Excerpt from The Girl, The Rimstalker, and Everything

As if Titus’s thoughts conjured a phantom, three more ships came out of damp in a circle around Beats Working. To port was a not too beat up R3, four seater that showed as an Aslinean sig. Maz, and with her was most likely Tonadal, who excelled as weaponsmaster, but even in the most desperate moments, no one let him near the pilot’s sling. A slim tender of Here origin on the starboard quarter that had to be Shavo who, like Kell, was a caramel-skinned eastern continental from Fourth Circle City, not tall with black hair. Then aft, a shimmering Ra’nao vessel, much like the ones that had jumped Beats Working earlier. Jax-sigged reflector panes. 

“Stand down your ramstats and weapons arrays, lad,” Cosad smiled coldly, showing stained teeth. “We nudged you out here so we could come over for a chat. Think of it as a family reunion.”

Titus grimaced at Jaka. She returned a look of pure loathing and said, “I hate it when you’re right.”

“So do I. So do I.” Titus turned back to the screen. “Kell with you?”

“No, lad. He may trust you, but he don’t trust you, if ya get my meanin’. We’re here to transport you to his sloop. No shenanigans, Dragonmaster.”

“Rimstalker.”

“Be that as it may, activate your gangway while Shavo collects us all and I garage this little wounded pixie. I think you might want to hear what we have in mind.” Cosad ended the comms leaving little question about the seriousness of his intent.

“Well, fick mich.”

“Huh?”

“That’s German for ‘fuck me.’ An Earthan language.” Titus laid back in the co-pilot sling, rubbed his face. He found he could do for a shave. These conscriptions were unwelcome and unpleasant and somehow always caught him flat-footed, but how can you be dirty tricksters without playing dirty? “The part I hate is that Kell only involves me in big ops. Big bad ops. I am not ready for this.”

Wounded pixie?”

“A fishing lure that you jerk like it’s been wounded and the fish . . . oh, never mind.”

“And we took the bait. I swear, one day I’m going to kill him. I mean it, Titus.”

He had no doubt she would.

###

In a startlingly short amount of time, Shavo had swung by all three vessels and was approaching Beats Working. He docked, the gangway seal opened, and a box of licorice allsorts spilled onto the main deck.

Ju entered first, a tall, snow-white Adani, almost mute because he was always plugged into data and comms feeds through at least a dozen dendritic implants. Usually SC would rip out such expensive and rarefied tech upon death, but he wasn’t dead, was he? Koun, the round, pretty human from Cowri expanse and Kell’s political advisor, a facile operative who walked the corridors of intrigue with ease, earning trusts that should not be so readily awarded. And that was just the start of the menagerie now on the main deck of Beats Working.

Titus and Jaka recognized them all. Shavo sketched a salute. Bosston, one of the few Spannicol natives with an IQ above 90 smiled and he and Titus fist bumped. Harmless, if kept occupied. Kharlash, a strikingly beautiful orange-skinned Ra’nao who—besides being unbalanced and hated the fact that Mykanna and Titus were bonded so young—was an expert in untraceable terminations and never could come clean whether the Rimstalker was on her hit list or not. Then Spal, a Jax, who was the whiniest of a race of whiners, skinny little shits with four eyes, no glasses. SurDhoop was absent; apparently three-armed midgets’ dossiers were not suitable for the op, which was the way Titus preferred it as well. Asshole. Cosad hung back in deference to Maz.

The Aslinean was part of Diplomatic Corps’ network of exo auxiliaries, and Titus knew she never served with Het or in any Marine component, but for the pure whacko factor, they could have just as easily been separated at birth, even though Maz was a dark-skinned Amazon with long, straight white hair and cleverness was lost upon her. Action was all she understood, the rougher, the higher the body count, the better. So she was Kell’s spokes-thug.

“We hate to do this Titus . . .” she slid her eyes to Jaka, back, “and that’s only because we hate you. Got something big and I couldn’t talk Kell out of it.”

“Glad to be so wanted.”

Tanodal stepped in front of Maz. He was a beefy Somathan, green-grey skin, a limp thatch of baby-shit brown hair, and a flat, mashed-in porcine face with canines that peeked south of his colorless upper lip. Like most of Kell’s exo auxiliaries, he was from the Great Stripe where the main SC chicanery had tended to occur, and human DNA-inspired was a generous characterization. Little went on upstairs that could be considered critical thinking but as weaponsmaster, Tanodal was mighty handy to have in a fight, particularly with the bag of tricks he carried around; you could always count on something in there that was going to surprise. Het would admire him—not like him, gods below—but she would appreciate his unique artistry.

He smiled, showed those canines. “You’ve changed a bit, Titus.”

“We all change, Tanodal, but I see time hasn’t been kind to you. In fact it’s been downright mean.”

“Aw, that’s the Titus we all know and love. So nice you’re back. Missed you so much. Missed you. And I mean—” Tanodal swung toward the Rimstalker, cocked his fist, but a gloved hand snapped out and pinned his arm behind his back. The Somathan grunted in pain.

“If I can’t hurt him,” Maz said evenly, “no one can.” She wrenched Tanodal’s wrist before releasing him. “Important op, Titus. Kell has a lot riding on this and you as well, but not me. I hope you screw up so I can kill you once and for all. We spent a lot of scut work on this re-set, getting you out here after I missed you dirtside a few weeks before Ilion. I was so looking forward to taking you to a place where you could scream all you wanted to and no one would hear.”

“Delightful,” Jaka said as she looked across at Titus.

“Hey, Tanodal. Sorry about the lab. Just a job to do.”

The pig arced an indifferent shrug. “Not my clan.”

“And Kharlash. Those two ships—”

“Price of business these days, sugar.”

Wow,” The Rimstalker thought. “The price of having no conscience.”

The rest of the dossiered pack would be waiting in Kell’s sloop, Titus was certain, but at least they were more or less harmless. Cha right. Harmless compared to Tanodal and Maz. He’d have to watch his back, front, and both sides if he and Jaka expected to get out of this cluster in one piece.  

“All right,” Maz looked around at the crew. “Let’s go. Titus, set this pretty little ship of yours on damp. Kell doesn’t want it damaged, any more than you. I fail to see why.”

Titus raised his eyes in momentary supplication and preceded Maz into the tender. With a resentful set of her shoulders, Jaka elbowed Ju out of the way and followed.  

###

“Thanks for coming,” Kell said with shallow, absent-minded cordiality, “and welcome home. We’ve missed you, Titus.” The rest, crowded on the dilapidated main deck, shared a buzz of laughter.

Kell was an unremarkable human. Well, in the physical sense. He’d been a Fourth Circle City native, average height and looks, brown-skinned and shaved head, and dressed in sage green trousers—always with well-pressed creases—and a silver shirt partially hidden by a dark diarrhea brown woven thing that may have once passed for a sweater vest on Earth; he wasn’t even born when that look that was ugly. Yet he found life on Here rather boring, and set out to discover mischief wherever he could. Naturally, Special Circumstances drew him like a moth to flame. Damn. Titus wished for a bug zapper.

Having thought that about his occasional dossier-mate, Kell was downright sneaky-nasty and put a sheen of pure poison their ops when planning circle so desired to send a message with proper emphasis. He’d swallowed the SC creed hook, line, and sinker, and dropped to the top of their list of hatchet men (and women, to be fair) who performed the dirty work when it was necessary—which was almost always. Titus never liked or respected him, but Kell always had a fascination with his ops and seemed to magically attach himself to him in some way, shape, or form, like some tick, and nothing succeeds like success. The Rimstalker had to endure him. Now as then.

“This is wonderful, Kell. Take potshots at our ship, threaten me with Maz the Butcher, tractor my vessel in a spider web. . .  I’m lovin’ it.” Jaka crossed her arms as she swayed in a crew sling.

“We’ll have plenty of time to catch up and solve, if you are of a certain mind. But you know your arrival has been breathlessly anticipated.”

Kharlash hugged Titus warmly, but he hip-checked her embrace just as she flexed her knee; without such an overabundance of caution, it would have come up in his jewels. “Ah ah ah, girl,” he said, and she pushed him away, fuming. “Gods, Kell. Can’t you control your people?”

“Let ’em have their fun. Two years is a long time not having seen their favorite dragon.”

“Fun. So is singing an aria well above your range.” Titus adjusted his crotch. “You never paid much attention to discipline, so why start now?”

“Excuse the poor girl. I sent her to Scannell Terce not long ago, but you were nowhere to be found in the area. The setback rekindled her . . . disorganization over you at Cert Minor which I thought was a phase and well-handled, but that again proves time doesn’t heal all wounds, does it? It’s her little way of letting you know she cares.”

“Hate to see what she’d do if she didn’t like me.”

“Just showing you how much. Got some Tarth-Spond blood liqueur and very little time. Follow me.” He indicated the captain’s cabin lit by a dim yellow cylinder. It was as cluttered as Rondor’s terrifyingly combustible office, and had the same claustrophobic feel when the slider came down behind.

As with all things Kell, it was a mess. The bunk was unmade, a coverlet on the floor, optics hung off-kilter on the wall, and screens popped and fizzed, clearly well past their use-by date. Shit everywhere, some of it recognizable. It looked as though it’d been years since the cleaners came, but that wasn’t the worst of it.

“Gods of the abyss!” Titus nearly choked and covered his nose. “It smells like cats fucked in here. You and Maz at it again?”

“Real quick—”

“Quicker the better.”

“Her name is Dara, a countess or something. Specifically asked for you and won’t tell me why she’s here, but non-answers aren’t the kind I much like. I assume you feel the same way. Don’t go all mental on us until we find out what she wants.”

“Mental? I’m way past that, Kell. Try 5150.”

“Huh?”

“Never mind. That’s the intel?”

“Well, wouldn’t breathe a word of it to me, so I’m assuming she’ll fill us all in, now that you’ve so generously graced us with your presence. Just wanted to prep you.”

Titus rolled his eyes. “Give me a belt of that Tarth-Spond blood liqueur over there,” he waved toward a cluttered side table. “I don’t like talking to your clients on an empty stomach.”

Kell poured a goodly four fingers into a dirty, chipped ceramic which Titus promptly downed and wiped his mouth with the back of his flight suit’s sleeve. Wordlessly, he went to the smelly cabin’s slider and entered the main deck again.

“Titus. I keep forgetting how tall you are.” Koun smiled winsomely, but he didn’t buy it. She’d sanctioned well over twenty targets, and that was just during his short time as active Diplomatic Corps, every one performed with that same wide-eyed innocence. “Speaking of tall . . .”

“Tall what?”

“My dear, you’ll find out. Soon, I think.”

Yet soon was already there. Coming up the stair from below was a figure in a black tunic, loose blue trousers. But she kept coming, and coming, and coming, and before she stood on the main deck, her head touched the hull’s roof. She had to be 300 centimeters and not one less, with elongated human proportions, lustrous walnut skin brushed in gold, and enormous blue eyes. She gazed down at Titus with a wide smile. Perfect dentition.

“Y-you’re Tzadkielian. I mean—”

 “Yes, but I knew you would recognize that, Dragonmaster.”

“No longer.”

“Dragonmaster? Rimstalker?” Her smoky voice oozed derision. “Oh, Titus, it makes no matter.”

“Well, I’ve been called many things.”

“Poppet, darling, pet . . .” she looked significantly at him. “But my affairs can—and perhaps should—be of less important account to such titles, or intimate endearments, and more focused on solving a singular issue.” A throaty chuckle. “After all, what I understand from this . . . this charming troupe, your expertise primarily lies in convergence. Special Circumstances.”

“Diplomatic Corps, you mean.”

“No, Titus. I say what I mean.”

“Listen to her lad,” Cosad put in sotto voce, “this ain’t throwin’ bones.”

“OK, then. I have to assume you have some bona fides.”

“Me? Perhaps, and that is irrelevant. My sister, however, certainly isn’t.”

Oh gods below, Titus thought, here it comes again: another of his pre-exile memories coming back, fully formed and utterly cinematic. It was as old Titus had told him, he had access to all those memories, and some had indeed returned over twenty five years, backfilled with lore, history and facts taken from core Circle and the vast, un-trackable glut of Domain data, but he had to get the hang of indexing what belonged exclusively to him, a natural phenomenon that could take hundreds of years before he could understand everything about who he used to be before Jeff Miller.

“Your sister?” At his brusque reply, Jaka flicked her eyes toward the Rimstalker, confused and on alert. “I’ve only met one Tzadkielian and it was a long time ago.”

“Yes, wasn’t it?” The woman glided across to Titus, stared far down at him. Her uncanny over-sized eyes bound him like an insect to a display. “Memories fade for some, but not others.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Oh, yes you do. In Special Circumstances you infiltrated far more than her inner circle. She yet wishes you had infiltrated more than just her heart.”

A bead of sweat formed on the side of Titus’s face. It couldn’t . . . can’t . . .  “I’ve met only one other Tzadkielian in my life.”

“Yes. I know. My younger sister, Viceroy Hanae ap ya Soorat.”

Hanae. Shit.

It was to be a standard espionage op. Get in close to the foremost government in the Great Stripe, triangulate their intent on the Hachan negotiations, get the hell out. Textbook. He never bargained for the viceroy to be so exotically beautiful, intelligent, and perceptive, rivalling only his mate. But he was young, far from home, far from Mykanna’s unspeakable accident. His youth and inexperience served to extend the operation with hems and haws back to station, and he was stunned and gloried in her attentions that were surely as charged as his own. Platonic it was not, although by the Giver’s grace it had never become physical in that way, but it was a near thing. In the end, he’d cut and run, not because of any imminent threat, but his love and dedication to Mykanna—the only possible equal to the Tzadkielian viceroy throughout the far reaches of the Multiverse—deterred him from any further duplicity. A dalliance, but oh, what a dalliance! It had indeed been a long time.

“Come, now Dragonmaster. Or should I call you Rimstalker, to be polite?” Her smile gleamed archly. “So disappointing the way you left things with her. Why, even now, I can see why Hanae was besotted, and thus carelessly divergent from her duties as the most capable and demanding governor of any hegemony within a billion volumes. That had never been achieved before or since . . . nor forgotten.”

“I have not forgotten,” he confessed. “There was a complication—”

“Oh yes, a mate, extraordinary in her own right, as I seem to recall before she left this plane of existence. I admired your restraint, even if my sister did not because sometimes such reticence breaks hearts. And once broken, it is difficult to repair them, if at all. It is now possible for you to, in part, redress your faithlessness.

“Titus. My sister is in trouble. I came to these professionals. . .” she threw out a hand to indicate Kell’s crew, “to seek your help. I will have it. Hanae will have it. You have no choice.”

Jaka stepped forward, angled her face up at Titus. “What is she talking about? Soorap? Tadkeels? I don’t get it.”

“Shut up, girl!” Maz barked.

“No, you shut up Aslinean bitch. No one tells me—”

“Oh, Titus!” Dara excitedly clapped her unnaturally long and delicate hands. “She is so very darling. Wherever did you find such a treasure?”

In a microflash of energy and economy, Jaka took out the Tzadkielian’s feet, and when the much taller woman dropped to the deck, she put an elbow to her throat. Beat. Beat. Beat. “You should hear the way my brain works sometimes.”

The Rimstalker nodded once and Jaka sprang upright.

“Titus, this is not the way—”

“Stop, Kell.” He watched the tall woman gather her wits and slowly sit, at last standing with some effort. “Listen. I did what was necessary with Hanae. Right, Kell? Right? The last thing I wanted to do was hurt her. I admire her too much for that. I don’t know. It hurts me too, but any more I would have hurt . . . I would have . . . hurt . . . hurt . . .” The Rimstalker turned away. Mykanna had been gone twenty five years.

“C’mon, Titus,” Kell spread his arms, “it’s just a job, and—”

“No, it isn’t,” Dara interrupted, rubbing her elongated larynx. “It’s a matter of life and death. I made that plain to you. Do not speak.

“Titus. I require your assistance in helping me rescue my sister. She is being held captive in the Genebak system. We don’t know where, how, or why, yet the condition is extant. I have been assured by sources within and without the Domains, you are the most capable operative,” she shot a dismissive glare at Kell, Maz, Ju, “to execute such a rescue. Support will be provided. I believe my sister and I will also provide sufficient self-interest as well.”

Titus eyed Jaka, who still burned hot, then returned his attention to the Tzadkielian. “From what I remember Hanae telling me, your race descended long ago from another Multiverse, why there are so few of your kind, all adepts at their chosen lives. Can’t they pull her through? I mean, look. She’s a singular creature, as are you—”

 “You flatter me in front of others, Dragonmaster. Unbecoming.”

“All right, all right!” Titus threw up his hands, paced a circle. “Whatevs. I’ll make you a deal. Jaka and I will find out where she is, but it’s up to you and the Tzadkielian senate to perform the extraction.”

“Unacceptable.”

“And why?”

“Oh, Titus, Titus,” Dara leaned down, shook her head, and crossed her arms. They were so rangy, he was reminded of an NBA center’s wingspan. “Trust. That will be critical. Her trust, which you need to repair so that you may guide her authoritatively to freedom, the trust you must build with the Genebakans. As you so graciously put it, my race is singular, is it not? So blind, you are.”

Titus rubbed his chin, glanced again at Jaka. Her face was a spiral of incomprehension, but the lines of her body were taut. “No.”

“No?” Another husky laugh. “You have no choice, Dragonmaster. Already, one of your associates,” she broadly gestured to the assembly again, “has secreted a specifically directed transpoder on your vessel. Associates indeed. I can say with confidence that such a signal once activated, would be avidly received in Fifth Circle City.”

“Titus, you can’t!” Jaka exclaimed, then clamped her mouth shut.

“Oh, but I can,” Dara dripped her words with cloying acid. “Little girl, this is none of your affair. Do not become entangled. It would end badly for many, not, I am sure, what you would intend.”

Titus stared at Kell. His ex-dossier cohort opened his mouth, closed it. Ju scuffled his feet and Bosston and Koun magically disappeared. “Blackmail is a dirty business, Tzadkielian.”

“Yet effective. I have your cooperation then? We can all rinse our hands when my sister is safe.”

No, Titus thought, you can’t rinse away the past; if he’d learned anything in the past 2500 years, it was that. But the ghastly idea of returning to the Fifth Circle . . .  I’m here because of you. “Bad plan to take an op where there is a pre-existing relationship with the target, positive or not.”

“Worse for you to be taken back to Fifth Circle, have all this Rimstalker nonsense redacted, and take up the burden of leadership again. Why, I believe Het would be inordinately pleased.”

Trapped. For the moment. “It would please me for you to come aboard Beats Working, then,” he narrowed his eyes, scanned the sloop’s cramped, filthy main cabin. ”These ladies and gentlemen have other tasks to perform.”

“Such manners, dragonmaster. I begin to see why my sister thought so highly of you. I will come on the flag’s gig. One hour. My personal chef will accompany me. We have much to discuss, and I so dislike the sound one makes when hunger finds its way into us.”

“We’ll be there to receive you. Sorry we have no Bo‘sun to pipe you on board.”

“Formalities? Never necessary. Certainly you impressed on Hanae ap ya Soorat that you can be quite relaxed and . . . congenial.”

At that, she unceremoniously turned on her heel and Ju rushed after her to the docking port.

“We’ll need a ride back, Kell, too. That is, if I don’t kill you first.”

“Titus. I know what it looks like—”

“The fuck you do. How much you getting paid for this?”

“Too much.” Jaka’s hands dismissively sat on her hips. “A single chip is too much for this bullshit, Titus.”

“Big enough fee . . . I tried to say no, too, and quickly found that Lady Plushbottom is plain not nice.”

“No. No, she isn’t, is she? You could have at least told me your client was Tzadkielian so I might have been a little more prepared, you slimeball.” That was a jab out of frustration; Titus’s memories did not return until Dara had mentioned her sister, but digging under Kell’s skin felt good for the soul.

“Yeah. She didn’t want me to ruin the surprise. I’d be floating home if I breathed a word.”

“The viceroy never told me about her, really didn’t say much about that part of her life, so, well, I’m just trying to process it. Not trending well.”

“Sorry, Titus.” A thump of bone conduction rippled through the sloop as Dara’s gig separated from the boarding dock. “I’m never going to kid you about that op again.”

“Oh, don’t lie to me Kell, like you usually do.”

Jaka snorted. “Not losing sleep.”

From the near transparency, they watched the sloop’s tender maneuver to mate with the empty dock. Behind that was the massive Tzadkielian ship, its solar sails fully reefed, save for trimming sheets port and starboard.  

“Well, I owe you, Titus. Those damn Tzadkielian exultants have their fingers everywhere, even in Old Crobuzon. We were blackmailed about as bad as you. I’ll send you some of the fee. Well, maybe not.” He feebly grinned, rubbed at his shaved scalp, then grew serious. “Did . . . did you really love her?”

“I thought I did, and maybe so, but I was green as grass. I’ve known love since, true love, and even though Hanae’s long in the past, it’s all come back now as if it was yesterday.” No shit.

Kell leaned back, displaying an unnatural deference. “Don’t envy you. By the way, Bosston, Tanodal and I will be on second-line support. Cosad will handle comms. Just like in the old days.”

Jaka snorted again.

The docking seal opened and Shavo at pilot signed the girl to board. Titus followed. “There are no old days anymore, Kell. That’s what no one here gets.”