Posted By: vector40<firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: 6 December 2004, 8:00 AM
[Author's Note: This story is sort of a big deal for me. I hope you'll all take a moment before reading it and swing by this address: http://berkeleyhigh.org/provinggrounds/notes.html to listen to me rambling about a few things.]
He hummed softly in key to the tones that floated in the chamber, resounding against the high roofs, drifting through the echoing halls. He had always liked Tchaikovsky.
Scratching at the thick paper with the fountain pen, he muttered and dipped it back into the ink well. He had full access to a console, of course; he could have even used a touch screen and programmed it to display as if he were writing with an old utensil like this one. But there was an inimitable appeal in scribbling with something as basic as a gravity-driven fountain pen. Maybe it was the sheer difficulty of use; as if the patience and effort associated with each page, each line, each word somehow made the letters themselves more meaningful. Certainly it made one less drawn to frivolity.
... and though that shining sun
Doth flash its rays so bright.
And endless burning fire
cascade a wrathful light.
The battle will not end,
though blazing shots sing by at me.
The final shot will not be cast--
'til Man at last lies free.
He tapped the last line out of the fading ink, then dipped once more to scrawl his trademark signature in a heavy, bold black at the bottom of the sheet. Then he wiped the nib and placed the pen in a drawer, laying the parchment on top of it. He would do something with it, later.
Rising from the writing desk, he walked softly out of the chamber and down the long corridor. The high, marble walls and wooden rafters glowed with warmth, and the carvings on the floor felt comfortable beneath his bare feet. He reached the end of the corridor and cracked open the door. The fast, crisp tones of the violin has eased away into smooth, subdued, lilting cries.
He let the door slide open and leaned against the frame, staring inside.
Catherine was sitting, poised like a bird on the edge of a stool in the center of the room. The vast, empty chamber conducted sound beautifully, and he knew that it was "tuned" specially so that a listener in that one spot, the exact center of the floor, would be treated to a breathtaking harmony of acoustical precision.
Her eyes were shut, as if so close to the music that she desperately hoped she would fall into it. The violin--a real violin, a 20th century viola from Italy, Old Earth--was held in one hand as gently as a lover. With the other, she held the bow, smoothing it along the top with strong, graceful strokes as her fingers moved with hummingbird-like quickness on the strings.
Unhurriedly, with a calculated and thoughtful tempo, the notes began to slow down further and further. Finally, the music smoldering, she let it die with one last, wordlessly low reverb that stretched out as long the instrument would carry it.
Then she sat, eyes still closed, violin still raised, hearing the last vestiges of the clear, humming vibration faded from the air.
He waited for several seconds, then, as quietly as he knew how, slipped into the chamber and crossed the floor. Gliding towards her, soundless as a ghost, he approached her stool.
Bending over slightly, he looked at her for a moment, then leaned in and kissed her.
If she felt a moment's surprise, she scarcely showed it. Instead, she smiled against him and opened her eyes, meeting his gaze full-on.
He broke away, pulling ever so slightly back. Never taking his eyes away, he said, "That was supposed to surprise you."
Catherine Richards--lady, princess, galaxy-renowned violinist, athlete, marksman, and soldier of fortune--curled up the corners of her lips into an impish grin.
"Then," she said, "you should have found a different partner." And she reached forward to grasp him--Angus Reverend, poet, writer, king, pilot, swordsman, soldier, and mercenary for hire--and kissed him back.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
Exasperated, Catherine gave a heavy sigh and allowed the tip of her sword, a wood and rubber practice saber, to fall. "Yes, Sophitia?"
As soon as her guard dropped, she felt a sudden, stabbing pain above her right ear, and then blinked, nonplussed, to discover herself on the ground. She groaned at the throbbing sensation behind her eyes and looked up.
Angus's dark, glaring visage appeared over her, blocking the light. He scowled.
"What was that?"
"What was what, you tyrant?"
He prodded her with his own sword. "Up. And this time, without the stupid."
She crawled to her feet, grimacing. "Hold on, will you, oh Overlord?
"Sophitia? What's up?"
The calm, clear voice of the house AI vibrated through the air without a hint of distortion. Not speakers--holograph atmosphere-resonaters. The system had been rather expensive, but was certainly easy on the ears. "There is a entity approaching the front path."
They glanced at each other. Sophitia knew everybody that they knew; friends should be identified as such, and so should hostiles. "Entity" signified someone who was a complete unknown.
"Human, or at least bipedal. Not of this world, by dress and stature. Moderately armed."
Catherine was already at the practice room's storage cabinet, slotting the wooden sword into a rack and pulling on a light jacket over her sparring clothes. "Just one?" she asked.
She caught Angus's thrown saber and put it away as well. In return, she lobbed him his pistol, then hit the lights. They walked out together. "Then let's go meet our mystery man, shall we?"
The ambassador moved stiffly, as one still unaccustomed to a new world's gravity. He wore a dark, frocked robe in the style of a monk, common to travelers of the Systems; at the gate, he had handed over to Angus a small Ryans Defensive handgun, the classic sidearm for independent defense, rugged and reliable with ammunition that could be bought anywhere. On his feet were brown unsc issue boots, and a brimmed hat on his head, completing perfectly the image of the weary spacegoer.
Angus watched him carefully. He distrusted perfection.
They invited him into the dining room; they found it amusingly disorienting to their guests to hold meetings in unusual places. Once they had spoken with the head of the planet in the bathroom.
"You want something?" Catherine asked, making no effort to disguise her lack of interest. Like anything else, court mannering was a skill that rusted without practice. Nowadays, it was easy not to care. The man shook his head and sat quietly, folding the robe across his lap, waiting for them to take their own seats. When they had, he began to speak, his voice coarse and low, but polished--the tones of a diplomat.
"I am Ambassadar LaGrange, interplanetary representative for the Terminus Fringe Colony, planet #167 of the dorsal sector. I have come on behalf of my government in a time of dire need."
Catherine leaned back in her seat and sighed. She exchanged a look with Angus and went to make coffee.
The small, streamlined transport spacejet slipped through the outer orbits of Pelian V, rolling around the gravity well of the wide, gaseous body to reach its next Slipspace vector.
Angus was relaxing in the transport's lounge, sitting on one of the bench seats that looked out the wide side windows of tough glasteel, slouched low against a bulkhead. Catherine had her head in his lap, curled up on the cushions as they watched the gloomy wisps of their low planetary pass slash past the ship, caught in its supraorbital wake.
"You remember the day we left?"
He stroked the soft edges of her hair away from the side of her face, his eyes following a small speck of paint detritus from the ship's hull as it slowly worked its way off the edge of the window, buffeted by the corrosive breeze. "I remember most of it."
She turned slightly, following his gaze. "Do you ever think about Cole?"
The thrum-thrum-thrum of the air circulation system changed pitch slightly, responding to some unknown fluctuation. He let his eyes rest on nothing. "He made his decision and he knew the consequences. Nobody forced him to be--to be loyal to the end."
"Nobody forced you to kill him."
"Wouldn't you have have done the same, before? Wouldn't you have died to protect your code?"
He lifted one hand slowly and touched the scar across his cheek, running his thumb down slowly. It felt cold, like an icy wind biting through a chink in his suit of armor. "I was the code."
They sat longer, feeling each other's presence like a calming aura. Then she looked up again. "Ever miss it?"
Gently, he tweaked her ear, and she grinned. "What is this, twenty questions?"
"Hey, your lordship, bite me."
Yelping, she snapped her head down, butting him in the abdomen to elicit an "oof." He responded by levering her up by the neck and applying a rear strangle.
After several minutes of rolling around, they stopped again, both panting from exertion. He was lying atop her now, their faces mere inches apart. Leaning in, he nuzzled lightly under her chin with the tip of his nose, making her giggle. He pulled back and spoke.
"Yeah, I miss it sometimes. The sworn royalty on Nimravus wasn't the same as true royalty, or even a good aristocracy, but it was still a different way of life, another world. Good and bad. We left because of the bad, but you can't ignore the good."
Catherine smiled slightly and said softly, "You owned a world, Angus. Don't tell me you didn't enjoy it."
"I loved it." He sighed and pulled himself off her, settling in beside her warm form. "I loved it. That's why I had to leave."
They were silent again. Catherine turned her head and brought her gaze back out the window, awed as always by the tiny, hard points of the stars and the washing auras of angry em fields. An insidious lethargy had begun to seep into her body, as if infiltrating and corrupting the cells that drove her; she felt with surprising intensity that she could lie here forever, untouched by the chaos and blinded motivations of fear and fire and war. She blinked as Angus kissed her gently on the cheek, breaking her trance. Almost too quickly, she looked up at him, and he smiled at the girlish excitement in her face.
"We could stop, you know. We don't have to do this--any of it."
Fixing his gaze in her bright, glinting eyes, his face twitched involuntarily around the scar as it sometimes did. Ignoring it, he murmured back, "We do."
"No." She spoke firmly but with an undertone of panicked resignation, as if trying against all better sense to convince herself as much as him. "We don't have to, we don't. We could leave, Angus. We're the best, we've always been the best. We--"
He shushed her with a steady finger on her moving lips as he told her what she already knew. "We can't."
"We are political exiles, Catherine. Your family has renounced you and my government has declared me a seditionist and a lunatic in exchange for leaving me with my title. We are tolerated, Cathy, on the sole condition that we continue to serve."
She stiffened slightly and said, "I am no servant."
"Prisoner, then. You are. I am. We roam freely in our cage, but it's still a cage, no matter how comfortable; the day we pull our names from the All Rogues Guild database, and shut our doors, and turn away fawning and polite messengers like dear Mr. LaGrange is the day that our quiet world becomes our bier. Every day we live is borrowed time, a testament to the magnanimity of our fellows. Our little personal rebellions failed. These are the consequences."
Closing her eyes for a moment, either in shame or to blink back tears, Catherine wavered momentarily. Then again she looked at him, and something new shone in her.
"We could go to Earth."
He answered bluntly and without emotion.
"Earth is gone."
She looked up in shock.
"Gone. Oh, there's still a big ball of dirt spinning around Sol somewhere out there. But it's cold and silent. The Covenant burned it so hot that oxygen can't even form anymore. They say that after the bombardment was over, the mantle itself was almost gone, gassed into orbit. Got a nice ring now."
Opening her mouth, then shutting it, she stared at him in disbelief, thoughts firing through her head--memories of people and things, dreams, hopes, all faced now by the guileless but unrelenting torch of harsh reality.
Finally it broke, the thing inside her that identified her humanity, the small piece of her soul that said, "Whatever else, first I am this." Her face cracked and Angus quickly pulled her toward him. Her sobs tore into his chest as he held her tight, tight; she wrapped her arms around him and squeezed back, needing his presence like physical sustenance. He made no attempt to console her, only letting his warmth and humanity lend as much strength as she needed.
Shuddering, she managed to ask him, "When?"
"I don't know," he responded quietly. "The courier drone came in yesterday, but the piece wasn't timestamped. Just a personal note from Donaker at sc. Probably last week. They'll know on Terminus."
"We've--we've got to--"
Eventually he let himself relax his own barriers, and wept with her, as they fell back on their old bonds for strength. Grieving not for what they had lost, but for what it had taken from them, the two rough warriors cried for a long time.
The only words that could be heard were Catherine's, as she whispered to him and to herself, "Never again... never again... "
The transport touched down on the flatpad outside the headquarters for the Department of Social Engineering, the government's securities and intelligence force, whose aggressively circumlocutory name was "a very old joke that became tradition before anybody got around to dealing with it," according to Duncan LaGrange, who had met them on the tarmac and was now leading them to their briefing room and giving a potted tour as they went. Angus was slightly on edge from the landing. The transport was small enough to function as its own shuttle, its motile jets rotating downward to turn into atmospheric canards; however, the functional yet inelegant result had properties much like a falling brick, and their landing had brought them to universal agreement that Terminus's main flaw was being a hard son of a bitch.
"By the way," LaGrange said, mirroring Angus's thoughts, "you may have noticed that we're a little clunkier here than you're used to. Nothing serious, just another .15 of a G, but enough to rattle your bones. I wouldn't make a home here unless you're willing to go through the gravity innoculation treatments, which aren't a lot of fun. Most of the citizens on-world here are natives; visitors tend to be temporary, or they go to live on the belt." He nodded in a vaguely upward direction, indicating the planet's opr, the orbital partial-ring where approximately half of the world's population and all of the spacefaring industry was located, all focused around servicing a massive unsc shipyard.
"What's more, we've still got a real colonial attitude here--a few generations doesn't take that away, and a lot of the original colonists are still around, anyway. So be polite and reasonable, and--well, I suppose you can handle yourselves, but don't go starting any fights, hear? Around here people consider their pride about the most important thing they've got. Throwback to the early days. Anyway."
Angus was nodding. His practiced eye had noticed the clips, straps, and peeking holsters of concealed pistols and knives on almost everybody they'd passed, even the narrow-faced desk workers and intel flunkies in the base's administrative section. Outside, Catherine had nudged him and pointed out a short, brown-skinned man working on a plasma conduit who appeared to be wearing a two-handed blackjack in a sheath down his back, as comfortable as an extension of his body.
They reached another double-sided security door, and again LaGrange had to present the ID card dangling from his neck, press his hand against an optical reader, and submit to something Angus had never seen before: a hard-scope biological proportions scan. LaGrange explained it to him as "a full-body scan based around the same concepts as an x-ray," though more safe and subtle; upon revealing the full extent of his skeletal structure, the proportions of his arms, legs, skull, hands, feet, and "vertebral spread" were all measured and matched against known values within the personnel database. "The idea," he explained, "is that while virtually anything in your appearance can be masked or altered now, even unique attributes such as epidermal signatures, only highly significant surgical procedure can modify the length of your fibulae, the ratios of your spine, the shape of your skull, and so forth." He shrugged. "Seems like a good concept, though I'm sure it's only a matter of time until someone comes up with a counter. They do these upgrades to support the local industry. Nobody's ever attempted to breach the security here."
The door clacked open, whirring as the magnetic field was released, and the guard waved them through from behind the glasteel window. They moved through quickly, entering the inner sanctum of the Command division.