Peaceful Sleep was in a nicer district of Moonbend, close to the Quiet Man’s known haunts. An open garden with bolts of silk and light, strong wooden walls like small huts or gazebos. Knell had never seen anything like it anywhere else in the world, but it still felt familiar to stand before the gates and see the strange, crooked trees with phosphorescent blossoms peeking over the wall. The shadow of the Dome was ominously close. Knell wondered if Blades’ trespass would be noticeable, from here, or if it would go wholly unknown to the thousands of people on these streets.
Knell pushed through the doors into a dark cloth-walled courtyard, a single tree in the middle under which sat a woman in blood red robes, surrounded by small stone pillars encircled with glyphs and studded with rubies. Knell nodded approvingly; they put on a good show.
“How may I assist?” The woman asked, opening startling violet eyes and offering a polite, professional smile.
Knell rubbed the back of her head, dark hand cool against her skin, and though that a haircut might be in order.
“I… was a patient here? Knell Blackhand.”
“Hm… I have no record of a Blackhand.”
“That may have come afterward – what about Knell?”
Her hands made gentle motions around the pillars and gently floating stones.
“A few. I’m afraid I can’t be more specific,” she said. “We have rules. Would you like to see a surgeon? They should be able to match you to our records without breaching our privacy standards.”
Knell paused. “Is there a consultation fee for that much?”
“No,” the receptionist replied, with a more genuine smile.
“Alright, yes, please.”
“You and your companion can go through to the waiting garden. Someone will be with you very soon.”
The ‘waiting garden’ was much like reception – open-topped, decorated with the unusual foliage of the ‘Sea, ornamental bells and bridges over flowing sand. Benches were carefully positioned under trees where the light of the flowers could supplement the sunset glow of the ‘Sea.
Knell picked the nearest and sat, crossing her legs and arms. Stumpy followed like a lost child, staring at the tree, touching the bark with his hand.
The sand streams hissed softly, and there was no other sound. Knell frowned – some kind of dampening spells woven into the cloth, ingrained in the wood? Not that sound carried well in the ‘Sea.
Stumpy seemed content to explore, and she felt no need to keep track of him as he wandered out of sight around the decor.
Peaceful, but the soft shadows were less comforting than might have been intended.
The psychosurgeon sat beside Knell, silent in white robes. A porcelain mask hid their features, under a peaked hood.
“You like your pageantry, don’t you?” Knell muttered.
“A certain amount of ceremony is good for the soul,” replied the doctor.
“Are names allowed?”
“Delia,” she said.
“Of course,” Knell smirked, glancing at the taller woman, “so are you going to check me against your files?”
“Already did. You match our records, but there’s not much we can do for you.”
“You don’t even know what I want,” Knell snapped.
“I don’t need to; that’s how little chance there is we could give it to you.”
“You had memory surgery, erasing even the event if the surgery. Do you think we just keep the expunged memories on file?”
“Yes.” Knell clenched and unclenched her fists.
“That would be unethical. The only person with a right to those memories was the one who had them removed, and since the person you are now lacks the context, you can’t be considered capable of consenting to restoration even if we did hold onto them.”
“I need to know, damn you,” Knell stood, turned to face the sitting doctor, “my life is at stake, I can see it, and no one can tell me why I did this.”
“You shouldn’t even remember the surgery clearly,” said Delia, “so the removal wasn’t perfect. We can’t help you, but there’s a way you can help yourself.”
“How? Tell me,” Knell pleaded.
The doctor shifted uncomfortably.
“Memories are patterns, flashing to life in the instant they are remembered, triggered by other memories and thoughts,” she replied. “We can rarely fully remove them; triggering the right sensations, the right feelings and ideas, can cause them to recover strength. “
“So I just need to find out what I’ve forgotten to remember it,” Knell said, flatly.
“In a sense, actually. The right places and people can trigger recovery,” said the doctor.
“I don’t know where to start.”
“Will you let me look, then?”
A long silence, Knell struggling to relax, keeping her guard down. She felt nothing as the surgeon probed her mind.
“Alright. There is a place you can start – Allbright Spire,” said the surgeon, relaxing.
Knell stared, arms limp, mouth open, and then laughed bitterly.
“It has to wait,” Knell said. “I’ve pushed the crew too far already.”
Daffyd nodded, watching the junkers do their work with something akin to childlike wonder. Swinging cranes, hissing saws; the floating bulk of the recovered freighter being slowly reduced by an industrious family of rats and hastily hired day-labourers.
“Daffyd,” she said. He snapped to attention, but couldn’t take his eyes wholly off the machines at work. The dark hulk of the ship against the dim fog that spread for miles, spotlights creeping over the hull to direct the workers, overpowered then by sparks from cutting tools.
“I want you protect the Death here in port for a few revolutions.”
“Where will you be, Captain?”
“I’m taking the other ship and the hostage to Francois. We’ll get her refit, and then I’ll come back here to get some falsified papers.” She said.
“From the Lybar,” Daffyd said, gruff and displeased.
“Artyom is the best man for the job.”
“You’re the captain.”
“Right. Did we get a price?”
At their back, where they sat on the remnants of a field gun hammered into a crude bench, Stumpy was idly picking through the scrap.
“They mortgaged their business to pay for the ship,” Daffyd said, “then dropped the price to account for all the blood.”
“No way the crew was cleaning it out.”
“No way,” he said, and nodded.
“And so the price is…”
“One hundred thousand standard cut gems.”
Knell watched a rat – a teenager, probably – carefully burning rivets out of a bulkhead, goggles bright and strange in the cutter’s light.
“You know where they got that money, don’t you?” She said.
“No,” Daffyd replied.
“The specifics don’t matter. Someone you don’t want to owe money to is where they got it.”
“Guilt by association, Captain?”
“Something like that. Still,” she sighed. “Their mistake.”
“Take the money to a gem-reader, would you? You’ll be in port long enough to root out any spells someone has slipped into them.”
“Of course, Captain.”
“Where is the money?”
“The safe on the ship.”
“Good, alright. Be watchful, Daffyd,” she said. “And please-” she stopped.
“…I’ll take Wainwright with me.”
“As you wish, Captain.”
“Come on, Stumpy. Don’t let them think you’re buying anything.”
The next steps were easy enough; a pilot willing to make a short jaunt off the island and leave them at the meeting point, followed by the stolen gunship and Knell’s skeleton crew picking them up. Harder was getting the pilot to take a chained and sulking Wainwright into the bargain.
Knell stood on the edge of the flat rock that served as a meeting point, chained to a pair of other floating stones by some unknown, holding it steady. She stood rigid, hands behind her back, fingers clenched around each other as Stumpy sat with Wainwright, barely scratched by the Clawtorn’s sporadic outbursts.
They faded from her awareness. All she could see was the paradoxical fog, the drifting stones, the angle from whence the ship had to come. Her only motion was the worrying of her fingers, harder and more frantic.
When the blunt nose of the stolen vessel emerged from behind an especially large stone, Knell almost clapped and jumped. I can trust you afterall, Rikker.
The ship smelled like the better part of a week sitting in the ‘Sea – stale sweat, sex, and slightly suspect military rations. Rikker hadn’t bothered to shave, and he greeted Knell with a hug that tickled her face.
“Alright, you’re happy to see me, good. Ship doesn’t come with basic utilities then?” Knell chuckled, shoving him back and inspecting the vessel.
“It’s got one cubicle and the water’s already run out,” he said. “Not built for long hauls, looks like.”
“We’ll get it modified,” Knell said, banging a bulkhead experimentally. “Make it easy to get from this to the Death so shifts can swap out. You get a good look at the guns?”
Rikker followed her onto the bridge and leaned against the wall.
“Oh yeah. We were lucky, Captain,” he said, “looks like someone forgot to lift a couple of prototypes out of it – or they felt they were needed for the escort.”
He gestured to the control consoles, pointing out unusual buttons and displays. Knell wasn’t sure she liked this modern Spire stuff, all black screens and electronic type, but she had to admit it took less training to fly these days. “There’s something different with the engines – don’t understand it, personally – and on top of the usual sponson automatics there’s a beast of a railcaster mounted under the upper hull.”
“Upper hull?” Knell repeated, eyes narrowing. “Why the fuck did they put it there? The only way to compensate for the recoil is balancing it against the thrusters and lift plates.”
“Some kind of dampening spells? He shrugged.
“Sell the parts?”
“Not until we know what it does, exactly,” she said, walking past him and into the gangway again. “Might be more useful than we think.”
“That’d be your luck, Captain.”
“I suppose it would,” she said, quietly, and searched for a suitable place to house Wainwright.
A day later the stolen ship drifted into Francois’ drydock, gently cruising through the open hole in the rocky shell and settling into the clamps. Knell carefully coaxed Wainwright out of his cell and had Rikker check the crew into the Mews, while she herself waiting on the docking bridge for the proprietor.
Francois clambered down the hanging chains and pipes to meet her, after only a short wait, his eyes glinting red in the dim light, thick, black hairs rustling as he touched one long, spidery limb to the surface and followed with a smooth motion, a fluttering of cloak, so that he stood towering over Knell. Only his glowing eyes were visible. Knell waved up at him.
“Francois. Did you get a haircut?”
“Funny, Blackhand,” he said, without emotion. “Age has its benefits.”
“Good for you.”
“Still not ideal, of course.”
“It never is. But this is that last step you mentioned?”
“Autonomously self-improving biological shell,” he replied. “Expensive, difficult, but less limiting.”
“I always thought you preferred machines.”
“We’re all machines, Blackhand. Some of us have less reliable components.”
“Right, well, speaking of components,” Knell said, changing the subject. “This ship is currently between legal owners and in need of an overhaul.”
“Looks new. Stormtech, sleeker design than the last time I saw one. Corvette.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“What do you need?”
“Profile’s too distinctive. Need it to look less like it was nicked from a naval shipyard, and there’s some fancy gear onboard we don’t have the tools to grasp.”
Francois’ gaze swept the length of the vessel.
“And I want it to clip onto the Death,” Knell continued. “It doesn’t look too fit for long haul but I don’t plan on being tied to one place.”
“Tricky,” Francois hummed. “Six hours to estimate?”
“Sure, sure. I’ve missed the Rustbucket anyway,” Knell replied, adjusting her gunbelt before striding past the towering engineer.
“Blackhand,” he said, without turning.
Knell stopped, stared at the back of his head.
“I have a new payment plan…”
Knell grimaced. Was that a joke?
“Tell me about it when you have the bill, Francois.”