen-meter-diameter interior, with a corridor circumscribing it and a series of cabins branching off, four for passengers, three for crew. What might have been Kyb’s cabin housed the medical pod. If necessary, Kyb’s brainshell could be shunted from the flight deck to the pod. For the others, the ring offered simulated lunar gravity, a boon to health and morale.
Given the snarling up ahead, however, it would take a lot more than spin-grav to restore morale to Eight Ball.
Brick jogged up the sloped floor. Despite his haste he tapped the handholds amid the multicolored piping on the right. Keep a grip . . . because if Kyb punched a burn, the spin ring would automatically stop. Acceleration would transform the right hand wall into the “ceiling,” and the smooth left hand wall into the “deck.”
Thus, by the time Brick arrived, arguments had devolved into threats.
A glowering Merc, wearing a heavy toolpack as though geared for a hiking expedition to a scrapyard, gripped the piping on the wall. The Loadmaster, a health fanatic, made Brick feel fat and feeble just looking at him, but sometimes that was a reassurance. Now, for instance. Merc’s free hand brandished a hypoknife, pointing at the three remaining Ambassadors.
The graceful, cold-eyed Chodon Yee with her black gown swirling with red dragons still didn’t quite seem real. Adding to the surrealness was the ambulatory fishbowl of Oddsgod (tendrils sketching the symbol of a null set) and the drifting spider-nest gasbag of Wintergrue, whose overgrown child crouched atop the balloon, looking even bigger than before.
“Can’t convince ’em,” Merc said, “can’t stab ’em. You know?” The scars from an Ixion’s fangs looked shiny around his right eyebrow.
“Captain, be reasonable,” Wintergrue said. “We are grown beings, not fresh-cut juveniles.”
Oddsgod said, “I might feel more cooperative if your grease-monkey hadn’t drawn a knife on us.”
“Loadmaster,” Merc said. “His Loadmaster drew a knife on you.”
“I promise you,” Yee announced, “none of you will work in space again.”
Brick fetched a betel nut, bit down. For all his worries about Oddsgod and Wintergrue, Yee had uttered fighting words. He strove for a diplomatic tone, and got within maybe an Astronomical Unit of one.
“Excellencies. We face potential combat. Safety demands you visit the storm cellar.”
“A little late for safety,” Yee said, “after you let pirates down our throats.”
“Well, if I read the group’s mood,” Oddsgod said, “you’d better let us sift our own waters, Chin.”
“Have you already seized our colleague,” Wintergrue asked, “Vulchuglurian Rogatnigok [SCREE] Gowlakach?”
“He’s . . . secure,” Brick said, then muttered, “Am I the only one who can’t pronounce that?”
“Nope,” Merc said. “I call him Squiggly.”
“The name isn’t so hard,” Dagger said.
“That’s just ’cause you’re the smartest person on board,” Brick sighed. “Speaking of which, did you get that last task done?”
“I did,” she said, patting a pocket.
Brick nodded. Then he spat red juice. Hell with diplomacy. “All right. You don’t want protection, that’s your lookout. Address further complaints to the vacuum. You will now enter your quarters. Which will be locked.”
“This is hardly”
Suddenly Dagger pulled a dark, glinting laser pistol from her cloak. “You heard him.”
“You’re finished, Captain Chin!” Yee said, as she and her colleagues stalked into their cabins. “You’ll be begging for oxygen at Lagrange” The hatches clanged.
Brick removed his badge, tapped an instruction, and slammed it against each of the three hatch controls. Red lights proclaimed a priority lockup.
“Dagger, well?” he said, donning the badge like a sheriff at movie’s end. “Oddsgod or Wintergrue?”
“Brick . . .” Dagger said slowly, studying her scanner. “It’s Yee.”
Brick found himself another betel nut. “Beg pardon?”
“If I read this right, Yee is an android with an alien coiled in her abdomen. She . . . it . . . is loaded with enough alien tech to cause a galactic incident. Ambassador Yee is an Ixion, Brick.”
Brick stared at her so long, he did a passable imitation of a Erisian.
Then the burn began.
Brick admired Kybernetes’ respect for orders. He’d told her not to worry about the crew, and indeed she had not.
Eight Ball sprang ahead, building toward three gees. The spin ring spun down simultaneously. A jarring acceleration spinward met a punishing shove toward the left wall. Brick’s right hand wrenched in its handhold. He yelped with pain, and heard his shipmates doing likewise.
There were small mercies: at least he hadn’t been thrown against his first mate.
He let go, slumping to what was now the “deck.” Best to ride a burn on your back. Brick’s eyes trembled and teared.
Kybernetes’ voice sounded in their badges. “You guessed right, the bogey powered up. We’re running like hell. How are you?”
“Taking it lying down,” Brick said.
“Had worse, you know . . .” Merc said, voice clearer via badge than through the air, what with the throbbing in Brick’s ears.
“Think . . . broke finger . . .” crackled Dagger’s voice.
“Sorry,” Kyb said. “I’m getting a headache, for what it’s worth.”
“I weep for you,” Dagger said.
“Captain,” Kyb said, “I’d like to vent some water from the shell. Less mass, and snow might fuzz our profile.”
“Do it,” Brick said. More cosmic ray shielding gone. Well, he’d never expected to have children.
“Bogey’s too distant to effectively tag with exhaust,” Kyb was saying. “Not that I want him close. Uh oh, change that from bogey to hostile. They’re firing. Looks like missiles. Might have to get creative.”
“You have my . . .” Brick began, then stopped.
He noticed one, then another, then a third of the passenger hatches popping open.
“. . . Full confidence,” he rasped, as he saw three shapes approaching.
“Are you all right?” Kybernetes said. “You sound a little funny”
“Everything on this deck is fine,” Brick said, as the twono, threealiens drifted or crawled or stepped out of their cabins. Wintergrue wasn’t obviously discomfited, although it and its juveniles moved more sluggishly, relying on the little spider-bots to scamper to the deck and tow the gasbag with silver threads. Oddsgod’s mobile aquarium strained visibly under three gees but managed to amble around. Meanwhile “Chodon Yee” seemed oblivious to the acceleration. There was even a little spring to her steps. “Believe you me,” Brick added, “no one has evaluated a deck as carefully as I am now. Just focus on running. Captain out.”
“Thank you for freeing us,” Wintergrue said to Yee.
“What’s your game, Yee?” Oddsgod added.
“I am a surprise guest,” said Yee, in a tone appropriate for afternoon tea. “An Ixion in savage’s clothing.”
Wintergrue sighed, or rather its transmitter did. “I confess I suspected you were not human,” Wintergrue said. “But lacking proper technology, I could not be sure.”
“Same here,” said Oddsgod. The tendrils sketched a fanged, wormlike shape. “I have to admit I’m surprised you’ve turned out to be an Ixion, Yee. All you air-breathing warm-worlders are noxious, of course, but the Ixions stink the worst. So, what, did you eat the original?”
“On Earth, only the plant matter is palatable,” said the Ixion. “No, not long before Eight Ball’s current flight, the original Yee had an unscheduled mishap. . . . Don’t look at me thus, ice-dweller. I know the emotional cues of seven species, and no, I am not a murderer, merely an opportunist. While I’ve enjoyed playing the role of ‘Yee,’ it is chance that brings me to this peculiar feast.”
“Given the Ixion hostility to our Exhibition,” Wintergrue said, “I find that difficult to believe.”
“Yeah,” Oddsgod said.
Yee smiled. “You Orcans are hardly enthusiastic about the Exhibition yourselves.”
“At least we’re in the game.” Oddsgod whipped tendrils to make a caricature of Yee, and then of an Ixion bursting out of her like an exclamation point with teeth. “And our kind would never hide as one of the scruffy tree-beasts.”
“Hey!” Brick snarled. “Are we invisible?”
Wintergrue projected a laugh. The red writing upon its gasbag got jittery. It wobbled a bit. “He has a point. Colleagues, whatever our agendas, let us discuss them privatelyin the control room. After all, the fate of this flying deathtrap might merit our attention.”
Yee said, “My current form is proof even against low yield nuclear weapons. I fear nothing.”
Oddsgod scoffed, rippling its aquarium’s water. “Come on! The last thing we need is a skinsuit competition! I second the motion.”
“Very well,” said Yee. “I am feeling an unseemly urge to step on lesser life forms . . .”
As if reaching some Great Power quorum had dissolved all niceties toward the natives, the trio strolled, scampered, and bobbed toward the access ladder. “Wait!” Brick croaked. “Where’s the book, Yee?”
“Whatever you refer to, Chin,” the Ixion said, disappearing around the bend, “I know nothing of it.”
Brick snarled and crawled after the aliens, right hand throbbing, then slumped to the deck. His ribs ached. He tapped his badge. “Kyb . . . company . . .”
“Don’t I know it,” she answered. “Missiles almost here. Hold on, firing the lasers.” The illumination flickered and Brick felt a new vibration in the deck. “Got one. But the second’s still coming . . . hang on for a bigger burn.”
Brick gave up and heaved himself onto his back. That act saved him from serious injury as Kyb further stacked on the gees.