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Crown of Slaves: Chapter Nine

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



    As she walked into the suite in the hotel where her special unit was quartered, Lieutenant Thandi Palane was also thinking about snakes and scorpions. Walking into that suite reminded her of walking into a nest of the dangerous creatures.

    But, as she closed the door behind her, she forced the analogy out of her mind. It was unfair, she knew, and more a reflection of her own dark mood than anything about her...

    Ah, "ladies."

    Rozsak's clever quip brought a little smile to her face at the same time that it darkened her mood still further. One of the many things she liked about the Captain was his sense of humor.

    Oh, give it up, Thandi. You could spent an hour listing all of Luiz Rozsak's fine qualities, come to the conclusion—again—that he's the sexiest man around, and wind up going to bed—again—alone and frustrated.

    The worst of it was that she knew Luiz Rozsak found her sexually attractive also. The Captain was very good at keeping it under wraps, and the Marine lieutenant was pretty sure that no one else except possibly the XO had noticed. But Thandi had no doubt at all that she aroused the man. She was not what anyone would call an experienced femme fatale, but neither was she a naïve virgin. Such creatures did not exist on her home planet of Ndebele.

    After closing the door and making sure it was locked, she leaned back against it, crossed her arms, and sighed heavily.

    Actually, that wasn't the worst of it. The real worst of it was that she also understood—was fairly certain she did, anyway—why Rozsak was making no attempt to pursue her. Which only increased her attraction to the man; since, in essence, he was looking out for her own best interests.

    His too, of course. Thandi knew perfectly well that Rozsak was extremely ambitious and quite capable of being as ruthless as need be to advance that ambition. Some other young woman—probably most other young women—would have found that knowledge repellent. But those young women hadn't been born and raised on one of the worst hellholes in OFS territory. Men on Ndebele were either cold-bloodedly ambitious or, as was true of ninety percent of them, they were beaten into a lifetime of what amounted to serfdom. The same was true for women, except the percentages were even worse. By the time she was sixteen, Thandi had come to the conclusion that whatever else happened to her, she would not settle for being an OFS helot.

    So, seeing no other option, she'd enlisted in the armed forces. The Solarian armed forces, not one of the auxiliary military units the League maintained like the Frontier Forces. She wanted no part of OFS, despite their easier entrance requirements. Besides, Thandi was smarter than average and had applied herself in school, so she was angling for a career as an officer, not simply a grunt. The Solarian League's regular armed forces would accept officer candidates from protectorate planets readily enough, even if they rarely enjoyed much of a career. In the OFS, that would be impossible.

    Even with her intelligence and grades, that hadn't been easy to swing, for someone coming from her background. Not to her surprise, she'd had to settle for the Marines rather than the regular Navy she'd have personally preferred. Not to her surprise also, she'd had to provide sex for the SLN recruiting officer during the weeks the process had required, before he'd agreed to make sure the thing went through.

    She hadn't minded, particularly. It wasn't the first time she'd had to perform that service, since it was a common practice on many of the protectorate worlds under OFS jurisdiction. Certainly on Ndebele. And at least the recruiting officer had been a fairly pleasant man, who'd tried to be gentlemanly about the whole thing—quite unlike the brutish factory manager who'd made her one of his concubines as a teenager in exchange for allowing her to attend school at night instead of working. He'd also had her boyfriend beaten senseless when he tried to object.

    Remembering that old boyfriend, Thandi's crossed arms tightened and, with an effort, she pushed the memory away. He'd been a sweet kid, true enough. And, by the time he was eighteen, had been hammered into proper helotry.

    She'd left all that behind her along with everything else. There was no way a man like Luiz Rozsak could be described as "sweet," whatever his other fine qualities. By the same token, he was neither beaten down nor bore any resemblance to a helot. Thandi could accept the man's cold-blooded ruthlessness easily enough, since the alternative was far worse.

    The problem was that the Captain wasn't simply ruthless, he was also smart. And smart in a way that—at least in Thandi's admittedly limited experience—few ruthless men were. He could think like a chess player, not simply like a human shark. And for all his obvious self-assurance, he was even smart enough to understand that he could only rise so far on his own. So, he was one of those very rare people who could apply ruthlessness to himself as well as others, and made sure that he built a strong team around him instead of lessening them for his own narrow and immediate purposes.

    And so it was, she sighed, that she'd spend another night alone. It was too bad, but....

    Grow up, girl. It's just a crush, so forget it. If you're that frustrated, it's not as if you can't find other outlets.

    Plenty of them, for that matter. The captain was by no means the only man in her vicinity who'd found her tall and athletic self very enticing. He was just the only one who didn't make any advances—and, alas, the only one she was interested in herself.

    "Moping again, are we? Must be man trouble, comrades."

    "Stupid, then. If you want a man, kaja, just take him."

    "If you need help, we'll hold him down till you're finished."

    Thandi looked up, scowling. Sometimes she appreciated the rough humor of her charges. Other times—this being one of them—she didn't. Not in the least.

    Seeing the fierce scowl, the women who'd entered the suite's central room from their sleeping chambers backed up a step or so. The quickness with which they did so brought some good cheer back to Lieutenant Palane. Partly, because the grace of those steps illustrated their own athleticism, which was something any ground combat officer likes to see in her troops. Mostly, however, it was because the quickness of those steps was proof positive that none of those women had any doubts, any longer, that if she wanted to Thandi Palane was quite capable of hammering them into dog food.

    Superhumans or not. They'd still be dog food when she was done.

    "Just joking, kaja," apologized one of them.

    Thandi uncrossed her arms and waved the apology away. "Never mind, Lara. Man trouble indeed, as you say. But since when are men really worth troubling about?"

    They grinned at her. Despite herself, Thandi had always liked those grins. At least, after a few sessions in the full-contact court—and several broken bones—had removed the underlying smirks. Those weren't the expressions worn by snakes and scorpions, after all.

    "My very own half-tame wolf pack," she murmured to herself. Then, struck by a thought, asked aloud: "Is there such a word as 'wolfess'?"



    "They're a pack of wolves, Unser, what do you expect?" Haicheng Ringstorff motioned toward the closed door through which they'd come. "Except wolves don't tell lies in their sleep. So...."

    Ringstorff's lieutenant, George Lithgow, was already slouched in a chair. Ringstorff moved to another chair and did likewise. "Are they telling the truth? How am I supposed to know? All I can tell you is that I certainly didn't order Stein scragged."

    Unser Diem glared down at his nominal subordinate. "A poor choice of words, Haicheng. What the hell are you doing anyway, letting Scrags into Security? We've always been careful to keep them at arms' length."

    Ringstorff didn't quite sneer, but his facial expression made clear that he understood just as well as Diem did that his subordinate status was mostly fiction. Leaving aside a meaningless title, Ringstorff was essentially in charge of all Mesan security operations in and around Erewhonese space. He answered to Mesa's Council of Coordinators, not to any of the specific corporations represented on that council. And while Unser Diem's position as Jessyk Combine's representative on Erewhon—roving trouble-shooter would be a more precise term—meant he couldn't be openly ignored or shrugged off, his actual authority over Ringstorff was effectively nil. The more so since Ringstorff had Manpower's nod of approval, and Jessyk was in fact if not in name what amounted to a subsidiary of Manpower Unlimited. The ownership records were a closely-held secret, of course, and the two corporations were officially unconnected. In practice, Jessyk served as a convenient way for Manpower to keep a large portion of its revenues hidden from public scrutiny.

    "I don't much like it either, Unser. But in case you hadn't noticed"—here, his lip did curl a bit—"I'm not operating inside the Solarian League. Which means, on the good side, that I don't have to be as twitchy about appearances; but, on the bad side, means I have to take what I can get. You know as well as I do that most of the security contractors on Mesa won't sign up for extended duty outside League territory or the Silesian Confederacy. Sure as hell not after that fiasco we had with Gauntlet."

    Diem made a face, and slid into a chair across from Ringstorff. "Yeah, I know. Still... Scrags, for God's sake! Word gets out..."

    "Gets out to who?" demanded Ringstorff. "We're far enough outside the League here that damn few people remember any of Earth's ancient history. The 'Final War' is just a phrase they pick up out of history textbooks in school. It doesn't mean anything to them, really, much less the details. There aren't more than a handful who'd even recognize the term 'Scrag' to begin with."

    He snorted sarcastically. "The truth is that we're running a lot more of a risk by having Masadans on our payroll. Those fanatics have pissed off people in this neck of the galaxy—and not more than a few years ago. Since it's the Masadans who want the Scrags, the only way to get rid of them is to get rid of the Masadans. Which—trust me!—I'd be glad to do in a heartbeat, if the Council tells me to. It was their idea to hire them in the first place, not mine."

    Diem scowled. He felt, as did the Council, that the services of the Masadans were too valuable to give up. The religious fanatics were willing to take on jobs that no regular security contractor would even look at. In the final analysis, the Masadans weren't mercenaries. Not exactly, at any rate.

    Which was also why Ringstorff had argued against hiring them, of course. The Masadans were a double-edged sword, since their employer could never be quite certain when the zealots would step beyond the limits officially set for any operation.

    The whole thing was a mess. Diem rubbed his face and sighed. "All right, fine. So tell me what you think. Who killed Stein? Or had him killed, I should say."

    Ringstorff shrugged. "I have no idea. I sure didn't authorize it. Why would I? Stein's been squalling for decades, big deal. If it's hurt business any, nobody's ever noticed."

    "Who else, then?"

    "How the hell should I know? It's a big galaxy! A self-righteous loudmouth like Stein makes enemies right and left—and he had half a century to pile them up. Could have been almost anybody."

    "We're getting blamed for it!"

    Ringstorff sat up straight. "Were you born yesterday? Mesa gets blamed for everything, Unser. And so what? If you want my opinion, it just adds to the romance of the planet. We're too useful to too many people with real power and influence for anyone to ever do anything. In the meantime, our reputation just draws more business our way."

    Diem glared at him and spoke through gritted teeth: "For someone who's supposed to be a 'security expert,' you've got the brains of an insect. Somebody killed Stein, Ringstorff, and we're getting blamed for it. Has it ever occurred to you—even once!—that maybe that was the whole point of the exercise?"

    Ringstorff's sneer was now open and full-spread. "Stick to what you know, Diem. That kind of fancy maneuver doesn't exist outside the holovids. Security Rule Number One: Don't ascribe to clever conspiracy what can be explained by stupidity. Stein was killed because somebody finally blew their stack at the jerk. Good riddance. They'll put up some shrines and ten years from now nobody'll remember and we'll still be raking in the cash."

    Diem rose. "There's no point in continuing this. I'll register my objection with the Council when I get back."

    Ringstorff shrugged. "Do whatever you want."

    "Right. In the meantime, can I trust you to at least keep those wolves of yours on a leash?"

    "For Christ sake, Diem, you were standing right there when I gave them the order! 'Nobody touches Anton Zilwicki. He's off limits.' And you heard them swear they wouldn't. Swear on their own God, too, when I insisted. That's one good thing about the maniacs. They won't break that oath."



    In the nearby common room of the suite in the Suds Emporium where Ringstorff's special security unit had retired after their meeting with the Security Chief and Diem, their leader paused the replay.

    "Will you all recognize her?" he demanded.

    A wave of nods went around the room. One of the Scrags who had attached himself to the Masadans tossed his head in the direction of the door. "Do we obey them?"

    Gideon Templeton had been about to resume the recording, but the question caused him to delay. With some difficulty, he managed to keep a scowl off his face. Most of the new converts to the Church of Humanity Unchained (Defiant) still had a shaky grasp of theology. Gideon was honest enough to admit—in private, to himself, if no one else—that part of the problem lay in the fact that his sect of the church was a new one, founded by his father Ephraim not so many years earlier after Ephraim had been forced to flee persecution on Masada itself. As a result, the doctrine of the new church was not always clear since Ephraim had not spoken on all subjects before his death.

    Still... fighting off the scowl was difficult. This question, after all, ought to be obvious. Not for the first time, Gideon was faced with the problem that the new converts had certain ingrained attitudes which made their conversion an uncertain proposition. Even Gideon, at times, found it hard not to think of them as "Scrags," though he himself had been the one to forbid the term in the ranks of the Select.

    "We gave our oath in the name of the Lord," he said curtly, almost snapping out the words. "Such an oath cannot be violated."

    If the Scrag—Gideon shook off the term; the "Select from the War Against Unholiness"—was in the least bit abashed by the admonishment, he gave no sign of it. With all the casual arrogance of his genetically-enhanced breed, he simply grinned at Gideon and made a slight shrug. The gesture was aimed at his fellow converts, obviously enough. As if to say: it's kind of silly, if you ask me, but we'll not argue the point.

    Gideon decided to let the matter slide. For all that they frequently annoyed him with their slack attitude toward doctrine, the new converts were simply too valuable to risk alienating them with overly harsh and frequent instruction. Once again, he resigned himself to patience.

    "We will obey the order to stay away from Zilwicki," he repeated. "That oath is binding upon us. But—but!—like all binding oaths, it is also specific. Since we are not heathens, we will accept that the limit applies to all Zilwickis. Even including his bastard daughter." He bestowed a glare on all the occupants of the crowded room, being careful not to single out the new converts. "Is that understood?"

    One of his men—an old Faithful, this one, not a new convert—got a pained look on his face. Understanding the meaning of that expression, Gideon smiled coldly.

    "Given that we did not specifically mention her by name, I think we can allow ourselves some latitude here if the tactical needs of the moment require it. She may not be harmed—not seriously, at least—"

    One of the new converts had a sly smile on his face. Understanding the meaning of that also, Gideon scowled at him. "That includes possession, Zyngram!"

    The Scrag—it was so hard to avoid the term, especially in one's private thoughts—responded with that same casual shrug. This time, Gideon decided the issue needed to be pressed. He was willing to be patient about doctrine, but not slack.

    "Do not trifle with me," he growled. "We do not recognize the heathen notion of 'rape,' to be sure. But since the heathens do, and we gave this oath to a heathen, we will respect that boundary. Not because we respect the heathen, but because we do not cavil with God. Do you understand?"

    He waited until the new convert nodded. "Good. The girl may therefore neither be seriously harmed nor possessed. Beyond that, however, I see no reason we are obliged to stay away from her entirely as we must Anton Zilwicki. If she happens to be present when the time comes, I'm sure it will not be difficult to simply thrust her aside. If she suffers a few bruises in the process, so be it."

    He picked up the remote control for the HV. "For the moment, concentrate on what is important." The images from the recording sprang back into life. Gideon's glaring eyes focused on one of the figures.

    "My sister," he hissed, "conceived in female deceit, born and raised in whore-worshipping apostasy. The moment Zilwicki is not around..."

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