by Alastair Reynolds
“Aye, it be a daaarrrk and stooorrrmy night!” Paladin said, clutching its sword menacingly. Paladin was a battered robot wheeling about the stage on one wheel and one peg leg. It sounded like “screech, stomp, screech, stomp.”
“That is the lamest intro to anything I have ever heard!” someone bellowed from the seated audience.
Paladin squinted into the dark theatre, which is quite a trick since it didn’t have eyes; although, to its credit, it was wearing an eyepatch to sell the squinting thing. “Who be that, then, that daaarrres to call me a liaaarrr?” The robot brandished its sword-like thing in one articulated appendage. The sword was really just a three-foot piece of wood and a small crosspiece at the hilt. It hadn’t even been cut to a pointed tip. So, actually, Paladin brandished a blunt piece of wood.
“Stop it, already, you’re no pirate!” the voice hooted from the crowd.
“Aaarrrgh,” threatened the droid. “Methinks I’ll be showing you some paaarrriting!”
“Squawk!” something . . . um, squawked from nearby. This confused everyone, so no one knew what to say.
“Um, Revenger?” someone in the front row whispered. From the back, they seemed to be wearing a robe that cowled their features, looking like a robed and shadowed MST3K character.
“Right!” Paladin caught the drift, almost. “I means ‘rrriiight!’ Now, landlubbers . . . ”
“Space,” that same stage manager whispered loudly.
“Er . . . maties!”
“Coves,” hissed the front row cuer.
“Aaarrrgh!” Paladin roared. “This heeerrre paaarrrit language be haaarrrd!”
“What the hell?” Paladin growled. “Somebody shut that thing up befooorrre I haves to skewer the . . . squawky thing. I mean, squaaawwwky thing!”
“Jeez!” the heckler in the audience said. “This is the worst review ever!”
Paladin squinted again, stubbing its wooden sword toward the voice, a silent warning.
“Ignore the heckler,” the shadowy blob whispered.
“As I was saaayyying,” Paladin continued. “This heeerrre tale is a paaarrriting tale . . .”
“I swear to God I’m going to kill that thing!” Paladin roared, swiping its eyepatch up. There was, as expected, no eye underneath to patch.
“Review,” hissed the front row.
“Right. Okaaayyy. This tale be called ‘Revengeeerrr,’ and it be a daaarrring tale of danger, excitement, quoins apleeennnty, bauwwwbles and ghooosties that’ll give even seasoned coves a deep case of the shivery! Theeerrre be maidens in distress, and . . . ”
“Hardly!” laughed the heckler. “These girls don’t need help! Dude, they got it going ON!”
“One mooorrre outburst from you, diiirrrty cove, and I’ll make ye walk the plaaannnk!”
“You can’t do that!”
“Just ye wait and see,” Paladin squinted at his anonymous adversary. “Anyway, these two laaasssies get into big adventuuurrre in the Empty, beyooonnd the Congregation, out among the bauwwwbles. The eeevvvil Captain Bosa Sennen, flying the daaarrrk flag of the Nightjammeeerrr, she be capturing one o’them giiirrrls and fooorrrces heeerrr to . . . ”
“Would you PLEASE stop all that hokey, fake pirate talk!”
Paladin swung its sword, er, board at the voice. “I spent a lot of quoins and time to learn Paaarrrit language and . . . ”
Anyone who had not wandered out from sheer boredom at this point, suddenly found a healthy reason to be elsewhere, so the ruckus included falling chairs, punches, ouches, doors flung open, shoving, and one inappropriate horse neigh (which has nothing to do with anything and was surprising to everyone).
That left only the Pirate Droid Paladin, the heckler, the cowled stage director, a sprinking of gold flakes flitting around, and one other droid standing behind the heckler.
The heckler sat, frozen in place, one hand full of popcorn poised to dock with its mouth, staring at all the Empty that was just created inside the theatre. The heckler finished the docking maneuver, and then stood to look at the rest.
The Pirate Droid Paladin leaned on its sword’s blunt end on the stage, idly snapping its eyepatch against its domed head. Pull, “snap!” pull, “snap!” pull, . . .
The stage director sat in the front row, holding its head in its hands, shaking back and forth with frustration at this failed review of an important book by an important author.
The gold flakes flitted around, but oddly slow and halting, like it wasn’t sure what it was.
The other droid standing behind the heckler, three feet tall, silver with blue trimmings, domed swivelling head, simply mourned “Blooooooooo.” It had a parrot sitting on its head.
And Vonne got it.
Vonne, the heckler, asked Paladin, “What do you think you are, again?”
The droid muttered, “A paaarrrite, dammit!”
Vonne nodded. “Every time you say pirate in that stupid accent, this parrot thinks you’re calling it. It’s answering. Now stop it, please. And, please, get on with the review. I’ll leave you alone as long as you don’t talk stupid paaarrrit-ese.”
Paladin sighed, then looked at the stage manager. Have you ever seen a robot shrug? It’s weird. Those little gold flakes seemed like an unqualified and slightly annoying dust devil.
“Parental,” the stage manager cued.
“Right! So,” Paladin began, pedantically boring and board, er, bored. “This is a story heavily influenced by Robert Louis Stevenson. It’s basically pirates in space. It occurs at some distant time in the future. Many of the planets of the Solar System simply don’t exist anymore, but there are tens of thousands of small artificial worlds orbiting the Sun. Most of these artificial worlds are rubble, but there are many dozens of engineered worlds that probably at one time were asteroids, or bits of shattered planets.
“Because this is so far into the future, it is unlikely humans ever got away from their own System. The ravages of broken civilizations have left strange baubles floating among the debris. These baubles are ripe for mining by various adventurers who want to strike it rich. They are full of odd technologies that either descended from past human civilizations, or perhaps even created by a couple of alien civilizations who have passed through. One of these alien civilizations still plays a major role as bankers for humans, controlling the flow of quoins (and hopefully you are smart enough to make that connection).
“The story centers on two sisters. One, Adrana, is old enough to qualify to be an adult and make her own decisions. The other, Arafura, is 17. She is the voice of the story, and is familiarly known as Fura Ness (Ness being the last name). They escape from their overbearing father and ultimately board a scavenger ship that has missions to crack baubles and mine their jubbly (treasures).
“The bad paaarrrr — um, pirate is on a separate ship called the Nightjammer. At one point, this bad pirate, Bosa Sennen, overwhelms the ship the girls are on and takes Adrana for herself to pilot her own Nightjammer. Fura is left behind.
“Now, the way into the baubles is by ‘reading the bones.’ This means there are skulls that can communicate over vast distances in an unknown way, but it takes a young mind to ‘jack’ into them and understand the directions. Older one’s brains lose their elasticity and cannot do it. Both of the Ness girls have this ability, which is why Bosa took one of them captive. She needs a new Bone Reader.
“Fura embarks on a rescue operation to retrieve her sister and bring down the murderess Bosa Sessen. She signs on with a young and inexperienced salvage crew to be their Bone Reader. Ultimately, she leads them to a particularly nasty bauble named ‘Fang’ that holds many lucrative secrets, and will set the stage to, perhaps, rescue her older sister and end Bosa Sessen’s reign of terror.”
“Parental!” hissed the cowled stage manager, adamantly.
“Yes,” Paladin acknowledged. “There’s a couple of bits of interesting tech here. Something called catchcloth that makes up the sails that enable these space ships to catch various solar winds to maneuver around the solar system. Most catch photons, but the kind the WIndjammer uses catch electromagnetic winds, allowing it to be completely black and camouflaged.
“Another is lookstones. These are basically spyglasses that can look through solid matter and see things any other visual tool would be unable to see.”
“What about weapons?” the heckler called while munching popcorn. “How cool are they?”
“The Ghostie tech is particularly exciting,” Paladin began, “but very rare because . . . ”
“Stop it!” bellowed Vonne from the audience. “I want to hear about weapons. What kind of cool weaponry do space pirates normally use?”
“Um. . . that would be crossbows.”
“Yes, but it’s cooler than it sounds.”
“Oh? How does it work?”
Paladin paused, thinking. “These crossbows are . . . um, . . . er, they shoot arrows really fast.”
Vonne stood, scattering popcorn everywhere. “That’s it?!?”
“Well, yes, but they are really, really fast.” Paladin’s pause ground to a full and complete stop; and if a robot could sigh, it would have.
“That’s it, I’m out of here!” Vonne declared and began scooting for the door.
The stage director hissed.
Paladin stood straighter, brandished its wood, waving it wildly above its head (which sounds vaguely obscene).
The little droid behind Vonne moved in closer, articulated arms unfolding from his carapace, pincer joints sparkling blue lightning, but very, very, threatening blue lightning. He intoned, “Blup, blip, bloop, brew!”
Vonne stopped, staring at the little droid with a parrot on top. “Artoo?”
“Bleep, bloop,” R2 confirmed.
Vonne stared, caught between Paladin with a wooden furring strip sword, and Artoo with a built in defibrillator hardly ever used for healing. “How did you get mixed up with this bunch?” He asked.
“Pooo-re-et,” Artoo said.
“Squawk!” echoed in the theatre.
Paladin spoke, “You are being directed, Anton, to sit and listen to the Parental Reviews and the rest of this review.”
“Ah, yes, about that. What if I don’t? What?” Vonne asked, “Are you going to whack me with your cheap piece of wood, or make sweet Artoo here give me a tingle? Doesn’t sound very piratey to me.”
“Sit!” intoned the stage director, not even rising from his own seat to sound magnificent, stately, commanding, god-ish.
Paladin continued, “There’s no mooorrre of the stooorrry I can reveal, cove, because that would be spoileeerrrs, and they be not peeerrrmitted!”
“Oh, god, the paaarrrit speak again,” Vonne muttered.
“Paaarrrents,” Paladin cried. “There be no vulgaaarrrities in this story. There be no baaarrreness or sex in this story. Aye, but there be a wee bit of violence, lad, or else how could this be a proper paaarrrite story!”
“A wee bit?” Vonne rose again. “Bloody hand to hand combat isn’t a wee bit!”
“Aaarrrgh, but it be in space and all!” Paladin retooorrrted.
“Decapitation? Skewering in various ways? That’s not a wee bit!”
“Alright,” Paladin conceded. “Let’s compromise around, say, a wee-bit-squared, shall we?”
Vonne was adamant. “Is this a YA novel, or not?!”
Paladin hedged, quirking eyebrows it doesn’t have over the eye patch it doesn’t need. “For a young-ish audience. How be that, then?”
“I guess . . .” Vonne allowed, nodding.
“But!” Paladin brightened, brandishing its wood. “Wasn’t it fun?!?”
“Yeah, yeah, true. It is a blast,” Vonne agreed. “So, you recommend it, then?”
‘Of course,” Paladin said. “Because – as everyone knows – whens you wants fun, it helps to be paaarrrites!” It began cavorting around the stage, in spite of its wheel and peg leg, singing. This sounded like “screech, stomp, ‘Rum,’ screech, stop, ‘Rum.’
“That’s it!” Vonne yelled. “You aren’t pirates!”
Paladin stopped cavorting, and raised its wooden sword. Artoo moved closer behind Vonne, threatening with crackling electricity and blooping, “Bloop!”
“Methinks,” Paladin sneered. “It be time ye waaalllked the plaaannnk, Anton!”
“Oh?” Vonne asked. “Artoo isn’t going to make that happen because he’s too nice. In fact, R2 is so nice, he gets to be called a “he,” while you’re stuck in “it-“dom. And you can’t make me because you have a peg leg and one wheel and I’ll be long gone before you even get here.”
The stage manager rose, turned, and released his cowl, revealing his face and his true identity. “Oh,” he said, making a mystical hand wave. “These are not the droids you’re looking for.”
“How can I be of service to . . . ” the golden sprite said, taking off it’s Ghostie helmet, which had obscured his identity. “Er, should I call you Lord or Lady?” C3-PO asked, a cocked golden head floated above an invisible suit of armor. The joint areas were exposed, which made up the golden sprite that had been jerking around the auditorium.
“As a protocol droid, I am able to converse in thousands of languages, many digital, including paaarrrit-ese.”
“So,” C3-PO continued. “I have been ordered to assist you to walk the plank. Please come with me now, Vonne.” C3-PO reached out an invisible hand and grabbed the heckler’s arm.
“But, but, you still can’t make me walk the plank,” Vonne said.
“Oh?” Paladin asked. “Why be that then?”
“Because,” Vonne answered, “On this WordPress website, I never got around to installing the Plank plugin. There is no plank.”
“Oh, Vonne,” C3-PO responded, pulling on his arm. “Remember those digital languages I know?”
“Aha!” Paladin roared. “We win, coves, because we be paaarrrits!”
“Squawk!” the parrot and Vonne screamed in unison.
26 November 2016