Hanako's Heart by Tomek Piorkowski - HTML preview
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"Libiamo, libiamo ne' lieti calici, che la bellezza infiora;
e la fuggevo, fuggevo ora
s'inebriì a voluttà.
Libiamo ne' dolci fremiti
che suscita l'amore,
poichè quell'occhio al cuore onnipotente va…42"
It was not long after Fabricius started, that many of the crew members, those who understood Italian and knew the opera, joined in. Many of those who did not know opera, some who did not even know how to speak Italian, being already a bit tipsy, joined in the song anyway. The whole hall was filled with the sound of singing voices, and the chorus of the song caused a tremendous crescendo as more people joined in. The Contessa laughed and clapped her hands, evidently much cheered and away from her black mood. "A perfect choice in song," she cried.
At the end of the song, Fabricius yelled, "Viva l'Italia! Viva l'amore! Who will drink with me, for love and for Italy!"
"For love! For Italy!" yelled back the hall.
Several crew members reached for the instrument which hung on the wall, and delicately lifted them down. As the music began to strum, there was music and laughter and general joy.
"All of my people," the Contessa said, "they are here because they have been wronged by the Corporation. Most of them are refugees from my homeworld. They are not mere thieves, or common pirates, they are all good people, here for vengeance. We always prey on the Corp, or others who steal from those weaker than themselves."
"You have stout, disciplined and well-hearted warriors, Rhea Silvia, and they have a good and courageous leader," said Knight.
Some of those who had finished their meals had started to dance. Hanako looked on the merriment, but had an expression of sadness.
Intuiting the younger girl's feelings, Rhea put her hand on Hanako's shoulder. "Dear Hanako, you managed to get this far against the greatest of odds. Your mother would be happy to know you have got here, and are so close to the safe refuge of the Free Trade Zone."
Hanako smiled at the Contessa, and said, "Thank you."
The merriment continued long into night-shift, and the conversation and song flowed freely, a respite of peace for these exiles and fugitives from Corporate law. But despite the joy around her, Hanako's heart was not in it. Her thoughts were on those loved ones, now gone.
The only person who seemed to share her mood was Fabricius, who had sung so merrily earlier. At one point, he excused himself from the table and left the riotous dining hall. Hanako, following some instinct, also got up from the table and followed him.
Some of the corridors leading towards the dining hall were lined with window portals, through which one could see the outside starscapes. Fabricius stopped by a portal, and looked into it. He was unhappy with the constellations he saw and pressed a button to change it. These portals were not actually true windows, but actually screens that displayed various camera views, to make the intestines of the ship feel less claustrophobic. Fabricius cycled through various cameras. He settled on a particular star scene that appealed to him - although, to tell the truth, each one looked very much like any other.
Fabricius leaned his body on the sill of the portal, his body sagged as he let out a deep sigh. He didn't realise that Hanako had followed him. He suddenly recited a poem, mouthing the words loudly :
"What is this feeling in my heart? It feels like it has been torn apart. Why do I feel so alone?
Is it that my heart has turned to stone? Why do I still shed tears,
And still shake with these fears? Your death has in my heart sown The greatest pain I have ever known."
He turned to look at her, a blank expression on his face. He seemed neither pleased nor displeased at seeing her. He spoke, "Hanako, you have recently experienced loss. Do you also feel as if there is a hole within you?"
"I would like to share my story with you. May I?"
"Of course you may."
And so Fabricius told his story, of events ten years ago.
By then the Old Italians realised the battle had been lost. Those that had the means were preparing to get off the planet, to fight their way through the Corporate blockade and to get out of the solar system. Those who did not have the means, or were otherwise unable or unwilling to retreat : either death, or to become prisoner-slaves coughing in the dusts of the factory worlds.
What men had been left under the command of Captain Fabricius were loaded onto a smuggler ship which was now hurtling into the skies with several others. Fabricius himself, despite the pleas of those under his command, did not go - he was not going to leave without his family, not without his son, little Pallas43.
Fabricius had to find a way to get to Troy, where his home was. The last he heard, the city was under heavy attack from the forces of Commander Rumsfeld. The various Old Italian forces, including the one under the command of the Contessa Rhea Silvia, were struggling to hold on. Fabricius hoped that it was not too late. He found himself a cutter ship, which he could use to fly to Troy, directly to his estate.
While still far away from the city Fabricius saw the glow of the burning. As he drew closer to Troy he could see the bright-flaring bombardment weapons of the Corporation, streaking across the sky and to the city. Troy had defenses against such weapons but Fabricius saw, to his heart's sagging, that the white flares characteristic of defensive fire were very few - the majority had either been abandoned, or destroyed.
The closer he got to Troy the heavier the Corp presence - there no longer seemed to be any real Old Italian presence. He flew lower and lower to the ground, hoping that his cutter would not be detected. By now his heart was full of fear, for Troy was burning and now he could see that the devastation was far greater than he had thought. Fabricius prayed to the Goddess Mary for his family to still be safe.
Suddenly, nearby, a Corporate fighter speeded in. His heart leaping, Fabricius realised there was no time to hide, and since the cutter had no weapons, he was as good as gone.
But the fighter ignored the cutter and streaked past, towards the city. It came so close that the cutter picked up its Corp signature and pilot designation. The pilot had been Commander Rumsfeld, who for some unknown reason was in such a hurry that he did not even stop for a few minutes to take out a lonely cutter. A small hope came to Fabricius, that perhaps the commander was in a rush to get to his forces because the Old Italians had managed some sort of counter-attack.
He had to fly through the outskirts of the city. Artillery, both orbital and land based, was still shelling the city despite the fact that virtually all of Troy was now in flames. Fabricius used the radio to search the frequencies, hoping for some indication that the Old Italians were still battling in this area. But most of the frequencies only pick garbled Corp chatter, so distorted Fabricius could not make out whether the Corporation was still on the offensive. Only once, did Fabricius pick what sounded like the Italians; it was something about the Contessa Rhea Silvia, something about a retreat. Fabricius wondered if the city had been properly evacuated, or if there were still frightened civilians hiding in the bomb shelters under the city - the fierce pounding force of the Corp weapons above them must have been bellowed loudly into those shelters. Perhaps even destroying the bunkers.
The city was under a rain of bombardment. There were explosions all around the cutter, some came dangerously close. Structures would shatter from the shells and fling shrapnel pieces in random directions. But the cutter managed to get through unscathed, and Fabricius gave thanks to the Goddess.
He saw, to his relief, that parts of the outlying districts, were spared the devastation. His own estate was a small farm lying right on the outskirts of Troy. He flew next to a piece of desolate, scorched earth, seared into charcoal by a massive blast. He was going to fly over and past it, until he suddenly realised that the land, so devastated, was his own estate.
Fear. Fabricius soared past the burnt terrain and towards the soul of any farm, the homestead. Fear became truth. His house was fire-scorched to the ground. Fabricius landed the cutter near-by, jumped out of it. His hopes went against the evidence of his eyes. Fire was blazing within his home. Heat was still waving up from the blasted ground, and he could feel the warmth of the ground crawling up his legs.
His first thought was for his son. "Pallas!" he called, "Pallas!" then he said, "Oh Goddess Mary, let them be alive." As he ran towards his house, he could feel the various thermal currents around him, dancing out of the explosion places all around his devastated land, scalding.
His house was radiating heat; the temperature tingled with increasing intensity on the skin of his cheeks. "Pallas! Pallas!" he cried. The door of his home seemed like a gate into fiery hell - Fabricius almost touched it, then realised how hot it had become, warm enough to burn his hands. He looked around for something to break the door down with. There was nothing immediately available, and his fatherly instincts for his family were becoming too desperate. He kicked the door down. A cloud of heat escaped through, and, despite the burn pain in his foot, Fabricius shielded his face and leapt through it.
In the ovenlike anteroom, a peculiar sweet smell drifted about, it took a moment or two for Fabricius, already disoriented in his surroundings, to realise it was the smell of burnt flesh.
Illuminated by the flames, there were two figures. One was lying on the floor, a shape loosely resembling a woman, oozing blood through burnt muscle. Pieces of white cloth were stuck onto her, the parts of clothing that didn't burn had melted into her. She was dead.
Kneeling by her was a little boy. He was only half destroyed by fire. He turned his look away from his dead mother to look at Fabricius. On his half-burnt face was an expression of total calmness.
"Papa?" said the little boy. He stood up and stepped towards Fabricius. The little boy's arms stretched open to embrace his father.
"Pallas," said Fabricius, in a rather numb-like way. He picked up the child. The calmness that the child had suddenly dismissed itself. Cries of pain and suffering. The child wailed, "Papa!"
"I'm here my son." Fabricius made to escape the burning household, holding the child in his arms. The child was sobbing and crying uncontrollably, clinging his tiny hands to the man carrying him. Through his burnt skin blood was oozing through, sticky and warm on Fabricius' arms. It stank.
Fabricius took the child out of the house. He felt exhausted, both by the terrible heat, and by the terrible sights. A small patch of grass beneath a shattered fruit tree had not been destroyed, an island of green in black, and Fabricius let his knees sink onto the ground there. The tree, although hit hard, still had a few green branches and perhaps would survive the attack. The fruits of the tree, however, had all been destroyed, and the branches where now barren of them.
"Papa, it hurts," said the little boy, "please make the hurting stop..."
The father looked around, and realised there was no way to fulfil his son's dying wish. His son needed urgent medical attention. Fabricius looked towards the skyline of Troy he could see the far-off smoulderings of the destroyed hospital buildings.
"Papa." moaned the little boy.
"I'm here, my son."
"Here I am," Fabricius said. There was nothing he could do. He was going to lose his son.
"Papa…" ... "..." Child died.
"Pallas," said Fabricius, "Pallas…" His arms trembled.
Afterwards, he could never recall how long he had been there, kneeling, with his dead child in his arms. It could have been for a few minutes, or even seconds, or perhaps he had been there for hours while Troy turned into ash on the horizon. His sense of time only normalised when he realised that the little boy he was holding in his arms was gone forever, a realisation not as obvious as might be supposed.
"Come back!" cried Fabricius.
"Oauw!" escaped from Fabricius' mouth, a moan of inarticulate pain. "Come back," he tried to say, but the words came distorted out of his mouth. Tears stung out of his eyes. He tried to say what he was feeling, but it came out inarticulate as "Oauw." He gently lay his son's corpse on the grass, then a violence overcame his body, and Fabricius rolled beside his dead son, convulsing, "Oauw! Oauw!"
From the depths of his memories, he suddenly remembered the lines of a poem he had read a long time ago, into which his despair coagulated. "Come back to me, you who mattered to me the most," he whispered, "return, even if only as a shadow, as a dream, or as a ghost..."
Just two lines of the poem kept drumming themselves in Fabricius' head, over and over, until he was desperate-voicing the words over his boy, as if they would bring his son back to life.
" 'Come back to me, you who mattered to me most,
Return, even if only as a shadow, as a dream, or as a ghost.' "
In this moment of pain the rhyme couplet was his only solace. He spoke it over and over until exhaustion of several kinds came back to him. Unable to do or say anything, he sat numb, for a while, until despair washed over him again.
Questions formed : why was he allowed to see this?
"Goddess Mary," Fabricius whispered, his thoughts and his words crashing into each other. "Why did you save my life so many times? I could have died today. You could have spared me this suffering - I would rather have died than lived to experience such pain. My son is dead - if I had fallen today, perhaps I would be with him now, in the afterlife. But you specifically kept me alive, to see the corpses of my wife and child, so that my heart may suffocate and my body may enter living-death. Goddess Mary, you bitch, what have you done to me? Do you enjoy this? This is worse than any death. You Bitch! You Bitch! You have put me in hell! I-Oauw!"
Two Italian soldiers, part of the fleeing remnants of the Trojan battle group, were crossing Fabricius' estate, in the hope that they could evade capture by the Corporation. They heard Fabricius' cries and decided to investigate. One of the soldiers recognised Captain Fabricius.
"How is it that the brave Captain Fabricius, who has slain so many of the enemy, who had so many comrades-in-arms die beside him, lies weeping like some little child?" asked the one soldier.
"Captain Fabricius! What are you doing? Your country needs you to fight, not to despair!" exclaimed the other soldier.
Fabricius looked at the two men; he was unable, and unwilling, to stop the tears that spat his eyes. "Soldiers of Old Italy," he spoke, "I have witnessed the death of many brother warriors today, and I myself was nearly killed many times since this battle started. If only I had been slain by the Corporate pigs! I was alive not long ago - now I am not dead, but I am certainly not living. This ruined land was my land; the corpse in my burnt house was my wife; and this body, here, was my son, Pallas."
"It may be good to mourn your family, but it would be far better to avenge them!" "The battle may be lost but the war is not over! Captain Fabricius, come with us, and you will have your chance for vengeance."
"What good will vengeance do me? My life was dedicated to my son, my life was dedicated to Pallas; his life was my life. With the passing of his life my life goes. Vengeance will not bring my son back to life; vengeance will not bring my body and soul out of its limbo state."
"The Goddess Mary did not keep you alive for nothing…"
"Didn't you hear what I said? I am not alive. The Goddess did not keep me alive. I am not alive anymore."
"So you say now, but we are all part of the divine plan. Draw comfort from Her love, Captain Fabricius. She will carry you through this travail just as She carried you before, because She loves you."
"How can this be part of some plan? If She loves me so much, then why was I not slain? She should have plucked me up and taken me to heaven, but instead She, in Her divine love, has utterly crushed my spirit, and delivered me into a hell-world." "How can you speak like that? You know that millions of people have faith in the Goddess; surely, what so many people believe must be true. And if it is true, then surely it is great wisdom, and you cannot brush wisdom aside just so!"
"Oh, Italian, your speech rings hollow, like an empty room that echoes the speaker's words, reflected and not heard. I once read a poem, which said :
'You think you have wisdom, as into oblivion you stare?
What is wisdom, but a type of falling, from a castle in the air?'
"The Truth is not some cloud-fantasy."
"It is all very well and good to say such a thing. But the religion is not Truth, for in misery Misery is its own truth, and in pain the only truth is Pain."
"Your suffering shall not be unaccounted for."
"In heaven each receives his due, and for every pain you feel on earth there will be joy for you in heaven."
"What kind of consolation is that? I don't want a heavenly reward for my suffering; I would rather never have experienced the suffering in the first place."
"It was not She who inflicted this suffering…"
"It was not you who wanted this suffering…"
"Because each of us has free will, She is powerless to restrain those who wish to harm us."
"Because each of us has free will, She grants us the power to fight those who would wish to harm us."
"That is why the Corp has inflicted suffering on you."
"That is why you must stand up and avenge what the Corp has done to you." " 'Come back from those lands of the forever-lost
Come to me, be a shadow, a dream, ghost.' "
"Our words do not comfort him."
"He is beyond comforting."
"We must go. We have to evacuate before it is too late to leave." "Shall we take him with?"
"But why should we? He is half-mad. And he blasphemed against the Holy Goddess."
"Whether or not he blasphemed is not for us to decide : the Goddess Herself will judge. It is more important for us to see to it that we obey Her teachings. Captain Fabricius is too mind-ill to escape the Corp, we must help him in his time of need. Help me carry him."
"What you said was right. I will help you carry him."
The two soldiers lifted up Captain Fabricius, and then they hurried off, aware of the little time available to them. Fabricius did not resist, and allowed himself to be carried.
After a while, Fabricius cried, "Goddess Mary, why have you forsaken me?" "Goddess Mary, we have not forsaken him."
"He has not been forsaken."
"Goddess Mary, why do you ignore my suffering?"
"Goddess Mary, we do not ignore his suffering."
"His suffering is not being ignored."
"Goddess Mary, why do you not help me?"
"Goddess Mary, we are helping him."
"He is being helped."
"Goddess Mary, I cannot walk, why do you not carry me?"
"Goddess Mary, we carry him."
"He is being carried."
"Goddess Mary, where are you, where are you?"
"Goddess Mary, we are here."
"He is with us."
"Pallas!" Fabricius wailed.
At this point Fabricius gave into his grief and his war-weary limbs - unwilling to stay awake, he fell into unconsciousness. The two soldiers continued to carry him. They all eventually made it off the planet.
Hanako was saddened by Fabricius' story, and felt sympathy for his loss, especially with her own loss so near ago. There was a silence that came about after Fabricius finished - he was unsure what to say, and began to feel a bit weak for having revealed so much to someone he do not know so well.
Hanako didn't say anything, but from her pocket took out the little house that Sparky had given her. She put it into Fabricius' hand, saying, "I suppose if one can't share one's humanity, then one doesn't really have anything to share in the first place. And as long as Czerwon doesn't take away your humanity, then what has he really taken?" She then turned and walked away, back to the dining hall. Fabricius stared after her, holding the gift, not knowing what to make of it.They must not escape my grasp
Meanwhile, aboard the Red Claw, CEO Czerwon was slowly, with a deliberateness, pacing up and down in the viewing room. He was silhouetted by the star-scene behind the view-portals. He listened to Rumsfeld giving a status report on the fleet, but his mind was elsewhere, recalling when he had told Thalia that they were going to Forestglen. It seemed like centuries ago, and the task had seemed so simple then. By now it was obvious that the fugitives were heading for the Free Trade Zone. Czerwon's very life depended on Hanako being caught before crossing the border.
Brasidas, too, had been summoned, and stood uneasily in the one corner of the room. Czerwon gave a hard glance at Brasidas. The conferences between himself and Rumsfeld did not usually have an audience, but the captain's attitude of late was suspect. Although Czerwon could very well do away with Rumsfeld himself if the need arose, Brasidas was also armed, and the captain was not - Czerwon wondered if Rumsfeld would understand the hinting.
"The men are worried, Chief Executive Officer. They think that we are preparing to invade. I am even in doubt as to your intentions here, Chief Executive Officer."
"I am not about to sacrifice half my fleet in order to subjugate these rebels, captain. The Corporate empire is hard enough to hold as it is. These rebels, these 'Free Traders' as they call themselves, their turn will come in time. But not for the nearest future, no. So do not, captain, trouble your little head on such a matter," Czerwon turned and paced in the opposite direction, "But the keep the main prize in your sight. My geneling, she will not escape me again. You are dismissed, Captain Rumsfeld."
"Chief Executive Officer!" Rumsfeld gave the right-hand-out salute, then retreated out.
"If they slip through his hands again," Czerwon commented to no one in particular, "I will personally cut those hands off."
Czerwon turned to look at Brasidas with a steely-eyed stare. "Thank you, lieutenant." "Will that be all, Chief Executive Officer?"
"Not quite. I want you to prepare security arrangements to protect the Lady Thalia, in case of… something. In a dangerous eventuality, I want her safe."
"I will do that, Chief Executive Officer." Brasidas didn't mention that in his opinion, Thalia would be the only person aboard the whole of the Red Claw who was actually worth saving in a 'dangerous eventuality', besides his own men. He was surprised, thought, that the CEO would feel concern for someone other than himself.
"Chief Executive Officer." Brasidas gave the salute, turned, and marched resolutely out.
The lieutenant went to the barrack quarters, a thin corridor fitted with bunks, similar to submarine quarters. This was where the lieutenant and his men were billeted aboard the Claw. Brasidas had the choice of better quarters, but he chose rather to stay among his men.
Brasidas greeted his subordinates, entered a small and cramped side room, sat down on his customary chair. One of his men brought him a notepad and a pencil. Brasidas began to sketch diagrams and flow charts, the rough beginnings of the procedures that his men would follow if the need arose to protect Lady Thalia. When he had filled the space of the paper, he tore it off the pad, crumpled and dropped it on the floor.
Time later, the floor became strewn with the crumpled papers and littered thoughts. Brasidas was no fool - he knew that the threat was coming from the ship's captain, Rumsfeld. But the lieutenant could not understand why Czerwon did not simply do away with Rumsfeld - he had seen enough of the CEO's bloodthirst to know that there was certainly no moral force holding the CEO back.
But the more he pondered it, the more Brasidas was sure that the reason why Czerwon did not kill Rumsfeld outright, despite the threat from him, was because Captain Rumsfeld was the closest thing to a friend that the CEO ever had.
The next day, the Contessa summoned Knight for a discussion on the route he would have to take to the Free Trade Zone. Shaking off his heavy sleep, Knight joined Rhea and Fabricius in a room adjoining the battleship command center.
They stood around a large table in the middle of the room. In the table top was embedded a computer screen, and Rhea cycled through various starcharts by tapping keys on a keyboard that lay on the one side.
"The Corporate presence here has built up enormously, and there is news that further ships are streaming in. Until you came along, we had no idea why this was happening. In fact, I suspect that the huge shift in Corporate ship presence towards the Free Trade Zone may destabilise the political situation in areas where there will now be minimal Corp presence, if any. This is a substantial risk for the Corp to take; if you had any doubts how desperate Czerwon is to capture you, that fact alone should settle it." Rhea pressed a key, and the display revealed a three dimensional schematic of the frontier, thick lines representing the x, y and z axes, with coloured triangles here and there. "The blue triangles are Free Trade Zone ships. The red triangles, Corp ships. Notice how they seem to be forming a sheet of ships near the border. You'll recognise it; the formation was last used during the siege of Old Italy."
Knight agreed, noticing how few those blue triangles were in comparison to the red ones.
"As you can see, the Corp is dwarfing the Free Zone formations. It seems that those within the Zone are panicking – they are sure the Corp is preparing an all-out invasion. Normally, the Free Trader ships will gladly pick up and aid refugees, but they're so jittery at the moment I wouldn't be surprise if they're firing at anything that moves, so be wary around them, Smuggler.
"The 'sheet' that is building up is concentrating at the most used spacestreams into the Zone, but other areas are building up as fast as Corp ships can stream in. You'll have to try and slip past them by avoiding the main streams.
"Of course, this will be slower, and every smuggler knows, that the slower you go, the greater the time they have to detect you. But, in this case, the faster ways are impenetrable."
Here the Contessa paused to press a button, which changed the screen format. The triangles disappeared and were replaced by a matrix of white dots, splattered in irregular concentrations over the frontier, representing space-time densities. The higher the concentration of the dots in an area, the faster a ship would go through that area – where the dots were so many they would coalesce into a line, the so-called spacestream. "Here is the most recent space contour formation we have available for you to plan your route. Fabricius has already downloaded this information into your own ship's systems.
"The Venezia di Notte is a big ship and even this close to the border we are in danger of being spotted. We'll try to get as close as possible to the border before you leave, but only a smuggler ship is small enough to slip through the Corporate net to get past the border."
They continued talking for a while, Knight asking questions that were like probes, feeling the frontier border-areas for trouble. Rhea and Fabricius answered as well as they could. Once Knight was satisfied, the mini-council dissolved and Knight planned the route that he and Hanako were to take, while Fabricius oversaw the final repairs on the Poet's Whim.
The ship was finally repaired at about one in the morning, or at least what passed for morning aboard a spaceship. Knight decided to leave immediately. The Contessa ordered the Venezia di Notte to get as close to the border as possible without being detected by the Corp, but even so Knight knew it would take a few more days to reach the Free Trade Zone.
There was no ceremonious exit, for two reasons. The Venezia di Notte was on high alert due to the large Corp presence. The other reason, was that smugglers preferred to leave quietly anyway. Only the Contessa Rhea Silvia was present, as well as Fabricius, while the rest of the crew were scurrying about in their duties, ready in case of an emergency. Rhea stepped forward, and put her hand on Smuggler Knight's shoulder.
"Well, dear smuggler, once more I have to say goodbye, and it is no less easier than it was last time," she said.
"I'm sure that Fate will run our roads across each other again," Knight replied. He turned to Fabricius. "And I thank you, good companion, for having repaired my ship so well."
Fabricius gave a slight bow. "May your journey be safe, Smuggler Knight." He gave a slight bow to Hanako too, and said, "Farewell, Lady Hanako. Your presence upon this ship was like the breath of Spring's air."
"Thank you," Hanako said.
"Every second that passes counts against you, smuggler," Rhea remarked. "You must leave now, buon amico44, for your own sake."
Knight stepped forward to embrace the Contessa, and as he did so, he said, "Arrivederci45, Rhea."
"Arrivederci, Knight." Rhea turned to Hanako. "Farewell, Lady Hanako, may your journey be safe."
"Farewell, Contessa, may Fortune smile on you," Hanako replied.
The Contessa turned around and walked to the airlock, with a smart military stride, not looking back once as she left.
"Once more, Lady Hanako, farewell," Fabricius said, then he faced Knight, and said, "I shall leave you, Smuggler Knight, with a line from an ancient poet, which has suddenly come to mind : 'Go, mount the western winds, and cleave the sky!'46 " Fabricius clicked his heels and place his fist on his chest. Knight saluted back. Fabricius then marched after the Contessa, but unlike her, he turned around to acknowledge Hanako as the girl cried out one last goodbye.
Knight helped Hanako up into the ship, and just before he closed the Whim's hatch, he heard the great airlock doors of the battleship sealing also.
The Whim gave the Di Notte confirmation. The bay depressurised, the exitway opened, and so, they departed from the Contessa's ship, quickly leaving it behind as they raced at all speed for the Free Trade Zone.
The journey continued for several more days, and as they neared the end of the frontier Knight became more edgy. The Corporate presence was the highest he had experienced since the blockade of Old Italy, but then the smugglers had the advantage of flying under the cover of continual military engagements. This time, Knight would have to get through the Corporate net before he could even think of calling for military help from the Free Trade Zone.
They were nearing the border. A message packet, bouncing off some pirate ship or other, reached the Poet's Whim. It gave the alarm-information that a Corporate ship, steaming at full speed, was going to cross Whim's path. The Corporate ship would be close enough to detect the Poet's Whim even if Knight turned his ship back and bolted full-thrust up the spacestream he was travelling in. The only thing to do was hide.
The Poet's Whim gently dipped out of its spacestream, and turned its head towards a nearby asteroid belt, where the giant rocks glistened in the distant light of its sun.
Some of the rocks were so massive that a single one could smash the Whim, so Knight eased his ship into a more stable area of the belt, where the rocks were large but slow moving and easier to dodge. He parked the Whim inbetween two large asteroids, so that sensor signals would bounce off them and prevent his ship being detected. The twinkles shining off his ship's hull mingled with that of the mineral glints of the asteroids, and in the belt, it would have been hard to visually spot the Whim.
Knight turned the ship's gravity to its minimum, so that the Whim's artificial gravity field would not draw the rocks outside towards it. He felt his body floating upwards as the generators whined down, and he turned the shipboard power to a minimum too, to keep the ship radio-silent. Carefully the smuggler scanned the nearby rocks, aware of how close the ship was to their menace.
Curious as to whether he could pick up any communications frequencies, he tuned his receiver. Although inside the belt was a lot of static, Knight managed to pick up something.
"…rt devilship designation delta47-adam-smith repeat delta-adam-smith spotted and position confirmed…"
"…angelship Worker's Star, repeat Worker's Star in final position; report devilship designation delta-adam-smith, repeat delta-adam-smith, devilship position confirmed…"
Hanako had floated through the ship towards the pilot's room, and positioned herself near Knight.
"Angelship? Devilship? What are you listening to?" she asked.
"I think it's communications between Free Trade Zone ships. I suppose 'angelship' would indicate one of their ships and 'devilship' is used to refer to a Corp ship. It's good that we can catch their signals because in this way we can be informed about the Corp ship positions without exposing ourselves by using my radar. That way we'll know when we can leave this asteroid belt we're currently hiding in…"
"Listening post delta-one48, repeat delta-one, report devilship, no designation, repeat no designation, entering delta."
"Angelship Worker's Star, repeat Worker's Star, where the hell are these bastards coming from?"
"Listening post delta-one, repeat delta-one, they're all over the place. Alpha and beta sectors have run out of designations for the devils. Several refugee ships have been gunned down."
"Bastards. Is it an invasion?"
"We don't know. We haven't had any confirmation from Central, although things seem to be pretty frantic over there. Can't tell you much else on an insecure channel. Actually, can't tell you much more even over a secure channel."
"Right on that, delta-one. We've picked up devilship, no designation, repeat no designation, cannot pinpoint, repeat, cannot pinpoint. They're jamming our scanners."
"Listening post delta-one, repeat delta-one, central has just come back to us with a designation for devilship, no designation, repeat no designation, new designation is devilship delta-keynes, repeat delta-keynes. We are attempting to counter their jamming frequencies."
"Angelship Worker's Star, repeat Worker's Star, we confirm the new designation of devilship delta-keynes, repeat delta-keynes."
The rest of the radio chatter was practically unintelligible, a long string of numbers and coded messages. Interrupting its steady stream, Hanako asked, "Are they really going to be invaded? Why are we going there?"
Hanako put her arms around Knight, and lay her head on his chest. Her hair wafted upwards in the zero-gravity and their scent drifted up to caress Knight's face. With his one hand he grabbed a handhold nearby one of the Whim's consoles, while he put his other arm around Hanako.
"Perhaps Czerwon will chase us into the Zone," whispered Knight. "But then we'll keep running, and we'll keep going. And we will go on until Czerwon gives up. But wherever we have to go to, wherever we will end up, I'll be there by you. Czerwon can come with his entire fleet, all one thousand ships, I will stand between you and them, and protect you to my last."
Hanako looked up, and kissed Knight on his cheek.
"Thank you, Knight." She stayed in Knight's arms, feeling comforted. They floated in the dim light to the sound of the coded chatter picked up by the Whim, Knight feeling his cheek rub against Hanako's hair.
After some time passed, the Corp ship that had been close to spotting the Poet's Whim, which Knight surmised was the one called 'delta-keynes', had moved in towards the border and now the way was open. Reluctantly, Knight said, "It's time to move. I'm going to put the gravity back on."
Their feet drifted back slowly to the floor as the gravity whined back on. The Whim maneuvered itself out of its position, then skimmed over the belt for a little while in case it had to dive back in again. Sensing that all was clear, the Whim raised its nose and flew away from the glittering belt.
As secret as he thought he was, though, at that moment a Corp ship detected the Whim as faint reflection on the radar system. It was too far away to make a proper identification, and too slow to catch up with the fast little spaceship, nevertheless the information was quickly transmitted to the rest of the fleet, forewarning them.
Soon afterwards, the Poet's Whim was less that an hour away from the border. Knight felt relieved. "I think we've made it, Hanako. We're almost there."
"I don't know," said Hanako. "Something doesn't feel right."
"Maybe," Knight said. Despite his attempt to sound confident, he knew that this could still prove to be the most dangerous part of the journey. "It's best that you go back to your bunk, you can strap yourself in safely, if anything happens."
With a slight look of apprehension at Knight, Hanako accepted his advice and left the pilot room. Knight was alone now and he could focus. But it was not much later when a communication came in. Knight recognised it as Free Trader.
"To unidentified trader, this is the Free Trade Zone advising you to leave immediately."
Knight couldn't dare risk replying, for fear of giving away his position to the Corp.
"Unidentified trader, a Corporation ship is bearing down at you. Your position is extremely dangerous."
'Is this some trick?' Knight thought.
Another communication suddenly forced its way in. "Tradership Poet's Whim, this is the Corporate ship Undying Hunger, you are to stop immediately and wait for us to arrive at your position. We have you on our radar."
Knight grabbed his communications microphone. "This the smugglership Poet's Whim to the Free Trade Zone, can you hear me?"
"This is the Free Trade Zone, we hear you, smuggler. You are advised to retreat."
"We are refugees, we have nowhere else to go. We can't retreat. Is that delta-one?"
"This is delta-one, Poet's Whim."
"We request military assistance, delta-one."
"We can't do that, Poet's Whim, I'm sorry to say this but you're on your own."
"Isn't there anything you can do?" Knight asked, an extreme desperation creeping into his voice. His passive radar had just picked up the Corp ship actively scanning the Whim.
"We can give you the cords of the Corp ships."
"Give them, give them…" Knight heard his voice tremble, saw his hand shake. His hands had only ever shook like that once, at Troy. There too he had been so close and yet in such danger of losing everything, when it was up to him to rescue the Contessa.
The systems bleeped. They had just received an information packet with all the coordinates, cords, of the Corporate ships in the area.
"Poet's Whim, confirm that you received."
"Poet's Whim confirms that she received. Thank you."
"Our hands are tied, Poet's Whim, we can't offer more help. We are all rooting for you. Good luck in reaching the border."
"Thank you, delta-one."
Knight mentally forced his hand to steady. He scanned the Corp positions now displayed on one of his screens, and mentally calculated a route through them, a process that would normally take twelve49 minutes of careful calculating, but time was lacking for carefulness - Knight had to put his trust into his intuition. His hands became automatic as they activated the various combat and defense mechanisms of the Whim, as they had done countless times before in his smuggler's life.
The Corp ship came in, "Ship Poet's Whim, you are to stop immediately and wait for Undying Hunger to come for you. If you do not, we will open fire without warning. We know you have defensive systems aboard."
The last statement forced Knight to scrap part of his plan and to quickly come up with a new defensive thought-pattern. He would not be able to dupe the Corp fighters like he did last time.
He was out of the range of the enemy, but not for long. Two enemy darts entered attack range, and the various systems aboard lighted up as they neared, their screens giving out ugly red and green warnings. The Corporation blasted out one last warning through communications, which Knight rebroadcast right back, in a bid to confuse them.
Knight turned on the last array of defensive systems and then flicked on his active radar. On the sensors a host of darts suddenly came up, pouring out of the Undying Hunger. Thankfully, that was the only battleship around but it would be a race against the other Corporate battleships in the area, to find out who could reach the border first. There were two other battleships in the immediate surrounding space, according to the information given by delta-one. Then there was one 'angelship', the 'Worker's Star' (if that was its real name); the terrifying thought flashed across Knight's mind, that even if he reached the border the Corp ships would plunge in after him and overwhelm the allalone Worker's Star.
The darts behind him launched a single missile. Knight easily dodged it, leaving behind a tail of chaff and flare – Knight couldn't understand why they were not being more aggressive. The missile exploded harmlessly, far away. Then the systems aboard the Whim blanked out for a moment, before forcing themselves back online. The Corp was using ionised warheads, missiles loaded with little plus and minus charges, meant to take out the electrical systems aboard the Whim. The Corp was aiming to disable the Whim, not destroy it.
Two more dart patrols were entering within the Whim's range, this time from the front and side, an encircling formation. The Whim was going to have maneuver itself out then use its superior speed to outrun the darts.
"Delta-one to Poet's Whim, a new Corp ship has entered this sector. It is bearing down on you at extraordinary speed, we are transmitting cords…"
The Corp battleship knew what Knight was attempting to do and was trying to reach the border before he did.
The Whim's engines screamed as Knight pushed his ship into a curve meant to get them out of the dart ring. The darts fired a volley of missiles to try and stop the smuggler. Again, the missiles detonated away from the ship, but the ion radiation disrupted the electrical systems.
The systems in the cockpit suddenly went dark. Crying out in frustration, Knight began banging his fist at the cold lifeless plates, his heart trembling for a moment in the fear that now, finally, all was lost. The ship drifted dead in space, waiting to be captured by the Undying Hunger.
The generator then rumbled itself back to life, and electricity and hope both surged back into the ship's systems. Knight forced the clenched fingers of his fist to open up and take back the controls. His mind was racing faster than his body responded, and for a moment through Knight's eyes events grinded down into slow-motion.
Knight regained control of the Whim and steered it away from the darts. The darts following coalesced behind the smuggler ship like a swarm. More dart swarms were converging from several directions.
The delta-one piped in. "Free Trade Zone to the Poet's Whim, hang in there, you're near the border. We are on military standby. Just get across the border!"
The Whim threw out the last of its flares as it managed to successfully dodge several missiles at once. The next volley of missiles would be much harder to dodge, Knight knew. To his dismay Knight saw that many of his missile detection systems were not functioning, still under the disrupting influence of the ionisation.
Somewhere in the back of Knight's mind he heard the argument that was being transmitted over the communications systems. The Worker's Star wanted to send fighters across the border to intervene, while delta-one was re-iterating orders not to do so. It seemed that the Worker's Star was about to disobey those orders. There was also some commotion as to the identity of the second battleship that was coming up to meet the Undying Hunger.
Some darts crossed the border. They did not have the Corp radar signature; they were Free Traders. Their aim was to try and intimidate the Corp darts, while avoiding a direct confrontation.
The other battleship was coming into the scanner range. It was huge and coming in fast. The Undying Hunger was also closing in.
The Free Traders loosed some missiles on the Corp, in an attempt to scatter them and so to prevent them locking their weapons on the Whim. This bought the Whim just a little bit more time; the Free Trader darts and their mothership were in visible range. Hope starburst through Knight's heart. The Poet's Whim was almost at the border.
Suddenly a missile, out of nowhere, slammed into the side of the Whim. It was not a true warhead, but an ionizing one like all the others, but the impact shudder-hammered the smuggler ship. Knight was thrown against the side and was knocked unconscious. The Poet's Whim was disabled.
Just before the missile had struck, a message from the Free Traders had come through : "My God! It's the Red Claw!"
The 'fight or flight' reflex is governed by the sympathetic nervous system of the body. It is activated when the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) receives some sort of stress input, such as : anxiety, fear, anger, pain, a sharp decrease in environmental temperature, and physical exercise. This triggers signals in the hypothalamus of the brain which causes the conduction of a stimulus down the spinal cord. Out of the spinal cord come the preganglionic nerve fibres, specifically at the vertebrae levels of T1 to L2, as well as S2 to S4. These fibres synapse at ganglia, which then give off postganglionic fibres to innervate the rest of the body, the exception being the adrenal medulla gland, which receives only preganglionic fibres. The postganglionic fibres directly stimulate the organs they innervate, while the preganglionic fibres of the adrenal medulla gland stimulate that gland to release two hormones, adrenaline and noradrenaline, which augment the functioning of the sympathetic nervous system. The overall effect of the sympathetic nervous system is to prepare the body to react to danger : the pupils dilate to improve vision, the bronchioles dilate to improve oxygen supply, non-essential processes like digestion are slowed down, unnecessary loads like urine and faeces are expelled, blood supply increases to essential organs, and the heart beats faster and stronger. This response, a reaction to outer stimuli, is remarkable for its universalness among humans, mammals and other animals.In the clutch of the Red Claw
The Poet's Whim had been disabled but as a result it was careening through space. The Red Claw had to do a bit of maneuvering in order to catch the Whim in one of the Claw's holding bays, just as the pirates do. The Claw, despite its size, was able to do this because of the high speed and maneuverability that it gained from the size of its gargantuan engines.
Hanako, kicking and screaming, was placed in a holding cell designed specifically for Czerwon's genelings. As for Knight, Rumsfeld had tried to persuade Czerwon to let him finish off the smuggler himself, as a personal payback from the frustration he had chasing him around Old Italy and across space to the edge of the frontier, but Czerwon decided otherwise. It was a deliberate slight, perhaps to put the captain in his place, perhaps to provoke him into doing something rash.
There was an old bounty on Knight's head, and Czerwon decided that it would be collected. "This Shareholder Tang's reward will recompense us for the trouble the smuggler scum has caused," the CEO remarked. "And I would imagine that the shareholder will do away the smuggler with more creativeness than we would."
Czerwon also decided that for the time being the Red Claw would remain in the frontier, to cover the break up of the Corporate battleship formations. With the geneling captured, the Corp no longer had any purpose in maintain a siege formation against the Free Trade Zone, at least for now. The Corporate ships were leaving and the Red Claw was needed to intimidate the Free Traders away from doing any surprise attack. But the CEO found the presence of the smuggler so distasteful that he decided to have him sent off immediately by prison ship to Shareholder Tang Yu-lin.
Knight was roughly transferred to the Red Claw's prison transport. He was not the only one aboard; before the pursuit of Hanako had begun, there were quite a few flotsam that the Claw had picked up, and had been rotting all this time in the battleship's dungeon. It had been decided to get them all off the Claw in one go.
The prisoners were put into separate cells; for Knight there was special treatment, as he was chained by his wrists high up onto the wall, so that he had to hang suspended by his arms. The cell he occupied had been occupied by some poor soul who had been forgotten by his keepers; the corpse had only recently been taken out and the cell had not been cleaned. The smell of rot and excrement nearly pushed Knight back to the unconsciousness he had experienced when the Whim was finally disabled; he forced himself to remain awake.
His being, his inner-self, was like a foaming, raging dog; the imprint of his angered soul burned into his body. His thoughts, although slurred and slow-moving, glistened behind his eyes, searching for some way to escape, to find Hanako and ensure her safety. He didn't care what happened to himself, as long as Hanako was safe.
But after several minutes of straining his weakened, hungry muscles against his bonds, he was at a loss of how to set himself free.
He heard footsteps. The door of his cell opened.
Captain Rumsfeld. At first Knight didn't recognise him, but as the man moved closer the captive's groggy mind clicked in memory. Loathing, hatred, then fear, chilled the smuggler's heart. He had no idea of what Rumsfeld want to do, but the smuggler was well aware of what the captain was capable of.
Captain Rumsfeld leaned closer to the helpless Knight. His breath blew over Knight's face in an uncomfortable way. The Corp man's eyes seemed to venom with spite. "Well, Smuggler Knight, I finally get the chance to meet you in person, up close," Rumsfeld whispered, breathing into Knight's ear. "I remember, when I first saw you in your little ship streaking across my barriers. You were one of the best of the blockade runners anyone had ever seen, and I swore I'd hunt you down. I chased you through the blockade and through the asteroids, from the rim of the Old Italy system right down to plains of Troy and the ruined court of the Italian king. You were always just within my grasp, and you kept slipping from under my fingers.
"Then, to my great surprise, I had to chase you again, all across space and through the frontier and right to the edge of the blasted Free Trade Zone. Only a smuggler of your skill and confidence could ever have gotten so far with Czerwon's precious little geneling. I'm not surprised that you were hired for the job.
"So, here you are, in my grasp at last. Soon, you will be taken to a man who wishes to do far worse things to you than I ever would. Still, I could not let you leave without a parting gift from me, a token of the high affection I have for you…"
Rumsfeld ended his monologue by forcing his fist into Knight's abdomen. Knight was sure, from previous experience, from the pain now coursing through him, that the Corp man was using knuckle-irons, though he had not seen the Captain wearing them. Several blows followed in quick succession, with a final swipe at the face that set blood dribbling down the side of Knight's mouth.
Knight groaned, his head hanging and body dizzy with pulse-pounding pain. Knight heard Rumsfeld say something, but the words would not make audible sense in Knight's ear. He managed to raise his head to see Rumsfeld go and the cage doors shut closed.
The walls began to speak with a gentle rumble. Knight pulled at his chains with a renewed, desperate vigour. The rumble became louder. As the prison ship's engines and gravity generators started, Knight could feel the center of gravity of his body shift slightly. His last frantic thrashes did not set him free. Knight let out a shout of frustration, then screamed, ignoring the pain from his dry, parched throat. By now the rumblings could be felt and heard through the walls and floor, and the balance of his body told Knight that the ship was leaving the Claw.
Knight stopped screaming, his anger giving way to despair. A tear came from his eye, a hoarse whisper from his mouth : "Hanako…"
As for Hanako, she found herself in conditions that were luxurious compared to the ones Knight had found himself in. She was locked in a spacious room. There was a soft bed, with white sheets. There was a white carpet. There was a little white en suite. Everything was white, sterile. There was a mirror and a vase, both were made of an unbreakable material. They would not break, no matter how hard Hanako thrashed at them. The walls where padded, so was the impregnable door. There was no way out, either by escape or by suicide.
Hanako grabbed her face, a look of desperation on it. She felt like something wanted to explode inside her. Her legs felt weak and bent a little, as she started shrieking, her entire body shuddering. She kept screaming, her angry nails digging into her body.
She expected that there would have been some sort of reaction, some response from those that locked her in the room, but there wasn't. She started beating the walls with her fists.
Those who were observing through the hidden cameras in the room wanted to intervene, they were stopped by Doctor Fallsoul, who did not yet see a reason to intervene despite the girl's desperate behaviour. To him, it felt that since he would have to violate this girl's body, he should at least not violate the girl's emotional expression. He turned away from the view monitors which showed Hanako from three different angles, said some reassuring words to the worried staff manning them, and went back to supervising the preparations for the transplant, to be done by teleportation device.
Hanako was crying so hard she could not see through her tearful eyes. "Knight!" she wailed.
Knight's body hung limply from his chains, his body heavy from the weight of his soul. He could feel the soft rumblings of the prison ship engines humming through his bones, like a gentle but ironic caress.
Knight's attention was caught when there was a slight change in the rhythm, and the centre of his body weight shifted too, indicating the ship was turning. Through the grating of his cell door he heard panicky voices echoing through the prison corridors.
The centre of gravity had shifted several times, as if the ship was taking evasive action. Then a clang resounded and a thudder-shudder spread along the prison walls. Soon afterward the sound of gunfire rattered from outside.
The sounds and cries of battle. More guns. Shouts. Time. The sounds gradually fade away as one of the sides gains victory.
The door to Knight's cell opened, and into the cell stepped the Contessa Rhea Silvia.
"When the Corporate barricade around the Zone began to break up, we thought it was because you had managed to cross the border with the girl, but we monitored the Corporate and Free Trade Zone communications and we realised otherwise : that the Poet's Whim had been captured.
"We weren't sure if you were aboard that prison ship, but I decided that if even the slightest chance to save you was there, we'd attempt. All my crew hate the Corporation and Czerwon, accidenti a lui50, and they were willing. The prison guards had no idea what happened; we did not have any fatal casualties. In any event, we have some new recruits from that moving dungeon."
The Contessa stopped speaking for a moment, then asked, in a tender way, "How are you feeling, mio caro51?"
Once more, Smuggler Knight was sitting in the captain's cabin of the Venezia di Notte. Rhea Silvia had been pacing the room up and down, explaining to Knight his rescue. He was absorbed in thought, and did not notice the Contessa's question.
"Smuggler Knight?" the Contessa prompted.
"I have to go back," matter of factly.
"You did not say that."
"I have to go back."
The Contessa turned her back to the smuggler, her hands were behind her back and she was tensing them open and closed, trying not to let her frustration overflow into anger.
"And how do you intend to do this?" she asked, "Your ship is in the hands of the enemy."
"I was hoping I could use one of your darts."
"You were hoping wrong." She made an angry turn to once more face Knight. "I will not waste an expensive and indispensable ship, essential to what we do, so that you can go off on a suicide mission against the Corporation."
"She's dead," Rhea said.
She shifted her jaw from side to side, then continued, "She's dead by now, and you know that. Czerwon's raped whatever he wanted from her. There's no point in trying to go back. Go to your quarters and get some rest, Smuggler."
"That's an order, Smuggler! Either you go to your quarters or I'll throw you in the brig!"
Knight knew he couldn't argue with the Contessa. He knew her well enough to know that she could very well carry out her threat in her current state of mind. He rose from his seat.
"Thank you, Contessa. You risked your life and those of your men to save my life."
Rhea didn't say anything, and Knight walked out of the cabin.
Alone, she let out a deep, controlled breath, and sank into a chair. She muttered something to herself.
But Knight did not do as he was ordered, as indeed he had not done during that day during the fall of Old Italy. For although he had been ordered to help some Italian politicians escape, he instead entered Old Italy's atmosphere and flew towards Troy. For then one thing had mattered more to him, and that was the safety of the Contessa Rhea Silvia. Now that same mad, irrational impulse took hold of him
He snuck through the Venezia di Notte and found his way to carrier bay, where the ship's darts were kept.
The bay seemed abandoned. Nevertheless, the smuggler kept in the shadows that were formed by the lights, dimly shining above the darts.
Knight put his hand on the hull of a dart. It felt cold under his palm. He was looking for the cockpit hatch when the sound of a flicking switch echoed through the bay. Power surged through the bay lights and the dimness suddenly blared into light.
Knight put his hand to his eyes. He was momentarily blinded by the glare and could only see the silhouette of whoever had turned on the lights.
"Put your hands up, smuggler," said a male voice.
Knight didn't see any other choice, and raised his hands. "Who are you?" he asked.
The man stepped nearer, out of the glare. He was holding a gun, pointed at Knight. Knight's eyes adjusted and he could see who it was. If ever he heard that voice again, he would know it would be Fabricius. In his other hand he was holding something.
"Well, smuggler, are you unhappy with your quarters? Where they so poor that you have decided to go elsewhere to sleep?" Fabricius asked, cynically.
"Eh, smuggler, has your tongue been cut out? Speak, explain yourself."
What could Knight say, except for the truth? "I have to save her."
"Who?" Fabricius already knew the answer to the question but to his mind it was unbelievable.
"And where is she?"
"In the Red Claw."
"So you wish to take one dart and with that dart take on the most powerful battleship in the known universe?"
"Fool. 'Go to now, cease from strife, and let not your hand draw the sword.52' Go back to your quarters and I will forget this happened."
"Because I must."
"You know," said Fabricius, "My son was killed by the Corp." He remembered how he himself had risked his life, flying through burning Troy to try and save his family. Even if someone had told him beforehand that they were dead, he knew that he would have probably have gone anyway. Sometimes, it is as if some power was awakened within one, and you had to obey it and do as it said. Wisdom, technique, reason had nothing to do with it; although the impulse could lead to an irrational death, yet ignoring it would be like plunging into sleep and into a dream. It was the impulse to protect something deep within every person's heart; something precious, raw, and powerful.
This was the impulse that Fabricius had once felt, which had pulled him through battlefields, had made him curse his Goddess and then embrace her again. Fabricius could now see it in Smuggler Knight, and for the first time he understood. Sometimes, when the human being no longer had the power to act, all that was left was to react.
Fabricius turned the gun away and holstered it. " 'Go and take all my troubles with you.'53 That one was from Euripides, I think. You might need this…" Fabricius unclipped his gun belt and tossed it over to Knight, then began to walk away.
"You're letting me go?" Knight asked, catching the gun and holding it to his bosom.
" 'The brave prevent misfortune; then be brave, and bury future danger in it's grave.54' " Homer. I'd also appreciate it if you wait for me to leave and for the airlocks to seal."
As Fabricius stepped through the airlock, he said, with a sad smile, "Because you must." As the airlock sealed, Fabricius clicked his heels and placed his fist on his chest in salute. And in that fist was the little gift that Hanako had given him.
The lights were bright and Knight easily found the hatch into the dart. He climbed in and activated its systems. As he did so the exit hatch for the bay began to open by itself; perhaps Fabricius was opening it for Knight. A few minutes later, Knight was streaking away from the Venezia di Notte, on course for the Red Claw.
It was not so long afterwards that the Contessa had Fabricius arrested and brought before her. "You not only allowed him past yourself into the carrier bay, but you aided him in his escape!" Rhea accused. She was outraged.
"Escape? Was he being held captive?" Fabricius replied, his eyebrow raised.
"Shut up, Fabricius. I used to trust with my life. Now I don't know. Why did you let him go, Fabricius?"
" 'In case he somehow tricks death and fate and wins his way back.' "
"I could forgive you for the material loss of the dart, but you sent the only man I have ever loved on a suicide mission."
"I didn't send him, mia Contessa, I merely helped him."
"So you say. You allowed him to leave. If he returns, you will live. If he dies on the Red Claw, so will you."
Fabricius shrugged. "You are speaking from your heart, not your head. Even so, it doesn't matter if the smuggler does not return – I died a long time ago, when Czerwon killed my family and destroyed everything that I held dear."
"I am already thinking of him as dead," Rhea said. She suppressed the tear that wanted to well up in her eye.
Rhea and Fabricius stared at each other for a few moments.
"Don't you have anything to say, Fabricius?"
" 'Since then in vain I tell my numerous woes, in silence let them dwell.' Homer.55 "
"Ah, and what other pearls of quote have you, my jester?"
" 'I am no prophet, and know very little about omens, but I speak as it is borne in upon me from heaven, and assure you that he will not be away much longer; for he is a man of such resource that even though he were in chains of iron he would find some means of getting home again.56' "
"Ave Maria." She turned to the pirates who had brought Fabricius to herself. "Put him in a cell, under surveillance."
As the red-uniformed pirates took Fabricius away, he turned and cried, "I want him to succeed. I know you do too."
"Shut up, you bastard," Rhea whispered. Turning away so that no one could see her, she finally let the tear fall down her cheek.
Fortune was smiling for Knight. The last time a dart had, all alone, attacked the Red Claw was a long time ago during the siege of Old Italy. It was a long time since any ship had dared attack the Red Claw. The radar operators were complacent and inattentive. They did not notice the little pirate dart that was coming in, like a speck of dust attacking a whale.
The over-dwarfing Red Claw loomed in front of the dart. Knight flew in close, looking for some way inside. He didn't allow himself to feel the fear that was coming up from the back of his heart : how was he in his tiny dart going to confront the most massive ship in the galaxy?
Guided more by instinct than by rational thought, the dart pointed its nose towards a hatch in the Red Claw's side, and fired a missile. The hatch blew out, and the dart flew at full burn into the froth of air that leapt out of the hole. The dart managed to force its way in as the inner airlock hatch automatically sealed to contain the breach.
The dart was in a tiny parking bay, with three Corporate darts parked in it. Knight fired the remaining missile aboard his pirate ship, and it screamed into one of the Corp darts. There was a very pretty explosion. Knight needed the distraction, so that he could slip out of his ship and scuttle away into the corridors of the Red Claw.
What few stunned Corp men that were around were busy trying to put out the flames. Knight exited his ship with a jump, and ran for a corridor.
Alert sirens were blaring and the traditional colour of alarm, red, was pulsating from the lights. Knight heard the sound of boots and ducked into a side corridor. Three Corp men were having a hurried conversation not far off, and the words echoed down into Knight's hiding place :
"What was that?"
"Sir, someone has breached the hull with a dart-ship and caused an explosion in the docking bay."
"We give thanks to the infallible radar men up in the boardroom. How is the situation?"
"The maintenance team is attempting to control the fire, but we haven't captured the perpetrator."
"Set up a search-and-capture. I'd do it myself but Czerwon has ordered me up to take part in some ceremony or other, that dog, involving an organ transplant, of all things. Go to it, and try to keep Rumsfeld's men out of this. For all we know they are the ones responsible."
Sound of running feet. The two men that Brasidas had been talking to rushed past the entrance of the hiding-place, Knight crouching in the shadows. Their steps went farther and Knight took out the gun Fabricius had given him. He went out back into the main tunnel. At the one end, the two Corp men were already in the docking bay, where the loud roar of the fire was blanking out the hearing. At the other end, a man was hurrying up the tunnel, his back towards Knight.
"Lieutenant Brasidas," he said, remembering the name from the conversation he had just heard, remembering too the reference to the 'ceremony'.
Brasidas turned, expecting to see one of his own men behind him with fresh news. His eyebrows raised in a startle when he saw the smuggler and the gun pointed at him.
"Don't make any sudden moves," Knight growled.
"If you shoot me," Brasidas replied, "The sound of the shot will echo through these corridors and alert my men. You'd be trapped."
"Don't underestimate a desperate man. I will shoot you, if you don't do as I say."
"And what must I do?"
"Take me to Czerwon."
The machine in Brasidas' mind quickly skimmed through the various possibilities. It seemed to him that the smuggler was out to assassinate Czerwon. The chances that he would succeed were very slim : Czerwon's body was so neuro-enhanced by Fallsoul's medical technology that the CEO would be able to react before the fatal strike. However, Czerwon was about to be operated on, perhaps he was drugged pre-operatively, perhaps he would be dazed afterwards. Brasidas was, technically, under compulsion; he could therefore lead the assassin to Czerwon without culpability. He would have to be very careful not to lead the man into a situation in which he would be able to overpower the smuggler, because then he would be forced to act and this chance to kill Czerwon would be wasted. If the smuggler succeeded, Brasidas would quickly capture Rumsfeld and secure Thalia as the new CEO; if the smuggler did not, Brasidas' hands would be clean of blame anyway. Such a chance to kill Czerwon should not be squandered.
"Very well," said Brasidas, suppressing a smile, "I will lead you to him."
"Drop your gun, then start walking. If you lead me into some trap, I will make sure to kill you."
Brasidas slowly unclipped his gunbelt, dropped it on the floor, then turned. "This way," he said, then began moving with measured, deliberate steps. Knight followed him, picking up the gun belt as he passed it, treading lightly like a feline predator. He clipped it around his own waist.
Brasidas led Knight through the corridors of the Red Claw, on a route that would avoid premature capture of Knight but hopefully would not be so safe as to cast suspicion on the lieutenant.
While Brasidas was leading Knight to Czerwon, Hanako herself was brought to the ceremonial hall to prepare for the transfer operation. She was struggling and hissing against those who were dragging her into the room; these draggers were quite irritated, especially since they had been ordered not to hurt her in anyway, and were thus unable to use fists to keep her quiet.
The hall was quite large. A platform, a balcony, jutted over one half of the room, much like in the boardroom. In the other half was a hollow column, built of some tough transparent material, with a strange chair-like contraption in it. A wide gangway led from the transparent column and up to the balcony, where a similar chair-like object was situated. Various medical personnel made last minute checks on the various equipment scattered about the room. The strange shapes of the contraptions gave no clues as to their function.
Hanako was force-handled up the gangway to the balcony. Thalia, with her attendant Ansar, stood to one side, at the corner where the balcony railing ran into the wall. She was watching the medical workers move about, like little ants. Czerwon, Captain Rumsfeld and Doctor Fallsoul were standing on the opposite end of the balcony.
The Chief Executive Officer Czerwon stood silently and watched Hanako being brought to him - kicking and screaming - with the half-interested eye of someone looking upon an expendable possession. His arms were crossed lightly across his chest, his hands near his coat sleeves, where he kept several weapons ready to draw out. He kept Captain Rumsfeld in front of him, the captain's back in quick and easy range for a killing thrust.
The two men eventually stopped before Czerwon, with Hanako hanging between them. Their arms seemed tired from having to drag Hanako's weight and stubbornness around the Red Claw.
Hanako, who had never seen Czerwon before in her life, looked up to see the CEO, and immediately knew who was before her. Desperation flashed through her mind; a final resort pushed itself out of a fearful corner of her mind and went into her mouth.
"Please, let me go," she said, "I'll do anything…"
"Little girl, you will be free to go," Czerwon said, "As soon as I have taken what I need from you."
A little spark of hope glimmered across Hanako's face.. "What?" She knew he wanted an organ. A lung? A kidney? She could live if he wanted one of those.
Just as it had come, so Hanako's hope now faded. She knew now that there was no Escape. There was nothing else to do but accept what would surely be. Accept.
She put her feet solidly on the ground and no longer dragged her heels in resistance. She stood up straight, and her weight no longer pulled at the arms of her escort. A calm seemed to have come over her. Hanako had accepted death.
"Yes, Chief Executive Officer, we will start the transplantation right away. Put her in the chair," said the doctor, pointing below to the chair within the column. The men escorted Hanako down the gangway, surprised at her compliance as she walked with them. She, without compulsion, sat in the chair. The medical staff tied various straps around her arms and legs and body and head to keep her as immobile as possible. The staff then stepped out of the column and sealed the door, locking her inside the column. The column was a recent addition to the transplantation procedure; the previous operation, involving the operation to renew Czerwon's eyes, did not have one. But the screams of the boy, who had his eyes ripped out, unsettled the medical workers. Many of them complained of nightmares, where they saw the boy's face, with two gaping bloody holes instead of his eyes, his mouth wide open and shrieking in pain. Doctor Fallsoul begged Czerwon to install the sound-proof column, so that the staff could turn away their eyes and then they wouldn't hear anything either. Doctor Fallsoul would have liked to seal the victims completely and out of sight, but for reasons of the procedure it was necessary to see the victim.
Hanako thought of Knight, and how badly she wished she could see him. She wanted to tell him that she loved him, and she felt her eyes well up at the sorrow of never having told him. No one had told her what had happened with him, but she was sure that he was dead.
Czerwon was put into his transplant chair, was strapped in and injected with various drugs. Hanako was not given any drugs. The transplant instrumentation was aligned, one part of it pointed at Czerwon's chest, the other at Hanako's.
Doctor Fallsoul took his position by a lever which would activate the device.
But just then Brasidas finally brought Knight to that very room. The passageway with which they entered opened up below the balcony; all one could see, was the open room with the column in the middle and a gangway leading off to nowhere. Above was the floor of the balcony, which looked like the ceiling.
Knight looked past Brasidas' shoulder. He saw Hanako, seated in her glass prison. Because of the way the room was built, Knight did not see anything else, the other dangers. But even if he did see, it wouldn't have mattered, because all Knight cared about in that moment was Hanako.
He ran past Brasidas towards the column.
'The fool!' thought Brasidas as he saw Knight rush-pass him. The lieutenant would now be forced to act.
Knight rushed past one or two bewildered medical staff – his mind barely registered them – and was running so fast that his body slammed against the transparent wall of the column. Despite the collision, Knight's body did not feel the pain.
Fallsoul pulled the lever.
White fire and blue sparks surged in the column and struck between Hanako's breasts. At the same time a separate transferral beam struck Czerwon just as violently. Czerwon, however, had been given anaesthetic. He managed to tolerate the torment of the pain quite well.
Hanako screamed. Knight was overcome with horror. Although he did not know the technicalities of what was happening, the look of Hanako's face explained everything. She was locked in a sound-proof column. Knight's eyes told him that she was screaming but his ears questioned this.
Hanako screamed. She was bathed in the pallor of the beam pummeling itself into her. The violent sounds of the sparks as they clawed through the air was locked inside the column. Hanako's mouth was wide open, her eyes closed shut, yet no sound escaped the sound-proof barrier.
"Hanako!" Knight beat his fists against the wall. His knuckles were not up to the challenge, and the skin over them snapped and began to bleed.
Doctor Fallsoul was oblivious to what was happening below the balcony. His concentration was on Czerwon and the various instruments that allowing him to monitor the CEO, to make sure all was well with his master. The monitors indicated to him that the procedure was almost finished.
Fallsoul pushed the lever back.
The beam stopped and the light faded. Hanako still felt pain but compared to utter torment she had just experienced it was bearable. Her insides felt very funny and there was fluid in her throat.
Knight leaned against the transparent wall, too agitated for his thoughts to coalesce into any useful action. It was too late to do anything anyway.
Hanako saw Knight through the column wall. She did not believe that Knight was actually standing there; her thought was that he was some vision that she was experiencing on the threshold of death. She saw the vision mouthing her name. She tried to smile, and said, "I love you." As she did so, blood drained itself out her lips.
And Knight, for lack of any action to take, said nothing. Tears came out and he felt an urge to howl from the pain he was feeling.
Blood gurged from Hanako's mouth. Her eyes widened and became empty; her head fell to the side.
Knight's body was slam-forced, from behind, against the column. Brasidas twisted Knight's arms into a lock behind the smuggler's back.
Rumsfeld would have shot Knight already but he was afraid of somehow disrupting the transfer process if his bullets hit the column (He knew that he himself was to be eliminated if anything happened to Czerwon). His gun was out and aimed for Knight's head when Brasidas slammed the smuggler. Rumsfeld run down the gangway his gun aim shifting to Knight's exposed chest as Brasidas arm-locked Knight.
"Let me kill him!" his mouth frothed, "Let me kill him once and for all!"
Czerwon was standing, gently ripping out the various needles and devices attached to him. His face was calm, his expression reflective. He could feel his new core beating strongly within his chest. The entire room suddenly became silent as the followers awaited the verdict of their god.
"Bring him to me," the CEO said. "Alive," he quickly added, when he saw the disappointment and blood-lust on Rumsfeld's face. Brasidas forcefully man-handled Knight up the gangway; Rumsfeld walked beside them, his gun no longer pointed at Knight but hovering in the air, ready to come down and shoot if necessary.
When Knight was forced on his knees in front of Czerwon, the smuggler raised his eyes, and staring into his enemy's face, asked, "What did you take?"
"The heart. It is mine now," said the CEO.
"May it reject you," the smuggler uttered.
"Unlikely, the heart was designed for my immune system. My body will not reject it. You have been quite a pest. I was rather annoyed when the prison ship was attacked; unfortunately, due to maneuvers arising from the break up of the blockade of the Free Trade Zone, no Corporate ships were able to respond to its distress calls. Strangely, though, like a stubborn fly you came back to irritate me; a rather amusing course of action. You shall amuse me more, smuggler. I should kill you now but I am in a good mood, with my new heart, so instead of spilling your blood on this floor you shall instead do battle against the Mammon tiger, for my entertainment. Lock him up in the dungeon till further notice." Czerwon's last sentence was spoken dismissively, contemptuously.
As they dragged Knight away, his hands clenched like claws, the smuggler cried out, howling, "Babylon, you vampire!57 I will defeat you yet!"
"Shut up!" said Rumsfeld who smacked Knight across his face with the handle of his gun.
Thalia, standing in her corner, was unnoticed, and even Ansar did not observe the shocked, tearful expression on her face until Czerwon ordered that Knight be removed.
"What is wrong, My Lady?" Ansar asked.
"Ansar, I have never seen anything so beautiful in my life."
In the meantime, Doctor Fallsoul had turned from his instruments to a chimney-like column that was nearby. Fallsoul opened the hatch of the column and heat escaped from it. The doctor reached in, and scalding his fingers, took out a blackened lump. Between the doctor's fingers the lump leaked a sticky black gunk.
The heat had arisen from the teleport process. The lump itself was Czerwon's old heart, taken out a split second before Hanako's heart was inserted. The doctor looked over at Czerwon and the commotion that had sprung about because of Knight, and realised that the CEO couldn't care less about his former beating core.
Doctor Fallsoul knew that the wasted organ in his hands was barely recognisable as a heart, and he could think of no reason to keep it. He shuffled over to a waste disposal unit and dropped the blackened beating core into it, some of the black muck clinging to his fingers and refusing to let go.
Once more Knight was in the belly of the beast, locked in a stinking cell of the Red Claw's dungeon. In him was burning a cold fire, the burning ice of a man who had decided to die, but not without some form of revenge. Hanako was dead now, although her heart still lived on, trapped in the cage of Czerwon's ribs, locked behind his sternum. For Knight, who had given his heart-love to Hanako, it was as if his own heart was now gone, and in its place was a death-pact, his last spur to life, to liberate the heart of his love.
In dark meditations Knight sat in the dimness of his cell, which seemed to transform around him into a lair. Knight's mind seemed fade away, replaced by an animal-like psychology, his thoughts transformed into the hunt-lust of a caged beast, a predator pacing his confined space to and fro. Time melted into some intangible thing, that went faster and slower, lived and died, to its own will.
Seated in his cell, Knight was drawn out of the depths of his murky world when he felt sounds coming through the floor. He put his ear down; the sounds became footsteps of people outside his cell. They were coming to take him away.
He raised himself to a half-crouch. The muscles of his body tensed and his face took on a fierce expression in preparation to take on his captors in wild barehanded frenzy.
But the cage doors opened, and it was not a Corporate guard that came through, but the graceful step of the Lady Thalia. Ansar, her attendant, stood at the door, edgy and nervous for Thalia's safety at the hands of the smuggler, for the Lady had insisted that she enter the cell alone.
A corona of light illuminated Thalia, and the light streaking past her from the bright corridor into the dim cell made her look like an angelic being.
"Are you from heaven?" Knight asked.
"No, I am not from heaven. I come to you from a hell."
"Who are you?"
"I am the Lady Thalia, sister of Czerwon. I am here to help you."
"Why would you help me?"
"Be quite, man, and listen to what I say. Tomorrow you shall be brought to do battle against the Mammon tiger. Even if you are armed, you will have little chance against the fiend. Nevertheless, to supposedly increase the sport, you will be given a choice of several bladed weapons. You will be allowed to take two; it is absolutely imperative that you take the dagger in the hilt decorated with a white jewel. Which other weapon you take is up to you.
"This dagger will be oozing from a liquid inside special microscopic pores embedded in the blade. This drug is meant for Czerwon. It is not, ordinarily, a poison, and will slip past any molecular scan for such. The drug will merely cause a mild body-wide constriction of blood vessels. In the ordinary man, the blood pressure will rise and the nervous supply to the heart will order the heart to slow down and to diminish the force the blood is pumped with.
"But in Czerwon, the nervous supply to his heart has been interrupted due to the transplantation, and the tedious task of replacing the nervous supply has been delayed. The heart will continue pumping with force despite the rise in blood pressure. This will cause a build-up of fluid in the cranium, which will, perhaps, kill him."
"But how…" Knight tried to interrupt.
"I told you to be quite, man! The more time I spend here the more danger there is for both of us. The Mammon tiger we will attempt to weaken, in some way or other; you will still have to kill it, but we will insure that there is a chance for victory. For you, it is the difference between perhaps surviving or definitely dying. Unfortunately, that is the best we can do.
"Once Czerwon's precious little pet is killed, he will try to kill you himself - I know his vengeful spite well enough - most likely with one of his beloved swords. He is the greatest swordmaster known, but all you have to do is nick him with the dagger-blade; the drug will do the rest, while you must simply fight to survive."
Thalia stopped for a moment, and the commanding tone of her voice changed to a gentle sound, "Do you understand, Sir Knight?"
"Yes, but why are you doing this?"
"I must go. It is dangerous for me here." Thalia turned to leave.
"But why? He's your brother!"
"Because, Knight, there are many persons aboard this hell-like ship, some female, some male. But you are the first true and honourable man I have ever seen or met, the only one aboard this ship that would have done so much for the sake of love. It is your warm humanity I admire, and I want it given a chance to triumph over the cold."
The doors sealed behind her.
Ansar quickly led Thalia through corridors that had been bribed empty and past cameras temporarily off-line. "It cost a fortune to get to him," Ansar muttered.
A few minutes later they were in Thalia's garden. "My Lady," Ansar said, "may I ask you a question?"
"Of course, Ansar."
"I fear I may be blunt…"
"Then be blunt, Ansar."
"I don't understand why we have to get him involved. Surely, perhaps I could simply take the dagger and stab the CEO myself…"
Thalia laughed. "Oh Ansar, your offer is presumptuous. We both know Czerwon well enough that he will kill you before the blade even unsheathes. It is impossible to surprise him. Besides, what does it mean for us to destroy him? We are merely mirrors of him, rats that live in and live off the Red Corpse. To kill him ourselves is show how much like him we are – there is no meaning in it. But Knight, he is not of this rotting world, he is an outsider, pure, he is Honour - if he were the hand to deliver the fatal blow, it would be the triumph of good over evil. Knight and his Honour is all that can vindicate our pasts, and only he can justify my future."
"But my Lady, what makes you think he can succeed where so many have failed?"
"Because Czerwon would ordinarily kill off his assassins immediately, but when Czerwon feels injured, as he shall after his precious tiger dies, he will instead play with his prey."
"You think the CEO will make a mistake in his play?"
"Playing is itself the mistake, Ansar."
"My Lady, what if Knight fails?"
A flicker of sadness went over Thalia's face. "We will be safe, at least physically. My brother will suspect Captain Rumsfeld, not us and Doctor Fallsoul, if he suspects treachery. But our existences will not be vindicated, will not be justified. The death of Knight will affirm to me the doubts that lurk at the back of my mind - that all this existence is empty and meaningless, that there is no joy and happiness, and above all, there is no justice, there is only power and sorrow. And hunger." A tear slipped down her cheek. "Yes, Hunger, above all the other things." She felt, that despite everything, the smuggler was sure to fail, and that she would see him die, either gored by the tiger or by Czerwon's bloodied hands.
In his cell, Knight was huddled, tense and focused. Outwardly he was silent, but inwardly he was praying :
"Ancestors, I know I have not prayed to you in a while. But in the hour of my greatest need, hear me.
"Father, I remember your strength, both physical and in heart. Father, give me your strength, that your death, which came because of the coming of Czerwon, may be avenged.
"Great-grandfather, you are the genius who created the stance and styles of swordfighting for the House of Knight, to use against those who would steal your cargo. Great-grandfather, guide my hand tomorrow that I may slay my enemy and avenge the death of Hanako, who was my love, and reclaim the beating core!"
Thalia did not think that Knight had a serious chance of winning. She therefore decided to make plans for the evacuation of Hanako's body, even if Knight failed.
"But why?" asked Ansar.
"Because Ansar, I would assume that to be the smuggler's dying wish, to at least get what is left of her body to a place where she can rest in peace."
"My Lady, what difference will that make?"
"It will make me feel better inside, Ansar."
Ansar was entrusted with getting Hanako's body into the Poet's Whim, the ship still sitting bruised and battered where it was placed after its capture. The body had been stored in case any other organ could possibly be harvested for Czerwon's needs. Now it had been snuck onto the smuggler ship, and Ansar also organised that the ship would be partially repaired, even rearmed. If Knight died, Ansar would sneak off the Claw with the Whim.
Ansar did not like the plan. He was even more pessimistic about Knight's chances in the coming battle, and felt that he would certainly have to fulfil Thalia's wishes. He did not know if he wanted to; the last thing he wanted was to abandon his Lady within the clutch of intrigues that was always the undercurrent of events aboard the Red Claw.
"Has Doctor Fallsoul been able to drug the Mammon tiger?"
"I do not know, my Lady. He has not returned yet."
The bell rang. Someone was at the door. Thalia motioned for Ansar to see who it was.
It was Lieutenant Brasidas. "Lady Thalia," Brasidas said, "The CEO Czerwon has asked me to escort you to his presence, immediately."
Thalia felt shock. Did her brother know of her plans? She knew that Czerwon could be brutal if he discovered betrayal. She had no idea of what Czerwon did know or did not know. She had to maintain her composure and pretend nothing was amiss. Her survival could depend on it. Ansar tried to follow Thalia, but Brasidas stopped him. "The CEO has requested that the Lady Thalia come alone." Ansar protested, but Thalia gave him a look that made him shut up. Ansar understood, and gave in, knowing that confrontation would only make the suspicion fall on Thalia.
Czerwon was in the viewing room, the same one where he had spoken to Thalia first of going to Forestglen. Thalia was led by Brasidas, and two men walked behind her. Not a word was spoken. Brasidas looked visibly nervous. When they reached the entrance, Brasidas opened the doors for her.
"The CEO has asked to see you. Alone." Brasidas said. "We will wait for you outside."
"Thank you, lieutenant," said Thalia, maintaining, outwardly at least, a calm and ignorant composure.
The doors sealed behind her. Czerwon's back was turned towards her. He was staring out into the stars.
"Brother…" she spoke. To her surprise, she almost choked the word in fear, and it only came out slightly louder than a whisper.
Czerwon spoke. "Do you know why I come here so often, sister?"
"No, tell me why, brother." She didn't know if she was in danger or not, because she didn't know Czerwon's motives in summoning her. 'Brother', 'sister', it was as if the words were affirming the family bond, that ancient code that programs one to be part of a greater unit. It was mildly comforting, even though she believed Czerwon probably would not hesitate to kill her.
Czerwon raised his arms, spreading them out wide to embrace the galaxy he was looking at through the view portal. "Because every single star, orb and cloud of gas that I can see from here, it is all mine. They are my possessions, including every planet that orbits each and every one of those billion lights. I can have everything I want from those planets, be it material wealth, resources, or even human beings. If there are those who will not give those things to me, then I simply take it, such is my power. There are some things, though, which cannot so easily be acquired…" Czerwon turned to look at Thalia. There was something grim in his face. "…Like loyalty."
Thalia's expression remained neutral.
Czerwon continued : "I have managed to use my wealth and power to keep myself young and strong. I have conquered aging, but I will not conquer death. For as much as I have taken from my vassals, so much have I earned their envy, their jealousy and their hatred. It was said, that a man will more quickly forget the death of his father than the loss of his property58. And I have, over the course of my reign, caused both, in variations.
"There is no greater poison than hatred of your enemies. I have created every single one of my enemies. Where there were peaceful farmers I came and took their livelihoods from them, and they in turn dropped their hoes and spades and took up the gun. Where there was prosperity I came and turned it into poverty, and the content became ravenous.
"My greatest mistake was thinking that I could rule with impunity, that where there was a cause there was no effect. Not so, for where there is bloodshed there will arise bloodshedders, where there is violence there will arise the violent, where there is greedy taking there shall arise those who take back. I have put my hand into every corner of this galaxy of mine, and in every corner I destroyed livelihoods and humanity and made the people into unhappy ghosts. I destroyed their souls and in its places are now mirrors of me. I have created hordes of hungry spirits, but they have the added gnaw of the desire of vengeance.
"I acted like an animal, and now I have animals baying for my blood. I acted like a wolf, but now I have wolves nipping at my heels. I do not know from where my killer will come. Perhaps one of my subordinates will want my power and overthrow me. Perhaps some stranger or free trader, fighting to avenge his loss, will come and defeat me. Perhaps some religious fanatic will kill me in the name of his righteousness. All I know is that I will die, through battle, through assassin, or perhaps, even through treachery." There was stress on the last word. Thalia thought that her brother could hear the loud beating of her heart. She hoped that her expression was the calm face she was trying to show. "Yes, treachery from those who are most near to me."
Czerwon stepped closer to Thalia. He drew out his dagger, and with the blunt edge of the cold blade he stroked Thalia's cheek. "What are you doing, brother?" asked Thalia, a small glint of alarm in her eyes. Did he know of her plans? Was she the traitor he referred to?
"Do you sometimes wonder, how you would feel if those closest to you were also the ones who planned to destroy you?" asked Czerwon.
"I don't know what you are talking about brother." Suppressed fear - could he hear it in her voice?
"Hmm." Czerwon took away the blade and sheathed it, turning his body away from his sister. Thalia forced herself not to faint. Inwardly she was terrified.
Czerwon continued : "Soon the Smuggler Knight will be thrown into the arena. But even if he dies, there will be someone to take his place. Someone, who hates me with as much passion, and who desires my death as much as I desire my life.
"For this is the great flaw in Capitalism. For the sake of profit the capitalist exploits the meek for his own gain. But as a system Capitalism is flawed, for there are far greater and ancient systems within the heart of each person. Systems that date back such ancient spans, that they originate with the evolutionary ancestors who hunted, killed, fought and died in prehistoric forests. I can almost hear the cries of those wild animals in my mind's ear, a brutal world that turns our Hobbesian society pale with fright in comparison. "Capitalism's greatest arrogance is that it thinks it can overcome the other systems ingrained within our very nature. One working to a capitalist system may think he acts with impunity when he takes from the human and destroys the human's dignity, but he forgets that within the human heart are those ancient systems waiting for some stimulus to awaken them. They are Vengeance, Anger, Violence, Religion, Thirst and Hunger, Sacrifice, Honour, Pride, and the most dangerous of all, Love. The capitalist should not be surprised when those he consumed suddenly become fierce and hungry themselves, suddenly more dangerous than he can handle.
"So it is, Thalia. If you treat human beings like animals, don't be surprised if they start biting back as animals. The same conditions which caused my rise to becoming ruler of the galaxy are the same conditions which will lead to my downfall.59
"I have destroyed the basis of trust, respect for others, and as such I cannot trust anyone, not even you, Thalia. I suppose what I should do is to kill off those closest to myself, before they begin to conspire against me. But I cannot. For as much as you think of me as being a monster, yet I cannot and will not sacrifice the last piece of humanity I have left in me. That last vestige is an intimately intertwined with myself but it is not of myself. Rather, it is the baying of those same ancient systems I see coming through in my enemies. They are too ancient and powerful for me to deny them. I have sinned against them and now they demand that I carry out my flawed design to its conclusion."
"What are you saying, brother?" Thalia was confused. Did he or did he not know of her plans? She felt like screaming.
"I am saying that I have gone too far, and I cannot do anything about it. Soon I, the destroyer, will be destroyed. I am trying, Thalia, to tell you my feelings on this matter. I am trying to say good-bye."
"I thought that perhaps you were accusing me…" said Thalia, wondering if it was right of her to say it. Her brother could be bluffing and she could still, perhaps, give herself away.
"No Thalia," said Czerwon. His tone of voice was sincere. "It is just that I have been so self-greedy that there is nothing to offer in return for loyalty. Rumsfeld, for example. He was my right hand man, but he betrayed me, and he continues to betray me, plotting behind my back. Even Lieutenant Brasidas was so conveniently subdued. Yet for me strike at them would be for me to strike out something within myself." Czerwon looked into his sister's eyes, his words hard. "I just wanted you to know that my end will be soon. And I intend to meet it, with full fury and wrath. I do not intend my death to be an easy gift."
"My brother, if you realise that what you have done is wrong, why don't you remedy it? Perhaps you can still change things for the better…" Thalia was almost as surprised at herself as at her brother. Neither she nor her brother had ever spoken with such emotion in each other's private company. She almost felt her hatred of her brother melt, and a faint hope came up within her that perhaps he could still be redeemed.
But Czerwon's eyes suddenly became cold and predator-like. "I am the Chief Executive Officer of the Corporation. I rule this galaxy. It is mine! The only way it will be taken away from me is by prying it out of my cold, dead hands."
There was no redemption. Even now, realising the consequences of his actions, he was not going to relinquish the material desires that gnawed within him, the flawed processes of his psyche leading him to his doom. He was so obsessed with what was his he could not relinquish his possessions, even for the sake of his life.
"Yes," said Thalia, "you are the Chief Executive Officer."
It was the end of the conversation. The CEO dismissed Thalia. She left.
As she was being escorted back to her room by Lieutenant Brasidas, Brasidas told her, "My Lady Thalia, for the moment it may not be safe for you to wander around the ship freely. There are," slight pause, "events taking place."
"I understand, Lieutenant," Thalia said. What Brasidas wouldn't tell her she already had a good idea from the information that had been gathered by Ansar. The 'events' alluded to were most likely those in connection with Captain Rumsfeld.
"It was my spies who found out that you had been to visit the imprisoned smuggler," Brasidas suddenly said.
Thalia stopped. "What did you do?" she asked.
"Nothing. I did not inform the CEO, although it was clearly my duty."
"I owe you my life, lieutenant. I thank you deeply."
They reached Thalia's room. As she was about to go in, Brasidas addressed her, "I don't know what you are planning, Lady Thalia, but I would like to warn to be very careful."
"Thank you, lieutenant. I will bear that in mind. Although," said Thalia, remembering in Czerwon's voice that faint accusation against Brasidas, "I could tell you the same."
Doctor Fallsoul had often gone to watch the Mammon tiger being fed. The tiger was even, on occasion, fed sweet delicacies and dainties, which apparently it was quite fond of.
The doctor had taken it upon himself to try and drug the tiger. He was still able to move about the Red Claw without attracting as much suspicion as for example Thalia and her servant. Czerwon was seemingly healthy, so the doctor did not have to worry about being suddenly called to help the CEO out of some heart-crisis. Able to move about freely aboard the Claw, he had the best access to the tiger.
He had managed to convince someone in one of the Claw's kitchens to make him a hollow ball of chocolate, the inside of which was smeared with drugs. After scanning through veterinary books, Doctor Fallsoul had come up with a formula of analgesics and hypnotics that would, hopefully, make the tiger drowsy and defeatable.
He had been warned not to kill the tiger, or otherwise make obvious the attempts at tampering. Thalia's fragile plan would not work if the tiger was completely unable to fight, for it was only through the tiger that Czerwon could be emotionally manipulated into confrontation. Fallsoul therefore had to strike a balance between overdosing and underdosing the tiger, and unfortunately the veterinary books only gave partial light on the matter.
The corridors near the animal's keep would occasionally echo with tiger sounds. As he approached, Fallsoul could hear the creature make some rumbling sound from within its cage. There was an opening in the tiger's enclosement, a pit-like thing through which food could be thrown down onto the cage floor for the tiger to eat. It was there that Fallsoul had in previous times gone to watch the animal being fed, and now he hoped to add a little morsel of his own.
It was outside of feeding time and he had expected the place to be empty. But as he came out of the corridor and into the room he heard a voice saying, "Doctor Fallsoul."
The doctor turned towards the voice and saw that it was Captain Rumsfeld. It seemed that he had been waiting for the doctor. He had several of his men with him.
"Captain Rumsfeld. What are you doing here?"
"Visiting the tiger. It is going to destroy my old enemy from the days of Old Italy. It is good to know that, although I would rather take Smuggler Knight's life myself." Rumsfeld's eyes narrowed in suspicion. "I do not know what plans Thalia has involved you in, but be assured that I will not allow you to interfere with the tiger. Knight is going to die, and you will not stop it."
Fallsoul had been confounded. Rumsfeld's spies had warned the captain that Thalia would perhaps attempt to tamper with the arena fight between the tiger and the smuggler.
"While we are on the subject, doctor, how much value would you put on life?" asked Rumsfeld, a question not so tangential.
"What do you mean?"
"You are a doctor. Didn't they teach you something about the value of life in medical school?"
"No. You learn about many diseases, much sufferings, and a few cures. A little bit of ethics. A bit of law to keep you on the safe side. But I don't recall anything on the 'value of life'."
"And yet you, you hierophant, you are the instrument of Czerwon's human sacrifices. You are science enslaved, obedient to Corporate interests. Tell me, Priest Fallsoul, how does that make you feel?"
"It is deadening, when one murders lives."
Rumsfeld laughed. "I agree. Let me tell what I think of this. The only value that a human being has is in how much control you have over him. To rephrase in a more scientific way, doctor : a human being's value is directly proportional to your control over him. Those that you cannot control you should destroy."
"That doesn't sound right. Those you control will resent it, becoming uncontrollable. Besides, you yourself are not the controller, you are Czerwon's puppet."
"Admittedly, right now I am a puppet and there is peace. But the true warrior sees peace only as the means to new wars60. I have been preparing myself for this challenge."
"What challenge? What preparation? Where is the originality in what are you doing? You are merely reacting to your circumstances, adapting to the system instead of attempting to change the system. You wish to replace the system with your own but except for a few superficial aspects they are the same. You would consume the consumer only to become the new consumer."
"I accept," said Rumsfeld, "that in capitalism, in practice, the actual consumer is not he who buys the product, but the one who sells. For the one buying the product gains less than the one who sells it. This is known as profit, and as such it is not the buyers who consume the producers, but the producers who consume the buyers. But how can you say that my theory of power is comparable to capitalism?"
"It is in this : the intention behind their actions are different, but the actions are the same, and if the actions are the same, then the reactions will be the same. The purpose of your control is just as exploitative as Czerwon's."
"And what exactly is wrong with exploitation? Why shouldn't we seek to make ourselves stronger and everyone else weaker?"
"Understand," Fallsoul began, "that within us there are various instincts which evolution has granted, essential to the survival of the human individual and the human race. There are two conflicting instinctual programs within the psyche-matrix formed by the substrate of our genetic code, namely, the program for fulfilling our individual needs and the program for living in equilibrium with fellow individuals of our society, a program necessary for the existence of society in the first place.
"It may be said that these are not evolutionary programs but programs formed by our consciousness, and as such are not absolute since they may change along with the shifting views of the conscious mind. That this is not so may be seen in nature - it is unlikely that wolves, or even ants, have conscious processes complex enough to form such programs, and yet they are able to exist in stable societies. It can be inferred that the human need to exist in a society, although it can be modulated by conscious process, is first and foremost an instinctual and thus an evolutionary drive.
"Such programs, and this conflict between 'I' and 'we', are integral part of our human nature, and there should be an attempt to keep these nature-given instincts in harmony, with neither one dominating the other. If we tip the balance towards either side, we would be denying an essential part of ourselves. With your system and Czerwon's system the scales are tipped towards the 'I', towards self-gratification. The other side, the 'we', becomes lost and deranged. Unbalanced, we lose our humanity and return to the primordial state from which we as a conscious race had to strive and fight so long to get out of.
"We become animal-like, our Thirst and Hunger amplified. But the 'we', those whom are exploited for the sake of the 'I', they too become unbalanced. There concept of 'I' is insulted and violated. As individuals they are exploited and they escape into sub-society formed of similar individuals. Their concept of 'we' becomes too strong, they act with a unreasonable group mentality, and within them the ancient primordialities are stirred and brought forth. Like wolves howling their worship of the moon, they become irrational, faith-led and fanatical. A system does not exist in isolation of the reaction to that system. Capitalism cannot exist separate from socialism, slavery cannot exist separate from emancipation, immorality cannot exist without fundamentalism.
"When there is a generalised discontent with a system, thus allowing reactionary forces to come into play, there are two possible fates once enough momentum has gained : either the system will fall and be replaced with something more harmonious and sustainable or the system will fall and be replaced with something as unharmonious, and as unsustainable. Which fate it enters into depends on the actions of those who are riding the reactionary wave. Hence Tsarism fell to Stalinism, but Apartheid gave way to Mandelan reconciliation."
Rumsfeld interjected, "I do not understand what differentiates the sustainable with the unsustainable system."
"A system must be able to endure the reaction to that system. Allow me to illustrate this concept with a story. There was once a man with a great and beautiful garden, at the edge of a forest. One day he noticed a certain species of deer, called wind-deer, foraging at the edge of his garden.
"Determined to capture it, the gardener smeared honey on the grass where he had seen the wind-deer foraging. When the deer came back to that spot, it ate the honey grass and liked it. He developed a craving for that taste.
"The gardener continued smearing the grass with honey, and the deer came around regularly to eat the honey grass. The gardener eventually smeared honey on the grass to form a trail, which led straight into a cage.
"Sure enough, the deer followed the honey trail and, overwhelmed by its craving, even entered the cage. The gardener closed the cage and thus captured the rare and elusive wind-deer.61
"The moral of the story is such : that a system that is based on craving, whether it be for money or power or whatever else, will ultimately set up the conditions for its own destruction. Led by craving, those who live according to the system will be unable to adapt to the changing circumstances that they themselves have created. They will lead themselves to their own demise. The struggle to appease that craving will prevent the system from stepping back, considering the situation and adapting to that situation."
"Yet, doctor, how does one deny one's craving once it has been indulged even once? How can one slow down the momentum that builds up and up, till from the sheer speed and force of the craving one relinquishes oneself to the unbalanced life? How do you refuse the satisfaction of indulgence once you are used to it? How do you let go of the thrill of power once it has corrupted your very bones? It is like we are pulled down, faster and faster, into the heart of a black hole."
"Only a sudden revolution, a sudden unexpected turning about, a break from your own character, can save you."
"And yet, doctor, the unbalanced mind is also the least likely to change. Despite its disharmonious state, it exists in homeostasis with itself and cannot wrench itself into higher forms of harmonious consciousness. It is not for nothing that it was said that as a human being descends, and is reborn as a titan, a hungry ghost, an animal, or a helldweller62, it becomes increasingly difficult to return to the human state. Once we focus and indulge a specific side of psychic program, our consciousness attempts to maintain homeostasis. Since rare is the individual who has control over his own mind, the mind is surrendered to the homeostasis, leading it steadily downwards into maladaptation, till the mind finds balance in some lower state. And in that lower, animal-like state, there is not enough conscious objectivity left to escape that state."
"I'm sure there is some way, some action, whereby can redeem oneself."
"You hypocrite!" Rumsfeld growled. "Liar and fool! How can you stand there and talk of redemption when you yourself are past it! You are nothing but a hungry ghost, unable to find anything to fill your heart. You exist as a purposeless slave of the system, contemplating the forces of destruction even as they begin to act on you. If the heart is the container of our essence, then you have cracked yours into a leaky vessel, and whatever was human in you dripped out bit by bit. Why do you bother, Fallsoul? You will never return from your state back into that of a man. There is no redemption. All you can do now is to choose your side."
"What sides? They all seem the same. They all expect me to do what demeans me."
"Wrong, for it was never the system that demeaned you. It was you who demeaned yourself. You yourself were overwhelmed by craving, which was what attracted you to Czerwon's side in the first place, just as I was. Behold, though, how that system which would have labeled you a 'consumer' has in and of itself consumed you! We have allowed our flaws to be taken advantage of by this system, and thus magnified and strengthened the flaws in our nature have become so intertwined with our psyche that we cannot escape. We gave ourselves up to those forces long ago and now all we can do is roll with the momentum. For we are ever the product of our actions, and as such we are trapped by our past actions. It is like we are chained to boulder, rolling ever down hill, faster and faster. We are beyond the point of redemption, there is no escape."
"Captain, although our past actions hung upon us like heavy chains on our shoulders, surely there is some chance to redeem ourselves. For although our present is the result of our past, yet in this present we may choose new ways and new actions, so that perhaps in the future we may free ourselves, slowing down the rolling rock just enough just enough so that we may escape it."
"Again, this belief of redemption. Doctor, your faith in the human heart is touching, but it is certainly misplaced. What is the human heart, after all? We came from the primordiality, and do you know we are heading, Fallsoul? Back into it!" Rumsfeld pointed downwards to the tiger pit. The tiger's growling rumbled up from beneath.
"You asked me the value of life, Rumsfeld. Now I have an answer. The value of life lies in mending one's ways and trying to live as something better. Mankind is something to be surpassed63, not something to be neglected so that it may decay into beasthood."
Rumsfeld laughed. The Mammon tiger felt impatient and struck the sides of its cage in frustration. The sound its claws made screeched upwards. "Don't you understand? For any ordinary human that may be true," Rumsfeld said. "But we are not the ordinary. We have gone beyond our boundaries, we have broken the sides of the definition that once bound us. That which made us human is gone forever." Down in its cage, the tiger attacked the sides of its cage, scraping claw marks on cage walls. The shrills and bangs drummed and screeched upwards out of the lair. "We were ignorant of the results and blind to the consequences. In our short-sightedness we could not see past the wild calls of our self-natures and we freely leapt into the descent." The tiger began calling out, loud yelps and screams, and it beat dum-dum against its cage with greater intensity. Rumsfeld had to raise his voice to a wild roar to make himself heard. "We took our humanity and upon the altar of our desires we sacrificed our beating cores for the sake of the beast within! We return to the primordial womb, and all the old ways and all the old hungers fire up through our bones and command us! We had consciousness, we had the ability to choose our destiny, but instead like fools we returned to the old programs and those programs will not let us go!"
"Surely if the human race managed to drag itself out of the primordialness, then surely we as individuals can drag ourselves out of the inner primordiality?"
The tiger roared, its cry so loud it reverberated the floors. Rumsfeld, his face contorted into a howl, shouted, "Doctor, it took millions of years for life on earth to wrench itself out of programming and into program-transcending consciousness. And even then, those who had achieved it best, the humans, were still unable to completely free themselves from it. If it took so much effort for life to achieve this transcendence, what hope do we as individuals have? We are battling against ancient forces more powerful than we can fight against, and these forces are imprinted even in codes of the very cells we are made up of. We are the products of evolution, and having dared to step out of sync with nature we now rush to our devolution!"
"The core is sick but it is not dead."
"The core is dead and there is no cure or remedy, doctor!"
Fallsoul would not give in : "Those programs where within us even when they were unaccessed. They are a part of our human nature, not its antithesis. Just because they are active does not mean that the human part of our being has to have been destroyed, merely that is has in turn become dormant."
"While we are living, doctor, the momentum of our instincts, the ones we once consciously favoured and strengthened, will prevent us from breaking the habitual behaviour which characterises our action. We allowed the wheel to start turning and now it spins too fast for us to stop ourselves. The only redemption for us is in death, the destruction of the wheel."
They stood there for a moment. The tiger calmed down and the loud commotion no longer bellowed upwards from the pit.
"Perhaps you are right," said the doctor, calmly. "Perhaps for us, all that is left is to choose how we shall die. How we live is no longer under conscious control. But I do not accept that we should give in to those inner hungers and allow them to completely dictate what we are to do."
"Then you will not join me as an ally?" Rumsfeld asked.
"I think each one of us must do what he thinks is best, and accept the consequences. If we had been more mindful, perhaps we would never have devolved to this situation in the first place."
"If you are not my ally, then you are my enemy. And as my enemy, I will not allow you anywhere near the tiger pit. I am still the captain of the Red Claw and I still have the authority to seal off areas of the ship."
Rumsfeld's men moved closer, making as if they were going to physically force Fallsoul out of the room.
"Then," said the doctor, "Since you are my enemy, I shall go." The doctor turned and walked back the way he came.
The doctor's love for Thalia made the emptiness inside his heart more bearable. Indeed, it seemed that love was the last thing that made him still human. When the deer is eating the honey-grass, and realises that its craving is leading it towards a trap, then it has two choices. Either it can overcome its craving and force itself to refrain from the honey grass, or it can continue with its self-destructive path. But in real life, outside of stories, the decisions are often more difficult than that. Fallsoul realised that in order to achieve the human refraining, he would have to let go of his animal instincts for self-preservation.
He still had that chocolate ball, lined with drugs. "Sleep now, beast," Fallsoul said, biting into the chocolate, "If my life was ghostly and empty of virtue, then at least let me face my death as a man!"
Those closest to Czerwon were summoned to join him, to take their seats around a commanding view of the arena. To one side of the arena, was the portcullis which would lift to allow in both sacrifice and devourer. On the other side, opposite the portcullis, was Czerwon's seat, where he chose to sit alone, sealed off from the other seats by walls that he had recently put up. In his little box no one could see the CEO except from the metal floor of the arena, and so he was by himself in his broodings. Past Czerwon's left, on that side of the arena sat Thalia, her servant Ansar, and Doctor Fallsoul. On the side of Czerwon's right, was Lieutenant Brasidas and Captain Rumsfeld.
Czerwon had a panel on the arm rest of his chair, which controlled the entrance into the arena. He pressed it, and the portcullis was raised; Smuggler Knight stepped through. He had not washed himself in a long time and his unshaven, smelly countenance radiated a type of wildness. On his belt was a dagger; its hilt was decorated with a single, white jewel. His right arm carried a sword, the second of the two weapons he was allowed to choose.
At first the lights overhead the arena blinded the smuggler, who had become too used to the clawing dimness of his cell. He reacted with a growl, and with his free hand quickly covered his face, until his eyes could get used to the glare.
Thalia looked away from the smuggler, turned to speak to Doctor Fallsoul. "Doctor, were you able to do something about the tiger?"
"The tiger was not accessible, my Lady Thalia, but I have a plan…"
"How are you going to docilise the tiger if it's already in the arena? The smuggler is done for, and our plans were in vain."
"The battle is not yet over, my Lady…" Fallsoul said, trying not to slur his words. The drugs were still throbbing in his body.
Knight gave Czerwon a mock salute. "Hail, Babylon!" he cried.
"Hail, Sir Knight," Czerwon saluted back, jovially. "You will be happy to know that we have fed the Mammon tiger. It will immediately not leap in and tear you to shred and eat you. Instead it will toy with you. May your death be slow and painful."
There was a growling from behind the portcullis. It sounded almost like a meow but for the fact that it was loud like a thunderous roar.
"There comes the bane of our plans, doctor."
"My Lady, there is something you do not know. Allow me to speak, please, and do not interrupt me, for if I stop now I may hesitate in what I wish to do. I have asked why you wish to help this man, and you replied, 'Because he is the only man on this ship.' Then I asked if he was truly the only man, and when you said 'yes,' I finally understood what you were getting at.
"I know that you do not think much of me. You see me as one whose soul is shriveled and dead in a shriveled up and dying body. You knew I loved you and you manipulated me to accomplish your own ends. I knew you were using me but because I loved you I let you, in the poor hope that perhaps you would one day love me back.
"But you will never love me because I am not a man. I'm a foolish cowardly doctor who's helping slaughter innocents to keep a megalomaniac alive. I have allowed my inner core to be poisoned and with all my knowledge I do not know how to heal it. I am an unsubstantial ghost, a hungry and unsatisfied spirit in the midst of matter. How can I live with myself with all that I have done aboard this ship in Czerwon's service? Sometimes, a time comes when one must choose between redeeming yourself and damning yourself; now is such a time.
"I do not expect you to ever love me. But I hope that you will forgive me." Just then, the heavy paw-steps of the Mammon tiger pounded on the arena floor; Knight turned to face the dreadful beast; Czerwon's face glimmered with a smile - he pressed the panel on his chair to bring down the portcullis and seal the arena. The doctor turned to look at the tiger as it lazily stepped in. "It has eaten my soul, now I shall give it my body. Thalia, I may not have lived as a man, but at least do me the honour of remembering me as having died as one."
Doctor Fallsoul stood up, and jumped over the railing and landed on his feet, thudding the arena floor. He quickly sprung up, and faced the beast, whose body stood as high as a man is tall. Doctor Fallsoul gave a shrill yell, and threw himself on the creature, armed only with his soft fists.
At first the tiger was puzzled and did not react to the screaming, soft-pounding little figure, except for fixing it's red-eyed stare at the doctor. Then it gently leaned in, and clutched the body of the doctor in its gaping mouth. The animal turned the doctor this way and that, eventually turning its head to hold the doctor upside down. Despite this, the doctor, gently trapped in the tiger's teeth, kept screaming and pounding. The tiger grew irritated and pressed its jaws closed. There was a snap as Doctor Fallsoul's spine broke.
'In my life, all I did was obey the beast within, till I became a ghost,' thought Fallsoul. 'Now at last I managed to command, and brought it to obedience. It is my victory, my redemption, my unbinding of the wheel. May my past actions give way to a redemptive future, if there is any life after this.' And then the doctor died, and his body went limp. The tiger shook the body like a dead rag doll, and then spinning its head it flung the body out of its mouth. It landed next drainage sluice, where it lay puddled in its blood.
At first, Knight was stunned and stood surprised-unmoving in the arena. But fierce and violent courage suddenly overtook the man, as he realised the tiger's back was turned towards him. Before the tiger had broken the doctor's back, Knight was already coming in for a deadly thrust of his sword.
"No," said Czerwon. He had been stunned at the doctor's intervention, but his face became ashen when he realised that the smuggler had an opening to attack his beloved Mammon tiger.
An ordinary Mammon tiger, one that lived in the wild and ruled uncontested over its home world, would have sensed the smuggler, and spun around and broken him with a powerful swipe of a claw. But this tiger had been in captivity for a very long time, and had grown soft and its natural instincts had, to a certain extent, been tamed.
"No!" cried Czerwon, suddenly standing.
The familiar voice of its master only served to confuse the creature; it looked up in bafflement. It was by now too late for it to react.
Knight's wild rage aimed the sword for the animal's abdomen, in a thrust that would go down deep, perhaps to the tiger's very heart; at the very least, Knight wanted to tear the diaphragm and puncture the lung with his blade.
The penetration stunned the creature, and the tiger's unused instincts gave the wrong signals – the creature's startled jump only served to aid the insertion of the blade.
The tiger went berserk. It began to run, its paws thudding a terrific reverberating sound on the metal of the arena floor. Knight held on to the sword handle and to a fistful of tiger fur – he knew he was safest clinging to the tiger's back, rather than anywhere where the thing's claws could get at him. His feet were being dragged along the floor. His body was flailing violently and Knight struggled to keep his lower body out of the path of the hind paws as they stamped up and down.
Only after a while did the tiger realise that its biter was still clinging on to it. It tried to shake him down and Knight almost fell off, to a certain death under the shredding claws of a Mammon tiger. But the smuggler clung on with all his strength.
The tiger, unable to shake Knight off, suddenly began to run sideways. The realisation flashed through Knight of what was about to happen; but unwilling to let go, and unable to do anything else, the smuggler braced for the impact.
The force of the tiger's body slamming against the arena wall was tremendous, although certainly not as powerful as it should have been – for not only was the tiger wounded, its muscles had grown soft with captivity as well. Nevertheless, Knight was stunned, his breath knocked out. The pain from his arm, which had taken the brunt of it, caused his grip to slip and he fell down to the floor.
His first thought was to get up immediately, but his shocked body took some moments to stagger up. He faced the tiger, preparing himself to face whatever it would do next.
But the tiger did not attack. The effort of flinging Knight off had only aggravated the injury. The tiger gave a moan, then stumbled about in the middle of the arena. It looked towards where Czerwon was standing; the tiger gave another moan, a pitiful helpless cry towards its master. Its eyes were pleading, and the fire in them was dying out.
The tiger's legs gave and its body fell to the floor, side first. The weight of the creature was so heavy that the entire room resounded with an echoing thud. Then silence. The Mammon tiger was dead.
Czerwon, with calm expression on his face, his eyes not moving their gaze away from the tiger, took hold of his shirt with his hands and slowly ripped it off. The glow of the arena light shone onto his powerful, drug- and genetically- enhanced muscles. He turned around to take two, beautiful swords from beneath his chair. The swords were in gold and jewel encrusted hilts. With one sword in each hand, and his usual dagger at the belt, he stepped onto the railing separating his seat from the arena, and jumped. He landed with agility, the sound of his feet landing the only sound that had penetrated the quietness that filled the room.
That handful of spectators sat and stared, dumbstruck, amazed, at the events they saw unfolding before them. It was only now that Lieutenant Brasidas, commander of security, realised that Captain Rumsfeld, commander of the Red Claw, was gone. Czerwon had explicitly warned Brasidas not to let Rumsfeld out of his sight. Indeed, in normal circumstances, Czerwon himself would have noticed Rumsfeld - who had been ordered to go about the ship unarmed - attempting to leave and immediately would have killed him. Rumsfeld must have felt that his time was running out; and an opportunity had suddenly leapt forth, an unexpected event, to escape from Czerwon's attention and that of Brasidas', for the lieutenant had been absorbed in the events that had taken place in front of him. Rumsfeld took the opportunity to sneak away behind Brasidas' back. The lieutenant knew that the captain's sudden disappearance could mean only one thing Captain Rumsfeld had set off to begin his mutiny and revolt against Chief Executive Officer Czerwon. The lieutenant, despite a strong longing to stay and see the outcome of the conflict about to start in the arena, quickly left in order to take part in another conflict that would surely begin within a few minutes.
Knight had been about to move towards the tiger in order to retrieve his sword, but Czerwon moved towards the tiger first, the same calm expression on his face, a fixed gaze in his eyes. The smuggler stayed back, his hand ready to draw the dagger hanging at his belt.
Czerwon, very slowly, turned his head to look at Knight. Czerwon's gaze then went back to the tiger.
The CEO's face suddenly filled with anguish. He took in a deep breath, then arching his body back, let out a terrible cry, that seemed to bounce up and down from the metal ceiling and roof. The CEO then went on to his knees and placed his hands gently around the animal's head. He carefully lifted it, to look at the darkened, dulled eyes, that would never burn with red fire ever again.
"You!" said Czerwon, his voice enraged and spiteful, his face contorted with violence. "You!" he said again, his anger directed against Knight. The CEO's eyes seemed to glow. Czerwon stood up, and he did not seem like a man, but something of fiercer origin.
And as Czerwon seemed to become more intimidating, so Knight's spirit became wilder. The smuggler felt like his body was enflaming with some kind of primordial energy; the tension in his body felt like the storage of an explosive force.
For Knight, too, did not seem like a man. Both of them, Czerwon and Knight alike were not facing each other as two people; each of them, rather, became the representation of all that they stood for. They were no longer men, those two, but two archetypes, readying themselves to a battle that would decide the supremacy of an ideal.
Czerwon spoke, forcing himself to mouth his words instead of letting them come out as unintelligible snarls, "My knowledge of history is a bit scant, but I seem to remember that the Knight family of smugglers were known for their swordplay."
"My blessed great-grandfather was the greatest swordsman of his generation. His techniques have been passed down to me."
"Then stand, little man, and take your stance! My anger has been aroused and it demands satisfaction! I must assert my dominance over you!"
Czerwon threw one of jewel hilted swords at Knight. The smuggler caught it, quickly drew it out of its hilt. He dropped the useless hilt to the floor. His left drew his dagger and the right brought the sword up to salute Czerwon.
Czerwon did not salute back, but roared, "I am the stronger! I will crush you!"
"Babylon!" Knight howled back.
The Venezia di Notte had been shadowing the Red Claw. Contessa Rhea Silvia had ordered this. It was dangerous for the Venezia if it was somehow detected, but Rhea wanted to be near in case, somehow, Smuggler Knight managed to return. For Rhea, despite herself, had faith that somehow she would see Knight again.
The arrest of Fabricius had been unpopular with the crew, although the man had been responsible for the loss of one of the few, precious darts that the pirates had in their possession. Nevertheless, once Rhea's fury had died down he was released.
The pirates were very much surprised at the signals that suddenly came in from the Claw. It was impossible to tell quite exactly what was going on. The systems picked up a large number of Corporate darts flying around the Claw like flies on a carcass. The bewildered pirates did not know that Brasidas had ordered some of his fliers into their ships in order to attack Rumsfeld's men from outside the hull. Because docking bays where the easiest to attack, Brasidas' darts concentrated on these targets, with the result that the soldiers of both sides quickly learnt to be wary around anything with an airlock.
Trusting her gut feeling, the Contessa decided to dispatch several darts. The situation would be monitored, and the darts would be close enough to respond to any opportunities that may arise. She decided that Fabricius would lead the darts.
And so Fabricius and his fellow pirates stepped into the parking bay, the same one where Fabricius had allowed Smuggler Knight to leave the Venezia di Notte. He felt as if the events were all meant to happen, part of some great destiny. It was as if some momentous change was about to take place, a great turning of the wheel of time, and he would have his part to play.
He made the sign of the cup, then knelt down, clasped his hands together, and prayed, "Sancta Maria, Blessed Virgin, Mother of Creation, hear my prayer.
"When a ship enters a storm, can you blame it if it overturns? When a man enters a desert, can you blame him if he collapses from thirst? Can you blame the wind, for dispersing when up against a mountain?
"Sancta Maria, in the same way, when the time of my greatest woe came upon me, I floundered too. And from these lips came blasphemy, and I cursed you for woes that were not your fault, though I did not realise that you were watching over me even then.
"Sancta Maria, I have since asked for your forgiveness, and like someone missing from the flock you found me, Shepherdess of mortals, and I felt your presence once more.
"Now I plead, Goddess Mary, for you to grant me my prayer. The forces of evil attacked your followers ten years ago. They destroyed the land and dispersed your followers. They sowed torment in the hearts of your people. They murdered those I who loved most, and in so doing they almost destroyed my soul.
"Sancta Maria, Blessed Virgin, Mother of Creation, you are a benevolent Goddess, a compassionate Goddess and a forgiving Goddess. But I believe that you are also a just Goddess. Grant me the ability to defend and avenge myself against those who wronged your followers. Grant me justice, oh Goddess, grant that my right hand may be stained with the blood of my enemies and that they breath their last gasp at my feet! Grant justice, that the wrongs inflicted on your followers are not unpunished!"
"Grant me this, that I will have the chance to slay those responsible for the destruction of Troy. In the name of my dead son, Blessed Virgin, grant me this!
"Ave Maria! Amen!"
The others, who were waiting for Fabricius to finish his prayer, also cried "Amen!", and they all made the sign of the cup.
Something rose up with Fabricius, fervent and zealous. "Pirates! Pray with me!"
Fierce and wild he cried, "Ave Maria!", the pirates also crying out, "Gratia plena!" frenetically making the sign of the cup, "bendicta tu in mulerbus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui," shaking and sweating with the primalness of it all, "Sancta Maria!" kneeling on the floor, at once humble and righteous, "Ora pro nibis peccatoribus," hands clasped tightly, closed like the jaws of a wolf, "Nunc!" faithful hearts beating like holy drums, "Et in hora mortis nostrae!" instinctual mad and insane : "AMEN!"
"Pirates! Companions! Brothers!" proclaimed Fabricius, standing up to address his fellows, zealous sweat on his forehead, his core thumping inside his chest. "Our scans indicate that the walls of Babylon are shaking to their foundations. The king of Babylon has devoured us, he has crushed us, he has made the universe an empty vessel which he swallowed up like a dragon, he has filled his belly and cast out what he did not want.64.
"But evil does not go unnoticed by our Goddess. The Corporation has sowed its seeds, and now we shall witness the fruit. There is no escape from the temporal relation of cause and effect, the wheel of time pushes forward to the conclusion. Let us go, and witness the power of the Blessed Goddess, for Babylon shall now be held responsible for the violence done unto us65!" Fabricius' rousing speech was answered with eager cries.
"Ave Maria! Viva Italia! Death to the Corp!" they shouted.
They scrambled for their darts, climbing in, sealing themselves inside. The engineers made sure the darts were fueled and fully armed then quickly scurried away with their equipment. The pack of darts launched and leapt from the Venezia di Notte, bearing towards the Red Claw.
Babylon! You wish to see who is dominant lord? Babylon! May I impale you with your own sword! And in your very own arena may I send
You to your deathly end!
Sir Knight, do you expect me to quake with fears? Can you hear the laughter ringing in your ears? Do I think I am a mortal
That you shall send through Hell's portal? I am no mere man, I am a God! In vain
Does a human like you attempt to end my reign : I am older than the ancient times,
I was the spur for the first of crimes,
I was desire personified as snake
I was that which reached to take
I was there when the first whore sold
Her body for the piece of gold
And when the first murderer slew
Because the things that were his were too few But do you think that I am evil?
A mere serpent of the Mammon devil?
I am not evil, I am good!
Of all Gods I the most benevolent stood Without me progress would not exist
Superstitions would still persist,
For the wise man does not think for free
And the inventor first imagines his fee.
And every single virtue has its price!
It is a greedy lust for place in paradise!
All things are done on earth for profit motive Where there is no greed all things are abortive All men would do is to get fat and to rot Is this what you'd have to be Man's lot? I am the spark! I am the fire!
I am all that is good! I am Greed, I'm Desire!
Babylon, your evil has in yourself a strange force awoken
It is not Czerwon but an ancient animal that has spoken
An animal that knows nothing but hunger
Unsatisfied its gnawing leads to an anger
That so overwhelms your mortal manly frame
That you yourself 'a god' would name
Mortal, so desperate for life that you endeavour
To rob others so that you may live forever
And in robbing and killing the one I cherished
Your body stayed alive but your soul has perished
Babylon, what good is evading Death's fatal dart
If you must sacrifice the humanness of your heart?
Babylon, you would destroy all that is beautiful
And leave a void fit only to be ugly and hateful.
This thought I would hold to be true
That you would consume all till nothing was left but you.
Babylon, your evil has in me, too, a force discovered
This power, Honour, against your Greed has uncovered
As if his body were possessed by all the Angels of Hell: ) I ask Honour, what is this coming battle for?
It replies that this, this is Holy War!
Only Thalia and Ansar were left as spectators. Thalia's hand was to her mouth, her eyes wide and her heart was beating so hard that she could hear the rushing of blood in her ears.
Within the arena, Czerwon and Knight suddenly rushed at each other. Both of them, masters in their art, fought with such speed that their movements almost blurred. The swords were made of some material that, though light, was tough, hard and sharp. Knight's arm was not used to a sword so light; but his mind, in a frenzy of hyperalertness, compensated.
Each one of the opponents attempted for the kill, thrusting the sword straight at a mortal target. But both of them managed to parry swiftly and rush into fresh counterattack. Whenever the opponents had their own blade deflected they immediately had to deflect their opponent's - the attacks and defences carried on in fierce continuity several occurrences per second. It was not enough to stand in the same place for sometimes the parries had to be supplemented by dodging and the two foes locked themselves in an exquisite dance around the corpse of the tiger.