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Crown of Slaves: Chapter Twenty Three

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



    When Templeton spotted the two girls standing at one of the gaming tables, he turned away in order to shield his glare of fury from the very alert-looking officer standing next to them. The officer was out of uniform, but Templeton had no doubt at all he was in the Manticoran military.

    He spent the few seconds he needed to bring his sudden flare of rage under control by studying the readings on the chemotracker in his palm, turning still further aside in order to prevent the Manticoran officer from getting a real glimpse of the device. From a distance of more than five meters, cupped in a man's hand, the chemotracker would be indistinguishable from a hologuide.

    The readings matched perfectly. They practically screamed: The whore is here! And very close!

    "That's her, isn't it?" murmured Abraham. "The one in the fancy apparel?"

    Gideon nodded. "Don't seem to be staring. Have the men spread out and find all the security people in the area, as well as the slut's own bodyguards. Do nothing before reporting back to me."

    A moment later, Abraham was passing along the orders. Gideon was careful to keep his eyes on a nearby gaming table, as if gauging his chances at it, but he was able to follow the progress of his men well enough. Again, he gave thanks to the Lord. The old Faithful were moving a bit stiffly and awkwardly. As experienced as they were in such affairs, they were much like Templeton himself—too angry and outraged by the environment of this nest of evil to be able to act really casually. The new converts, on the other hand, handled the matter to perfection. They were spreading out easily and moving through the crowd looking for guards as if they were nothing more than avid thrill-seekers. Which, in a way, Templeton suspected they were.

    Within a minute, reports began coming in. Fortunately, Templeton had been able to afford the best and most discreet personal communicators, so he wasn't worried that the security staff might pick up the transmissions. He'd be able to maintain tight information, control and command throughout, something which was not always possible in such operations. And if he fell in the service of the Lord, Abraham would be able to replace him immediately. He also had a full-link command communicator, as did his own lieutenant Jacob, who would be next in command if Abraham was struck down.

    "The bitch has seven personal bodyguards, all of them looking like nervous rodents. Their leader is standing next to her. All of them are carrying sidearms only."

    "Three security guards at each of the four main entrances to the hall, including the gate we need to pass through once we've got the slut. Their weapons are holstered and they don't seem particularly alert."

    "Two guards in tandem drifting through the crowd. I'm following them. They're armed but their weapons are holstered."

    "A guard gabbing with a customer by one of the tables. I've got him when the signal goes up."

    "A guard practically draped all over a whore at a table not far from the Princess." That was a new convert speaking; no old Faithful would have had that undertone of concupiscence. "Her husband doesn't look any too happy about it either."



    Victor wasn't happy about it, but only because the guard's holster had a buttoned down flap that would take too long to get open and retrieve the weapon. He'd spotted the Scrag several seconds earlier, since the man was acting as carelessly as Scrags tended to do. The "superman's" version of "undercover work" was almost laughable. Victor hoped that Thandi had at least managed to beat that habit out of her own crew.

    He decided to turn the Scrag's arrogance to advantage.

    "Do you see them all?" he murmured into his communicator.

    Donald was standing at the same gaming table, not more than ten feet away, appearing to be studying the game under progress. His voice was full of amusement.

    "It's a bit like spotting wild animals swaggering through a coffee house, isn't it? The Scrags, I mean. The Masadans look like they've all eaten a jar full of pickles. I count fifteen, in my viewing range."

    Victor had counted about the same number, including Gideon Templeton—who was standing with two men he presumed to be his lieutenants not more than thirty meters away from the Princess. He was sure the remaining men were somewhere out of sight in the crowd. Many of them would be positioned to take out the security guards by the entrances to the gaming hall.

    There was nothing he could do about those, anyway, even leaving aside the fact that he had no intention of stopping the fanatics from kidnapping the Princess and making their escape. Some of them, rather. He intended to kill at least half of the Masadans, including Templeton if at all possible. Bleed the beasts so Thandi could spring the trap.

    The security guard was now casually placing his hand on Ginny's arm. Ginny herself, to all apparent purposes, seemed to be enjoying the attention. Victor decided the circumstances allowed him to scowl openly.

    He didn't have to fake the scowl, either. He hated complicated operations which depended on coordinated timing, but he hadn't seen where he had any choice. Glumly, he knew that Kevin Usher would have sarcastic remarks to make when he got a full report—even assuming the fancy maneuver came off properly.

    For a moment, he was tempted to call Thandi again, just to reassure himself that her people still on the planet were up to the task of grabbing Flairty and the Mesans and getting them up to The Wages of Sin in time for the rest of the operation to go as planned. Imbesi already had a private shuttle waiting for them at the shuttle grounds, but...

    He pushed the worry aside. Thandi's people would either manage it or they wouldn't. At this point, there was nothing either he or Lieutenant Palane herself could do about it. So he turned back to the business at hand.

    "I'll have to take the Scrag watching Ginny," he murmured. "You get the guard's gun."

    Donald made no reply beyond: "Okay."

    Out of the corner of his eye, Victor studied the Scrag again. The man was perhaps five meters away, now. A bit too distant for the short-range accuracy of the tranquilizer gun.

    Speaking of which... turning slightly away, he palmed it into his hand.




    "Are you utterly insane?" shrieked Unser Diem. The Jessyk Combine's trouble-shooter had shot out of his chair before Templeton's lieutenant Flairty had completed the third sentence of his terse statement.

    "What do you madmen think you're doing?" he bellowed.

    Haicheng Ringstorff was furious himself, but he didn't waste time in pointless harangues. Still sitting, he exchanged looks with George Lithgow. His lieutenant's eyes were slitted with anger, and his hands were clenched on the armrests of his own chair, but Lithgow was no more prone than Ringstorff himself to useless displays of rage.

    What do you think, Unser? They're religious fanatics, you idiot. You were expecting reason and logic?

    For a moment—and not for the first time—Ringstorff reflected gloomily that this whole protracted operation in Erewhonese territory was pure folly. The Mesans had gotten their way for so long that they'd grown arrogant, sloppy and careless.

    And now....

    It was time for one Haicheng Ringstorff to extricate himself from what was rapidly becoming the worst fiasco he'd ever encountered in his life. True, the Mesans paid well. But no amount of money in the galaxy was worth the grief and risks they'd been putting him through for the past couple of years. Bad enough they'd gotten him tangled up last year with a Mantie cruiser captained by an apparent naval wizard. That had already cost Ringstorff and the Mesans four destroyed cruisers of their own. Now, by insisting that Ringstorff rely on maniacs like Masadans and Scrags for a "security team," the Mesans were about to bring the entire wrath of the Star Kingdom down on his head.

    The Mesans could be as cocksure as they chose. One Haicheng Ringstorff had had far more experience than they had when it came to the grief Manties could ring down.

    Unser was still screaming invective on a passive-faced Flairty.

    "I want out," Ringstorff muttered, "pure and simple."

    He started to rise. So did Lithgow.

    The door to the Mesan suite erupted in a flash. The concussion knocked Ringstorff off his feet. In a daze, he saw Diem and Lithgow and Flairty hammered to the floor as well. Fortunately, the two Masadans who'd remained standing next to the door absorbed most of the force of the explosion. Their shattered bodies went flying across the room.

    Ringstorff knew he needed to act immediately, but his brain and nervous system were still responding sluggishly. So he wasn't able to do much more than lurch to his knees and gurgle an inarticulate protest before people started pouring through the ruptured doorway.

    He was a bit surprised to see two women coming through first. Then, recognizing their distinctive phenotypes and facial structure, understood the reason. Scrags. Faster, probably, than the two Mesan security guards fumbling at their weapons. Since they'd been the farthest from the door, they'd managed to remain on their feet.

    Fat lot of good it did them. The first woman through the door had a pulser in her hand and fired two quick and expert bursts. The two guards went down, dead before they landed.

    The second woman strode over to Flairty, who was still lying prone on the floor, her gun pointed at the back of the Masadan's head.

    And good riddance, thought Ringstorff. At least he wouldn't die without seeing the bastard zealot sent to his grave first.

    But, to his surprise, the woman didn't fire. At the last moment, she swiveled the gun aside and just kicked Flairty in the back of the head. It was a powerful kick but not the lethal one the woman could have so obviously delivered. Just enough to daze Flairty completely.

    Four men had now entered the room, moving a bit more slowly than the women. One of them remained standing near the door, a pulser in his fist but pointing at no one in particular. One of them came toward Ringstorff, another headed toward Diem, the third toward Lithgow. Lithgow, like Ringstorff himself, was now up on his knees. Diem was still flat on the floor, apparently unconscious.

    The approaching men were carrying hand pulsers but, like the one by the door, didn't seem to be planning to use them. Not immediately, at least. Ringstorff decided he and Lithgow still had a chance—a piss-poor one, true—and tried to gather himself for a sudden lunge.

    Then the man coming toward Ringstorff stuck out his tongue—stuck it way out—and Ringstorff froze. The genetic markers were easily visible and... unmistakable.

    "Shall we dance?" the man jeered. "I don't recommend it though, Ringstorff. I really doubt you're up to being my partner."

    Audubon Ballroom. More fanatics. I'm dead meat.

    "My name's Saburo X, by the by. Give me any shit and I'll blow off your arms and legs, cut off your nose and feed it to you. Be a good boy, and you'll live. Maybe a long time, who knows?"

    Mutely, Ringstorff gave him a nod. Then, without being asked, clasped his hands behind his head. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Lithgow do the same. Nobody in their right mind—certainly not anyone on Mesa's payroll—was going to doubt a Ballroom fanatic's threats of mayhem.

    Apparently satisfied, Saburo X glanced at the woman who'd kicked Flairty.

    "It was well done," he said. The words sounded a bit grudging.

    "Of course it was," she replied. But there was no heat in the response. True, she was frowning. But it seemed more like a frown of concentration than displeasure.

    "Do that again," she said abruptly.

    "Do what?"

    She stuck out her tongue. Saburo goggled at the sight. Then, his jaws tightened.

    "Please," said the woman, as if the word didn't come easily to her.

    Saburo suppressed whatever angry words he'd been about to speak; hesitated; shrugged; and stuck out his tongue again.

    The woman examined it for an instant.

    "I can live with that," she pronounced. "In fact, it looks kind of intriguing. I'm Lara. Have you got a woman?"

    The Ballroom member was back to goggling. "Not recently," he choked. "Why?"

    "You do now," Lara stated, as casually as if she were announcing the time of day. "I don't like being without a man, and the one I had isn't going to live out the day. The stinking pig."

    She reached down with her left hand, seized Flairty by the scruff of his blouse, and yanked him easily to his feet. Flairty wobbled, his eyes still dazed, held up only by Lara's grip.

    "You can take a while to get used to the idea," she announced. "But don't take too long. I'm horny."

    She began muscling Flairty toward the door, carrying him more than guiding him. On the way, she gave Ringstorff a cold glance.

    "Give my new man any trouble and you'll be lucky if you die before he's done. I'll—"

    By the time she had Flairty through the door, Ringstorff felt sick to his stomach. The ex-Scrag female's vivid description of the mayhem she'd inflict on him made Saburo seem like a saint.

    "She's crazy," Saburo choked.

    "I dunno," said the Ballroom terrorist who was now manhandling Lithgow to his feet. "I thought the last bit had a certain charm."

    "Not that, Johann," replied Saburo, shaking his head. "The other part."

    Johann grinned. "I dunno," he repeated. "I'm not sure I'd argue the point with a woman like that, myself. Besides, you were complaining the other day that your life was too boring."

    "Especially his sex life," chimed in the Ballroom member by the door. "Bored me to death about it, he did, just yesterday." He, too, was grinning. And by the time he finished, was looking at the other ex-Scrag female still in the room.

    "And what's your name?" he asked.

    She grinned back. "Inge. But don't push it. I want to get a report from Lara first."



    Less than five minutes later, the four Mesans had been bundled into an expensive private aircar waiting by a service entrance behind the Suds. By then, Ringstorff had gotten over his astonishment at the ease with which the abduction had been managed—there had been no one along their way through the huge edifice, not even so much as a janitor—and was now grimly certain that his life hung by a thread. This was obviously not just an Audubon Ballroom operation. Somebody high up in the Erewhon hierarchy must have run interference for them.

    As he was half-thrown into the back seat of the luxurious vehicle, piling on top of Diem, he caught a glimpse of the monogram on the controls.

    Imbesi. Oh, what a nightmare.



    By the time Imbesi's private shuttle launched, carrying Flairty and the three Mesans up to The Wages of Sin, the major families who ruled Erewhon had their representatives already inspecting the damage.

    "We can live with this," pronounced Tomas Hall, as his eyes ranged through the Mesan suite in the Suds.

    "Barely," hissed Alessandra Havlicek.

    The third member of the planet's triumvirate shrugged. "It's really not a problem, Alessandra. Four dead, all flunkies—two of them Masadans, from the look of the bodies. Big deal. The wrecked door's got the management of the Suds more upset than anything."

    Havlicek was not mollified. "I don't like Walter Imbesi's high-handed ways. He's really pushing it, in my opinion."

    Hall shrugged again. In private, the gesture was less restrained than it would have been in front of a public audience. But there was no one in the room beyond themselves, three bodyguards—and, of course, the representatives of the press.

    Hall turned toward one of the reporters. His third cousin, as it happened. Like everything else on Erewhon, "freedom of the press" was refracted through a family prism.

    "Keep it quiet for now, would you?" For all the politeness of the question, it was really a command.

    The third cousin understood how it worked. Perfectly, in fact, or he wouldn't have enjoyed his position.

    "No sweat. An unfortunate accident. We'll have to run a little vague on that, or the Suds management will get upset at the suggestion of incompetence."

    "Blame it on the Mesans themselves," suggested a second reporter. An adopted member of the Havlicek clan, she was. "Fiddling with dangerous psychedelic drugs, no chemists they, an open flame presumed to have been present—boom." She chuckled harshly. "That'll do it. Nowadays, anybody will believe anything about Mesans."

    Her harsh chuckle was echoed through the room.

    "Done," said Fuentes. He cocked an eye at Alessandra.

    Grudgingly, she nodded. "As you said, we can live with it. For now. But Imbesi better damn well have a good reason—and explain it to us fully, too, none of his usual caviling."

    "What is he up to, anyway?" asked Hall. The question was addressed at Fuentes, who'd been the one to receive Walter Imbesi's hurried call.

    "Don't really know. But I don't share Alessandra's skepticism. Not fully, at least. Yes, Walter can be a pain the neck with his daredevil ways. He's also as shrewd as they come. So I'm for letting him have the reins for a bit. Let's see what happens."

    Since all three were in agreement, Fuentes brought out his communicator. This was no delicate hidden device, but a full-powered one easily able to reach the space station.

    "All right, Walter," he spoke into it. "We'll cover you from this end. But that's it. Your on your own for the rest—and you're the cut-out. If whatever you're doing goes sour, you take the fall."

    The response came immediately. "Of course. Thanks, Jack. I'll be in touch."

    "Sooner than you think," was Fuentes' curt reply. "We're on our way up there ourselves, Walter. Leaving now."



    Everyone was in place, finally, everything set. Gideon Templeton took a moment for quick prayer. Then spoke the battle cry of the Church of Humanity Unchained, Defiant.

    "The Lord's will be done."

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