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Crown of Slaves: Chapter Twenty Two

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



    "That's it, then," said Victor softly, turning to face Naomi and her uncle. The two were sitting in what looked like superbly comfortable armchairs. So Victor assumed, at any rate. All the furniture he'd seen so far in the Imbesi family's private suite in The Wages of Sin looked—there was no other term for it—sinfully expensive and luxurious. That was part of the reason Victor hadn't availed himself of the comfort personally, aside from the fact that he was too full of energy to sit down anyway. For someone of his background and ideological convictions, there was something vaguely distasteful about using a piece of furniture whose price could have fed a poor family for months. It was an irrational reaction on his part, of course—but he was still the person who lived inside the skin of "Victor Cachat."

    "Do you really think this will work?" asked Walter, frowning a little. "It seems excessively complicated."

    "It is excessively complicated. But I can't see any other way to squeeze the opening we want out of the situation. Just smashing Templeton won't do it. We need to use him like a prybar."

    Naomi's frown was more pronounced than her uncle's. "What I don't understand is why you're so confident that Templeton will even find his sister." She glanced at the door which opened into one of the space station's public corridors. "Victor, I'm not sure you have any real idea just how convoluted those passageways are. Sure, there are holo-guides. But those aren't really all that easy to use, especially for someone who's never been here before—which I'd be astonished if Templeton has, given his theology."

    "She's got a point, Victor," chimed in Walter. "Templeton's more likely to just blunder about. And within two hours or so the alarms are going to go up all over the station. At that point, he'll just get smashed anyway. So why not do it now—and possibly save quite a few lives?"

    Victor's smile was like a razor. "I'm counting on that theology, Walter. At a guess, how many people from either Grayson or Masada do you think ever visit The Wages of Sin?"

    Imbesi chuckled. "Maybe a dozen. Possibly a few more... but not many of them, that's for sure. The Graysons don't share the Masadans' more fanatical effusions of 'morality,' of course. They don't have any prohibitions against gambling–within limits, at least–but even for them, this place is pretty much a synonym for 'wickedness.'" He grinned. "I think it has something to do with the female entertainers' costumes. Or lack thereof."

    "Exactly," Victor nodded. "And the Grayson-Masadan genetic variant is quite distinct. The equipment needed to pick it up out of stray molecules suspended in the air is fiendishly expensive, true. But the Masadans have piled up a lot of loot from their piracies over the past fifteen years—on top of a pile which was very substantial to begin with. Templeton's not stupid. I can't imagine he would have tried this stunt if he didn't have such a chemotracker."

    Naomi's eyes widened. "I've heard of that sort of equipment. But is it really that good?"

    "Yes," replied Victor firmly. "I've seen the gear in action. In the hands of someone who knows how to use it, it's almost like magic. Mind you, if they were trying to track Zilwicki's daughter in this crowded madhouse, it wouldn't do them any good except at close range. But that's because she's Terran, and her DNA traces would be impossible to distinguish from most peoples' until they got within a few meters of her. But with the Princess, it's a different matter altogether. Especially since Templeton's crew is all male, so they can set the readings to filter out anything but a female from their genetic stock. Closer than that, in fact, since she's Templeton's half-sister and he can use his own DNA to key the settings."

    "All right," said Walter, "that makes sense. But I still don't see why you're so confident you can bring Templeton to ground after he strikes."

    "Genetics again." He eyed the Imbesis for a moment, hesitant to offend them. One of the prominent characteristics of Erewhonese culture—one which Victor himself appreciated, in fact—was that they were ferociously egalitarian. That aspect of their culture was not evident to most foreigners, who saw only the very stratified nature of Erewhon's power structure. But a structure and the individuals who filled its niches were not the same thing. Yes, the Erewhonese had little use for what most people would called "genuine democracy." But they had even less use for the notion that any individual could not aspire to anything he or she could manage. It was standard practice for Erewhon's great families to adopt promising youngsters, with no regard for class or genetic background. In fact, one of the worst insinuations which could be made of a prominent and influential family was that it was too selective in its mating habits—"screwing in-round," to use the crude Erewhonese expression.

    Still, facts were facts, and he didn't think either of the Imbesis—Walter, especially—were all that blinkered by custom. "I don't think you really appreciate how much difference it can make, especially in a hand-to-hand melee, to have people on your side with the genetic make-up of Lieutenant Palane and her little Amazon wrecking crew. Especially Palane."

    Naomi made a little face. "Female weight-lifter," she muttered.

    With some difficulty, Victor suppressed his annoyance. Leaving aside his own feelings for Lieutenant Palane, which still confused as well as unsettled him, what made Naomi's cattiness so irritating was that Victor knew there was nothing personal about it in the sense of jealousy about him. It was just the Imbesi woman's ingrained competitiveness toward other females at work.

    "That's the least of it," he said, almost snapping. "Physical superiority by itself doesn't necessarily mean that much. In fact, it can be a handicap if it leads to overconfidence. I once—" He shook his head. "Never mind. Just take my word for it—or don't, as you choose. Palane didn't claw her way out of where she came from simply by using her muscles. She's smart, disciplined, and very well-trained. And while I think the Solarian Navy is over-rated—they haven't fought a real war against a serious opponent in centuries—the Solarian Marines are a different story altogether. Given all the brushfires they're constantly being called on to stamp out, they probably have at least as much combat experience—their best units, anyway—as even Republican or Mantie Marines. So when the time comes, I'll put my money on her."

    Walter Imbesi had been studying Victor in the course of his little sermon. Now, he shrugged and spread his hands wide on the armrests. "And I'm putting my money on you. I've got my doubts, but... I learned a lot time ago not to second-guess myself. Okay, Victor, we'll do it your way. And now what?"

    Victor glanced at his watch. "And now I'd say it's time for me and mine to set forth for the fray."

    "What do you plan to do?"

    "Have you ever seen holo-recordings of that rather brutal ancient Terran sport called 'bull-fighting'? Or the variant of it they still play in the Solarian League's Nueva Oaxaca sector, using native animals?"

    Walter's eyes widened. "I've seen the Nueva Oaxacan sport you're talking about, though not in person. If you can call that bloody business a 'sport'."

    "Can't say I approve myself," agreed Victor. "But it's a nice little analogy. I'm counting on Thandi—Lieutenant Palane—to drive in the sword. But the beast needs to be bloodied and weakened first."

    "I can't get you firearms, Victor," warned Imbesi. "Not without tipping off my own place in this scheme of yours—which I can't afford to do. I've stretched my 'plausible deniability' far enough as it is."

    "I wasn't asking you to," replied Victor mildly. He loosened his wide belt and palmed an object nestled into the ornate buckle. "This'll be enough to get me started."

    Naomi stared at the object. "I've never heard of a palm pulser accurate at more than a few meters. I hope—"

    "A few meters will be plenty. And it isn't a pulser. No pulser, no matter how small, could have made it through the security scanners in this place. It's a non-lethal stunning device, inertly powered, and you don't want to know how much it cost to make it detection-proof."

    "But what—"

    Walter was almost scowling. "I certainly hope it's non-lethal. If you start killing security guards yourself, it's going to be impossible to keep you sorted out from the bad guys when the dust settles." He glanced at the four men who were leaning casually against a nearby wall. "Especially given the nature of your own wrecking crew. We're cold-blooded on Erewhon, but not that cold-blooded."

    One of the four men was Donald X. The thickset ex-slave gave Imbesi a thin smile. "Not to worry. Victor's aged a bit since the last time we encountered him. I'm sure he won't run amok the way he did on— Well. Let's hope, at any rate."

    Imbesi sighed. "Damn High Ridge, anyway. Damn him and his children and their children. May—"



    Outside, in the corridor, Donald's smile widened. "Hadn't realized the Erewhonese were masters of the curse."

    "They aren't, really," said Victor, now hurrying. "It's just that they have a serious grievance—and they're not a folk who take grievances lightly."




    "Wheeeee!! Way to go, Princess!"

    Lieutenant Griggs winced at the piercing feminine squeal in his ear. He normally found Princess Ruth's voice pleasant enough, but when she was excited like this...

    Not, perhaps, all that excited. He noticed that she'd still had the presence of mind to call Berry Zilwicki "Princess" when her companion managed to strike the jackpot again. Of course, from the vantage point of someone born and raised in the Manticoran royal family, the amount of money involved in the "jackpot" would hardly be overwhelming.

    Even Berry didn't seemed overwhelmed, actually. The girl was smiling widely, to be sure, but Ahmed thought that was more due to the pleasure of the game itself rather to any great glee over sudden fortune. Griggs didn't think he'd plumbed the depths of the Zilwicki girl's character, of course, on such a relatively short acquaintance. But one thing was already clear to him—Berry Zilwicki just didn't seem to care all that much for any of the small measures of triumph by which so many people gauged their lives. She seemed far more mature than her seventeen T-years of age would have led him to expect.

    But he didn't spend much time pondering the matter. His eyes were moving steadily across the crowd, checking for any possible sign of danger and making sure his soldiers were maintaining good positions.

    Fat lot of good that'll do them, as much of a madhouse as this place is. With these milling crowds, a damned army could sneak up on us before we'd spot them.

    But the thought was only middling-sour. In truth, Griggs was not really expecting any trouble here that he and his men couldn't handle readily enough. There was this much to be said for the space station's persnickety security policies: any assailant would presumably have been disarmed. And while Griggs and his soldiers had been restricted to sidearms, he knew that station security had a heavy-weapons unit ready to go if any serious trouble developed. The worst he'd encountered thus far was an inebriated fellow who'd apparently found "Princess" Berry stunningly attractive. But the girl had fended him off with a couple of witty phrases—and the lieutenant's glare had been enough to send the man stumbling off in search of easier if less nubile prey.

    Berry Zilwicki hit the jackpot again.


    Ahmed Griggs resigned himself to a long night.



    "I've got her now," murmured Gideon, studying the readouts on the chemotracker's display. He moved the device in his hand back and forth, selecting between three corridors. Then, nodded to the left. "The whore's scent comes from there."

    His cousin Abraham gave the display no more than a perfunctory glance. The readouts were far too complex to be read casually, and their leader was the only one who had mastered the art. Of course, that was mostly because he'd never let anyone else do more than look at the incredibly costly gadget.

    "To the left," said Abraham softly, passing along Gideon's command to the men trailing behind. He did not have to speak loudly. Since there was no way to disguise the fact that the large group was traveling together, Gideon Templeton had decided to turn a minus into a plus. His strike force was lined up double file, each man carrying the hand luggage which contained their weapons, as if they constituted a well-organized tour.

    A moment later, Templeton and his three dozen killers were moving down the corridor. Once again, Gideon was awed by the subtlety of the Lord. On their own, he doubted very much if the old Faithful could have maintained the image of being simple tourists. Some, yes—but most had expressions on their faces which were so pinched and hostile that a solid body of them would have been rather alarming. Almost half of his crew were new converts, however, and those men made up for it by their cheerful swagger and open ogling at the sights around them. Practically the image of "brash tourists," they were.

    Within a few minutes, they could hear the sound of revelry coming from ahead. Clearly, they were nearing the gaming halls. One young female voice sounded particularly loud and excited.

    "Whores born," hissed Gideon, "each and every one. A place like this brings out the truth of it for all the universe to see, if the faithless had eyes."



    By the time Thandi neared her destination, she'd been able to make enough sense of the holo-guide she'd purchased to decide on a battle plan. She was basically an infantry officer, with a specialization in ship-boarding, so she had a very good sense for "ground." Provided that the air circulation ducts were wide enough...

    There was no way to tell until they tried them, but she was betting they would be. Like any enclosed pleasure resort trying to please as wide a range of customers as possible, The Wages of Sin needed to keep the air in the station as fresh and frequently-scrubbed as possible. The easiest and cheapest way to provide for that would be with wide air ducts. Wide enough, she was almost sure, to allow even someone as big as she was to pass through them. Not standing, to be sure, but Thandi had spent enough time crawling during war exercises that she wasn't concerned about being able to maneuver quickly through something as straightforward as a circulation duct.

    And they had one big advantage: Epsilon and Gamma corridors ran more or less parallel to each other for a quarter of a loop around the space station. Unless the Erewhonese designers of the place had opted for some exotic alternative, the two corridors were almost bound to be connected frequently to the same air circulation system. If so, she could essentially cover both of Templeton's possible escape routes without dividing most of her forces.

    "Most of her forces." Ha! All ten of them—eleven, counting herself. And none of them armed except for the weapons provided by nature.


    She glanced back at her team and smiled coldly. Amazons, indeed.

    ...ain't no small thing, when you get right down to it.




    As they'd planned ahead of time, Ginny was waiting for Victor and his men in a small salon not far from one of the entrances to the main gaming hall. The salon was one of many such scattered about The Wages of Sin, in order to provide patrons a place to rest in some peace and quiet before launching themselves back into the fray. Victor and Ginny had chosen that salon because it was tucked away around a corner and went largely unnoticed by the public patrons—for which reason, it was favored by the resort's employees whenever they found the chance to catch a quick break.

    Especially the security guards. Sure enough, when Victor walked into the salon he found Ginny seated on an upholstered stool, wearing a skimpy outfit which showed off her bare legs to perfection. Sitting around her in a semi-circle were three of the station's security guards. From the intent expressions on their faces, all of them seemed to be finding Ginny's cheerful prattle the most profound philosophical insights they'd ever heard.

    Victor managed not to smile. Ginny in Full Charm Mode was something of a shock to men who weren't familiar with her.

    He glanced about, first checking the door in the corner which led to a small supply closet. The door was security coded, but Victor had already examined it earlier and was sure he could crack the code in a matter of seconds. It was a purely perfunctory lock, simply designed to keep out idly curious patrons. Then his eyes swept the rest of the salon, noting the two food-service employees sitting at a small table against a far corner. That was a bit unfortunate, of course, but it would have been blind luck to have found the salon empty of anyone except the ones he wanted.

    Donald and one of the other Ballroom members wandered in a few seconds later. Paying Victor no attention, they ambled lazily over to a table next to the one where the two food-service women were enjoying their break.

    So much for that. Victor was quite confident they'd handle that end of the business. The remaining two Ballroom people, of course, would stay outside in the corridor to keep watch for anyone else.

    Let's do it, then.

    He moved toward Ginny and her admirers. Seeing him come, Ginny gave him her most inviting smile. "Edward!" she called out happily, and started to rise.

    The three guards, needless to say, were by no means so delighted to see him. All of them glanced sourly at Victor; one of them was scowling outright. As their attention was distracted, Ginny gave out a little cry of distress. A moment later—she'd apparently gotten her feet tangled in the stool as she rose—she was spilling over backward.

    Thump. Fortunately the floor of the salon was well-carpeted. Ginny landed on her back, her now-completely-bare legs flailing haplessly in midair. Except for her underwear—which was every bit as skimpy as the rest of her outfit—all was, as the expression went, "completely exposed."

    It was an irresistible sight, especially for men who'd been momentarily distracted already. All three guards were gawking at her. One of them began to rise to give her a gentlemanly hand.

    Thtt. He collapsed back onto his own stool and then slid to the floor unconscious. Thtt. Thtt. The other two guards, likewise.

    As Ginny scrambled lithely to her feet, grinning, Victor turned toward the small scuffling sounds in the far corner. Donald and his comrade had seized the food-service workers and hauled them to their feet. With one hand clamped over their mouths to keep them silent, they were forcing the two women toward Victor.

    He gauged their body weight and adjusted the settings on the tranquilizer gun accordingly. The drug used in the needles could be dangerous, even fatal, if used in too great a dosage.

    Fortunately, since he was in a hurry, the settings were not really all that critical. He passed over the woman in Donald's grip, since Donald was so powerful she was completely helpless, and shot the other woman first. Then, Donald's. Thtt, thtt, and it was all over. There had been hardly any noise beyond a bit of scuffling and soft thumping and the thin sound of the compressed gas firing the needles. A nice, quick operation.

    By the time Donald and his comrade Hendryk had deposited the two unconscious women next to the supply locker door and carried over the three guards, Victor had broken the security code. It was the work of a minute to place all five people in the closet. In as comfortable a position as possible, given the cramped quarters, but they'd survive the experience with nothing worse than mild bruises and cramped muscles. Fortunately—this had been Victor's one big worry—the supply closet had its own ventilation ducts. There was no danger of suffocation.

    "How long does that stuff last?" asked Hendryk.

    Victor closed the door behind him and set a different combination for the lock. That would add a further delay if another employee should happen to need something in it. "Hard to say, exactly. It varies from one person to the next based on resistance and body weight. But they'll all be out for at least four hours, more likely six to eight."

    "Long enough," Donald grunted. "I will say your technique has gotten a lot smoother since Chicago."

    Victor handed the guns they'd taken from the guards to three of the Ballroom members. According to Donald, they were the best shots with handguns. Victor and Donald himself would just have to make do.

    So would Ginny, of course, but Victor was bound and determined to keep her out of the coming fray. Fortunately, despite her self-confident personality, Ginny was not a gunhandler at all and was not prone to useless heroics.

    She was, however, prone to useless wisecracks.

    "I told you!" she scolded Donald. "It's all due to my feminine influence. Soothes the savage male, all that. Otherwise he'd have hacked them up with an ax, or something."

    Victor forbore reply. Always the safest course, dealing with Ginny.

    "Let's do it, then. We're not three minutes from the gaming hall. Remember: unless it looks like they're planning to kill her, we'll let them take the Princess before we intervene."

    Ginny shook her head. "On the other hand, it'll take me years before I've got him shaped up as what you'd call a bona fide Knight in Shining Armor."

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