|Drawn with a Galaxy tablet by B.C Matthews|
R. Leroy Johnson knew the Voyager set list all too well. Those on most space stations clamored for it whenever a wayward troubadour came aboard, and most hung out in the bars, and gin joints just waiting for a chance to request their favorite song. With his altered vocal chords and hands, Leroy could play and sing an accompaniment that would normally require half an orchestra to sound out.
It was just him, his voice, and his tritar.
The tritar, the mark of every weary troubadour from here to the ends of the known universe.
His voice, the mark that he'd sold his soul.
Here aboard Delta station, he wandered the cramped alley-like boulevards, his tritar strapped to his back. No one would dare steal his instrument, not even the slovenly little ragamuffins prowling about the lower sections, surviving only on the station's supply of rats and what they could steal. Rats. They'd taken them into space inadvertently, and now they were as large a part of culture and life as the troubadour's songs. The Rat-King was said to lay his blessings upon urchins, and there were dozens of Ender songs singing to his trickster glory.
"Care to sing us a ditty, my lord?" came the rough voice of a merchantman at his stall. His wares were all illegal, mostly reaped parts from dead stations.
Leroy swallowed as he prepared to use only one voice to speak. "For trade?"
The merchantman's scarred visage twisted down in a frown. His dark eyes darted about the noisy commonway, flooded with rank-smelling stationites. "You're an Altered. I hear they's mighty expensive in their trades, my lord."
So, it appeared that he didn't hide his voice very well anymore. "Depends on the song."
"Perhaps a story then?" The merchantman's eyes darted up to glare at a ragamuffin who'd wandered too close to his stall. Now caught, the filthy child slunk back into the foot traffic of the stalls, looking for easier prey. "Been mighty quiet here on Delta, bein' on the End of the galaxy and all."
"Again," Leroy said, cleared his throat of the other chord-voices in his words, "that depends on the story, my good man."
The man spread his hands at his table, but when Leroy shook his head, the man spread his fingers through his lank, greasy hair with a pensive frown. "What would it cost, my lord, for the story of how you got Altered?"
Leroy blinked in surprise, instantly touching the scars at his throat, carefully hidden by his high collar. "That, sir, will cost you more than you are willing to pay." He tipped his old fashioned hat, and said politely, "Good day, merchant."
"Wait!" The merchantman's hand whipped out to grasp at Leroy's sleeve. "Please, wait a moment."
Leroy glared at the oil-encrusted fingernails tearing at his clothing. How dare this Ender man in a weak station clutch at him? For a single sung note, he could have the merchant thrown into space by the mayor of Delta station. He shook his head. How inured had he become to the privileges of a wandering troubadour? However, his glare was sufficient enough to make the bulky bear of a man step back from Leroy's less intimidating lean frame.
"Please, lord," the man pleaded, his fingers releasing Leroy's sleeve. Hastily, he tried to smooth out the wrinkles, only to leave a trail of oil along its length. "I can sing. Just let me show you."
With a barely concealed frown, Leroy knew that most people thought they could sing. And well enough to bargain for some tiny bit of troubadour type immortality and status. But it was not a life one would so easily trade if they knew the price.
"Sing then," said Leroy. "Sing me the 'King of Rats and His Smile.'"
The man stiffened as if slapped. "That'll bring bad luck to those not in his keeping. Surely you know—" He nodded. "Aye, of course you do." He looked about him, before he straightened his back, and took a great deal of air into his lungs.
The man had a very fair baritone, as he sang:
King o' Rats, has a secret smile.
His majesty will not forsake
a change to make
himself in trash and waste.
But those that serve
Will always deserve
A place far below.
Several heads among the stalls snapped around at the song so carelessly sung out in the open, and one old, crinkled woman even hissed at him in disgust. Several people shuffled by and made the sign of warding against an evil omen, for calling upon the Rat-King even in Centralian stations was seen as a spit in the eye of fate.
"You've a fair voice, sir," Leroy admitted. "But is your son's any better? Mister...?"
"Bourne," the man answered. "How did you know about—?"
He waved away the question. The ragamuffin and likely pickpocket who had strayed too close to the stall had obviously been part of some continuous con. Father sells the wares, son picks the pockets of those looking to buy used and semi-illegal parts.
Leroy had been a pickpocket in his youth as well. Desperation made many young boys and girls do many horrible things to survive on stations at the End.
Even by becoming an Altered.
Leroy stuck out his hand to the boy, hovering inconspicuously nearby, and with a flick of his hand he said in three-in-one voice, a perfect chord of sound, "Come here boy."
The little stationite ragamuffin darted out from between two pylons, his face smeared with so much grease from down below in the station's underbelly that Leroy couldn't safely say what the kid looked like. But young. Maybe ten? The boy approached cautiously, flicking a surreptitious eye at his father, who nodded at him.
"Sing," Leroy ordered, his voice reached registers that human ears could barely hear, layered on top of normal speech.
When the boy opened his mouth to sing, a sweet high pitched voice came out, so sweet in fact that he realized that the merchant's son was in fact—the merchant's daughter. Her voice lilted in and out of the stalls, as she sang a popular tune from the Golden Record.
He recognized that she spun the tune, one "Johnny B. Goode," out in dips, playing with the song as a normal child would play with building blocks and toys. He raised a single brow, noting that she could be a fair troubadour even if unaltered, and that if she grew up to be a beautiful woman that stationites all over the galaxy would clamor to hear her and see her perform. Even without selling her soul at the Crossroads. But they never wanted just that. They always wanted to be the best.
Leroy looked up at the merchant man and back down at the girl. He regulated his voice to sound almost normal once again. "Two songs I've received, and for that I will tell you a story. Not the one for which your originally bargained, but a story nonetheless." His dark eyes narrowed. "And you must decide whether or not this is the story you seek."
The girl blinked up at him, and old man Bourne leaned closer.
"The Rat King lives," Leroy said in all seriousness. "And he rules over those with voices full of song."
The girl spat, her speaking voice rough with Ender slang, "Whatc'a you are goin' on about? This is a' no story for—"
Her father shushed her, his brow crinkled in worry.
"If you wish to serve the King, and yes, he is very real," Leroy cautioned, "then you can become like me. I will even take you to his lair."
And God help them, Leroy thought.
In the end, Mr. Bourne could only afford one passage to the Centralian station, the so called Zeus station. The man paid for his daughter's passage, obviously knowing well enough than to ask a troubadour for a financial handout. But to Leroy it was a sign of both desperation and actual love that the father would drain his accounts for a slim and dangerous chance to make his offspring's life better than squalor.
The girl, who Leroy called Bourne as well, trailed at his side as they walked down the well-plated causeways of the larger Centralian station, home to more than just artful dodgers and hopeless orphans. The girl's fingers twitched with all of the apparent wealth out in the open.
Leroy received nothing but courteous nods, even as he sat along one wall in one of the less busy causeways and placed his tritar in his lap. "Sing for supper," he told little Bourne.
She blinked. "Whatc'a?"
Perhaps she wasn't smart enough for the King's uses. Part of him hoped that she wasn't. "You're going to sing for supper. I'll play."
"This a test, sir?" Her face, now clean as a ragamuffin stationite could be, crinkled in suspicion.
Smart girl. He said, "Sing."
Her eyes glazed over for a moment at his tone.
He said nothing as he started strumming to the strains of "Johnny B. Goode," slowing the song's frenetic pace down into something mellow and unobtrusive. With a haughty look, Bourne let her sweet, mellow voice stream out into the causeway, turning the Golden Record anthem into something nearly melancholy. Several men in regal garb stopped to listen to her, nodding politely to Leroy as they deposited Emperor's coin in the hat at Leroy's feet.
Emperor's coin. The almighty Emperor of the Voyager Stations. How utterly impossible it would be that their starfaring ancestors would come across the Voyager craft floating about in the endless ether of void-black forever and reclaim some of the past they'd forgotten.
He began to change it to another key, mutating the beloved spacer's song into something almost entirely different. And the little Bourne kept up, twisting some of the words to fit with the somber chords strummed on the first twelve keys and strings of the tritar.
By her wide eyes, she'd never seen Emperor's coin before. It made her work harder. Longer. He played other songs from the Golden Record, and her voice lilted up in aching mourning as she sang to "Izlel je Delyo Hagdutin," voiced in a language none knew anymore. It was a droning lament, full of such melancholy that it was one he himself had usually avoided singing.
When finally Leroy had strapped his tritar to his back, Bourne peered up at him in excitement as he held out his hat. Before she could take it or the coin inside, he dumped the entire mass of coin in his pocket and placed his hat back on his head.
"First lesson, little Bourne," he said, tipping his hat, "never trust another troubadour. We all have our own agenda. And it is never as innocent as it might seem."
She looked almost disgusted with herself for having fallen for so obvious a con. Getting to her feet, she started to turn away from him, ready to flee to the safety of the underbelly of the station. Instead, she took her tattered jacket from her shoulders, placed it at her feet, and sat, singing a jaunty traveling ditty with more gusto than talent. In a few moments, a meager set of coins sat at her feet.
She placed them in her pocket with a haughty look in his direction. "No one cons me, Lord Johnson."
He hated that he would be forced to take for the King. Damn, but he was beginning to like little Bourne. But once set on this path, he couldn't help but test her. To resist would cause more than pain.
On the fifth day of singing, and Bourne began to grow bored, and the Centralians began to ignore their songs unless they were exceptionally difficult. He was honestly surprised she had been this patient.
"What're we waiting for, m'lord?" she asked him. Out of habit, she bumped into the side of a rich red-robed Spiral station woman, and deftly swiped the woman's wallet. "Why haven't you taken me to the...place where I'll get Altered?"
"You assume you're ready," he said, "or that the King will want you."
As always she peered sideways at him, distrustful. "Why does the King change people at all? What's he get outa' it?"
Obedience, he thought, but his voice cracked into a near four-part harmony. "We pay him homage with extra coin in return for the gifts he gave us."
That she could understand. Trade of goods was a part of her world. So was manipulation. The con. "Why are people scared of troubadours sometimes?"
"We trade in gossip, in stories, in history," he said. "We learn things that some people don't want others to know. For the right price we can either keep it quiet, or unleash it. What we know can be dangerous. What we can find out can be dangerous."
"For the right price," she muttered. "Then why are you taking me? I didn't a' pay you anythin'."
He sighed. "The Rat-King pays us well for new...disciples."
"And you're still testing me?"
God, she was smart. Little Bourne, doomed now to serve a cruel master. Or he could leave her here to fend for herself, and simply take the punishment for disobedience. He shuddered.
"Yes, little Bourne."
The station police had more than roughed up his little Bourne. Oddly, it stirred anger within him to see her so. One eye was puffy and the blue-black of a spreading bruise, her cheek scratched, even as she held her shoulder as if it pained her. When he asked her what happened, she simply shrugged, perhaps embarrassed that she hadn't been able to outrun the pigs.
The fury built inside of him until he had the very dangerous and unprofessional urge to find this man and use all of the techniques in his arsenal to met out punishment. Stationite police tended to take bribes and rough up undesirables, and in the Centralian stations they liked to kill Enders.
He nodded to her, remembering when he was an Ender child, and he began the long, complicated process of breaking down his tritar into smaller component parts that he stashed secretly about his long coat. In a side causeway, he began to turn his fancy Centralian clothes inside out, revealing poorly patched Ender clothing, painted in such a way as it looked like grime, and he tousled his wild hair to even wilder lengths.
Bourne watched the transformation in interest, squinting through her one good eye. "You look like an Ender now."
"Watch'ca mean?" he said, nearly cringing at his birth accent. "Stay 'ere now, la little one."
He began to limp as if he was a lamed Ender, but her little hand—and he noted the broken pinky finger—stopped him. "You're going to do somethin' to him."
He blinked down at her, marveling at her perception.
She smiled a dark knowing smile. "Can I come too?"
Maybe if she saw what he had in mind she would turn back from her path. But even he could not bring himself to take her to see of what he was capable. Not when he would make that stationite cop wish he were floating in the vacuum of space. His training would be more than sufficient to allow man to stay alive just long enough to make him wish he were dead.
The Emperor would do nothing. The Mayor of the station would do nothing.
The Rat-King's peace must be upheld.
Leroy's hands were bloodied only hours ago, and he could still smell the coppery tang on his tongue, almost an electric stench like burnt wires. The stationite cop had been woefully inept at staying conscious through most of Leroy's lesson on beating up little girls. While dripping superheated oil over the man's chest, and listing to the song of the man's screams, Leroy had given the man an important bit of information. He used his voice to splinter the man's eardrums.
"Never mess with the Rat-King's disciples," he warned, as the oil sizzled through skin like a lump of cooking roast. "We are his watchers, his enforcers. And he does not take kindly to men who beat up ten-year-olds."
Leroy shook his head of the images as he cleaned himself up in a public stall, placing his tritar back together to become the genteel troubadour once more.
Bourne pushed her way into the empty public bathroom and watched the blood from his hands turn the recycled water pink. Almost demurely, she said, "Is this what it means to be an Altered?"
He pretended not to understand. "What?"
She licked her split lip. "Not bein' helpless."
She darted away from him. "Your voice can make people do stuff." When he didn't answer, she said, "Show me."
"That is not the right question," he said, his voice quivering. "You should be asking why we're not at the Crossroads."
"Is that the Rat-King's home?"
He raised a brow.
She chewed at her lip, her eye a little less puffy now. "More tests, eh? So, the Rat-King takes smart people an' Alters their voice. Your voice can make people do things. You singing does somethin' to them. I can kinda' hear it, and it makes me want to obey, but I don't hav' to listen."
He strummed a discordant set of notes on his reassembled tritar. If she survived the procedure, she would be a great Altered troubadour. Perhaps even the King's favored agent. Instead, he said to her, "We will sing again, not just for supper. You will find out information."
"On what?" Again, she glanced at him sideways as if trying to read him the way she would a pickpocketing victim.
"That'll be up to you to understand what information is powerful and useful."
She had transformed herself with a little coin she'd gotten from singing one of the more difficult pieces from the Golden Record, though her youthful little voice could not quite do the opera justice, those listening had still been suitably impressed. Now, she no longer wore the stained, ragged clothes of a poor Ender, but a refined and manufactured dress from some stall selling Spiral station clothes. Hair combed and cut, face cleaned and powdered, she suddenly looked ill at ease.
Leroy sat in a pillowed corner of the bar, idly strumming the calming notes of "Flowing Streams," one of his favorites from the Golden Record.
Thievery she was used to. Hiding in the shadows she knew. But speaking idly to bar patrons was a skill she was ill prepared for. From her dress, it appeared as if she were a hired courtesan plying her trade while learning the ropes from some madam or other.
Sadness clung to his strummed notes as he noted that she was not the youngest ever to apply for such a trade. She listened to a raucous pot-bellied Centralian man drinking high-priced swill, as she pushed around the trays for his drinks.
"And the Mayor will not do a thing, not a thing about these ridiculous new taxes," said the man, his belly jiggling. "The Emperor is a glutton, I tell you. Pretty soon he will have squads out to all the stations, even the Enders to squeeze money from our bare hands."
Bourne moved then, collecting his empty glass, and the man reached for her. So surprised, she darted from his grasp in a way a courtesan never would. Rat-quick, she scurried away, head bowed.
She collected a glass from at Leroy's feet, and met his gaze. Her eyes were haunted, but she flicked her gaze toward the man. He ignored her, even as he began to play a song of his own make, using his accent.
Idle hands and wagglin' tongues
Out of the Crossroads
Don't know where
But they's always dyin'
It was a song that would herald the rich merchant's downfall. Bourne plunked three new glasses on his table, and let him know that it was on the house. Before long the man was caroling along in bad taste to Leroy's songs, extolling the virtues of a free republic of individual stations. By the end of the night the fellow was nearly comatose from all of the drinks Bourne had slipped him, her agile frame darting away from his crass advances.
When there were few left in the bar, he watched as Bourne set a recording chip down on the bar and told him in her girlish voice, that he was very, very screwed. She had recorded all of his mumblings against the republic, and that she would give it to him if only he gave her money.
Money exchanged hands.
He sang, his voice breaking into both the eerie melody and harmony:
The King and his Crown
upon his brow
rules from a land below
His disciples will play
You will run away
From his vicious pride
and your fall.
Leroy knew now that Bourne would be a disciple of the Rat-King.
Leroy had made sure the fat merchant would never speak ill against the Emperor ever again. It was easy enough to have Bourne slip him a sleeping draught laced with enough poison—the kind they used on the rats—to make sure the rebellious man would never again utter things like independence for the stations.
Now, Bourne stood beside him, staring out of the window at the bow of a sleek two man passenger ship headed out for deeper space. Out here, they could see the glint of the edge of the spiral arm, like vapor trails across the never ending black, a lady's lacy veil some called it. But it was more than that. It marked the boundaries of scattered humanity, bound to their stations, never having found or gained an habitable planet—except for the Emperor's moon. A planetoid that was barely sustainable beneath shiny glass domes.
But they were not destined for the palace.
Leroy set his course for the Crossroads.
Little Bourne glanced up at him, and he could see the woman she would become, no more a ragamuffin Ender girl, but a strong, smart, deadly agent.
"You're the Rat-King," she said almost matter-of-factly.
He modulated his voice to a rumble of basso notes, "Yes."
A tiny glint of metal against the backdrop of the endless forever of space, made him stand up straighter. The small station—an unknown station—was shaped like a cross, its arms reaching out into space as if it were a dizzy person reaching out to steady itself.
Her bruised eye was now a mottled piss-yellow and faint blue. She narrowed her gaze with a hiss. "The Altered...they serve you."
"And you're not really the Rat-King," she continued, huddled against the bulkhead of the ship.
"Then what am I?" he asked.
She bit her lip. "The Emperor."
Instead of answering, he sang with one voice—his original, unaltered voice:
The King of Rats
has no complaint
for he will endure
when we all fade
She shook her head. "There is no Emperor, is there? No one really sees 'im.. And his words come down from the Mayors. He must've died long ago, and now his spies is in charge."
They were rapidly approaching the Crossroads.
Little Bourne continued, "You are spies...killers for th' Republic. You keep us all in line, eh? Kill people like the fat man who hated the Emperor. Kill guys who rough up 'lil Ender girls. It's yous who is really in charge. You Altered. Yous in charge, Lord Johnson."
I went down to the Crossroads, R. Leroy Johnson sang, fell upon my knees.
She lifted her chin, and sang back, her voice sweet and innocent still:
King o' Rats, has a secret smile.
His majesty will not forsake
a change to make
himself in trash and waste.
But those that serve
Will always deserve
A place far below.
He placed a hand on her shoulder and said, "Here is where you have to make a choice, little Bourne. Sell your soul to the devil at the Crossroads and become an Altered, a spy, a killer who has no choice but to listen and obey the Rat-King."
"Or?" she asked.
He blared out a rough version of "Johnny B. Goode," and she waited in silence, already knowing the answer.
"You'll kill me," she said quietly.
How many desperate people had he brought to the Crossroads station? To become troubadours who traded gossip, learned secrets, and kept order by killing in back causeways? All he had wanted as a child was food in his belly, and a place to sleep without getting kicked by Ender cops. But here he was now, an Altered, one of the dead Emperor's elite spies raised from his rough childhood past.
Bourne dipped her head so low that her chin nearly touched her chest. "Does this mean not bein' helpless?"
"You said never to trust troubadours," she accused. "I will have to obey you, you said. Your voice controls the Altered too, eh? You, the Rat-King."
"Unless you can out sing me," he admitted. It was how he had won his Rat-King status among the other Altered. "And when that day arrives, I will be proud."
She blinked at him, a hesitant smile on her lips. "Sign me up, Lord Johnson."
He took her to the Crossroads.
The day came, like it always did for any ailing Rat-King, when one of his disciples decided to out sing him, to tune her voice to a myriad of maddening pitches and tones to make any man her slave. His eardrums were fit to burst at her song, and eventually blood poured from his ears.
She had grown into a stunning woman, lithe and quick, scarred from her time as an Ender pickpocket. But she was his most trusted agent.
Which was why it was not surprising she turned on him when his voice grew weak.
"Lord Johnson," she said, her voice a purr. "You always said not to trust another troubadour. But you lied. I always trusted you."
And she sang, her voice lilting through the Golden Record, from ancient unknowable chants, to symphonies and opera. He was transported by her voice, even as his ears burst, and his ailing heart was soon to follow.
The Rat-King would live on in song.
And the Rat-Queen would rise.