EXCERPT | The Emperor's Liar by Jeff Stoner

 Illustrations by Tyler Berd

Illustrations by Tyler Berd

It was Eighthday night, and the card tables in the seedy Rift Beta Niner casino were hopping. Martin “Cutshanks” LeCroix looked down at his chips and grimaced through his funjuice buzz. The stocky, gray-haired space pirate had only enough chips for one more hand, and nowhere enough to cover the credit he’d been advanced by the house. If he busted this round, he was out, and flat broke. In the lawless Rift Zone, that meant only one thing: indenture.

Tourists got off easy—a night or two in the rent cribs. Rifters paid a premium for Midworld meat, but an operator with Cutshanks’ portfolio would be expected to repay in trade. That meant doing a dirty job for nothing. In the past, he would have taken it in stride, but he now had Elsa to consider. She’d threatened to leave if he ever did wetwork again. She was dead–set against it, either because of her scruples, or because he’d tracked blood into her boudoir last time. He wasn’t sure which, and he didn’t want to find out.

“Ante,” said the tarnished dealerbot perched on the edge of the table. Cutshanks pushed in his chips and received his hand. It was garbage. The highest card was the Eight of Planets, and none of the other cards could be combined with it. Imperial Six Suite Holdem was a difficult game, but it did not occur to him to cheat. The penalty for third–time cheaters was genital avulsion.

He’d been caught twice before.

His companions immediately raised. Cutshanks saw their bets. There was no point in folding. He wondered if the casino would let him work the cribs if he identified as a licensed gigolo, but dismissed the idea. He didn’t have the ultraviolet holotattoo of an accredited courtesan, and they would check. Acquiring one moved straight to the top of his to–do list.

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It was time for the players to reveal their Shunt cards. The short, gray–skinned woman with a multiplicity of arms like a Shakti figurine revealed the Captain of Nebulae. The colorless man in a shocking pink basesuit produced the Minister of Stars. Both beat anything Cutshanks could make with his paltry Eight, but he put on a brave face and flipped it. The other players gasped. The image of a raven–haired woman with shining silver eyes stared back at him from beneath three starry crowns. It was the Empress, the high card. The game was played with a hundred decks, but only one Empress.

Cutshanks collected his winnings, which were sufficient to put him back in good stead. Nevertheless, he cashed out. It wasn’t the funjuice—his Shunt card had truly been the lowly Eight of Planets. It was nothing less than a miracle, and that meant his employer was nearby.

Cutshanks purchased a killjoy fizz to sober up and found a quiet table to await the inevitable interview. He hadn’t expected to be interrupted on this sleazy, boozy backwater world, which is why he’d chosen it for his holiday. Still, it spared him a dirty job, and for that he was relieved, if not especially grateful. No gift from his employer came without strings attached.

His drink was almost gone when delicate hands alighted on his shoulders. “Here you are,” trilled a voice like warm honey, and soft lips nibbled his earlobe. A gorgeous platinum blonde in a black nanodress flowed past to find a seat opposite him at the table. She was accompanied by two scantily-clad women, one a local Rift girl, and the other a Midworlder, judging by her functional cat ears and tail. These companions settled in close beside her. Almost in unison, they gasped. The blonde’s silver eyes twinkled mischievously, and Cutshanks noticed that her hands were nowhere in sight. They were unquestionably highly skilled.

Another observer might mistake Cutshanks’ guest for a Freya-class professional dominatrix, but he knew different. This creature was an ancient entity, a shape-shifting posthuman who’d been many things—scientist, explorer, mass murderer, and once, under the style Jørgen Pangloss, the Emperor of the Galaxy. Conveniently for him–the Emperor was usually male–he was universally believed to be dead. Again, Cutshanks knew different. “Nice meat suit, boss,” he said. “I like it better than your ordinary one. Easier on the eyes.”

“Thank you, Mr. Cutshanks. I take pains with each and every one of my appearances,” his employer purred. “I see you have slid back into your old ways. What would become of you, if not for me?”

“I’d be a much better man in every way, thank you. What should I call you today?”

“You may address me as Dr. Paasche.”

The cat girl stirred from her blissful preoccupation. “Oh, my Mistress!” she squealed. “I had no idea that you were so accomplished! When did you receive your doctorate?”

Paasche scowled. “Phoebe, you have spoken without permission. Your punishment will be most taxing.”

“Oh, yes, my Mistress!” the girl moaned eagerly.

“Are you going to tell her?” asked Cutshanks.

Paasche’s eyes flashed, but she answered pleasantly. “Certainly. I matriculated in 1935, of the old calendar.”

It was a reminder that Jørgen could not tell a lie. Cutshanks waited for the women to react to the admission that their “mistress” was over three thousand years old, but they were no longer listening to anything but her supremely articulate fingers. It was time to get down to business. “This is a brilliant conversation to be sure, but it’s late, and I plan on shipping out before first sunrise. What do you want?”

“Shop talk so soon?” Paasche sighed. “Very well. I have need of a very small thing. It’s a data point, a single number, but it will take the deceitful touch of an artist to tease it loose.”

“What kind of data?”

“Details, details. Wouldn’t you rather know who your mark is?” She turned to the Rifter girl. “Alina, please give good Mr. Cutshanks the ring that I gave you last night.”

Cutshanks hesitantly accepted the bauble from the girl’s quivering fingers. His eyes flew wide. The “ring” was made of tan stone, covered with writhing, ever-changing sigils. It was a Grig shunt key, or he had never seen one before. The Grig were long-extinct, but their shunts still riddled the universe. Some of them opened in very remote and dangerous places. “Where does this lead?” he asked warily.

“Patience. That is a rare slaved key. You’ll need to use the corresponding entry shunt. It is inside Rosencrantz’s Bubble, upspin from the Rift Zone. The terminal shunt is somewhere deep in Archontes-controlled space.”

“Are you telling me that my mark is an Archon?”

“Yes.”

“What do you want from them?”

“You must find out how many of their kind remain in the universe.”

“No. No way in hell!”

“What’s the matter? It’s a simple job.”

“It’s a death sentence is what it is. They disintegrate honest folk for asking less.”

“Aye, they have no patience for the honest, which is why I am sending you. Truth takes root slowly, but a lie is believed straightaway.”

“What if they refuse to say?”

“That’s your problem. No matter what they do, you must bring back something of value. The way forward will be made clear when you reach your destination. I’m sure you’ll do just fine.”

Cutshanks sagged. Like it or not, there was no way to get out of the job. He’d spent his retainers as fast as he’d received them. If he refused, his employer might take offense. Unlike the girls, the thought of being disciplined did not appeal to Cutshanks. “Is there more?” he asked.

“I’ve uploaded the particulars to your ship. My usual rates and conditions apply, but since you will be dealing with nonhumans I’ll toss in a ten-percent hazard bonus. Is that acceptable?”

“I guess it has to be. How will I contact you afterwards?”

“You won’t. Return here, and I will contact you. Now, if you will excuse me, it is indeed quite late. Make ready, my bond–slaves. You have been most naughty this day, and your rewards await you.” Paasche arose with the fluid grace of a ballerina. With her escorts following close behind, she vanished into the crowd.

Cutshanks gulped down what was left of his killjoy, and heartily wished for a normal job like actinide running, or even a good, old-fashioned hit. Any amount of blood on the upholstery was better than this.

Three days later, Cutshanks’ starship, Sneezy, flicked into existence at the alleged location of the entry shunt. Sneezy wasn’t her real name. Elsa insisted on calling her Hoppetossa, even though Cutshanks couldn’t get his mouth around the word. He called the big old freighter Sneezy–to his ear, her name sounded like a sneeze–and Elsa had given up correcting him. She sat next to him in the cockpit, scanning the empty parsecs. “We’re here. What are we looking for again?” she asked.

“The entryway of a Grig shunt.”

“Right. Nobody’s ever reported Grig remains in this sector. We’re out in the wastes, on the backside of an old supernova shock boundary. There are no objects inside our sensor horizon. Is this job somebody’s idea of a joke?”

“No, it’s got to be here. A locked shunt has no footprint. We’ll find it, trust me.”

Elsa Sonder stretched her long, lean arms. “I don’t trust you, remember? Who’s our client again?”

“Nobody you’d know,” Cutshanks replied, and hoped she’d drop the subject. Elsa had no idea about Jørgen, and he wanted to keep it that way. She was a former academic, long on mathematics and short on suffering fools. Although she wasn’t his type, she was blonde as Nordrom ice and her legs went all the way to the rudder pedals and back again. Cutshanks had liberated her from her former employer while privateering for the defunct Unificare Federation, with an eye to a quick conquest. He hadn’t counted on her being utterly ruthless, and happy to be free of her humdrum life. They’d become uneasy partners, both in the cockpit and between the sheets. But the name of mad Emperor Pangloss could be a deal breaker, and he knew it.

She wasn’t so easily diverted. “It’s about time that I got involved in the capture side of this operation. You’ll take work from anyone. This isn’t the first wild goose chase we’ve been sent on.”

“It’s no goose chase. I go way back with our client. He’s honest. If he says it’s here, it’s here.”

“An honest man? I haven’t met one of those since I’ve known you.”

Cutshanks tamped down a snort. “Look at this! I’ve got something” he crowed, swiping a sensor plot from his HUD to the main holoconstellation.

“Nice deflection, but I saw it five minutes ago. It’s just a dust cloud.”

“There shouldn’t be a dust cloud here. That old supernova scoured out this bubble but good.”

“Well, by all means, study it. After all, we’ve got nothing better to do than kill our time and ruin our credit.”

“I’m going out there myself. The ship’s thrusters might disperse the cloud.”

Elsa shot him an unhappy look. “Is that wise?”

“Nope,” Cutshanks replied, and retrieved his helmet from the footwell.

After an uneventful spacewalk, Cutshanks braked to a stop deep inside the cloud. Here and there, glassy grains flared in the beam of his headlamps. A few adhered to his white oversuit, a thin smattering of cosmic fly scat.

“Have you decided to give up yet?” said Elsa in his headset, her voice bracketed by electronic bleeps.

“No, but I need a favor. Please calculate the center of the cloud and give me a waypoint. I’m having a hard time orienting.”

After a pause, a red dot popped up in his HUD. “Here you go,” said Elsa. “What are you looking for?”

“I’ve got a hunch. There’s got to be some sort of mass holding this cloud together. It won’t take me long to check it out.”

Cutshanks jetted cautiously toward the target. There had to be something there, something with a tiny bit of gravity. Sure enough, something small and flat caught his lights. It was the gloved, four–fingered hand of a Grig. He withdrew the key from a pouch on his chest, and tried it on the middle finger.

It didn’t fit.

In quick succession, he tested the others. After the digits, he slid the key over the tip of the long alien thumb. It was a perfect fit. Suddenly, he was bathed in a beam of blinding light.

“’Shanky, when you’re right, you’re right,” hollered Elsa. “But what the hell is it?”

He didn’t know. The giant fisheye of a shunt had appeared a hundred klicks away, but instead of the ordinary vista of some other region of space, it churned with a kaleidoscope of blue and red light. His radiation alarm wailed. Whatever it was, it was pumping out hard stuff. He had to get back inside. Fast.

Elsa might have read his mind. “I’m doing a short burn to close the distance.”

“Roger, thanks! It’s hot out here,” he replied, firing his suit jets for all they were worth. “I’m going to maneuver into your shadow, and work my way back.”

Sneezy came up fast. Cutshanks shot past into darkness. The boxy bulk of the starship loomed between him and the gaping shunt, backlit by an aureole of her own thruster gas. He aimed for the blinking blue strobe that marked the port airlock. “I gotta stop living this way,” he mumbled.

Elsa heard him. “Don’t. I’ll leave. Your job is to make it fun for me.”

He sighed. “If roasting my sorry skin is what it takes to keep you, then there’s nothing for me to do but fry.”

“That’s the sweetest thing you’ve ever said to me. By the way, I know what we’re looking at.”

“What is it?” he replied, catching the recovery trapeze on the first try. The outer door slid open. Cutshanks scrambled inside to lean breathlessly against the side of the airlock.

“It’s a black hole.”

Safely back in the pilot’s seat, Cutshanks squinted at the swirl of blinding light pouring out of the open shunt. “For a black hole, it could at least have the decency to be dark,” he complained. “It’s more of a bloody bright hole. It doesn’t look much like a hole, either.”

Elsa looked up from her calculations. “It’s just a name. You can’t see the hole, anyway. The light is coming from plasma in the accretion disk. I’m glad the terminal shunt isn’t positioned over one of the polar jets. We’d have been vaporized.”

“This is interesting, to be sure, but we’ve got paying work to do. Is it safe to go through?”

“It is. The terminal shunt is orbiting the hole at a safe distance. We won’t fall in, if that’s what you’re afraid of.”

He laughed, and took hold of the controls. “Hold on to your sweet ass, I’m burning.”

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Sneezy slid forward, and passed through the shunt into a spectacular parcel of space. The blazing accretion disk of the black hole was overshadowed by a colossal jet of plasma shooting from its hub. Close-up, the polar jet was a broad column of purple flame so bright it threatened to overwhelm the canopy filters. An unhappy warble from the console meant that Sneezy’s radiation shields were running at emergency power.

“I see what you mean about being vaporized,” Cutshanks said.

“Damn. The shunt really is in a polar orbit.”

“Does our orbit cross the jet?”

She glanced nervously at her HUD. “No. We arrived at closest approach. We’re already moving away. We’ll miss the jet at the other pole, too.”

“That’s a relief. Who in their right mind would put a shunt in a polar orbit around a black hole?”

“Maybe the Archontes? Everyone says they’re survivors of the Grig.”

“They’re certainly powerful enou-whoops!” The collision alarm screamed. The console showed they were overtaking an object in a lower orbit. The familiar beetle shape surprised Cutshanks. “That’s a human scout ship,” he announced, jockeying Sneezy onto an intercept course.

“How did he get here?” remarked Elsa. “He must have opened the shunt.”

“And somebody closed it behind him,” Cutshanks noted darkly.

Cutshanks eased Sneezy to a stop a short distance from the scout ship. It was an old model miniship, her once-bright livery seared to ghostly yellow and grey. But, her transponder was still working. “Well what do you know? She’s got power and a Spooky engine,” Cutshanks announced.

Elsa pursed her lips. “I didn’t expect that.”

“Nor did I. Since there’s no sign of the Archontes yet, I’m salvaging her.”

“Huh? Why?”

“I’ve got to bring back something, whether I meet my mark or not. A live prewar engine might do the trick.”

“Maybe it would. But you’re not bringing it back with our ship!”

Cutshanks chuckled. “Our ship? There’s only one name on her title, love.” His hands flew over the controls. Secure atmosphere in the cargo hold: check. Open the bow doors: (after dismissing a cascade of critical safety warnings and ignoring a hard look from Elsa) check. Nudge Sneezy into a slow coast: check. Almost before Elsa could let out her customary disgusted sigh, the bay doors closed over the little scout. Almost.

Cutshanks and Elsa stood in the shadow of the scorched and battered scout ship. She was intact, with no obvious damage. Nevertheless, Cutshanks walked around her twice with his hand scanner, just to be sure. After the second pass, he stowed the device on his belt. “She’s clean. Not even much residual radiation.”

“What do you think is inside?”

“Hopefully something valuable,” he replied, flipping open the cover of the hatch controls. “I’ll have it open in a second. Cover me, just in case there’s a monster in there.”

She drew her stun pistol. “You’re blocking my shot, you know.”

“Stun both of us and put the monster out the airlock, then,” Cutshanks replied as he fiddled with the hatch, “almost…almost…there! Got it!” The hatch hinged up, revealing a dark interior. Cold, stinking air rushed out.

“Ugh. Somebody didn’t seal the loo,” complained Elsa. They shone their lights inside. The ship only had one pressurized compartment, cockpit and living space in one. Empty packages, scraps of food, and filth covered every horizontal surface.

“It’s a lifeboat situation,” Cutshanks observed, stepping inside. He brushed off the pilot’s seat and sat down. The controls were familiar to him. “She’s got a full load of fuel, and her drive is online and ready to go,” he said. “The operator didn’t even try to return via normal space. We’re not within jump range of anything.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” replied Elsa distractedly.

Cutshanks turned to see what had captured her attention. She was studying a coffinlike box along the port bulkhead. “What do you suppose this is?” she asked.

He recognized it immediately. “It’s a medical stasis unit. A lot of smalltime operators carry one. If you get hurt, you trigger your disaster beacon and climb inside. It works out sometimes.”

“This one is occupied.”

“How can you tell?”

She scrubbed at the grime on the box with the heel of her glove, revealing a window. Through it, Cutshanks could just make out the outline of a human face. A brief search uncovered the status panel. Through a patina of funk, all indicators shone green. The man was alive. Cutshanks whistled low. “Well, damn. Let’s see if we can wake him up.”

Cutshanks turned two dials simultaneously. The lid of the unit slid open to reveal a tall man with roguish good looks and a scruffy blond beard. Color was already creeping back into his cheeks.

“It won’t be long until he wakes up,” Elsa said. “I wonder who he is?”

“Oh, I know who he is.”

All at once, the man sat up, blinked hard, and focused on Cutshanks. “Marty? What are you doing here?” he slurred.

“That’s funny, Ben. I might ask you the same thing. Elsa, meet Ben Bozkart, my old partner. The last I saw of old Ben was his back, when he stole my ship and left me to the tender mercies of the Outrim Irregulars.”

Ben shook his head. “Damn, Marty, give an old buddy a break! That was ten earthyears ago.”

“Eleven, and my fingers still ache where they broke them.”

“Eleven? Oh my God. I’ve been marooned for a year.”

“You deserved it,” Cutshanks rumbled, but Elsa cut him off.

“Never mind him. Do you remember how you got here?”

“It doesn’t matter. I’ve got big news. The Mad Emperor is alive!”

Cutshanks’ heart caught in his mouth. “You can’t mean Jørgen Pangloss?” he said.

“Yes, him! Everyone believes that he died in the Arzenekoi War, but he didn’t.”

“You know this how?” Cutshanks demanded.

“Because until I came here, I worked for him.”

“Really? What sort of job did he give you?”

Ben grinned conspiratorially. “Nobody knows this, but old Pangloss cannot tell a lie. It drives him crazy. He calls it his ‘divine handicap,’ and for a man–or whatever he is–in his position, it certainly is. That’s where I came in. I was the Emperor’s Liar.”

That’s my job! Cutshanks wanted to shout. He sneered instead. “You got the liar part right. Tell us another one, Ben.”

“It’s gospel, I swear!”

Elsa put a hand on Ben’s shoulder. “Why don’t you tell us the whole story?”

Ben flashed her a winning smile. “Thank you miss. You’re too good and gracious for this scoundrel here. After the war, I started a little business running actinides out of Pannus Secundus. I got caught. Not by the Ord Lex, mind you, but by the damned Arzenekoi. They had me all fixed up for transport back to one of their infernal hideouts–God knows why, they wouldn’t say–when the Emperor came a-killing. I found out later that he hunts them for sport. He hit those poor blighters like fire from heaven. You can’t imagine how he fights.”

Cutshanks grimaced at old memories. “I’ve heard the stories. Let me guess. He demanded service in exchange for your life.”

“Yes, in perpetuity. I was desperate, so you can believe that I took the deal.”

Cutshanks could, but he chose not to let on. “You expect us to buy that?”

“I do,” Elsa said. “Ben, go on. Is there more?”

“Oh, yes. It was a good gig. Four or five jobs a year, most of them easy. But he insisted on an exclusivity clause. I got bored of waiting around. It occurred to me that people might pay good money for the whereabouts of the mad Emperor, so I put out feelers to my old contacts.”

“You ratted him out?” Cutshanks said, incredulous. For all his swagger, the thought of double-crossing Pangloss terrified him.

“I wouldn’t put it that way. I saw it as contributing to the free flow of information. But it never came to anything. Before anyone got back to me, he gave me a job. ‘Take this,’ he said, giving me a ring made of Grig stuff, ‘and take it to a place in the Upspin wastes. Put it on the finger of the hand that you find there.’ I did what he said. Lo and behold, a shunt opened in front of me. A look inside couldn’t hurt, I decided. But as soon as I passed through, it closed behind me.”

“Somebody removed the key,” Elsa said. “That’s a hint. We need to leave.”

“Not so fast,” Cutshanks said, “I’ve still got to talk to the Archontes.”

Elsa rolled her pretty eyes. “Shanks, this is a dead system. There’s no Archontes here.”

Ben coughed. “They’re here. The place is lousy with them, but they are very good at hiding. They’ve got something that beats our Casper Field hands-down. I sent them a distress signal. They told me that I didn’t have the sign, and left me to die.”

Elsa shook her head in disgust. “Cruel bastards.”

Ben flattened himself against the side of the stasis box, eyes wide. “It looks like they may have reconsidered,” he said.

Cutshanks whirled, and found himself face-to-face with an Archon. Tall as a man, it had a long face, huge eyes, and a fishlike mouth. Alarmingly, it had six pairs of wings. It spoke to him in perfect Galactic Standard. “Your headparts bear the sign of the Accursed One. An interview shall I grant.”

“Mark of the accursed?” he squeaked, before he remembered Dr. Paasche’s soft kiss. Then everything vanished, and he found himself in another place.

When Cutshanks’ sight returned, he was falling. He screamed.

“Please stop that,” said the Archon, mashing its topmost pair of wings over its ears. They floated together in freefall inside an enormous, transparent spacecraft. The black hole hung in the distance like a silver top, its radiation jets stretching up and down into infinity.

Cutshanks regathered his wits. He had no idea how to address the creature, so he fell back on what he knew best. “Sorry, you took me by surprise. My name’s Martin LeCroix, from Rift Prime in human space. Nice bit of real estate you’ve got here. With this view, you might consider subletting. But only if you put in a floor.”

“I know who you are. You are the first and last of your kind to visit. Please take a message to your master. Henceforth if he desires to speak to us, he must come himself.”

“You know Jørgen?”

“Name him not!” the Archon roared. “It is bad enough that he troubles us with his witless lackeys. From now on, all who arrive at our Watchcamp will be slain.”

“Isn’t that a little harsh? I only came to ask a question. How many-”

“I know what you want,” said the Archon. “Have you forgotten that you arrived uninvited, by virtue of stolen property? More importantly, are you sure of your mission?”

“I suppose I am.”

The Archon emitted a peculiar bark. A laugh, obviously. “You know not your master, then. Did he tell you what this place is?”

“No. What is it?”

The Archon gestured toward the distant hole. “Of old, that was the Flame of Righteousness. The warlords of the Pleroma used it to purify the galaxy of the taint of the Most Deplorable.”

“Flame? Purify? The black hole is a weapon?”

“It is. Did you not wonder why the shunt opened so near to the flame? There is not one shunt, but many, a line of nodes that orbit the black sun. It was constructed so that at any time, a shunt could be opened above one of the fires. Nine hundred and seventeen worlds were thusly incinerated. Long ago, a mass ejection changed the orbit of the nodes, ruining the weapon, and making us liable to receive unwanted visitors.”

“That ring I had… it’s not a regular key. It’s the trigger.”

“Yes. Our holy warlord would place it upon his dewclaw, and point at his target. The last to wield it was slain in combat, and the trigger was lost. Your execrable master discovered it, and somehow divined its use.”

Cutshanks gulped. It was starkly clear what Jørgen was up to. “Damn. He thought your black hole gun still worked. When Ben outed him, he sent him to die in the jet. It failed, so he trapped him instead. I’ve been sent to fetch Ben so he can finish him off.”

“You see at last. Your master is even more devious for his honesty. Will you return to him?”

“I hate to. Ben’s a filthy gankchoker, but he doesn’t deserve to die. Have you got any other ideas?”

“Escape from your master is impossible, and you may not stay here. You might slay yourself, and make small progress towards your atonement. But that is none of my affair. Return, and tell your master that we number two legions, plus one.”

Cutshanks was astonished. “Just like that, you tell me? Why?”

“Knowledge is currency. It is a paltry sum, but it must serve as your gate money. You may find it has uses,” the Archon replied cryptically. “Now, begone.”

In the same instant, Cutshanks was back inside the cabin of Ben’s scout ship. Elsa and Ben were still there. “Have I got something to tell you!” Cutshanks exclaimed, before he noticed that she was scowling, and her weapon was in her hand.

“You’re damned right you do, you lying bastard!” she snarled.

There were few cheap, quiet bars on Rift Beta Niner. Cutshanks finally found one three days after his return, and commenced a proper bender. Four nights later, a slim, pale man dressed in black sidled up next to him and ordered a whiskey. He sipped in silence, watching Cutshanks out of the corner of his silver eyes. At last, Cutshanks broke the silence. “Good to see you again, boss. How are the girls?”

“Profoundly satiated,” a rebodied Jørgen Pangloss replied. “They parted from me most unwillingly, but none made of airy flesh may accompany me on my rounds. I see you have returned alone. That is unexpected.”

“Tell me about it. You might have mentioned that my old partner was involved. Elsa and I had a falling out, and she ran off with him.”

“How unfortunate. Have you any idea where they might have gone?”

“No. We weren’t on speaking terms when she left. Ben might have taken her anywhere in the galaxy.”

Jørgen’s shining eyes drilled into him. “I’m disappointed. There is a matter concerning Mr. Bozkart that I greatly desire to pursue. If you have nothing else of value to offer, I insist under the terms of our relationship that you fetch him for me at once.”

Cutshanks suppressed a shudder. “I may have something better than Ben.”

Jørgen cocked an eyebrow. “You do?”

“Yes. The answer is two legions plus one.”

His employer’s cold stare melted into an amused grin. “They told you, by God, and the true number, too! Since I asked for no more, your job is done. The day is saved, and your wages along with it.”

“You knew all along?”

“Of course I did. My spies had a two-millennia head start on you.”

“A bloody test! I should let you keep your sodding money!”

“Aye, but you won’t. I’ve seen your receipts. Why so angry? Don’t you test your engine before leaving port? Your job was one of the worst assignments I’ve ever given anyone. But you solved the puzzle and became the first man to survive a face-to-face encounter with an Archon. It remains to be seen if you will succeed in all your designs, but your scorecard is impressive so far. You are a master of your craft, well worth what I pay you. Congratulations.”

Cutshanks nodded stiffly. Jørgen was on to him. He hazarded a question. “So, am I free to go, with my pay?”

“Of course. You’ll find the deposit waiting in your account.”

Cutshanks’ relief was palpable. “Thanks, boss. A pleasure, as always.” He rose to leave.

Jørgen caught his sleeve. “I believe you have something of mine.”

Cutshanks withdrew the trigger ring from his pocket and handed it over. “Sorry. Oversight on my part.”

“Indeed. And the finger, if you please.”

He reluctantly surrendered the crumbling alien digit, safe in a little vial. “You don’t miss a thing, do you?” he grumbled.

“No, I don’t,” Jørgen said, “especially not the controls of the most powerful weapon in the galaxy. It would be a pity if they fell into the wrong hands.”

“I never knew you were the ironic type.”

Jørgen grinned. “I’m always happy to surprise. But haven’t you presumed on my good will enough for one day? You must know it’s a losers’ game. Fortunately for you, I am slow to anger, even when my servants conspire to deny me my rightful prey. Don’t worry, I expected no less! It was part of your test. You may keep your life, your money and my compliments. But next time will be different.”

He knows everything. Cutshanks groped for an appropriate reply. He came up empty-handed, nodded politely, and beat a hasty retreat from the bar. Jørgen waved affably after him.

The violet tendrils of first sunrise were driving back the inky shroud of the Rift when Cutshanks finally stumbled back to the grungy spaceport. He found Sneezy–no easy feat in his condition–and climbed up to the empty cockpit. There was time to kill before his launch window opened, so he started the preflight checklist. But no sooner had he cycled the inverters when delicate hands came to rest on his shoulders. “Good mornin’ love,” he said.

“Good morning to you,” Elsa replied. “You stink. I saw the bank deposit. Did he buy our cover story?”

“Would I be here if he didn’t? When did Ben leave?”

“Yesterday. He’s heading out to the new tech digs on the Suhail Frontier. Jørgen can’t be everywhere.”

“He’d better hope so. Why’d he stick around for so long?”

“I didn’t expect you to disappear for an earthweek. You know how much I hate the Rift worlds. I got lonely, and Ben was good company. He stayed as long as he dared.”

Cutshanks jerked around in his seat. “You didn’t…”

“Of course not,” she replied. But her eyes said otherwise.

“I cannot believe you!”

“And I can’t believe you!” Elsa snapped angrily. “How long have you been the Emperor’s Liar? A year?”

“Yes,” Cutshanks admitted.

“And you never thought to tell me?”

“It was for your own good.” “It’s not like I can get away from him. You’ve seen how he handles troublesome employees.”

“I have. That’s why I’ve decided to forgive you. That, and for helping Ben escape. You took a big risk, and I know you didn’t want to.”

“You got that right,” Cutshanks groused. “That bastard hasn’t changed at all. While I was out putting my neck on the block for him, he shoved himself in where he didn’t belong.”

“I’ll be the judge of where my men belong. Look, if I’m going to forgive you, you’re going to have to forgive me. Is that too hard?”

“Of course not,” Cutshanks replied, feeling better for it. “Want to make up the fun way? We’ve got time.”

She snorted. “You’ve got to be kidding. Go scrub off while we’re still connected to ground services. I’ll run the checklist. I want to get out of here. The Emperor’s Liars shouldn’t let grass grow under their feet.”

Cutshanks laughed. “We’re in this together now?”

Elsa eased into the copilot’s seat. “We sure are. I see how he pays. I want in.”

“Trust me, he’ll want in, too,” Cutshanks muttered, and hoped this would be his last job for Jørgen Pangloss.

But he knew different.