Previous Page Next Page

UTC:       Local:

Home Page Index Page

Crown of Slaves: Chapter Twenty Five

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



    "They're taking Tube Epsilon," came Victor's voice. "Abraham's in the lead. The Princess is at the rear, with just one man holding her."

    "Thanks, Victor." Crouched in a ventilation duct connecting Epsilon and Gamma tubes, Thandi considered the situation for a moment. Most of her thoughts involved the ventilation ducts themselves, which she and her women had been exploring a bit while they waited for the action to reach them.

    As Thandi had hoped, the tubes were more than big enough to crawl through, even for someone her size. And... they were a maze. None of the ducts were charted in the hologuide she'd purchased. Like most such, that hologuide was for tourists, who would have simply been confused by the added layer of unnecessary complexity. Even the public portions of the space station were complicated enough.

    She turned to one of her women. "Raisha, go down Tube Epsilon maybe twenty meters or so—just around the bend out of sight of this ventilation duct. Remove the cover from the first duct you see, and leave it lying beside the open vent."

    Thandi turned and opened the tool box next to her. That tool box had been left behind by a mechanic, who must have fled like a rabbit the moment he'd heard the sounds of gunshots and screams echoing down the tube from the main gaming hall. The man had been apparently been about to start working on one of the ventilation ducts, but the only thing he'd done was remove the cover. Thandi had hauled the tool box into the duct and out of sight, more out of reflex than anything else. Now...

    She pulled out one of the tools designed to easily detach the duct covers and handed it to Raisha. "Use this. Go. Quickly."

    Raisha took the tool, nodded, and sped off as fast as a crawl could take her. Thandi removed two more of the little tools and slid the tool box toward another woman, extending the tools in her hand at the same time.

    "Yana, you and Olga take the box and the tools. You carry the box to the duct Raisha will open and leave it next to the opening. Then, the two of you and Raisha open every other outlet all down the tube, working backward toward us. The ceiling vents as well as the side vents. Understand?"

    They nodded and were gone, Yana hauling the heavy tool box behind her with no real effort. Thandi reflected, not for the first time, that despite their often irritating attitudes there were real advantages to having former Scrags as her special action unit.

    The immediate necessities done, she gave thought to the best disposition of her troops. It didn't take her long to plan it all out, since there was really only one of them with the speed and strength to launch an unarmed frontal assault. She'd use the rest of them in a rear attack.

    Quickly, she outlined her plan. The women seemed doubtful. Judging from the scowls on their faces, at least—none of them actually tried to argue the point.

    "Don't be stupid," she hissed. "Even for me, it'll be hard. Just do as you're told."

    The last sentence was spoken in full kaja tone. An instant later, her women were crawling off toward the nearest junction in the maze of ventilator ducts. They'd use that to position themselves where they could drop into Tube Epsilon and attack the Templeton crew from the rear after they'd passed by. And they wouldn't be slowed by having to open the duct covers, nor—Thandi hoped—would Templeton and his men think it odd to see so many open ducts. The tool box in plain sight should be enough for that.

    Thandi hoped so, anyway. She consoled herself with the thought that even if Templeton's men got suspicious, the light hand pulsers they'd be carrying probably couldn't punch darts through the metal walls of the corridors. If worse came to worst, her women could simply retreat back into the ducts.

    That'd be hard on the Princess, of course. And even harder on Thandi herself.

    So be it. This is what she'd signed up for. She could have always stayed on Ndebele, and spent her life as a serf.

    That thought was angry enough to send her scrambling down the duct toward the opening into Tube Epsilon. By the time she got there, the duct cover had already been removed. This was a ceiling vent, and she could see the duct cover lying on the side of the Tube below her.

    As good a place as any. Thandi rested on her haunches, like a great predator in a tree.



    Berry Zilwicki had been blessed with steady nerves as far back as she could remember. She was glad to see they weren't failing her now.

    Why should they, really? Yes, she was in what most people would consider a very bad spot—kidnapped by religious fanatics apparently under the assumption they'd kidnapped the actual Princess. If they found out the truth, they'd kill her at once. And even if she was able to maintain the pretense, she doubted if her fate would be much better. The savagery of the Masadan zealots—especially toward women—was a byword in this part of the galaxy.

    But it wasn't the worst situation Berry had ever found herself in, after all. Not born and raised as she'd been, in the lawless underground warrens of Terra's capital city of Chicago. With no father she could remember until Anton Zilwicki entered her life, and a mother who was a prostitute and a drug addict and gone half the time anyway, even before she disappeared completely when Berry was only twelve years old.

    Steady, girl, she told herself. What doesn't kill you, makes you strong. Just keep an eye out for an opening.



    Seconds later, the opening appeared—and in the literal sense of the term.

    Templeton and his crew came around yet another bend in the confusing tube—confusing, mostly, because the station's internal gravity field made it seem as if they were circumnavigating a tiny planet made up of nothing but corridors. Always seeming to climb up a hill, even if the gravity remained constant, with a new vista spreading out before them as they reached a continually-receding crest.

    Around—or over—this bend in the tube, the vista actually was new. Nothing all that exciting, really, just the scene of what was apparently a maintenance project. Instead of being flush with the walls and ceiling, the ventilation duct covers had been removed and were lying on the floor. From her position at the rear of the little group, Berry could see a dull red tool box lying next to one of the openings.

    She fixed on the color as her goal. That one. The ventilation duct was waist-high, and quite large enough for someone of her size to scamper into.

    First, of course, she had to get loose. But she was only being held by one of her captors, and that one—typical Scrag carelessness, she thought derisively—was satisfied with merely holding her by the scruff of her fancy jacket.

    Idiot. By now, Berry had already surreptitiously loosened all the tabs of the jacket, just in case...



    "The last one just passed below us, kaja. He's got the girl by the neck."

    Thandi said nothing. In her mind, she reviewed her estimate of the distances, gauging the right time to make her drop.

    Six seconds. She began counting off.



    Now. Berry wriggled out of the jacket and dove headfirst into the duct. The moment she was inside, her spirits soared. This wasn't Terra, no, but she'd grown up in the underground. She felt the same way about tunnels and warrens that any small animal did. Safety from the predators.

    She scrambled down the duct like a mouse running from cats.



    "That fucking bitch!"

    "Get her, you idiot!"

    The moment Thandi heard the shouts, she understood what must have happened. She discarded her count-off.


    She was through the duct, holding the edge with her hands and swinging down gracefully in a half-somersault; then, a short drop to the floor of the tube, landing silently on her toes.

    Abraham Templeton and all of his men were facing away from her, staring at the open duct next to the tool box which the Princess must have used for her escape. Several of them were still shouting, with Abraham's furious voice over-riding the rest. Thandi could see the feet of a man disappearing into the vent as he set off in pursuit.

    Bless you, girl. You may have just saved my life.

    One-two-three strides, moving like a ghost. Abraham Templeton died without ever seeing it come. Thandi's fist crushed the back of his skull like an egg. Her ensuing kick drove his corpse into his followers, sending half of them sprawling.

    The nearest one left standing swiveled his gun hand toward her. A Scrag, he was, with the fast reflexes and the sneer to go with it. The sneer didn't fade even when her hand closed over his wrist. The Scrag, well-trained, simply began a standard disengagement maneuver.

    Thandi knew the counter, of course, but saw no reason to bother with it. She just slammed the Scrag against the wall of the duct, using his wrist to hurl him as if he were a toddler. Almost as an afterthought, she broke the wrist.

    He slumped, stunned, his gun falling to the floor. Thandi ignored the firearm. Speed and sheer force would be her best weapons in the here and now.

    One and a half long strides put her in the middle of them. They were still confused, several just getting back onto their feet. The stride ended in another kick, which caved in a rib cage. A elbow strike shattered a face and broke the man's neck in the bargain. An open palm strike did the same for another. A spinning side kick broke a thigh; the follow-on kick dislocated the shoulder.

    Now, a Scrag, quicker and stronger. For the first time, she had to block a blow. And did so with such violence that the man's forearm was broken. An instant later, Thandi's fist shattered his sternum, driving bone into his heart. The Scrag fell back, dying, a look of sheer astonishment on his face. The expression of a man who'd thought to face a woman in battle, only to find a troll in disguise.

    She danced back, poised, ready—

    No need. Her women were there, now, and Thandi had only left two of Templeton's men intact. The fact that they were both Scrags didn't help them in the least. Made it worse, in fact, since the women had a score to settle. Which they did, bare-handed, so savagely that Thandi was almost appalled.

    Almost, not quite.

    That still left the man who'd gone into the duct after the Princess. As well as three of the men whom Thandi had taken down, but not killed.

    She hesitated, but only for a second or two. Captain Rozsak had specified Templeton and his lieutenants, but he'd made it clear he'd be even happier if Thandi removed all of them from the equation. The man was paying the freight, after all—and, besides, Thandi wasn't really sure who among Templeton's men might have been taken into his confidence.

    So, again, death danced through the corridor, stamping out lives under pitiless and iron-hard heel strikes. It took but a few seconds.

    Then, Thandi studied the duct into which the Princess and her pursuer had plunged. She'd lose almost all her advantages in there, of course, but...

    No help for it. That was part of the deal she'd made with Victor Cachat. They needed the Manticoran princess—alive—in order to keep the trap unfolding. Thandi's job was done, almost. But she knew that Victor was trolling for much bigger fish.

    Her lips quirked for a moment. A deal's a deal. When in Erewhon, do as the Erewhonese do. And I really don't think I want to piss off Victor Cachat anyway.

    Her women, seeing the little smile, grinned back. The expressions made them seem more like she-wolves than ever.

    "You lead, great kaja. We'll follow."

    For once, there was not even an undertone of mockery in the words. Studying their faces, Thandi understood that she'd sealed their loyalty completely. The exercise hall was one thing, and even broken bones knit soon enough. Whereas this—

    Great Kaja, indeed. Death on two feet. The fact that they'd seen those same two feet, now and then, wearing elegant sandals and looking very feminine, only added to their satisfaction.

    "Make us their chattel, would they?" snarled one of the women. She glared down at the corpse of one of the Scrags; then, just for good measure, stamped its face into a pulpier mess.

    Since Thandi couldn't think of a fancier battle plan than—after them! follow me!—she said nothing. Just stooped, retrieved a hand pulser from the floor, and wriggled her way into the ventilation duct.



    It wasn't until she'd gotten maybe twenty yards in, that the obvious problem occurred to her. She keyed to Cachat's channel, feeling obscurely unhappy that the man was proving to have feet of clay, after all.

    "This isn't going to work, Victor. Templeton—both of them, Abraham as well as Gideon—was certainly staying in contact with his men on the Felicia III. It's not as if we're the only ones in the galaxy who have personal communicators."

    "Don't worry about it," he replied immediately. "How are things at your end?"

    "Oh. Uh, forgot to tell you. Everything's fine. We just took out Abraham and his men. All except one, who went into the ventilation ducts after the Princess escaped."

    She could hear him chuckle. "Why am I not surprised? And on two counts, I might add. The first count being that you're just as murderous as you claimed to be. But it's like you said: I won't tell you how to do mayhem, you don't tell me how to do scheming. I'm counting on Templeton's men in the Felicia knowing that things have all gone wrong, Thandi. But the key is that they won't know exactly why or how or what. Am I safe in presuming that you didn't give Abraham time to make coherent reports?"

    Thandi felt simultaneously embarrassed and pleased. Embarrassed by herself; pleased that the man of her increasingly frequent fantasies—one of them flashed through her mind that very moment, in fact—didn't have feet of clay, after all.

    And crawling through a duct in pursuit of a desperate criminal is no time to be having fantasies. You idiot.

    "All right," she gruffed, covering her embarrassment. "What's the second count?"

    "Anton Zilwicki up to his tricks. The other girl—the one Templeton left behind in the gaming hall—has gotten over the shock. Mild concussion, maybe, nothing worse. But she's coherent now, I can assure you. And it turns out that she's the Manticoran princess. The one you're chasing after is Berry Zilwicki."

    Again, she could hear Victor chuckle. "And let me tell you—I speak from experience—Zilwicki girls can play merry hell in a tunnel. Good luck, Thandi."

    And so Lieutenant Palane crawled on, resolute, determined, hand pulser clenched in her fist. No one watching would have imagined that she did so while being distracted by a veritable cascade of florid fantasies.



    Except, possibly, for Victor Cachat—who was increasingly uneasy at the effect that mezzo-soprano voice was having on his nervous system. But he had the advantage, at the moment, of facing something quite a bit livelier than a dull, gray-painted ventilation duct.

    A Manticoran princess, no less, and one in full and fine fury.



    "Don't tell me you couldn't have stopped them! I'm not an idiot, whoever-you-are, and if you could drop all of those bastards around this table like you did—I was under it, you know, watching 'em fall like flies—and quit trying to tell me I'm concussed!—I just banged my head a little!—then you could have taken them all out! Before they killed my soldiers! Before they grabbed Berry!" The next words came in a wail: "The best friend I've ever had!"

    Victor decided that diplomacy was pointless. The young woman was practically hopping with rage.

    "Sure, I could have. But why should I?" he asked bluntly. Then, nodding stiff-necked: "Introductions are in order again, perhaps. Since you seem to have forgotten—"


    The princess' little gasp of shock drained all the anger from her face. "Oh. You're Victor Cachat. I didn't recognize you. You seem... a lot different than you did at the Stein, uh, funeral."

    Clearly, though, the princess recovered from shock quickly. Anger seeped back into her expression.

    "To be more precise," she snapped, "you seemed a lot nicer man. Than you do know. You cold lousy fish."

    Fortunately for Victor, Ginny arrived at that moment. She'd disappeared for a bit, to try to repair as much of the damage as she could to her costume. The outfit, needless to say, had never been designed for use on a battlefield.

    "He's the same guy," she announced, smiling. "He just suffers from a bit of a split personality. There's Victor the Sweetie, who's as cute as a teddy bear. And then..."

    The smile vanished and Ginny was now inspecting Victor as if he were, indeed, a cold lousy fish.

    "Then there's this guy. Machiavelli's Nightmare. The Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse. Face like a stone and a heart that's harder still."

    She shrugged. Then, in one of her inimitable lightning changes of mood, smiled sweetly and gave his ribs a little tickle with a forefinger. "What would he do without me?"

    She transferred the sweet smile to the princess. "You might want to keep your voice down a little, though. Chew the cold lousy fish out quietly to your heart's content. But if word gets out that the girl in Templeton's hands isn't really you...."

    "Omigod!" Princess Ruth's hand flew to her mouth. "I'm a moron. The Captain'll wring my neck. If they find out... they'll kill Berry!"

    Victor shook his head. "Relax, will you? Your Highness, or whatever people like you get called. In polite society, which I'm not. I do have a plan, you know—and, so far, it seems to be working pretty damn well, for something slapped together at the last minute. Besides, your friend Berry's not a captive any longer." He tapped his earbug. "I just got the word. She escaped from Templeton and his gang and made it into the ventilation ducts. And there's only one of them left to chase after her, because... uh, well. Let's just say the others have been dealt with."

    “A plan?” Ruth glared at him, but she did lower her voice. “What kind of idiot plan justifies allowing the murder of my security people? Or letting those murdering bastards get their hands on Berry? You–”

    “A plan,” Victor broke into her half-hissed tirade with flat, hard-edged assurance, “which will get your friend Berry back alive. And which will take out–one and for all–a crew of Masadan terrorists your intelligence people haven’t been able to catch up with in over a decade. And,” he finished as her eyes widened in surprise, “one which will hit Manpower and the entire genetic slave trade where it really counts.”

    The eyes which had widened narrowed suddenly, with what was obviously mingled suspicion and hard, intense speculation overcoming anger. They didn’t displace that emotion, but even though Victor had hoped for a reaction along those lines, he was a bit taken aback by how quickly and powerfully it occurred. He didn’t even try to follow the thoughts flashing through her brain, but he could actually see the moment at which the sums suddenly came together for her.

    Ginny wasn't the only female around capable of instantaneous mood switches, it seemed. Princess Ruth's face went from anger to keen interest in a split second.

    "A plan?” she repeated in an entirely different tone. “Hmph.” She thought again for a moment, then nodded sharply. “So you’re working with Erewhon, are you? Well, of course. You’d have to be to be standing around hip-deep in bodies without being arrested. So that means...” She grimaced. “If you’re talking about hurting Manpower, then you’ve got to be thinking about Congo. I can see a couple of angles, I think. But if you want my opinion—"

    Which she proceeded to give, at some length, despite knowing virtually nothing about the situation. The worst of it, from Victor's point of view, was how uncannily close she often came and how genuinely expert her opinion often was. Anton Zilwicki's influence and training there, Victor was sure of it.

    Great. A Manticoran enemy princess with aspirations to being a spy—and some real talent for it, too. Just what I need. Like a hole in the head.

    On the other hand...

    Victor pondered the other hand for a bit, as Ruth kept talking. He would have labeled it "chatter" and "prattle" and "babble," except it wasn't. In fact, the girl was giving him some ideas.

    The clincher came when the security guards who'd rallied to the scene finally started letting in the press. The Manticoran princess, it seemed, could also be a fine actress when she wanted to be.

    "Oh!" she cried, half-sobbing into the holorecorders. "It was horrible! They took the Princess away!" She clutched Victor's arm. "Would have gotten me too, if this gentleman hadn't come along."

    Now it was pure chatter and prattle and babble. Which was exactly what the situation required. When the Erewhonese press, well-trained as always, finally let themselves be led away, Victor whispered into Ruth's ear.

    "All right, fine. You want in?"

    "Try and keep me out, you cold lousy fish."

Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image