Previous Page Next Page

UTC:       Local:

Home Page Index Page

Crown of Slaves: Chapter Eight

       Last updated: Saturday, April 9, 2005 09:56 EDT



    Other people found getting to sleep that night far more difficult. A room full of naval officers in a hotel not far from the one Victor and Ginny were staying at erupted in a bouillabaisse of curses and imprecations. The officers had just finished watching the recording of Underwood's show brought by the first courier ship to land.

    "Just what we needed," complained one of them, an officer wearing the uniform of a commander in the Solarian League's navy. "God damn so-called 'special ops.' Why do they even bother distinguishing between 'gray' and 'black' ops, anyway? It all stinks the same."

    The foul-tempered remark was aimed at the officer's superior, a captain in the same navy. The captain, a trimly-built man on the small side, smiled lazily in response.

    "It's an imperfect universe, Edie. Do you want me to make it worse by trotting out obnoxious old saws? 'You eat what's set on your plate.' 'Play the hand you're dealt.' I warn you, I can go on for hours. My father was addicted to the blasted things."

    The captain spoke loudly enough to be heard by everyone, and the mood in the room lightened visibly as a result. A large part of Captain Luiz Rozsak's charisma was his easy and relaxed sense of humor. Without it, the man's fierce ambition would have driven people off instead of drawing them like a magnet. As it was, Rozsak's unusually rapid rise in the Solarian League Navy—all the more unusual in that he came from one of the outlying systems instead of the old colonies which provided the SLN with most of its senior officers—had been greatly aided by his talent for drawing a capable and loyal staff around him. Instead of resenting his superior abilities, his subordinates found working with the man both pleasant and rewarding. Rozsak repaid loyalty in kind, and as he'd moved up the promotion ladder he'd seen to it that his followers did likewise.

    To be sure, in so doing he was simply following the time-honored traditions of the Solarian League Navy, for which favoritism and empire-building were viewed almost as a law of nature. That did not offset the fact that Rozsak did it with the same superb skill he did everything else. No ambitious officer was going to rise in the SLN without developing a network of patronage, civilian as well as military. That was a given. But only a very unusual officer could have overcome Rozsak's handicaps thoroughly enough to have created the network he had. Perhaps best of all, he did it without constantly rubbing his followers' noses in their subordinate status—which was also a tradition in the SLN, but one which Rozsak seemed to have no difficulty eschewing.

    He'd even proved to be talented at "special operations," something which still half-astonished his own followers. As a rule, the talents and skills required for that line of work fit a military man about as well as gloves would fit a horse.

    So, while all of Rozsak's subordinates in the hotel room were disgruntled by what they'd seen in the broadcast, none of them were really downcast about it, much less panicky. Yes, it was an unfortunate turn of events. But they were quite sure Rozsak would figure out a way to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. They'd seen him do it before, after all, and more than once.

    "It's not as bad as it looks, Edie. Of course, we'll have to figure a way to get Zilwicki out of the picture. And damn quickly, too."

    "Is he really as good as all that?" asked Lieutenant Karen Georgos. She pointed a slender finger at the now-dark HV. "What I mean is, that had all the earmarks of a show. Nobody as slick as Yael Underwood is going to spend that much time boring everyone with drab and dreary reality."

    Captain Rozsak cocked an eye at another officer in the room, signaling him to provide the answer.

    Lieutenant Commander Jiri Watanapongse levered himself out of a slouch in an armchair across the room. He'd been the most disgruntled of them all, watching the broadcast, and was still clearly trying to fight off a dark mood.

    "He's that good, yes." He gave the holoviewer a sardonic glance. "Oh, sure, they milked the romantic angles for all they were worth. Heroic dead wife, stoic widower, plucky daughter, new love found in unlikely places, twaddledeedee, twaddledeedum. Beauty and the Beast, you name it, Underwood hauled it all out. But don't kid yourself. I can guarantee you that right this very moment—"

    He cast another sardonic glance at the window. Somewhere beyond it, behind the curtains and the electronic shields Rozsak's people had erected as soon as they took possession of the hotel suite, rose the towering structure of Suds Emporium, the oldest and still tallest edifice in Erewhon's capital city of Maytag. The Suds, as the Erewhonese called it, was an odd sort of building. It combined the functions of Maytag's most prestigious hotel, its largest commercial exchange, its most expensive boutiques—and, in practice if not in theory, was the real center of Erewhon's political life.

    Most people assumed that the "Suds" of the title, as with the name of the planet's capital city itself, were testimonials to obscure figures from Erewhon's early history. Intrepid pioneers, no doubt, Erewhon's equivalent of Lewis and Clark.

    Watanapongse, Rozsak's intelligence specialist, had done his research and knew the truth. The people who founded the colony of Erewhon, centuries earlier, had apparently had a wry sense of humor. So, digging up long-forgotten terms from the ancient history of Earth, they'd bestowed names which tweaked the respectable Solarian society they'd left behind, without that society even realizing it.

    Today, Erewhon was as respectable a planet as any in the galaxy, even if it still retained some odd customs deriving from its origins. But it had been founded by a consortium of successful figures in organized crime, looking for a way to—the expression was still in use, although very few people in modern times understood its etymology—"launder the money."

    The sardonicism in Watanapongse's glance, however, was not due to that. It came from the fact that he knew which odd collection of people was having a meeting simultaneously with this one, except—damn fools—they'd insisted on doing it in plush surroundings instead of, as he and Rozsak had opted, choosing a modest and less well-known hotel.

    "Leave it to the Mesans," he sneered, "to insist on crapping in a gold toilet."

    A harsh little laugh swept the room. By normal standards, none of the men and women gathered in that hotel room were especially burdened by finicky moral sentiments. But the contempt they held for Mesa and all its works was not simply that of hard-boiled military officers of a hard-boiled society. Even for them, Mesa was a byword for foulness.

    "Our courier ship overtook theirs along the way. And since we had military-grade sensors and we got here first, we were able to catch them right after their junction translation and verify that it was the same Jessyk Combine vessel which left Manticore ahead of us."

    He let that item get digested for a moment. The Jessyk Combine was one of the giant commercial enterprises which dominated the Mesa System. Manpower Unlimited, the galaxy's premier trafficker in genetic slavery, was another, and by far the most publicly notorious. None of them, however, were what could be called "ethical enterprises," and Jessyk in particular had close if informal connections with Manpower. The connections were distant enough—obscure enough, rather—that Jessyk had never been outlawed in the Star Kingdom, as Manpower had. But no one in the know doubted for a moment that wherever you found a Jessyk courier carrying information, Manpower would be getting it just as quickly as Jessyk.

    "I can guarantee you," Watanapongse continued, "that the people gathered over there took even less pleasure than we did watching that recording. A lot less. They've run into Zilwicki in the trenches, which we haven't."

    "And won't, if all goes well," added Captain Rozsak firmly. His eyes swept the room, his gaze harder than usual. "I trust that's understood by everyone. We've got no bone to pick with Anton Zilwicki, and only a fool—judging from all evidence—would pick a bone with him just for the hell of it."

    Relaxed and normally good-humored he might be, but Luiz Rozsak was also the boss, and nobody doubted it. His brown eyes swept back across the room again, and were met by a little wave of nods.

    "Good," he grunted. Then, more easily: "I admit he's a headache for us, so we'll have to figure out how to ease the pain. But nothing direct, people. The last thing we want is to draw that man's attention our way."



    For a moment, his face assumed some of the sour expression that had earlier been on the face of Commander Edie Habib. In truth, Captain Rozsak was no fonder of "black ops" than any of his subordinates, for all that he was much better at it than most military officers. It was ultimately a filthy business, no matter how much perfume you sprayed over it. And while Luiz Rozsak was perfectly prepared to get his hands dirty in the pursuit of his ambitions, he preferred the dirt to be soil instead of sewer muck.

    He swiveled his head and brought the most junior officer in the room under his gaze. Thandi Palane was the only Marine lieutenant in the group, and, even after a year, she still seemed a bit dazed at having been selected by Captain Rozsak to be one of his inner circle. As a junior officer from a backward frontier system, she'd assumed her career would be slow at best, and would soon enough stall out completely. She'd been resigned to that prospect, since even early retirement from the Solarian Marines was vastly superior to any life she'd have had if she'd stayed on her home planet. Ndebele was still under the control of the Office of Frontier Security, which meant—in practice, if not in the official theory of the Solarian League—that she would have remained the serf of Solarian bureaucrats and their allied conglomerates.

    The last thing Thandi Palane had expected was an invitation to join the staff of one of the SLN's better-known fast track captains. True, there was a trace—more than just a trace, in fact—of the "outsider" about Luiz Rozsak himself. But there was also the smell about him of an up-and-comer, too. Rozsak had already punched several tickets as a ship commander, and was now enjoying the prestigious status of a Central Staff officer detached for duty to one of the Solarian League's important sector provinces. Rank be damned. Above the junior levels, civilian connections counted for at least as much in an officer's prospects for advancement as official rank did. Most commodores in the SLN and not a few of its admirals would have given their eye teeth to be on Rozsak's close terms with System Governor Oravil Barregos and his political chief-of-staff Ingemar Cassetti.

    Rozsak was amused at the way Palane so obviously had to fight to meet his eyes. Sooner or later, he knew, he'd have to overcome that shyness. He needed followers who were self-confident in their own right, not simply obedient to him. He'd even considered the tactic of seducing the young woman, something he normally avoided with his subordinates, in the hopes that an affair with her much-idolized patron might rub away some of her social awkwardness. That he'd succeed in the seduction, he didn't doubt at all. Rozsak was a physically handsome man as well as a charismatic one, and the lieutenant had all the signs of a young woman with a crush on her glamorous boss. But he'd come to the conclusion such a course would be far more likely to do harm than good for Palane's development, even leaving aside the obvious dangers it posed for overall discipline.

    He'd come to that conclusion with some regrets, to be sure. The lieutenant was a very attractive woman, all the more so in that the genetic strain which had produced her was far enough outside the usual parameters of the now much-mixed human species to appeal to Rozsak's taste for the exotic. But one of the reasons for Luiz Rozsak's rapid rise was his iron self-discipline. He let nothing get in the way of ambition, neither his distaste for black ops nor the prospect of pleasure with a beautiful young woman.

    "What about your Amazons, Thandi? They might do the trick."

    He recognized her hesitation for what it was, and had to suppress a sigh. Even after working in close proximity with Rozsak for months, Lieutenant Palane still wasn't comfortable with the idea of contradicting her superior.

    Fortunately, Edie Habib had all the instincts and skills of the superb executive officer she'd been when Rozsak had had a ship command.

    "C'mon, Thandi, spit it out. I promise the Captain won't bite your head off."

    Another little laugh swept the room, though it was not a harsh one. Most of the men and women in that room had at one time been in Thandi's position, and they were not unsympathetic to her plight. Rozsak's style of leadership was rather unusual in the Solarian League's armed forces, most of whose senior officers did not take kindly to subordinates who argued with them. It took some getting used to.

    Her hesitation was only brief, however. This much Lieutenant Palane had learned: the one thing which was guaranteed to bring the Captain's wrath down on your head was to dance around him or try to feed him whatever line you thought he wanted to hear.

    "It's not a good idea, Sir. In my opinion, that is," she added hastily.

    Rozsak inclined his head, urging her to elaborate.

    "The thing is, my—uh, 'Amazons,' as you call them—really don't know their ass from their elbow, when you get right down to it." She flashed a smile which, for all its quick nervousness, was dazzling enough to make Rozsak regret again that he'd decided to maintain his personal distance from her. "They remind me a lot of me, that way."

    Again, some laughter, which Rozsak joined in. Now obviously more relaxed, Thandi continued.

    "So the problem is that while I don't doubt if we waved them under Zilwicki's nose we'd draw his attention—especially with one of his daughters along for the trip—"

    "No kidding!" exclaimed one of the Navy lieutenants lounging against a wall. Jerry Manson, that was. "Let Zilwicki get a whiff of some Scrags on Erewhon, he'll have his hackles up like a dog in an alley."

    Rozsak caught the sudden frown on Thandi's face and cleared his throat. Manson was a problem, and Rozsak decided that slapping him down would be all to the good.

    "Lieutenant Palane has already requested once that we avoid that term when referring to her special unit. As you may recall, I agreed with her. A leader who sneers at her own troops—or lets anyone else do it—hasn't got a pot to piss in when she needs it, people."

    The flush on Manson's face, combined with the look of thanks on Thandi's, made it clear that Rozsak had made his point. Several points, actually, not the least of which was to remind everyone that while the captain was relaxed and easy-going, he was the Captain.

    The point being made, Rozsak saw no reason to rub salt into the wounds. "I don't mean to bite your head off, Jerry. It's an easy slip to make, but we still need to watch it." He gave Palane a friendly smile. "For that matter, I suppose I should stop calling them 'Amazons.'"

    Thandi shook her head. "I don't think that would bother them at all, Sir. In fact, if they knew what it meant, it'd probably tickle them pink. It's just that...."

    Watching the young woman struggle with her thoughts, trying to find a way to express them properly, Rozsak decided to do it for her. In truth, he was quite pleased with Palane's instinctive defense of her unit, and understood where it came from perfectly well. Unlike a lot of the SLN's officers—most of them, in fact—Rozsak had combat experience. He had high hopes for the Marine lieutenant. Where Rozsak was going in the years ahead, he was going to need good combat officers around him. Staff officers, even capable ones like Manson, he could buy by the dozen.

    "It goes all the way back, Lieutenant Palane. Esprit de corps, if you want to get fancy and antique about it. There's never been an army in history worth a damn that was ashamed of itself. So, given where they're coming from, I can well understand why your—ah, ladies—"

    Another laugh, and this a loud one—loudest of all, from the lieutenant herself.

    "—don't want to be called Scrags." His eyes swept the room, hard as stones. "And that's an end to it. Please continue, Lieutenant."

    When his gaze came back to meet Thandi's, he saw the gleam in her eyes. And, once again, had to firmly suppress the treacherous urge. The young officer really was extraordinarily attractive. Those gleaming eyes—the dazzling smile even more so—would look splendid against a pillow.

    "The thing is, Sir, I don't see any chance they could keep the maneuver going. A direct assault, sure, that's one thing. But this kind of tricky dancing... If Zilwicki's half as smart as he's made out to be, he'd smell a red herring. And then he'd start wondering what the red herring was supposed to distract him from."

    Rozsak decided she was probably right. In fact, the girl seemed to have more of a knack for the kind of twisted thinking black ops required that he had expected.

    Definitely someone to keep an eye on. So just keep your pants zipped, Luiz. You can buy sex too, when it comes down to it.



    "All right, that makes sense," he concurred. Now his eyes moved to Manson.

    Whatever reservations Rozsak had about Manson, the lieutenant was as smooth a staff officer as you could find. He'd been expecting the glance, and moved right up to the challenge.

    "We might be able to do it with the Komandorski tidbit, Sir, yes." For a fleeting instant, Rozsak could see contradictory impulses warring on the lieutenant's face. The desire to please his boss—stronger than ever, right after being admonished—fighting with his own reservations.

    The fight didn't last more than a split second, however, and resolved itself to Rozsak's satisfaction. So, once again, he decided to keep Manson around instead of cutting him loose. Granted, the lieutenant was too obsequious toward him, and too quick to take swipes at other members of the team. But as long as he kept it under control and put Rozsak's ambitions ahead of his own, the captain would live with it. As he'd told Habib, it was an imperfect universe.

    "To be honest, though, I'm reluctant to do it. Yes, it would probably distract Zilwicki long enough—what the hell, that's a trip all the way to Smoking Frog and back again, even leaving aside the time he'd have to spend there finding his way through the thicket. But..."

    Rozsak barked a laugh. "God help us, we're all starting to think like spooks. But you hate to waste a so-called 'asset,' right? Even though neither you nor I nor anyone in this room has any idea right now what else we'd do with it."

    The jocular tone made it clear the words were not a barb. So Manson just smiled and nodded his head, acknowledging a friendly hit.

    "That's pretty much it, Sir. As you said, I have no idea what we'd do with that tantalizing tidbit. I just hate to give it up, just for the sake of taking someone out of the picture we'd never counted on being there in the first place. Seems a waste, somehow."

    For the first time that night, the other Marine officer in the room spoke up. "I swear to God," growled Lieutenant Colonel Huang, "—any god, too, I don't much care—I wish we were all back on Boniface. Even thirty percent casualties is better than this..."

    His thick hands made a swimming motion in front of his face. "This stinking murky muddled mess."

    No one laughed in response, although quite a few faces were twisted with grimaces. Not smiles, exactly. Too many of those people had been with Rozsak when he'd led the final assault on the rebel stronghold on Boniface. It was a well-known episode in the recent history of the Solarian League Navy, which had put Rozsak on the captains' list several years ahead of the normal career track. The reason it was well-known, however, was because the rebels had been far better armed than frontier rebels usually were as well as more fanatical. Thirty percent casualties suffered by the Solarian forces, and...

    One hundred percent, all fatalities, suffered by the rebels. The rebellion had been triggered off by the depredations of the conglomerate in control of Boniface—the Jessyk Combine, as it happened—which had gone far beyond even the loose limits which such conglomerates normally set for themselves in areas under OFS authority. Since the OFS District Officer had been appointed his direct superior in the campaign, the Frontier Security forces having already been chewed up by the rebels, Rozsak had had no choice but to obey the man's commands.

    I want them all dead, Rozsak. Down to the cats and dogs.

    Rozsak didn't think for a moment that the DO's command had been issued in the heat of anger. The greedy swine had surely been taking a huge payoff from Jessyk, and was determined to have any eyewitnesses to their practices on Boniface removed forever.

    Boniface had been sheer slaughter, at the end. But Rozsak had been with his troops throughout the campaign, even after the fighting moved dirtside, and had carried out his orders faithfully. He'd even done that with flair, and as much in the way of mercy as could be managed. At his orders, the last surviving pet in the city had been brought to him and Rozsak had personally blown the cat's brains out, after having the little beast tied to an execution post. That too had become part of the Boniface legend, especially favored by the Marines who did most of the fighting and dying. Here was a commander who'd get his hands dirty, and manage to sneer at the bureaucrats at the same time he did their bidding. Worth keeping an eye on, boys and girls. This one's... different.

    Rozsak let the memory of Boniface linger in the room, but not for long. His people had a right to be proud of the way they'd fought, yes. But it was still a foul memory, when all was said and done. Not a taste you wanted to leave lingering in your mouth.

    "I can't really say I agree with you, Kao." With a quick smile: "Not that I don't sympathize with your attitude. But let's look on the bright side, for a moment."

    It was about time to wrap up the meeting anyway, since the matter involving the Komandorski "tidbit" was best pursued privately with Lieutenant Manson. So Rozsak sat up straight and issued another of the many little pep talks with which he usually ended these semi-informal staff meetings.

    "Yes, we've been given the worst assignment by the Governor. By Cassetti, I should say. I doubt very much if Governor Barregos knows about any of it. But the best units always get the worst assignments. It's been that way since the days of Ashurbanipal, people, so there's no point complaining about it. The only thing that's changed is that we get to ride to battle in faster air-conditioned chariots. So we're going to do this well, the way the best units always do everything. Understood?"

    The wave of nods came quickly, of course, but they also came easy and relaxed. Rozsak thought he had the best staff—inner circle, to call things by their right name—in the entire Solarian League Navy. And, clearly enough, his staff shared that assessment.

    "Meantime, like I said, look on the bright side. At least this time, if all goes the way it should, we'll wind up butchering hogs instead of cattle." The smile that came with those words had no humor in them worth talking about.

    "Amen," murmured Huang. The stocky lieutenant colonel of Marines was not smiling at all. As was true of a disproportionate number of Rozsak's inner circle—and most of the combat units in the Solarian League's armed forces—Huang came from a frontier planet himself. More than once, in his career, he'd heard the sneering word "sepoys" fall from the lips of superior officers from the inner planets of the League.

    Never from Rozsak, of course. The Captain was not exactly a "sepoy," since he came from a planet which was at least not under OFS jurisdiction. But he was close enough; and, more to the point, a student of history. It had been the Captain who, on the day he recruited Huang to his staff, had told him about something in ancient history called the Indian Mutiny. Except this time, we'll do it right.

    "Amen," he repeated.



    After the private meetings which followed, Rozsak ended the long day with a short and final conference with Habib. The commander had been with Rozsak almost from the beginning of his career, and whatever specific title the woman had held since, she was always "the XO."

    "What do you think, Edie? Is there a chance in hell that Cassetti's oh-so-clever scheme isn't going to come off its wheels before we get halfway there?"

    Habib shrugged. "That mostly depends on how well we do our job. And look on the bright side, if you'll allow me to swipe one of your favorite expressions. We don't want the complicated contraption to get all the way there. Just far enough to grind Cassetti under the wheels when it all comes apart. We can walk the rest of the way, easily enough. After that wreck, the Governor'll greet us with open arms."

    Rozsak grinned coldly. "You have a way with words, XO. Did I ever tell you that?"

    "No. Maybe I could get a career as a poet, after you go down in flames."

    They shared a chuckle. There was indeed quite a good chance that Rozsak would wind up going down in flames, sooner or later. But if he did, it was as sure as anything that Habib would go down with him.

    "Butchering hogs instead of cattle," Habib murmured. "You have a way with words yourself, Luiz. I like the sound of that."

    "I thought you would." Rozsak looked at the window beyond whose curtains lay the Suds Emporium. "For that matter, we'll be killing off a fair number of snakes and scorpions while we're at it."

    "Amen to that."

Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image