Previous Page Next Page

UTC:       Local:

Home Page Index Page

Crown of Slaves: Chapter Twenty Seven

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



    Thandi had intended to just shoot the Scrag in the leg. But when she emerged from the duct and saw what he intended to do, that cold-blooded plan went flying. She left the pulser in the duct and slid easily and almost silently to the floor of the ventilation room.

    She'd been raped herself, as a girl, in fact if not in name. In that moment, the Scrag in front of her was the embodiment of a childhood's serfdom.



    As soon as Berry caught a glimpse of the shape looming in the duct behind the Scrag, her quick mind came up with the taunts she'd used to distract him. She'd intended to continue, but...

    The tall figure now coming up behind the Scrag, having flowed into the room like liquid menace, was enough to silence anyone. Berry was vaguely astonished to realize that the thing was female, it looked so much like a demon. Taller than the Scrag, as wide in the shoulders—the creature just shrieked silent power.

    Like an ogress, except for the human clothing. And except—

    The ogress seized the Scrag's wrist, hissed something—Berry didn't catch the words—and slammed him into the metal housing of the air fans. Hard enough to put a dent in the thin covering deep enough to interfere with the fan blades. What followed was accompanied by the screeching of tortured metal as well as the screeching of the Scrag himself.

    Except I think she'd actually be kind of gorgeous, if her face wasn't so distorted with fury.

    The ogress now broke the Scrag's elbow; then, the other. About as easily as a person twisting off chicken wings. The Scrag was howling with agony. The howl was cut off by a forearm strike which broke his collarbone and sent him smashing into another wall.

    Is there such a thing as a beautiful ogress?

    The ogress stepped forward, her fist cocked and ready for a strike which would surely be fatal. Would crush the man's skull, wherever it landed. The ogress was obviously skilled in hand-fighting, but the skill was almost superfluous. Does an ogress need to be a martial artist? The fist itself, for all that Berry could see it belonged to a woman, looked as big and deadly as the head of a mace.

    But, she stopped the strike. Barely, thought Berry, just barely. Then, a second later, the ogress shook herself like a dog shaking off water. Clearing away the rage, satisfied now with just letting the Scrag slump unconscious to the floor.

    When she turned away and looked down at Berry, her face went through a transformation. The glittering pale eyes softened, the hard face even more. Rage faded from the cheeks, leaving them their natural color—very pale flesh slightly tinged with pink, almost a pure albino. It was a somewhat exotic skin color, coupled with those facial features.

    Within seconds, the ogress was gone. Gone completely. Just a big woman remained. Very big, and easily the most powerful-looking woman Berry had ever seen in her life. And—in that moment, at least—easily the most beautiful.

    "Damn," she said. "Princess Charming, to the rescue. If I weren't heterosexual, I'd be demanding a kiss." She started giggling, a little out-of-control. Then, staring down at her ruined clothing, giggled even louder. "The hell with a kiss. If you were a guy, I'd be tearing what's left of this off myself. See if I wouldn't."

    The woman smiled—gorgeous smile—and reached down to take Berry's hand.

    "Sorry, but we're both out of luck. I've got my kinks, but they're fixated on men."

    She lifted Berry easily to her feet. "One man in particular," she muttered.

    "Which one?" asked Berry. "I'll put in a word for you."

    The woman's lips quirked in a wry little smile. She started to make some sort of riposte, but stopped. Then, to Berry's further surprise, her face softened still more. Berry suddenly realized that the woman was not really that much older than she was. In her late twenties, perhaps, no older than her early thirties—and in that moment, she looked even younger.

    "Would you?" she asked softly. "My name's Thandi Palane. I'm a lieutenant in the Solarian Marines and... " Now she looked downright shy. "I've got a really bad crush—really bad—on a spy. Not even a Solarian one. And I've got no idea what to do about it."

    "Let's see what we can manage."

    Berry was feeling better and better. She'd often been approached for help whenever someone had a difficult personal situation to deal with. Despite her youth, people just naturally seemed to trust her—and her judgment—and she enjoyed helping them out. "Whose spy is he?"

    "Republic of Haven."

    "Oh." Berry would have shied away, then, but the challenge appealed to her. "We'll probably have to keep it quiet from my father, mind. Whatever help I can give you. He finds out... Anton Zilwicki generally detests Peeps almost as much as he does slavers—oh."

    She'd suddenly remembered that she was supposed to be "Princess Ruth." Her father was Michael Winton.

    Lieutenant Palane's grin was just as dazzling as her smile. "Your secret's out, Berry. In selected circles, at least."

    Instead of being relieved, Berry was suddenly swept with anxiety. "Oh, hell—I forgot. How's Ruth? Did she—"

    "She's fine. A bit bruised, apparently, but nothing worse."

    A voice came from the entrance of the duct. "How much longer this chit-chat, kaja? It's cramped in here."

    Berry turned... and froze. The features of the person in the duct opening were those of another woman, true. But Berry could also recognize the rather distinctive features in that face. She'd seen them before, skulking in Chicago's warrens.


    Anton had told her, once, that the Ukrainian biologists who'd shaped the original genotype for the so-called "Final War" had possessed their own version of racialist fanaticism. A type of pan-Slavism which was really no different, except for the specific template, from the Nordic obsessions of the Hitler gang of an earlier century. So they'd selected, among other things, for facial features which matched their image of the "ideal Slavic type." And then, like the fanatics they were, had locked that appearance into the genetic code. The end result was a breed of people who, centuries later, could usually still be recognized by someone who knew what to look for.

    "Relax," said Palane. "She's not a Scrag, any more. She's—ah—an Amazon."

    The Scrag—former Scrag, whatever—flowed into the room with almost as much ease and grace as Palane had done earlier. The Amazon planted hands on hips, beamed down at the bloody and battered Scrag, beamed at Berry.

    "All is well, yes? So now, kaja, can we please go? We're all sick of these miserable ducts."



    On their way out, crawling through the ducts and dragging the Scrag behind them, Berry—interested, as always, in anything—asked one of the Amazons what the word "kaja" meant.

    Yana, that was. Berry had learned all of their names within a short time, without giving it any thought. She had a knack for getting people on her good side, and you simply couldn't do that if they remained nameless. The ultimate rudeness was the expression: Hey, you.

    After Yana explained, Berry chewed on it for a while. Then, said to her:

    "You're going to have to come up with a different way of handling things. With other people, I mean. Appearances to the contrary—often enough, I admit—human beings really aren't wolves."

    "Hard to tell the difference," muttered Yana. "Why didn't the idiots design these duct vents to open from the inside, anyway? But, yes, I know you're right. We all do. But... so far, our kaja is the only other human being we trust. It's been hard enough for us to even accept other people as really human in the first place. So what else can we do?"

    A moment later, apparently, Lieutenant Palane had had enough. Berry heard her snarling voice from up ahead in the ducts. "Damn these idiots! Give me some leg room. They can pay for fixing it themselves, since they were too stupid to build it right in the first place."

    WHAM! There followed the tinny sound of a vent cover—much the worse for the experience, no doubt—clattering on the floor of a main corridor. Berry winced a little. Her mind had no trouble imagining a powerful ogress' foot hammering right through thin metal, shearing away bolts like so many pins.

    "Kaja!" grunted Yana, with deep approval.

    "There's more than one kind of strength," Berry said quietly.

    Yana grunted again. "Prove it."




    "I have no idea where we are, Victor. Could even be Tube Epsilon, for all I know."

    "All right, then. Just stay put, Thandi. We've got the security guards re-organized, and there are teams searching all of the tubes you could have reached. They'll find you within a few minutes. Unless you've got some medical emergency—?"

    "Nothing that can't wait. Scrapes on everybody, especially Berry—ah, the Princess. And the Scrag's in piss-poor shape, of course. But he won't bleed to death, and for the rest, who cares? Let the bastard suffer."

    "She's still 'the Princess' for public consumption, Thandi. Let her know that too, would you? If she wants approval from someone other than me—which would hardly be surprising, seeing as how Manticore and Haven are still technically at war—I can have her talk to Ruth Winton herself." He glanced at the young woman standing next to him. "She's right here, in fact."

    "Hold on a second." A bit of time went by. "No need. Berry—ah, the Princess—says your reputation precedes you. I'm not sure she meant that as a compliment, mind, but she's not going to argue the matter. 'The Princess,' she stays."

    "Good. We'll talk later. Right now..." He could see Walter Imbesi coming through the door of the suite in the space station which they'd turned into an impromptu command center. Not the Imbesi suite—Walter had felt that would be impolitic—but one of the luxurious suites reserved for special guests of The Wages of Sin. Luxurious enough, certainly, to make Victor uncomfortable.

    Walter gave him the thumbs up.

    "Okay, Thandi, I've got to go. I just heard that the Mesans and Flairty have arrived at the station."

    "This, I want to see. I hope I get there in time."

    Victor disconnected, feeling suddenly empty and sad. And I hope you don't get there in time, Thandi. It's... not going to be something I'd want you to remember me by.

    But the sadness faded quickly, leaving only the emptiness. And the cold, icy soul of a man who would carry through his purpose, whatever that took. Victor recognized the iciness, since it had come over him before, and more than once. As before, never sure whether to welcome it or fear it.

    "Bring them to the main gaming hall, since it's still cleared of people," he commanded. And it was a command, not a request. Time and place and proper lines of authority be damned. In the here and now, Victor Cachat was running the show.

    Imbesi didn't seem in the least inclined to argue.

    "You're calling the shots."

    Victor wasn't surprised, really. He found it hard to accept himself, but he knew just how intimidating he could be when he put on what he thought of as "the act."

    Or was it an "act"? he sometimes wondered. Never sure if he really wanted an answer.

    He rose. "Princess, I'd appreciate it if you and Professor Du Havel would remain here. As we discussed, you need to be ready to talk to Captain Oversteegen as soon as he arrives."

    Ruth nodded. Victor headed for the door, picking up the hand pulser lying on a side table. "Have them all tied in chairs, Walter, in a semi-circle. I want all of them to be able to see each other."

    "That's not normal interrogation technique." But before he'd even finished the sentence, Walter's eyes were sliding away. "Never mind," he added quietly. "As I said, you're calling the shots." He began murmuring the orders into his throat mike.

    On their way—the gaming hall was some distance—Walter added a note of caution. "The three ruling families are all here now, Victor, and they'll be present at the scene. Not just representatives, either. Jack Fuentes, Alessandra Havlicek, Tomas Hall—they took their own shuttle to get up here."

    Victor ignored the implied warning. "What's the news been, down on the planet?"

    "Biggest headlines in years, of course. Princess of Manticore Abducted! Manpower Suspected! Slaughter in the Gaming Halls! A Manhunt in The Wages of Sin! What you'd expect."

    "That's fine. Perfect, actually—as long as there's no awkward specific details."

    "No, nothing." A bit defensively: "We've got a free press here, but 'free' and 'careless' aren't the same thing."

    Victor's face twisted into a little grimace. He could remember a time when Cordelia Ransom, the former head of the Peoples' Republic of Haven's so-called Public Information Service, would have said something quite similar. Today, under President Pritchart's lean-over-backwards methods of rule, the Havenite press was starting to look downright "yellow-journalish." Victor wasn't sure if the new press was any more truthful and accurate than the old one, truth be told. But, at least, it no longer marched to the beat of a single drummer.

    One of his mentor Kevin Usher's favorite little saws came to him. It's not a perfect universe, Victor. That doesn't absolve us from the responsibility of making it better. Just remember that it'll never be perfect—and, if you're not careful how you do it, trying to make it so just makes it worse.

    "I wasn't criticizing, Walter," he said softly. "Really, I wasn't."



    If the Erewhonese press on the planet below was being somewhat constrained, no such constraints were being placed on the ambassadors of either Manticore or Haven.

    What do you mean—you don't know if she's still alive? She's the niece of Queen Elizabeth, for the sake of God! If she dies... All diplomatic hell will break lose, you morons! Let me talk to either Fuentes or Hall or Havlicek!"

    The trio being mysteriously unavailable, the further shrieks and threats of Manticore's Ambassador to Erewhon, Countess Fraser, were inflicted upon one of the government's lesser officials. But he bore up under the strain fairly easily. Like all Erewhonese, he’d grown sick and tired of the arrogance and contempt with which the High Ridge regime dealt with their "allies."

    Sick and tired enough, finally, to just break off the conversation. Which was easy to do, since the Manticoran Ambassador hadn't even bothered with the courtesy of a personal visit. Just called him up, as she might to berate a servant.

    "The fact that she's a princess doesn't make her immortal," he said bluntly. "As for the rest, we're doing the best we can. And I will remind you—how many times has it been, now?—that so long as Congo remains in Mesan hands, you can expect the worst. Good day."



    The Ambassador from the Republic of Haven did make a personal visit—and even had enough sense to come to the suites in The Suds where Erewhon's real power elite was to be found, rather than call on the pack of officials in the far more modest-looking "Palace of State." But he, too, was sent packing—just as quickly, if more politely—by one of Jack Fuentes' close associates. One of his adopted brothers, as it happened.

    "Sorry, we don't know anything yet."

    "Sorry, but neither President Fuentes nor Alessandra Havlicek nor Tomas Hall are available."

    "Sorry, we don't know where they are." Here, a modest clearing of the throat. "Havlicek and Hall, you know, are simply private citizens—who don't have to account to the government for their whereabouts. Erewhon is a free star nation, after all."

    "Sorry, yes, I know it's all very inconvenient."


    Jabber, jabber, jabber. The long-suffering adopted brother reflected that Haven's Ambassador Guthrie, while he was less arrogant than Countess Fraser, was also a lot more long-winded and given to pointless verbiage.

    Finally, though, even Guthrie managed to get to the point.

    "Yes, Ambassador, I understand that. Whatever might be the involvement of certain citizens of Haven by the names of Victor Cachat and Virginia Usher—and all I know is what you do, what's in the press, that they seem to have somehow been caught up in the mayhem in orbit—they are simply here as private individuals and their actions do not in any way reflect upon, or reflect—or even refract, if that will make you happy—the policies of the government of the Republic of Haven. And now, we still have a crisis on our hands. So, good day."




    On the bridge of HMS Gauntlet, Captain Michael Oversteegen was having a face-off of his own with Erewhon's authorities. But, in his case, the exchange was at least civil. Partly, because Oversteegen wasn't being arrogant and overbearing; but, mostly, because—polite or not—Oversteegen had considerably more power at his immediate disposal than did Countess Fraser.

    All the power of a heavy cruiser, to be precise. And one which, though hopelessly outweighed by the sheer mass of the Erewhonese fleet in orbit around the planet, had a well-deserved reputation in that part of the galaxy for being deadly in naval combat. True, she hadn’t triumphed in the encounter which had earned her that reputation without suffering horrendous casualties of her own. But that fact, far from reassuring the Erewhonese, simply added extra caution. Michael Oversteegen had already proven once that he would not flinch from what he perceived as his duty simply because of a ruinous butcher's bill.

    "I say again, Sir," Oversteegen stated firmly at the image of the Erewhonese admiral in the bridge's display screen, "that I am not questionin' Erewhon's jurisdiction in the matter. But I will also be damned if I intend t' stay here simply twiddlin' my thumbs." He gave a cold glance at another display, this one showing the tactical situation in the vicinity of The Wages of Sin. "If that so-called 'freighter' so much as starts warmin' up its impellers, I shall see t' it that it's so much vapor. Be sure of it, Sir. You may choose to play the fools, but I shall not."

    The admiral began to say something, but Oversteegen—the first time he'd been a bit rude—chose to override him. "Enough, Sir. All due respect, you know and I know—anyone but a complete imbecile knows, and I do hope you fire the imbeciles you've had workin' on your so-called 'orbital security'—that that 'freighter' has no business bein' there. It's part of the plot, whatever the plot may be. What is certain, is that Manticore will be no part of it. If the Princess dies, such be fortune. The Star Kingdom and the House of Winton will grieve, but they will not fall, or even shake. Indeed, Sir—I know the woman personally, she's a relative of mine—Queen Elizabeth would be the first t' condemn me for allowin' her house t' be used as a hostage against her nation."

    Again, the admiral began to speak, and, again, was over-ridden—but, this time, not by Oversteegen. Someone—someone with impressive authority—had simply overridden the Navy's broadcast with their own.

    Oversteegen found himself staring at a man he didn't know. Which didn't necessarily mean very much, since—again, he cursed them silently—the High Ridge Government had not seen fit to provide him with the in-depth political background he'd requested when he’d been sent him on this deployment.

    Fortunately, Oversteegen had very good Communications and Tactical departments.

    "This signal's coming from the space station itself, Sir." Lieutenant Theresa Cheney said. The com officer tapped a query into her panel and shrugged. "It carries their normal Navy protocols and signal encrypt, though, so it's definitely government sponsored."

    "Betty here has him IDed, Sir," Commander Blumenthal put in, and nodded to his assistant.

    "That's Walter Imbesi, Sir," Lieutenant Gohr said. "He's officially nothing in the government, but he's more-or-less the recognized head of the Opposition. Which, as I told you, works a bit differently here on Erewhon. And since I'm pretty sure Fuentes and Havlicek and Hall were on that shuttle that docked not long ago, I think you can figure he's speaking for all of them. They'd be using him as their 'cutout.'"

    Oversteegen absorbed all that with one part of his mind while he listened to Imbesi's opening words with the rest. Imbesi was, thankfully, brief and to the point. Oversteegen's never-too-lengthy patience was by now strained to the breaking point.

    "If I'm understandin' your proposal correctly, Mister Imbesi, you want me—me personally, yes?—t' come aboard the space station? I'm sorry, Sir, but I would be derelict in my duty were I t' abandon my command at a time like this, when—pardon my bluntness—we may be on the verge of hostilities."

    Imbesi sighed. Then, with a little ironic smile: "Your stubbornness is not simply a matter of reputation, I see. That's a compliment, by the way. All right, Captain Oversteegen. Can you be certain this exchange can't be unscrambled by anyone on that freighter? Or anyone else, for that matter?"

    Oversteegen's eyes narrowed, and he glanced at Cheney, who nodded vigorously.

    "We're usin' Alliance technology here, Mister Imbesi. On both ends," Oversteegan said, turning back to the face on his com... and careful to substitute "Alliance" for "Manticoran." Imbesi would probably notice his choice of adjectives, but one had to be polite. Especially with an ally who was already pissed off with one's government.

    Again, his eyes moved to the tactical display. And an ironic little smile came to his own lips.

    "I imagine those Solarians have an inflated notion of their own technical abilities—and what is a Solarian flotilla doin' in this system, anyway?—but I can assure you that not even they stand a chance of eavesdroppin' on this exchange."

    Imbesi nodded. "All right, then." His smile widened and became, oddly enough, even more ironic. "Let me introduce you to someone."

    A moment later, a young woman's image came into the display.

    "Hello, Michael," she said, and Oversteegen frowned. The face on his screen was obviously Berry Zilwicki, yet there was something about that voice... something he couldn't quite put his mental finger on.

    "Pardon me, Ms. Zilwicki," he said, after a moment, "but I don't believe we've been formally introduced."

    "No, you and Berry Zilwicki haven't," that maddeningly familiar voice agreed. "But I'm not her. I'm Ruth Winton, Michael."

    Oversteegen stiffened. As a distant relative of the Queen (and one who had been in much better odor at Mount Royal Palace before his relative had become Prime Minister), he was one of the very small number of people who had actually met the reclusive princess. Who didn't look much at all like the young woman on his display. But the voice, now.... He strained his memory, and his frown deepened.

    "That's... an interestin' announcement, 'Your Highness,'" he said a bit slowly. "Under the circumstances, however, I trust you will agree that it behooves me t' be certain that you are, indeed, who you claim t' be."

    The girl smiled. "Of course I agree. Unfortunately, I don't have any secret code words and—" Her smile faltered abruptly. "—I'm afraid none of my protective detail have survived to verify my story." She inhaled deeply, then shook herself. "All I can offer is that I do remember we were introduced once, though I can't remember anything about the occasion except it was big, and formal, and boring beyond belief."

    Oversteegen's memory of the event was far better, naturally, since it wasn't often that a relative as distant as himself was invited to a royal family gathering.

    "It was the christenin' of your cousin Robert, Your Highness," he said, and the face on his screen flashed another brilliant smile.

    "Oh, very good, Michael!" she congratulated. "It most certainly wasn't Robert's christening—I was home with the flu that afternoon. But now that you've jogged my memory, I recall that it was my cousin Jessica's christening, wasn't it?"

    Oversteegen felt himself relax, and he cleared his throat. "So it was, Your Highness. I take it that reports of your abduction were, ah, somewhat exaggerated, then."

    The princess shook her head. "Not all that highly, Captain. They did, in fact—yes, it was Masadan fanatics, that part's all true—abduct Berry Zilwicki, whom they thought was the princess."

    Oversteegen didn't need Lieutenant Gohr to explain what was now obvious to him, but that didn't keep the lieutenant from muttering under her breath. "Zilwicki! Him and his tricks! He must have switched the identities of the girls and—oh."

    The captain fought down a smile. It wasn't often that his ATO lagged behind his own calculations.

    "Oh," Gohr repeated. "The Queen must have been part of the deception from the beginning. We're swimming in deep waters here, Sir, if you'll pardon my saying so."

    "Deep waters, indeed," Oversteegen murmured.

    Princess Ruth continued: "But the thing is, you see, they didn't really manage to abduct her either. Because—with some help from—oh, lots of people—she escaped. She's quite safe, at the moment. And now—"

    Oversteegen suspected that he was witness to an unusual event. Princess Ruth seemed at a loss for words. Something which, he was almost certain, happened very rarely to the young woman.

    Where military protocol seemed no longer quite applicable—and with Manticoran diplomatic niceties in the complete mess which High Ridge and his crew had left it—Oversteegen decided to fall back on old-fashioned aristocratic chivalry.

    "Would you like me t' come and pay a personal visit then, Your Highness?" A quick glance at the tactical display. The freighter was giving no signs of life at all. "So long as you can assure me—"

    The princess' loss of words was momentary. Firmly, even regally: "Yes, I would, Captain. And I can assure you there will be no—what did you call it?—outbreak of 'hostilities.'" Her slender jaw set. "Not the kind you meant, anyway. Forget that freighter, Captain. That slaver ship, I should say, because that's what we're sure it really is."

    The princess glanced aside, as if studying someone not visible in the display image. Her jaw seemed to tighten further, and she almost hissed the next words.

    "I shall be very surprised, Captain, if any guilty party on that ship is alive for very long. If they are alive, they'll certainly be in custody—and might very well wish they were dead."

    Oversteegen now found himself as curious as he was relieved.

    "You must have met some interestin' people lately, Your Highness. I do hope you'll see fit t' introduce me. In any event, I’ll be over as soon as my pinnace can bring me. We'll consider the matter a family visit."

    He cocked an eye. "Armed, or unarmed, Your Highness? And with or without a military escort? Naturally, I'd normally come unarmed and unescorted into your presence, on such an occasion."

    Princess Ruth's smile was now royal graciousness personified. "Oh, I don't think arms will be necessary, Captain, other than your own personal sidearm. As for an escort, I'd simply recommend your ATO. That's Lieutenant Gohr, I believe. Betty Gohr. My—ah, Captain Zilwicki—has a high regard for her."

    "Done, Your Highness."

    The image vanished, and Oversteegen glanced at Gohr. The lieutenant's face looked simultaneously pleased and—very, very apprehensive.

    "I don't know Anton Zilwicki, Sir!" she protested. "How the hell—sorry, pardon the language—how would he possibly know me?" Almost wailing, now: "I'm just a lieutenant!"

    For some peculiar reason, the young officer's distress cheered Oversteegen up immensely.

    "Deep waters, indeed, Lieutenant Gohr. Though it’s said, y'know—granted, mostly by a lot of disreputable rascals—that Captain Zilwicki is the shrewdest fish in those waters."

Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image