I SPENT THE REST of that night hiding in a loading dock behind a warehouse, huddled among a set of unmarked steel drums. Sleep never came, but how could it? The very air felt as if it would choke me, so thick it stuck in my lungs. Some artifact of antique terraforming, perhaps? Or of natural
ecology? I knew nothing of my new world, this Emesh. The gravity was undoubtedly stronger, which explained the leaden weight in my limbs. I’d heard a story once about a man, a magus who advised the Emperor, who could gauge a planet’s gravity by the rate at which a pocket bandalore fell
and returned to his hand. I had never learned the trick of it, but at a guess I was pulling more than thirty percent what I had on Delos.
When day came at last, the sun was wrong. Delos’s sun was a tiny point, half the size of a silver kaspum, no bigger round than the cross-section of my smallest finger. Emesh’s sun, by contrast, was an angry, weeping red
eye the size of my fist. It baked the streets, turning the low brick structures of my new home into the walls of an open-air oven, rippling the air with whorls of heat visible to the eye. My stolen clothes stuck fast to my frame, and I felt the water being burned out of me beneath a sky dappled orange and ocher and pink, streaked with high and inconstant clouds.
The city itself was a curiosity, a low sprawl of unknown scope. Its buildings—most no more than three or four stories high—stretched like netting over an equally low landscape. What little earth I saw between the concrete was sandy and pale. Once or twice I caught sight of the sea between the buildings, peering at me from down crooked streets and over
the heads of the growing crowd. Only it too was wrong. The waters shone a sickly green, patched here and there with blue and no silver at all.
Emesh, I later learned, was tectonically dead, and its air and water had more in common with Earth’s sister Mars than with the Homeworld herself. But for one continent, her rare landmasses—little more than islands by the standards of any planet worth the name—were low sedimentary accretions built upon the backs of shoals and coral reefs or else dredged and mounded up from the bed of Emesh’s shallow world ocean. The city itself, Borosevo, was built on steel pilings rammed deep into the earth, and over the long years this obtuse architectural fact revealed its folly in spiderwebs of cracks in walls and pilings. You could see the count’s palace, though, standing
above the low mass of the coliseum and the nine minarets of the Chantry sanctum with its copper dome and grim bastille. The palace sat upon a
concrete ziggurat gray as the ocean of my home, a fat, topless pyramid a thousand feet high that dominated the low, tin-roofed sprawl of Borosevo. Its spires were glass and sandstone, its roof red-tiled and bright beneath the bloody gaze of the sun.
Using that massive building as a landmark, I worked my way around the city’s edge, reasoning that the starport must be close. The kindness of
strangers is one of humanity’s proudest miracles, but it has limits, limits that told me whoever had found me would not have brought me far from whatever alley I’d washed out in and that the alley likely would not have been far from the ships. My jaw tightened with rage at the thought even as my stomach tied itself tight into knots of hunger. Yet it was the thirst that
really started to get to me, and when at last I found the starport near noon, I was dry as an unused sponge and flagging badly.
A pair of ornithons took flight as I approached, the six winged snakes rolling their way up and through the air to join the steaming contrails of distant shuttlecraft. I watched the creatures go. My dry mouth hung open, for I had never before seen such things. Here was something more tangible, more real than the gravity and the soupy air. Strange creatures, strange
The cold air of the starport terminal—kept in by a static field—hit me like a breaking wave, and I became a fish gasping at the thinner, drier air, doubled over, hand on my knees just inside the entry. What a sight I must have been: bare and muddy-footed; the legs of my baggy trousers already torn and stained from my midnight run; my long, coal-dark hair plastered down my face almost to the chin. A pair of women in purple business suits skirted me as widely as they could, collapsing matching umbrellas that held
the sun at bay. I was unsure how to proceed. My whole life, shuttles had been arranged for me and people had cleared out of my way. I’d never had to come at this sort of situation from outside. From below.
“Messer?” came a polite voice, intruding on my confusion and indecision. “Messer, you can’t be in here.” Looking round, I found a young man in a sort of uniform kaftan, his hands clasped in front of him, peering up at me from a respectful distance from beneath the brim of a flat cap.
“You’re upsetting the clientele.”
I stared at him, mind gone entirely blank. “Upsetting?” I repeated, looking round at the moon-blank faces of the people around me, at the way they tried not to stare. Understanding broke over me, and I said, “Sirrah,
I . . . forgive me. I was on a ship, the Eurynasir. Perhaps there was some mistake. I awoke in the city, in a clinic . . .”
The honorific surprised the man in the kaftan, and he glanced uncertainly at the two khaki-wearing security officers who bookended him as lictors might a great lord of the Empire. He repeated the word softly to himself: “Sirrah?” Then he said it again more strongly, a tight smile stealing over his effete, fine-featured face. “On a ship, you say?” Something in his manner, in the cold exactitude of that smile, told me that even if he understood, even if he believed me, it didn’t matter.
I drew myself up to my full height. Such as it was, I had a few inches on the little plebeian in his flat cap and flowing robe. “Yes,” I said, planting hands on hips. “The Eurynasir. Sailing out of . . . out of . . .” I racked my memory, trying to dredge up the names of the planets Demetri had mentioned, but at last I surrendered. “Out of Delos. Check your flight logs. The captain was a Jaddian. Demetri Arello.”
Something in my voice, in my face—perhaps even in my use of the
subordinating honorific—gave the man pause. He shook back his sleeve, glanced sidelong at the square-jawed woman in khaki to his left, and called up a holograph display from his wrist-terminal. He frowned, cycling through panel after panel. Still bent over it, he said, “I’m not seeing a ship by that name.” His small smile sharpened until it could’ve cut glass.
“You’re sure you have it right?”
“Eurynasir,” I repeated, spelling it out for him, a shade breathless. I paused, composed myself. “It has to be here.” I lowered my voice, took a half step closer to the man. When his two guards tensed, raising telescoping batons, I froze, held my hands innocently visible. “Look, I was dumped in
an alley, sirrah.” I glanced around, trying to make absolutely certain no one could hear me, and for a moment the coolness of the air distracted me, breaking my train of thought, and the words that escaped me came out breathless. “I’m trying to figure out what happened.” The man made a gesture, and his two guards bulled forward, each seizing me above the
elbow. “You have to listen to me!” I snarled, trying to free myself, but the woman with the lantern jaw struck me in the gut.
“Get him out of here,” the man in the kaftan said, waving a dismissive hand and turning to go.
Weak as I was, I snapped my arm free and lunged forward. “It has to be here.”
The man in the kaftan froze and made a slashing gesture with one hand. “Maybe they scrapped the junker.” Then the lantern-jawed woman struck me again, full in the belly. I doubled over and stayed there. The man smiled that glass-cutting smile. “Don’t come back here, you understand?” The
smile was a thing of beauty, its condescension so flanged, so precise. I said nothing, permitting myself to be dragged away down a white-tiled hall, past high windows rattled by the distant takeoffs of lifter rockets from blast pits that dimpled the concrete mass beyond the terminal, orange beneath the blighted sunlight. The tinny music piped over the terminal speakers jangled meaningless in my ears. They hurled me out a back door onto a loading dock much like the one where I’d spent the previous night. Only after the door had locked behind them did I rise and limp back into the city.
I’m not seeing a ship by that name. The words resounded in me, and I bit my lip, thinking, nursing the bruise I was sure was forming on my belly. My stomach turned, gnawing on itself. I hadn’t eaten since the thin broth they’d given me in the clinic, and before then I had had neither food nor drink since the wine I’d had with Demetri in Karch. Not seeing a ship by that name. What did that mean? Did that mean the Eurynasir had not put down in the starport? I lowered myself onto a low concrete wall in the
shade of a leafy palm tree, listening to the steady thunder of a distant fusion rocket as it burned its torch for heaven. Did this city have a second starport? It didn’t seem likely, given the distance needed to isolate the city folk from the crushing sound of those rocket engines cracking at the sky.
My mind plugged through the steps of understanding with mechanical slowness, my thoughts bent by the heat and by hunger. But I had not yet
abandoned hope. For all I knew, Demetri and his crew were waiting, lurking
in some blast pit or other on the extreme edge of the starport landing field. Or, a little voice said within me, sounding too much like Crispin, or . . . they’re all dead. That thought stilled me, chilled me in spite of the heat of that infernal planet. Like Cid Arthur, I sat a long time in the shade of that tree, watching boats wend their way up the canal opposite me. Row on for home, my lads. Row on for home.
I’m not seeing a ship by that name.
Not the starport, then. Not the starport.
Maybe they scrapped the junker.
It took the rest of the day and an exacting conversation with a city prefect to find an answer. The woman had been on the edge of arresting me for vagrancy, but my manner kept her from pulling the trigger on the stunner at her hip. Growing up, there were always stories, you see. Tales of crews gone missing in the depths of space, their empty ships scudding into ports
and into systems on dying warp wakes. Men said it was pirates, the Extrasolarians preying on merchant vessels, kidnapping the crews to serve aboard their massive, black-masted ships, forcing machines into their flesh to enslave them.
I have seen those black ships, have stalked their halls. I have seen their deathless armies, machine-men hollow and unfeeling. There is truth in those tales. Still other men say it was Cielcin that preyed on the wandering ships, harvesting the crews the way you or I might net a school of fish from the sea. I suspect both are true, and more besides. I suspect that ships disappeared in the throes of poine, in interhouse warfare, the familial vendettas that typify our Empire. I suspect misfortune, mismanagement, mistakes, or perhaps an accident that caused the captain to abandon his vessel.
It does not matter what happened, and I am now too old to care. There are always empty ships and dead sailors. As the ancient sea was cruel, so
too is that blacker sea, vaster by far, that fills the void between the suns like water. But I cared then, and so I found myself—ravenous and in pain—at the gate of a massive series of hangars that sat upon the very margin of the sea and the city. The orange disc of the sun rippled in the afternoon sky, distorted and shimmering in the thick air. I almost felt I could hear the
steam rising off the frothing, turbid waters and from the scummy canals, green as forests, that veined the great city. And from myself.
The hangars had not been easy to find, and so rather than repeat the
episode at the starport, I ignored the two guards lazing in the guardhouse by the main road and approached the high fence that cordoned off the reclamation depot, following it to where the chain terminated against the
wall of an outbuilding. The fencing was cheap stuff, poor and antiquated, the sort of defense one would never have found on an old Imperial world.
Unsophisticated, utterly without artifice. It wasn’t even electrified. I
climbed it easily, grateful for the first time since waking on Emesh that I had no shoes as my toes helped me climb the linked bands of metal.
I proceeded along the convex arc of the shoreline, moving from the
shadow of one hangar to another, peering into grimy windows and around open doors. I tried my best to walk with purpose, to appear that I belonged, which was difficult when one took my ragged appearance and palatine height into consideration. But no one stopped me, and aside from three old men standing around in the shade of a steel awning, drinking from brown bottles and laughing, wiping their hands on faded brown coveralls, I saw no one.
Each hangar held a ship, the larger ones two or even three, all lighters like the Eurynasir, space-to-surface craft. Black-hulled and white, their
ceramic and adamant shells all showed signs of damage: friction burns, meteoroidal impact scars, the carbon scoring of weapon-fire. Empty ships. There are always empty ships. They whispered to me, droning of battles, of pirates, of xenobites howling out of the Dark. Of old, such sunken vessels were lost at sea, swallowed by harsh waters and destroyed by the weight of them. Space sought no such equilibrium, allowed its wrecks to remain pristine, untrammeled. There were whole corporations dedicated to the
salvage of such damaged ships.
None of the ships I found in the first hangar was the Eurynasir, nor in the fifth. With evening coming on, huge flies began to emerge from their diurnal haunts and filled the air with a droning. I swatted them aside,
calloused feet scraping on the burning tarmac.
Starting to panic, my stomach cramping from hunger and the need for an answer, I rounded a parked forklift just outside one of the massive buildings and nearly slammed into one of the old men I had seen earlier. He was short and nearly so broad as he was tall, all muscle and hair. His scalp was bare
and the color of old bronze, his face lost in such a profusion of beard as I had never seen. Hair sprouted on his cheeks almost to his eyelids, and his arms reminded me of those of the homunculus, Saltus, reaching almost to his knees. He glared at me, alarm and outrage bubbling to the surface of that expressive, hairy face. “Who in Earth’s name are you?”
Instead of answering, I pushed my sweat-soaked hair back from my face and said, “I was on a ship. The Eurynasir. Is it here?”
The big man blinked, looked sidelong past me into the open sky above one shoulder. “What’s it to you?” He spat on the white concrete at his feet.
Trying not to lose my patience in light of the heat, my exhaustion, and my hunger, I repeated myself, more slowly and precisely this time. “I was on the ship, messer.”
At first I had thought the man old, judging by the way his face creased, the skin beneath the matted, graying beard pinched and scaled, but age
among the plebeians is a tricky thing. He might have been younger than forty, and these Emeshi were all squat and muscled like bulls from the
weight of that added gravity. He squinted up at me, ham fists planted on his hips.
“Skag!” another voice called. “Where’d you go?”
“Here, Bor!” the dock worker called back over his shoulder. “That fish we threw back’s come round again!” Another man rounded the corner, this one paler than the first, his skin red and peeling like the skin of the old
crone in the clinic’s had been. There seemed something wrong in it, but it wasn’t sunburn. Scars? The mark of some sickness long passed?
I raised my hands, trying to appear peaceable. “Gentlemen, I don’t want trouble. I just want—” I broke off, catching sight of the silver band the
second man had wrapped around his smallest finger. A silver band with a carnelian bezel. My voice tightened in my throat, coming out high and petulant. “That’s mine!”
The dock workers looked at each other, neither knowing how to respond.
I gathered their victims did not often return. Maybe I was the first. In the
end, they did answer, but not with words. I felt suddenly as if I were on the streets in Meidua again, facing down those thugs with their bikes. The first blow, when it came, caught me by surprise, cracking my jaw and sending me reeling. By the second blow I was ready, rolling away as the foot descended so that the man’s heel came down on concrete instead of bone. I found my feet. I was not going to die, was not going to let myself be
victimized the way I had in Meidua years and weeks before. I bared my teeth, spat. The sputum came up red.
“There’s a letter,” I said, keeping open hands up between me and the two men. “Handwritten. That’s all I want.” And after a moment, I added, “And my shoes.” My eyes betrayed me, for even as I said the words, my eyes
went to the signet ring—my signet ring—on the hand of the other dock worker.
On a good day, I could have taken the two men. If I had been hale,
whole, uninjured, well rested, well fed. If we had been on Delos, where the very effort of standing did not beggar the muscles on my bones. If perhaps the two men hadn’t each been behemoths corded in sheets of muscle from a lifetime of hard labor in this gravity.
I blocked the next blow, giving ground, stumbling a little as my
callouses scuffed on the uneven earth. I was lucky; the two got in one
another’s way, their blows wild and uncoordinated but frighteningly strong. In my weakened state, I less blocked their attacks than deflected them, knowing full well I could not stop a blow directly. Memories of a thousand sparring lessons with Felix came to mind, with Crispin. They retreated just as fast, fading as distractions must in the heat of such moments, retreating until the only memories were those of muscle and blood. A wild hook took me in the ribs, sending me staggering. Too slow, I thought, more angry than in pain. Too weak.
The man with my stolen ring on his finger hurried into the opening I’d created with my backward stumble, and even as I thought to run, the sight of it caught like embers in dry wool. I turned my stagger into a whirl, grabbing the man’s wrist, twisting so that all the weight of me fell on that pronated arm. The elbow went out with a revolting crunch, and the man’s yell turned to screaming. The sound stalled the other man, the hairy one
who had first accosted me, long enough that I was able to tug the ring free. My chest worked like a bellows. There wasn’t enough air. Or there was too much air. My vision was going out at the edges, bruised with shadow.
I must have looked like an animal, standing above the man with the broken arm. I was an animal. Footsteps sounded around the corner of the far building, and through clenched teeth I said, “I just want my things back.”
“The hell’s going on?” asked a rough, feminine voice.
Not taking his eyes off me, the bearded man called out, “Bastard broke Bor’s arm!”
The others appeared then, seven of them as like the first two as one
could imagine, like clay sculptures pressed from the same mold: all squat and square-shouldered, muscled identically from identical lives. The
woman who’d spoken was bald but for the faintest dusting of stubble
shadowing her scalp, her unpleasant face marred by an ugly wine-stain birthmark. She took in my face, and something there gave her pause, but after a moment she smiled. “Go the fuck home, boy.” She glanced at the injured man still groaning on the ground, his crooked elbow starting to purple. “Or you’ll get worse.”
The man on the ground spoke through gritted teeth. “He broke my damn arm, Gila. Call the prefects, for Earth’s sake.”
I jammed my ring onto my uninjured thumb. “You were the ones who pulled me out of my ship.” It wasn’t a question. “You don’t want the prefects here, do you?” I held the ring up for inspection, using it to make my point. I didn’t want to say anything, to call attention to what that ring meant. Doing so would have opened me to reprisal. If they called my bluff, I would have to reveal myself to the authorities, to my father. I walked a thin line, razor-sharp and with the threat of violence looming like the sword of Damocles. “I just want my things.”
The woman—Gila—spat just as the bearded man had done. “Ship’s gone. Moved up-well for refitting this morning.”
The moment’s respite had granted me some time to recover, and my breathing slowed. My hair was still plastered to my face, half covering my eyes. I tried to flip it out of the way, but it wasn’t coming free. “You’re lying.” The injured man recovered his knees, helped up by the bearded man and one of the others. “Give me my effects.”
“Your effects?” one of the dockworkers sneered. “The hell are you? The Prince of Jadd?”
I didn’t rise to the bait. “What did you do with the salvage? The crew?” “Ship was empty when it came in-system,” Gila said. “Crew bugged out,
took the shuttles and ran, left your sorry ass in the freeze.” I licked my dry lips. “You admit it then?”
“Fuck you, boy.” She waved a hand. “Get the fuck off my worksite.”
I took a step closer, and to this day I can’t say if it was a calculated move or just blind aristocratic stupidity. “There was a letter, a handwritten letter.”
“Love note from your girlfriend, is it?” the bearded man said. “Or are you the girlfriend?” Laughter bubbled from the rest of the crowd, and
somehow the sound was more threatening than a snarl. I checked my
advance. Part of me, the sensible, rational core, whispered that I should run. Not to the fence, but to the open gate I had seen with the guards languishing in their air-conditioned hut. None of the dock workers had called for guards. It was possible, but it wouldn’t be easy. I was still weak. I needed water. I needed to eat. I had only bested the idiot cradling his broken arm because of my training. I’d been lucky.
Gila spoke then. “Threw everything out. Go look on a rubbish barge.”
One of the men beside her moved forward, but she grabbed him by the front of his filthy jumpsuit. Her small, dark eyes darted to my ring, knowing what it signified, the danger she was in. She was smarter than the thugs from
Meidua, or maybe just less brave. “Now get out.”
I knew they’d be on me the moment I turned around, for the ring if nothing else, so I backed away. I wanted to say something clever, something cutting, something to rattle them in their boots the way my father might have done. Something to freeze their blood. I had nothing. I said nothing.
At least I was fast.
I have always been fast.