Rhehan hated museums, but their partner Liyeusse had done unmentionable things to the ship’s stardrive the last time the two of them had fled the authorities, and the repairs had drained their savings. Which was why Rhehan was on a station too close to the more civilized regions of the dustways, flirting with a tall, pale woman decked in jewels while they feigned interest in pre-Devolutionist art.
In spite of themselves, Rhehan was impressed by colonists who had carved pictures into the soles of worn-out space boots: so useless that it had to be art, not that they planned to say that to the woman.
“—wonderful evocation of the Festival of the Vines using that repeated motif,” the woman was saying. She brushed a long curl of hair out of her face and toyed with one of her dangling earrings as she looked sideways at Rhehan.
“I was just thinking that myself,” Rhehan lied. A Festival of the Vines, with its accompanying cheerful inebriation and sex, would be less agonizing than having to pretend to care about the aesthetics of this piece. Too bad Rhehan and Liyeusse planned to disappear in the next couple hours. The woman was pretty enough, despite her obsession with circuitscapes. Rhehan was of the opinion that if you wanted to look at a circuit, nothing beat the real thing.
A tinny voice said in Rhehan’s ear, “Are you on location yet?”
Rhehan faked a cough and subvocalized over the link to Liyeusse. “Been in position for the last half-hour. You sure you didn’t screw up the prep?”
She snorted disdainfully. “Just hurry it—”
At last the alarms clanged. The jeweled woman jumped, her astonishing blue eyes going wide. Rhehan put out a steadying arm and, in the process, relieved her of a jade ring and slipped it in their pocket. Not high-value stuff, but no one with sense wore expensive items as removables. They weren’t wearing gloves on this outing—had avoided wearing gloves since their exile—but the persistent awareness of their naked hands never faded. At least, small consolation, the added sensation made legerdemain easier, even if they had to endure the distastefulness of skin touching skin.
A loud, staticky voice came over the public address system. “All patrons please proceed to the nearest exit. There is no need for alarm”—exactly the last thing you wanted to say if you didn’t want people to panic, or gossip for that matter—“but due to an incident, the museum needs to close for maintenance.”
The woman was saying, with charming anxiety, “We’d better do as they say. I wonder what it is?”
Come on, Rhehan thought, what’s the delay? Had they messed up setting up the explosives?
They had turned to smile and pat the woman’s hand reassuringly when the first explosives went off at the end of the hall. Fire flowered, flashed; a boom reverberated through the walls, with an additional hiss of sparks when a security screen went down. Rhehan’s ears rang even though they’d been prepared for the noise. Two stands toppled, spilling a ransom’s worth of iridescent black quantum-pearl strands inscribed with algorithmic paeans. The sudden chemical reek of the smoke made Rhehan cough, even though you’d think they’d be used to it by now. Several startled bystanders shrieked and bolted toward the exit.
The woman leapt back and behind a decorative pillar with commendable reflexes. “Over here,” she called out to Rhehan, as if she could rescue them. Rhehan feigned befuddlement although they could easily lip-read what she was saying—they could barely hear her past the ringing in their ears—and sidestepped out of her reach, just in case.
A second blast went off, farther down the hall. A thud suggested that something out of sight had fallen down. Rhehan thought snidely that some of the statues they had seen earlier would be improved by a few creative cracks anyway. The sprinklers finally kicked in, and a torrent of water rained down from above, drenching them.
Rhehan left the woman to fend for herself. “Where are you going?” she shouted after Rhehan, loudly enough to be heard despite the damage to their hearing, as they sprinted toward the second explosion.
“I have to save the painting!” Rhehan said over their shoulder.
To Rhehan’s dismay, the woman pivoted on her heel and followed. Rhehan turned their head to lip-read her words, almost crashing into a corner in the process: “You shame me,” she said as she ran after them. “Your dedication to the arts is greater than mine.”
Another explosion. Liyeusse, whose hearing was unaffected, was wheezing into Rhehan’s ear. “‘Dedication…to…the…arts,’” she said between breaths. “‘Dedication.’ You.”
Rhehan didn’t have time for Liyeusse’s quirky sense of humor. Just because they couldn’t tell a color wheel from a flywheel didn’t mean they didn’t appreciate market value.
They’d just rounded the corner to the relevant gallery and its delicious gear collages when Rhehan was alerted—too late—by the quickened rhythm of the woman’s footsteps. They inhaled too sharply, coughed at the smoke, and staggered when she caught them in a chokehold. “What—” Rhehan said, and then no words were possible anymore.
Rhehan woke in a chair, bound. They kept their eyes closed and tested the cords, hoping not to draw attention. The air had a familiar undertone of incense, which was very bad news; but perhaps they were only imagining it. Rhehan had last smelled this particular blend, with its odd metallic top notes, in the ancestral shrines of a childhood home they hadn’t returned to in eight years. They stilled their hands from twitching.
Otherwise, the temperature was warmer than they were accustomed to—Liyeusse liked to keep the ship cool—and a faint hissing suggested an air circulation system not kept in as good shape as it could be. Even more faintly, they heard the distinctive, just-out-of-tune humming of a ship’s drive. Too bad they lacked Liyeusse’s ability to identify the model by listening to the harmonics.
More importantly: how many people were here with them? They didn’t hear anything, but that didn’t mean—
“You might as well open your eyes, Kel Rhehan,” a cool female voice said in a language they had not heard for a long time, confirming Rhehan’s earlier suspicions. They had not fooled her.
Rhehan wondered whether their link to Liyeusse was still working, and if she was all right. “Liyeusse?” they subvocalized. No response. Their heart stuttered.
They opened their eyes: might as well assess the situation, since their captor knew they were awake.
“I don’t have the right to that name any longer,” Rhehan said. They hadn’t been part of the Kel people for years. But their hands itched with the memory of the Kel gloves they hadn’t worn in eight years, as the Kel reckoned it. Indeed, with their hands exposed like this, they felt shamed and vulnerable in front of one of their people.
The woman before them was solidly built, dark, like the silhouette of a tree, and more somber in mien than the highly-ornamented agent who had brought Rhehan in. She wore the black-and-red of the Kel judiciary. A cursory slip of veil obscured part of her face, its translucence doing little to hide her sharp features. The veil should have scared Rhehan more, as it indicated that the woman was a judge-errant, but her black Kel gloves hurt worse. Rhehan’s had been stripped from them and burned eight years ago, when the Kel cast them out.
“I’ve honored the terms of my exile,” Rhehan said desperately. What had they done to deserve the attention of a judge-errant? Granted that they were a thief, but they’d had little choice but to make a living with the skills they had. “What have you done with my partner?”
The judge-errant ignored the question. Nevertheless, the sudden tension around her eyes indicated that she knew something. Rhehan had been watching for it. “I am Judge Kel Shiora, and I have been sent because the Kel have need of you,” she said.
“Of course,” Rhehan said, fighting to hide their bitterness. Eight years of silence and adapting to an un-Kel world, and the moment the Kel had need of them, they were supposed to comply.
Shiora regarded them without malice or opprobrium or anything much resembling feeling. “There are many uses for a jaihanar.”
Jaihanar—what non-Kel called, in their various languages, a haptic chameleon. Someone who was not only so good at imitating patterns of movement that they could scam inattentive people, but also fool the machines whose security systems depended on identifying their owners’ characteristic movements. How you interacted with your gunnery system, or wandered about your apartment, or smiled at the lover you’d known for the last decade. It wasn’t magic—a jaihanar needed some minimum of data to work from—but the knack often seemed that way.
The Kel produced few jaihanar, and the special forces snapped up those that emerged from the Kel academies. Rhehan had been the most promising jaihanar in the last few generations before disgracing themselves. The only reason they hadn’t been executed was that the Kel government had foreseen that they would someday be of use again.
“Tell me what you want, then,” Rhehan said. Anything to keep her talking, so that eventually she might be willing to say what she’d done with Liyeusse.
“If I undo your bonds, will you hear me out?”
Getting out of confinement would also be good. Their leg had fallen asleep. “I won’t try anything,” Rhehan said. They knew better.
Ordinarily Rhehan would have felt sorry for anyone who trusted a thief’s word so readily, except they knew the kind of training a judge-errant underwent. Shiora wasn’t the one in danger. They kept silent as she unlocked the restraints.
“I had to be sure,” Shiora said.
Rhehan shrugged. “Talk to me.”
“General Kavarion has gone rogue. We need someone to infiltrate her ship and retrieve a weapon she has stolen.”
“I’m sorry,” Rhehan said after a blank pause. “You just said that General Kavarion has gone rogue? Kavarion the hero of Split Suns? Kavarion of the Five Splendors? My hearing must be going.”
Shiora gave them an unamused look. “Kel Command sent her on contract to guard a weapons research facility,” she said. “Kavarion recently attacked the facility and made off with the research and a prototype. The prototype may be armed.”
“Surely you have any number of loyal Kel who’d be happy to go on this assignment,” Rhehan said. The Kel took betrayal personally. They knew this well.
“You are the nearest jaihanar in this region of the dustways.” Most people reserved the term dustways for particularly lawless segments of the spaceways, but the Kel used the term for anywhere that didn’t fall under the Kel sphere of influence.
“Also,” Shiora added, “few of our jaihanar match your skill. You owe the Kel for your training, if nothing else. Besides, it’s not in your interest to live in a world where former Kel are hunted for theft of immensely powerful weapons prototypes.”
Rhehan had to admit she had a point.
“They named it the Incendiary Heart,” Shiora continued. “It initiates an inflationary expansion like the one at the universe’s birth.”
Rhehan swore. “Remote detonation?”
“There’s a timer. It’s up to you to get out of range before it goes off.”
“The radius of effect?”
“Thirty thousand light-years, give or take, in a directed cone. That’s the only thing that makes it possible to use without blowing up the person setting it off.”
Rhehan closed their eyes. That would fry a nontrivial percentage of the galaxy. “And you don’t know if it’s armed.”
“No. The general is running very fast—to what, we don’t know. But she has been attempting to hire mercenary jaihanar. We suspect she is looking for a way to control the device—which may buy us time.”
“I see.” Rhehan rubbed the palm of one hand with the fingers of the other, smile twisting at the judge-errant’s momentary look of revulsion at the touch of skin on skin. Which was why they’d done it, of course, petty as it was. “Can you offer me any insight into her goals?”
“If we knew that,” the judge-errant said bleakly, “we would know why she turned coat.”
Blowing up a region of space, even a very local region of space in galactic terms, would do no one any good. In particular, it would make a continued career in art theft a little difficult. On the other hand, Rhehan was determined to wring some payment out of this, if only so Liyeusse wouldn’t lecture them about their lack of mercenary instinct. Their ship wasn’t going to fix itself, after all. “I’ll do it,” they said. “But I’m going to need some resources—”
The judge surprised them by laughing. “You have lived too long in the dustways,” she said. “I can offer payment in the only coin that should matter to you—or do you think we haven’t been watching you?”
Rhehan should have objected, but they froze up, knowing what was to come.
“Do this for us, and show us the quality of your service,” the judge-errant said, “and Kel Command will reinstate you.” Very precisely, she peeled the edge of one glove back to expose the dark fine skin of her wrist, signaling her sincerity.
Rhehan stared. “Liyeusse?” they asked again, subvocally. No response. Which meant that Liyeusse probably hadn’t heard that damning offer. At least she wasn’t here to see Rhehan’s reaction. As good as they normally were at controlling their body language, they had not been able to hide that moment’s hunger for a home they had thought forever lost to them.
“I will do this,” Rhehan said at last. “But not for some bribe; because a weapon like the one you describe is too dangerous for anyone, let alone a rogue, to control.” And because they needed to find out what had become of Liyeusse; but Shiora wouldn’t understand that.
The woman who escorted Rhehan to their ship, docked on the Kel carrier—Rhehan elected not to ask how this had happened—had a familiar face. “I don’t know why you’re not doing this job,” Rhehan said to the pale woman, now garbed in Kel uniform, complete with gloves, rather than the jewels and outlandish stationer garb she’d affected in the museum.
The woman unsmiled at Rhehan. “I will be accompanying you,” she said in the lingua franca they’d used earlier.
Of course. Shiora had extracted Rhehan’s word, but neither would she fail to take precautions. They couldn’t blame her.
Kel design sensibilities had not changed much since Rhehan was a cadet. The walls of dark metal were livened by tapestries of wire and faceted beads, polished from battlefield shrapnel: obsolete armor, lens components in laser cannon, spent shells. Rhehan kept from touching the wall superstitiously as they walked by.
“What do I call you?” Rhehan said finally, since the woman seemed disinclined to speak first.
“I am Sergeant Kel Anaz,” she said. She stopped before a hatch, and she tapped a panel in full sight of Rhehan, her mouth curling sardonically.
“I’m not stupid enough to try to escape a ship full of Kel,” Rhehan said. “I bet you have great aim.” Besides, there was Liyeusse’s safety to consider.
“You weren’t bad at it yourself.”
She would have studied their record, yet Rhehan hated how exposed the simple statement made them feel. “I can imitate the stance of a master marksman,” Rhehan said dryly. “That doesn’t give me the eye, or the reflexes. These past years, I’ve found safer ways to survive.”
Anaz’s eyebrows lifted at “safer,” but she kept her contempt to herself. After chewing over Anaz’s passkey, the hatch opened. A whoosh of cool air floated over Rhehan’s face. They stepped through before Anaz could say anything, their eyes drawn immediately to the lone non-Kel ship in the hangar. To their relief, the Flarecat didn’t look any more disreputable than before.
Rhehan advanced upon the Flarecat and entered it, all the while aware of Anaz at their back. Liyeusse was bound to one of the passenger’s seats, the side of her face swollen and purpling, her cap of curly hair sticking out in all directions. Liyeusse’s eyes widened when she saw the two of them, but she didn’t struggle against her bonds. Rhehan swore and went to her side.
“If she’s damaged—” Rhehan said in a shaking voice, then froze when Anaz shoved the muzzle of a gun against the back of their head.
“She’s ji-Kel,” Anaz said in an even voice: ji-Kel, not-Kel. “She wasn’t even concussed. She’ll heal.”
“She’s my partner,” Rhehan said. “We work together.”
“If you insist,” Anaz said with a distinct air of distaste. The pressure eased, and she cut Liyeusse free herself.
Liyeusse grimaced. “New friend?” she said.
“New job, anyway,” Rhehan said. They should have known that Shiora and her people would treat a ji-Kel with little respect.
“We’re never going to land another decent art theft,” Liyeusse said with strained cheer. “You have no sense of culture.”
“This one’s more important.” Rhehan reinforced their words with a hand signal: Emergency. New priority.
“What have the Kel got on you anyhow?”
Rhehan had done their best to steer Liyeusse away from any dealings with the Kel because of the potential awkwardness. It hadn’t been hard. The Kel had a reputation for providing reliable but humorless mercenaries and a distinct lack of appreciation for what Liyeusse called the exigencies of survival in the dustways. More relevantly, while they controlled a fair deal of wealth, they ruthlessly pursued and destroyed those who attempted to relieve them of it. Rhehan had never been tempted to take revenge by stealing from them.
Anaz’s head came up. “You never told your partner?”
“Never told me what?” Liyeusse said, starting to sound irritated.
“We’ll be traveling with Sergeant Kel Anaz,” Rhehan said, hoping to distract Liyeusse.
No luck. Her mouth compressed. Safe to talk? she signed at them.
Not really, but Rhehan didn’t see that they had many options. “I’m former Kel,” Rhehan said. “I was exiled because—because of a training incident.” Even now it was difficult to speak of it. Two of their classmates had died, and an instructor.
Liyeusse laughed incredulously. “You? We’ve encountered Kel mercenaries before. You don’t talk like one. Move like one. Well, except when—” She faltered as it occurred to her that, of the various guises Rhehan had put on for their heists, that one hadn’t been a guise at all.
Anaz spoke over Liyeusse. “The sooner we set out the better. We have word on Kavarion’s vector, but we don’t know how long our information will be good. You’ll have to use your ship since the judge-errant’s would draw attention, even if it’s faster.”
Don’t, Rhehan signed to Liyeusse, although she knew better than to spill the Flarecat’s modifications to this stranger. “I’ll fill you in on the way.”
The dustways held many perils for ships: wandering maws, a phenomenon noted for years, and unexplained for just as long; particles traveling at unimaginable speeds, capable of destroying any ship lax in maintaining its shielding; vortices that filtered light even in dreams, causing hallucinations. When Rhehan had been newly exiled, they had convinced Liyeusse of their usefulness because they knew dustway paths new to her. Even if they hadn’t been useful for making profit, they had helped in escaping the latest people she’d swindled.
Ships could be tracked by the eddies they left in the dustways. The difficulty was not in finding the traces but interpreting them. Great houses had risen to prominence through their monopoly over the computational networks that processed and sold this information. Kel Command had paid dearly for such information in its desperation to track down General Kavarion.
Assuming that information was accurate, Kavarion had ensconced herself at the Fortress of Wheels: neutral territory, where people carried out bargains for amounts that could have made Rhehan and Liyeusse comfortable for the rest of their lives.
The journey itself passed in a haze of tension. Liyeusse snapped at Anaz, who bore her jibes with grim patience. Rhehan withdrew, not wanting to make matters worse, which was the wrong thing to do, and they knew it. In particular, Liyeusse had not forgiven them for the secret they had kept from her for so long.
At last, Rhehan slumped into the copilot’s seat and spoke to Liyeusse over the newly-repaired link to gain some semblance of privacy. As far as they could tell, Anaz hardly slept. Rhehan said, “You must have a lot of questions.”
“I knew about the chameleon part,” Liyeusse said. Any number of their heists had depended on it. “I hadn’t realized that the Kel had their own.”
“Usually they don’t,” Rhehan said. Liyeusse inhaled slightly at they, as if she had expected Rhehan to say we instead. “But the Kel rarely let go of the ones they do produce. It’s the only reason they didn’t execute me.”
“What did you do?”
Rhehan’s mouth twisted. “The Kel say there are three kinds of people, after a fashion. There are Kel; ji-Kel, or not-Kel, whom they have dealings with sometimes; and those who aren’t people at all. Just—disposable.”
Liyeusse’s momentary silence pricked at Rhehan. “Am I disposable to you?” she said.
“I should think it’s the other way around,” they said. They wouldn’t have survived their first year in the dustways without her protection. “Anyway, there was a training exercise. People-who-are-not-people were used as—” They fumbled for a word in the language they spoke with Liyeusse, rather than the Kel term. “Mannequins. Props in the exercise, to be gunned down or saved or discarded, whatever the trainees decided. I chose the lives of mannequins over the lives of Kel. For this I was stripped of my position and cast out.”
“I have always known that the universe is unkind,” Liyeusse said, less moved than Rhehan had expected. “I assume that hired killers would have to learn their art somewhere.”
“It would have been one thing if I’d thought of myself as a soldier,” Rhehan said. “But a good chameleon, or perhaps a failed one, observes the people they imitate. And eventually a chameleon learns that even mannequins think of themselves as people.”
“I’m starting to understand why you’ve never tried to go back,” Liyeusse said.
A sick yearning started up in the pit of Rhehan’s stomach. They still hadn’t told her about Kel Shiora’s offer. Time enough later, if it came to that.
Getting to Kavarion’s fleet wasn’t the difficult part, although Liyeusse’s eyes were bloodshot for the entire approach. The Flarecat’s stealth systems kept them undetected, even if mating it to the command ship, like an unwanted tick, was a hair-raising exercise. By then, Rhehan had dressed themselves in a Kel military uniform, complete with gloves. Undeserved, since strictly speaking they hadn’t recovered their honor in the eyes of their people, but they couldn’t deny the necessity of the disguise.
Anaz would remain with Liyeusse on the Flarecat. She hadn’t had to explain the threat: Do your job, or your partner dies. Rhehan wasn’t concerned for Liyeusse’s safety—so long as the two remained on the ship, Liyeusse had access to a number of nasty tricks and had no compunctions about using them—but the mission mattered to them anyway.
Rhehan had spent the journey memorizing all the haptic profiles that Anaz had provided them. In addition, Anaz had taken one look at Rhehan’s outdated holographic mask and given them a new one. “If you could have afforded up-to-date equipment, you wouldn’t be doing petty art theft,” she had said caustically.
The Fortress of Wheels currently hosted several fleets. Tensions ran high, although its customary neutrality had so far prevailed. Who knew how long that would last; Liyeusse, interested as always in gossip, had reported that various buyers for the Incendiary Heart had shown up, and certain warlords wouldn’t hesitate to take it by force if necessary.
Security on Kavarion’s command ship was tight, but had not been designed to stop a jaihanar. Not surprising; the Kel relied on their employers for such measures when they deigned to stop at places like the Fortress. At the moment, Rhehan was disguised as a bland-faced lieutenant.
Rhehan had finessed their way past the fifth lock in a row, losing themselves in the old bitter pleasure of a job well-done. They had always enjoyed this part best: fitting their motions to that of someone who didn’t even realize what was going on, so perfectly that machine recognition systems could not tell the difference. But it occurred to them that everything was going too perfectly.
Maybe I’m imagining things, they told themselves without conviction, and hurried on. A corporal passed them by without giving more than a cursory salute, but Rhehan went cold and hastened away from him as soon as they could.
They made it to the doors to the general’s quarters. Liyeusse had hacked into the communications systems and was monitoring activity. She’d assured Rhehan that the general was stationside negotiating with someone. Since neither of them knew how long that would last—
Sweat trickled down Rhehan’s back, causing the uniform to cling unpleasantly to their skin. They had some of the general’s haptic information as well. Anaz hadn’t liked handing it over, but as Rhehan had pointed out, the mission would be impossible without it.
Kavarion of the Five Splendors. One of the most celebrated Kel generals, and a musician besides. Her passcode was based on an extraordinarily difficult passage from a keyboard concerto. Another keyboardist could have played the passage, albeit with difficulty reproducing the nuances of expression. While not precisely a musician, Rhehan had trained in a variety of the arts for occasions such as this. (Liyeusse often remarked it was a shame they had no patience for painting, or they could have had a respectable career forging art.) They got through the passcode. Held their breath. The door began opening—
A fist slammed them in the back of the head.
Rhehan staggered and whirled, barely remaining upright. If I get a concussion I’m going to charge Kel Command for my medical care, they thought as the world slowed.
“Finally someone took the bait,” breathed Rhehan’s assailant. Kel Kavarion; Rhehan recognized the voice from the news reports they’d watched a lifetime ago. “I was starting to think I was going to have to hang out signs or hire a bounty hunter.” She did something fast and complicated with her hands, and Rhehan found themselves shoved down against the floor with the muzzle of a gun digging into the back of their neck.
“Save it,” General Kavarion said, with dangerous good humor. “Come inside and I’ll show you what you’re after. Don’t fight me. I’m better at it than you are.”
Rhehan couldn’t argue that.
The general let Rhehan up. The door had closed again, but she executed the passphrase in a blur that made Rhehan think she was wasted on the military. Surely there was an orchestra out there that could use a star keyboardist.
Rhehan made sure to make no threatening moves as they entered, scanning the surroundings. Kavarion had a taste for the grandiloquent. Triumph-plaques of metal and stone and lacquerware covered the walls, forming a mosaic of battles past and comrades lost. The light reflecting from their angled surfaces gave an effect like being trapped in a kaleidoscope of sterilized glory.
Kavarion smiled cuttingly. Rhehan watched her retreating step by step, gun still trained on them. “You don’t approve,” Kavarion remarked.
Rhehan unmasked since there wasn’t any point still pretending to be one of her soldiers. “I’m a thief,” they said. “It’s all one to me.”
“You’re lying, but never mind. I’d better make this quick.” Kavarion smiled at Rhehan with genuine and worrying delight. “You’re the jaihanar we threw out, aren’t you? It figures that Kel Command would drag you out of the dustways instead of hiring some ji-Kel.”
“I’m ji-Kel now, General.”
“It’s a matter of degrees. It doesn’t take much to figure out what Kel Command could offer an exile.” She then offered the gun to Rhehan. “Hold that,” she said. “I’ll get the Incendiary Heart.”
“How do you know I won’t shoot you?” Rhehan demanded.
“Because right now I’m your best friend,” Kavarion said, “and you’re mine. If you shoot me you’ll never find out why I’m doing this, and a good chunk of the galaxy is doomed.”
Frustrated by the sincerity they read in the set of her shoulders, Rhehan trained the gun on Kavarion’s back and admired her sangfroid. She showed no sign of being worried she’d be shot.
Kavarion spoke as she pressed her hand against one of the plaques. “They probably told you I blew the research station up after I stole the Incendiary Heart, which is true.” The plaque lifted to reveal a safe. “Did they also mention that someone armed the damned thing before I was able to retrieve it?”
“They weren’t absolutely clear on that point.”
“Well, I suppose even a judge-errant—I assume they sent a judge-errant—can’t get information out of the dead. Anyway, it’s a time bomb, presumably to give its user time to escape the area of effect.”
Rhehan’s heart sank. There could only be one reason why Kavarion needed a jaihanar of her own. “It’s going to blow?”
“Unless you can disarm it. One of the few researchers with a sense of self-preservation was making an attempt to do so before he got killed by a piece of shrapnel. I have some video, as much of it as I could scrape before the whole place blew, but I don’t know if it’s enough.” Kavarion removed a box that shimmered a disturbing shade of red-gold-bronze.
The original mission was no good, that much was clear. “All right,” Rhehan said.
Kavarion played back a video of the researcher’s final moments. It looked like it had been recorded by someone involved in a firefight from the shakiness of the image. Parts of the keycode were obscured by smoke, by flashing lights, by flying shrapnel.
Rhehan made several attempts, then shook their head. “There’s just not enough information, even for me, to reconstruct the sequence.”
Suddenly Kavarion looked haggard.
“How do you know he was really trying to disarm it?” Rhehan said.
“Because he was my lover,” Kavarion said, “and he had asked me for sanctuary. He was the reason I knew exactly how destructive the Incendiary Heart was to begin with.”
Scientists shouldn’t be allowed near weapons design, Rhehan thought. “How long do we have?”
She told them. They blanched.
“Why did you make off with it in the first place?” Rhehan said. They couldn’t help but think that if she’d kept her damn contract, this whole mess could have been avoided in the first place.
“Because the contract-holder was trying to sell the Incendiary Heart to the highest bidder. And at the time I made off with it, the highest bidder looked like it was going to be one of the parties in an extremely messy civil war.” Kavarion scowled. “Not only did I suspect that they’d use it at the first opportunity, I had good reason to believe that they had terrible security—and I doubted anyone stealing it would have any scruples either. Unfortunately, when I swiped the wretched thing, some genius decided it would be better to set it off and deny it to everyone, never mind the casualties.”
Kavarion closed her fist over the Incendiary Heart. It looked like her fist was drenched in a gore of light. “Help me get it out of here, away from where it’ll kill billions.”
“What makes you so confident that I’m your ally, when Kel Command sent me after you?”
She sighed. “It’s true that I can’t offer a better reward than if you bring the accursed thing to them. On the other hand, even if you think I’m lying about the countdown, do you really trust Kel Command with dangerous weapons? They’d never let me hand it over to them for safekeeping anyway, not when I broke contract by taking it in the first place.”
“No,” Rhehan said after a moment. “You’re right. That’s not a solution either.”
Kavarion opened her hand and nodded companionably at Rhehan, as though they’d been comrades for years. “I need you to run away with this and get farther from centers of civilization. I can’t do this with a whole fucking Kel fleet. My every movement is being watched, and I’m afraid someone will get us into a fight and stall us in a bad place. But you—a ji-Kel thief, used to darting in and out of the dustways, your chances will be better than mine.”
Rhehan’s breath caught. “You’re already outnumbered,” they said. “Sooner or later, they’ll catch up to you—the Kel, if not everyone else who wants the weapon they think you have. You don’t even have a running start, since you’re docked here. They’ll incinerate you.”
“Well, yes,” Kavarion said. “We are Kel. We are the people of fire and ash. It comes with the territory. Are you willing to do this?”
Her equanimity disturbed Rhehan. Clearly Liyeusse’s way of looking at the world had rubbed off on them more than they’d accounted for, these last eight years. “You’re gambling a lot on my reliability.”
“Am I?” The corners of Kavarion’s mouth tilted up: amusement. “You were one of the most promising Kel cadets that year, and you gave it up because you were concerned about the lives of mannequins who didn’t even know your name. I’d say I’m making a good choice.”
Kavarion pulled her gloves off one by one and held them out to Rhehan. “You are my agent,” she said. “Take the gloves, and take the Incendiary Heart with you. A great many lives depend on it.”
They knew what the gesture meant: You hold my honor. Shaken, they stared at her, stripped of chameleon games. Shiora was unlikely to forgive Rhehan for betraying her to ally with Kavarion. But Kavarion’s logic could not be denied.
“Take them,” Kavarion said tiredly. “And for love of fire and ash, don’t tell me where you’re going. I don’t want to know.”
Rhehan took the gloves and replaced the ones they had been wearing with them. I’m committed now, Rhehan thought. They brought their fist up to their chest in the Kel salute, and the general returned it.
Things went wrong almost from the moment Rhehan returned to their ship. They’d refused an escort from Kavarion on the grounds that it would arouse Anaz’s suspicions. The general had assured them that no one would interfere with them on the way out, but the sudden blaring of alarms and the scrambling of crew to get to their assigned stations meant that Rhehan had to do a certain amount of dodging. At a guess, the Fortress-imposed cease-fire was no longer in effect. What had triggered hostilities Rhehan didn’t know and didn’t particularly care. All that mattered was escaping with the Incendiary Heart.
The Flarecat remained shielded from discovery by the stealth device that Liyeusse so loved, even if it had a distressing tendency to blow out the engines exactly when they had to escape sharp-eyed creditors. Rhehan hadn’t forgotten its location, however, and—
Anaz ambushed Rhehan before they even reached the Flarecat, in the dim hold where they were suiting up to traverse the perilous webbing that connected the Flarecat to Kavarion’s command ship. Rhehan had seen this coming. Another chameleon might have fought back, and died of it; Shiora had no doubt selected Anaz for her deadliness. But Rhehan triggered the mask into Kavarion’s own visage, and smiled Kavarion’s own smile at Anaz, counting on the reflexive Kel deference to rank. The gesture provoked enough of a hesitation that Rhehan could pull out their own sidearm and put a bullet in the side of her neck. They’d been aiming for her head; no such luck. Still, they’d take what they could.
The bullet didn’t stop Anaz. Rhehan hadn’t expected it to. But the next two did. The only reason they didn’t keep firing was that Rhehan could swear that the Incendiary Heart pulsed hotter with each shot. “Fuck this,” they said with feeling, although they couldn’t hear themselves past the ringing in their ears, and overrode the hatch to escape to the first of the web-strands without looking back to see whether Anaz was getting back up.
No further attack came, but Anaz might live, might even survive what Kavarion had in mind for her.
Liyeusse wasn’t dead. Presumably Anaz had known better than to interfere too permanently with the ship’s master. But Liyeusse wasn’t in good condition, either. Anaz had left her unconscious and expertly tied up, a lump on the side of her head revealing where Anaz had knocked her out. Blood streaked her face. So much for no concussions, Rhehan thought. A careful inspection revealed two broken ribs, although no fingers or arms; small things to be grateful for. Liyeusse had piloted with worse injuries, but it wasn’t something either of them wanted to make a habit of.
Rhehan shook with barely quelled rage as they unbound Liyeusse, using the lockpicks that the two of them kept stashed on board. Here, with just the two of them, there was no need to conceal their reaction.
Rhehan took the precaution of injecting her with painkillers first. Then they added a stim, which they would have preferred to avoid. Nevertheless, the two of them would have to work together to escape. It couldn’t be helped.
“My head,” Liyeusse said in a voice half-groan, stirring, and then she smiled crookedly at Rhehan, grotesque through the dried blood. “Did you give that Kel thug what she wanted? Are we free?”
“Not yet,” Rhehan said. “As far as I can tell, Kavarion’s gearing up for a firefight and they’re bent on blowing each other up over this bauble. Even worse, we have a new mission.” They outlined the situation while checking Liyeusse over again to make sure there wasn’t any more internal damage. Luckily, Anaz hadn’t confiscated their medical kits, so Rhehan retrieved one and cleaned up the head wound, then applied a bandage to Liyeusse’s torso.
“Every time I think this can’t get worse,” Liyeusse said while Rhehan worked, but her heart wasn’t in it. “Let’s strap ourselves in and get flying.”
“What, you don’t want to appraise this thing?” They held the Incendiary Heart up. Was it warmer? They couldn’t tell.
“I don’t love shiny baubles that much,” she said dryly. She was already preoccupied with the ship’s preflight checks, although her grimaces revealed that the painkillers were not as efficacious as they could have been. “I’ll be glad when it’s gone. You’d better tell me where we’re going.”
The sensor arrays sputtered with the spark-lights of many ships, distorted by the fact that they were stealthed. “Ask the general to patch us in to her friend-or-foe identification system,” Rhehan said when they realized that there were more Kel ships than there should have been. Kel Command must have had a fleet waiting to challenge Kavarion in case Shiora failed her mission. “And ask her not to shoot us down on our way out.”
Liyeusse contacted the command ship in the Fortress’s imposed lingua.
The connection hissed open. The voice that came back to them over the line sounded harried, and spoke accented lingua. “Who the hell are—” Rhehan distinctly heard Kavarion snapping something profane in the Kel language. The voice spoke back, referring to Liyeusse with the particular suffix that meant coward, as if that applied to a ji-Kel ship to begin with. Still, Rhehan was glad they didn’t have to translate that detail for Liyeusse, although they summarized the exchange for her.
“Go,” the voice said ungraciously. “I’ll keep the gunners off you. I hope you don’t crash into anything, foreigner.”
“Thank you,” Liyeusse said in a voice that suggested that she was thinking about blowing something up on her way out.
“Don’t,” Rhehan said.
“I wasn’t going to—”
“They need this ship to fight with. Which will let us get away from any pursuit.”
“As far as I’m concerned, they’re all the enemy.”
They couldn’t blame her, considering what she’d been through.
The scan suite reported on the battle. Rhehan, who had webbed themselves into the copilot’s seat, tracked the action with concern. The hostile Kel hadn’t bothered to transmit their general’s banner, a sign of utter contempt for those they fought. Even ji-Kel received banners, although they weren’t expected to appreciate the nuances of Kel heraldry.
A fighter launched from the hangar below them. “Our turn,” Liyeusse said.
The Flarecat rocketed away from the command ship and veered abruptly away from the fighters’ flight corridor. Liyeusse rechecked stealth. The engine made the familiar dreadful coughing noise in response to the increased power draw, but it held—for now.
A missile streaked through their path, missing them by a margin that Rhehan wished were larger. To their irritation, Liyeusse was whistling as she maneuvered the Flarecat through all the grapeshot and missiles and gyring fighters and toward the edge of the battlefield. Liyeusse had never had a healthy sense of fear.
They’d almost made it when the engine coughed again, louder. Rhehan swore in several different languages. “I’d better see to that,” they said.
“No,” Liyeusse said immediately, “you route the pilot functions to your seat, and I’ll see if I can coax it along a little longer.”
Rhehan wasn’t as good a pilot, but Liyeusse was indisputably better at engineering. They gave way without argument. Liyeusse used the ship’s handholds to make her way toward the engine room.
Whatever Liyeusse was doing, it didn’t work. The engine hiccoughed, and stealth went down.
A flight of Kel fighters at the periphery noted the Flarecat’s attempt to escape and, dismayingly, found it suspicious enough to decide to pursue them. Rhehan wished their training had included faking being an ace pilot. Or actually being an ace pilot, for that matter.
The Incendiary Heart continued to glow malevolently. Rhehan shook their head. It’s not personal, they told themselves. “Liyeusse,” they said through the link, “forget stealth. If they decide to come after us, that’s fine. It looks like we’re not the only small-timers getting out of the line of fire. Can you configure for boosters?”
She understood them. “If they blow us up, a lot of people are dead anyway. Including us. We might as well take the chance.”
Part of the Flarecat’s problem was that its engine had not been designed for sprinting. Liyeusse’s skill at modifications made it possible to run. In return, the Flarecat made its displeasure known at inconvenient times.
The gap between the Flarecat and the fighters narrowed hair-raisingly as Rhehan waited for Liyeusse to inform them that they could light the hell out of there. The Incendiary Heart’s glow distracted them horribly. The fighters continued their pursuit, and while so far none of their fire had connected, Rhehan didn’t believe in relying on luck.
“I wish you could use that thing on them,” Liyeusse said suddenly.
Yes, and that would leave nothing but the thinnest imaginable haze of particles in a vast expanse of nothing, Rhehan thought. “Are we ready yet?”
“Yes,” she said after an aggravating pause.
The Flarecat surged forward in response to Rhehan’s hands at the controls. They said, “Next thing: prepare a launch capsule for this so we can shoot it ahead of us. Anyone stupid enough to go after it and into its cone of effect—well, we tried.”
For the next interval, Rhehan lost themselves in the controls and readouts, the hot immediate need for survival. They stirred when Liyeusse returned.
“I need the Heart,” Liyeusse said. “I’ve rigged a launch capsule for it. It won’t have any shielding, but it’ll fly as fast and far as I can send it.”
Rhehan nodded at where they’d secured it. “Don’t drop it.”
“You’re so funny.” She snatched it and vanished again.
Rhehan was starting to wish they’d settled for a nice, quiet, boring life as a Kel special operative when Liyeusse finally returned and slipped into the seat next to theirs. “It’s loaded and ready to go. Do you think we’re far enough away?”
“Yes,” Rhehan hissed through their teeth, achingly aware of the fighters and the latest salvo of missiles.
“Away we go!” Liyeusse said with gruesome cheer.
The capsule launched. Rhehan passed over the controls to Liyeusse so she could get them away before the capsule’s contents blew.
The fighters, given a choice between the capsule and the Flarecat, split up. Better than nothing. Liyeusse was juggling the power draw of the shields, the stardrive, life-support, and probably other things that Rhehan was happier not knowing about. The Flarecat accelerated as hard in the opposite direction as it could without overstressing the people in it.
The fighters took this as a trap and soared away. Rhehan expected they’d come around for another try when they realized it wasn’t.
Then between the space of one blink and the next, the capsule simply vanished. The fighters overtook what should have been its position, and vanished as well. That could have been stealth, if Rhehan hadn’t known better. They thought to check the sensor readings against their maps of the region: stars upon stars had gone missing, nothing left of them.
Or, they amended to themselves, there had to be some remnant smear of matter, but the Flarecat’s instruments wouldn’t have the sensitivity to pick them up. They regretted the loss of the people on those fighters; still, better a few deaths than the many that the Incendiary Heart had threatened.
“All right,” Liyeusse said, and retriggered stealth. There was no longer any need to hurry, so the system was less likely to choke. They were far enough from the raging battle that they could relax a little space. She sagged in her chair. “We’re alive.”
Rhehan wondered what would become of Kavarion, but that was no longer their concern. “We’re still broke,” they said, because eventually Liyeusse would remember.
“You didn’t wrangle any payment out of those damn Kel before we left?” she demanded. “Especially since after they finish frying Kavarion, they’ll come toast us?”
Rhehan pulled off Kavarion’s gloves and set them aside. “Nothing worth anything to either of us,” they said. Once they would have given everything to win their way back into the trust of the Kel. Over the past years, however, they had discovered that other things mattered more to them. “We’ll find something else. And anyway, it’s not the first time we’ve been hunted. We’ll just have to stay one step ahead of them, the way we always have.”
Liyeusse smiled at Rhehan, and they knew they’d made the right choice.
© 2017 by Yoon Ha Lee. Originally published in Cosmic Powers. Reprinted by permission of the author.