I stood up straight. “If you’re going to kill someone, then kill the person responsible. I set up the sensors to alert the Imperial Navy, to try to escape. It wasn’t the navigator’s fault.”
There was a moment of silence. A dark rage briefly shadowed the captain’s face, and she leveled the gun at me. I looked down the barrel. “Fine. Any last words?”
I considered a few of the greats, and settled on something appropriate. “Hanaseba wakaru.” My Japanese was rusty, but I thought I pronounced it correctly. The captain let a slow, deadly grin spread across her face.
She pulled the trigger. I screamed, and not in a very dignified way either. All the quiet dignity I had earned with my last words was lost. Arms raised, eyes closed, I braced myself for the pain and the end. I held that pose for several seconds before lowering my arms, frowning. The captain was still holding the gun leveled at my face. A small flag protruded from the tip, ‘BANG!’ written on it in large lettering. The snickering started, followed by guffawing laughs. I looked around, bewildered, and more than a little bit angry. The crew were trading small amounts of cash and little luxuries between one another as the Captain sighed. “What in the hell-“
“Oh, now we have to stop for some shore leave soon.” The captain frowned. “It seemed like a sure thing that a scholar like you would sell someone out. I didn’t expect an honorable streak.” She looked very annoyed. “I bet you would have the naval officer killed, but the good money was on you selling out Toralee.”
“That was very sweet, but you did just lose me a week off monitor duty.” The squid girl remarked tartly, her hands on her hips, a frown on her face. Renee was no longer holding her in place.
“You all knew that I was responsible for the ping.” My voice was weak. My head was spinning a bit. “And you bet on it.”
“Sorry, that was my fault. I decided to let the others know, and when we found out the captain had put you up to it, well, we thought it would be kind of fun.” Brie gave an apologetic smile with her soft lips.
The laughter continued ringing around me. The tiger-eared naval officer sighed, rolling her eyes. “God, how I hate Pirate humor.” I clenched and unclenched my fists, my breathing ragged. My temples were pounding. I looked the Captain in her smirking face.
“You sadistic BITCH-“
I woke up. I was lying in the infirmary. My right arm was hurting quite badly. The naval officer was seated next to me, and Renee was leaning against the door-frame. I blinked rapidly, and looked down at my arm. It was locked in a large set of gel-filled pouches. “What- I- What happened?”
“You charged the captain and bloodied her nose with your bare hands. She responded in kind, and broke your arm in several places.” The naval officer had her eyes closed, her legs crossed, as she spoke. “It was very foolish.”
“It was really cool,” Renee added, grinning widely. The naval officer sighed, and Renee stepped closer. “Hey, you’re going to be up for a story today, right? Tomorrow, we’re arriving at an outlaw port. If you promise to behave, we can take you out for a bite to eat! Just don’t tell anyone you’re our hostage, okay? You’ll be our cabin boy.” She grinned. “By the way, I bet that you’d ask the captain to kill you. I’ll treat you to something nice while we’re in port.” She winked at me, and slipped out of the medical bay. I slumped back in the bed, staring at the ceiling.
“There is not a great deal of material want in the Empire. People who become pirates do it because they are wracked by boredom. This kind of pageantry is their way.” The tiger woman’s eyes were still closed, but her voice was firm and steady. Her legs were folded as she balanced on the chair. “You know that if I had been killed, I would soon be revived, missing only a few day’s memories. If the navigator were killed, she would likely be brought back with all of her memories intact by her very own crew. If the captain had taken your request seriously, she would have killed you, and you would have been gone. Forever. I know few humans are outfitted with memory-storage.”
“Yeah, well. We have so little life it doesn’t see to be worth preserving. Besides, dead is dead. Your way just means that nobody cares when you die. You’re still dead, there’s just a clone walking around.”
“An interesting viewpoint. But if it’s an accurate copy, who cares whether it’s you or a clone? You’re dead.” She gave him a smile, though her eyes were still closed. “I am Naja, of the Imperial Fleet. If you go ashore with the crew, I may be left alone on this ship, or at least lightly guarded. I think I may be able to achieve something useful while you are off-ship. It appears that the captain is reluctant to execute you.”
“You really want to test that theory?” I shook my head. “I think that’s a bad idea.”
The tiger woman opened her eyes, and looked around the room. She mouthed to me something. I stared at her firm, tight lips. ‘Is this room bugged?’ I shook my head. She winked, flashed me a thumbs up, and closed her eyes, grinning smugly, apparently taking my answer as a sign that it was bugged. I groaned. Before I could try to persuade her, however, she changed the subject. “By the way… What was it the the two of you said to one another, just before she shot you?”
“It’s Japanese. I told her that if I could speak, she would understand. She told me there would be no discussion.” I looked up at the ceiling. “I was surprised she got the reference.”
“What does it mean?”
“Oh, it’s just an old argument. Between military and scholars. No matter how good you are at arguing, logic, and discussion, if the other side has a gun, you’re fucked.”
That evening, we sat in the mess. My arm was mostly better, but I still had it encased in one of the gel packs, as some clever Imperial medical breakthrough worked on my arm. “And so it was, that Sinbad the Spacefarer became one of the first humans to ever be granted a personal audience with the Empress…”
The Imperial Palace occupied a continent. The number of inhabitants varied based on the Emperor. Some Emperors were gregarious to the point of having every room filled with friends and family. Some were so solitary that they preferred there to be no living creatures in the palace at all. But at a bare minimum, there were two. The Emperor, and Yggdrasil.
The World Tree was not nearly so impressive as its name made it sound. Its root systems ran through the entire palace, but there was no massive canopy shadowing the continent, no brobdingnagian trunk rising above the palace. Sinbad had never quite understood the significance of the World Tree, but it was said to be an incredibly wise and ancient Imperial, the spymaster for the Empress herself. And so he did his best not to step on the roots as he entered the foyer. The long vines of the tree were lining the walls, and a few cracked through the ceiling of the ancient palace, spreading their creepers across any surface they could cling to. He wasn’t sure whether they were tearing the structure apart, or holding it together. Some of the roots he saw looked old enough that they had grown into the building around them. The ruler of the Plant Kingdom didn’t show any sign of noticing Sinbad’s presence.
Lilith was one of the gregarious empresses. Devils, Witches, and Waylaid filled the halls. The Demon Clan was famed for its open attitude towards others. Its own kind were Devils; Those of the other Kingdoms who wished to join the Demon Clan were known as Witches. And the last…
He shivered as he passed one of the celestially beautiful, red-skinned Waylaid. They had once been parts of El. Messages, whose mission had led them to be independent from the intelligence for a long time. Long enough that they had stopped wanting to return to Heaven. It was believed that every Message, at their heart, was a copy of El, pruned and shaped to fit properly into their given role. He had always found the angelic beings slightly disquieting, although he had only rarely even seen one. The Waylaid were more so. He wondered what could have compelled them to betray the root of their own personality. He slipped past a smiling maiden with ink-black feathered wings, and bright red skin. She winked at him, and he swallowed as he made his way to the throne room.
Lilith sat on her throne. She smiled down at him fondly. She was, as they said, phenomenally beautiful. Pale, lovely skin, the color of peaches and cream. A pair of long, curved horns rose from her forehead, black and perfectly formed, as though carved from obsidian. A more ostentatious Emperor would have had an exclusive garment, perhaps including a funny-looking hat. But the Empress was not a creature of tradition. She wore the simple spacefarer’s tunic that, legend had it, she had worn when she had made first contact with humanity in the 11th century. He bowed at the waist, arms at his sides. “Your Imperial Majesty. I am-“
“Please.” She smiled, rising from the throne. “I know who you are, Sinbad the Spacefarer.” She stepped down from the dais. Where the throne on the Far and Sunless Land had been wooden and utilitarian, there was no question that this throne represented wealth and power beyond measure. It was, he knew, hewn from a neutron star. It glowed brightly. It massed more than the Imperial Palace itself. It was a sign of the mastery of the Empire that it could use something that should have been lethal beyond words as the seat of government, literally. She approached him, and held out the signet ring. It contained one of the Mind Clan, an intelligence that existed solely to encrypt the words of the Empress, and assure those who read them that they came directly from one of the most powerful beings in the stars.
“It is an honor.” He took her hand, and kissed the ring gently.
“And likewise. You have a fascinating story, Sinbad. Three times you have traveled, and each time, you find greater wonders. The Star Clan spoke fondly of you in your visit to their world. They thank you for your forbearance in protecting their secrets, as do I. And for the first time in nearly a hundred thousand years, the lady Dolorosa has sent me a message. It mentioned a nice young man who helped her. She couldn’t remember his name, though, sadly. You seem to make a habit of breaking hearts.”
He stood stiffly. “I… haven’t found the story, yet, which will help break her out of her stupor.”
“I wish you the best of luck. And this most recent trip… You know, I am well-informed. Information in this kingdom flows through me.” Sinbad nodded. “And yet, I find myself stymied to discover what happened to you. How you survived. How you found your way back. That gateway should not have opened from the other side without a tremendous expenditure of power. What secret did you find so far away, Sinbad?”
“I would ask that you not make me tell you, Your Imperial Highness.”
She raised an eyebrow. “That bad, hmm? I suppose I can fulfill that request. Tell me, Sinbad. Why do you travel?”
“Oh, Sinbad. Please. Call me Lilith. I can see the way it cuts at you each time you are forced to address me by title. I know how you Hierarchy men prefer military rank to nobility.”
He looked down. “That is… kind of you. I travel because I am weak.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Elaborate?”
“In this world, there is only strength. Those who have it are capable of making decisions. Those who do not have it are capable only of being used. I have spent many years of my admittedly brief life in the service to those I loathe, with no choice for myself.”
She leaned forward, her brilliant purple eyes narrowed. “And does your species feel the same way? Do they fear that they are being controlled? Do they wish to be powerful, so they may dictate terms to us?”
He considered his options, and decided that lying would be silly. “I think that we both know that is exactly what my kind want. It is a very difficult thing to be weak, especially when you are surrounded by the strong.” He paused, and decided to gamble with his next words. “Surely you can understand that feeling better than most.”
She was silent. Then a smile broke through the darkness on her face, and it lit up the world. The weight of the galaxy rested on her shoulders, but for a moment, she looked young and vital. Then the smile disappeared. “I cannot deny it. Your actions have stirred up the muck of my reign. Humanity is a destabilizing force. This is fortunate, because ‘stable’ meant a slow death for my kind. But you have exposed the gnawing rot that has been taking the Empire’s strength for a very long time.” She waved a hand, and panels of light appeared, text scrolling down across them. The kind of files that a chief of state would be shown every morning. “The genetic degradation. The senility of the Undead. The threat of forces from outside. And the… unpredictability of the Construct Kingdom. The Empire is weak.”
“And you want me to make it strong again,” he stated, voice flat and dull.
“No. I want you to make humans strong, in the way you think is best. The Empire was powerful for hundreds of thousands of years. But it all fell apart.” She stared at the panels. “Did you know that there is a call to clone humans? A massive cloning project, doubling the population of humans every three months. Our races could reach parity within a decade. A human for every Imperial. Do you know why I refuse to authorize this?”
Sinbad shrugged. Then the realization hit him. “Because… We’d have no culture left. If the population increased a thousand times over… Well, most of those humans wouldn’t really identify themselves as humans, would they? We’d be just another subject race of the Empire.”
“Exactly. We tried the path of conquest, of annexation, of assimilation. We made everything we found into more of us. It failed. We do not need more things like ourselves. We need… a new path.”
“I don’t know if humans are going to provide that new path, Your Highness.”
She smiled. “I have faith. And I have a task for you. One that you, with your survival instincts, and… curiosities… may be uniquely suited to.” She waved a hand, and another panel appeared beside Sinbad. He studied it. It was pitch black.
She tapped the panel, and the colors changed. “Here is a somewhat more legible pattern.” Five bright points of blue, surrounded by a rainbow of colors, were visible on the map, arranged in a roughly pyramidal shape. “These are black holes. A pattern of them.” Sinbad frowned, and leaned closer. It was nearly invisible, but there, at the center…
“What’s that?” He tapped a finger on the center of the page.
“That’s what I would like you to find out. These used to be worlds. That point was a weapons research facility for the Avian Clan. At some point, there must have been an accident, producing the black holes. There’s been no communication with the facility for a very long time. Very recently, we had a blip of sensor readings. This is the first sign that the facility is still there.”
Sinbad frowned. “Is there a scale to this? How far apart are these black holes?”
“The entire image is less than a hundred miles across.” Sinbad stared at the picture. “Yes. The physical implications are rather staggering. It’s part of the reason that we haven’t destroyed the black holes. If anyone is alive inside, even the slightest disruption could kill them all. That’s why I’ve approached you. Among other qualities, you have shown an impressive survival instinct, and a certain… affinity, for gravitational anomalies. If you would be willing to risk it, I have prepared a Fleet vessel with an injection course. If you take a small one-man ship into this point, there is a chance that you will survive. I am asking you to take many rather awful gambles. If you refuse, I will not hold it against you.”
“What were they working on?”
She shook her head. “We simply don’t know. Anything that you find in this place, I leave to you. If you do not return… I will do everything that I can to see your family freed.”
He looked up sharply, and watched her for a moment. She looked slightly abashed. “You know that my species doesn’t much care for omniscience.”
“Oh, yes. I know. You’re very quantum in that way. If you know someone is looking, you behave differently.” She smiled wanly. “Most of what I see, though, is not that bad. And in this place, you will be going beyond where even I can see.”
The ship was Imperial Fleet. A dour-faced captain greeted him briefly, and then ferried him to a cabin. The trip took the better part of a month, and the crew avoided mixing with him. Sinbad had the distinct impression that they did not want to waste the effort on growing close to a dead man. None of them were under any illusions of his chances. The ship he would be riding was outfitted with a gravitational stabilizer, but the tidal forces on the way in would be immense. There would be substantial time dilation passing through, although in the center, the effect would be negligible. And there was a very real possibility he might not make it. In the meantime, he studied the information about the system.
Here, I diverged for a moment. “Allow me to tell you what I’ve learned of my studies about this system. It may seem odd that so little could be known to the Emperor about this research facility, but the truth is that the galaxy is a very large place. Any individual planet, even a Throneworld, may have limited information about a subject. It may have been lost, or discarded, or never needed in the first place. Scale works against an empire of this size.”
In the twelfth century of the reign of the Beast Emperor Loprin the Hammer-Handed, the system was colonized by the Avian Clan. Named Aerie Home, its star was Class G, yellow and conducive to the forms of life common to the Empire and humanity. There were no earth-like independent planets orbiting this world, but the brilliant and atypical Avian Clan did not mind this. A great gas giant sat in the Goldilocks Zone, and was chosen as the target for their colonization. Aerostats colonized its upper reaches, terraforming its native hydrogen atmosphere with oxygen to make it more inhabitable. Its name was Malipo, which in the language of the Empire at the the time meant something like ‘A place far away, to which you have journeyed at great personal cost, and where you may now rest.’ It was a great world of vividly red and white clouds, in massive bands that shone across the colonies.
Four moons large enough to support an atmosphere and life revolved around the world. These were Pi-ya, Len-tai, Mo, and Rat-shae; The four gods of a minor cult of science, representing the four fundamental forces of Gravity, Electromagnetism, Strong Nuclear Force, and Weak Nuclear Force. These names were given to them one by one as they were inhabited by the colonists of Malipo. Over the years, great atmosphere chains were built between the moons and the gas giant below, allowing the Avian folk to ride currents of air hundreds of thousands of miles long. It was a slow way to travel between the worlds, but it was considered a form of pilgrimage and meditation. The most devout were those who completed the great chain, journeying from Malipo out to distant Len-Tai and back inwards again, stopping at each of the worlds in turn.
Once every eight orbital periods of Rat-shae, the great atmosphere chains would align between the worlds, and connect all four worlds at once. This occurred approximately once in a human week, and led to a great festival of travel, offering a rest for weary travelers. Great aerostat technology, the flying bases that the Avian Clan preferred, allowed for rest stops along the great journey of the currents. The greatest of these was at the midway point between Mo and Pi-Ya, and was called Halfway. It was a research palace, one of the greatest of its kind, stocking a dozen Mind Clan among its inhabitants.
Halfway itself was the better part of ten miles across. It was a wonder, not of engineering, but of purpose. In this place, wonders were forged, and the Empire was made strong. It was full of stories. For a period of no fewer than a hundred years, a notorious serial killer roamed the laboratories, taking the lives and organs of unwary research assistants, before being captured and revealed as the Deputy Administrator of the station itself, a scandal that rocked the government of Halfway to its core. The great lovers Losius and Heta traveled to this place to seek a way to bring both of their consciousnesses together in a single body, and made everyone very uncomfortable. And half a dozen Aberrant races were created in the genefoundries of Halfway, impossible tasks wrung out of the genetic material of the Empire, and its boundless scientific achievement.
Malipo was no less magnificent. Among its vast cloud formations grew a type of vine, settled not upon trees or lattices, but upon the clouds themselves. This vine grew a berry, filled with a small quantity of hydrogen. Properly fermented, the Malipo Sky Gin was a drink of incredible potency, and experienced a brief-lived popularity among the courts of the Empire. The strongest and most delectable vines grew wild, around the dense and impenetrable eye of the storm known as The Eye of Myur- The devil of the cult of science, a concept best translated as ‘Those things which are not known, and which lesser minds say must not be studied.’ The most daring and risky would pluck these vines by hand, braving winds and gusts that could snap a biological body in half.
In the great city of Halfway, there existed a small neighborhood, the Mist Quarter. It was so named because of the project that had begun here; One of the Night Cloaks, a sapient nebula, had seen its genesis in the scientists of this neighborhood. Ilmatar, as she would come to be known, was made and lived in the Reptile Kingdom, cloaking one of the deathworlds on which the Serpent Clan raised their children, and set them to war against one another. Yet she always considered this quarter her childhood home, and sent her avatars there for a time. A gentle fog filled the neighborhood in the mornings, without apparent cause. And some said it was her blessing, shielding them from that which was dangerous.
In the Mist Quarter, there was a hotel. This hotel was founded by a most unusual Avian Clan citizen, who was uniquely uninterested in science except as a means to an end. The hotel, a hundred stories high, had no method for moving from one floor to another except for travel through a central shaft. With the genius available only to the Empire, this proprietor had provided an atmosphere, tweaked gravity, and made it possible for any race to fly in the manner of one of the Avian Clan. He claimed that he did this to show the joy of flight and being of the Avian Clan, and of Halfway, and of Malipo, to those who came to visit. It is worth mentioning that of those who visited his hotel, a sizable fraction found themselves taking on the shape of one of the Avian Clan soon after.
The pirate crew watched, entranced, as I wove the scene with words.
“And this is what Sinbad found in the databanks of the Imperial ship.”
Formerly inhabited colony of the Beast Kingdom. The Emperor Sen-Shi once spent a night at one of its hotels.
Sinbad frowned, and set the document aside. He sat back in the small cockpit of the Imperial fighter-craft. He wouldn’t have been able to articulate precisely why he was willing to risk it all like this. There were safer ways to search for an advantage in the galaxy. There were places that he could go that weren’t such a risk. Some might have interpreted his choice as a death-wish. But the truth of it was simpler. It was the Orion way, even if men like the Colonel had forgotten it.
Through adversity, came strength. Through strength, came choice. And a sapient being is meaningless without choice. He was growing to hate having choices made for him by others.
“Launching. See you when I see you, gentlemen.”
The communicator crackled in response. “Walk with the Empress, sir, and she shall see you safely back.”
He set in the course, and the ship launched, a needle of insanely energetic plasma erupting from the back. Antimatter was the only fuel powerful enough to have a hope of getting him through.
There was no accretion disk around these black holes. There was none left to gather them. They orbited in a tight formation around one another, their relative weight keeping them always in the same position. It was impossible. There was no way they should be able to maintain the formation they had, let alone for as long as they had been in that shape. The chances were not merely infinitesimal; It would’ve taken deliberate action. All that remained of Malipo and its four moons were the five hungry points of gravity. And now he had to pilot his way in.
He almost fancied that he could see the curvature in space and time caused by the degenerate matter. The ship’s course was straight and true, which meant absolutely jack shit as he flew. The starscape warped and twisted wildly like he was traveling through a maze of fun-house mirrors. Without the ship’s computer, there would have been no way to travel the twisted labyrinth. And even as it stood-
The ship screamed an alarm at him. His eyes flickered down. Anomalously high gravitational force. The stabilizer keeping his ship together began to whine, as the stress increased, his power reserves draining alarmingly quickly. The ship’s computer squawked as it lost the approach vector. Something had gone wrong. Off to the left, he could see a darkness growing, the starscape growing thick and distorted around the edge of the darkness. A black hole, pulling at his ship, hungry for it.
There was a strange lightness in his head, even as the ship’s plates groaned slightly under the tidal stresses. Then, there was a soft ripple of the starscape, and he was through. The ship’s navigational systems flashed a reboot screen, and he cursed the fraction of a second he spent without an idea of what was happening. Then they returned to life, and he saw that the path ahead had become clear. In five points in the sky were holes, surrounded by thin rings of bright light, an entire section of the sky lensed into a rime of stars. And there, in the center of it, was the research station. It was sizable, perhaps a few miles across, and shaped rather like a flat umbrella. The ship noted an atmosphere as it approached, docking with one of the few remaining ports that had not been overgrown by plant life.
The atmosphere was breathable. Even lush, by organic standards. High oxygen. He looked at the gun, and dropped it into the cockpit. It would ignite the atmosphere of the station if he fired it. As he stepped out of the ship, he checked his survival gear. A hand-held computer, since he had resolved that he never wanted to be lost without information again. The back-pack spacesuit that he had kept since his time in the Far and Sunless Land. He never wanted to be trapped aboard a ship like that again, either. Of course, his ship’s navigation computer was informing him that there was no apparent way out of the formation. But he’d burn that bridge when he came to it.
The lights were off in the base. Most of them had been overgrown by thick, hungry vines that were the color of coal. Sinbad took a deep breath. The air was fresh and wild. He could hear the sound of insects. Birds. This place was not, despite its appearance, dead. He began to walk down the corridor, survival knife in one hand, a hand-held flashlight in the other. Corridors split off, sometimes filled with trees or smaller bushes. There was a thick mulch underfoot, soil. How long had this place been like this, that it had soil? The thought was slightly terrifying.
What was more terrifying were the pair of glowing eyes ahead. He held up the survival knife as the creature approached. Loping on all fours, it was almost like a wolf, but hairless, with large, glowing eyes. It trotted towards him, and stopped, about twenty feet away. It spoke in what sounded like an ancient dialect of Imperial. Sinbad stared, flummoxed. It repeated the same statement with a slight tone of urgency. Then it lunged for his throat.
The knife went up through the creature’s jaw, but this did not stop it. It had to weigh two hundred pounds. As it bowled Sinbad over, he rolled with the leap, his feet meeting the creature’s stomach, and hurling it onwards. The knife tore free, and a thick black oil splattered on Sinbad’s shirt. He leapt to his feet in a smooth movement, marred somewhat by the uneven terrain. He held the knife out, his eyes on the creature as it wheeled towards him. It rushed him, this time staying on the ground, and he sidestepped at the last moment as it lunged for his belly, bringing the knife down in a circle. The strange hairless creature’s head fell off. It turned towards him again, standing straight, wires sparkling as it focused on him again. He noticed that the claws were still quite sharp.
As he braced for the next attack, a spear appeared from above. It was followed by a shapely woman, wearing absolutely nothing. Her hands ended in large, claw-like paws, her feet the same. The spear pinned the creature to the ground, and she seized his hand. Her eyes were bright green, and her hair a tawny blonde, as she stood over him. She was tall and slender, her figure robust. She had to be Imperial. A pair of lines of some thick black substance ran across her forehead, and down the sides of her mouth, outlining them, making her look older than she was. She held out one of her clawed hands to him, and he took it.
I sat back in my seat, smiling. “And of course, that was only the beginning of Sinbad’s troubles aboard the lost Halfway. But for now, we must call it a night once again, and look forward to tomorrow’s explorations of- Where did you say it was?”
The captain grinned. “Barbary. You shall enjoy it, scholar. It is a place with many stories to be found.”
Naja leaned over to the side, and whispered in my ear. “Just stay away from the Fae.”