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Crown of Slaves: Chapter Seventeen

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



    "Commander, it looks like Pottawatomie Creek is leaving her parking orbit."

    Linda Watson turned towards the tactical section at Lieutenant Gohr's report. At least the lieutenant came closer to pronouncing the ship's outlandish name more or less correctly than most of Gauntlet's crew managed. That was Watson's first thought. Her second was to wonder just where Anton Zilwicki might be going.

    Gauntlet's CIC had been keeping an unobtrusive eye on Zilwicki's frigate ever since the cruiser's arrival in-system. Not that anyone had asked them to. Officially, Ambassador Fraser had taken no notice whatsoever of the small warship. Perhaps she felt that if the Queen chose to put a thumb so publicly into the High Ridge Government's eye, then it was only tit for tat for her to give the back of her hand to Ruth Winton's taxi. Or, more probably, to the taxi driver, given how… unpopular one Anton Zilwicki had managed to make himself with the Government.

    Captain Oversteegen, however, had taken it upon himself to stay quietly current on both the vessel and her passengers' itineraries.

    Neither of which had suggested that Pottawatomie Creek might be going anywhere.

    Zilwicki was under no requirement to keep Gauntlet apprised of his schedule. As a private citizen of Star Kingdom, he was free to come and go as he chose. Moreover, although Pottawatomie, might be Manticoran-built, she was officially registered in the Alizon System. It was only a legal fiction, of course, but appearances had to be maintained where what amounted to a vest-pocket privateer was concerned.

    Given who one of Pottawatomie Creek's passengers was, however…

    She touched a com stud on the arm of her command chair.

    "Captain speakin'," a voice said almost instantly in her ear bug.

    "It's the Exec, Sir. Sorry to disturb you, but our friend with the unpronounceable name appears to be leaving orbit."

    "She does, does she?" There were perhaps three seconds of silence, then: "Have Lieutenant Stiller hail her, Linda. Tell him t' ask—politely, mind you—if I might have a few moments of Captain Zilwicki's time. If he accepts the request, put it through t' my quarters, please."

    "Yes, Sir." Commander Watson released the communications stud and turned towards Gauntlet's com officer with the rather wistful thought that she wished she could be a fly on the captain's bulkhead during that conversation.



    Abraham Templeton listened for a few seconds to the voice murmuring in his earbug. Then, nodding, turned to his cousin Gideon.

    "Ezekiel is reporting back from the spaceport. He was able to bribe someone and get a look at Zilwicki's dispatch to Traffic Central. There's no final destination listed, but Zilwicki did inform Erewhon's traffic control that he was going to be leaving orbit. That's definite."

    Gideon pursed his lips, staring at one of the walls of the suite in The Suds occupied by himself and his unit of Masadan and Scrag mercenaries.

    "He's leaving the system entirely, then." He cocked his head toward Abraham, without moving his eyes from the wall. "And it's also definite—yes?—that Zilwicki's daughter and my sister have remained behind."

    "Yes, Gideon. I just got another report from Jacob on that, not ten minutes ago. The bitches are still in their rooms."

    Gideon concentrated on the wall. It was just a blank wall, without any decorations on it. But it seemed, at that moment, like a vista opening up before him.



    "Thank you for agreein', t' speak t' me, Captain Zilwicki."

    It was difficult, even for one of Anton Zilwicki's formidable self-discipline, to remember that the face on his com screen did not, in fact, belong to the Prime Minister of Manticore. It looked so damned much like Michael Janvier that Zilwicki couldn't help expecting to hear Baron High Ridge's indescribably irritating voice.

    But at least this one's voice is irritating for another reason, he reminded himself. It's not what he says, just the way he says it. And be honest. Even that probably wouldn't set my teeth so much on edge if I weren't a Gryphon Highlander.

    "I try to observe at least the bare fundamentals of courtesy, Captain Oversteegen," he said, and Oversteegen smiled ever so slightly at the edge Zilwicki couldn't quite keep out of his deep, rumbling voice.

    "Spoken like a true Highlander, Captain," he replied, and his eyes actually seemed to twinkle. "I had a most enjoyable debate with your friend Web Du Havel at one of Ms. Montaigne's soirees. I feel certain, somehow, that your own discussions with him tend t' be… interestin', Sir."

    "As a matter of fact," Zilwicki admitted with a faint smile of his own, "they are. Of course, Professor Du Havel, unlike myself, takes a certain natural delight in assuming a contrarian position just to see where the conversation will go."

    "I can well believe that statement is accurate… at least in so far as Professor Du Havel is concerned," Oversteegen said genially.

    "Oh, it is," Zilwicki assured him. Then, courtesy and pleasantries dealt with, he got down to business. "May I ask just why you did want to speak with me, Captain?"

    "According t' my sensors, Captain Zilwicki, Pottawatomie Creek is currently headed for the hyper limit."

    "Yes, she is," Zilwicki said with no inflection whatsoever.

    "Captain, it's not my intention t' interfere in your business or your movements, I assure you," Oversteegen said with just a touch of patience. "I am aware, however, that a member of the Royal Family traveled to Erewhon aboard your vessel. As the one and only magnificent unit of Her Majesty's Navy currently in Erewhonese space, I feel a certain responsibility t' keep myself abreast of Princess Ruth's whereabouts."

    A spark ignited in Zilwicki's eye, and Oversteegen raised one hand in a soothing gesture.

    "Please, Captain. Should the Princess be aboard your vessel, I will have no qualms about her safety. I'm reasonably well informed about both your own reputation and the capabilities of your ship. In particular, I was fascinated t' read ONI's report on her class' electronic warfare suite. Apparently, the Hauptman Cartel pulled out all the stops for the Ballroom. Ah, I mean the Anti-Slavery League, of course."

    Zilwicki sat back in his chair. Oddly enough, Oversteegen seemed genuinely amused, rather than outraged, by the fact that Pottawatomie Creek and her sisters had been specifically built for the Galaxy's most notorious "terrorist organization," whatever the official record might say. It was not the attitude he would have anticipated from someone so closely related to High Ridge.

    There you go again, Anton! He shook his head mentally. You know this man's record. Whatever else he may be, he can't be an idiot. And it's obvious that he's not exactly on the same wavelength as his cousin.



    "It's amazing how many people who should know better seem to make that same mistake, Captain Oversteegen," he said with a straight face. "I suppose it's natural enough. Although the Anti-Slavery League strongly supports a political and legal process, its goal is the eradication of genetic slavery throughout the civilized galaxy. As such, we do find ourselves sometimes in agreement with, or at least understanding, the Ballroom's position, however much we may decry their choice of tactics from time to time."

    "Oh, I'm sure," Oversteegen said with exquisite politeness, which was somewhat spoiled by the toothy, unmistakable grin which accompanied the words. "On the other hand, Captain, if you honestly expect anyone t' believe a word of that, you might want t' consider renaming your vessel. Admittedly, very few people are likely t' take the time t' track down the reference, but it rather leaps t' the eye for any student of the history of slavery, genetic or otherwise. A name like, oh, Tubman, let's say, would sound ever so much more 'process-oriented.'"

    "Really?" A circuit seemed to close somewhere inside Zilwicki with an almost audible click as he saw that grin. Whatever this man might look like, he most assuredly was not a High Ridge clone. "I argued for Buxton, myself. Or possibly Wilberforce. But Cathy overruled me."

    That was a fib. Cathy would have preferred a different name also—or, at the very least, simply the name John Brown rather than the name of one of his two most notorious acts of violence. But Jeremy X had insisted that the first two frigates be named Harper's Ferry and Pottawatomie Creek—primarily, Anton knew, because he was placating the most fanatical members of the Ballroom at the same time as he was quietly moderating his actual tactics. It had been a compromise, in the end. Cathy had extracted concessions from the Ballroom in exchange for letting them have the ship's names they wanted. But, of course, for public consumption she had to take responsibility for the names themselves.

    From the toothy grin which remained on his face, Anton suspected that Oversteegen wasn't taken in by the little subterfuge. But all the Manticoran captain said was:

    "Well, I can see how John Brown of Pottawatomie Creek and Harper's Ferry might well appeal t' the Ballroom. Not exactly someone I would care t' meet, and probably at least as murderous and fanatical as any of his opponents, of course. But direct—very direct. And I don't suppose there was ever very much doubt as t' which side of the question he was on."

    "No, there wasn't," Zilwicki agreed. "But we seem to have drifted a bit from your original question, Captain."

    "Yes, we have." Oversteegen nodded. "As I say, Captain Zilwicki, my concern is solely t' keep myself informed as t' Princes Ruth's location in case it should become possible or desirable for Gauntlet or myself t' offer her any assistance in your own absence."

    "As you seem to have already deduced, Captain," Zilwicki, "I'm leaving the Princess—and my daughter, Berry—here in Erewhon. Professor Du Havel has agreed to stand in for me as a surrogate parent, and Lieutenant Griggs, the commander of the Princess' security team, has been kept fully informed of my plans. I won't say that I'm entirely pleased to be letting two such, ah… high-spirited young ladies out of my sight. Unfortunately, I don't have much choice. My present errand is as pressing as it was unexpected."

    "I see." Oversteegen nodded slowly from the com screen. He did not, Zilwicki noted, press for any details about that "unexpected" errand of his.

    "Have you informed the Ambassador that you've unleashed the Princess?" the captain asked politely.

    "No." Zilwicki suppressed a chuckle at Oversteegen's choice of words and shook his head. "First, it is my pious, if rather optimistic, hope that Web will be able to exercise sufficient moderating influence for 'unleashed' to be a somewhat exaggerated choice of verb. Second, in the much more likely event that my hopes are disappointed and 'unleashed' becomes exactly the correct choice of verb, it's not really any of Countess Fraser's business."

    "Deborah is not the sharpest stylus in the box, Captain," Oversteegen conceded. "She is—unfortunately, and God help us all—Her Majesty's official ambassador t' Erewhon. So if your daughter and Princess Ruth should accidentally burn down The Suds or somethin' of the sort, she's also the one who will be officially expected t' sort out the ensuin' hullabaloo. I suppose one might argue under the circumstances that it would be courteous t' alert her t' the Sword of Damocles you've just suspended above her head."

    "It probably would. On the other hand, and with all due respect, to date, Countess Fraser has never done anything in her entire life to cause me to feel any concern about any little surprises which might be coming her way."

    "Hmmmmm." Oversteegen rubbed his chin thoughtfully for a moment, then shrugged with something suspiciously like a chuckle. "Come t' think of it, I can't actually recall anythin' she's ever done t' instill in a great concern for her in me, either."

    "There you are, then," Zilwicki said with a shrug of his own. His expression sobered slightly. "Still, Captain, I think I may sleep a little better knowing that Lieutenant Griggs—and Web—have you for backup while I'm gone."

    "Flattered, I'm sure," Oversteegen murmured. "Very well, Captain Zilwicki. I have no intention of involvin' myself in the Princess' affairs, but I will try t' keep at least a distant eye on them."

    "I appreciate that," Zilwicki told the aristocratic face on his com with a sincerity he found distantly surprising. Perhaps the most ironic thing about the situation was that Anton realized he was telling the truth: he would feel better leaving Erewhon system knowing that Oversteegen was on the scene. Mannerisms aside, the captain was extremely competent and… even someone Zilwicki was finding it hard not to like. "Thank you."

    "Oh, you're quite well come, Captain," Oversteegen told him with another faint smile. "Oversteegen, clear."



    Gideon Templeton came to a decision and rose to his feet. "Double—or triple, whatever it takes—the watch on my sister. With Zilwicki out of the scene, we should get an opportunity to strike soon. The best chance we'll get."

    His second-in-command Abraham looked a bit dubious. "She still has those bodyguards, cousin. Zilwicki left them behind."

    Gideon shrugged, his lips half-sneering. "That's just muscle. The brains are gone now."

    The half-sneer grew into a full one. "If such a term as 'brains' can be applied to someone who just did something as stupid as Zilwicki. Leaving women to their own devices! You watch, Abraham: sooner than you know it, the whores will turn to whoring. It's in the nature of the beasts. And since the Manticorans were cretins enough to bestow the title of 'princess' on my sister, she'll be able to override the objections of her guard detail."

    He went back to staring at the wall, as if finding certitude in its blankness. "They'll be out in the open, then. That's when we'll strike."

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