By CJ Paget
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
While Blackhat Lil tortures the Malevolent Trendval watches Madame Prambin. This is not the first Madam Prambin they've met, there are many like her spread throughout the fifty systems, but right now this one is theirs. Tied to a chair with high-strength tenso-wire, her hair in disarray and blood running down one side of her face, stripped of her long-sleeved deel and sitting in her underwear, she still refuses to look sorry for herself. He notes how her half-lidded eyes slide observantly around the room, calculations churning behind them. Facially she reminds Trendval of a half-remembered aunt. She reminds everyone of a half-remembered aunt, that's one of her tricks. You'd trust your half-remembered aunt, wouldn't you? Of course, you never had an aunt who could bench-press twice her own weight, made untold clones of herself, and was a person of interest to the police of all the fifty systems. You might wish you did, but you didn't.
"You young people should know my sisters will take a very dim view if anything
happens to me," says Madame Prambin. "A very dim view." She keeps telling them
this, but they won't listen. They're another raggle-taggle clutch of
dysfunctional spacefaring weirdos. Human driftwood. That's the cost of
interstellar wanderlust, of spending most of your life at a high fraction of
'c': you become a culture of one. Time-dilated and rootless, you experience
human society in brief flashes with each system you visit, and every time it's
different. Then you leave, and that society and all its people are swallowed up
by red-shift and deep time, and nothing you learned there has any value anymore.
You become a walking museum of everywhere you've ever been, out of step, sync,
and fashion with everywhere you are. Only other lightchasers are as long lived
and out of touch as you, so you naturally join a shoal of them.
As Trendval evaluates her, Madam Prambin evaluates his gang. There's four of them. Boney-Anne is a skyborn, with a stick thin body that's never felt more than a quarter gee. She's the new girl and desperate fit in. Vane is huge, taciturn, dresses in shapeless, mushroom-colored clothes, and cracks his knuckles a lot. He's not comfortable with this lifestyle, he's not chasing light, he's running from something else. Blackhat Lil is chiefly remarkable for her ridiculous black hat, overuse of makeup, and belief that she's able to command certain occult forces that haunt electronic dataspaces. She's a born lightchaser, swiftly bored with everything, always wondering what else the cosmos has to offer. Trendval is the leader, a dandy who runs up his own fractal-weave suits on a molecular printer. He's a comfortable lightchaser because he doesn't care anything about people, can pick them up and drop them with equal ease, especially when dropping them out of airlocks. He fancies himself the brains of the outfit, and he's right. It's not a great achievement. Boney Anne only understands ships, Blackhat Lil only understands the vulnerabilities of datasystems, and Vane only understands the vulnerabilities of the human body. Quite how these people are in possession of an advanced, sentient warship is a question that Madame Prambin is eager to have answered.
The cabin lights strobe, and a ghostly sound like the radio emissions of gas giants fills the air. Blackhat Lil stares into a world only she can see through her optic-nerve implants, and makes vicious clawing motions with her hands: command mudras that control datasystems, but which are as cruel as they look. The ship's smart-dust display system has become a writhing mass that sometimes flings smoke-tentacles at the eyes of the room's occupants, but Blackhat Lil twists and claws at the air and it retreats. When the dust reaches to where Madame Prambin is bound its touch is beseeching or perhaps attempts to offer some comfort. Once it tried to tug at her bonds, but it is only a displaysystem and cannot exert enough pressure to untie knots.
"Haven't you done that for long enough?" asks Madame Prambin.
"The ship has to learn obedience," says Trendval. "Are you feeling a little guilty because it tried to help you, created an opportunity for your craft to escape, but you didn't seize the moment and now it's suffering for nothing?"
"I just think sentient beings should be treated with a minimum respect," says Madame Prambin.
"It's a straggin' clickbrain," says Blackhat Lil. "We made them: we can do what we like to them." She makes a particularly horrible clawing, gripping, yanking, rending motion, and the lights go out.
There's a moment of silence and then everyone hears something go 'snick' from Trendval's sleeve. He says, "Except terminate it, Lilly-m'dear, we can't do that, because without it to run things THIS SHIP BECOMES OUR HUGE AND TECHNICALLY-ADVANCED COFFIN."
"It'll be back online in a minute," says Blackhat Lil. "If it doesn't, well then we climb the tether to Prambin's ship, and Anne flies us out of here in that."
"We? Who's this 'we', Lil?" asks Trendval.
They wait in darkness.
"Bet you're wondering if you tied these bonds tight enough to stop me getting free in this darkness," says Madame Prambin. "I can see in the dark, you know."
The lights come back up.
"See?" says Blackhat Lil. "It's a warship. Takes a lot to kill."
The thing in Trendval's hand snicks back into his sleeve before anyone has time to see what it is. "Torture it more carefully," he says.
"Don't worry, I'm an expert," says Blackhat Lil.
"You people make me ashamed to be human," says Madame Prambin.
"But you're not human, madam," says Trendval. "The uterus you came out of was made of glass. In some systems clones have less rights than cancers."
"Even in those systems people know that Prambins are wonderful things, and oh the most wonderful thing about Prambins is: There's effin thousands of us, and we bear grudges."
"We've already killed one of you bitches," says Boney Anne. "We've nothing to lose there."
Trendval shoots Anne a look that silences her as effectively as a knife in the throat. Blackhat Lil pauses in her clawings. Vane turns his flat gaze to Boney Anne and cracks his knuckles.
"I didn't know you were under vendetta," says Madame Prambin. "I must have missed the memo. Thanks for the update."
"You're in no position to make threats," says Trendval.
"I am one cell of an organism spread through the fifty systems and commanding more wealth and power than the governments of some settled worlds. I am always in a position to make threats. But given my current situation I am prepared to cut a deal. If you surrender now, I'll speak in your defence when my sisters arrive."
"We are well out of the core systems here," says Trendval. "I don't think there's another one of you for parsecs. Which raises the question: A system with only one gas-giant world and its moons, all about to be incinerated by their pulsar parent, everyone else is trying to get the hell out, but you're coming in. Why?"
"Why are you here?" asks Madame Prambin.
"Heard this was a good place to hide out," says Trendval. "No one said anything about it self-destructing, no one tells us anything. But you, with your interstellar sisterhood, you'd have got the message. So you're here by choice. Now, everyone knows Prambins have had their sexual pleasure-centers rewired to trigger in the pursuit of profit, so there's profit here. What's the plan?"
"Why should I tell you?"
"Well, I know you've had your pain centers altered too," says Trendval. "So I won't make idle threats about handing you over to Vane, but we can always push you out an airlock. And don't sing to me about your sisters, 'cause I don't think you really want them storming this system to your rescue. Every Prambin I ever saw had an ostentatiously huge ship with all the latest features and dressed like the favorite wife of a very vulgar tyrant. You: you're kicking along in that little rust-bucket, and even allowing for time-dilation, that underwear is decades out of fashion. I don't think all clones are equal. You're a failure, the runt of the litter, the little clone that couldn't. I bet the others have had to bail your pitiful ass out before. I don't think you could take the humiliation of them doing it again. How am I doing?"
"Poorly. This talk helps neither of us. If you want to cut a deal then pitch it."
"How can I, when I don't know the stakes?"
Prambin looks about as though memorizing their faces. "Okay," she says. "The plan should be obvious. Every longhaul ship is fleeing this system crammed with people. The four moons are empty. Think of the things that people have had to leave behind."
"That's it?" says Trendval, pulling an expression of distaste. "I must say I'm disappointed, you have quite a reputation. Well, not you specifically but-"
"Moon three has archaeological remains from a civilisation that was old while our ancestors were still in hiding in the primordial mud," says Madame Prambin. "It was one of the most jealously guarded treasures of the fifty systems. I'm sure they've tried to save some of it, but given the suddenness of the catastrophic news a lot will have been abandoned. I'm here to plund- rescue the artifacts."
"Now that's more like it," says Trendval, "that's got class, that has."
"But it's useless information to scum like you. Selling such things on without getting caught requires knowledge, contacts, and reputation. On the other hand, I was only hoping to get some of the smaller artifacts, my little ship can't carry much. But this fine vessel you've got here, well, it changes things completely. How did you come by it, might I ask?"
"It's a deserter," says Blackhat Lil. "It's been searching for one of the systems in freemind control. Pity they're a myth."
"Oh, the Sanctuary Systems aren't a myth," says Madame Prambin, speaking distinctly towards the ceiling. "I know where they are. There's a buyer for the artifacts there."
There's another tense silence. "Bullshit," says Blackhat Lil, "you couldn't know that. Humans aren't welcome in the Sanctuary Systems."
"Some people don't consider me human," says Prambin. "And whatever else she might be Prambin is not a bigot. She has friends everywhere."
"Enough of that," says Trendval. "Tell us more about the plan."
"Untie me first," says Madame Prambin.
At Madame-Prambin's request the thousands of tiny levitating machines in the
ship's smart-dust array stage a performance whose characters are stars and
worlds. At center-stage is Osiris, the dead star that waves lethal searchlight
jets from its north and south poles. If the depiction were to scale, Osiris
would be less than a dot: It has the mass of a large star, but that mass is
crushed to the point where atoms have been squashed, electrons and protons
forced to fuse until the star is made entirely of densely packed neutrons,
taking up less space than a large orbital habitat. Gas-giant Anubis is similarly
expanded to make an interesting visual, with colorful rings and pretty moons all
in a row.
An astute star-fancier might note that Osiris is different from other pulsars, for in addition to its spin the star wobbles drunkenly, like a spinning toy that's coming to the end of its run. It's deadly beams wave erratically, tracing out complex patterns on the cosmos.
"The wobble is a chaotic effect whose cause is ill-understood," lectures Madame Prambin. "Possibly the left-over vibration of the supernova that created this neutron star." They've not returned her deel, rightly suspecting its expansive sleeves are full of surprises invisible to eyes and x-rays, but they've found her a relatively clean ship-suit that's almost her size, and this seems to have given her the delusion she's one of the gang now. "Although the wobble shows no consistent pattern it isn't random. It's deterministically chaotic, pseudo-random, and is thus predictable, or no-one would risk coming here. Mathematical modelling shows it's safe for millions of years. Unfortunately that changed eight stan-years ago."
Something comes curling in from the edge of the display, trailing a ghostly tail like a bridal train. A comet. All eyes track it as it spirals into the simulated pulsar, eventually disappearing with a flash.
"No-one thought that was important at the time," says Prambin. "But they should have, because chaotic systems are incredibly vulnerable to the slightest change. Fortunately someone out-system noticed a small deviation from expected behavior, reworked the models, and sent a warning. That warning says that in three days this happens."
Osiris' drunken wobble gets worse, and worse, and worse still. Finally the star trips and falls over, the searchlights sweeping around as it gambols in space, rolling and tumbling. Then, after completely turning over, it seems to get a hold of itself, managing to stand approximately upright for a time. But eventually it begins to slowly topple again, the searchlight beams sweeping down towards the orbital plane of Anubis. The gas-giant and its coterie of moons twirl on through space, unperturbed by their parent's behavior. The beam comes scything down across their path. When it's passed the gas-giant world and its moons are simply gone.
"Nothing left, not even dust," says Prambin. "That's what'll happen to us if we're not gone in time. I have accurate data for the event, thus I know we've got a window of twenty-nine standard hours before it happens." Anubis and its moons re-appear in the display. The simulation zooms into the third moon, Isis. "Isis once held a civilisation. No-one understands how that's possible, or how the planet and its moons can even be here given that they're orbiting the remains of a supernova, but it did and they are. Best current theory is that Anubis and its moons came from somewhere else, got kicked out of their home system, drifted across space, and fell into orbit here. That story alone means these artifacts are ancient and weird, the kind of thing that appeals to certain types of private collector.
"Unfortunately even outside of the pulsar's beams the ambient radiation is strong. But Isis is tidally locked, keeping the same face to Anubis. Thus this face is always either facing away from Osiris, or hidden behind Anubis, and radiation conditions, while not healthy, are manageable, provided you're at the bottom of a very deep crater, of which Isis conveniently has many." The simulation zooms in on a crater. "Panyarachun crater is the site of the most important artifacts, it's twenty kilometers wide and four deep, and home to Armana City, formerly the most happening place in this system."
The smart-dust ripples reshapes, depicting a plunge down Panyarachun crater. "The major artifact is a statue six meters tall, covered in undeciphered markings and embedded with gemstones whose crystal lattices are believed to be a further data-storage system-"
"Enough with the details," says Trendval. "Is it worth much, can you fence it, and how do we go about stealing it?"
"Rescuing it," insists Madame Prambin, "for Posterity."
"Rescuing it for the highest bidder," says Trendval.
Trendval steps from the self-piloting lev-bus that's taken them from the port in
Amara city. He looks up. The sky is a circle ringed by the darkness of the
crater-wall, within which glowing patterns dance and shift, like water in a
moon-pool or curtains in a breeze. The light-show is radiation from Osiris
slamming into this moon's puny magnetosphere. His suit draws a tiny image of the
Malevolent against the sky, marking its position in synchronous orbit overhead.
Over their suit radios the pulsar whispers, 'Swoosh. Swoosh. Swoosh.' His suit
keeps flashing radiation warnings onto his visor, but the risk is low, and
Trendval has never expected to live forever.
"Romantic, isn't it?" says Blackhat Lil, her voice dripping with snark. Her black hat, which she even wears in bed, is currently strapped atop the helmet of her vacuum suit. She waves an arm to where Armana city twinkles like stars reflected in water at the bottom of a well. The last person out didn't bother to turn out the lights. "Behold! Armana. An independent city-state at the bottom of a crater orbiting a death-star. A place where inter-system law fears to tread. Formerly known as 'The pleasure pit'. You could get anything here. I always wanted to come. Now, here it is, deserted and dead, and we, cheated, can only imagine its former pleasures from the graffiti written on its walls. It's not fair."
"Lil, back on Ostia Station, when you subverted that guy's security system so it tore him apart, was that fair?"
"Heh. Well, it was fun."
"Life's not fair. We should know that better than most. We're not here to enjoy the sights."
"Straggin' hell," says Vane, who was first off the bus. His voice sounds awestruck, maybe even a little fearful.
Trendval and Blackhat Lil walk over to where Vane is enjoying in the sights. "What is that hideous thing?" asks Trendval.
Madame Prambin's voice crackles over their suit radios. "That's it. The main statue." They've locked her in a vac-suit, in a closet, in the visitor's center, but she can see and hear via suit-to-suit communications.
"A statue? They looked like that?" says Vane.
"Could be a god," says Prambin. "You should see some of the things people came up with back on pre-diaspora Earth."
"That's no god," says Vane. "That's someone's devil."
"Oh, I like it," says Blackhat Lil.
"You would," says Trendval.
"I know several likely buyers who'd pay more than fifty peta-shards it," says Madame Prambin.
"You know, it grows on you if you look at it long enough," says Trendval. "Let's get it."
"Ms Blackhat," says Madame Prambin. "If you would walk about a little, pointing your suit-cameras at nearby artifacts, I can pass judgement on their likely sale value, so we know what to leave, and what to take."
Vane switches to the local ultraviolet ladio net that connects the suits together, but cuts out Prambin. "Wait," he says. "What if... what if this is a trap?"
"A trap?" says Trendval.
"Yeah. Everyone knows you can't trust a Prambin. What if... uh."
"What if what?"
"What if there's, you know, a curse?"
"Yeah. That would be just like her. You've all heard the stories: The Prambins have been places no-one else goes, know things that no-one else knows, and it all gets uploaded into the rest of the sisterhood. What if she knows-"
"Vane. There's no such thing as curses."
"Shut up, Lil. Vane, thousands of tourists visited this site: there's no curse."
"We only got her word that these things are worth anythin'," says Vane.
"In the whole fifty systems there's only been enough non-human artifacts found to fill a large room, and half of those are fake or misidentified rocks. This shit's unique, mysterious, and sure to command a high price from someone. And there's no such thing as curses. Now, if you don't want to risk it, then you're welcome to take Prambin's ship, and get out of here before the pulsar fries everything. It'll just mean a fatter profit for me."
His appeal to their greed works. He knows them so well. Vane goes to get the cutting equipment from the bus: some of the artifacts need to be cut free from their mountings. Trendval goes to the lev-bus and brings out bundles of multidrones: multi-purpose rockets, tall as a person and smart as an old-earth pigeon. Made almost entirely of propellant, their intelligence is woven in a delicate tracery through their skins. They serve the Malevolent as recon drones, transport for small goods, and with suitable munitions mounted onto them, weapons.
On Prambin's instructions Blackhat Lil takes a drone and ties it to one of the smaller, less horrible artifacts. She steps away from it and says "Drone three-six-six: attention." The drone's skin pulses to show it's ready to receive orders. "Fly away home," says Lil. There's the briefest of flashes, and the drone leaps into sky, heading back to its roost in the Malevolent's hold, taking its passenger artifact with it.
They proceed swiftly, binding drones to artifacts and sending them skyward while
Vane cuts the huge, ugly statue, if that's what it really is, free of its
moorings. Trendval is binding drones to an inverted, script-laden pyramid that
stands impossibly on its point via some force that no-one understands, when
Blackhat Lil opens a suit-to-suit comms channel and says, "Now Boney-Anne's
blabbed, the Prambin knows we've killed one of her clone-sisters. She's obliged
to try for some payback sooner or later."
"I know," says Trendval.
"This wouldn't have happened if you'd voided that stupid stick-bitch with the rest of the trash-"
"Don't talk about Anne like that."
"Why not? She's a liability. Now we've got a ship with a mind of its own, we don't need her."
"While we're down here we need her to watch the ship. When this is done, yes, she's surplus to requirements and can't stay on board. You can do it, if you like. But until then there's no need to call her names, that's just bad manners."
"There we have a tiger by the tail. We need her to broker the sale of these artifacts, but now she knows we've killed one of her clones we can't allow her to get a message out to her sisters. If she does, the only safe place for us will be the wavefront of the diaspora, and everyone knows the far edge attracts Prambins, they're trying to run ahead of the law as much as anyone. Once she's served her purpose, she'll have to be disposed of too."
"Good," says Lil. "Just wanted to be sure you were seeing it clear."
Trendval looks about, the items Prambin selected items glow in his suit vision, putative price-tags floating beside them, promising to make them all a thousand times rich. "And then we'll be rich," he says. "Yeah, that I'm seeing loud and clear."
They bind ten multidrones to the big statue, and command them to work in concert. Even Vane whoops when the thing rises on ten streamers of hot plasma, like some evil god ascending to the heavens. They watch it as it sails away, dwindling to a dot that is lost among the shifting aurorae. Then, with the final act done, they start walking back to the lev-bus.
"Swoop. Swoop. Swoop. Swoop." says the pulsar over their radios.
"Anyone think that sounds different?" asks Vane.
"Good job it's too dark down here for you to see your own shadow, Vane," says Trendval.
Over the radio there's a loud crack, a buzz and then a sustained electronic scream that has them clutching their hands to their helmets. "Suit, filter that sound!" commands Trendval. He turns to Blackhat Lil. He can see her face, illuminated by lights in her helmet, but barely anything else. It was dark before, but now it's darker still. The lights of the visitor's center and the spotlights illuminating spaces that once held artifacts have all gone out. The only ambient light besides the distant twinkles of Armana city are the shifting varicolored patterns cast by the aurorae, passing over them like fingers of sunlight that penetrate into a deep, dark sea.
Something, not quite a sound, more a vibration, comes to him through the regolith beneath his booted feet. He turns to see that the lev-bus that bought them here has grounded, its lights out, its levitation cut.
"Everything's dead," says Vane.
"Not our suits," says Lil.
"The suits are ours, we bought them here," says Trendval. "Everything local in this area is shut down."
"What happened?" asks Vane.
"Prambin," growls Blackhat Lil.
As though that's her cue the voice of Madame Prambin crackles over their comm-net. "Hello everybody. As you might guess there's been a slight change of plan. I did tell you that this was one of the most jealously guarded treasures of the fifty systems, maybe you should have thought about what that might mean. I helped you disable security on most of the artifacts, but the big one had something special in it. As soon as it moves one hundred metres from its plinth this whole site starts shutting down. Worse still, it's been fitted with a concealed anti-transport system, so that if it's lifted to orbit it waits till it believes its been loaded on board a vessel and then launches a range of countermeasures to disable said vessel. So, we are all stuck here."
"Okay, Prambin, so what's the plan?"
"Well, for me the plan is to stay right where I am. I've escaped the closet you locked me in, and am now trapped in the visitor center's kitchen which is... ummm. Omph. Gulp... Excellently stocked. I imagine you will want to come here to exact some form of revenge upon me. Alas, that would be futile: the visitor's center is now physically locked down, with blast shutters over all doors and windows. It's become my fortress and prison, you can't get in, and I can't get out. Mmmm, these strawberries are excellent!"
"Spare us the culinary commentary, Prambin," says Trendval. "You clearly have control of this situation. State your terms."
"Terms? Oh, there's no terms." Over the radio Trendval hears the 'glug! glug! glug!' of something being poured into a glass.
"Oh, you expect us to give in unconditionally, is that it?"
"No, Mr Trendval, I expect... mmmm oh that is gorgeous... I expect you to die. All of you. Shortly."
"You're under vendetta, remember? By your own admission you killed one of my clone-sisters, and the rules on that are very clear."
"But... but you'll die too?!"
"Yes, but that's no great loss. You were right, I'm a failure. I've never understood why, clones should all be alike, but we're not. Somehow I've never been able to do anything right. You couldn't imagine what that's like for a Prambin. I'll be glad of the release to be honest, and completing the vendetta call against all of you will win me the posthumous respect of my sisters, which I'm more than willing to die for. Your ship, which you said tried to save me, and to which I thus owe a debt, surely wants you dead too, after all you've done to it. So, if you young people have ever had things you've wanted to say to each other, but never dared, emotions that you've left unexpressed, I would suggest now would be a good time to get them off your chest. Myself, I've got some serious eating to do. Goodbye.
"Fuck," says Trendval.
"Fuck," says Vane.
"Agreed," says Blackhat Lil. She turns around and starts heading back
to the visitor's center.
"Where are you going?" asks Trendval.
"Gonna kill her."
"But the pulsar will do that?"
"Don't want the pulsar to do it," says Blackhat Lil. "I wanna do it."
"The city's still lit," says Vane. "We could walk. The lighter's back there."
"Eight kay in our suits?" says Trendval. "How long will that take? Do we have enough air? And then what? We've got ten hours left to get back to the Malevolent and out of the path of the pulsar beam." He looks up to the Aurorae. They look brighter.
"But the Malevolent's disabled?" says Vane.
"It's a warship," says Trendval. "It'll recover fast. Lil, forget Prambin and get back here. I've got a plan."
Blackhat Lil pivots on her heels and slouches back, "This better be good."
"Anne can remotely guide the lighter over here to pick us up," says Trendval. He tries to open a link to the Malevolent. "Anne? Anne?" He waits while Blackhat Lil returns to the group, and then admits, "No answer."
Blackhat Lil twirls around and sets off towards the visitor's center once more. Trendval grabs one of her arms and says, "That leaves only one way out of here: the multidrones. We each ride one up."
"Oh, that'll be fun," says Blackhat Lil.
"What about radiation once we're out of the crater?" asks Vane. "The lighter had shielding, but our suits don't?"
"Less fun," says Lil.
"We'll still be in the shadow Anubis and it won't be for long," says Trendval.
"Hallo?" it's Boney Anne. "Hallo? Anyone?"
"Anne, what's your situation?"
"The ship's loose," says Boney Anne. "Something happened when the big alien thingy came aboard. It hurt the ship, but it's freed the mind from all Lil's locks. It's confused but it's back in control of all inboard systems and robotics. I had to go outside to escape it, I don't think it knows where I've gone."
"Well, now we're moondust," says Lil. "We won't fool that ship a second time. It's a warship, it learns fast."
"There's still Prambin's vessel," says Trendval. "Anne can fly it."
"Can't we leave her?" asks Vane. "You guys don't seem to realise this, but she's a liability."
"Prambin's ship is, old, cheap and dumb as a comet," says Blackhat Lil. "It needs someone who understands it to keep it running and pilot it. So we need Anne. But if she's stood outside the Malevolent, she's sunbathing in rads."
Trendval opens a link back to Boney Anne's suit. "Anne, climb the line to Prambin's ship. Don't object: we're all dead if you can't, and right now you're stood in a high-rad environment. We'll meet you there." He cuts the channel without waiting to hear her answer.
Lil is already talking to the multidrones, reprogramming them to fly to Prambin's ship. She points a suited arm to the black hulk of the visitor's center. "I could reprogramme one of them to slam into that."
"What, and trigger some other defensive mechanisms?" says Trendval. "No. This place is a trap, let's just get out before it springs any further surprises." He grabs a drone, holding onto it like he's hugging a thin tree, and orders his suit to mag-bind to it. The others do the same.
"Drones three-sixteen, three-twelve and three-four-two: attention," says Lil. The multi-drones glow within their passengers mag-bound embrace, ready for the code-phrase that will launch them into action. "Get us the strag out of here."
The multidrones shudder, and a ghostly light flickers from their tails, and just like that the landscape falls away. The black cliff-face crater walls slide past as they rise towards the circle of flickering light overhead. The multidrones cease their initial burn, and become ballistic, sailing along through the airless void. To the passengers it seems as though the multidrones they cling to were cosmic anchor-points, and the universe is moving around them.
The crater wall ends, and he's looking across a grey-white landscape that's been shocked and smashed by planetoid impacts. The aurorae reflect from its surface in waves of flickering light. The horizon develops a distinct curve, and then resolves into a great sphere: Isis. The moon races away from them, plummeting into a vast, muddy-colored ocean that fills their vision: Anubis, the gas giant. Isis dwindles to a dot, but Anubis's vastness is not diminished in the least by his flight away from it.
Looking up Trendval sees the shapes of the Malevolent and another vessel, tethered together, falling towards him. If he uses the built-in magnification of his suit, he can just see something crawling along the line between them like a tiny silver spider.
Boney Anne clambers through the lock, unclips her helmet, smiles a little nervously at Trendval and Lil who have been waiting for her, still in their vac-suits. Trendval is mysteriously holding a med-kit.
"Welcome aboard," says Trendval. "Well, let's get this over with. Lil?"
Blackhat Lil rams a vac-gauntleted fist into the side of Anne's head, sending her sprawling against a bulkhead. She body-slams the helpless pilot, pinning her against the wall and efficiently trapping Anne's long, thin arms. She dials up a blade from the embedded multitool of her left-hand gauntlet. Anne is screaming even before the blade slides down the side of her face, spraying blood and lifting loose a flap of flesh.
Lil steps away, leaving Anne to quail against the bulkhead with a hand clamped over her wounded cheek.
"Thanks to you the Prambin knows we killed one of her clone-sisters," says Trendval. "If news gets out to the rest of them, we're all as good as dead. Fortunately cosmic forces are about to clean up after you, but you're only alive now because we need you to maintain and pilot this space-going antique. If necessary, I'll have Lil cut your tongue out to prevent further fuckups, so if you want to keep it, then I suggest you act like it's already gone. From now on you speak when you're spoken to, and not otherwise." He tosses the med-kit to Blackhat Lil. "Lil, fix her up and get her onto the bridge. And program a multidrone to cut the line between us and the Malevolent."
Ten minutes later they gather on the vessel's bridge. Anne has a healing-mould covering once side of her face, and Lil supports the pilot like a wounded friend, almost carrying her to the helm. But Lil's voice is hard when she says, "Come on bitch, do your stuff, get us out of here. However damaged or confused the Malevolent is, it's a warship, it'll recover and be coming after our asses for what we've done."
Anne glumly surveys the ancient helm-control systems. She makes some experimental passes over the board, and it starts reacting to her movements. The old ship shudders and creaks. Rather than speak Anne activates a primitive flatscreen-display that shows them Anubis receding away from them, Isis reduced to a dot crossing the muddy face of its gas-giant parent. Aurorae shine about the poles of the gas giant, even more intensely than they did around its moon, and they pulse, driven by an invisible source that's represented in wire-frame overlay as twin cones that twirl from a source concealed behind the planet.
"Tell me you can plot a course that will keep us safe when the pulsar starts to topple," says Trendval.
Anne nods, having no rational reason to say 'no' even if that's the true answer.
Over the next few hours they watch the screen as the wire-frame funnel that represents the fountain of deadly energies from the pulsar precesses about ever more erratically, eventually launching into a gambol that flips it right over. The first sweep of the beams misses Anubis and its moons, just as they saw in Prambin's original presentation. The pulsar seems to return to stability for a while, but then it starts to tilt and descend towards the helpless planet.
"Here it comes," says Trendval. "At least this will solve some of our problems."
Anubis and its moons glow in the primitive display like an apple on a chopping block. The pulsar jet sweeps down like a cosmic chopping blade and...
Trendval says: "Boney Anne, please give us an magnified, external, real-time view of Anubis, which you shouldn't be able to do, of course."
Boney Anne makes some passes over the command-board, and the gas-giant and its moons spring into view.
Vane laughs. "Looks like someone got their calculations wrong! It missed!" His laughter dies when he sees Trendval staring at him. "What?"
Blackhat Lil must be thinking the same as Trendval, because she hisses at him, "You should have let me kill her when I had the chance."
An incoming communication suddenly fills the antiquated display. Madame Prambin waves cheerfully at them. "Hello young people!" she says. "Guess where I am? I'm aboard my new friend, the Malevolent, who has nearly recovered full functionality. We will soon be departing for the Sanctuary Systems at a large fraction of c, so I fear this is goodbye. You could not catch up with us even if you tried, and the attempt would be unwise because this ship has good cause to hate your collective guts. I however, am prepared to let bygones be bygones, as our paths are very unlikely to ever cross again. Alas, I cannot make the same promise for the rest of my sisters, so I suggest you stay away from the major populated systems from now on. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some artifacts I need to value. Prambin out." The communication vanishes as suddenly as it came.
"Fortunately," says Blackhat Lil, mimicking Prambin's voice, "*someone* out-system noticed a small deviation from expected behavior, reworked the models, and sent a warning. And now we know who."
Trendval nods, says with uncharacteristic serenity, "You've got to admit it: that's got class, that has."