By Cat Rambo
Read by The Word Whore of Air Out My Shorts
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An Escape Pod Original!
All stories by Cat Rambo
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Rated 13 and up for language
by Cat Rambo
Most people called her Phoenix. Her former crew used “Captain” before that and “Sir” afterward. Ruby and Ada respectively called her “mother” and “g’ma.” Her hair was silver – not white, but genuine, metallic silver, a long fall against her pale blue skin, the color of a shadow on a piece of willow ware, that made her seems ageless despite the century and more that lay upon her, not to mention all those decades of pirating.
They said she’d been the best slideboard rider of her time, and perhaps the best battleship pilot of all time, back before her parents and sister were killed and she turned rogue.
They said she had done terrible things in her pirate days.
They said she’d been ruthless in her rise to power, moving up the chain from god knows where, an origin she’d never, ever spoken of to anyone, not even her own daughter. She’d killed some captains, slept with others, called in favors and maneuvered and betrayed and seized power with a brutal efficiency that still underlay what now seemed a calm and orderly, rules-bound government that she and Mukopadhyay had created.
They said she had killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people — sometimes at a distance, sometimes up close, with knife or fist. They said she’d killed a crew member when the shuttle she was in needed its mass reduced and the man hadn’t even argued, just nodded and stepped into the airlock, never said a word as the door closed and the lock cycled, staring in at his captain as she stared back.
They said time had mellowed her. They said working with Mukopadhyay, even though he was crazy as a spiral comet, had mellowed her.
They said helping colonize a whole planet, setting up its government, the rich and intricate power structure that now encompassed the whole solar system called Shiva, had mellowed her.
Not to mention motherhood, they said, a change which no pregnant woman escapes. It alters the hormones in your body. Softens you. Makes you less rash, less harsh. Takes away even the sharpest edge, not to mention the hormonal craziness, which some women never recover from, after all.
Sure, changes you in a good way, they were quick to say. But definitely softer.
They said she’d never do those sorts of things now.
Phoenix left the curtain fall back into place. The blue velvet slid silently. The street lamp’s stripe of white light that had sliced across her face as she looked out was extinguished as quickly as a candle in the high-ceilinged dressing room’s dim light.
She said, “The weather is terrible for this. It always is. Why we chose this time of year for Founding Day, I don’t know.”
Her gown was armor and stiff brocade and jewels, the last crusted along hem and collar, cobalt crystals fastened in place with a netting of braided gold thread. More such jewels made up the elaborate earrings she wore, which ran along the lobe and upward, flaring to cup the almost-elvish point.
Gareth guessed that none of it was her original appearance. And what did that mean, that this woman choose to present herself as a creature of blue glass and silver lines, that she’d chosen to have two moth-like antennae implanted on her forehead, curled close and hidden as eyebrows most of the time, but capable of uncurling to sample the air? Few saw those.
Only his status as latest lover, as consort-in-training, had allowed him ingress to her bedchamber and the moments when she lay against silver satin that blended with the shimmer of her hair.
Hard to imagine those moments now, when she looked forged of authority and iron.
She belied that look — was ever woman so changeable? — as she came towards him, stooped to where he sat on the foot of the bed, pulling on his dress boots. She brushed her lips across his forehead.
He had been with her only a month or so. He was learning to predict her moods, but he had never seen this one before, this brittle chill, the inner intensity shining through like a flame trapped in ice.
He ventured, “Are you looking forward to the parade?” She ran her slender hands, nails tinted matching silver, through her hair, shaking it loose so it fell gracefully. He remembered those nails raking down his back and bit his lip to hide his arousal.
As though reading his mind, she flashed a smile. A tiny blue gem was set in her front incisor, barely a pinhead sparkle that somehow, impossibly, made her eyes seem even more cobalt, a sapphire blaze in her narrow face. They said she was so old, but she never seemed old to him. Adult, perhaps. More experienced, certainly, but good about sharing that experience, both in and out of bed.
She said, “Parades are always tedious, but they are important. People like to see their leaders smiling at them, but they like a day off to celebrate even better.”
She spoke as though instructing him. He nodded, wanting her to know that he was committing it all to memory.
Then he thought, “She doesn’t want a lackey as her mate. You’ll never be more than bedwarmer unless you prove a challenge now and again.”
So he said, “You increased taxes. Aren’t you worried about some protest?”
Her eyes scanned his face. Amusement tugged like a delicate fishhook at the side of her mouth.
She challenged him in return. “But the tax increase is very little, less than half a percent, and only on specialized goods.”
He felt more certain now. “Luxury goods, of the sort merchants need to mark up and sell to our tourists, who bring in over 600 million Union credits each solar year.”
“Good,” she said. Warmth flushed through him at the praise. Her next words took it all back. “You have overlooked, though, how such people act. They will not protest publicly.”
She straightened her cuffs and checked herself over as she moved to the door.
He rose. “They won’t?” he said uncertainly. “But surely they will act.”
“Of course they will. They have already tried emissaries, bribes, and threats. But the next act will not be a protest.”
She paused in the doorway to look him over. The slightest of nods pronounced him adequate to the occasion.
“What will it be?” he asked.
“An attempted assassination, of course.”
He followed her down the corridor, struggling to keep up, feeling out of step and short of breath. She didn’t march like a soldier, but her long-legged stride ate up the distance with impatient speed.
“You expect an assassination?” he managed to huff out.
“Attempt. Don’t look so surprised, I’ve told you before they’re an occasional thing. It’s why both of us carry firearms and other safeguards, why bodyguards will be with us on the flyer. There have been other measures; police have cleared the rooftops and checked empty buildings. But anything I do is simply making it harder for them, not impossible.”
Aide Luci coming, Phoenix’s satchel in hand, down the corridor.
Yes, he’d been trained for this sort of thing, even undergone tests. All of it seemed dim and misty now, dim and misty as the rest of his life before her. That was what Phoenix was like. More real than everyone around her, somehow. Larger than life. A picture in sharp focus that you could never look away from.
A step behind her as she went out through the doorway, flanked by bodyguards in subdued grey armor. The street just as grey in morning light, the glow of the buildings completely gone by now as the acitinic blue street lights flickered out, leaving the ends of the street blurry as though only remembered. The flyer was cobalt and silver too, open at the top though a half-invisible rain-shield kept the blue leather upholstery dry. She slid in, the body guards behind her. A moment’s fuss as they settled, and then Gareth stepped up to sit beside her.
She smiled sideways. But he could tell her mind was mostly elsewhere, scanning the street, looking up to where they’d join with the parade in a few moments.
The buildings here were ancient slick-stone — the one they had just come from had been the third built, half a century earlier, when the planet had first been settled. Exposure to city air and smoke had faded the cream of the bricks, tangled with green threads, to a dull and unremarkable brown that would require sand-blasting to bring it back to life.
He would bet Phoenix could tell him, down to a penny, how much that would cost and where the funds for it might best come, who might be coaxed into sponsoring or half-paying or providing the materials for the project.
Her attention was entirely elsewhere now. She turned back to speak to Luci as the aide handed in a basket with water bottles and refreshments.
The flyer shuddered and moved. They both looked forward towards the parade’s bustle, but Gareth stole one more glance. Her profile looked like one from a coin, pale blue against the silvery sky, the shimmer of the water-repelling shield. He felt a surge of admiration.
She didn’t care much whether or not he was here, though. The person she’d be looking for during the parade would be…
…her daughter was usually here on these occasions, Phoenix thought. She missed Ruby. But the girl — if she could still call her that, when her daughter was pushing seventy — had sent word that she could not make this Founding Day, though she regretted it.
Phoenix couldn’t blame her. If she’d been called off-world on business to a pleasure-oriented tourist system known for its sybaritic luxury and hot springs, she might have lingered there herself, particularly to avoid an always rain-ridden and pedantic speech filled occasion, a choreographed ceremony whose rituals hadn’t changed in decades.
And it wasn’t as though she had no staff with her, or company. Gareth was proving out well this time. Gentler and less assertive, perhaps, than she would have liked. More prone to questioning himself.
But everything was give and take, checks and balances. Rules and equations governed this sort of thing. A brash man would irk you by acting before thinking, while his shyer counterpart would ask too many questions first.
The noise of the parade was crowd murmur and vendor shout, and a brassy wheedle of a band, a clatter of drums, pause and rattle and someone shouting. This close she could see a troop marching by, the individual orange helmets sun-colored, their white puttees flashing in the dim and rainy light. The last of the soldiers were past. The flyer pulled in behind them, water splashing up underneath.
Another group was coming up behind, musicians: a singer wailing high and nasal with a troop of castanets and pipes and sitar around him, but the musicians kept back as they had been instructed, she saw as she made sure one bodyguard was watching behind, the other turned forward, as they had been instructed. On either side, the crowds were kept back with a webbed fence that guaranteed there would be no rushing forward to swarm the flyer as had happened eight years ago.
Ruby had done what she could to arrange things in the few weeks before she’d been called away. Phoenix might tease her daughter about having been lured from duty by the glitter of the foremost gambling casino and the planet that housed it, but she had to admit Ruby had done her best before departing.
The parade route was less than a kilometer. At the state house, there would be a brief ceremony outside and perhaps the light rain would have given up by the time they got there, but probably not. That would be the moment of maximum exposure, maximum danger. That would be when the merchants made their move. More a declaration than an actual attempt at killing, a statement that they were taking all of this seriously and therefore she should too. But there was still a chance of dying if you didn’t take care in these situations. And after all that, there would be a chance to go home and read her eight-year-old granddaughter Ada a good night story.
She ran through preparations for the speech in her head; that was why she almost missed the flash of light coming at her from the sidelines. Her tooth twinged, a good hard burst of pain guaranteed to seize her attention without distracting her.
Adrenaline kicked in. Her brain sang with energy.
Time slowed down. The slash of raindrops became single points in the air around her, globes in which a perfect vision of the street was reflected, each astonished face, one expression after another until there, that one wasn’t astonished but was watching to see what was happening.
She raised one hand and shot him, shot the bundle of energy sailing towards her with the other, reckless of how the fragments might scatter, knowing only that it must be prevented from reaching them and detonating. People screamed but the moment was stretched so taut that the sound was blurred as though everything was submerged under water.
Gareth was turning, mouth open in shock. She had little time to spare him. Now was when they’d find out whether all that expensive training was really worth it or not.
Back to survey the crowd. Were there more assassins lurking, backups? She always had them, herself. No plan so foolproof that it didn’t need some sort of backup. There? No. There? Yes. Another shot and that did startle the onlookers as the second assassin fell.
At least that cut the ceremony short, she thought.
And indeed, disposing of the bodies, dispersing the crowds, took less time than the ceremony would have. Phoenix questioned her second, a lean, restless-eyed man named Tam, who had no light to shed on any of it, having not been here at the time and having found nothing in his investigations upon arriving.
They were in the palace, the oldest and most secure building on the planet. What did it say of the departed Mukopadhyay that he had built this structure before anything else? It had housed workers, cooks, initial troops, to be sure. Even so it was given to corners and moments of excessive grandeur that Gareth would have found embarrassing to the point of dispensing with the building.
What Phoenix thought of it, Phoenix wasn’t sayng. She’d spent plenty of nights in its royal suites, even during the days when she’d been fighting in space while Mukopadhyay got the world in order and shipped her the supplies she needed to make the Union stand down and admit that she and her fellow pirate had the right to establish their own world.
Tam would have been part of those days, Gareth thought enviously. Tam would know how she wanted to be treated now, if she wanted solicitude or tenderness, or if reminding her of what had happened was the worst possible thing to do.
The door crashed open. Everyone tensed or turned or both. Ruby stood in the doorway, her namesake hair flowing around her like a comet, dressed in a uniform of colors to match, oranges and reds and yellows. She rushed forward with her arms outstretched.
“Mother! Are you all right?”
Phoenix suffered herself to be hugged, an uncharacteristic gesture and went so far as to hug her daughter back. Ruby could get away with gestures she wouldn’t tolerate from others. Demonstrative in the bedroom, she would not kiss Gareth or even touch him skin to skin in public.
For a moment Gareth saw the red strands of Ruby’s hair mingle with Phoenix’s silver, like blood sliding over a knife. A glossy run quick as thought, a ripple. A trick of the light. That still, somehow, gave him an atavistic squirm of unease deep in his belly.
Ruby was demanding Phoenix return to her home, where she’d be safest.
Watching, Gareth shook his head and was abashed when Phoenix noticed and turned to him. “Why not?”
“You can’t give in to intimidation. You said it would be the merchants. Isn’t it best to show no sign of caring about the attempt?”
A slow nod. “Sound reasoning there.”
“Nonsense!” Ruby exclaimed. She glared at Gareth with angry intensity. “You have no idea how worried I was. You need to go where the security is certain.” She hovered near her mother.
Over her shoulder, Phoenix’s eyes met Gareth’s. She managed a shrug without a twitch of motion, a resigned slant of eyebrow indicating that she’d humor her daughter, as she had all her life.
Anger twitched. He suppressed it Ruby was her child — he was a recent acquisition. There was no reason to think she’d favor his advice over her daughter’s insistence.
He turned away and looked at the holo-screen on the wall, a depiction of Phoenix and Mukopadhyay first landing on this planet, then called X-109-E215. They’d been looking for a suitable system for several years at that point, a place where pirate spoils might be used to build something. Something for them to rule.
Phoenix and Ruby were conferring with Luci, arranging the trip home. It must have proved a shock with Mukopadhyay died last year, he thought. Making Phoenix sole ruler. Even with her hands-off approach, some changes must have occurred for people to resent.
How long did she think she’d live? Would she step down at some point to let Ruby — or her granddaughter Ada, whose portrait in an old-fashioned locket was the only jewelry Phoenix wore — take over, rule in her place, start the long chain of lineage, of hereditary rule which Phoenix and Mukopadhyay had put in place, and which the childless deceased was no longer part of.
Phoenix reached a hand out to beckon to him, without looking around. Summoning him like a pet or servant.
He should have resented it. Perhaps she would love him more if he showed that kind of fire. But as always the desire to please her was stronger than any other emotion. How had she gotten such a hold on him?
He couldn’t say.
He wasn’t really even sure how they’d met.
Phoenix’s household was used to odd comings and goings. The arrival, along with the usual retinue, swelled further by the addition of Ruby’s guards, since Phoenix’s daughter had chosen to add herself to the party, did not phase the servants in the least.
Gareth had been told that this was the most secure stronghold on the planet. He believed it, but the location secretly clenched at his nerves. Underwater, buried in a crest of volcanic rock. Far above was a slick-stone farm, an immense mat of seaweed and the prized mollusks, their shit sifting down into the array of funnels and molds a few feet below, which would cast the hardened substance into the white and green bricks, slick and soapy to the touch, capable of absorbing light and heat, of which so many of this planet’s buildings were constructed.
It had psi-deadening properties as well, which was why it lined so many rooms of the rock-carved fortress. Even Phoenix’s bedchamber, a round room ribbed like a sea shell, with an arched mirror, its frame carved with flowers, facing the great bed on which he’d tried to prove himself to her on more than one occasion, each time left with equal measures of hope and doubt that he’d succeeded.
Again tonight. The same reflection afterward, hearing the susurration of her (surely contented?) breath, the fan’s sigh.
And imagined noises, the creak of walls strained by inward-pressing water, a rush of invading liquid. He knew it could not happen. There were failsafes.
So why did the notion haunt him so?
Lost in that chain of thought, he almost missed the distant crack of a shot. But the frenzy of them that followed had him off the bed, shaking Phoenix’s shoulder.
She came awake as quickly as a cat, listening before she asked, “What do you know of what’s going on?”
The question’s implication stunned him.
“Nothing!” he said. “Think it’s the merchants again?”
She was already rifling through a dresser, assembling weapons. She tossed him a gun and belt of flechette darts. “Hurry up. I’ll go get Ruby, you go ahead.”
She pressed a combination of roses on the mirror’s rim. It whispered aside to reveal a tunnel’s dark mouth.
“Where does it go?” he asked.
“Someplace people won’t be shooting at you.”
Still, something about the blackness made him balk. “Wouldn’t it be better to make a stand?”
“When we don’t know who or how many or even what they want?” Her look said she had a suspicion as to the last.
The door to the room opened. Ruby stood there.
“Good,” Phoenix said. “I was about to come get you. We’ve got to get out of here.”
“What’s the hurry?” Ruby asked. Her voice was tight with a thrill of suppressed pleasure and excitement. The tone that puzzled Gareth, as did the fact that she was, unlike them, wearing armor. He saw her soldiers, guns pointed, barrels brought to bear on Phoenix, who stood expressionless as a column.
She and Ruby locked eyes. They stood as though no one else was there, ignoring everyone else in the room. The moment spun out, hung suspended.
He saw Phoenix’s lip quiver, the barest motion. Ruby saw it too. “Ahhhhhhhhh,” she said, years of satisfaction in her voice. “There it is.”
She stepped aside. The soldiers came forward to pull Gareth and Phoenix apart.
Ruby separated them, which in theory Phoenix approved of, because it was exactly what she would have done. Keep allies divided, guessing. Easier to turn them on each other that way, easier to make them feel scared and friendless and alone. She’d done it herself on occasion.
Very different when you were on this side of it. Though she still had doubts. Gareth had seemed innocent and indignant, but hadn’t his slowness been the reason they hadn’t escaped?
She shoved away the thought that they would have been caught no matter what. She wouldn’t have left her daughter behind. She wouldn’t have thought her daughter capable of this.
If she couldn’t trust her own flesh, how could she trust Gareth? This time, she’d told the mediprocs to counteract the bravado that had led to his last betrayal. She’d told them to give him more memories of mistakes, to make him more self-reflective, more capable of learning from his experiences.
She’d thought that this version might be a keeper, and she’d hoped so. She loved the way he looked, the dark brown eyes, the neat Van Dyke trimmed tight to his jaw that gave him a hawkish appearance. He was pretty now, but he would age into handsomeness, if she could ever come up with a version that didn’t have to be wiped and reprogrammed.
She’d hoped this time. But he was prone to self-question, uncertain in a way that unsuited him as bed partner.
She’d been thinking before this that she’d give him a few more days before she sent him back and tried again. Was that what Ruby had objected to, Phoenix’s use of someone created to and by her whim? Some people had radical notions about such things, but she didn’t know where the girl would have picked up such ideas.
When she was brought before Ruby, she scanned her daughter’s face, trying to see what might have gone wrong. Perhaps an old enemy had intercepted Ruby, mind-wiped her, reprogrammed her. In these days people didn’t know what was real memory, what was the remnants of training tapes or immersives or rogue advertisements, the kind that plagued every civilized planet.
Soldiers flanked Ruby, watching Phoenix as though she was a stranger. Off-world mercenaries? Where and when had her daughter hired them? When had this plot hatched?
Her heart ached. She must have done something to precipitate this. It was a mistake, a misunderstanding, a minor breakdown in communication.
She searched her daughter’s eyes. But there was nothing there for her to read.
“Why did you make it come to this?” Ruby said.
The accusation stunned her. “I’m not the one with soldiers.”
“The only way I could step up was to force you to step down.”
“You couldn’t ask? I will step aside, my dear. So much of this was built for you.”
“To taunt me with,” Ruby said. “To show me what you could do, so I would be perpetually found wanting.”
It was like trying to play a game whose rules were hidden. What could she say or do to coax her daughter back to sanity?
“I thought about killing you,” Ruby said, and the words were as painful as any knife blow. She smiled. “But there is a less cruel way.”
She gestured. A surgical robot rolled forward. “You and Mukopadhyay made the rules, I simply play by them. No one can rule that is not physically whole.”
Another of Mukopadhyay’s bizarre clauses. Had he thought such a day might come? She could see herself reflected in the robot’s carapace as it approached.
“What should it be, that was another question,” Ruby mused. “So many options.”
It would be her eyes. Surely. That was the worst she could think of. At some point she’d bitten her lip without knowing and copper lingered on her tongue.
But they stretched out her hands as the robot came close enough to touch.
Gareth had yelled and pounded on the door and and eaten the sandwich and drunk the water provided him. He’d used the pisser twice and was starting to think about using it for its other function.
Where was Phoenix? What had Ruby done with her?
He lay down again on the cot and tried to calm himself. Tried to think rationally. Tried to think what to do.
The thinnest line of light showed between the door and the floor. Gareth moved to it, staying pressed there, hoping for some sign of what his captors intended for both him and Phoenix. At last the sound of footfalls rewarded the hours of lying on the cold floor, face pressed against grit while his cramped muscles ached.
He saw her boots, her legs, tried to strain upwards. No glimpse of her face – but her hands, what was odd about them?
They passed and he saw it full on. They’d cut off her thumbs, applied plas bandages but not even tried to hide the loss. His eyes burned at the thought.
More footsteps, but not dragging a prisoner this time.
He managed to scramble away from the door before it opened.
He tried to resist, to make demands, to do anything, but they dragged him inexorably before her. Before Ruby. She smiled at him from where she sat at Phoenix’s desk.
“Gareth,” she said.
They’d never spoken much. Afew words of introduction, here and there, but for the most part she had ignored him as she would have a hound at her mother’s heels. Now she rose, came around the desk, and stooped down to where they’d forced him to kneel.
Her hands were hard on his face, propping his chin up. She tilted his face to examine it like a cup or saucer she was contemplating buying.
“There you are,” she said. The same deep purr of happiness was in her voice. “I’ve been looking forward to this part.”
Bewilderment and panic ruled him at the tone. It was the sound of a cat being served a delicious morsel.
“Do you have any clue?” she said, and pushed his chin up even further to search his eyes. “It always amazes me how she manages that. You think you’d see a picture or talk to someone who’d give it away. But they’re all better trained than that.”
He kept silent. She’d tell him what this was all about soon enough. Any verbal reaction would only make her happier.
“You’re not the first Gareth,” she said. “Not even the second or third. There’s been so many of you, all unsatisfactory. You should be thanking me. Another few days and I’m sure she would have flushed you too. They say mindwipe’s agonizing, but no one ever remembers it, so they don’t bother fixing that.”
Spots danced in front of his eyes and he fought for breath. This wasn’t true. It was some mind game, lies to torment and break him so he could be used against Phoenix.
But… there were things that hadn’t made sense at the time, that made sense now.
He wanted to be away from here, to think. He needed time to think. He’d never been fast at that sort of thing. Ne was the kind of person who needed to mull matters over in solitude.
Ruby was watching him, her expression eager and expectant, somehow shooting every thought down before he could even think it.
“Maybe not thank me,” she said into the silence. “After all, you don’t know what I might do with you.”
She smiled. It was the smile of a small and happy child, a smile that didn’t belong on that haughty face, which transformed it into a cruel ideogram. “As I said, I’ve been looking forward to this part. My mother’s been obsessed with you all her life.” She paused and bared her teeth. How long had she rehearsed this?
“All her life,” she said. “Or rather, even since she killed the real you.”
Phoenix remembered how he had looked, stepping into the airlock. They’d all drawn straws. She’d tried to insist she be the one to lighten the shuttle’s load enough to get them to safety, but the crew wouldn’t let her. Only she could get them out of this, they said.
And Gareth had agreed, and kissed her once, the fateful slip of paper in his hand, and they had stared at each other through the tiny window, her hand pressed so hard against the wall that it hurt. Her face wet with tears, his brave and serene, but she knew that was only to save her pain, to give her one last gift.
She woke crying. When she tried to wipe her face, the flare of pain from her hand made her gasp. Despair washed over her as she remembered where she was, and why.
But she would not give way. She was the woman who’d broken the back of the Neroli fleet, who’d made the Amazon run in a time no one else would ever beat, who’d faced down emperors and monsters, diplomats and dangers.
Ruby would be consolidating her power. She’d have the Founder’s Day parade again and set the seal on her rule. The earlier assassins hadn’t been intended to really kill Phoenix. They’d been meant to drive her here, where she could be captured, as well as to keep the parade from taking place.
At the time this place had been built, the thought of these cells being used against her had crossed her mind, but she hadn’t wanted to build in an escape route that could be used by someone else.
In retrospect, she might have chosen differently.
She could lie here and think about it all or she could pace and think about it all. Sleep was gone, vanished. It wouldn’t be returning anytime soon.
A shot somewhere. How far away? Perhaps a couple of hallways. Rescue?
The door opened. Tam. “Come on,” he said. “We haven’t got much time.” An eerie echo of earlier.
But again, she had someone to go back for. Gareth this time, not Ruby.
Was it worth it? Or would it just be the same again?
She would try, if nothing else.
“Why are you going back for him?” Tam asked. “You can always make him again. Andy Ruby’s been at him. You know she’ll have programmed in some betrayal. Why do you insist on playing things her way?”
She shook her head. “I won’t leave him behind for her.”
His eyes searched hers. Did he think her jealous? Miserly? Hagridden by a desire for atonement or revenge?
But he said nothing as he followed her down the hall.
This time Gareth didn’t balk or ask questions. He ran beside them towards the bay where Phoenix’s private flyer, keyed to her and her alone, was stored. If Phoenix had been Ruby, she would have set a guard on it.
Luckily, she thought as they emerged into the hangar, her daughter wasn’t her, didn’t think like her…and then the shot sounded and Tam went down and they were rolling forward, she wasn’t even looking around to see if Gareth was beside her but counting on him the way she had so many many times to be there covering her as she yelled “Open” and they hurtled up the ramp into the flyer, Phoenix shouting commands all the way to the pilot’s chair, readying the ship and not worrying this time about damage or failsafes.
She tried to palm the controls, cursed, and yelled at Gareth, who stretched over from his seat, agonizing slowness against the shaking of the readying ship and then with a burst of light and noise and vibration they were out and flying up through a band of turquoise water, and then blue blue air, and then finally the quiet and safe of space itself.
“Where are we going?” Gareth said later. They’d managed to juryrig the controls so Phoenix could work them.
“First to Kothke, to replace my thumbs. Then the Thechu.”
“The Black Thechu? I thought you destroyed your ship when you retired from pirating.”
She spared him a glance filled with dry amusement.
She wouldn’t let him aboard that first time, even though he argued that someone might have found the ship and laid a trap for her.
“They would have stolen it, not trapped it,” she said. “And to do either, they would have had to get on board. The ship won’t allow that.”
Everything was quiet aboard the Thechu. The air held only dust and chill, and an edge of preservative chemicals. Her headlamp cut through the darkness to show the outlines of instrument banks, the low-slung captain’s chair.
Surely Ruby would have left some sign of intrusion.
“Thechu,” she said.
In the space of a single breath, the ship came alive. She felt the thrum under her feet as the lights flickered on and the still air began to stir as the ventilation system kicked in.
She searched for the right words, knowing that the ship had waited all this time, knowing that there had been no certainty that she’d return.
In the end, all she said was, “Thank you,” knowing the words inadequate. Knowing that another betrayal might shatter her beyond repair.
She signaled. Gareth came aboard.
There was mind-wipe technology on the ship. She could have done it. She should have done it. Who knew what Ruby had inserted? Phoenix would have, so Ruby would have. He was a ticking time bomb at her side and she couldn’t afford another explosion.
But she put it off.
Kept putting it off.
Finally he asked.
“What are you going to do with me?”
“Keep you,” she said, and found herself smiling at him despite the gravity of his expression.
“I want you to mind-wipe me.”
He hesitated, raising a fist to the side of his head. “I don’t know whether or not she did anything. Whether you can trust me.”
“I will always trust you.”
“Did you trust the ones before me?”
“Why dispose of them, then?”
“They weren’t you.”
“And I am?”
“I don’t know yet.” She cupped his cheek. “Maybe.”
“What if you find I’m not?”
“Maybe,” she said, and swallowed around the lump in her throat, “It’s time to let an old ghost die.” She shook her head. “We have other things to focus on.”
“Surely that’s obvious.”
She made Ruby’s life as difficult as possible.
It didn’t take long. She had been a very good pirate. She had a knack for intercepting not just the most valuable cargoes but also the ones whose loss was most crucial. Vaccines, just as plague was raging, a plague that Phoenix had set off.
Thousand died. She knew they would. An angry citizenry keeps its ruler occupied. When a planet is dependent on its coffers to keep it supplied, it’s easy to cut those off while watching those coffers shrink.
She didn’t have her thumbs regrown. Instead, she wore a pair of prostheses, the same silver as her hair. At night her missing flesh ached until she confused it with the metal.
Thinking of Ruby hurt more than that. The pain would not fade.
“How far will you go?” Gareth asked. “Will you kill the entire planet in order to deprive Ruby of it? What about Ada, what will her legacy be?”
Ada was the only reason Phoenix never attacked the planet physically. She counted on Ruby to keep the child safe from other depredations, from plague or shortage. Bombs, though, could not be controlled.
Ada was why she agreed to meet Ruby, finally.
The negotiations for the meeting took three weeks just to agree on the neutral space in which they’d meet. Circumstances and rules took three times that long. Phoenix was patient. Ruby had pressures of state on her. Phoenix had a ship and a crew who were happy enough to be serving under her.
And she had Gareth. Every day she waited for the betrayal. Every day she waited for some sign of whatever Ruby had done to him.
And every day he met her eyes with the same look that another Gareth had worn, looking through glass at her, unwavering and true.
She’d thought about the meeting beforehand, many times, imaginings, hopes, fears all colliding. In the end she said something unrehearsed as Ruby advanced towards her in the cold and hollow and weaponless room that served them as stage, still dressed in orange and red and yellow. The artificial light made those colors cold and lifeless.
“You never told me who my father was.”
Ruby said, “You told me it wasn’t Mukopadhyay. But it had to have been.”
“Is that what drove all of this?” Ruby had always been spoiled, always capable of excuse and rationalization, but Phoenix had always thought she’d outgrow it.
“Of course not,” Ruby said. “But it’s symptomatic. Keep me in the dark, like a child. Even when I was pregnant, I couldn’t even choose my own doctors! You think Ada is yours, not mine. You want to keep me a child.”
“A child I’d sent to do business for the planet!”
A flick of the wrist, a dismissive gesture. Reality had no place here, Phoenix realized. She tried a different tack.
“What did you do to Gareth?”
Ruby sneered. “Oh, I do hope that worked. Nothing, of course. You mind-wiped an innocent. You know, I don’t think the process wipes them entirely. He must be remembering something, or by now you would have succeeded in perfecting him.”
“I didn’t,” Phoenix said. She forced a slight smile.
That took Ruby aback. “What is he to you?” she demanded. “You’ve kept replicating him all these years.”
“One version of him was your father,” Phoenix said.
Ruby’s eyes widened but she rallied.
“You’re working through the guilt of spacing him.”
Phoenix shrugged. “Must everything be about psychology?” she asked. “I loved him, and I wanted him back. But each time, it wasn’t him.”
“That’s even worse.”
“Worse by what rules?” Phoenix said.
Phoenix tilted her head, studying Ruby.
“Indeed,” she said. “Are those rules ones you cherish, Ruby? Like the ones you used to justify cutting off pieces of me?”
“There have to be rules,” Ruby said. “There have to be things you live by.”
“Alas,” said Phoenix. “I have never found that to be the case. Even the rules of parlay.”
“Kill me and you won’t be able to escape. My ships will destroy the Thechu when it comes to retrieve you.”
“Were that my plan, indeed it would fail. But a slideboard’s small enough to slip through your net.”
“What are you going to do, weaponless? Mutilated, you can’t rule. Those are the laws you and Mukopadhyay created.”
“As you said, I made the rules. And I can remake them.”
Her thumb clicked and whirred. The red ray of light that shot from her hand was the exact color of Ruby’s hair.
When they returned to the planet, she went to Ada’s bedchamber. She’d told them not to wake the child, and her granddaughter lay there, a brown-haired child, plain and angular.
Phoenix stood beside the bed and studied the sleeping figure. The child’s face was one she knew well. She’d grown up with it. Ruby had never known that what she bore was not her own child, but rather Phoenix’s clone.
A backup plan.
Surely she would be able to trust herself.
Tomorrow, she would decide what to do about Gareth. He’d become something different than what he had once been. Perhaps it was time to give up that quest. To accept what she had.
It was good to be back.
Motherhood had changed her, it was true.
But she could still do the things she had done once, when she had to. They said she’d never do those sorts of things now.
But really, had she ever stopped