Friday, December 31, 2010

Chapter 49 - THE EMPEROR HIMSELF

As soon as the guests had all been escorted out of the room to depart for their respective homes, servants swarmed through once again and removed the remains of the meal until the place was spotless again. The emperor, and the six of us who were left, were kept supplied with wine, since the emperor retained his glass and apparently wanted it kept full, though he didn’t drink it very fast. I sipped at my glass; after all, I was sitting directly across from the emperor, I was expected to do the same as he did. It was bitter and strong. I didn’t like it. It was all I could do not to make a face every time I tasted it. (This is a small example of how ignorant I was of my magic. I could have turned the wine into water and simply colored it differently, but I didn’t think of that).

While the servants were bustling around, the emperor sat in his chair across from my mother in silence. When the servants were finished, the man who was apparently their manager, bowed to the emperor, and then they all were gone.

The emperor sat there for a long time just looking at the three of us. Then he looked directly at me and spoke with a voice that was as smooth and calm as his bearing. “Your mother has tried to explain to me how it is that you do what you do, but it’s apparent that she has little or no understanding of it herself and so had difficulty speaking of it. Could you perhaps do better?”

I sat up straighter and tried to explain much as Durmas had tried to explain it to me. “My magic is an elemental magic. I can manipulate the elements around me. The four major elements are earth, air, fire and water. Most of what I do deals with those four elements, either one, or more often, all of them.”

“You say you manipulate the elements around you. How do you do that?” he asked, as he leaned forward on his elbows.

I don’t know how it happens exactly, but what I do is draw from the elements around me to make something I need, or simply move that element to a different location. The more unnatural the task, the more energy it takes to perform it.”

“So tell me what you did to your grandfather.”

I looked at my mother, but she just nodded, she had told me that I was to tell the plain truth if it ever came to this. “I didn’t know he was my grandfather until that evening. He kidnapped my parents. He turned me and my companion at the time, Pip over there, into articles of freight. He abandoned Pip and left him to die of starvation. And to top it all off, he had me flogged; sixteen lashes to commemorate my birthday, which had happened while I was securely packed in his crate. I was very angry, my dad was scared and my mom was crying.”

The emperor listened quietly without changing the expression on his face. If he hadn’t been looking directly at me, I might have wondered if he was paying attention to what I was saying.

“The baron had heard of my magic, probably from one of my father’s reports about the planet where we had been living. He wanted to use me - to control my magic, I guess. He ordered me to make him a pile of gold. I can’t just make something like that. I can find it and bring it like he wanted, but I was too angry to want to please him, so I drew on the closest supply, and there was a lot. I began to change his floor into gold. When he got down off of his pedestal to touch the floor, I couldn’t resist; I changed him into gold too.”

“Can you change him back?”

I knew someone would ask me that question someday. “I think I can make him meat, bones and assorted organs again, but there won’t be any life in it. It won’t be the same either; the matter that was the baron was changed, it doesn’t exist any more.”

He sat back and looked at me for a while, thinking about what I had said. “You’ve made it clear that you can kill with your magic and killing a baron, regardless of the reason, is a crime. What good have you done with your magic?”

He was right, but I had to think for a moment. What good had I done with my magic? I had never thought of anything that I did with my magic as being good or evil, and I was haunted by at least one of the deaths I had been responsible for, but before I could form an answer Colin stood up. Obviously, he had heard the question.

“He made it possible for me to walk on a real planet; something I was always told I would never do.”

The emperor looked up at him. He was obviously surprised at the audacity. “Come forward,” he said, with a wave of his hand that seemed elegant without seeming effeminate in the least. As soon as Colin was standing at my mother’s shoulder, he said, “Explain yourself.”

“My mother ran away with a miner shortly before I was born. I was raised on an asteroid until my father finally found us. I was thirteen years old before I knew any gravity at all. It took me three years before I could tolerate the low gravity of the space station where my father was a governor and that wasn’t a pleasant experience even then. During our journey here, Liam made me stronger. He made my bones thicker and my muscles bulkier. I still tire pretty fast, but at least I have a chance.”

The emperor turned back to me. “What did you do?”

“I drew the matter from the frozen sides of meat in the kitchen freezer. There were muscles and bones already made. I looked up on the computer for the correct dimensions and let the magic do the rest. I’m not sure if I got it all right. We could both benefit from a visit to a doctor. He could tell me what I did wrong, or not well enough, and I could fix it.”

The emperor looked at me and cocked his head almost imperceptibly. After a moment, he asked, “Have your other companions felt your magic or seen it?”

“Yes sir, they have.”

“Mr. Pip, step forward and tell me what you have seen.”

Pip and Georgy took up a position next to Colin, and told of my making our food and then changing the appearance of my clothes on two separate occasions.

Georgy told of our first meeting just outside of the palace walls and what it had felt like to be held by nothing but air.

As amazing as these facts were, it appeared as though the emperor was thinking about other facts. “The baron sent imperial troops to a non-member planet to trap you? He wanted you very badly indeed. And you say he turned you into freight; just how did he do that, and how could he keep you that way, if you could do the things you say you can?”

“I was trying to trace my parents, so I had to cooperate with them. I had to endure everything they did to me in the hopes that they eventually took me to my parents, and then I figured I could do whatever I needed to do in order to get us out of whatever we found when we got there.”

He sat back and looked at Pip, Colin and Georgy. “You may return to your seats.” He watched them until they were seated, and then he studied my mother and father as if he could read what was going on beneath their skins. Finally, he said, “I would like to see an example of your magic.”

The guards shifted uneasily. It was the first movement from them since this whole meeting had begun. I looked at the emperor’s glass of wine. It was half-full or perhaps a little less. I reached a hand toward it. One of the guards pinned my hand to the table, but the emperor waved it away and sat back to watch. I first thought to change the glass into a basilisk, but I changed my mind, the basilisk was me; the emperor needed something elegant. Then I had it; there was a crane-like bird on Planet 663-457 that would be perfect. Under my fingers, his wine glass stretched and swayed. It came together at the mouth and stretched up into a thin, long graceful neck with a long sharp beak and sensitive spiked feathers around its neck. Its mouth was open, ready to catch the unwary rodent that might rush by. This bird did not fish in the shallow rivers but hunted in the tall grasses. The stem divided and became two long thin legs. The wings and tail feathers trailed down almost to the tabletop offering the unwary rodent a false shelter from the hunting beak only for a moment. The dark red wine that had been the contents of the glass colored the slender body and tinted the rest of the glass by its presence. The guard didn’t relax for a moment, even when I removed my hand from the glass figurine. He was really quite pale.

The emperor carefully picked up the figurine and looked it over closely, succeeding in tipping a few drops of red wine out of the open mouth in the process. “I like this.” He set it back down on the table between us. “I’m curious about one thing though. Why did it take you so long to come here? Why didn’t you make your petition sooner?”

“We took the first ship coming in this direction,” said my father. “We broke down only a month out and lost power. We were under tow the rest of the way into dock.”

“I see. I heard about that ship. Attacked by pirates too, as the report states. Pirate Randall was captured trying to take the ship. It seems he was having all sorts of trouble. He ranks very high on our most wanted list.” The emperor looked directly at me. “You wouldn’t have something to do with that trouble, would you?”

“Yes sir, most of it anyway,” I replied.

“I see,” he said with a hint of a smile. He looked back to my parents, suddenly serious again. “Lydia, you and your husband will go back to the barony and take up where your father left off. It is proper, as his only living heir, that you do so. Your son will stay here under my close personal supervision. Your seat and welfare will depend on his behavior. This arrangement will continue until I feel certain that your son is safe, or until he can be made safe. Mr. Pip, you and your nephew will be properly compensated for your services. You will then be free to go wherever you wish. Mr. Colin. You too will remain here at least for a time. I’m curious to see what the doctor has to say about you.” He rose, took his transformed wine glass and his guards with him and left the room. We had been dismissed. The meeting was over.

As soon as the emperor was gone, servants came and escorted us in our separate directions. Mother gave me a hug and pulled me down to plant a kiss on my cheek. “Everything will be just fine, you’ll see. I love you.”

Father shook my hand. “We’ll keep in touch.”

“You better,” I said. “Don’t make me come find you again.”

They both waved as they were escorted to the door. I know mom was crying again before she got there. I hoped everything would be fine.”

Friday, December 24, 2010

Chapter 48 - DINNER WITH THE EMPEROR

When I walked into the grand dining hall, I was amazed. There must have been hundreds of people in attendance and they all were dressed in the highest fashion. Well, I guess it was the highest fashion; I found it all to be quite outlandish. Fortunately, what the seneschal selected for us to wear had no feathers or ruffles; of course, I think Pip may have had something to do with that.

Just as I had been instructed, nobody here was talking with anyone else here, so aside from the entertainment, which took the form of music and acrobatic dancing, the room was very quiet. Then I noticed a tall slender man enter the room. He was younger than I expected, somewhere between thirty-five and forty I would guess, and dressed in somber black flowing robes. At each shoulder was a guard in full armor. No matter what the emperor did or where he went, they never strayed more than two feet from his elbow and their eyes were constantly roaming, searching for the smallest possible danger. There were other guards around too who were never more than ten paces away. I’m sure there were others as well; after all, he was the emperor.

The emperor himself passed among the people with somber dignity and seemed to speak to almost everyone there. He didn’t speak to me or my friends so there were probably others who didn’t receive his attention. As he passed through the people, he had a brief conversation with those he chose, and then, most of the time he paired them off with someone else of his choice. These people then began to talk to each other. Occasionally, in the case of a man being paired off with a woman, they would dance to the music. In my opinion, it wasn’t really dancing music, so this only happened a couple times.

Finally, when the emperor felt that he had spent enough time mingling, he headed for the head table and his seat. Once comfortably arranged with his ever-present guards at his elbows, he waved his hand. Someone must have been waiting for the signal because a flood of servants entered the room and escorted people to their seats.

As soon as everyone was seated, (I was seated next to my father, who was seated next to mother, who was seated directly across from the emperor himself), the food began to come out in a seemingly constant flow. It was a very good meal, but I soon discovered that the courses changed when the emperor was done with his portion, regardless of whether you were finished or not.

Near the end of the meal, a servant leaned close to my ear and said, “When the meal is finished, you will remain seated. His Lordship wishes to speak with you after everyone else has left.”

I nodded to show I had received the message and then glanced at the emperor. He made no indication that he even knew of my existence. This would be interesting - I think.

My parents and all three of my friends must have received the same message because we all stayed at the table. Pip, Georgy and Colin were seated at a table about half way across the room. They remained there.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Chapter 47 - EMPIRE CITY

By the time we docked, most of the repairs had been completed. I think all they had left to do was replace some of the larger components and then the ship had to pass some sort of inspection before it could be declared space worthy again.

It felt strange as our impromptu family disbursed, knowing it was highly unlikely that we would ever see each other again, but we all knew it was inevitable. Perhaps some of us would remain in contact. We all had each other’s names and addresses by now.

Dad hired a private car and we went directly to the emperor’s complex. I was amazed that the complex was the size of a major city all by itself. Gaining access was difficult to say the least, which is appropriate I guess, but I found it irritating. I was thankful I had the distraction of helping Colin adjust to full gravity. Most of the work had already been done. All that remained was for him to get used to it and build up his strength and endurance a little more; he tired rather easily.

It was almost six weeks before we gained an audience with the assistant of an undersecretary of some other underling’s underling of the emperor, but it was a start, and mother was excited about it. Apparently, our story gained someone’s interest because, as short as two weeks later, we were summoned to see an assistant of the undersecretary of the emperor himself.

Mother purposefully kept the unusual details of our situation extremely vague, but the report caught the ear of the emperor nonetheless and apparently, it caught his interest.

Three days later, he sent for my parents. A private audience with the emperor was just what my mother had hoped for. I went along, but I wasn’t allowed into the meeting. Several hours later, an assistant suggested I return to my apartment. The emperor wasn’t going to see me today, and he was far from finished with my parents; there was no point in my remaining any longer.

I returned to the apartment I shared with Pip, Georgy and Colin. I tried to interest myself in the movie on the video screen, but I had missed too much, and it was too complicated to try to catch up.

I went and took a shower instead. It was the closest thing to a rain dance I could find; it was a long shower.

After pacing the apartment for another hour or two, Pip had a suggestion. “Why don’t you call the closest guard post and ask if there’s some place where you can go and work off a little of that pent up energy. Your orbiting is going to drive me nuts.”

That sounded like a good idea to me, so I did it. They gave me an escort to a workout arena where the guards in our area did their own training and exercising. I had to have an escort because I would be taking my own weapon and only certain people were allowed to go armed here.

I ended up staying there until the wee hours of the morning, either trying to invent unopposed sets, or sparring against anyone who offered, and there were several guards willing to take on a kid who needed to unwind. It would have been nice to flex my magic too, but there were too many witnesses and I didn’t want just anyone to know. Consequently, though it felt good to do this kind of workout, it was still inadequate.

I didn’t see my parents until late two days later and I spent most of that time at the garrison’s training field. I was worried about them, but I hoped that, in this case, no news is - well, maybe not bad news.

Early in the afternoon of the second day, a group of men and women arrived at our apartment. The man in charge called himself a seneschal and he informed me that the four of us were to attend a formal dinner with the emperor, and that the people he had brought with him were to assist us in dressing properly, among other things.

The ‘among other things’ included a quick lesson in proper manners at the emperor’s table such as what, when and how much to eat, when to speak and what to speak about, as well as when to sit at the table and when it is acceptable to leave. I’m sure we were getting an abbreviated lesson in such etiquette; I got the impression from some of the people attending us that it was common knowledge that dumb country bumpkins like us couldn’t manage such a complicated affair as a formal dinner with the emperor and should never be allowed within a light year of him.

By the time they were done with us, my head was in a whirl, and I think Pip would have gladly wrung a few necks, but we were primped, trimmed and tucked in all the right places and dubbed ready to depart.

They ushered us into a vehicle that looked like a small train. The front car was the engine of course and looked like a large van. Behind it were three more cars that looked like the front one without the windshield. The seneschal ushered me into the first car behind the engine. Pip, Georgy and Colin were ushered into the second car along with three other people, and everyone else got into the last car.

“You must realize,” said the seneschal to me as soon as we were alone, “that the emperor is very interested in you and your family. He will likely speak to you rather often, if not almost exclusively, so you must be careful how you respond.” He shrugged. “Then again, he may ignore you entirely until after dinner and the others have all been dismissed. Remember what I told you; do not attempt to engage him, or anyone else, in conversation. He will indicate the flow of conversation; no one comes to see the emperor in order to converse with anyone else.”

“Why don’t you just say, ‘don’t speak unless you’re spoken to’? Wouldn’t that be so much easier?” I said.

He just scowled at me. His whole body language said he thought I was just too stupid to understand.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Chapter 46 - THE LONG ROAD

Repair crews aboard tug ships appeared two days later and we were under way again though it would be sub-light all the way. I clawed my way out of my seat as soon as they installed the parts that held the force field over the port. Nobody understood how things had been working, but they had little reason to question me, for which I was thankful. I was also thankful that they hadn’t repaired the gravity plating yet either, because I’m not so sure that I could have walked down the stairs to my seat. It was all I could do to shuck the space suit I’d been wearing.

Colin was the first to see me drifting down into the cabin and was at my side immediately. “What happened to you? You look like the living dead.”

“Great, what’ll my mother think? Where is she anyway?” Before I let myself relax into my seat, I said, “Colin, I’m going to need your help and Georgy’s too. I’m going to sleep for a while, probably a long time. I’m going to need you guys to take care of me. You’ll have to make me eat and I’ll need to eat a lot. Wake me about every four hours. I can’t think of anything else; I’m too tired.”

“We’ll take care of you Liam; don’t worry,” said Colin. “And Liam, thanks. For what you did for me, thanks.”

I think I smiled. I was glad he hadn’t been scared away. “My pleasure. Glad I could help. Don’t let mom get too upset. This’ll scare her - a lot I think. She’ll want to fuss. Won’t do any good.”

My sentences were getting shorter and I was rambling. I missed Colin getting me into my seat; I just suddenly found myself there, and then I fell asleep. It was such a relief just to turn off for a while.

They told me it was six days while I mechanically consumed whatever was placed in front of me before I said anything. Apparently, I asked for an apple. Colin told me I’d have to make it since there wasn’t any in the galley. All I remember is someone telling me ‘I’d have to make it’. I didn’t remember what I was supposed to make. I don’t know if I even tried.

It was nearly three weeks since leaving the cockpit before I pulled myself out of my seat and found my way to the shower. Mother tried to steady my progress until Colin and Georgy took over; since the gravity was still off, it was a sonic shower, not nearly as revitalizing as a water shower. I felt a little more coherent when I got out, but was still quite ragged around the edges.

I picked up my sword belt a couple days later and those in the cabin who noticed, cheered. They had no idea what I had done; all they knew was that I had been ill and sleeping for a long time. Now that I had started sparring again, the boredom of their day had some relief.

The noise attracted the attention of the repair crews who were coming and going all over the ship. They had moved in with us, filling any empty seats while they worked on the ship, therefore they were constantly in and out as their shifts changed.

We stayed at it longer than I intended, but sparring in 0-G was so much fun, and the enthusiasm of the crowd was catching.

Our lessons expanded when members of the repair crew joined us from time to time. Before they got the gravity plating turned back on, we all got several pointers on how to use our weapons under weightless conditions; of course, Colin didn’t need many of those pointers, but he practiced avidly just the same. You don’t stay good at something if you never practice it, plus he had new mass to learn how to wield.

Ultimately, this trip took fully twice as long as it was supposed to, since we were forced to drop out of faster than light travel far sooner than we should have. Consequently, I had another birthday in space. You don’t travel with a group of people for a year and a half without becoming as close to a family as it is possible for a group of strangers to get.

Everyone had a birthday at sometime or another during the trip. We celebrated them all with a bit of a party and a few exchanged gifts. No one had really come prepared to celebrate over a hundred birthdays, so not much but well wishes were ever exchanged, but the parties were fun and another diversion from the boredom of endless travel.

There were movies too, (fortunately) and we had seen everything in the library more than once. Long before we reached our destination, movies were played by popular demand; I liked them all.

Supply ships found us twice since the disaster and unloading was also a diversion. It’s interesting the things people will use to relieve their boredom. By the time we reached our destination, the line between crew and passenger was almost indistinguishable.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Chapter 45 - PIRATES

It was taking me hours to bring us to a relative stop and I was feeling the drain. Shortly before we achieved it, we were hailed by another ship.

“Hail, passenger liner Bradshaw One. Stand to and prepare to be boarded.”

“This is the Bradshaw One,” I replied. “We have no engines. I estimate I won’t be able to come to a full halt for at least another hour. Who is this?”

“If you don’t have any engines; how are you slowing your motion?”

“I’m working on it. Identify yourself,” I said again. I was tired and getting irritable.

“That must be a pirate ship,” said my companion. “Otherwise, they would have identified themselves with the first thing they said. We’re sitting ducks.” A note of panic was showing in his voice, but I didn’t have time for that.

“No, we’re not,” I replied. “Tell me what to do.”

“What do you mean, ‘tell you what to do’; what can we do? We don’t have any engines, so we can’t run, and we don’t have any guns, so we can’t fight. Like I said, we’re sitting ducks.”

I continued sending out our distressed call, and in the process, I felt them trying to jam the signal. In a moment of irritability, I reached out and took their jamming equipment. Let them try to figure that out when they tried to fix it.

I was starving. It was tempting to take what I needed directly from our unwanted visitors, but I still wasn’t sure they were pirates. I also was determined not to kill again. I didn’t remember the one time I did, and I had never tried to, but the very thought of sucking the life out of someone to feed my hunger was repulsive.

In an effort to distract myself from my hunger, I turned my eyes in to the cabins again. The people in the common cabin were still safely buckled into their seats, and they were being tended and comforted by the stewards as well as Colin.

The view in the first class cabin wasn’t nearly so quiet and there was ample evidence why. There were bodies floating around everywhere, gruesome evidence of why it was important to strap in before we dropped down into sub-light speed. I found a quiet line directly to the stewards that caused a small light to blink.

“Frank speaking, how’s it going captain?”

“The captain is dead. My name is Liam; do you need gravity in there?” I asked.

“There’s no one named Liam on the crew. Who are you?” asked Frank.

“I can give you gravity if you need it. I can help you clean this mess up if you want my help. Yes or no.”

“We’re making headway in the clean up. It’s easier to move bodies when they don’t weigh anything. We’re fine here.”

“Okay,” I said. “Let me know if you do need something and I’ll see what I can do for you.”

“Right, just how do I find you?” said Frank with no little sarcasm in his voice.

“I’m sitting in the pilot’s seat trying to save your ass,” I said in response and cut the connection.

As we got closer to a complete relative halt, I began to draw my awareness back into myself. I maintained my connection with the closest object out there and with the internal systems in order to keep them working. Now I could focus more attention on our visitor.

Using my experience with this ship, I infiltrated the systems of that ship. My presence didn’t go unnoticed however. I heard one crewman say, “Someone has accessed our internal systems. They’ve touched most all of them. I think they’re in the audio/visual systems now.”

“What!” replied another man, ostensibly the captain. “Get them out of there.”

“I’ve tried, sir. Nothing works. I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

I found the men who were talking and watched them for a few minutes as they tried to trace my passage through their systems.

As I looked through their ship, it occurred to me that I might as well draw my food from there. Under normal conditions, we would have almost a month of travel left. Now that we had been forced to come to a halt, it was entirely possible it would take us considerably longer to reach our destination, so our supplies might need to be rationed. Judging from the amount of supplies on board the pirate ship, they were based somewhat closer.

I drew on their supplies to make me a thopper leg and began to devour it. (God, I was hungry) I made a big fat sandwich after that and washed it down with a fat glass of milk followed by an apple. The rest of their supplies I transferred to our own galley.

After going through their logs, such as there were, I found that they were definitely operating under the line of legality, so I didn’t feel so bad about taking from them.

I saw them maneuvering closer to our hatchway and melted their maneuvering thrusters, and then I gave them a gentle shove away from us. My ear into their bridge told me they were scrambling for explanations and the captain was getting furious. Things like this just didn’t happen on his ship. Wait until someone tells him there’s no food in the galley.

I continued to play this kind of game with them. An hour after my last meal, I made myself another, much to my companion’s disgust. “You shouldn’t be eating in here,” he said. I ignored him.

Two hours and another meal later, our distress call was answered by the police cruiser Prometheus. The pirate ship’s communications were so screwed up by now they didn’t hear it, so they were the sitting ducks when the Prometheus arrived on the scene.

They tried to run, but I disabled their engines and they ended up tumbling slowly away. I pulled my awareness into the ship after that. We had long since come to a relative halt and the pirates were no longer a threat. All that was needed of me now was to keep our internal systems functioning; I felt like I could sleep for a month.

An investigative team boarded to assess the situation and began to take statements from the crew and some of the passengers. When they saw the damage in the cockpit, it was obvious we were in real distress.