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Crown of Slaves: Chapter Twenty

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



    In the plush rear seat of her private runabout as it left atmosphere Naomi turned toward Victor, sitting next to her. He could see the earbug which she'd been using to talk to Walter Imbesi.

    "My uncle wants to know if you think he should meet us once we arrive."

    "In public?" Victor shook his head. "That'll run the risk of wrecking his plausible deniability. So I'd advise against it—unless he wants to bring Erewhon security down on Templeton and his crew, before they make their move. Which—"

    Victor shrugged. "It's his decision, of course, but I'd strongly urge him to let things unfold some more. If we stop Templeton before he strikes, we lose most of our political leverage. Let people find out Walter Imbesi could have stopped Templeton before then—but didn't—and there'll be all hell to pay."

    Naomi nodded and began muttering under her breath, in the easy manner of someone accustomed to using hidden throat mikes. Then she fell silent, listening to whatever her uncle was saying.

    She glanced at Victor. "Walter says that could get very rough on the girls."

    Victor could feel his face tighten. He could also, out of the corner of his eye, see the little frown on Ginny's face. She was sitting on the seat across from them, looking out the viewport at the receding surface of Erewhon. From this distance—they'd just about reached the orbit of The Wages of Sin—the planet was a gorgeous blue-and-white ball. The sight didn't seem to be pleasing Ginny, though.

    "I realize that," he replied. "But I'm not in the business of rescuing Zilwicki's daughters and Manticoran royalty. If we can manage it, I'll certainly do my best to protect them. But..."

    Ginny's frown was deepening. Victor's face tightened still further. "Look, it's your uncle's decision. But the best way to handle this, from a purely political viewpoint, is not to worry about collateral damage."

    Again, Naomi nodded and began speaking to Imbesi.

    "'Collateral damage,'" Victor heard Ginny muttering. "I hate that damn phrase."

    Victor tried to figure out something to say, but Ginny just waved a hand without looking at him. "Never mind, Victor. I understand, and I'm not faulting you. I just don't like it, that's all."

    Neither do I. The image of two teenage girls he'd seen once in a holo-recording floated into his mind. Damn Zilwicki, anyway. Does he always wind up losing his daughters? I just hope this one's as tough as the other one. I'll do what I can, but...

    That wouldn't be much, being realistic about it. Victor was throwing this operation together as he went along. Zilwicki's frigate was by now well into hyper-space on its way to Maya Sector. Along with him had gone most of the Ballroom that Victor had any contact with beyond Donald, who'd stayed behind on Erewhon after faking an illness, and seven others. Victor been moving so fast that Donald and the three men with him were scrambling to catch a shuttle to The Wages of Sin using public transportation. Which meant that unless Victor or Imbesi notified the resort's own security force, Templeton would have to be handled by Victor, a few Ballroom members, and Thandi and her unit—who were outnumbered something like three-to-one.

    So be it. Zilwicki's daughter and Princess Ruth would either be protected by their escort from the Queen's Own regiment, or they wouldn't. Presumably, the Manticoran soldiers who'd been selected for this detail were proficient in close quarter combat. And Victor was sure that the Erewhonese had allowed them to retain their sidearms, waiving the usual draconian security measures protecting The Wages of Sin.

    That wouldn't be true for anyone else involved. The space station's security scanners were reputed to be as good as any in the galaxy. Like Victor and his people, Thandi and her team had left their weapons behind; they weren't even going to try to smuggle arms into the space station. Neither would Templeton, unless he was a lot less expert than Victor thought he was. The Masadan zealots had not managed to evade Manticore's efforts to catch them for years by being ignorant or over-confident about modern security measures.

    Sooner or later, of course—and probably very quickly—Templeton would be obtaining weapons from overwhelmed security guards. But those would either be non-fatal or light-powered side arms, not the kind of powerful weapons which could wreak general havoc in a firefight on a space station. Even caught by surprise, the Princess' guards should have a good chance to get the girls somewhere to safety.

    Well. A chance, anyway. But even if they failed...

    Victor chewed on the problem. He wasn't positive, of course, but he suspect this was a kidnapping attempt rather than an assassination under way. And if so, a new possibility raised itself.



    "Oh, wow," whispered Berry, staring out over the main gaming hall of The Wages of Sin. She and Ruth, followed by their guards, had just emerged through the entrance. Web Du Havel had remained behind in their suite, claiming that his age and sedentary habits would leave him exhausted if he tried to tag along with two teenagers enjoying their first romp through one of the galaxy's premier gambling casinos.

    Even the Princess, accustomed as she was to the splendor of the Star Kingdom's royal palaces, was impressed. "'Oh wow' is right. Although—I'd say it was garish, except the word 'garish' doesn't begin to do it justice."

    Berry chuckled. Leaving aside the flashy gaming tables and machines themselves, everything about the main hall seemed designed to overwhelm the senses of anyone standing in it. She was particularly taken by the holograph images spreading across the entire ceiling, some thirty meters or so above the floor. Right now, the entire gaming hall seemed to be racing through the center of a galaxy, with the coruscating side effects of an invisible black hole ahead of it. A moment later, the holographic image swept aside and they were back out in intergalactic space, with the Sombrero Galaxy looming in the rear of the hall.

    "Wow," Berry repeated.



    Seeing the expressions on the faces of her special unit as they stared at the space station looming ahead of them, Thandi had to keep from smiling. For all their superior airs, the truth was that the ex-Scrags were the equivalent of country hicks. Their whole lives had been spent either in the slums of Terra's major cities, or skulking through other interstices of the inhabited galaxy. Their education was as spotty as Thandi's had been, when she'd left Ndebele years earlier—but, unlike her, they hadn't spent the intervening years in a determined effort to remedy the lack. Secure in their own sub-culture's superstitions—what do supermen need to learn from sub-humans?—they'd only begun resuming a program of study since encountering Thandi herself. She'd enforced that just as firmly as she had everything else. But, of course, her program hadn't placed any great priority on teaching her new charges the curlicues which galactic luxury could create.

    "Luxury" was only part of it. The shuttle, designed specifically for the transport of prospective sheep to their fleecing place, had a huge viewing port. All the better to whet the appetite of the sheep when they got their first sight of the place where they thought they'd be munching the greenest grass in the universe. Which, indeed, they would be—while being fleeced in the process.

    The space station wasn't simply dazzling and impressive, it was also huge. Huge, and incredibly complex in its design. Roughly speaking, it was the shape of a sphere—but not a solid so much as a construct of interlocking tubes and passageways and, here and there, much larger chambers. Thandi was fond of a type of food which still went by an ancient term referring to its origins—Italian, it was called—and The Wages of Sin reminded her of nothing so much as what a bowl of spaghetti might look like in zero G. Keeping in mind that the pasta and the meatballs were colored in every shade of the rainbow, lit throughout by a dazzling display of modern fluorescence and holographic technology—and somewhere in the vicinity of eighteen kilometers in diameter. The shuttles she could see in its vicinity, here and there, looked like specks beside it.

    A gleam from reflected sunlight on what was apparently a large ship not far away caught Thandi's eye. She suddenly realized that the merchant ship the shuttle had passed very recently was not more than six or seven hundred kilometers from the space station—the space-going equivalent of being within mooring distance.

    "Excuse me a moment," she muttered, going over to the viewport controls and turning up the magnification. One of the passengers in the shuttle glared at her, but said nothing. The combination of her imposing height and figure and the fact she'd been polite, was, as usual, enough to deter anything more vehement.

    Yes. That gleaming sunlight did come from the same freighter they'd passed. A fairly standard commercial design, massing perhaps five million tons.

    Thandi returned the magnification to its normal setting and turned away from the viewscreen, frowning. She wondered what the ship was doing there. There was no particular reason for a freighter to be riding in orbit that close to a pleasure resort, after all. A liner, certainly. The Wages of Sin was Erewhon's principal tourist attraction. But not a freighter.

    She hesitated, and then decided it was time anyway to alert Rozsak's destroyers that they might soon be needed.

    One of the other luxuries afforded by Wages of Sin's transportation was a complete communications suite, with a plentiful supply of encrypted channels whose privacy the government guaranteed. Which, she reflected as she plugged her personal com into one of them, means a bit more here than it might somewhere else, doesn't it?

    Not that it prevented her from bringing her own encryption software on line.

    "Horatius, Lieutenant Carlson speaking," the voice of the duty com officer said into her earbug. "What can I do for you, Lieutenant Palane?"

    Her personal encrypt had identified her, of course, just as it had automatically routed her to the watch officer instead of one of the duty ratings. But it was still reassuring—and satisfying—to be part of an operation where Navy senior-grade lieutenants (the equivalent of a Marine captain) not only knew which end was up but actually sounded like they wanted to help her do her own job.

    "Mainly, I'm just checking in, Ma'am," Thandi informed her, speaking very quietly into her privacy mike. "My unit and I are about to make rendezvous with Wages of Sin—we're aboard their shuttle Diamond."

    "Half a sec, Lieutenant," Carlson replied. Thandi could hear her saying something to someone else, then she came back on the line. "Tracking has you, Lieutenant. We make your ETA about eighteen minutes."

    "Confirm, Ma'am. As far as I can tell at this point, everything's under control, but I'm declaring Code Maguire."

    "Acknowledged," Carlson said. The Navy officer had no idea in the universe what Code Maguire was all about, but it was on her priority list as an operational ID. "I'll inform the Captain. Anything else we can do for you at this point, Lieutenant?"

    "Just one other thing," Thandi said. "Do we have any idea what that big freighter is doing riding in orbit so close to the space station?"

    "Hold on, and I'll check." After half a minute or so, Carlson's voice came back in her ear. "It's the Felicia III, a combined freighter and personnel transport. Registered as an independent carrier out of Yarrow—that's a system in Grafton Sector—but our records show it's really owned by the Jessyk Combine. According to the manifest they filed with Erewhon's orbital monitors, they're carrying about three thousand economy-rate passengers and are making a short stop—four days—to let their customers enjoy the resort."

    Thandi stared at the space station. It was gigantic, now, filling the entire viewport.

    She didn't believe it for an instant. True, there were freighters who provided comfortable if slow passage for people who couldn't afford the top rates charged by cruise liners. But Jessyk Combine's hybrid freighters specialized in transporting the galaxy's poorest residents. People who'd barely been able to scrape up the money to afford a single trip, almost always a voyage to settle as colonists in a new world somewhere. The one thing they wouldn't have was extra money to splurge on a four-day stop at a pleasure resort. Certainly not on a Jessyk vessel—the Combine was notorious for being able to squeeze blood out of a stone.

    But there was no point in asking anything further from Lieutenant Carlson. A Solarian destroyer wouldn't have access to the records she needed.

    "Thank you, Ma'am," she murmured. "Lieutenant Palane, out."

    Again, she hesitated. Then she pulled her personal com out of the shuttle's communications systems and switched to a dedicated channel it hadn't had when she first arrived in Erewhon.

    "Victor, can you hear me?"

    His voice came into her earbug immediately. Still, the same pleasant tenor; but, this time, with the slightly detached flavor which Thandi recognized as the tone of an experienced fighter heading into combat.

    "I'm here, Thandi. We just docked a few minutes ago."

    "Can you talk to anyone in a position of authority on that space station?"

    There was a moment's pause. Then: "Yes. But I've got to be careful about it. Cut-out."

    She understood the meaning of the last terse phrase. Thandi wasn't positive, but she suspected Victor was in communication with Walter Imbesi. Quickly, she considered the parameters of the situation, and came to the conclusion that Victor had decided it would be best to let Templeton's scheme unfold a bit before taking action. If so, it was obvious why he'd be chary of involving Imbesi unless it was absolutely necessary. The political repercussions if it became publicly known that Imbesi had delayed informing the Erewhon authorities would be fairly catastrophic.

    "I think it's important, Victor."

    Immediately the tenor voice came back. Calm, relaxed, detached—supremely self-confident without making any effort to show it. Thandi felt some primitive part of herself heating up—and another part of herself, that self-analytical faculty she'd had as long as she could remember, almost jeering.

    Oh good, Thandi. You and your fixation on alpha males. Kinky, kinky, kinky. When are you going to learn?

    She drove the thought away. This was no time for another morose self-examination of the fact that the only men who ever really excited her were precisely the ones she trusted the least. Or the irony that a woman who could break most men in half without working up a sweat had such a wide submissive streak running deep under the surface—which she never let out because she trusted it even less.

    "Good enough, Thandi. What is it?"

    She explained quickly. As soon as she was done, the assured tenor told her he'd get back to her as soon as possible. She had no doubt he would. When they broke contact, she was feeling a bit flushed.

    Damn you, Victor Cachat. I don't need this!



    His voice was back within five minutes. By now, her shuttle was nearing the boat bay, and most of the space station had spread out of sight beyond the viewport's edges. The sight reminded her of a small fish on the verge of being swallowed by one of the enormous sea beasts native to her home planet. As was common on heavy gravity worlds, Ndebele's surface was largely covered by oceans.

    "I think you're on to something. According to their records, the only people from the Felicia III who've come across to The Wages are a dozen or so officers and crew. They've been splurging in the ritzier casinos."

    "That's what I suspected. Jessyk's crews are notorious for slack discipline. They're making an unauthorized stop for their own entertainment. Which means that whatever passengers might be on that ship are being kept quarantined. There's no way to know without boarding them, but I think that ship is a slaver on its way to Congo masquerading as a combined freighter and cheap transport vessel."

    "That would fit the facts, certainly. Do you think this is tied in with Templeton?"

    "No way to tell yet. But I think... I think they're tied in because Templeton's planning to tie them in somehow. I don't think it's prearranged. You say they've been here two days? That would be just about right for Templeton to find out and launch whatever scheme he's had in mind."

    She'd lost track of the two smaller groups detached from Templeton's main group. The members of her team who'd been tracking the half dozen men apparently headed for Templeton's own ship had broken off once the Masadan pilots had entered the spaceport. They'd rejoined Thandi and were accompanying her on the shuttle. And, unfortunately, the low-powered transmitters she was using were no longer able to stay in touch with her two women tracking Templeton's lieutenant, Flairty.

    And why had Flairty and two others remained behind on the planet?

    Victor's voice came into her ear. "Anything else, Thandi?"

    It was a little hard to believe that that relaxed and supremely self-confident voice belonged to a man no older than she was. Two or three years younger, in fact. As usual, Thandi felt herself shying away from the attraction—and then brought herself up sharply.

    Grow up! Forget your damn Hormone Anxieties. The man's good at this, girl, he's not putting on an act to impress you.

    She felt herself relax. Captain Rozsak had given her the authority to make her own decisions, after all. Bringing Cachat into her full confidence was within her parameters.

    "Yes, there is." Quickly, she filled Cachat in on the situation with Flairty. "Do you have any idea why he'd have been left behind?"

    "Give me a moment to think about it."

    There was silence for perhaps ten seconds. When Victor's voice came back, there was for the first time a slight trace of excitement in it.

    "Yes. It all fits, now. This is a kidnaping attempt, Thandi, not an assassination. Templeton's planning to grab the Princess—don't ask me what for, exactly. At a guess, they'll try to use her as a hostage for a prisoner exchange with Manticore and Grayson. There are hundreds—hell, thousands—of Masadan fanatics being held in prison there."

    She was trying to catch up with Victor's thinking. "But... There's no way Templeton can escape Erewhon with a captive. Not in that ship of his. Oh, sure, it's got a couple of heavy weapons mounts, but no armor, and its sidewalls are a joke. It's not really a warship at all. Anything bigger than a LAC could blow it out of space without even breaking a sweat. Hell, it'd be easy enough to just board the damned thing! Okay, sure, keeping the Princess alive would be difficult as hell, but— Oh."

    "Yeah. 'Oh.' Erewhon might or might not be willing to risk the life of Princess Ruth. They might, actually. Manticore has a long-standing tradition of being willing to sacrifice members of the royal family if need be. But there's no way even cold-blooded Erewhonese would risk the slaughter that would ensue on a ship carrying thousands of innocent people. Templeton can't threaten too many people on The Wages itself with whatever side arms he'll pick up there, but once he gets aboard that freighter all bets are off. If nothing else, he can just blow it up by kicking out the governors on the fusion bottle. He's a religious fanatic, so he won't have the usual fear of suicide."

    Thandi stared out the viewport. The freighter was barely visible in one corner for a moment, and then vanished from sight as the shuttle entered the docking bay of the space station.

    She came to an instant decision. "I should board that ship now, before they're alerted."

    "Yes, I agree. I'm willing to bet the reason Flairty was left behind—eating in a restaurant so close to the Suds—is because at the proper time he's going to march back into the hotel and inform Mesa's supposed overseers that their flunkeys just carried out a little rebellion and Mesa will, thank you, provide them with transport out of Erewhon system, whether Mesa likes it or not. Probably to Congo—where, thank you, Mesa will provide them with protection, whether Mesa likes it or not. Which, if I'm right, means that you have not more than a couple of hours to make your move. Keep in mind that the third Masadan group—the one with the two pilots—is almost certainly going to be boarding that freighter ahead of you and will have taken control of it. You won't just be coming up against a sleepy freighter crew."

    She shook her head. As capable as he might be otherwise, Cachat was no expert on boarding operations. Thandi was.

    "It's not that simple, Victor. Without knowing the entry codes, the only way to board a ship is to blow your way in. I don't have the equipment to do that. Templeton might, on his own ship, but I sure don't. I'm not even carrying sidearms. Holodramas be damned, you don't punch your way into a modern starship—not even a freighter—using a prybar."

    There was a pause at the other end. Then: "You're the expert. All right, then, here's what I propose. We'll have your people trailing Flairty grab him right after he meets the Mesan bigshots. Then bring all of them up here. I'm sure I can get Imbesi to provide private transport for that."

    She winced. "Victor, my two girls are good but that's asking a lot of them. Flairty—and up to half a dozen other men? They might be able to manage that, but—"

    "O ye of little faith. You keep forgetting who I'm working with, Thandi. The four of them on their way up here aren't the only ones on Erewhon. As soon as I can pass the word through Imbesi, your young ladies will have the help they need. Just tell them to wait somewhere outside the restaurant. My people will know how to spot them. After all, they've been hunting them for decades."

    Thandi almost choked. "Victor, ah... Jesus. Talk about supping with the devil—looked at from either side."

    The amusement was obvious in his voice, even if it was a subtle thing. "True enough. But the oldest wise saw of all is probably 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend.' I'd say it applies in this case, don't you?"

    "Hard to argue the point. How do you propose to get me over there?"

    "We'll worry about that when the time comes. I'm putting this together on the run, Thandi. Just get me Flairty—those Mesans he'll be with, rather—and I'll get the codes out of them."

    His words had begun with a bit of warmth, under the calm and relaxed tone. By the time he finished speaking, they sounded like cubes of ice. Thandi didn't think to ask how Cachat was so confident he could get the information. As well ask a tiger why he was complacent about his prey.

    "All right. But you'll have to get in touch with my women yourself, Victor. They're carrying military coms designed for planetary ranges and covert communications, so they're not tied into the system-wide net. They can't pick me up from here, and even the shuttle's systems can't hit them from here without a bucket receiver."

    "No problem. I'm sure my contact here can do it."

    A gentle chime sounded through the passenger compartment of the shuttle. The vehicle lurched a bit, and then settled down into that steady state which indicated: We have arrived. Other passengers were already beginning to get to their feet, carrying their luggage, and heading toward the entry doors.

    "I'm at the station now, Victor. Where and how will we meet?"

    "Who knows? I haven't been here long myself. Just follow your nose, Thandi—most of all, your ears. Things are going to be getting a little noisy around here. I still need a code word—something—to get in touch with your two ladies."

    As she rose and headed toward the entry doors, followed by her team—none of them were carrying luggage, of course—Thandi's lips twisted a little. "Just have your people say great kaja sent them. And that if they don't follow orders, I'll break Lara's other arm and beat Inge to a pulp. That'll do the trick."

    She could hear Victor's little chuckle in her ear. "Remind me never to enlist in any boot camp you're running. All right, Thandi. Good luck."

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