Previous Page Next Page

UTC:       Local:

Home Page Index Page

Crown of Slaves: Chapter Twenty Four

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



    Victor had gambled that when the time came, the Scrag would do it casually, so as not to alert anyone with a sudden motion.

    "Casually," in these circumstances, meant slowly. Before the Scrag had even gotten the hidden pulser out of his bag, Victor had already taken two quick strides toward him and was within three meters. Fine range for his special palm gun.

    The Scrag's eyes widened. Thinking and moving as quickly as that genetically-enhanced breed could do, he realized he couldn't get out the gun in time and tried to hurl the entire handbag at Victor.

    But Victor, though no "superman," was highly conditioned by training and exercise. If he wasn't as fast or as coordinated as the Scrag, he was close enough.

    Thtt, thtt, thtt. Victor was taking no chances with a Scrag. If he died from an overdose, good riddance.

    The Scrag was down, Victor's hand already plunging into the handbag. He groped for the gun by feel alone, however. His eyes were elsewhere, ranging the gaming hall to find the Manticoran princess.



    Donald X was too thick and muscular to move that quickly. But speed was really not essential when dealing with a man bedazzled by Ginny's flirtation. The security guard never even noticed him coming until Donald's arm went round his chest, pinning his own arms. A couple of seconds later, Donald had the guard's pulser in his hand and sent the man flying with a powerful heave.

    Donald took two steps to get shelter behind the gaming table. Then, like Victor, looked to find the Princess. The center of the action would be on her. He paid no attention to Ginny. Usher's wife was no fool and her part in the affair was over for the moment. Donald caught a quick glimpse of bare legs squiggling under the gaming table, and grinned thinly.

    Part of the grin was because his three comrades had arrived. One of them positioned himself next to Donald, while the other two went to ground in flanking positions which would allow them the best possible field of fire. Their guns were out and ready to cover the area where Templeton's main crew would make the attack. Mostly, though, he was grinning because he knew that with Ginny safely out of the way, Victor Cachat would be able to devote his full concentration to murder and massacree.

    Donald X had seen Victor in action, once. Pity Templeton!



    Corporal Darrin Howell and Private Cristina Bulanchik, the two troopers of the Queen's Own assigned as Ruth and Berry's close escorts, were also alert. Their attentive eyes swept the crowded chamber endlessly, and the brains behind those eyes reacted with professional paranoia the moment the random drifting of the crowd in the gaming hall was interrupted by sudden purposeful movement. Highly trained instincts reacted with instantly enhanced attention, and their eyes narrowed as at least a dozen men separated themselves from the crowd by the simple act of moving in coordinated unison. The troopers understood they were under attack even before they spotted the guns in the hands of their assailants.

    Howell's left hand darted out, catching Ruth by the shoulder and spinning her away and to the floor with far more haste than care, even as his right hand flashed towards his pulser. Bulanchik reacted with matching quickness, sweeping Berry behind her and sending her tumbling towards the floor, as well, as the private went for her own holster. Both troopers managed to draw their weapons, but the time they'd taken to get their charges out of the line of fire had cost them precious fractions of second. Before either of them could fire, they were dead in a hurricane of pulser darts.



    "Werewolf!" Cristina Bulanchik's warning cracked like an old-fashioned pistol shot over the Queen's Own's com net. That single code word was the most terrifying thing any member of a Manticoran protective detail could hear, and Lieutenant Ahmed Griggs reacted to it instantly.

    He hadn't been facing the same direction as Howell and Bulanchik, and so he'd missed the initial swirls in the crowd which had alerted them. But Bulanchik's warning snapped his pulser into his hand with the serpent quickness of trained muscle memory. The safety came off in the same fluid movement, even as his brain dropped into the ice-cold, detached mode of a trained bodyguard who was also highly decorated combat veteran. His eyes swept the crowd before him, seeking threat sources, and the pulser came up smoothly, so smoothly, as the first assailant identified himself. Griggs couldn't have explained exactly how the man had done that. It was something about his stance, the way he moved against the crowd, the expression in his eyes or the tenseness in his shoulders. It was something that shouted the truth to the lieutenant's trained senses, and his pulser hissed in a precise, three-dart burst that blew the terrorist's chest apart.

    Ahmed Griggs was a crack shot with any hand weapon, and his entire being was focused on the crowd before him as people began to scream in terror. The quicker-witted were already flinging themselves towards the floor, and a tiny corner of his brain felt a flicker of gratitude as the innocent took themselves out of the line of his fire. Another corner realized that personally shooting attackers was the worst thing he could be doing. That his job was to command his entire detachment, to enforce order and coordination upon his people's response.

    But there was no time to worry about what he ought to be doing. All he could do was respond, and his succeeding quick bursts took down three more men—all dead—before he was struck by the first return fire. A pulser dart mangled his shooting arm at the elbow in the split second before several more pulser darts ripped into his legs. They lacked the full velocity of military-grade weapons, but even civilian-grade darts attained a velocity no chemical-powered firearm could ever have hoped to match. The darts were more than sufficient to reduce bone to splinters and powder and rupture flesh. Griggs went down hard, his entire body screaming with agony, and his pulser landed on the floor beside him.

    By then, the four other troopers in Griggs' unit had taken down an additional six men—and, again, all of them from fatal wounds. Ten assailants down—half again their own number, despite having suffered the loss of two troopers before they could fire even a single round.

    Three of them were down, as well. Sergeant Laura Hofschulte, Griggs' second in command, was the only one still in action. She'd gone to one knee behind the dealer's console—pausing only to grab Ruth and throw her forcefully under the gaming table as the Princess tried to climb back up onto her own hands and knees. Now her left hand stabbed the panic button on her belt com pack, alerting the detachment's supporting Erewhonese heavy-weapons squad, even as her right hand tracked onto a fresh target. She squeezed her trigger, taking down yet another attacker, but there were too many threat sources, too much background clutter to hide them from her, and she knew it.

    She spotted another weapon coming at her from the left flank and twisted, bring her pulser across her body, tracking into the threat. The man's eyes met hers at a range of less than four meters. Strange eyes, a flashing thought told her, and a memory trace shouted the word "Scrag!" at her. There was shock in those eyes, as well. Disbelief at how rapidly and lethally the outnumbered detail had responded to the threat, mingled with hatred and predator arrogance that turned ever so fleetingly into something else as the muzzle of her weapon found him.

    They squeezed their triggers in the same heartbeat of time.



    It was as splendid a response as anyone could have asked from the soldiers of the Queen's Own, fighting in the worst conceivable circumstances: a stand-up gunfight at point blank range in the middle of a huge mob, reacting to a surprise attack in greatly superior numbers from every direction. The names of detail's troopers would be duly recorded on the Wall of Honor in the Queen's Own's Permanent Mess in Mount Royal Palace, along with the Adrienne Crosses each of them received for his or her actions that day.

    All of them posthumous. In the end, they were simply overwhelmed.



    Through the haze of the shock, Griggs could hear screaming erupt throughout the huge gaming hall. Unlike his own people, who'd taken pains to avoid hitting innocent bystanders, the attackers had been careless. Not even the Queen's Own could have avoided hitting any bystanders in a fight like this one, of course. Anyone who thought they could have was dreaming... or completely ignorant of the realities of high-powered weapons. No, there would have been innocent civilian casualties, whatever happened and even leaving aside the security guards, with their much lower standard of training, elsewhere in the hall. But the Masadan terrorists' complete indifference to those casualties made them far, far worse. Blood and bodies were everywhere, in a whirlwind of carnage, and the sheer number of attackers told Griggs this was a major operation. He was sure that whoever had planned this attack would see to it that every possible danger to them was cleared aside.

    His brain worked no further than that, other than to register his own mortality. If nothing else, he'd bleed to death from the wounds he'd already received long before any medical assistance could reach him.

    He did manage to turn his head enough to see that both of the girls were under the gaming table. Zilwicki's daughter seemed unusually composed, given the circumstances. The real Princess, in her much less fine apparel, seemed a bit stunned. But that could have been simply from the bruise on her forehead. Ahmed suspected that Darrin or Cristina must have thrown her down roughly. He noted that much, then felt a stab of fresh agony that had nothing at all to do with his own wounds as he saw Laura Hofschulte go down in a spray of blood and tissue.

    Then, he faded out.



    The Manticoran soldiers were all dead now. Templeton was shocked at the effectiveness of the resistance they'd put up. In the space of seconds, before being finally brought down, the Queen's Own had managed to kill more than a quarter of his entire strike force—and over forty percent of the ones directly participating in the assault on the Princess. He'd known he was facing elite troops, but he hadn't expected such an instantly murderous response. Not with the advantages he'd had of a surprise attack on favorable ground, led by men as lethal themselves as his new converts.

    For a moment, Gideon was so shaken that he was unable to move. But then, after a quick inspection of the corpses littering the area, he settled down. Once again, he could see the Hand of God at work. Most of his casualties—eight out of twelve—had been new converts. Stash, the most obstreperous of the lot, was among them. The Lord provideth—and, when the time comes, the Lord taketh away.

    Through his earbug Templeton was now getting reports from the teams throughout the gaming hall. They were also reporting success in taking down the security guards. Much easier success, needless to say, than Templeton had had coming up against elite soldiers.

    All except one of his team, who failed to report at all. That was the man who'd been covering the guard dallying with a whore. A new convert, that one. Slack, as always. Gideon had no doubt he'd succeeded in his mission, but had simply failed to report.

    Templeton and the other surviving men of his main detachment had reached the large gaming table now, their eyes searching for the Princess. There were sixteen of the Masadans left, more than enough to search the immediate area. The bodies of the dealer and two customers, killed by stray shots from Templeton's fusillade, were draped over the table. Two more customers lay dead on the ground nearby. Once the corpses had been tossed aside, it took Templeton no more than two seconds to figure out what had happened. His sister and the Zilwicki bitch must be hiding under the table. It was more than large enough to conceal two girls—and Templeton now saw that the area beneath was shielded from view by a fringe of fabric. Fancy and cheerfully decorated fabric, once, designed to please and stimulate customers. Now, half of it was soaked in gore. Blood was beginning to drip from the tassels onto the floor.

    "Surround the table!" he shouted. "Get her when she comes out." Templeton was holding the chemotracker in his left hand, his gun in the right. He stooped across the body of a fallen Manticoran bodyguard and lifted the fringe with the chemotracker, taking care to point the pulser away. In his fury and excitement, he still had enough self-control not to risk killing the slut with an accidental shot.



    "Okay," said Victor softly into his throat mike, "it's definitely a kidnapping, not an assassination. So hold your fire for a moment. If they'd just wanted to kill her, they'd already be aiming under the table. Get ready. Remember—Templeton stays alive. The one next to him also, the man wearing the blue embroidered jacket. He's the lieutenant. Abraham's his name, some sort of relative. Leave one other alive, so they can get the girl out easily."

    "Which one?" murmured Donald's voice in his ear.

    There was no time for anything fancy. Victor picked the one with the gaudiest clothing. "The Scrag wearing that iridescent yellow outfit. Those three stay alive. Kill the rest."



    As soon as he stooped low enough, Templeton spotted the two figures huddled in the shadowy gloom under the table.

    "Come out, sister mine," he hissed at the girl in the royal finery. He went down on one knee to get a better angle and aimed the pulser at his sister's companion. "Come out at once. Or I'll kill the Zilwicki bitch."

    That much he would give his sister credit for. She didn't hesitate for more than a split-second before beginning to crawl toward him. Craven and cowardly, at least, the whore was not. That would be the male parentage at work. Gideon's father had been famous for his courage, and he'd sired Ruth as well.

    The Zilwicki girl seemed dazed. Templeton decided that was good enough for his purposes. He'd leave her be, as he'd sworn on the Lord's oath. The Zilwicki girl made a feeble attempt to restrain the Princess, but her groping hand fell short as Templeton's sister crawled resolutely toward him.

    Everything was going well, finally. From the sounds of the screaming all over the gaming hall, Templeton was certain the entire room was a madhouse, with everyone now simply trying to escape. He and his men would just join the mob, unnoticed in the chaos and confusion.

    When his sister reached him, Templeton shoved the pulser into the back of his pants and grabbed her by the hair. Then, jerked her out from under the table and hauled her to her feet.

    He still had the chemotracker in his left hand, and he glanced at it. It was a casual glance, really. Nothing more than a last-minute check.

    The readings were... meaningless.

    He froze; then, struck by a guess, moved the tracker's sensors toward the girl still under the table.

    Fury seized him, and he shook the girl's head by the hair in his hand.

    "You bitches! I'll—"



    Ahmed Griggs faded back in. He was staring at a man's boots, not a meter away. A girl's expensive slippers fell off her feet, as if they'd been shaken loose.

    What was happening?

    Confused, the lieutenant's eyes shifted and spotted his pulser, lying on the floor within reach of his left hand. The sight of the familiar weapon blew the confusion out of his brain like a strong wind. The reflexes of a combat veteran took over.

    Ignoring the agony streaking through the rest of his body, Griggs had the pulser in his hand and ranging upward, seeking his target. He couldn't shoot as well left-handed as right, but at this range it hardly mattered.

    As soon as the body mass loomed over the sights, Ahmed began firing. The pulser darts shredded Gideon Templeton's groin and abdomen, and the Masadan leader's body exploded like a volcano of blood, shredded tissue, and splintered bone.

    The religious fanatic never had time to finish explaining his final purpose, before his God gathered him to whatever place might be his destiny.



    Watching Templeton almost cut in half, Victor restrained a curse. There was no help for it, after all, and he was not a man to swear at another brave man for doing his duty even from the brink of the grave. And not when the Manticoran lieutenant was now being shredded by a tornado of darts from Templeton's enraged comrades.

    That rage would work to his advantage, Victor realized. He waited until the Princess, flung aside by Templeton's last convulsive movement, hit the floor and was out of the line of fire. Zilwicki's daughter would be safe enough, he thought, still sheltered under the table. And the sudden killing of their leader had both confused and distracted his followers.

    He spoke quickly, but calmly. "Keep your shots waist high, no lower. Remember, Abraham and the yellow-jacket stay alive. Kill the others. Now."

    Donald and his three Ballroom comrades began firing with the single, deadly precise shots of expert gunmen, and the fifteen Masadans still on their feet around the gaming table began falling like scythed grain. With, somehow, as if by a miracle, Abraham and one other remaining unharmed. As Victor had anticipated, the sudden attack from the side had caught the Masadans completely by surprise. Standing up, without the cover of the mob to conceal them and confuse the marksmen, they were like so many targets in a shooting gallery.

    Victor made no attempt to add his own fire to the carnage. He was a good marksman, but not an expert one—and never would be. And while the range was easy for pistoleros like the Ballroom gunmen, it was long enough that Victor didn't think he'd add much to their efforts. He was more concerned that his stray shots might kill or injure one of the bystanders still trying to flee the area. There weren't many left anywhere near the gaming table, of course—not standing, at least. But there were still half a dozen people desperately trying to crawl away, and perhaps the same number lying about wounded. It was essential for Victor's plan to have no innocent casualties laid at his own feet.

    Besides, speaking of the plan, it was time to start on the next stage of it. Victor began trotting through the gaming hall, weaving in and around the tables, heading toward the exit which Abraham Templeton would use to take away the Manticoran princess.

    On the way, he took the time to call Lieutenant Palane.

    "They'll be coming soon, Thandi. Gideon Templeton's dead, so his cousin Abraham will be leading them. Abraham, one other, and whoever else they pick up from the rest of the hall. I'll try to give you a count when I spot them myself."

    "Good enough," came her voice in his ear. "We'll just have to hope Abraham was privy to all of Gideon's plans. Any word from the planet?"

    "Yes. Walter called me not two minutes ago. They've got the Mesans and Flairty and are bringing them up. Everything went perfectly, it seems."

    "Good." There was a short pause. Then: "One thing, Victor. This is my part of the deal. I need Flairty dead. I don't care about the others. But Flairty goes down."

    Victor's mind raced, even while his eyes kept ranging the hall looking for more of Templeton's men. Within ten seconds, he'd spotted seven of them making their way toward the exit. Those would have been among the ones assigned by Templeton to take out the perimeter guards.

    He estimated there'd been nine of them. Victor and Donald had taken out one. That left one still missing. Where was he?

    But most of Victor's brain was occupied with analyzing Thandi's forceful request. By the time he spotted the last man, straggling far behind, he'd figured it all out.

    "Sweet boss you've got, Thandi. But I won't argue the point. Flairty goes down. I assume you'll do Abraham yourself. Eliminate anyone who'd know the truth."

    He spoke the words calmly, but there was enough of a foul taste in his mouth to condemn a man to death. As soon as Victor came within range of the Masadan straggler—who'd been so concerned with trying to find his way out that he hadn't noticed the man stalking him—Victor stopped, brought up his pulser in a two-handed grip, and cut the man down.

    He'd planned to let him live long enough to join the others in the trap, but...

    It was a really foul taste. And since Masadan fanatics were just as foul, Victor took out his anger by killing him immediately.

    Though it didn't really seem to help much.

    "All right, Thandi. I've got a full count now. I'm pretty sure it's accurate—close enough, anyway. You should be facing Abraham Templeton and eight others."

    "Cut 'em down by almost three-fourths, did you? Thanks. But you might want to consider those numbers, before you condemn others for being too ruthless."

    He took a low, slow breath. "The Manticoran soldiers accounted for a dozen of them. But there's a difference anyway, Thandi, and you know it. For me, there's a purpose. For your precious captain, just his own ambition."

    She said nothing in response. What could she say, really?

    Victor didn't know the full story yet—though he'd make sure to find out—but at least one mystery had been cleared up. Hieronymus Stein had not been murdered by Manpower, after all. He'd been murdered by Templeton and his religious goons working on the side. Not for their own purposes, but simply because they'd been hired to do so by Captain Luiz Rozsak—and now Rozsak had ordered Thandi to eliminate the witnesses.

    Why? Victor was quite sure it was part of a scheme by Rozsak to advance his career. Probably by displacing Cassetti as Governor Barregos' indispensable man, because Victor was fairly certain that the order had been given by Cassetti. The Governor himself probably knew nothing about it. By all accounts, Cassetti was utterly unscrupulous—and just the sort of man to come up with an elaborate scheme like this one. Kill Stein, throw the blame on Manpower—and then use that to drive forward Maya Sector's growing alienation from the Solarian League. Get the Renaissance Association's political backing as a result of Stein's murder, and...

    Yes, it all made sense to him. Cassetti would have been the one. Cassetti, dreaming of the days when he could be the right hand man—and possibly the successor—to the leader of an independent star nation richer and more powerful than any in the galaxy except the Solarian League itself. With the Solarians half-paralyzed by the fact that it had been Manpower's overweening arrogance and brutality which seemed to have been the final straw to lead to the revolt

    A clever scheme—and, like almost all such, too clever. Cassetti had overlooked the possibility that the man he'd chosen to do the "wet work" might turn it against him, when the time came.

    Victor slowed down a bit. He was nearing the exit, and didn't want to be spotted by Abraham Templeton and his men as they left the gaming hall. Hiding was going to be more difficult now, because most of the panicked mob had managed to flee from the hall. He spotted a particularly elaborate gaming table with a central tower of some kind, and trotted over to stand behind it. The tower's flamboyant, coruscating lights would hide him from sight.

    There, as he waited, he completed his calculations. It all came easily enough, since he'd already understood that Rozsak's ambitions would probably lead him to have a favorable response to Victor's overture. All that was really new was that Victor now understood that Rozsak had been responsible for the Stein assassination. Which...

    Yes, yes, shocking. But Victor had overcome his initial surge of anger, and was thinking cold-bloodedly again. The truth was that Rozsak's actions would make him all the more willing to go along with Victor's scheme. Nor would Cassetti interfere. For both of them, Victor's plans for Congo would work splendidly. Giving them—whichever won out in their own internecine conflict—an even greater moral luster to drape over their personal ambitions.

    So be it. Victor could live with foul tastes. He'd lived with Oscar Saint-Just for years, hadn't he? What the revolution required of him, Victor would give.

    Flairty would go down, then. Victor swallowed the taste and ignored it thereafter.

    He found himself now wondering what it all tasted like for Thandi Palane. Just as foul, he suspected. He hoped so. The woman was coming to occupy more and more of his thoughts, whether he wanted it or not.



    On the planet below, other people were dealing with the taste of things.

    "What the hell is going on?" Cassetti's voice was practically screaming in Captain Rozsak's earbug.

    Luiz glanced at Lieutenant Commander Watanapongse, who gave him a little thumbs up. The recording was being made.

    The Solarian Navy captain eased back in the armchair in his suite. "I don't know, exactly. From the garbled reports I've been getting, Sir, it sounds like the Masadans have run amok. I warned you, if you recall, that it was dangerous using them."

    "They were all supposed to be taken out afterward!"

    "And I also told you that 'taking out' over forty armed and dangerous men was no picnic, unless you wanted me to bring down the fleet and level half of Erewhon's capital. Assuming I could have fought my way through the Erewhonese Navy—which I couldn't possibly have done, anyway. All I've got is what amounts to a commodore's flotilla. They've got ships of the wall in orbit here, Ingemar. They'd have swatted me like a fly."

    Cassetti was silent. What could he say, after all? The entire scheme depended, among other things, on maintaining public approval for the high moral stature of Governor Barregos. Starting a war with a neighboring star nation would undo all the gains of the Stein killing—and then some.

    When Cassetti's voice came back, it was in its normal cold and calculating tone. "All right. Point taken. Spilt milk and all that. But what do you suggest we do now?"

    "I may have it taken care of already, Sir. The one good thing about Templeton's rampage is that it got him off the planet. It'll be a lot easier to take him out where he is, without too much in the way of collateral damage. And whatever such damage there is, Templeton's own actions will be blamed for it anyway."

    "True enough. I hope you've got somebody good handling the thing."

    "The best, Sir, when it comes to that kind of operation. The very best."

    Cassetti cut off the transmission without so much as a final word of salutation.

    "Rude bastard," muttered Rozsak. He studied the very fancy looking recording machine on the center table. The thing made him a bit nervous, as any such state-of-the-art electronic equipment tended to do. Rozsak had been burned too many times by the promises of research tech weenies, whose "miraculous" new designs so often failed the test in actual combat.

    But he'd had no choice. Not surprisingly, Cassetti had insisted on using the very best communication devices for this very black operation—and such devices were extremely difficult to unscramble for a recording.

    Watanapongse didn't share the captain's skepticism. "Damn, I love this gadget," the intelligence officer practically crooned. "Worth all that we paid for it. Listen to this."

    He pressed a control and the conversation came back, the words as clear as anyone could ask for.

    Captain Rozsak grunted. "Add it to the others, then."

    Watanapongse grinned. "Governor Barregos will have a fit when he finally finds out what his precious 'right-hand man' has been doing in his name. Word of it ever gets out, Barregos is ruined. And—if you'll pardon the flattery, Sir—I think you've done a brilliant job of making it clear to anyone who listens that you tried to talk Cassetti out of it."

    Rozsak smiled. "I didn't try too hard, of course. But, yes, I did. And I also made it clear enough in those recordings that I was assuming all along that the Governor had given Cassetti the go ahead."

    He clasped his hand over his midriff and gazed complacently at the device. Yes, it was too fancy. But, on the other hand, sometimes "too fancy" worked.

    "And I will be shocked, naturally—shocked, I tell you—when I finally discover that Cassetti was operating all on his own. I'll have no recourse but to make a full report to the governor—call it a confession, if you will, since everyone trusts a man who confesses—of the entire sad affair. Also pointing out, needless to say, the best way to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear."

    Edie Habib was sitting on another chair around the table. For the first time since Cassetti's call came in, she spoke. "First thing you do, you kill the sow."

Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image