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Crown of Slaves: Chapter Twenty One

       Last updated: Saturday, April 9, 2005 09:57 EDT



    Gideon Templeton let the new converts do the killing. For all that their slack attitudes toward doctrine often annoyed him, there was no question that as sheer physical specimens any of them were more capable than the Faithful-since-birth. Certainly in unarmed combat, if not with sophisticated weaponry and equipment they had little experience with.

    Fortunately, Gideon's old-Faithful were extremely competent with high-tech gadgetry—such, at least, as bore directly on their sacred duties. Templeton gave Jacob a glance. Three of the Masadan party were lined up against a wall of the security lounge, as if posing for a portrait. Jacob, standing in front of them, seemed to be fiddling with the holorecorder with which he was about to record their image for posterity.

    Jacob was waiting for Templeton's glance, and responded with a slight nod. The "holorecorder" Jacob was holding was actually a white-noise generator designed by a Solarian firm which specialized in security equipment. Fiendishly expensive, as such state-of-the-art electronic devices always were. But Gideon's successful activities of the past fifteen T-years had left him with very large financial resources, to add to the considerable war chest which his father Ephraim had managed to assemble before he fled Masada.

    Jacob's nod told Gideon that most security devices in the lounge were temporarily disabled, in one way or another. The audio pickups would be blanketed in silence as soon as the noise suppressor kicked in, and the video recorders interrupted with what would appear to be a malfunction of some sort. There was no way, even with that equipment, to blanket the energy sensors designed to pick up the discharge of power weapons. But Gideon was not concerned with that, since, if all went as planned, there would be no weapon discharges taking place. Not here and now, at any rate.

    The noise suppressor would be activated by a timer within a few seconds. Gideon looked away, and made the same minimal head gesture. He was careful not to look at anyone in particular when he did so, certain that the individuals for whom that nod was intended would be watching him. Whatever their other faults, the new converts were dependable enough in these matters.

    "That'll be it then, gentlemen," said the attendant, smiling as he emerged from the side room in the security lounge where he'd stored their personal weapons. He closed the door, turned, and his finger lifted to punch in the security code. "You'll be able to retrieve them when—"

    The timing kicked in on the noise suppressor. The attendant's mouth kept moving for a second or two, until he began to realize he wasn't making any sound at all.

    But, by then, his eyes were widening for more pressing reasons than unexplained speechlessness. Moving with the grace and speed provided by his genes and training, one of the new converts—Stash, that was, short for Stanislav—vaulted the counter with liquid ease. The attendant tried to shout something, but no sound emerged. He had no time for anything further. What would have been a cough of agony exploded silently from his lungs as Stash's fist went into his kidney like a piston-driven club, hammering the attendant against the still-unlocked door. The second blow of the same fist to the same kidney followed within a split-second, finishing the work. Stash tossed him aside and piled through the door into the weapons room.

    Two other new converts had also vaulted the counter. One of them took the time—casually, contemptuously—to grab the dazed attendant and smash the side of his skull against the edge of the counter. Again, the genetically-engineered musculature and reflexes proved their worth. In his mind if not his ears, Gideon could hear the sound of the thin temple bone shattering, driving portions into the brain. The new convert let the attendant's body slip lifeless to the floor and followed his two comrades into the weapons room.

    Gideon was already turning away, sure that the rest of the immediate work was being done to the same degree of perfection.

    Indeed so. The three guards who had accompanied Templeton and his people down the corridor from the shuttle docking bay to the security lounge were already immobilized. They'd been physically silenced too, which was quite unnecessary—but probably inevitable, given the ingrained fighting habits of the new converts. They weren't really accustomed to working with the advantages of the Masadans' high-tech gadgetry, such as the noise suppressor.

    In the case of two, the method of silencing—throats collapsed by hard-edged hand blows—would complete the task of killing them. As Templeton watched, the third had his neck snapped by a sudden and powerful movement by the new convert holding his head. Imre, that was, perhaps the strongest of the lot.

    Aside from Templeton's crew, there had been three other visitors to The Wages of Sin on the same shuttle who had also been brought by the guards to check in their personal weapons. They all died within seconds, never overcoming their shock at the sudden eruption of murderous action long enough to put up any resistance at all beyond raising their hands in futile protest. And, as with the guards and the attendant, the noise suppressor kept any auditory warning they might have issued from being able to carry to the shuttle docking bay where two of the space station's guards had remained.

    Gideon grunted—silently.

    Some of that grunt was due to his satisfaction at the success of this stage of his plans. He had decided to take the risk of retrieving their weapons rather than attempt an immediate firefight in the docking bay. To some extent, that was simply to reduce the number of his immediate opponents. Primarily, however, it had been due to Gideon's calculation that the guards would have lost their initial edge of alertness after escorting a seemingly-docile new group of visitors to the security lounge. They would have done this innumerable times by now, since possession of personal weapons was commonplace in this portion of the galaxy. Most of what problems they'd faced in the past would have come from visitors unfamiliar with the draconian security policies of the space station. But those would have protested immediately, while still in the docking bay. Templeton and his men had acted casually, as if they had already been aware of the station's policy—which they had been, of course—and took it as a given.

    For the most part, however, Gideon's grunt was an expression of piety. He had sometimes wondered why the Lord had saddled him with the often-thankless and always-exasperating task of welcoming the new converts into his flock. Now he was sure he was catching a glimpse of the Almighty's great design. On their own, he was fairly confident that his old Faithful could have managed this work. But... not so easily, nor so surely. Whatever else, the new converts were the sharpest of blades placed into his hands by Providence.

    Stash was already emerging from the weapons room, carrying several of the side arms they'd brought with them to The Wages of Sin. He spread them on the counter and turned back to retrieve more. Between him and his two comrades, all of the weapons which Templeton and his men had brought to the station were quickly back in their hands, along with others they'd found to arm the rest of the crew and serve them for spares if needed.

    Everyone was moving quickly, especially Jacob, who was already working at the security console on the counter next to the weapons check-in room. Gideon had stressed the importance of not leaving the white-noise scrambler running for any longer than absolutely necessary. Even the type of slackers who could normally be found working in low-wage security jobs would get suspicious if a "video malfunction" continued for long enough.

    But, within seconds, Jacob was smiling. He lifted his head and gave Gideon a firm nod. Then, confirming the news, turned off the noise suppressor.

    "All set. The scrambler's hooked into the security computer. It'll keep the scanners—audio and video both—looping back through the previous half hour's recordings. They're a lot of sinners, Solarians, but I will say their electronics are good."

    Gideon grunted his satisfaction. To any security guard in the station's central security room who glanced at the monitors covering this lounge, it would appear to be empty again—as if, the weapons having been checked, all the passengers had left and the guards had returned to their posts. Until and unless somebody noticed that the same security guards were still moving around in the docking bay, long after their shift ended, they should be fine. They still couldn't use weapons, of course, without setting off alarms all over the station.

    Stash was scowling a bit. As the former leader of the new converts—most dominant figure, more precisely—he tended to question Gideon more often than any of them.

    Stash gestured back at the still-open weapons room. "There's better stuff in there. A hand-tooled side-arm flechette gun—beautiful thing, don't want to think what it cost—three military-grade pulsers, and even a tri-barrel. Ha! What idiot would have brought that to a place like this? I guess he was thinking he might go on safari if he got bored. Add the head of a Giant Faro Dealer to his trophy collection."

    "No." Gideon growled the word, but managed not to snarl it. "I've made this clear before, Stash. We've still got a long ways to go—we don't even know where she is—to find my sister. This vile place won't have the same extensive security scanners in the interior of the station, but they will have them. As it is, I'm gambling that we can carry these low-powered guns without being spotted, because some of the guards within are bound to be carrying similar weapons. They can't very well have alarms going off constantly, simply because guards are doing their duty. But there'd be no reason for military-grade or powerful firearms to be at loose in the station, and I'm sure the scanners are set to detect those. Unless we had special registers indicating that these were authorized—and there's no way to get those codes—it'd be too much of a risk."

    He let it go at that, since Stash was clearly not going to press the issue. And, truth be told, Gideon wasn't very happy with the situation himself. He was quite sure that his sister's bodyguards had been given the codes necessary to register their military-grade weapons with the station's security scanners. Diplomatic strains or not, there was no way Erewhon would run the risk of having a Manticoran royal successfully attacked because her Manticoran bodyguards had been disarmed. In fact, Gideon was quite sure that security for The Wages of Sin had been beefed up all the way around. Somewhere in the station, there'd even be a heavy-weapons unit on stand-by.

    Templeton wasn't too concerned about a possible—probable, rather—heavy-weapons unit. They wouldn't be directly positioned to cover his sister, in any event. Princess Ruth was not making an official state visit following a carefully planned route. Since there would be no way to predict the movements of an empty-headed sinner at her play, the management of the station would not want to alarm all their other guests by having a highly-visible armored unit trampling through the gaming areas in her wake. Instead, they'd simply have them on standby at some central location. Deadly enough, of course, when they arrived—but if Templeton's project went as planned, they'd get there too late.

    That still left the problem of his sister's immediate bodyguards, and those were a matter of great concern. Leaving aside the fact that they were much better trained and motivated than a pleasure resort's security guards, they'd also have weapons considerably superior to the ones in the hands of Templeton and his men. Hand pulsers, to be sure, not heavier equipment. But military-grade sidearms, in the hands of elite soldiers, were nothing to sneer at.

    Templeton had even considered bringing chemical-powered weapons with him, instead of the puny personal use and sporting hand pulsers they had brought. For all their primitive design, the right sort of chemical-powered guns could be far more lethal. But...

    Not possible. Such weapons were very rare, which was exactly why Templeton was well-nigh certain the station's internal scanners wouldn't pick them up, since they had no power source. But that would not have been true for the more extensive security devices in the docking bay. The guards there would have been instantly suspicious to discover that so many men in the same party all had a burning passion for antique weaponry. As it was, Gideon had had to do a bit of explaining to account for the fact that most of his party were armed. Fortunately, the fact that he'd ordered over a third of his men to arrive unarmed had done the trick. That, and a vague reference to the ingrained frontier customs of their supposed planet of origin.

    Again, he congratulated himself for the shrewdness of his scheme. He'd calculated—correctly—that there would be enough hand weapons in the check-in room left by earlier passengers to arm the rest of his party. His scheme had been all the more shrewd, in that he had been forced to improvise most of it the moment he discovered his sister was traveling to The Wages of Sin.

    But, ever mindful of the sin of pride, Gideon didn't dwell on the self-satisfaction. Nor did he overlook the fact that there had been an element of carelessness on his part involved also. Given the foul nature of his sister, he should have known from the very beginning that the whore would fly to such a den of iniquity at the first opportunity, like a moth to a flame. So, if he'd done an excellent job of planning hastily, some of the hastiness itself had been the result of his own slackness.

    He broke off the rumination. Everyone in the party was armed now—many with an extra weapon—and they were ready to begin the next stage. His men had dragged the bodies and tossed them into the weapons check-in room. One of them had even found a cloth somewhere and was beginning to wipe up the blood which one of their victims had coughed onto the floor.

    "Don't bother," said Gideon. "By the time anyone else comes in here, it will all be a moot point."

    His cousin and chief lieutenant, Abraham Templeton, cocked an eye at him.

    "You've decided, then, to kill the guards still in the docking bay?"

    "Yes. You heard what that one guard told me, when I inquired casually. There's not another shuttle scheduled to arrive at that dock for hours."

    Abraham nodded. The gesture was as much one of respect as agreement. Gideon had planned for that, as well, deliberately taking a shuttle which would arrive at the tail end of the station's peak business hours for the day. That would most likely have them docking at one of the bays used only to handle overflow traffic—as, indeed, had proved true.

    "That's enough time for us to do the rest," Templeton continued, "as much of it as will set off all alarms, anyway. And it'd be safer to leave no one behind who might wander over here and set off a premature warning."

    Abraham nodded and gave the assembled team a quick inspection. His eyes lingered for a bit longer on the new converts. Although they were generally unaccustomed to more elaborate weaponry, the new converts were just as proficient with simple hand weapons as they were with unarmed combat.

    Stash returned Abraham's gaze with a lazy smile. "Be like butchering sheep."




    Indeed, it was so. And Gideon felt his piety strengthened as a result. The Lord moves in mysterious ways, after all. And if it suited Him to provide Gideon with otherwise-flawed instruments for His work, Gideon Templeton was not a man to question God's will.

    Templeton had been very concerned himself, about this stage of the plan. Concerned enough, in fact, that he'd almost decided to follow Abraham's advice to leave the two remaining guards in the docking bay untouched. The problem, in a nutshell, was that they did not dare attack the guards while still in the bay. No matter how slack, not even low-paid security guards could be taken down by a direct assault without managing to set off at least some of the alarms. And since the white noise generator couldn't suppress actual weapons discharges, there would be the added risk of one of the guards managing to fire his pulser.

    Stash had assured Templeton that he could handle the problem through misdirection. Or—if Stash didn't match the physique of one of the guards well enough—one of the other new converts could do so.

    So it proved. Gideon was able to observe the events indirectly, using a tiny holobug set up by Jacob.

    The docking bay was attached to the security lounge by a short corridor. Unlike the bay or the lounge, there were no audio-video monitors set to cover that corridor. There would undoubtedly be energy sensors, but those were of no concern.

    Gideon found it hard not to suppress a sneer—and did suppress it, only because of his constant vigilance for the sin of pride. Heathen sinners could always be counted on to let avarice override caution. Had Godly men been in charge of security for The Wages of Sin, there would have been audio-video sensors everywhere—with keen-eyed Faithful to monitor them in the station's central security room. But the greedy management of the sinful place had naturally avoided the expense, and placed them only in critical areas.

    Gideon watched Stash, now dressed in a uniform taken from one of the dead security guards who had approximately his size and build, amble down the corridor. "Amble" was the right word, too. No old-Faithful could have managed that slovenly shuffle—nor the equally slack manner in which Stash leaned around the corner where the corridor debouched into the docking bay and waved an arm at the two remaining security guards.

    The arm-wave, too, was perfect. It's done, boys. Shift's over—so let's get us a beer. All of it conveyed without Stash having to say a word—or give the two guards more than a glimpse of him.

    But... it was the glimpse they'd been expecting. Indeed, awaiting. So, within seconds, the two men appeared in the corridor, walking in the easy manner of sinners looking forward to their sins. Not "ambling," exactly—they were moving too quickly for that term to apply—but with nothing at all in the way of alertness or caution.

    Stash was facing away from them, down on one knee, apparently adjusting the fit of one of his boots. His face was obscured by the bill of the cap on his head. As the two security guards came alongside, one of them said something. A jest, apparently, judging from the grin on his face. Templeton couldn't hear the actual words, because the miniature transmitter Jacob had set up alongside the corridor's wall was not able to pick up audio signals.

    It didn't matter, anyway. Stash was moving again, and this time there was nothing either slovenly or shuffling about it. He came up like a tiger out of its crouch, striking once—twice—

    Then, quickly, finishing the work once the guards were on the floor. It was all over in a manner of seconds. And Gideon had heard not a sound, coming around the bend of the corridor where he and the others waited in the security lounge.

    One of the new converts went to help Stash carry the two bodies into the security lounger. It was the work of a few more seconds to stuff them into the weapons room with the other corpses.

    Then, all was done except the final strike on the Princess. Gideon's initial plans had worked to perfection. They departed the security lounge, filing down the corridor leading to the halls of the Devil's playground where the whore sister would surely be found.



    First Lieutenant Ahmed Griggs, officer of the Queen's Own Regiment and the recipient of several awards for valor, including the Sphinx Cross, was not a happy man. To put it mildly. The task of guarding Princess Ruth in such a crowded place as The Wages of Sin was enough to make any security officer tense.

    Since they'd entered the pleasure resort, a part of Ahmed's mind had never stopped cursing. Some of those silent curses, needless to say, had been visited on the Princess herself. But not many. No one expects a teenage girl to be sensible about security, after all, especially the men assigned to protect her.

    More of his curses were visited on the now-absent head of Anton Zilwicki. Haring off on a mysterious mission for a month, leaving his daughter and the Princess to manage their own affairs!

    But... The lieutenant didn't curse Anton much more than he did the girls, truth be told. He knew the man's reputation, and if Anton Zilwicki thought something was important enough for him to leave for a month, Griggs didn't really doubt it was true.

    No, most of the lieutenant's curses were visited on a man far distant from Erewhon: the Star Kingdom's head of government, Baron High Ridge, whose arrogant and stupid policies had so thoroughly alienated the people and government of Erewhon and made the Princess' "informal" voyage to Erewhon necessary in the first place.

    The Queen had not, of course, explained her purpose in sending Princess Ruth to Lieutenant Griggs personally. But there'd been no need. Like all officers assigned to the Queen's Own, Griggs was quite well aware of the political situation in the Star Kingdom. In times past, when Manticore's foreign relations had been in the hands of Prime Minister Cromarty and people of his choosing, Queen Elizabeth herself might have made the trip to Erewhon—or, if not she, someone representing her officially. On such occasions, Lieutenant Griggs would have been able to take all the added security measures which are taken for granted during such elaborate events.

    Now, however....

    Griggs had no quarrel with the Erewhonese themselves. As soon as he informed them of the Princess' proposed visit to The Wages of Sin, without even being asked the Erewhonese had volunteered to waive the usual security rules and allow Griggs and his men to retain their sidearms. They'd also immediately informed him that they would beef up the station's normal security by assembling their special weapons unit and keeping it on standby.

    And that was, realistically, as much as he could ask for. There was simply no way that security for an informal jaunt by a member of the royal family could come close to the level of security which was possible for official visits of state. Members of the Manticoran royal family made informal trips constantly, to all sorts of places, without the level of security maintained during formal visits of state. Not even when the Queen herself was the person involved, much less a member of the family who was not even in the line of succession. Such elaborate security measures were extremely disruptive for the normal course of business, after all. If Griggs had tried to push the issue, the Erewhonese would have simply declared the space station off limits for the Princess—and he would have had to face Ruth's wrath. That, by itself, he would have been willing enough to do. But he knew perfectly well the Princess would simply have overruled him—he was her bodyguard, after all, not her keeper—and he would have wound up facing the same situation anyway, with disgruntled Erewhonese to deal with instead of co-operative ones.

    As they wandered through the gaming halls of the pleasure resort, the Princess and her companion were gazing awestruck at the holographic displays on the ceiling whenever they weren't distracted by one or another of the equally-dazzling displays at the gaming tables themselves. Griggs ignored it all. Most of his mind was given to the task of studying all the people in the vicinity, looking for any possible danger. The rest was wallowing in tradition. His family treasured the ancient art of the curse.

    —to the third generation. As for High Ridge's great-grandchildren, may each and every one be born with genetic defects—not much to ask, given THAT gene pool—and suffer a protracted and agonizing death. May their corpses be dismembered by wild animals. May their body parts—



    As soon as Thandi and her team got off the shuttle and past the initial screen of security guards and scanners, she called Victor again.

    "This place is a maze, and I don't know it at all. I don't see any point to wandering around looking for the Princess. You and Imbesi and your—ah, bodyguards—will have to do whatever you can at the point of initial contact. I think it makes a lot more sense for me to get into position to intersect Templeton after he makes his strike."

    There was a slight pause; then Victor's calm voice came back.

    "Agreed. I should have thought of that myself. Naomi's been with me since I arrived and she knows this place backwards and forwards."

    "I bet she does," Thandi snorted. But she didn't have the throat mike activated when she said it.

    "So I didn't think to consider what it would be like coming into it cold. What do you need?"

    "I need to know where I am in relation to the most likely area—or areas—where Templeton would make his move. Even more important, where he'd be most likely to make his exit from the station—and the fastest way for me to place myself across that route. Or routes, if there'd be more than one."

    "You'll need to give me some time. Five minutes, at least, probably more. Neither Naomi nor Walter will have that information, so we'll have to check with someone else."

    Seeing no point to wandering around any further with no goal in mind, Thandi halted her team with a little gesture. They'd drawn alongside of one of the resort station's multitude of little refreshment areas recessed from the corridor, and Thandi led the way into it. Her metabolism was starting to make warning signals, so since she had a bit of time she'd take care of that problem. Quickly, she and her team ordered food and began more-or-less gulping it down. Thandi's women grinned at her as they did so. Their metabolism was more ferocious than average also, of course, but nothing compared to hers.



    Templeton also found the space station a maze, but he'd had time to prepare for it. So, guided by the holo-guides one of his men had obtained the day before, he and his team passed quickly enough through the corridors toward the main gaming halls at the center of the station.

    He was quite sure his sister would be found there. A moth to the flame. And once he got close enough to begin picking up her chemical traces, the very expensive tracking equipment he'd brought with him would do the rest.



    Thandi had just finished wolfing down her food when Victor's voice returned.

    "All right. Here's the best I can come up with. Templeton arrived at one of the more isolated docking bays. Good luck for him, unless he planned it that way—which he very likely did. But he won't return by that route. He's more likely to use one of the maintenance docks—either in Tube Gamma or Epsilon—and seize two or three of the shuttles which are always stationed there for routine work. Those bays aren't guarded since there's no way to enter them from the outside without security codes. Leaving them, of course, is a different matter. That requires codes also, but I'm sure he'll get the codes from the employees working there. They're not trained to stand up under torture, of course."

    "Okay. Where's—"

    "Patience, patience." A trace of easy humor filtered into the relaxed, confident voice. Thandi felt a little stab of passion and suffocated it ruthlessly. No time for that—even if she knew the man!

    "I was just about to tell you," Cachat continued. "Right now, you're in Tube Beta. A bit of good luck for us, since you're much closer to Epsilon or Gamma than Templeton will be when he makes his move."

    "Which will be where?"

    "In the main gaming hall at the center of the station. The Manticoran girls are already there, and I'm sure that's where Templeton's headed. I'm heading down there myself, as soon as this conversation is finished."

    "All right. I'll find my way there, easily enough. There are holo-guides all over the place." She hesitated a moment. "Take care, Victor. By now, they'll almost certainly be armed."

    "There's no question they are, I don't think. Imbesi just made a call to the docking bay where they arrived, and got no answer. I'm sure they've slaughtered the guards and taken their weapons. Along with whatever they brought themselves. Hopefully, they won't have any military-grade equipment."

    Thandi hesitated again. She'd already considered the methods available for arming her team. They'd brought no weapons at all, since she'd known there was no way the station's security would have allowed them to enter with their weaponry.

    Victor anticipated her thoughts. "Take what you need from the station's guards, when the time comes. But if you can, try not to kill any of them."

    "That'd be hard to do, to be honest. Besides... we'll see, once I get a look at the fighting ground. I might be able to get the weapons from Templeton's men themselves."

    It was Cachat's turn to hesitate. "That could be... ah, really dangerous, Thandi."

    "Yes, it could. On the other hand"—her lips quirked a little—"I'm really that good, too. We'll make a deal. I won't tell you how to do cloak-and-dagger stuff; you don't tell me how to do mayhem."

    She heard his soft chuckle. "Fair enough. Good luck, Thandi. When I hear anything more, I'll pass it along."

    Thandi rose from the table. The women in her team, scattered at three other tables as well as her own, were on their feet instantly. Glancing around, Thandi saw that they were alone in the little room.

    "We've been warned to be careful," she said cheerfully. "It seems Templeton is dangerous and my—ah, gentleman friend—is a bit concerned for my health."

    That got the reaction she'd expected. All of the women were scowling.

    "Men!" snapped one of them. "Great Kaja, you are. Eat them alive."

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