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Crown of Slaves: Chapter Nineteen

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




    "They're moving, kaja. All of them, it looks like."

    The soft voice in her earbug caused Thandi to sit up straight in her chair. She lowered her palm reader, staring unfocussed at the wall of her room.


    "Don't know yet. They're breaking into separate groups as they pass through the hotel. Three groups, one large, two small." Before Thandi could ask, the woman on the other end answered her next question: "We've got them covered. The men in the big group are all carrying overnight bags. Too small to shield any weapons from detection."

    "Maybe." Thandi didn't share the former Scrag's confidence that modern search devices could really detect small weapons. Normal ones, to be sure. But leaving aside special high-priced weapons, Thandi simply knew too many ways that effective weapons could be jury-rigged. Of course, how "effective" they'd be would obviously depend on their purpose. But if this was an assassination attempt getting underway... it was really awfully easy to kill a human being, when you got right down to it.

    Still, an assassination attempt didn't seem too likely to her. Why involve the entire group, for one thing? There were over forty men in Gideon Templeton's special Masadan-Scrag task force. Mobilizing all of them for a straightforward assassination seemed like overkill. Besides, who'd be the target? Any target Thandi could think of on Erewhon would either require far fewer men—or couldn't be done at all with anything smaller than a battalion of professional assault troops.

    "Numbers, please."

    "Thirty-five of them in the big group. That includes Templeton himself. Three in the smallest group. That includes his lieutenant, Flairty. Six in the third group. That includes the two pilots of their spacecraft."

    The words in Thandi's ear came quickly and easily. That was Hanna speaking, with her usual relaxed nonchalance. Thandi's special unit were all self-confident. And had reason to be, in truth, even if Thandi thought they tended to overdo it. They were all extremely capable by nature, and Thandi's own training had brought that to a high gloss. She didn't doubt they'd be able to monitor Templeton's movements without being spotted themselves. Which was impressive, given that they were personally known to all of the male Scrags who'd joined forces with the Masadans. Ex-boyfriends, some of them.

    Thandi's lips quirked in a thin, somewhat bitter smile. "Ex" was the word for it, too. It had been the decision of the male Scrags in their band to convert to Masada's brand of the Church of Humanity Unchained which had finally shaken the female Scrags loose from their lingering attachment to Manpower. None of them were in the least bit interested in becoming female chattel, which was the only role that religion gave to women. It had been pure luck that Watanapongse had run across them looking for a new employer. On their own, as disoriented as they'd been, Thandi didn't think they would have survived for very long as an independent mercenary unit. As it was, they'd thrived under Thandi's regimen—at least, once they overcame their initial skepticism.

    Thandi tried to imagine what Templeton was up to. But she didn't make the mistake of jumping to any conclusions until she'd gotten more data. So she waited, and in the meantime gave some thought to whether or not she should alert Watanapongse.

    She decided against it. Rozsak's orders had been crystal clear, after all—including his stress on maintaining the necessary cut-out in case the operation went sour. Translated into simple terms, "cut-out" meant that Thandi was the one slated to take the fall, if necessary. Neither Rozsak nor Watanapongse would appreciate it in the least if she tried to inform them of what she was up to on the eve of the operation. That would inevitably erode their "plausible deniability," and for no reason other than nervousness on the part of a junior officer.

    "The operation." The term left a sour taste in her mouth. As straight-forward as he normally was, even Rozsak had a tendency to slip into the sanitized jargon of black ops.

    Kill them. Every last one, if you can, but make sure of Templeton and his lieutenants. First chance you get.

    He hadn't told her the reason, but Thandi hadn't had much difficulty guessing what it was. That guess left a really sour taste in her mouth.

    So much for the simple and straightforward life of the Marine officer she'd signed up to be.

    She shook her head, to clear away the extraneous thoughts. This was no time for that. If Templeton was finally pulling all of his people out of the Suds Emporium, Thandi was being given her first chance to complete the operation. She didn't much like the assignment, true—not that she had any qualms about killing Masadans and Scrags. But if it was going to be done at all, she'd just as soon get it over with.

    "They're all out of the hotel, now. But Flairty and his little group just went into the restaurant on the corner. They look to be ordering a big lunch. The others... I think they're all headed for the shuttle grounds, kaja. Almost sure of it, with the pilots. They just got into a private jitney, and the cabbie had that pleased look on his face that comes from a fat fare. Templeton and his mob all piled into the subway. They skipped the first station, and took the second one. That line leads to the shuttle grounds."

    Hanna was guessing, of course, but Thandi thought the guess made sense. Could Templeton simply be planning to leave Erewhon altogether?

    Possible. It would make sense for the pilots to take the earliest shuttle, even at the cost of a private jitney. That way they'd have Templeton's ship ready for departure when Templeton arrived.

    But why wouldn't Templeton himself go with them? Why was he remaining with the large group? From Thandi's observations of the man, he struck her as the type who was very much insistent on command prerogatives. She found it hard to imagine someone who was, after all, a known and wanted terrorist throughout the Manticoran Alliance, subjecting himself to a the inconvenience–and potential exposure–of a trip in a crowded, start-and-stop mag-train. Not when he could have enjoyed the relative comfort and security of a jitney and made the entire trip in one uninterrupted bound.


    "No." Unthinkingly, she spoke the word aloud with the throat mike still activated.

    "'No' what, kaja? You don't want us to keep tracking them?"

    "Sorry. I was thinking to myself. Keep them under observation, Hanna. But I think you're right—so don't bother trying to follow them through the subway. Too much risk of being spotted. Just assume they're all going to the shuttle grounds and get there ahead of them. Take jitneys yourselves."

    "It's your expense account. What about the three in the restaurant?"

    "Leave Inge to cover them. And Lara."

    "Poor bastards. Flairty's trio, I mean."

    Thandi understood the harsh wisecrack, and smiled thinly. Inge and Lara were perhaps the two most murderous in her team—and the whole team was a murderous bunch. But that was, indeed, why she was leaving them there.

    Leaving them behind, rather. Thandi was the most murderous of them all, and she'd be leading the rest of the operation.

    She'd made up her mind, and sprang to her feet. She was now convinced that, whatever the reason, Templeton was leaving the planet. If so, that gave her the best possible opportunity to finish the job.



    Perhaps not herself, of course. At the moment, she could see no straightforward way to kill Templeton on a shuttle, much less all the others. But it hardly mattered. Rozsak had prepared for the possibility that Templeton might try to leave Erewhon. That was why he'd instructed two of the destroyers in his orbiting flotilla to do whatever Thandi told them to do. Both of them were War Harvest-class ships, as large and powerful as many a light cruiser, too. Templeton's ship, for all its artfully concealed weaponry, would never have been a match for even one of them, far less both.

    Quickly, she stripped off her robe and put on what she thought of as her civilian war gear. It was expensive stuff, provided for her by Rozsak, designed as much as possible to provide the same protection and assets as a Marine skinsuit while still being able to pass as a civilian outfit. It wasn't quite as well armored as a skinny, of course, since it had to make do with anti-ballistic fabric rather than hard-skin anti-kinetic armor. And it certainly couldn't function as an all-up vac suit. But she could walk right through almost any sensor net without tripping any "Marine Armed to the Canines!" alarms, and it was more than adequate for fending off most civilian-grade weaponry.

    Dressed, she opened the locker where she kept her weapons. Then, after hesitating a moment, simply closed it and reset the combination lock. Her weapons, like those carried by her team, were military-grade hardware. There was no possibility that she'd be able to smuggle them through the notoriously rigorous security measures maintained by Erewhon's authorities when it came to public transport. All she'd accomplish by attempting to do so would be to get detained and questioned for hours, at the very least. And time was now at a premium.

    She'd have to take a jitney herself, in fact, if she was going to reach the shuttle grounds at the same time as her team. One of the express jitneys, to boot. The cost of which, for a single person, made her wince even though none of it was coming out of her own pocket. But not even her realization of Rozsak's seemingly bottomless war chest could overcome the ingrained habits of a childhood spent in abject poverty.

    "I'm leaving now," she said, as she passed through the door into the hotel corridor.

    "We're already in a jitney ourselves. Two of them, actually. What orders for Inge and Lara?"

    "They're to keep observing Flairty's group until I tell them otherwise."

    "You won't be able to reach them once we're in orbit."

    Thandi was already chewing on that problem as she moved down the corridor as fast as she could, without making it obvious that she was racing. Fortunately, with her long legs, a brisk stride covered ground quickly.

    "I know that. We'll just have to play it by ear for the moment. Until we're sure that the rest of them are all leaving the planet, I don't want to precipitate any action."

    "Understood. Inge and Lara are going to grumble."

    "They can grumble all they want, so long as they follow orders."

    "Not to worry. Lara says her arm still hurts, even though the doctor swears the bone's healed."

    "I broke it pretty good. She irked me."

    Thandi was going out the hotel's front door now, waving over one of the jitneys lined up at the curb. The imperious hand gesture, coupled with the grin on her face, got her instant service.

    The gesture was the product of her impatience. The grin, the product of Hanna's response.

    "Great Kaja, you are. Orders will be obeyed."

    That much, she had accomplished. Given their origins and the peculiar sub-culture they had developed in the long centuries after the Final War, the Scrags had nothing resembling normal human families. Their social organization was more like that of certain pack predators. The term "kaja" was slang, and hard to translate directly. It carried some of the connotations of "mother," though more those of "big sister." But Thandi thought the closest equivalent was probably the status of the biggest, toughest, meanest she-wolf in a pack.

    Great Alpha Female, as it were.

    "Orders will be obeyed," she muttered.

    She'd forgotten the pick-up mikes in the jitney. The driver gave her an aggrieved look in the rearview screen.

    "I heard you the first time, lady. I'm pushing the express limit as it is. Any faster and we'll get shut down by central traffic." He pointed a finger at the speed indicator. "They'll do it in a heartbeat too, don't think they won't."

    "Sorry. Wasn't talking to you."

    Scowling a little, Thandi pondered one of the universe's small mysteries. How did it happen that a planet founded by gangsters had the inhabited galaxy's strictest traffic laws?



    Halfway to the shuttle grounds, she remembered something.

    Damn. I was looking forward to it, too.

    She reached out and flicked off the cab's pick-up mikes, to give herself privacy. Then, quickly murmured the connection she needed. A moment later, a pleasant male voice came into her ear.

    "Victor Cachat, here. I assume that's you, Thandi. Nobody else I know is twitchy enough about security to scramble an incoming number."

    "Sorry. I didn't even realize the scrambler was on. It's set for default. Look, Victor, I won't be able to make our lunch date. Something's come up."

    The pleasant tone in the voice faded a bit. "So you spotted Templeton moving too, huh? I'd ask why that requires you to move quickly, but... never mind. I can make at least three guesses, and all of them lead me to the conclusion that I'll be meeting you on The Wages of Sin. Perhaps for dinner, eh?"

    Cachat's quick thoughts had left Thandi behind. "Why The Wages of Sin? All I know—" She hesitated, then decided that playing security games with Victor Cachat bore too close a resemblance to a mouse trying to play tag with a cat.

    "Okay, screw it. Yes, I'm following Templeton. But all I know—and I'm still guessing about that—is that he and his crew are headed for the shuttle grounds. I've been assuming they're most likely heading for their own ship. Why would religious fanatics be heading for a place like The Wages of Sin?"

    An obvious possibility occurred to her. "Oh, Christ. You don't think—"

    "No, I don't. Indiscriminate terrorism against random sinners isn't Templeton's style. He's looking for a specific target."


    "You know anything about the Manticoran royal family?"

    Dumbfounded, Thandi stared out the window. They'd left the limits of Maytag, and the Erewhonese countryside was rushing past them below. Traveling as low as jitneys were required to by law, the landscape was a blur. So was her mind.

    "Not much. It's a constitutional monarchy, and the current Queen is an Elizabeth, or one number or another." Like most Solarians, Thandi tended to be oblivious to the political curlicues of the galaxy's multitude of miniature star nations. Only a specialist would try to keep track of such minutia as the royal family of a "star kingdom" with no more than a handful of planets. There were well over two thousand star systems in the Solarian League, counting the hundreds who were effectively under SL dominion in the Protectorates.

    Then, suddenly, she remembered the broadcast recording she'd watched a few days earlier. Anton Zilwicki and a certain—

    "Are you talking about 'Princess Ruth'? What the hell would she mean to Templeton?"

    "She's his sister. Half-sister, rather. And by his lights, a renegade and a traitor and a whore. And she and her companions—Anton Zilwicki's daughter and Professor Du Havel—just left for The Wages of Sin last night. Shortly after Zilwicki himself left Erewhon for parts unknown."

    "Oh. Shit."

    "'Oh, shit' is right. As in: it's all about to hit the circulation system. I'll see you there, Thandi."

    "What are you going to be doing?"

    "Playing it by ear, of course. What else? But this is a lucky break, I can smell it."

    He broke off the connection. Thandi sniffed. She couldn't smell anything, herself, beyond the scent of old upholstery kept freshly scrubbed by Erewhon's fanatically strict sanitation codes.

    "Oh, great," she grumbled. "I'm about to get caught in a three-way shoot-out with a bunch of lunatics and the galaxy's number one Junior Superspy. All of it under the nose of gangsters-come-saints, who've got the zeal of converts when it comes to lawbreaking."

    She flipped the mikes back on. "Out of idle curiosity, do you have a death penalty here on Erewhon?"

    The cabbie gave her a very aggrieved look. "Of course not, lady! Erewhon's a civilized planet, y'know."

    She started to relax. Not much, though, as the cabbie expanded on the theme.

    "Worst you can get is life without parole. In solitary confinement. For really nasty cases they tack on 'sensory deprivation,' too. That means your cell is maybe two meters by three meters, with no windows, and the only exercise you get is in a stimulation tank."

    He was apparently an enthusiast on the subject. "Yup. No sunlight for your top felons. We don't go easy on criminals here on Erewhon, you betcha. Not one single day, for the rest of their stinking existence. Live like vampires. Not only that—"

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