Tower of Sighs
by Danielle L. Parker
James Blunt, captain of the Pig’s Eye and a rogue trader on the edge of Human space, receives a summons to meet with Kzirth, one of the dread Asp. Blunt’s mission — which he cannot refuse — is to rescue an uncle of Kzirth who is trapped in the Tower of Sighs, a prison that exists outside of time and space.
“I’m afraid,” the thin man said, lighting a cheroot while he pensively regarded the pile of chips, “you’ve cleaned me out, Captain Blunt. Quite a run of luck. Remarkable.”
James Sherman Blunt, lounging on the other side of the polished rosewood, smiled thinly in response. His left hand engulfed a crystalline glass of richly colored bourbon. His right hand rested, beneath the concealment of the table, on his thigh, where it covered a small, deadly shape.
True, Astral was more urbane than Blunt’s usual haunts, and David Mortimer, his host, known more for his suave soirees and ability to steer a questionably obtained objet d’art into the right hands. Still, it was wise to be prepared when one had just won, by means more foul than fair, the not-insignificant sum of twelve thousand, six hundred and thirty-two Earth Monetary Units.
“It was the third hand,” he answered. “Figure you started to lose right around then, Mortimer.”
“Ah, yes,” said his companion. “That was when I passed my first marked card. You noticed, of course. Really, Captain Blunt, I hardly expected you to prove more of a rogue than I.” David Mortimer puffed his thin cheroot. A fall of his smooth brillantined hair concealed one eye. The other eye, cold as a boa’s, examined the final hands on the table.
“The ten of diamonds you showed in the fourth hand,” Mortimer continued. “Do you mind telling me how? No? Purely professional curiosity, I assure you.”
Captain Blunt shook his head. “You’re still holding your cards to your chest, Mortimer. Lay ’em on the table. Why’d you ask me here tonight? Not to lose twelve thousand feathers to fly with.”
“I’m sure the pleasure of your company was sufficient reason,” murmured his host, with an upward flick of the one visible eye, and the faintest ghost of a smile on his sunless, dissolute face.
Captain Blunt swirled the richly colored liquor with a gentle twist of his hand. “No more dancing,” he countered. “Getting tired of the tune. What’s on your mind, Mortimer?”
David Mortimer shrugged. His silk dinner jacket was masterfully cut to conceal the narrowness of his shoulders and his hollow chest, so his deprecatory movement attained a wry, devil-may-care elegance in spite of those impediments.
“Ah. Well, if you insist. A small matter, Captain. I was asked to convey a message to you. From an old friend of yours, so I was told.”
Blunt raised his glass. “I don’t have old friends,” he replied, with a glint in his half-veiled eyes. “They die young.”
Mortimer raised a brow in feigned surprise. “Really? How appropriate.” With a quick movement he stubbed out his cheroot in a silver-engraved receptacle. “Well, I was not made cognizant of the message itself, nor, to tell the truth, of its source. I was merely asked to forward a small communication for a small fee.” He smiled thinly. “I’ll have to reach inside my jacket. Do you mind, Blunt?”
Captain Blunt drew his right hand from beneath the table. He rested it and the small steely object he held on the table. “You’ll be careful.”
David Mortimer nodded. “Of course.” His hand sought inside his jacket. He withdrew a small white square. The sealed envelope was un-addressed, but something bulging and loose inside shifted as he held it out.
“Yours, sir. I am no more than the humble go-between. Be assured I shall forget my small service to you and your friend as soon as we part.”
Captain Blunt shook his head. “You open it.”
For the first time Mortimer’s suave façade quivered. His gray eyes darted to the door. He licked his lips with a swift flicker of tongue, and his elegantly shaped brows compressed.
“I would prefer,” he hissed, leaning forward, “to know nothing of this matter. Nothing more, Blunt, do you understand? I was paid, I admit more than a small fee, but it will not be worth it if...“
“Open it,” Captain Blunt said. The muzzle of the little gun wandered upward.
With a resigned grimace, David Mortimer ran the edge of his thumb under the flap of the envelope. Hesitantly, he turned up his hand. He shook the missive. The loose object within clattered out with unexpected suddenness. Mortimer, forgetful of the gun centered on his heart, leapt up with a shriek and knocked his chair askew. His face, pale as it had been, blanched to the color of lard.
“Get out,” he choked, casting the innocuous envelope down with trembling fingers. “Get out, Blunt, and take that thing with you! Take your money! Just go, and if you let yourself be seen leaving here, I’ll...” He raised a clenched, passionate fist. “I’ll have you killed! Get out!”
Captain Blunt pocketed his weapon. He picked up the envelope. A single plain card was tucked inside, inscribed, in a careful, calligraphic hand, with a set of numbers he recognized as star coordinates. What stars they identified, he had no clue. The other object was still on the table, but he did not touch it.
“You’ll have to destroy that,” he said. “Put it in an incinerator. Use tongs and metal gloves to pick it up. One prick and you’re a dead man, Mortimer.”
David Mortimer inclined his head in curt agreement. He had mastered his shock, but the one gray eye glittered.
“I’ll do that,” he said. “Don’t come here again, Blunt. I can’t afford to have Earth find out I had any dealings with... with them!”
Blunt rose to his feet and holstered his gun inside his dinner jacket. As he let himself out, he glanced back. His caution was unnecessary. Mortimer paid him no heed. The debonair art fence stared, with horrid fascination, at the distressing object on his polished table.
That object was a curved, oversized claw, with a tiny clear bead shining at the tip of its razor curve. One of Earth’s ancient carnivorous raptors might have sported such a monstrous weapon. But none, as far as Blunt knew, ever dripped a poison as deadly as congealed on that needle-fine tip. Indeed, Blunt knew of no remedy for the lethal venom of an Asp.
More than two days passed before Blunt could request release from Astral’s orbit. A prudent man took precautions before embarking on such a journey, fruitless as those precautions might prove, among the companions he suspected awaited at the end of that journey.
One precaution was a call on a certain man who ran a rare books store on a winding street of Starry, Astral’s largest city. 607 Lumina Lane wound through an exclusive borough. Blunt, disembarking from public transportation, pulled his hat down to conceal his conspicuously pale hair. After a pleasant stroll, he turned into a pretty lane edged by quiet brick facades and houses with tall iron-shuttered windows.
The aspect was charming. A terrestrial ginger cat dozed upon a flower-filled stoop. From the open door wafted the familiar scent of roasting coffee and the murmur of voices in relaxed conversation. A stylishly garbed old woman, sweeping the steps before her lingerie shop, nodded as if she had always known him as he passed by. Somewhere, in one of the upper rooms, a pianist gently but expertly fingered his keys.
Strolling leisurely on, Blunt turned before a red brick building. Its narrow front was almost hidden by the bluish foliage of a flourishing Astralian bower-bloom. A fading wooden sign, depicting a bespectacled white terrier with a book in its paw, swung overhead. The scrip declared ABEL VERITY’S RARE BOOKS.
Blunt entered. As he closed the door with its decorative iron barring, he heard a distant chime announce his presence. The interior was unexpectedly dim and slightly cold. The distinctive smell of moldering paper, ancient glue, age-softened leather, and terrestrial tobacco smoke filled his nostrils. Shelf after shelf of books disappeared into shadows of the high ceiling. Piles of other tomes, awaiting sorting and shelving, encroached on narrow aisles.
Blunt heard a faint, papery rustling, then slow, deliberate steps. A tall man in a faded, bulky, hand-knit gray sweater, pipe in hand, appeared at the distant end of the long aisle. Abel Verity was slightly stooped and gaunt. But at one time his had been a powerful physique. The silver collar-length hair combed straight back from his forehead was still thick and lustrous.
“Ah!” he said in a gentle bass roughened from years of incessant tobacco abuse. “Mr. Carver. You’ve come for that first edition of Barnes’ Journey to the Rim of Human Space, no doubt? Come with me. I have it in the back room. You’ll want to view it privately.”
Blunt, hunching his broad shoulders to avoid the pressing books, followed his guide down the narrow aisle. Down steps, in the rear of the establishment, was a small inner sanctum. His host, without further words, threw a series of substantial bolts to lock the fortified door behind them, activated an inconspicuously placed scrambler and checked its readouts.
“Well!” Verity murmured, with a questioning lift of his iron-gray brows, as he settled behind his paper-strewn desk. “I am surprised to see you, Captain Blunt. Should I be alarmed?”
Blunt, removing his hat, sat gingerly atop the questionable springs of the guest chair. “I’m going to need a different volume, Verity. Got one called Going Recklessly Beyond Human Space?”
His host, glancing up with a humorous glint in his astute brown eyes, relit a pipe with deliberate fingers. “I think,” Abel Verity said, “that volume will be written by you, my friend. So it’s her again, is it?”
An indefinable unease passed fleetingly over the captain’s face. “I prefer to think of Kzirth as a him,” he growled.
An ironic quirk touched his host’s lips, but he made no comment. “I presume you have something of interest for me?”
Blunt withdrew a small white card from his leather jerkin and passed it across the desk. “This.”
Abel Verity turned the small square in his fingers. After examining it front and back with both an old-fashioned magnifying glass and an electronic scanner, he rose. Opening an enormously large, well-worn book resting on a waist-high shelf, he turned its tissue-thin leaves, consulting the card as he read a page or two in thoughtful silence.
“Dvorak’s Star Concordance,” he commented, returning the card to his guest. “Still the best general desktop reference, even if increasingly dated. Well, I need not tell you what you already know, Captain. That star lies across the border in Aspian space. There is a small signals processing station, of no particular importance to our reptilian friends. Or to us, for the most part. A discreet choice of a rendezvous.”
Blunt returned the card to his jacket. “That’s all I know so far. I’ll leave tonight.”
Abel Verity laid aside his pipe to offer his hand. “Keep in touch. If you can. As interesting I find as your situation, you’re on your own once you cross the border. Nothing we can do if... but I’m sure you understand.”
“Certainly,” Blunt replied, with a touch of coldness. “If the snakes croak me, I’ll consider you’ve said your goodbyes already.”
A grim smile touched the purported bookseller’s lips. “Well, there are a few destroyers, here and there, who might be called on in pressing circumstances. But not in these circumstances. When you pass over the legally defined border, Captain, you are, by definition, out of Earth’s protective sphere. Let us hope you have a friend waiting for you. Whatever its present gender.”
Blunt resettled his fedora and took his leave with a perfunctory nod. Abel Verity settled with seeming placidity behind his desk, his juice-stained fingers expertly arranging a fresh bowl of tobacco. But when Blunt glanced back as he closed the door, he saw Verity’s thick gray brows were drawn. Beneath half-closed lids, the spymaster pondered some troubling thought in grim abstraction.
A border drawn in empty space is not distinctive. Yet Blunt, emerging from the final leg of his journey, felt a hollow tingle in his belly as Pig’s Eye shuddered into normal space. Should the owners of this particular astral real estate object to his presence, one small trader had no recourse but resignation to his fate. He had traveled beyond that neutral territory known as the Rim, where human and Asp mingled and feinted in a falsely civil, occasionally bloody dance.
Humans who wandered the wrong side of this border, by accident or intent, rarely returned. And Blunt had no doubt Pig’s Eye, though she was the chief beneficiary of a recent monetary windfall, could not outrun those predators known to roam this side of the fence.
And there was one of those predators. With the alarm klaxon ringing in his ears, Blunt scanned his boards. A great indigo-dark shape, long as a planetoid, floated on the far side of the small signals processing station Verity had referred to.
Its electronic presence was chillingly mute. The comp, recently reinforced with military-spec databases purchased with that windfall, at least identified the ship as a top-of-the-line Tzormil class vessel: one of the rarely seen flagships of the Aspian fleet. Blunt stabbed the maddening alarm to silence.
He could only hope it hosted that particular friend. For now the warship moved to intercept. Blunt’s hand quivered on the edge of his boards, but he did not attempt to evade. In mere minutes the great planet killer ranged with its belly turned toward him like the sleek underside of a shark. In the dull, lightless flank, where its skin was darker than the infinity beyond, a yellow-lit maw appeared. Invisible tentacles tugged inexorably on Pig’s Eye.
The cockpit plunged into intense blackness as every system on the ship suddenly died. The whine of the air recycling, the myriad small groans and creaks and background noises that signaled a living Pig’s Eye, fell mute. Not even emergency back-up lights alleviated the stygian pitch.
Blunt’s breathing rasped unnaturally loud as he rapped his fingers on his chair-arm. This particular trick was not one he had anticipated. He allowed himself to contemplate, for several grim moments, how difficult it was going to be to re-boot a clean comp after such a catastrophic electronic suffocation. If he were allowed back on board to try.
Pig’s Eye moved, not under her own volition. Blunt felt gravity, slightly less than Earth norm, enfold his limbs. A sinking sensation; then a jarring contact with the deck. Finally, stillness and silence. Blunt fumbled for the emergency torch. That proved to be useless when finally located. The switch clicked cheerfully and fruitlessly. Nothing electrical worked. Well, damned if he was going to make them pry him out like meat from a crab claw. Unbuckling with difficulty in the inky black, he felt his way to the hatch.
“Jamesss Ssssherman Blunt,” said the foremost of the tall reptilian beings that awaited him. Its English was so hissing the captain took seconds to decipher his own name. “You will come with usss.”
To be continued...
Copyright © 2011 by Danielle L. Parker