Chapter no 21 – The Outer Dark

Empire of Silence

THE FUGUE CRÈCHES LINED one wall of the ship’s medica, and something

about them—perhaps their arrangement like pillars in a hall or the vaporous chill of the room—put me in mind of the mausoleum of my forebears beneath Devil’s Rest. There were twelve of them, each fronted in dark glass half cylinders, the chassis all polished metal darkly gleaming, indicator lights slowly pulsing red and green and deepest violet to no rhythm I could see. Two at the far end were occupied, their lids frosted over, vital monitors glittering in white-blue holographs. The others all were empty, quiescent. I remembered carrying my grandmother’s canopic jars, her eyes staring

sightlessly from suspension in their blue fluid, and I heard once more the drip-drip-drip of water from the limestone stalactites clinging to the ceiling above the perfect black of the funerary statues.

I shuddered, folded my arms across my chest. “How does this work, then?”

“Well, we’ll be making the jump to warp just as soon as we’re clear of Delos’s shipping lanes, then making the five-year trip to Obatala. Then two more to Siena, and then from there the final jump to Teukros.” He slapped a hand on the cover of the crèche. “You won’t be noticing a damn thing, though. These beauties were Imperial-issue Legion tech. Salvaged them off a crashed destroyer on one of the moons of Bellos. You could be sleeping a thousand years in one of these crèches and never gray a hair.”

Taking careful steps, I edged a little farther into the room, boot soles

crunching on the delicate sheen of frost no one had bothered to scrape away. “All I need to do is get in, then? Now?”

“Your mother didn’t cover room and board,” Demetri said, his

customary smile prominent on his face as he leaned against the nearest

crèche. How he hadn’t frozen to death in his loose-fitting silks I had no idea. “But then, neither did any of us. We don’t have hold space for thirteen years of rations, and I never was any good at gardening. So we’ll all be in right after you.” He checked his own terminal. “It’ll be . . . 16149 by your Imperial calendar next time you breathe free air again.”

That stilled me. The simple fact of it. I was no stranger to the technicalities of space travel; such was common knowledge at the court of any lord in the Imperium. And yet to have it recounted so, spoken plain and simply, without feeling, shocked my naïve mind to alertness. It was called

slipping in those days, the way a sailor lost time—perhaps it still is. Thirteen years would just melt away, and I would not even notice.

I signaled my understanding, eyes locked on the cold machines. At length I thrust my chin in the direction of the two occupied machines. “Who are the others?”

“Hmm?” Demetri looked back over his shoulder, hair almost sparkling with the movement. “Oh, them?” He made a dismissive gesture. “Norman migrants—an urban farm technician and his husband. Been on board twenty-one years. They’re for Siena, when we get there.”

From where I stood I could just make out two faces—one pale and one faintly copper-toned—beneath the frosted dark glass. Suspended as they

were in darkness, I thought of biological samples, flayed and plastinated or else packed in formaldehyde, pickled like onions and left on the shelves of some mad scientist’s laboratory. They looked dead, and in a sense they

were: the processes of their lives suspended, forwarded to another day. I had known this moment would come, and yet nothing could have prepared me for the unnatural horror of it. Fear is death to reason, I told myself, and

again it was Gibson’s voice, quieting me with the familiar words. Reason, death to fear. This was only cryonic fugue, routine and commonplace. I wasn’t going to die. Not there. Not today.

I took in a deep breath, and when I exhaled it, I nodded. “I’m ready.” “Good!” Juno’s voice sounded from behind me, and turning, I saw her

enter, leading a wax-faced, mustachioed man with lank blond hair pulled back into a tail. To my disgust, the little homunculus followed thereafter, knuckles literally dragging on the floor. “Sarric, prep the casket.”

The blond man with the mustache bowed his head silently and rubbed the geometric tangle tattooed onto his too-high forehead, diamonds and triangles interlocking. “Just a moment.” The man—the doctor whom

Demetri Arello had mentioned in passing before—brushed past me, moving almost silently, exhaling little breaths of steam into the chilly air. He busied himself with the fugue crèche nearest the two occupied ones.

“Putting you back in the bottle, eh?” asked the homunculus, lifting his dragging queue and draping the disgusting rope of hair over his shoulders like a shawl. He tittered. “Back where you came from.”

Juno kicked the creature in the back of one knee, sharply but not hard.

I ignored the little hobgoblin and the woman both. “You,” the doctor

said, clapping his hands together to crush out a series of holographs. “You must disrobe.” He didn’t look up as he spoke, crouching to examine a

screen embedded in the wall beside the crèche. “There a locker here for him, Captain?” His voice was strange, crackling and throaty. Tavrosi, I decided, thinking back to the language I thought I’d heard from the grubby girls I had seen in the ship’s hallway before dust-off. The man was one of the clansmen of the Tavros Demarchy, which explained the tattoos. Valka had such tattoos. They told the man’s genetic and personal histories in a

symbolic language I’d never learned to read.

“Over there!” Demetri pointed to a bank of dinted metal storage lockers. “Put everything in there.”

I froze, taking in the grinning captain, his beautiful wife, the wax-faced doctor, and their little pet monster. “Could I get some privacy, then?”

Except for the doctor, they all laughed, and Saltus said, “We’ll all be able to see your little cock once you’re in the freeze, cousin. No point getting shy now.” The creature bared its too many teeth. Juno kicked him again, and he yelped, falling sideways into the wall.

“Leave the boy alone, Salt,” she said, reaching down to grab the homunculus by the scruff of his neck. “Go on now.” And she half pushed, half threw the little man back toward the door.

Obedience to necessity already had me removing my coat, the long jacket that Gibson had told me I wouldn’t be needing. Demetri prized open one of the lockers, held it open while I hung the coat neatly inside. As I

swung it into place, the universal card I’d extracted from the Mining Guild factionarius tumbled out and clattered to the floor. I lunged for it, hoping to grab it before Demetri could see what it was. I shoved it back into the lining of the coat, caught the captain watching me with pale eyebrows raised. “Get me to Teukros, and it’s yours.” I wouldn’t need it anyway. “I swear it.”

The doctor was watching us. “What was it?”

“A bank card,” Demetri replied. “How much?” “Plenty.”

At last I was naked, shivering in the air, gooseflesh pimpling my pale skin. I held my hands over my sex, trying not to meet the eyes of the

woman and the two men around me. The doctor moved forward, placing a dry hand on my shoulder. “Come on, now.” He guided me toward the open crèche and helped me step inside. I pulled myself up with one hand, using the other to cover myself. Seeing my ring, the doctor caught my free hand. “You will want this off. ’Twill burn you.”

I shook my head vigorously. “Then it burns me.” I looked at the locker, thinking of the universal card. Mother had hired these people, and

apparently Adaeze Feng had recommended them, but that didn’t mean I had to trust them. And the ring was all I would have left of the boy I had been: a single loop of silver, the carnelian bezel with its laser-cut devil sigil masking terabytes of crystal storage. It held both copies of the contract I’d made with the Mining Guild as well as all manner of other documents, my identification not the least of them. I would not part with it.

Doctor Sarric snorted. “Imperial barbarian foolishness.”

“Leave it, Sarric,” Demetri said, stepping closer, fists planted squarely on his hips. “We’re not trying to rob you, boy. We aren’t pirates. Pirates would have dumped you out the airlock the moment we left Delos.”

The white plastic padding at the back of the crèche clung to my bare

skin, and I shuddered, standing there naked. “It’s not that, Captain. It’s . . . it’s a palatine thing.”

That made him laugh. “You really don’t want to be wearing that ring when you go in.”

“I’m keeping it.” I tightened my jaw, lay my head back in the cradle meant for it. “Let’s get on with it.”

The doctor glanced to his captain, scratching his head just above one small ear. “Demetri?”

The Jaddian merchant waved a hand in dismissal. “The lad can do as he likes, Sarric.”

The physician pushed air through his yellow teeth. “As you wish, then.” And without preamble he slapped a sensor tape to my chest, then another. A third. He barely looked at me as he did so, then pulled a self-sterilizing needle from a slot inside the crèche beside me. It hissed as it pierced my

arm, and he fastened the securing strap about my biceps. “’Tis going to get cold rather fast.”

It already had. The freeze crept from the needle site in my arm, the blood transmuting, cells hardening without tearing. My brain began to go fuzzy, and as if from far away I heard Doctor Sarric say, “He’s ready. Seal the crèche.” I heard rather than saw the dark glass slam down over me, trapping me as in a sarcophagus. Something coolly gelatinous began to rise about my ankles. Darkness blossomed behind my eyes, and through that darkness I again perceived the funeral masks of my ancestors as they hung above the doors to the council chamber beneath the Dome of Bright

Carvings, their violet gaze accusatory and unkind.

The preservative gel rose about me even as I froze from within. I wanted to scream, to slam my fists against the walls of the tank, but the strength

was already gone from me. I was drowning—I knew I was drowning, knew there was nothing I could do. I was going to die in that tank. And then the worst part of all happened.

My breathing stopped. The fluid was not even to my chin, and my breathing stopped. Then it was in me, black water thick as oil flooding down my throat, up my nose. That outer dark took me, and I plunged into blackness and cold.

And when I awoke, my world had ended.

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