The Masque of Power (Part 3)
A Crystal Hall Library Entry
The Masque of Power
Bek D Corbin
TIME UNTIL DISEMBARKMENT: 57 HOURS 50 MINUTES 21 SECONDS
Piaget contrived to let me out of the stir the ‘next day’ right after breakfast, so I’d have to work on an empty stomach. All the better to drive home that she was in charge, and if I knew what was good for me, I’d hand over all the gold I had. If I hadn’t arranged to eat a far better breakfast from the Senior Officers’ mess, I’d have been pissed. She locked down her slate, shoved it at me, and told me “Get to work.” Then she went off to do what she does best- which seems to be avoiding her supervisor.
Looking at the slate like it had betrayed me, I waded through assigning the work, and then went about making myself scarce. Once I was sufficiently scarce, I contacted Kaz on my minder. “I need a meet with the Executive Cell. Pick a large room, ‘cause I need them to bring their Management Cells.”
[You’re laying down your plan? It’s about time. We have less than 40 standard hours before the first shuttle is scheduled to dock]
"I was wondering when you’d start bringing that up.”
[You’re having a lot of fun playing Evil Mastermind, and moving stuff around, but let’s face it, JADIS, none of this will mean shit if you can’t pull off your gambit by the time those shuttles get here. Once they start loading us into those shuttles, they’ve GOT us!]
"I’ve noticed that people work well on a tight schedule and limited options,” I replied.
[Just remember: 45 hours, 45 minutes and 40 seconds until the first shuttle docks, and all this gets very real]
"Just send out the invitations, and let me know when they’re together.”
TIME UNTIL DISEMBARKMENT: 45 HOURS 22 MINUTES 34 SECONDS
As we approached the meet, I instructed Cutlass, Viper and Stiletto, “The thing to keep in mind at this meeting is, these people aren’t just tougher than you are, they’re smarter, sharper, and have years more experience than you, operating at levels that would give you nose bleeds. So, just don’t say anything. Just stand there, look sharp and professional, make out like you’ve heard everything that I’ve said before, and let ME do all the talking.”
"They’re even tougher than Umberto Maure?”
"Any one of these people could have tied Umberto Maure in knots, all by themselves. And I assume that their backups will be on a par. But this isn’t a violent meet; these people have already agreed to work with us. This meeting is where our final arrangements will be made. Within the next 40 hours, we move. We just need for everyone to understand my plan.”
The panel in the hallway opened up, and we entered what wasn’t really a room, but more like a niche between chambers. My compliments to Gwen. Banks was standing off to one side with an icily intent Asian chick, a slightly goofy looking Anglo chick with hair that really shouldn’t already be that unkempt, and a far better pulled together Anglo chick with her dark brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. Ponytail was doing her damnedest to look tough, and strike me down if she wasn’t doing a decent job of it. Roman was with his crew of three, a doe-eyed blonde who looked like a total airhead (and probably used that like a club), a redhead who had ‘total sweetheart’ written all over her (and probably used that like a precision instrument) and-
What was Sweetie doing with Roman? She couldn’t-
Oh, wait. Now certain things that she’d alluded to earlier made a LOT more sense. And I wondered exactly who- or WHAT- I’d been cuddling with.
du Chantraine had her team with her, a sleek competent-seeming blonde, a dumpy sour-faced Ginger who hadn’t gotten any favors from the adaptation, and a cool brunette who was doing a much better job of projecting being tough than Ponytail was, probably by simply not trying.
"Very well, now that we’re all here, it’s time for introductions. I’m Roman LaClavar. These are my lieutenants. This is Serafina Valocco. You may have heard of her mother, Celestina Valocco, ‘La Strega’, the head of a small but deadly effective free-lance intelligence and covert operations organization operating in the Mediterranean. Fina worked closely with her mother as an intelligence coordinator and analyst.” Hello? SeraFINA Valocco? I’ve worked with Celestina Valocco on a couple of occasions, and the only kid that I knew she had was SeraFINO. I’ve been boffing Serafino Valocco? That Shmoo? MAN, somebody got his money’s worth and six other people’s out of that adaptation! “Fina runs the Intelligence and Analysis part of my organization.
"And this is Lyndsey,” he gestured at the redhead. “She was a head nurse at the GoodCare™ HMO hospital in Seattle, before she was arrested for ‘aiding and abetting insurgents’ by giving out still viable but at-expiration date medicines to homeless shelters. She heads the Medical division of my organization.”
"Whatever it is that we do, we can’t be 100% sure that no one will get hurt,” the redhead said. “I’ve got two MDs, three RNs, a rescue worker, a paramedic and a former USMC combat medic who listen to me. We may not be able to bring you back from the dead, but we should be able to handle anything that happens, shy of a fission detonation.”
"VERY good, Roman,” I said approvingly. Y’know, that actually hadn’t occurred to me and it IS a damn good move.
"Wait a minute,” Ponytail interrupted, “That’s eight people. She’s only supposed to have three people in her cell.”
"You can never have enough hands in a medical emergency,” Banks said. “Like she said, ‘very good, Roman’.”
"And this is Misty. She used to work for Pimm, Parker & Pembroke, a Washington DC lobbying firm, as an ‘Exposure Consultant’.” That’s the current euphemism for ‘Spin Doctor’.”
"HI!” Misty chirped cheerfully
"She heads up my PR and Disinformation section.”
"Oh, THAT explains the headaches that I’ve been getting,” the ginger grumped.
"My handle is ‘Render’,” Banks introduced herself. “I used to be a hired gun for the World Banking System. Don’t ask. This is Snake,” she gestured at the frosty Asian. “She used to be an enforcer for the Iron Dragon Triad out of Canton. She’s lost a lot of weight, some reach, and a bit of body tone in the adaptation, but her reflexes and condition are still aces. She’s rounded up a squad of three more China girls. They’re our Security and Retaliation squad.”
"Yeah, there were a couple of bluesuits who got too close to A&M’s stashes. We arranged for bad things to happen to them. But Snake was slick enough to make them look like stupid embarrassing accidents.”
"Iron Dragon Society?” I asked, looking at Snake. “Will there be complications about that, later?”
Without batting an eye, Snake droned, “That was in the past. I live in the Now.” Wow. There was no bitterness, regret or betrayal in THAT, no Sir! I’ve got to remember to get someone to get her drunk and find out what the hell that was all about. Someone else. While I’m far, FAR away.
Banks pointed at the goofy blonde. “This is Thrasher. She used to be a pilot specializing in delivering goods to hard-to-reach locations under difficult circumstances. Besides being a truly inspired pilot of anything that flies, she’s also an absolute genius cargo handler. She could fit a Semi truck into a tube of toothpaste. She’s in charge of Transportation, getting stuff from Point A to Point B. She tells me that she also has a crew, but she won’t say anything about them.” Thrasher just gave a mischievous grin.
"And this is Ace,” Banks continued, pointing at Ponytail. “She used to be a Rescue Worker in Toronto. Nuff said about that. She runs our Recon and Access cell. She’s the one who makes sure that the Transportation cell can get from Point A to Point B in the first place.” I wondered whether ‘Ace’s’ cell had bumped heads with Gwen, or if Gwen saw them coming and did half their work for them. “She won’t tell me anything about her crew.” Ace just glowered at us.
du Chantraine cleared her throat and began, “I am Jean-Armand St. Michel- du Chantraine, a dealer in high-demand, low-volume commodities-”
"She’s the head of our Acquisitions and Manufacturing cell,” I cut her off. Hey, we only have so much time. “Black Marketeer. I don’t particularly trust her, but I have a certain regard for her skill in obtaining things that she has no legal right to acquire and getting them through security cordons, and I have absolute faith in her survival instinct. Who’s your crew, Blondie?”
du Chantraine gave me a frosty glower and then waved a hand at the Yellowjacket, who may have been the only legitimate female in the room. “This is Marian, who some of you may know under the nom de guerre ‘Milady DeWinter’. She persuades people to part with things they normally wouldn’t.”
Roman arched an impressed eyebrow. “She’s a con artist and fixer with contacts in both of the Americas and around the Pacific Rim. How did you get here, Milady?”
"I’m still not sure,” she admitted. “One day, I was in Puerto Vallarta, orchestrating a meeting between ministers of three different governments to come to an understanding about the price of cocaine. The next thing I knew, I was in a court in Atlanta, and they were reading off a list of charges that didn’t have anything to DO with that and sending me off to New Siberia under the wrong name!”
"She has a team of three very competent girls, all pinkskirts,” du Chantraine picked up the ball before ‘Milady’ could get venting. “For people who’ve only worked together for a short time, they’re doing very nicely. And this-” he waved at the ginger.
But she was cut off by, “_I_ am BELPHEGOR,” the ginger said portentously as she glowered at me. “I am-”
"Bel-blobbo, you are lucky that I need someone with technical expertise,” I snarled. “But listen UP Blackadar! You are in MY organization right at the moment! If you try one, just ONE of your trademark backstabs or brainfarts, you won’t have to worry about them,” I jerked a thumb at Banks and the Snake, “You don’t have to worry about them,” I pointed at Cutlass, Viper and Stiletto, “you have to worry about ME. I will handle it personally.” Blackadar started to quibble, but I cut her off, “I’m already planning it.”
"Frost,” du Chantraine cut in, “I agree with you! But she’s an absolute wizard at jury-rigging gear! And I’ve seen her assistants. They’re… top notch, even with the talent pool we had to draw from. A little… eccentricespecially the twins… but they’re well beyond anything that we could reasonably expect.” Belphegor and I still glared at each other. Blondie waved that aside and continued, “And this is Justine,” she pointed at the cool brunette, “She was a freelance covert operative under the nom du guerre 'Faust’. She is my troubleshooter, who handles things so that Security and Transportation don’t have to. She and her team also assist Milady and her crew in their merry games.”
And almost as one, they looked at my ‘crew’. Trying hard to not die of shame, I introduced them. “These are Viper, Stiletto and Cutlass. They’re not my lieutenants. They’re my personal enforcers. Yes, I have three lieutenants, and they’re busy right at the moment, and they know what they have to do, so they don’t have to be here.”
"Oh well,” Belphegor grumped, “at least we’re sure that she really IS Jareth Frost. Only he would bother to play things so close to the vest at this point.”
"Whatever,” I snarled. “Well, we didn’t come here for tea and crumpets. Here’s the master plan. I’ve been working on several possible ideas, but given the situation that we’re heading to, the only way out of this trap is to go down to Cybele dressed as Volunteers. As Bluesuits, we’ll have the freedom to do… whatever it is we have to do. It will still be a major pain in the ass, but we’ll insert into Cybelean society as some of the… well, not privileged, but at least tolerated. The pinkskirts will be carefully watched, to see which way they jump. The Bluesuits won’t.”
"WHAT?” was the general reaction.
"HOW are we supposed to create 64 bogus identities, with papers and clothes and personal effects…” du Chantraine shrilled, “In less than TWO DAYS?”
"We don’t need to,” I said. “Roughly 100 female Volunteers didn’t make it out of Hibernation alive. Their bodies are being stored for burial on Cybelle. We will access their records and personal effects, and dole them out so that your own backgrounds and their histories don’t conflict too much. It shouldn’t be that hard, most of the Blues are losers; they wouldn’t be HERE if they weren’t. Nobody really knows anyone, not with the numbers and schedule we’re coping with. We’ll simply become good ol’ Jane Doe from Kokomo and blend in with the crowd as they board.”
"Oh?” asked ‘Faust’ cooly, “And how will you explain 60-plus Pinkskirts suddenly going missing? Especially you? I mean, I’m not that famous but you’re… ooo… Jareth Frost! People are going to be asking about you.”
I nodded, acknowledging the point. “I repurposed one of my rejected plans. I’ve arranged for an amount of suspicious supplies to be loaded on one of the exterior modules. There are also parties aboard that are just itching to stab me in the back. Security will be aware of the module and be watching it. At the most effective time, that module will explosively eject from the ship, with the minder bands of everyone here and our tertiary cells- or at least the signals- aboard. Security will err on the side of simplicity, Cops thinking that way, and decide that that dastardly Jareth Frost tried to get a little too foxy, and he died of it. I do hope they won’t spend too much time grieving. We will use the confusion to insert ourselves into the queues for embarkation.”
"Won’t they check the wreckage for bodies?”
"We’ll load the module with those bodies of the Bluesuits who didn’t make it out of Hibernation. That should fox any sensor sweep, and they won’t have time to send anyone else, because they’ll use everything they have working to repair any damage. And by the time they have men and machines to go look, the wreckage will be so far behind that they won’t bother.”
"The explosion will upset everything, especially if it goes down just before embarkation,” Banks pointed out.
"Confusion which will make it that much easier for us to step into our new roles. Especially if we’re the few who are keeping their heads, while everyone else is losing theirs.”
"But the computer files…” du Chantraine mused, “And the hard copy…”
"Now you put your finger on what I really need you people for,” I nodded. “I’ve got someone working on the computer, but we’re going to need new pictures of everyone in your cells all smiling nice for the camera- wearing blue overalls. All the other minutiae, well, that can be swapped around. But what we really need is an accident, one that destroys the hard files of everyone in our organization. Oh, and I’d say another 100 to 150 or so, so we’re not THAT suspicious. You’ll all be provided with slates that will have your new personal details, so you’ll be able to carry on as though nothing had happened.” I looked at ‘Faust’. “As I recall, you had something of a reputation for being able to handle little matters like that.”
She nodded gravely and said, “Would it be possible to double up the destruction of the hard files with the detonation of your module?”
"Freya and her crew would make for perfect scapegoats,” Roman pointed out. He paused and said, “If we work it right, Freya’s dupes might even be finessed into doing the dirty work for us.”
"Insufficient data,” I said in my best immoveable bureaucrat tones. “We have 24 hours to get our information and materials just right.” I handed Roman and Banks slips of paper. “Roman, finger Hekate for Banks. Whatever Freya’s got cooking probably revolves around Hekate. After all, if you have a hammer, you don’t drive a nail with a wrench. We need that bitch either in the jug or in the infirmary, though I wouldn’t blink at a body bag. Just get her out of circulation; that way, they’ll be desperate enough to try anything we suggest to them at the right time. The last thing, and I DO mean that very last thing, that Freya wants is to go down to that planet as just another bluesuit, let alone pinkskirt. Roman, put out the buzz that Freya’s a bad actor, and she’s planning to pull something. You know the drill. Blondie,” I handed du Chantraine some papers, “scrap all other projects, and redirect all efforts and materials to these. Yes, I know, you went through hell getting the materials for those, but keep your eyes on the prize, du Chantraine! We’re going to need-”
I was cut off in mid-pontification by a rattling sensation that shook the floor. If we’d been on Earth (or any other large landmass), I’ve have said a seismic tremor.
We were on a starship.
Starships don’t have seismic tremors.
Then the gravity went out.
"BUGGER!” Blackadar yelped, “Something’s taken out the ship’s rotation!”
Then the alarm sirens went off. “SCATTER!” I barked, “Get to your lifepods separately! Don’t group together! Even if this isn’t a setup, we can’t take the chance that we’ll be spotted as a group!” Truth be told, they didn’t really need to be told that. They scattered like the wind before I even finished. Okay, Cutlass and Viper needed to be told- and shoved- to not follow me. Yes, it was chaos, but at the very least it’s hard to keep track of people in all of this. I took advantage of the pandemonium to personally handle a few bits of this and that which would have been a LOT harder otherwise, and I had enough time to get to my group’s pod before they slammed it shut. DAMN, I wish that I’d planned this.
The very stressed graysuit in charge of the pod started to give me the sharp side of his tongue, but shifted targets as three more last-second Suzies slipped in the door before the door was sealed. The door sealed, the cocoons dropped and we started to climb into the bags. Well, most of us did. There were a handful of pinkskirts who were having panic attacks. Understandable. Annoying and poor timing, but understandable. I and a few of the other ones who were calm and rational enough to do it helped them focus, and walked them through the cocooning process.
Just as I was zipping my bunny up, the graysuit blew his whistle and said to stop and pack the cocoons back up, the emergency was under control, and G would go back online inside an hour. The general response was torn between tears of relief and snarls of annoyance at what some were taking as yet another bullshit ‘drill’. I helped ‘Brenda’ get her cocoon packed away, and was starting on mine when a group of Marines opened up the sealed door. They talked with the graysuit, who pointed at ME. “DIABOLIK!”
It took me a bit to register that they were talking to me. I spaced just long enough for the jarheads to blitz me, get my arms around my back and drag me out the door. I made some furious demands to know wtf was going on, which only got me a slap upside the head that really rang my chimes. They used the fact that they were obviously Zero-G Ops trained while my experience in Zero G was pretty basic (hey, you can’t be expert at everything, y’know!) to handle me down the hallways and down a Jefferies tube.
Or, rather, UP a Jefferies tube.
I had a nasty moment of déjà vu when they dragged me into the laundry. Piaget was standing- or at least, floating- there looking like a worried cow.
They gave me a punch to my stomach and slammed me into a couple of washing machines for a pretty by-the-numbers softening up. Okay, this I can handle; I’ve been worked over by experts. When they got tired of that and let up, I glowered at Piaget. “You told them about the gold? God DAMN, Piaget, I knew that you were stupid, but do you HAVE to find exciting new ways of being an even BIGGER idiot?”
Piaget just floated there, looking like an oversized four-year-old who’d broken the cookie jar.
One of the Marines grabbed me by the pinksuit and slammed me against one of the washing machines. “You got a bunch of GOLD stashed somewhere. Maybe if you cough it up, we’ll let you LIVE.”
Please! I’ve been in worse spots, being threatened by professionals who didn’t have an institutional reputation for idiocy. Worse, these guys are Marines working for Tartarus; they may be called ‘Marines’, but let’s be honest, they’re just prison guards with a job title upgrade. A single real Marine from any nation you could name would kick all of their asses, just for dishonoring the name ‘Marine’.
Improvising wildly, I said, “It’s your lucky day, Piaget. Despite yourself, you’ve actually managed to come up with the solution to a problem of mine.”
"Your only PROBLEM,” one of the jugheads (they aren’t up the standard of ‘jarhead’) hissed over his buddy’s shoulder, “is coming up with that GOLD.”
I gave him a confident grin. “I can give you something better than gold.”
"What’s better than GOLD?”
"What’s better than 100K worth of Gold? How about 20 MILLION dollars worth of something else? I mean, 100k split five ways is 20K each; 20 Mil split five ways is 4 Mil each; even Marines should be able to do that kind of math!”
"If you had that, why would you give up that, instead of the gold?” one of the others asked suspiciously. Okay, they’re not entirely brain dead. But if they weren’t dyed-in-the-wool gullible, they wouldn’t BE on this tub in the first place, trading over a decade of their lives for chump change.
"BECAUSE,” I said, removing the mook’s hands from my bib, “it’s not MINE, and I can’t take it with me down to Cybelle. And to be perfectly honest, I’d rather that you guys have it than the asshole who’s got dibs on it as is.”
"And who’s that?”
"You should know the name: Trevor Goodkind?”
"Goodkind? Y’mean, like the Goodkind Bank?”
"AND Goodkind International Finance, Goodkind International Services, Goodcredit, GoodFood, GoodTech, GoodLife, Terracorp, Interstellar Labor Contracts and the Head of Global Operations for GK Mono Tech. Third Son of Bruce Goodkind himself, and the family’s good right hand.”
"WHAT? What’s a major player like THAT doing on THIS ship?”
"I’m more than a little curious about that myself,” I admitted. “BUT, he has a cargo module- not a bay or a pod, but an entire module- all to himself and its insured value is $20 Mil.”
"Why would you let us have something like that?”
"Because Trevor’s going to Cybelle, just like ME,” I pointed out. “I don’t know what he’s going to be doing on Cybelle, but whatever it is, it’s going to be BIG. And that module is going to play a major role in it. It would suit me right down to the ground, if good ol’ Trev hit the ground running- without his running shoes.” I finished with an acidulous grin. “Piaget? Run a search on Trevor Goodkind.”
She poked at her slate and her eyes popped open. “A couple of days ago, they had an open call out for anyone who knew Trevor Goodkind, even in the slightest way. He’s on this ship!” She looked at me spooked.
"So what?” another of the Gyrenes demanded. “Twenty million dollars worth of terraforming gear is worthless to us! How’d we hide it? How’d we sell it? What would we DO with it?”
"It’s not terraforming gear,” I said, thought to be honest, he wasn’t that far off the mark. “Tartarus already HAS terraforming gear. Why would the Goodkinds haul terraforming gear all the way out here? No, given the way that the Goodkinds operate, they figure that the gas giant the miners are straining has at least one, more likely somewhere between 20 and 100, must-have commodities, and they’re maneuvering good ol’ Trev into a position where he can leverage the whole shooting match out from under the other mining companies. If it can fit inside that module, my guess is that they’re targeting the Brass’ Achilles Heel: their taste for the Good Life. I’m guessing that there’s all the stuff that Executives see in those ‘Town & Country’ type magazines and ‘Dallas 3000’ TIS simulations in that module. Exactly HOW Trevor’s gonna use that to get a grip on them, I have no idea. Well, I have an idea; what I don’t have is the TIME.
"SO, if you guys just happen to, y’know, shuffle that module around, then good ol’ Trevor won’t have the pretty-shinies that he’s counting on, which is just what I want. And you’ll be able to re-sell all that lovely luxury. Where? Not my problem. And the best part is, you guys will need each other, both to get the stuff past Customs and to sell it. So there won’t be any ‘we got seven years to figure out who’s gonna walk away with the gold’.” That registered with them. Being Marines- or a homogenized Marine like goon product- they were very big on ‘the Team’. But even they realized how much strain even 100K worth of gold could put on a team.
They deliberated amongst themselves, and finally the Redstripe who may not have been the leader, but was at least the most Alpha among them, nodded and said, “Good point. Yer off the hook.” But even as he said it, I could tell that it was registering with them that they could always squeeze Piaget for the gold I was going to be paying her off with.
I took Piaget’s slate, swatted around files until I found the manifest at the module level, and what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a sudden replacement of the title for an entire module over to Goodchild, Ayla G.
Kaz. As I’ve said before, I love working with Professionals.
And then it was all, ‘why aren’t you at work already?’
TIME UNTIL DISEMBARKMENT: 33 HOURS 10 MINUTES 12 SECONDS
The après Reveille announcement said that we were on schedule- just barely- and we were to begin bringing out the ‘Fivers’, the career criminals who’d be bopping around in orange overalls. On one hand, that meant that security would be even tighter. On the other hand, all that attention would be focused on the Bad Boys. I may get a break on this; while most modern dissidents know better than to try to use street thugs in their operation, both Freya-as-Melkir and Hekate have been known to use street gangs. As Huey Newton found out to his dismay, Marx was right (well, about this thing): the Lumpen Proletariat, the Criminal Class, have no Class Consciousness. The closest thing your habitual offender gets to a political stand is a crude Nationalist Patriotism. And that’s the best of them; the rest have an ‘I’m getting mine and his and yours, and screw everyone else’ mentality.
No. no, on second thought Freya won’t try to recruit any Orange-a-tangs. She doesn’t have the time, and she’s not stupid enough to trust them. She’ll use them, in the most fire-and-forget way, but as a distraction, something to pull the Marines and tougher Blue Boys away from whatever she’s pulling.
And, since I’m too busy to give Freya the attention that she and her merry band of creeps deserve, I’d best see about giving her something to really worry about. After Piaget handed over her tablet- and de facto control of her squad- to me, I spent a few minutes handling the chores that would have taken Piaget hours to manage. I must be doing a good job- they’re giving Piaget more to do. Then I checked with Kaz on how the pots I had on the stove were doing. There were no crises to handle (yet- hey, it’s early), so I made a connection and set about giving two headaches headaches.
I went into a powder room a redhead in a pink skirt, and walked out a blonde in a blue jumpsuit. Then I had Trevor’s ‘busy bee’ arrange for me to get a little of her valuable time. Doing the old ‘sitting back to back, so no one sees us talking’ gag, I said, “Quack, quack.”
"Benjie!” Trev said, getting the joke and not looking back. “Where have you been? I can’t find you anywhere.”
"If you could find me, then Mr. X most certainly could. As a matter of fact, I just had my first nibble yesterday, right after the Grav-spasm.”
"Oh? What happened?”
"I got corralled by a bunch of goons wearing red stripes. They might have even been real Ship’s Marines.”
"What did they do to you?”
"Meh.” I said, trying to remember some Yale incident to compare it to and coming up empty. “They bounced me around and tried to pound a few answers out of me.”
"Such as?” she asked raptly.
"Trev, do you know anything about an entire bay stocked with high-end luxury goodies?”
"Trev, I know that you have a lot more money that you’re supposed to have. But where we’re going, so what? You can just buy more of the same crappy stuff everyone else has. But what if they arranged for you to have a bunch of high-end back-home goodies that you could use?”
"Why would they do that, Benjie?”
"Why would they make us girls? Why would they give you Five Mil in credit? Why would they bring me along on this Singles Cruise? I already have two ex-wives; I don’t need any ex-husbands.”
"They’re using you to make me aware of this bay of goods,” Trevor said, actually using that brain he’s so proud of.
"AND?” I prodded.
"And if I don’t go looking for it, they’ll have to do something even more obvious, as to get me to go look for this bay,” she said as it clicked together. “But who wound up these Marines and sicced them on you?”
Now as tempting as it is to set Trevor on those poor fools, she’s still tough and sharp enough to get the whole real truth out of those goons. So, “Who’d benefit from diverting your attention, and possibly sour your relations with the Red Stripes?”
"The slinky Miss Larsen and her two Bolshevik buddies.”
"Who my sources tell me have moved whatever takes the place of Heaven and Earth on this Express Plane to Hell, as to get into the decanting stalls- where they’re processing professional criminals.”
"Professional… Criminals?” This is where knowing your enemy comes in handy. Ever since Yale, Trevor has had a bee in his bonnet regarding the possibility of international dissidents (like me and Larsen) using street criminals as foot soldiers. But aside from very basic stuff like smuggling and information, that doesn’t work very well. By and large, dissidents don’t trust petty crooks, and petty crooks are resoundingly apolitical. The Chinese Triads do mix Organized Crime and Politics, but they tend to focus on Chinese politics exclusively. But Trevor has this pulp romantic image of ‘Jareth Diabolik’ as the new Napoleon of Crime. Really! Just because I arranged to have the tires on his sports car swapped out for Lifesavers™ candy look-alikes replacements at Yale. It was a prank!
Trevor was busy juggling everything he was trying to fix and straining at the leash going baying after this new lead. So I made a quick but quiet exit and left him to it. Who knows? He might even come up with something.
I ducked into a bathroom as Wendy Marrick/ Benjie Purvis, wet a comb, peeled off the bluesuit, and walked out as Jadis Diabolik. Which may not have been the sharpest idea. I was walking down the corridor, poking at Piaget’s tablet to see if anything had fallen out of the sky while off being crafty, as I tried to figure out what Hecate was up to while Freya and The Don were deflecting attention away from her. My real problem is that since Freya’s involved, her plan was most likely to let me construct a viable plan, get it going and for her to hijack it.
I was poking at my tablet, mulling over how to possibly use Hecate as to flush out Kaz’s mysterious ‘Mr. X’ hacker, when I was grabbed from behind, spun around and thrown through an ajar door. Crashing through the door fazed me slightly, while not slowing down my entry into the cramped closet.
Thank God, while my reflexes aren’t what they were, at least they’re up this. It was the Tragic Avenger again. I gotta find out her name, and assign someone to sit on her. I deflected her shiv with my left forearm, opening a gash in it. And that was as good as it got for her. A broken instep, a smashed collar bone, a broken nose and some shattered teeth later, TragAv was only too happy to see Security bust into the closet.
She screamed that I was Jadis Diabolik, Dr. Dad killed her <I forget, they all blend together after a while>, blah, blah, blah. The fact that she looked like she’d been through a hay-baler helped. But the gash along my forearm, along with the shiv on the floor, put the lie to her gabbled story that I’d attacked her. We were cuffed and shackled and frog-marched to the Ship’s Security Office. Normally, the main security office for a ship this size would be a demi-circular room crammed with monitors and a crack trained staff of at least 30 officers (10 per shift), who each had at least 2 Deep-System trips under their belts, plus the Marines. But this ship? The Security Office was a jumped up box with 12 workstations, 4 offices, and most of the real intelligence work was being done by AIs. AIs that Kaz could make sit up and beg for biscuits. And most of the footwork was being done by Bluesuits. And those guys’ primary qualification seemed to be that they watched a lot of Cop Shows.
Then I was taken in to see the lordly Ship’s Security Officer. His office was basically a cubicle with delusions of grandeur. And while the man himself may have had maybe 7 or 8 (biological) years on me, he had a serious case of ‘wet behind the ears’. He had that supercilious air of self-importance that you see in junior officers who’re trying to convince everyone that they know what they’re talking about. I checked his collar tabs: he was a lieutenant. Not a Lieutenant Commander; a Lieutenant. I checked his cuff tabs: this was his first Interstellar voyage, and he had no Deep-System trip chevrons. This was his first for reals voyage. And he didn’t have the requisite battle-hardened Sergeant hovering at his elbow, slyly feeding him hints.
This kid is running security on a ship with Melkir Larson, The Don, Hekate, Umberto Maure, El Jefe, Unity Mitford, ‘Render’ Banks, Tybert, Kaz and ME aboard? Does this count as Child Abuse?
With his best Academy-trained tones of tried patience, the Tinbar said, “Very well, exactly WHAT does Miss Maldengaard have against you, Miss… Diabolik? JADIS Diabolik?”
"Actually, it’s Frost; Jareth Frost.”
The Tinbar gave me the ‘very not funny’ scowl. “Very well, let’s see who you really are…” he stopped cold as he read the header on my file. His face went slack and a film of sweat formed on his brow. “what?” he choked in a small voice. “how?”
"You’re asking ME?” I took a deep breath and warmed up a scam to offer to hold his hand through this trying period, when the Lieutenant showed that while he may have been green (no matter the color of his jumper), he wasn’t an idiot. He adjusted his seating stance in a way that said that he was stepping on a pedal under his desk. A thick, clear, probably bulletproof sheet of plastic shot up from the front of his desk. Overhead lights behind him went into blinding glare mode. Sirens on either side of me started going off, one side and then the other. Then three Marines, not the guys I’d cut a deal with, came in and did a very professional job of putting me down and getting me in binders.
The Tinbar gave out a gusty breath of relief as the Gyrenes indicated that I was secure. “Take her to Solitary,” the Loot said. “Put her in there until the First Embark and have her taken down with the Five-Years.” He gave me an aghast look. “Jareth DIABOLIK? How the HELL…?”
Two of the Marines grabbed me by the arms from either side and dragged me out of the Security Office, down the hall to Solitary. They threw me in and punched in the code for ‘Permanent Resident; release only under Heavy Guard’.
Y’know, I’m disappointed in myself that I didn’t come up with this?
I broke the binders (it’s pretty easy, when you know how) and checked my stash of gear. Thank God, the Marines didn’t know who they were dealing with, and the Lieutenant was still stunned from realizing who he was facing. I hit my tracking bracelet. “Kaz?”
[I’m working on finding a reason to shuffle you around, but it’s hard. The ROTC Nazi they have running Security has put an Ultra-Red Triple A Security rating on you-]
"First, arrange a meet for me with Piaget. Make sure that the Loot doesn’t know about it.”
[At last, a bone]
"Give me five minutes to tie her brain into knots. Then, a half hour after that, I need meets with Banks, du Chantraine and LaClavar, each separately.”
[Do you want the Honeymoon Suite for the last visit?]
"If you can arrange it, I’d be ever-so grateful. And while you’re at it, get a message to the two Pinkskirts that Roman put on Goodkind, to tell her that ‘Colonel Blood’ needs to have a meet in… two and half hours, her quarters.”
[I feel morally obliged to nag at you that the embarkations are set to begin in 36 hours and change]
"Nag, nag, nag… Has Professor Wilkins finished Priority A?”
[Days ago. Finished, tested, and implemented]
"Why didn’t you tell me?”
[You were busy having fun being insidious]
"And what about-”
[Priority B finished, tested, implemented and installed. Priority C finished, tested, implemented and installed. Priority D finished, tested, implemented and installed. And Priority E dismissed as busy work]
A chill lump settled in my stomach. Priority E had been busy work, to keep Wilkins from getting bored and doing something… amusingwith those chemical fabricators. Well, this is what happens when you put a genius on something, and don’t have the hands to put a minder on her. “And… what’s she been up to since she bounced Priority E?”
[Well, Wilkins was under du Chantraine, and she felt that the Professor could use some work-breaks mingling with the general population]
[and Professor Wilkins had a few encounters with the male crew and such]
[Well… Professor Wilkins has become rather taken with the notion of female beauty as a form of power. And… she’s become convinced that having at least a C cup is a necessity for her future female life]
[Among other cosmetic alternations]
"GAH!” Dear God in Heaven, I may not go down in History as a revolutionary or a troublemaker, or even as Dr. Diabolik’s child; I may go down as the idiot who let Jobe Wilkins loose without a leash. “Just… get Piaget in here…” I need something to get my mind off whatever Frankensteinean horror Wilkins is cooking up.
"You IDIOT!” Piaget snapped at me from the other side of the visitation plate. “How am I supposed to get my gold now? And Embarkation day is the heaviest work day of all!”
"First of all, Piaget, this is YOUR fault, not mine,” I said a lot more calmly than the person who was (in theory) free and at liberty. “Part of our deal was that you’d keep that Maldengaard dipstick off my back.”
"The bitch who tried to skewer me? TWICE?”
"Well, if you-”
"SECOND,” I cut her off ruthlessly, “this isn’t even a hitch in my plans, let alone the end of them. When something like this happens to you, Piaget, you throw up your hands and run away. Me? I just say ‘it must be Tuesday’, and shuffle my plans around.
"Third, I have something for you to do: pull this off, and I’ll pay you the entire $100K. I need to go down to Cybelle, there’s no way around it, and it’s not like I want to be on this scow any longer than I absolutely have to. But I won’t go down as ‘Jadis Diabolik’. I need someone else’s identity. This Maldengaard bitch practically stood up and volunteered. Hell, she’s a redhead and everything. I need Maldengaard’s paperwork and tracker.”
"But… Maldengaard’s a prisoner, like you.”
"Everyone expects me to try and weasel my way into the Bluecoats’ ranks,” I said. “But I don’t really need a clean slate. I just need Maldengaard’s identity- altered to be a 1-year convict, a nice amiable nonentity who jaywalked one time too many.”
"It’s busy, Piaget. It’s worse than busy, it’s a madhouse. Just hand one of the Goldstripes a ‘correction’ while he’s up to his ass in alligators, and he’ll sign off, no problem. And Piaget? I’ll throw you a crumb. The gold is hidden in one of the empty modules they’ve stacked on the outermost ring. Get me Maldengaard’s papers and tracker, and I’ll tell you which one of them is the treasure. Just remember, if you decide to try some junior detective deduction as to which of them is it, I can screw you over by just telling Security about our little deal. If you fuck with me, I’ll have nothing to lose.”
"But how are you supposed to explain your disappearance? And it’s not like Maldengaard will just sit around sucking her thumb, you know.”
"Take Maldengaard’s body and arrange an ‘airlock accident’. There will be one body missing, and one missing person to explain it. Everyone will assume that ‘Jadis Diabolik’ somehow escaped from Solitary, tried to be a little too foxy, and paid the price for it.” Piaget gave me a horrorstruck look. “DO IT,” I sneered, “or the only gold you’ll see will be in your teeth.”
Piaget gave me a ‘sucking on frog’ face, but said, “I’ll get you the damned papers and watch.”
My meet with Goodkind was basically to check up on him. He was all a-quiver with the results of his investigation on Freya, The Don and Hekate. The Don was basically running interference for Freya and Hekate, distracting people and pulling Social Engineering stunts to give them openings. Like me, Freya was pulling the ‘parallel strategies’ gambit, running several simultaneous schemes on the basis that if one of them tanked, the others might work. Which works in pulp fiction, but most operatives know better than to try it in real life. But Freya and I don’t have the TIME to nurse a more elegant solution to completion. Trevor was just dying to know what Freya was planning. I already knew; she was going to try a few gambits that I’d considered and discarded. Some I discarded because we didn’t have time. Some I discarded because we didn’t have the gear. And some I discarded because I have a soul. I did my best ‘Doctor Watson’ impression to buck up Trevor, and told him that ‘Colonel Blood’ was on the job. As I left, I gave his ‘assistants’ Faith and Jinn a look that said, ‘Call Roman the second it goes pear-shaped.’
My meetings with Banks, du Chantraine and Roman were just to let them know that I was still active, and the plan was still on the rails. I also told them to make sure that all their people shut down everything for at least 8 hours and got some real sleep. Win, Lose or Draw, tomorrow wasn’t going to be a bear- it was going to be a Grizzly.
TIME UNTIL DISEMBARKMENT: 9 HOURS 10 MINUTES 26 SECONDS
They played Reveille into Solitary Confinement. Now what does that say about the people running this tub? I ignored it until Lt. Dulago, the head Security chimp, informed me that the transfer shuttles where expected in 9 Standard hours, and I’d be escorted under armed guard to be put on the first shuttle. If I wasn’t ready at the appointed time, I’d be beaten and dragged to the shuttle. I just gave Dulago my best smartass smirk and sneered, “I know where you bunk.”
The second after Dulago gave orders for no visitors and an armed guard on my cell, and then cut the connection, Tybert opened the panel in the roof and handed me my breakfast. We shared a good hearty officers’ breakfast with real eggs and good Irish Tea. Never have coffee before a big operation; the last thing you need is caffeine jitters, or worse, a caffeine crash.
One thing about being the son- daughter- offspring of ‘Dr. Diabolik’, and a professional dissenter in my own right, is that I’ve experienced a lot of ‘D-Days’ in my life. I’m not blasé about these things, but not having ‘I’ve never done this before’ jitters is a blessing. As Tybert and I ate, Kaz informed me that 11 chevrons of 15 shuttles each in formation were approaching on schedule. But of course they are; a Spacer who isn’t a fiend about precision is a dead body floating in a cloud of debris. Even Piaget, for all her faults, has all her tools exactly arranged in proper order, and knows the layout of the 457 backwards and forwards.
Kaz also informed me that A&M1 (du Chantraine) had ‘Project Z’ 98% complete. The downside was that the remaining 2% were the most vital parts of that couldn’t be kludged together out of scraps, as the rest of it was. The upside was that there were suitable alternatives on the ship. They’d be missed the second there was an inventory, but any inventories done would be way too late to be problems for us. One thousand, three-hundred and seventeen of the 1320 cargo modules allotted for transfer had been moved from deep in the ship to temporary racks on the outer rim of the habitat ring. For all the butt-ache and hurry-up-and-wait involved, the combination of automated lading system and grunt labor seemed to work.
Gwen informed me that everyone had been given their pair of blue coveralls, stencil kits and spray bottles. As I pulled on my own pair and dipped my special comb in my tea as to turn my hair blonde. Tybert led me out of bondage and it was time for us to lead the rest of my people out of bondage.
I quickly found Cutlass and ordered her and her two buddies to secure a location on the second level. People would come and do stuff. They were to keep anyone from stumbling over them, but stay apart as to keep out of sight. The password was: ‘Sunflower’. Well, if nothing else, it will keep them from getting underfoot.
The Energy section of the ship was separate from the Engineering section. That is because the Energy section was centered around the Bussard Ramscoop at the front of the ship, while the Engineering section was centered around the Fusion reactor/drive at the rear. The job of the Energy department was to run a secondary fusion reactor that turned everything that wasn’t hydrogen that was scooped up by the Ramscoop into hydrogen, packed that into a pre-fusion capsule roughly the size of a can of coffee, and either sent it down the line to the main reactor at the aft of the ship, or stashed it in a reservoir of JIC capsules. Why? Because the SECOND law of Space Travel is: ‘Keep the reactor clean. PERIOD’.
"Why are you here?” A&M/B/3 (I understand that she answers to ‘Genevieve’) asked me with a noticeable but not awkward French (Nice?) accent.
"Well, YOU are here to open this diversion shunt the second the capsule is ready to be collected for the JIC reservoir. SHE,” I pointed at S&T/C/2, a strapping brunette named Harley who apparently got the Wonder Woman package, “is here to snag the capsule and get it in the cooler the second it shows up.” Nobody told ME there was a ‘Wonder Woman’ package available… “SHE,” I pointed at S&T/B/1, a lithe Levantine type who answered to ‘Bucky’ (I will not ask, I don’t want to know…) “is here to get the cooler to the assembly point ASAP. SHE,” I pointed to S&T/A/2, an Asian girl with the body language of a stone-cold killer, whose name no one had the nerve to ask, “is here to hit anyone who stumbles across us here over the head.”
Genevieve started to say that she knew that, but I overrode her saying, “And _I_ am here because I’ve actually done this before.”
"You’ve done this before?” her eyes widened, even through that odd mask that covered her entire face.
"I’ve led a fascinating life.” I handed out face shields, thermal aprons and mittens, and throat protectors. The General Population thinks of pre-fusion capsules as hot (when they bother to think of them at all), but actually they’re only slightly warmer than liquid oxygen. The can is to insulate the capsule, but even then, the can could freeze a Florida swimming pool in August. As I unrolled an insulating blanket, I asked Genevieve, “By the way- what’s with the mask? I mean, it can’t offer that much protection.”
"Oh this? This is something that Professor Wilkins is testing out. She-”
"WHAT?” Harley and I yelped as one. “You let that maniac Wilkins do something medical to you?” Harley added.
"You let JOBE WILKINS do anything to you?” I contributed.
"Well, she said that it will-” I cut her off as Kaz contacted me.
[Big News- LITTLE LULU got one of A&M’s cast-off gauss-gun projects, and is shooting up Gold sector of Level 5]
"What got HER knickers in a twist?”
[Her boyfriend, Byford. I’m not a 100%, but I have some tertiary evidence that Big Boy got all ansty about the big drop-off, got the perky little thing in a closet, and started making ‘Bess you is my woman now’ moves]
"And Mitty blew her cork. I’m amazed they lasted this long. How much attention is Security paying this?”
[Meh. They sent a squad of Marines to deal with her, but if anything, they’re adding observation drones to corridor patrols. They may regret that]
"Okay, Mr. Bones, what DID the Rabbi say to the Priest and the Vicar in the bar?”
[NANCY and her boys are sneaking up on SLUGGO’s treehouse]
"Are SLUGGO’s girls there?”
[Yes, they seem to be hiding out from doing their chores. And I’m guessing they’re wondering when you’re going to come across on your end of the deal]
"What makes you say that?”
[Maure got a gun from somewhere, and the rest have Ouchy sticks]
"There’s an old Corsican saying: ‘Fair Play consists of double-crossing Umberto Maure before he can double-cross you’.”
[NANCY and SLUGGO are having words. It’s getting nasty- they’re talking in swear-symbols. Oh, NANCY just mentioned the G word]
[Gold. All bets are off. Shall I drop the bucket of water?]
"Jenny, what’s the ETA on the next capsule?”
"Kaz, any chance of-”
[Cutting power to the module and shutting off the lights in the corridor]
"Yeah, but there go the Video Download rights.”
[Oh, LULU is getting sloppy. She just took out an entire panel of stress monitors]
"And entire PANEL? How big-”
[She’s an old school Testosterone Junkie who just got her cherry popped by some doink she would have beaten up for his lunch money before. She-]
"She got the biggest gun she could pick up, sorry, stupid question, forget I asked. Jenny? ETA?”
"And what’s going on in the module?”
[Lots of thrashing around. The Marines are bigger and more rugged, but SLUGGO’s bitches are nastier and have more experience in the clinch]
"Maybe we could pipe in some romantic mood music…”
[We have gunfire! One, two, three… four… and five. I hear someone I think is NANCY screaming in pain]
"Kaz, what is Security doing?”
"They’ve dispatched armed and armored Marines to deal with LULU, who just potted a drone on the fly.”
"Kaz… wait for it… NOW!”
[We have detonation of demo pack. As per emergency protocol, Cargo Module #000-KLF-345G has been ejected from the exterior rack and is being forced away from the ship by the Ramscoop field]
"Okay, everybody ready… wait for it… wait for it… waaaiiitNOW!”
As a group, we four dropped the ten feet to the Capsule Shunt Duct. Jenny immediately disengaged the safety coupling. Then Harley shoved a prybar into the duct, forcing the physical shunt open. I wrapped that thermal blanket around it as Jenny created an electromagnetic shunt in the capsules track. Harley used her prybar to guide the capsule into the cooler that Bucky held. The cooler didn’t shatter into a thousand pieces, and I was able to get that blanket around the cooler in time. Harley slammed the physical duct shut, and Jenny restored the system to normal. And the unnamed Asian chick stood there, looking sexy and deadly.
"Kaz! Is the-”
[Security registered a momentary operating irregularity, which has corrected itself. There is a bookkeeping glitch. It would take the Engineers hours of studying the operating history of THAT specific component to find anything. We’re golden]
"We’re golden! Good job, people. Bucky, get that cooler to the assembly point. Remember, the password is ‘Sunflower’. Until I say it’s something else. Harley, get Jenny back to A&M cell B; if anything breaks, she’ll be invaluable. Jenny, I’d kiss you, but Harley would probably break my face if I did. Scatter, people!”
Ditching the thermal padding as I did, I made my way to the assembly point via a different route than Bucky and the Ninjette. As I bustled, I reflected on Piaget. Yes, Piaget was a petty despot and a textbook example of the kind of person who lets the shitwads run the world; but did she deserve to die for it? I won’t bat an eye at being rid of Umberto Maure; he was a murderer, a cheat, a thief and a tyrant who’d kill just to be on top of any given situation. But Piaget was the kind of ultimately harmless nonentity that I’ve told myself I’m jumping through all these hoops to help. But as I poked away at it, I couldn’t make myself grieve for Piaget. When you boiled it down, it wasn’t that I regretted killing Piaget; I regretted not regretting killing Piaget. It was more a vague abstract philosophical disappointment than real guilt or shame. I should hold Human Life in more regard, even a bedbug like Piaget. Yes, Piaget had more than her fair share of flaws, but what human being doesn’t? Yes, for all her annoying pettiness, Piaget had some measure of humanity, and it is that humanity that I grieve for. I will be more careful next time, lest I wander down that road that Dad has gone so far down. Piaget, or at least my memory of her, will be my warning post to consider the lives of others, no matter how annoying.
Typical. Even dead, Piaget is a pain in my ass.
Finally, I made my way there, where A&M-1 (du Chantraine) was fiddling with inserting the capsule into Project Z. “Where’s Bla-er, A&M/C? This is her bailiwick, way more than yours A&M1.”
"I agree completely!” du Chantraine said as she gingerly adjusted the cooling sleeve around the capsule. “Alas, the second that she’d actually be useful, she claims that she’s found a dangerous flaw in your plan, blither, blither, pompous faux-Shakespearean allusion, blither.”
"Dangerous flaw? Did she say what it was?”
"No, she just grabbed her three assistants, including that ‘Jenny’ who helped you, and made tracks without saying anything.”
"What? You’re telling me? That Belphegor? Found a flaw in my plan? And didn’t hang around to rub it in my face?”
du Chantraine’s face fell, she paled and her eyes went wide. “But… she wouldn’t… not now… she’d totally fuck us all over!”
"We’re talking about Belphegor! This is EXACTLY when she’d try to stick it to us!”
"BITCH! She hasn’t been female a week, and already she’s just like my second wife!”
Then I got a call from Kaz. “Now what?” I asked with icy dread in my heart.
[One of the Yellowjackets, no one I’ve noticed up to now, just released a module full of Five-years. And they’ve started a nice little riot that the Marines are too busy to handle and the Bluesuits aren’t up to putting down]
[Well, you’ve been the subject of a LOT of speculation, especially in the Pinkskirt and Yellowjacket contingents. A lot of crazy theories as to what you’re going to pull have been going around, some of which you’ve started, some of which Freya started, and some of which probably started as the plot of a TV show. My guess, based on said Yellowjacket’s file, is that he was trying to snag onto a berth with your entourage by pulling the opening act of whatever you were up to, for you.]
"Which sectors are affected?”
[Green and Yellow]
"Fnark.” Just as I was trying to frame how we’d cope with that, Kaz informed me that Trevor was trying to contact ‘Wendy Merrick’ on the ship’s ‘telephone’ system. Given that we’d agreed that ‘Benjie’ would stick to the shadows as much as possible, and the general havoc going down, this had to be major. “Frack, it never rains but it pours.” I went over to the module’s phone hookup and waved the others to be silent. “TREVOR? Trev, what’s the matter? In case you haven’t heard, there’s a RIOT going down in Green and Yellow sectors!”
[Exactly! And there’s a HEIST going down in Red sector, level 3, band 65, module 4!]
"And what is in Red sector, level: 3, band- whatever you just said that’s worth stealing, just at this time?”
[FILES, Benjie, Hard Text files of Colonists’ records]
I paused for a second to wonder why that module, or at least the contents of that module, were still on level 3. Faust had already had nice discreet demo packets planted with pressure triggers planted on it. Fifteen minutes after that module hit the exterior rack, two of those packets would go off, and the module would be flung well away from the ship and any approaching shuttles. And a half hour after that, another packet would go off, exposing the pressurized module to vacuum, and blowing many crates of incriminating records out the door. Not enough to completely empty the module, but enough to create a paper cloud around the module. And no shuttle pilot is going to waste fuel risking his ship to penetrate that, just to pick up some paperwork. “Okay, that’s something Jareth Frost would go for, and it definitely fits with some of the rumors I’ve heard. Do you have any backup, beyond those two Pinkskirts?”
[Yeah, I’ve got a squad of five blues with me. But I need some backup on the a-spin side of the module. And it’s not Jareth; it’s that sneaky blonde, Freya. She’s got a team of five Yellowjackets, a couple of Pinkskirts, and some guys in Orange] Larsen has already recruited some Fivers? MAN, she works fast! [Thing is, this doesn’t have the ring of something that Jareth would pull. The timing’s wrong, and it isn’t as smooth as something that he’d pull] Color me honored; an unsolicited testimonial regarding my operating technique.
"Trev, I think that this is a manufactured crisis cooked up by Mr. X to force us together. I have some backup for you, some people they’ll never expect,” I pointed a finger at Banks. To my surprise, Banks shook her head. Muting the phone, I asked “WHAT?”
"We have to take care of EYEBALL.”
"I can do that!”
"First, I’ve pulled off a raid like that. You haven’t. Second, if you’re helping your old buddy Trevor while EYEBALL goes down, you have a perfect alibi. Third, if we go, we can’t hold back. We’ll probably kill a bunch of them, and there’s no way that good ol’ Trev is gonna back up a bunch Pinks he’s never seen before. And, on top of that, if we come in like the cavalry, Trevor’s gonna wanna know about us, maybe try to fold us into his organization.” CRAP. “Frost, for the luvvachrist- DELEGATE?”
I let out an aggravated breath. I looked at Cutlass, Viper and Stiletto, who were giving me ‘ooh, ooh, pick me, pick me!’ looks. “Okay, let’s go. And remember, I am NOT Jareth Frost or Jadis Diabolik. You don’t know my name, you just know that I’m a Bluegirl with some serious pull. Are any of you carrying any kind of unfair advantage? Then ditch it; we’re gonna have to do this the hard way.”
With that, we pelted down the corridor. For the first time since I came out of the tank, I actually hoped we’d run into a Goldstripe or a Redstripe or even a Blueboy with a Cop fantasy. No such luck.
When we got to the module corridor in question, it didn’t look like a daring criminal escapade being foiled. It looked like a brawl in a high school hallway. A sleek Svenska looking blonde pinkskirt was haranguing two other pinkskirts as they were fiddling with an access panel. Six blueboys (including Trevor, who was a guy where it counted) were mixing it up hand-to-hand with five Yellowjackets and getting the worst of it. The three large, apelike prisoners in orange that were backing up the Yellowjackets were the deciding factor in that. I took it all in, including the fact that while Cutlass and Stiletto were right there, Viper was nowhere to be seen. Crud.
But that lack of a nail made me stop the charge that would have ended in my own private Waterloo. It made it abundantly clear to me that even if Viper were there, four slender girls wouldn’t make the difference in this fight. Trevor had obviously already alerted Security, and they were nowhere to be seen, probably because they were busy trying to find a pint-sized psycho with a gun that was bigger than she was. So, when you’re outnumbered, confusion is your best weapon.
I let out an ear-piercing whistle and shrieked, “WHAT do you IDIOTS think you’re DOING?”
Freya stepped forward, and started “We’re-”
Hearing a trainload of Marxist-Leninist word salad chugging down the tracks, I cut her off. “NOT YOU.” I pointed at the Orange-atang (ew. They’d obviously ‘modified’ him; he was tall yet squat, with over-long arms, a barrel chest, short bandy legs and no neck. Memo to self: don’t use the ‘Orange-atang’ barb. It hits WAY too close to home) who was holding Trevor up off the ground by her overalls with his left hand, his right cocked to smack her one. “YOU. What do you think you’re doing?”
"I’m gonna clock this-”
"NOT THAT,” I overran him. And yes, this trick works- cutting people off confuses them and gets them to listen to you. “WHY are you helping HER?” I pointed at Freya.
Freya started another barrage of verbal assault, but the Fiver waved her down, no doubt already tired of her nattering. “We’re gonna destroy all the records, so’s the Blues don’t know who’s who.” That sounds unsettlingly familiar. I wonder who Larsen has been talking to.
"I hate to tell you this, guy, but the only one that’s gonna help is HER,” I jabbed a finger at Freya.
"Guys, LOOK at yourselves, at each other. So she gets you a blue suit- so what? The way you look, the only thing you three CAN be are Five-year prisoners. If you try to get on a shuttle looking like that, no matter how good her forgeries are- and really, how good can they be?- The Redstripes will fucking SHOOT you, and get a bonus for it!”
Freya yammered at them, telling them that they looked FINE, that I was just yanking their chains (can’t blame her for that; I was) and all they had to do was just balls it through. But it wasn’t enough. They obviously knew exactly how much shit they were in. One of them looked at the tracker on his wrist, put Two and Two together, and came up with something less than Five. A scowl of pure fatalistic disgust on his face, the Mathlete grunted, turned and prowled off in the general direction of the lift. The other two Ora- ah, Fivers looked at each other. You could almost see it as the realization clicked in. They waddled off after their buddy, leaving Freya without her heavy hitters.
Folding my arms across my chest, I gave the Yellowjackets an ‘I just won’ grin. “So, Guys- even IF you manage to get rid of all the records in there, how long do you think it will take her to kill each and every one of you?”
"Why would she kill US?” a Russian-ethnic appearing Yellowjacket asked with culturally appropriate paranoia.
"Because you clowns know what she looks like,” I said in my best Second Grade Teacher manner. And you could see the looks of horrified realization dawn on their faces. Yep, anyone that Freya could recruit that quickly just had to be the kind of bad actor who didn’t trust his comrades in arms any further then they could throw them. “Also, what they’re trying won’t destroy the records in that module. The best it could do would move the module to where she and whoever she lets live will relocate them in yet another module that she’ll recover later, downside. Where she’ll use them to blackmail all the non-bluesuits who’re screaming that they’re volunteers and how DARE they treat them like prisoners? Possession of those files will give her clubs that she can use over EVERYONE who goes down, especially after she finds forgers who can turn real Volunteers into… oh… Identity Thieves? Hackers? Pedophiles?” I made my grin turn vicious. “Oh, and of COURSE, she’ll share all that lovely money and power with the people who helped her when she was down…”
Then the safety barrier for the module came down, you could see the door to the module disengage and sink, and another module slid down to replace it. I gave Freya and the Yellowjackets a fresh smile of triumph. “See? Security just moved that module to down to the exterior ring, where it will transshipped right along with everything else, no problem.” Freya looked at the two pinkskirts, who shook their heads, affirming that they weren’t the ones who’d done that.
The Yellowjackets’ mental calculations were much more abstract than the Fivers, but they came to the same Less-Than-Five sum total. One by one, they peeled themselves off the Blue Boys and jogged down the hallway, no doubt to try and sneak their ways back onto whatever work crew Freya got them off.
Trevor’s Blue Boys tried to snag Freya and her two remaining (and probably very nervous at the moment) followers, but they’d been on the losing side of that fight, and it showed. I didn’t try to bring down Freya, no matter how satisfying it would have been, as hanging around probably would have brought me face-to-face with Dulago, which was the last thing I needed. I made my excuses and the four of us rode off into the deep space equivalent of the sunset.
"Where did you get to?”
"Well, remember you put me on finding a way of getting rid of Union Mitford? Well, I did find one- well, six, actually; having options is always a good thing. But I also found the maintenance and repairs crawlways for the module shuffling system. I juggled things so the module with all the files was taken all the way up to the very top, where by the time they find the thing, they’ll be halfway back to Earth. So, by the time those hard records get back here- who’ll give a shit? If anything, I think I unclogged a jam in the lading system.”
"Well done, Viper! For this, when we get dirtside, I’ll make an appointment with a competent hair stylist, so you can get a ‘do that actually suits you.”
TIME UNTIL DISEMBARKMENT: 6 HOURS 18 MINUTES 42 SECONDS
We were halfway to the second assembly point, when Cutlass pointed out that the nearest utility phone was buzzing SOS. I picked up the phone. “Duffy’s Tavern, where the Elite meet to eat. Archie the manager speakin'. Duffy ain't here—oh, hello, Duffy.”
Without even a token attempt to figure out that ancient bit of business, Kaz said, [Yet another dramatic development, you’re closest and already in transit. I have trackers for most of Belphegor’s section, plus one for S&T Harley, and one that Security has tagged for Hekate, all in one module on level 4]
Suddenly, Blackadar’s reference to a ‘dangerous flaw’ came back to haunt me. “Dammit, I knewthat I should have just SHOT Blackadar when I first ID’d her!”
[You didn’t have a gun on you at the time]
"That’s no excuse for being sloppy! Can you listen in on their tracking bands?”
[I’ve tried, but Belphegor’s running some gear that acts like a White Noise generator]
"Okay, as I recall, Belpho’s squad is the tech-monkey contingent. This could get very nasty.”
[Oh, I forgot to mention, in addition to all that, I have trackers for Professor Wilkins and her three assistants in the same module as the rest]
"And what IS that module?” I croaked.
[On-board medication processing and bio-sampling analysis. Its primary use is for keeping tabs on the clones being nurtured in vitro during transit]
"Clones? What clones?”
[Well, besides the colonists, prisoners and trade goods, this ship is carrying: cloned livestock (horses, cattle, sheep, goats, llamas, pigs, poultry, etc.), pets (dogs, cats, not rats, etc.), seafood (fish, octopi, shellfish, lobster, crabs, etc.), diverse species of ‘support, sport and ecological placeholder wildlife’ and sprouted varieties of crop, ornamental, terraforming and timber plants. And… hah? According to this, there are 7,000 unique human clones nurtured in vitro during transit, 5,000 to the biological age of 3.6 years old, 2,000 to ‘newborn’, with a 2:3 male/ female ratio for both sets.]
[Frost? Remember? Belphegor? Hekate? Wilkins?]
"Crap! What module? What address?” Kaz gave me an address one level up and three bands over. I gave the crew the signal to haul ass.
"Boss, what is it?” Cutlass asked.
"If we’re lucky, it’s only a bomb that will blast the entire ship to pieces!”
"You said Hekate was involved?” Viper asked with a snarl.
"Yeah, you’ve been a very good girl, Viper!” I answered. “You get 5 minutes alone with her while our backs are turned.” Hey, as Dr. Dad always told Mal and me, sometimes you have to give the troops a Scooby snack. Whatever a Scooby snack is.
But when we got there, instead of fiendish laughter or the sounds of pitched combat, we heard- bickering?
Bickering. Advantage: Frost.
I gestured for Cutlass, Stiletto and Viper to follow my lead. I gave Viper a look that said ‘You can have Hekate, but on MY schedule’. Viper nodded that she’d be a good girl and only go berserk under orders. I listened at the door, and was amazed that anything so evil could be so stupid and banal. Hekate and Belphegor were bickering, as each had double-crossed each other and had ‘the upper hand’. Belphegor wanted to make everyone aboard the ship sick, as to force a power concession; Hekate wanted to infect everyone boarding the shuttles, as to spread the disease among the colonists, as to force a power concession there. Both had triggers that the other didn’t want activated, both had antidotes to the others’ agent. Both agents would work through the yeast that they thought had been primed with the fungiphage; neither agent will really DO anything, as I hadn’t really seeded the nutriyeast stock with the fungiphage active strain.
Y’know, I could just walk away and let Hekate and Belphegor yap at each other until the Embarkation was announced; it would be one way of keeping both of them out of trouble. But I don’t want Prof. Wilkins to get bored, and I do need Jenny, Harley, and the rest of the techs for actual work.
Besides, I have an opportunity to be rid of Hekate AND Belphegor. I’d never forgive myself if I just let this slip away. I gave the signal and we walked into the chamber as if we were the inspection crew. “What’s this?” I asked, “Can’t I leave you kids alone and expect you to play nice?”
What I found was a surprisingly advanced biology lab for a prison ship. Though, considering what they’d done to us all during transit, it’s not really surprising at all. Give me a demerit for being a dummy; I could really have done things with this lab, if I’d known about it. And God knows, Wilkins was doing things with it. She was wearing gray Crew overalls, and seated at a control workstation, working the controls with the fluid graceful certainty of a concert organist. She had three women, also in Crew grays- and wearing the same cryptic mask as Spark- and Wilkins.
I know that it was Wilkins, as only Jobe Wilkins could work those controls that gracefully while blithely ignoring the bitchfight that was going down right in front of her. Belphegor was screaming right into the face of a lovely college-age Mediterranean beauty in a yellow coverall, who was giving her what-for and then some right back. They were both playing the ‘deadman’s switch’ gambit with a handset in their off hands. They each had backup. Belphegor had the advantage of firepower, while Hekate had the numbers and pure mean. Belphegor had a volt-thrower in her good hand, and a collection of nasty tricks on a tool belt. At her back Belpho had Jenny and Harley, and two blonde girls who were wearing the same kind of mask as Jenny. They each had kitbashed assault rifles. But only Harley looked like she had the ‘nads to use it. Given Belphegors tech-head proclivities, she also had three flying gun-drones and four wheeled drones in ‘surprise’ carapaces that could have been anything, including (or especially, as it’s Belphegor) bluff decoys. I get the impression that Belphegor had brought in Wilkins and her assistants as further backup, and Wilkins was leaving her twisting in the wind. Surprise, surprise.
On the other side of the room, what Hekate (at least, that’s the way the smart money is betting) lacked in firepower, she more than made up for in numbers and the pure willingness to get nasty. There were 2 Fivers carrying improvised maces, 3 Yellowjackets with thrown-together axes with spikes on the other end from the blades, and two pink-skirts with long daggers at Hekate’s back. Hekate herself had a very real factory-made semi-automatic pistol in her good hand.
"Well, it’s about time I caught up with you Kallista,” I said as I entered. “God alone knows what damage you might do if you weren’t handled properly.”
"And you are?” Hekate demanded.
"You didn’t take the precaution of having me fingered?’ I tisked, “You’re getting sloppy in your young age. The old you would have made sure of that the second she heard that I was aboard. They’re calling me Jadis these days. Jadis Diabolik.”
"Then Jadis Diabolik is the one losing her grip,” Hekate shot back. “Jareth Frost never would have been fool enough to walk into a room where I hold all the advantages.”
I gave her a dismissive chuckle. “You? Hold all the advantages? You’re holding a gun that I allowed you to have, threatening to add a catalyst that I told Professor Wilkins to prepare, to add to a fungiphage that I placed in the yeast tanks. Kallista, you got nothing. We arranged this stirring drama, so I could hand you over to Ship’s Security, to disprove the libelous mistake that I was ‘Jareth Frost’. Come on, put down the gun; the shuttles are due to arrive in a few hours, and I need to be a big damn shining heroine before we begin to embark.”
"Aren’t you forgetting the none-too-trivial matter that besides this gun, I have armed followers who aren’t quivering cowards?” Hekate shot back with a mocking smile.
"Those?” I cocked a head at Harley, Jenny and the two others. “Those are the ones I let you see; not the ones who’re going to kill you. Seriously, Thessellarean, I’d prefer you lot alive and keeping Security busy, but a job lot of bodies will do the trick.”
"How very clever,” Hekate purred. “But the farce has grown stale; Do It.”
Okay, I admit it, this was not one of my shining moments. One of the ‘surprise’ carapaces near Belphegor popped open, and the surprise was a sphere about the size of a bowling ball with telescoping ‘octopus’ arms was launched at me. The arms wrapped around me. As I- and for more to the point, Cutlass, Viper and Stiletto- were wrapping our heads around this, the tricycle drone tried to zap Cutlass and Viper, a ‘spook’ flying snare shot out of the other ‘surprise’ carapace.
Y’know, in retrospect, it makes perfect sense that Belphegor would sell me out to Hekate. Idiots always think they’re geniuses, and Belphegor all but crows her genius to the rooftops.
Harley, Jenny and the other two just stood there, holding their rifles, looking aghast, but not doing anything. Professor Wilkins took a loaded injector from the compiler she’d been working on. She calmly walked over to us and starting with me, gave us shots in our femoral arteries.
I have just been injected by Professor Jobe Wilkins, in an artery that’s used for wide-dispersal agents. When did my life go so wrong?
"There. Now *I* am in command of this situation, as is only just and proper,” Belphegor huffed.
"Hey!” Harley objected, “We only went along with this because you said you were working under orders from Frost!”
"No, I said that the mastermind was making her move,” Belphegor smugged. “I was speaking of myself.”
Belfo started on yet another of her trademark faux-Shakespearean brag/ rants. Hekate rolled her eyes with a ‘oh gimme a break’ sigh. Then she casually, almost negligently raised her pistol and shot Belphegor in the battery pack on her belt. Then she shifted her gun to cover Viper, who was reaching for something stashed under her skirt. The she opened her mouth to say something, but Wilkins cut her off. “Not yet.”
"I said, not yet. The injection hasn’t taken effect yet.” Hekate’s face flushed with anger and she opened her mouth to speak, but Wilkins shushed her again. “Not. Yet. Even with optimum arterial distribution, the injection still takes time to kick in.” Oh wonderful. A hostage bacteria. You can’t really use a virus to hold someone hostage. But then again, we are talking about Jobe Wilkins… He’d figure out how to use a virus, just to keep on her game.
Hekate waited impatiently as Wilkins counted off the time. “NOW.” But just as Hekate opened her mouth, there was an ear-raping shriek from some-where that just ran a rusty nail up and down your spine. It was nasty for us, but Hekate and her followers clutched their hands to their ears and gave out gasps of pain. Finally free to move, Viper pulled a slender glass dagger from that hip sheath and jumped Hekate. “MUNKAVALLOLOK OROSZLANJAI!” she screamed. My Hungarian is rusty- what do you want from a translator chip?- but I remembered that Cutlass had said that Viper had worked with the Retro-DeLeonist insurgency in Budapest. And Hekate had played a major role in the sabotage that turned that into a bloodbath. The DeLeonists had been too moderate and ameliorant for Hekate’s brand of extremism. From her battle cry and the fervor that she was jabbing at Hekate with, I’d say that Viper had lost friends and comrades, maybe a lover, in that debacle.
But fervor and vengeance aside, attacking someone holding a gun with a dagger is still bringing a knife to a gun fight.
And speaking of knives and gunfights, Harley was battering at one of the axe-wielding Yellowjackets with her assault rifle. Jenny, apparently a tech-head through and through, was hard at unlocking the octobot that had me wrapped up. The two blonde techies had jumped Belphegor and were grabbing real- if juryrigged- weapons from her tool belt. Not that they were very good shots with them. But they kept the Fivers busy hugging the floor and clutching their ears.
But the sole virtue that I will grant Hekate is that she isn’t a coward; a vicious, cold-blooded killer, but not a coward. She managed to put a bullet into Viper, and pushed her off. She staggered through the laser fire, checked one of the feeds and gave a grin that would have been better suited to an evil old hag than a fresh young woman. “You lose this time, Frost!” she yelled triumphantly. “Now I have that hellpit by the balls! Oh!” she faux paused with embarrassment, “That doesn’t mean as much to you anymore, does it? Well, don’t worry- you won’t survive to take the blame! KILL!”
If I need anything to assure myself that Hekate and I aren’t on the same moral plane, I can remind myself of this and several other times that she left her backup twisting in the wind. On her attack order, a few of the Yellowjackets and Fivers tried taking the fight to the twins. All that did was make it easy for Hekate to jump onto the side of Belphegor’s ‘egg’ armored float chair and hold on as Belfo went through the door to safety.
The twins had the good tactical sense to focus on taking down the Fivers one at a time, and Harley was able to keep the Yellowjackets off balance. I was busy putting pressure on the bullet wound in Viper’s side. Then ‘Ace’, the leader of Security & Transportation’s Recon & Access cell charged in with two more girls, each of them carrying juryrigged but very deadly carbines. They focused their fire on the Fiver who roared at them and raised his club. Well, he was an obvious target, the biggest target, and taking him down drove home the fact that we were deadly serious. Men, especially professional criminals, tend to have a problem with taking women seriously in combat.
But seeing your ‘big buddy’ (I’ll be generous) ripped apart by a burst of fire tends to make even the most staunch male chauvinist rethink his position. One of the Yellowjackets made the mistake of rethinking his position while he was in melee with Harley. And while I don’t know what Harley was like before, she definitely got a good deal on her new physique. The second the Yellowjacket’s attention slipped, she used the assault rifle to pry the makeshift axe out of his hand, took it and cut a nasty gash in his shoulder. When Ace’s crew cut down a second Fiver, the rest broke and ran.
We let them run. Ace looked at Harley and asked, “Why didn’t you idiots use the guns first?”
"Because they’re mockups!” Harley barked back. “Belphegor said she couldn’t fabricate the real things, so we’d use those to bluff them.”
"Not the point!” I snapped, holding a trembling Viper as I applied pressure to her wound. “You have First Aid gear,” (hey, it was on their belts), “USE it, get her stable and evac her to the triage unit.”
Ace didn’t like it, but you don’t get to be a Rescue Worker, even in Toronto, by not having your priorities strait. Heck the reason she’s way out here and not back in Toro, is that she probably had her priorities straight, but her superiors didn’t. As they did first aid on Viper’s wound and got her ready for transportation, I told them, “Spread the word: If anyone sees Belphegor, ICE her. H-Hour is the second that I get to the meet point, and Belphegor has nothing to gain by letting us succeed, but could buy herself some brownie points by selling us out. This is IT. In six hours, we’re all gonna be free or dead. GO.”
Ace nodded. They contrived a stretcher out of those bogus assault rifles taped together and carried her out.
Once they were out, I faced Professor Wilkins. “Okay, what was that you injected us with?”
"The counteragent to Project B, which was delivered when the vicious little thing ‘released her deadman’s switch’,” Wilkins explained as she pulled more phials from that compiler, loaded them into injectors, and handed out the injectors to her followers.
"Wilkins, why are those phials marked differently?”
"I’m experimenting with different formulas,” Wilkins answered casually. “The differences in side effects will be very illuminating.” She turned to her crew and said, “Remember, keep records of who you inoculate with what; we’ll need that to keep track of the side effects.”
"Why did you come here?”
"I’ve run into Belphegor before,” Wilkins said. “I always remember stupidity, and stupidity gussied up with bad faux-Shakespearean blither is especially memorable. I knew not to trust her, so I took advantage of her obvious treachery to get my hands on some decent equipment and distribute projects B, C and D on a sane schedule.” With that, she walked out, her entourage in tow. One of the girls had an ‘oh, the stories I could tell you’ look you could see even through that mask.
I turned to the rest of my people. “Okay, we gotta haul. But there’s always something; I need someone to check the room after we leave, in case something unexpected turns up. It usually does. Any volunteers?”
Stiletto raised her hand. “I wasn’t good for shit in that fight. I’m willing to take the risk that the Marines will show up before I leave, just to show that I’m not yellow.”
"Okay, Stiletto, I can see that,” I said. “Just remember- you’re a girl now, and the guys answering the alarm will either be Marines or Volunteers; so crying and batting your eyes at them is a valid tactic. Just get to Purple sector, level 4, band 12, module 5 inside 25 minutes, or we’ll leave without you. We are cutting it WAY too close as it is; I’m not endangering everyone working with us for one girl.”
"Purple sector, level 4, band 12, module 5 in 21 minutes. Got it, I’ll be there.”
"You do that, Stiletto,” I said. “The Iron Law of Combat is that Soldiers Die- Period. But that doesn’t make losing a loyal friend any less painful.”
And with that bit of maudlin behind us, we made tracks for Purple sector.
TIME UNTIL DISEMBARKMENT: 4 HOURS 43 MINUTES 53 SECONDS
As I unlocked her (4) datajacks, I asked Wilkins, “What did you do to Hekate’s goons? That sonic attack was annoying, but nothing like how they were reacting.”
"Oh that? That was just a kicky little bacterial variant of Spinal Meningitis,” Wilkins breezed, her version of shop talk. “The first sign is painful susceptibility to audial stimuli, especially in the ultrasonic ranges- what you heard was just the bleed-over from the cheap sound system- which escalates until the subject is exposed to painful stimulus from every sensory input. But it gets really fun when the subject experiences ultraviolet burn from the induced albinism.”
Y’know, it strikes me that I’ll never have a better opportunity to be rid of Jobe Wilkins…
"By the way Wilkins, have those masks done their jobs?”
"No, it will take months for the facial reconfiguration to-”
"Because people wearing black masks are really obvious.”
Wilkins locked as the point visibly sank in. “Girls! First take inhaler Blue, remove the mask and apply Lotion D.”
As several people sacrificed the last of their manhoods to female vanity, Stiletto came through the door panting for breath. “Oh good, you’re still here,” she said.
"You made it with 5 minutes to spare,” I said. “Here, put this on.” I handed her a blue coverall, identical to the ones the Volunteers wore, except for any identifying marks. As Stiletto took off her pink skirt and pulled on the bluecoat, I finished resetting everyone’s datajack. Then I addressed the troops. “Okay, people, here’s the plan! We’ve managed to neutralize the hard copy of the colonists’ records- by the way, Faust, that was yourjob.”
"Who do you think sold Freya on it?”
"Okay, that works; we have a hook into the mainframe, so the virtual files are a keystroke from oblivion. So, we are all going down to Cybele as Volunteers. BUT, The Man is expecting something like that. So the word of the day is: CHAOS. When this bad boy goes off,” I rapped the construct with my knuckles, “this ship is going to go BERSERK. You and your divisions will be waiting in the embarkation bay when that happens. When this goes off and everyone freaks, Get On The Fucking Shuttle. Period. People, simple works.
"Now, you’re all here for three reasons: First, you can tell your people that this thing is REAL, it’s not a pipe dream.
"Second, you can pass these out,” I held up a shopping bag full of blue coveralls. “Again, keep it simple- only give these to people you know, and don’t do it where anyone can see you. Pass them out before the first shuttle arrives. A&M also has carryall totes with the usual personal effects, apply to A&M1.
"Third, also pass these out,” I held up another bag, this one full of bootleg tablets that I’d had M&A kludge together (or steal). “This one is more complicated. These tablets contain the personal files of all of our members, including their mugshots, fingerprints, the whole ID schmeer, with the names, histories and so on of female Volunteers who died in transit. I shouldn’t have to say this- but make sure the faces match, and that they memorize their new names and Colonist ID number.”
I pointed at a cartridge jutting out of the construct, with a covered button on the top of it. “Ace, we have 3 hours before the first shuttles dock with the ship. When I press this button, you and your team have 3 hours and 20 minutes to get this to the location on this slip of paper, and then get yourselves to the embarkation bay. Can you do that?”
"Consider it already done,” Ace said, putting on her macho hat.
"Are you sure? Really sure?” I asked. “Because this thing doesn’t have an ‘Off’ switch or an Abort sequence. As a matter of fact, once I push this button, the arming cartridge comes off and the port seals. There is NO begging off. Period. I push this button and it’s ‘Live Free or Die’ time.”
Then there was an ear-rattling whistle, and I was tackled from behind. As I tried to get up, Stiletto reached over, yanked the arming component from the construct and threw it as far away as she could. A dozen girls dog-piled on her, but Stiletto kept blowing that whistle like her life depended on it.
Then Marines charged into the chamber from every venue possible, including a few that never occurred to me. Well, this IS what Marines do. They were armed with an eclectic array of Janglers, Tanglers and good old-fashioned shotguns. The first and second were fired with abandon, but the third were thankfully left in reserve.
I went down, and the last thing I remember hearing was, “access to Engineering blocked. But we have a scanner at Ops.” Then something that I think was aimed at me personally. “DIDN’T THINK OF THAT, DIDJA SMARTASS?”
When I was jump-started out of the jangle-state, I was being held by my arms, which were bound behind me with magnetically locked shackles. At my sides were Banks, the Snake, the Snake’s three China-girls, four AfroAm girls (one of whom had shaven her head bald), Cutlass, Ace, Harley, Roman, Swee- er, Seraphina, du Chantraine, Wilkins, her crew and maybe 4 others, also with their hands bound behind their backs. With the exception of du Chantraine, they showed signs of having put up a battle: bruises, gashes, black eyes, bloody noses. We were in a demi-circular room ringed with monitors, radiating out from a central 3D projector that showed a cylindrical schematic of the 457, with flashing reports and lines and circles here and there to indicate the various problems that the Marines were facing. According to the countdown indicator, we had 3 hours and 5 minutes before the first shuttle docked.
Besides the Graysuits manning the various workstations, there were maybe 20 to 30 Marines, none of whom where the jackasses that I’d dealt with before. If anything, they had the relaxed attention that suggested that they wouldn’t get their asses kicked in a Marine bar for calling themselves Marines. They only Bluesuit in the room without shackles was Stiletto, who was standing there in a way that suggested that she was having doubts about having sold us out. From the body language of the Marines around her, I got the impression that she was experiencing first-hand the truth of a maxim that turns up in variations in every language and culture: ‘We may appreciate the betrayal, but we still despise the traitor.’
Facing me was a sturdy middle-aged man in grays with both a red AND a gold stripe. On his belt, he had a universal electronic key, a ring of metal keys, a jangler, a large caliber pistol and the arming cartridge from the construct. On his collars and epaulettes he had ‘silver’ embroidery oak leafs. On his cuffs he had two ‘trips completed’ hashes and two ‘deep space missions’ chevrons. He gave me a stony scowl of bland disapproval that a pipsqueak like Dulago could only wish he could pull off. “Miss Diabolik, I am Major Delarosa. I am-”
"You are the Security Chief of this tub,” I cut him off.
He rewarded that with the back of his hand. “What is this thing?” he asked, rapping a knuckle on the construct.
"Tell you what, Delarosa,” I offered, “I’ll tell you what it is, if you tell me who you work for.”
"I work for Tart-”
"Oh, don’t insult my intelligence!” I snapped back at him. “The fix is in on this trip, and it’s pretty futtering obvious. First of all, you bring me out and put me to work, when SOP is that a prisoner of my profile should be kept in Solitary. Then I am assigned to a gullible bottom-feeder like Piaget, who spreads the news about who I am to anyone who’ll listen, and lets me lead her around by the nose.
"Then, there’s the All-Star Cast on this boat: ME, Melkir Larsen, Sebastiano Valenseura, JJ Obregon, UNION FUCKING MITFORD, Theodore Mayfair, Philip Blackadar, Umberto Obregon, Kallista Thessellarean- and those are just the players who weren’t holding back to see what I’d do, or weren’t curled up in a ball, going ‘WHERE’S MY DICK?’
"Then you pointedly let me run around, assembling my Dream Team of Dissidence. You even had that punk Dulago put in charge of my watch, making noises like he’s in charge. Please! Dulago’s a First Lieutenant on his first interstellar trip; the rule is for one Marine per hundred prisoners. That means you should have a company of 450 jarheads. Major? You should be a colonel! But there is NO WAY that even the most skinflint Chief of Accounting would put a First Lieutenant on his first trip past Neptune in charge of 150 men, without so much as an aged Gunny to hold his hand.
"And then there’s Trevor fucking Goodkind. What the HELL is he doing here?
"There is no way in Hell that you didn’t know about that, any of it. It was strictly intentional. And if you were incompetent enough to let all that slide, you’d have died on your first trip out. Judging from Piaget’s pay, as Chief of Security, you’re probably getting 10 Million or more for this trip, in an account that’s actually secure. That means you’re getting paid BIG to shepherd this Ready-Bake Rebellion to Cybele.
"So, Delarosa- who’s pulling your strings, hah?”
Delarosa just blinked stolidly and said. “Your little psycho buddy with the big gun is dead. We have Larsen and Valensuera under lock and key.”
Stiletto whined, “And what about ME?”
Delarosa grunted, “Okay, okay, you’re a Volunteer now. Someone get her a set of blue coveralls. Oh, she’s already got one. Never Mind.”
"How’d you pick them up?” I asked, “Freya’s as slippery as they come.”
"They showed up to embark with papers saying that they were man and wife,” Delarosa said. “Then the OD recognized the ‘volunteer’ as one of the male pinkskirts.”
I stifled a snicker. “Okay and… who’s paying you off for this dire farce?”
Delarosa could have been carved out of granite. “What? IS? This Thing?”
"It’s a low-yield, high-discharge fusion device,” I said. “For Marines: it’s a small but feisty kit-bashed H-Bomb.”
"Y’know, the only reason that I have all of you clowns here, and not in holding cells for the first shuttles dirtside, is that if this thing goes off, you’ll go with us,” Delarose said.
"Like I said- It’s ‘Live Free or Die’ time.”
"Are you seriously telling me that you were going to detonate a fusion bomb aboard a ship you’re ON?”
"No,” I admitted, “the big scary bomb was just so that you’d pay attention to that, and not to Project A.”
I had the input I needed. Project B was in full effect. Wilkins’ compound that Hekate had flushed into the yeast vats was producing a trace aromatic that induced a mild state of suggestion. Getting a genius, no matter how annoying, to do your chem work is always worth the tsuris. There’s no way that Delarosa would be bantering with me like this if he wasn’t slightly tripping. I gave him my best wiseass fox grin and gloated, “Atari.”
On that keyword, Kaz kicked up the ultraviolet over every lighting system on the ship, and my blue coveralls, and Delarosa’s, and Stiletto’s and everyone else’s coverall faded to a flat black. Black, no colors showing, no rank or unit insignia or other indicia. Tartarus company SOP is that before Disembarkation, due to the stresses involved, and to prevent bringing contaminants onto the destination world, all uniforms- Marines, Volunteers, Crew, Officers, Prisoners, everyone- were to be cleaned with an anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and insecticidal compound. A compound that Wilkins tweaked so that it would go from transparent to fully occluding black when hit with intense UV. As I said, Wilkins is a massive PITA, but she’s worth the tsuris.
As Delarosa reacted to this, I shifted my footing and added, “Checkmate.”
Remember that slightly ‘why did they do it THAT way?’ triggering cartridge for the fusion bomb? It wasn’t a trigger. It was a small but very potent disguised EMP grenade. This whole runaround was to finesse that grenade into Security Central while I and a body of effective agents were there, and detonate it.
The grenade went off, every monitor in the chamber went down, the lights went out and were replaced by the tempest-shielded emergency lights, and Delarosa, all the Marines and Stiletto all reacted as though they’d been jangled. Which for all intents and purposes they had. But me and the gang? Remember when I was unlocking everyone’s datajack plugs? I also insulated the plugs to dampen the effect of janglers and EMPs. And yes, when I was ‘jangled’, my plug was insulated; I was playing possum.
As I shook the stars out of my eyes (insulated or not, I was only a foot or so away from the grenade), I saw Delarosa crumpled on the floor and every Marine reeling. The shackles had fallen off my wrist. I reached to the belt of one of the Gyrenes holding me, took his billy club and used it on them.
The rest of the gang recovered a lot quicker than the jarheads and instantly realized that they were unbound. Given who they were, if the girls had taken on the Marines when they were unfazed, it would have been a fair fight. Thank God, none of the girls was fool enough to do anything that braindead.
As soon as I put the second of the Marines who’d been holding me down, I got to Delarosa. I helped myself to the most important thing: the ring of hard keys. Okay, I took the pistol, too. And I used it too, putting down two desk jockeys who were heading for the door.
Then the disguised cache box dropped from the roof (nobody ever looks up), with a grab-bag of useful goodies, including a communicator that had been protected by the tempest shielding of the box. “Kaz? How many of our people are still at large?”
[There are 21 people in the lockup; Tybert and her backup are at large and following the plan. the rest are lying low. There’s another riot going on. Larsen spread a rumor that the Marines were pilfering the Civilian Stowage Allotment. Even the Bluesuits are pissed]
"I’m proceeding to the next stage of the plan. Be ready when I have the other two keys.”
[It’s about time]
"But first, there’s something I have to take care of personally.”
I went over to where Cutlass had Stiletto bent over a workstation, one arm twisted behind her back in a grip that was going for ‘torsion fracture’. “Please!” Stiletto screamed, “I HAD to! They’re going to win, no matter WHAT we do! They ALWAYS win!” Ah, the impassioned voice of despair. I told Mayfair that some of our fellow travelers were broken. Stiletto was very broken.
I put the pistol to the back of her head and said, “Proditores fatum est semper.” ‘This is always the fate of traitors’. Then I pulled the trigger.
Among the crew, there was that awkward moment of mixed vengeance, grief, regret, worry and finally relief that I’d done the dirty work. I threw Ace and Harley the keys to the Security Central lockup, and told them to free the prisoners. “What about Freya and Valensuera?” Ace asked.
"Leave them there,” I said. “And no matter what-”
"No matter what,” they returned in chorus, “don’t believe a word they say.” Why couldn’t I have had a crew like this in Burma?
I dug around in the Goodie box, and passed around jangler blockers and armor vests and helmets for those who needed them (especially ME). Then I opened up the secret door that led to a narrow corridor. I gestured at the weapons racks, and the girls loaded up with janglers, tanglers, dazzlers or shotguns, as their preferences dictated. And, Yes, they pressed the reset buttons on the janglers and dazzlers. Well, most of them did.
We gathered at the end of the corridor. I carefully unlocked the other secret door. Then Cutlass kicked in the door, and the three girls with dazzlers opened up. The Bridge crew on the other side of the doors wasn’t quite taken by surprise- some of them were rising and drawing sidearms- but the dazzlers did their jobs, and the gold braids went down. The tactical readouts said that the shuttles were on schedule, and we had 2 hours and 55 minutes before the first flight of them reached us.
I found the Captain and First Mate- how did I know it was them, if their uniforms were blacked out? Simple; the Captain was in the captain’s chair and the First Mate was the only other guy with hard keys on his belt- and relieved them of their keys. Then it was a scene out of a thousand hack Space Opera movies. The Ship Security Officer’s key opened a hatch in one console. The First Mate’s key engaged an Ultra-Secure lock. And I inserted the Captain’s key into that. “Kaz, break into every one of our crew’s minder bands and tell them to get to the rally points. Can you synthesize Delarosa’s, the Mate’s and the Captain’s voices for the last second dosey-do?”
"What about the window of opportunity?”
[Frost, we’re IN the butter zone; too close for the shuttles to intercept them, but they’re on track for the gravity well. They may not land exactly where you want, but they’ll hit dirt]
With a sigh, I turned the key, pressed it down and the Expert System went through its ‘Are you SURE you wanna do this?’ song and dance. As Kaz worked her wonders on the Expert System, I walked over to the captain’s chair and sat down. I found the microphone for the General Address system. When Kaz was finished and the countdown was engaged, I hit the ‘Listen to me, dammit’ button and then addressed the Ship’s Company. “ATTENTION! ATTENTION! THIS IS NOT A DRILL! This is Jadis Diabolik speaking! I have taken control of this ship. You, and by ‘You’, I mean EVERYBODY, you have One Hour and Twenty-Nine Minutes to get to a module and in a suspension pod, ‘cause in one hour and Thirty minutes, this ship is gonna RIP ITSELF APART! This is NOT a bluff! I gave you fair warning. If you ignore this warning, it’s all on your own head. Again, THIS IS NOT A DRILL!”
EMERGENCY EVASION MANEUVER IN: 89 MINUTES 43 SECONDS
Then I switched off the com and got up. “Okay Crew, you heard the crazy lady- we have an hour to get to Green sector, level 6, band 11, module 27.”
"It’s up four levels, it’s a mile down corridors that are gonna be a madhouse on fire, there are parties we haven’t heard from yet, every officer and Marine is gonna try to beat us there, we have to hook up with the rest of our crew and Murphy’s Law is in full force. If we had it, I’d give us TWO hours.”
Then I inserted a hard key into a concealed lock in the Captain’s chair. When the latch clicked, the chair pushed back, revealing a secret hatch. Gesturing down the hatch, I said, “Okay, Ladies, Roman, just down this ladder, and follow the glowing stripe on the floor.”
Once we were down one level and following the not-yellow brick road, Cutlass asked, “What IS this?”
"This is a guidestrip to the Officers’ lifeboat,” Faust said. “My guess is that that’s what we’ll be taking down to Cybele.”
"Y’mean we won’t be climbing into a pod and zipping up into a cocoon?”
"Hey, if you’ve got your heart set on it, go right ahead,” I said.
"Why is it UP four levels?” Cutlass asked, apparently being the sort who asks inconsequential questions at times like this. “Wouldn’t it be DOWN on the outermost ring?”
"That’s where the Marine and Ratings lifeboats are,” Banks said. “The Officers’ lifeboat is much larger and actually has things like thrusters and controls. They hide it deeper in the ship, so the Officers don’t bug out too quickly, and the Gyrenes and mop-jockeys don’t try to hijack it.”
It should have been a nice invigorating jog down empty corridors in 0.95 G, even with dragging the fusion bomb along with us. Yes, it was a real fusion bomb; given the situation we were running into, it might turn out to be the Ace of Trumps. And if not, fusion bombs are a lot easier to dismantle safely than fission bombs or conventional explosives. But the Third Iron Rule of Operations is ‘If only Three near-disastrous complications happen during an operation, you’re having a good day.’ I’ve already had one (Belphegor and Hekate), so I was overdue.
We were three bands down the ‘road’, but at the lock at the end of that corridor, which was a rally point for some of du Chantraine’s cells, there was a mob of pinkskirts- some of whom had guns. They didn’t look friendly. That is, unless you count holding a gun to Marian/ ‘MiLady DeWinter’s clearly terrified head as chummy. The five other pinkskirts who had guns were holding carbines on eight unarmed pinkskirts. ‘STOP!” the pinkskirt holding Marian in front of her with a pistol at her temple said in loud stentorian voice. “I am Victor Lund, leader pro-tem of the Cybele Liberation Front! While we applaud your bold and audacious-”
I’ll spare you the rest. The upshot was that Lund wanted to either hijack the lifeboat, or sleaze her and her followers onto the lifeboat with us. NO. Victor Lund is a noteworthy agitator and charismatic speaker. He’s an idealist, the kind of idealist that makes cynicism so popular. His idealism has cost almost as many lives as Dad’s pragmatism has. Unfortunately, he’s a Neo-Trotskyite, and he’s a master of hijacking viable movements, steering them to his brand of Communism, and being the first rat off the ship when they hit the rocks. I’ve lost count of how many movements Lund has sleazed to disaster; I have no intention of being his next. Besides remember what I said about Trots?
If that’s Victor Lund, then where’s Ilse Lazlo? Ilse is Victor’s lover and right-hand woman. They run a political version of the Magician/Magician’s Assistant gaff, where Lund rivets everyone’s attention with his rhetoric, while Lazlo pulls off various dirty tricks when no one’s paying attention. “Banks?” I said, “Forty.” And give ‘Render’ her due, she knew exactly what I was talking about. I heard the firing of janglers and shotguns behind us, followed by the sounds of falling bodies. “SO,” I started with relish-
"Oh Please,” Wilkins snorted. She lifted a dazzler with an odd extension and fired it at Lazlo, her squad and the hostages. Lazlo and her goon-ettes looked ahead with ‘daaahhh…’ expressions. “This adaptor modifies the dazzler to induce a white-mind state in persons exposed to Project B.”
"PLEASE! If I let you two yap at each other, you’d still be at it when the ship ripped itself apart.” The really annoying thing about arrogant, trash-mouth legends-in-their-own-minds like Wilkins is how often they’re right.
EMERGENCY EVASION MANEUVER IN: 73 MINUTES 22 SECONDS
We kept down the hallway, heading toward the next rally point, when we ran face-first into one of the unavoidable flaws in the Rally Point gambit. At the lock that was the next rally point was a squad of girls in black huddled around a figure in a pink skirt on an IC gurney. One of the girls was arguing with a squad of either Marines or officers, in the ‘I’m right and you’re an idiot’ style that I think they teach in medical school. But the Marines/ Ossifers were carrying carbines, so the Medico’s arguments were irrelevant.
They reacted a second after we arrived, and turned their carbines on us. The problem with moving large amounts of troops down even reasonably roomy corridors that the ‘Box’ system encouraged, is that you present a ‘target rich environment. In other words, we were so closely packed, as to not stretch ourselves out, that a bullet, even a wide miss on it intended target, is likely to hit something. Or someone.
The Officers (there’s no way Marines would have such shoddy fire discipline), let off a couple of suppressing shots and huddled behind the gurney. Which was low, cowardly, craven and damn good tactics. Sadly (for them) that required that they turned their backs on the medics, one of whom I recognized as Lindsay, the head of Roman’s Medical division. Never turn your back on a medic; they know where you hurt. As the Officers trained their guns on us, Lindsay made a series of gestures. She and the others pulled out jury-rigged breathers and strapped them on. Then two of them opened up cans that turned out to be some sort of anti-personnel gas. The Officers went limp and sagged to the floor the second they breathed in the first whiff of the gas.
"That’s… fast…” I noted.
"We loaded the Officers’ meals with Project C,” Wilkins explained as we moved forward. “That gas is just the catalyst.”
"The… Officers’… meals?” I gasped as the gas came closer.
"Yes, it was the best way to make sure-”
"BREATHER!” I yelled, “I need a Breather!” One of the medics threw me a spare breather, as one of the others slipped a breather onto the figure on the gurney- Viper.
Noting the dazed condition of the officers as I slipped on my own breather, I asked, “How long will that last? I mean, we can’t call someone to come and pick them up.”
"Not to worry, Big Chief Bleeding Heart,” Wilkins sneered. “The trade off for fast-acting is fast-fading. In ten minutes or so, they’ll be up and about, and no doubt waste the last hour of their lives arguing about the paperwork.”
The lock at the end of the next corridor was more than a rally point- it was a choke point. There should have been a squad of girls there to hold that point, so it couldn’t be locked to keep us out.
But there wasn’t a lock on the lock- there was a demolitions packet! It was strapped to the lock door with a big red sign that said ‘Explosive! Do Not Tamper With!’ Unfortunately, it was just human nature to rubberneck and try to see what it was, so the gang crowded up. Which gave teams operating the rooms along the corridor their opportunity. They moved barricades to block the hallway behind us and take positions with janglers behind the barricades. The barricades were armored with thick transparent aluminum ‘windows’, and there were improvised ‘claymore’ mines on their front. How much of those ‘mines’ was bluff, I still have no idea, and at the time, I had no inclination to try and call any bluffs.
Then an irritatingly familiar figure stepped out with a carbine and body armor. Trevor swaggered to the center of the barricade and demanded, “Okay Lady, what’s with the ‘Jadis Diabolik’ crap? And how are you gonna switch off that bullshit explosive that’s supposed to blow up the ship? That moronic countdown is giving me a headache.”
It was actually a very good trap. IF the demolition of the 457 was a hoax. What can I say? Trevor Goodkind is a tough, determined, savvy, worthy adversary.
"Why TREVOR!” I greeted him with the octave I’d used for giving the entire ship the bad news. “What? You don’t recognize your old classmate, Jerry? Kerosine Phillysteak Oy Vey! Or whatever that Elitist crap you Doiks kept saying to each other was.”
"JERETH?” Trevor yelped, “That’s YOU?”
"Yeah, and you’re filling out that bodysuit pretty well yourself, Goodkind.”
"WHAT?” she sputtered. GOD, I love doing that to Trevor Goodkind. You never have a camera when you really need one… “WHY would you…?”
"Newsflash, Idiot!” I snapped, “I didn’t! Yes, I set off the ship’s Emergency Crash measures, but the rest? Remember that kangaroo court that sent me up for a murder of a person they couldn’t even prove ever existed? Well, that’s what they did to everyone here. And you? The exact same shadowy figures did the exact same damn thing to YOU. Why? I have no idea.” Then, finally, I got the signal. “Well, Trev, it’s been a slice catching up with you, but I have a plane to catch. I suggest that you haul ass for your own pod and strap in while you have the chance.”
"Oh like it’s gonna be THAT easy!” Trev snarled. He was about to spout off some platitude (I blame the nannies that the Goodkinds raise their kids with) when the magnetic nets dropped and switched on, holding Trevor and his goons to the floor with 400 kilos of force.
"It’s about TIME,” I snarked up to the ceiling. “I was just about to needle him about the time that I gave him a Mickey Finn, dressed him up as a leprechaun and turned him loose on the Quad for Saint Patrick’s day.”
"Hey, don’t let ME stop you!” Tybert said as she dropped from the ceiling and took a jangler from Ace’s blonde backup. “Go right ahead,” she said as she jangled first Trevor and then each of his goons- less Faith and Jinn, our moles in Trevor’s organization- into senselessness.
"You’re not going to hurt her, are you?” Faith asked squeamishly.
"Well there IS the question as to how we’re going to jump-start these yoyos in time, so they can get to a lifepod rigged module,” I admitted.
"Give me the jump-starter,” Faith said resignedly. “I’ll stay and make sure that they get to the lifepods.”
"Me Too!” Jinn peeped, popping up on her toes.
I gave them the long ‘are you fucking CRAZY?’ look. But never let it be said that I got in the way of my followers doing something stupidly heroic when it struck them. What? Do women SEE? In that DORK? With a weary sigh, I handed over the jump-starter.
"Okay, WHO is THIS?” Banks demanded, waving a hand at Gwen.
"THIS, is Gwen, also known as ‘Tybert the King of Cats’,” I replied. “She’s the head of my Impossible Access and Dirtywork division.”
"I prefer the ‘Swashbuckling and Daring-Do division,” Gwen said as she called down the rest of her cell, a large woman who must have been of the ‘big lug’ persuasion before, a petite little (not blonde or British) pixie who was no doubt very good at getting into tight places, and a sleek strapping generally competent AfroAm girl. “Okay, there’s no reason to skulk through the wainscoting anymore. Come on down.”
Two people handed down Kaz, who was still rapt ‘in prayer’ with her hands clutching her Bible. “And who’s THIS?” Faust asked.
"This is Cazimir Tvardovski, the head of my Mainframe Access and Snarky Remarks division. She’s the reason half of all this was possible in the first place.”
"Just when I get the place all cleaned up and how I like it, it all goes boom,” Kaz muttered, never opening her eyes or letting loose of her Bible.
"THAT’S Cazimir Tvardovski?” Banks asked incredulously. “I thought Tvardovski had his brain implanted into a cybernetic spider body, so he could stay in the Net indefinitely.”
"Deal fell through,” Kaz muttered, eyes still raptly shut in ‘prayer’. “Never should have insisted on the web-spinners.”
After Kaz, came a girl who could have been sent from Central Casting to be the second technician on the left. The tech was expected; she was probably Kaz’s hardware wrangler. The two that came next were not. They were a pair of sleek ‘high school mean girls from Hell’, a silvery blonde and a slinky brunette. They were… not Kaz’s cup of tea, from what I knew of her. “And these two ARE?” I asked Gwen.
Gwen gave a wide embarrassed grin. “That’s Icy and Darcy… let’s just say, ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time’.
I looked at ‘Icy’, who glared daggers back at me. ‘Okay, but they’re your responsibility Gwen. You have to feed them and walk them and clean up after them. And if either one of them bite me, they both go straight to the pound.”
"Okay, but who’s gonna take out THIS?” Harley asked, indicating the very competent looking ‘Spoilsport’ demo packet affixed to the lock.
"Why bother?” Gwen asked, opening a subtle hatch built into the bulwark. “That’s not where we’re going.” She waved at the recessed ladder hidden by the hatch.
EMERGENCY EVASION MANEUVER IN: 57 MINUTES 14 SECONDS
The next complication didn’t come as a surprise in the least. We heard them all the way down the hallway, accompanied by screaming that would have brought the Marines down like thunder under normal conditions. As we charged up the corridor, the tenor of the fighting changed. When we got there, there were four Fivers mixing it up with four women in black. Okay, they were mixing it up with three women in black as a fourth sat back and screamed. It was a classic clash of power versus finesse. The Fivers didn’t hit very often, but when they did, the women took damage. The women didn't try to damage the Fivers, they went for Crane-strikes to the eyes, using the Fivers over-swings against them, and other examples of accuracy over brute force. So far, it looked even-all; no matter what you see in Martial Arts movies, mass matters.
As we stopped to figure out what we could do that wouldn’t make this worse, Wilkins simply said, “Jangle them all.”
"What?” Banks bleated, “Look at the size of those guys! They’ll barely feel it!”
"Their adaptation is designed to make them weak against janglers,” Wilkins asserted.
"You’ve studied this adaptation?”
"No, but it’s implicit in the execution,” Wilkins said. “They’re dray animals, not war machines. You don’t design your untermenchen to be proof against your most common weapons; you make them weak to your most common weapons, so you can keep them in line. They’re big and scary to make the rank and file nervous about them, and to keep the two groups from being comfortable enough with each other as to make common cause. But you make sure your enforcers can take them down easily.” And sadly, the Fivers did go down that easily. As I said before, the really annoying thing about arrogant, legends-in-their-own-minds like Wilkins is how often they’re right.
After she calmed down and stopped screaming, ‘MiLady de Winter’ demanded, “Where? Did you guys? Learn those MOVES?”
"Later,” the sleek brunette said, wiping the blood from her bloody nose. ‘Right now, we have worse to deal with. We were scouting ahead on the route to the lifeboat-”
"Why do they know about that?” du Chantraine demanded, “You didn’t tell ME about that!”
"And the next choke point is covered,” the Latina with the braids continued. “Marines. REAL Marines. Not the slobs they had keeping the crew in line through the entire trip, the sharp guys they brought out of stasis just before us, so they could ride herd on all the prisoners. Eight of them, they have body armor with anti-jangle mesh and anti-dazzle visors. And I doubt that they ate with the officers, so Wilkins’ wicked tricks won’t do the job. They’re armed with janglers, but they have shotguns as backups.”
"Kaz, any chance-”
"They know that you have access to the PA system,” Kaz cut me off. “It follows that they’re on a face-to-face order standing, and they’ll only take orders from officers they know.”
"Short form: no quick easy tricks for this one,” Banks summed it up. “Snake, take your girls and go up to them playing the ‘we’re just weak little girls’ gag. Once Snake’s girls are in range, Njema you, Mace and Sledge go in screaming with the staves. Once Njema and the others are engaged with the jarheads, Snake you and yours use your unfair advantages. When I yell ‘FIRE’ you all drop. We cut into them with shotguns and carbines. When we stop, you take it close-quarters again. It’ll be hard and nasty, and you’ll take some lumps, but we don’t have TIME for fancy T&S school tricks. Just… do it,” Banks finished up, clearly not happy with that solution.
And it went down pretty much like that. Only the Marines’ body armor was better than either the shotguns or the lamentably small caliber carbines. And for all their remarkable Martial Arts skills, neither Snake nor Njema’s teams had any kind of armor. They were getting their asses handed to them.
But I have made my reputation by shoving as many decks of cards up my sleeves as I can. When the tide was squarely with the Marines, I let out a piercing whistle and thumped the bulkhead of the corridor twice with a pause and then three times. Then three teams of five girls each came out from crawlspaces in the ceiling, floor and walls. They grappled the Marines, but didn’t trust to either martial arts or numbers; they shoved pistols into gaps in the Marines’ armor and emptied their clips into them. It was hard, nasty and bloody, but it did the job.
As the newcomers helped the two strike teams get onto unfolded gurneys for transport, Banks yelled at me, “WHO are THEY?”
"They are- or they were- my father’s men. He asked me to give them a hand, so I’ve been keeping in touch with them at a distance.”
"Why didn’t you bring them into the organization?”
"Delarosa knew who they were. If they weren’t part of our efforts, then Delarosa had to split his forces keeping track of them and us. Once Delarosa had us, they were free to act.”
"You didn’t trust us to back your play?” de Winter asked, watching as ‘her’ backup girls formed up with the 15 newcomers.
"Let’s just say that it’s a DAMN good thing that never became an issue, now isn’t it?” I said. I made a high ‘Wagons Ho!’ wave, and we proceeded, with the unbattered helping the shot, jangled and battered down the hallway. *****
Okay, I kinda-sorta saw the Marines, or at least something of that stripe, setting up in front of our path. The only escapes that come off perfectly are on TV. But I did not see what came up next. A group of 9 ‘young’ men who had ‘bluesuit’ written all over them were furiously trying to get past the sealed lock that led to the lifeboat bay. The most Alpha of them put on his ‘I WILL be catered to!’ face and demanded, “Open this door NOW! We have a special arrangement with the Captain, that we’re to be evacuated in the Officer’s lifeboat! Open this NOW, you little twits!”
I pulled out my pistol, fired a shot to let them know that I was serious, pointed it in his face and said, “Rephrase that.”
Alpha Alec backpedaled and immediately went into blither mode, backed up by a couple of Beta Bills. They quickly got to “We can PAY!”
"Pony up,” holding up my other hand.
"I…. don’t have it on me,” Alpha Alec hedged. “But I can go get it!”
"Go. Get it. ALL of you.” They got, with a reasonable speed that suggested that they actually thought we were going to wait for them. I got ‘are you serious?” looks, which I returned with a ‘get real; the second they’re out of sight, we’re gone’ look.
As we opened the hatch for the ladder to take up to the next floor, I said, “Kaz…”
"Redirecting the guidestrip away from the lifeboat,” she said without opening her eyes.
EMERGENCY EVASION MANEUVER IN: 20 MINUTES 06 SECONDS
And, God be praised, we got to the lifeboat without any further wacky hijinks. Though getting the fusion bomb and the gurney through the hatch was a bear. The Officer’s lifeboat was a proper boat, not just a lifepod equipped module, with steering thrusters and meager propulsion thrusters. It almost filled the 18m x 30m x 92m (approx.) bay, which was disguised as 8 unmarked modules, stacked 2x2. Thrash and her cell had preceded us to the lifepod and was already warming it up for the trip. And Thank God, we weren’t going to have to worry about space or food or air. This lifeboat was rated for 150 passengers, with a galley and water recycling. By my calculations, we had 76, since Belphegor wasn’t coming along. As it was Belphegor, we essentially had 3 more berths open. Then, I finally noticed something that had somehow eluded me: three young men wearing the black coveralls that were damn near the only thing they had in common with the rest of us. Snagging Roman and pulling him aside. “Roman, who are they?” I asked, almost nose to nose, and not in the slightest romantic.
"Heh,” he gave me a rueful grin. “Those are three of my roommates.”
"And WHAT are they doing here?”
Roman darted his eyes around the bay as the others filed onto the lifeboat. His expression was ‘don’t make me be the only guy on a ship with SEVENTY-SIX very demanding women!’ I recalled Roman’s comment about being propositioned, back when the Executive Cell first me up. Well, even with the ‘doubling up’ factor I’ve seen traces of, if I didn’t want my own cuddle-buddy worn out, this was the best solution.
To be frank, I should have seen this coming.
After making sure that Viper was properly installed in the Infirmary- and snagging the captain’s cabin for myself (RHIP)- I headed up to the cockpit. But Kaz stopped me on my way forward. “Frost, there’s something we have to discuss.”
"Go right ahead, Kaz.”
"When we started this, I distinctly remember you saying that you wouldn’t, I quote: 'slaughter or endanger the innocent, steal what the innocent need to live and prosper, terrorize children or slander the honorable.’ Unquote. Then WHY are you dragging that fusion bomb around?”
"A valid question, Kaz. And one I intend to answer, along with a few others, in… fifteen minutes. Bear with me until then.”
Kaz just glowered at me, said, “d-4” and sat down in the nearest crash chair.
"Nertz.” Kaz always bogarts White.
In the cockpit, I asked Thrash, “So, do you think you can pilot this thing?”
"Hey Frosty!” she answered with gusty cheer, “This is a lifeboat! These things are designed with the idea that everything’s going to hell in a hand-basket, and you might have to rely on a brain damaged chimp- or worse, an executive- to pilot it. It’s a slug, but I can get us there.”
"Can you pilot this thing without shedding the module carapace?” I asked.
"Why would you want to do that?”
"Look, if we’re observably a lifeboat, then we have to dock with lifepods, respond to the shuttles and all that junk,” I pointed out. “If we’re cluster of non-lifepod rigged modules, they’ll leave us alone until we mysterious drift right into Cybele orbit.”
"And can you maneuver so we can dock with a few select other modules?”
"Do we really need to?”
"Need? No,” I admitted. “Very strategically advantageous? Boy Howdy.”
Thrash gave me a chary look. “You want me. To pilot a lifeboat. Boxed in by a bogus module. And link up with the force bubbles that each module has built in. Without tipping off the shuttle pilots?” I nodded. “Lady, only a complete lunatic would try something like that!” Then she gave a dirty chuckle. “It’s red letter day for my journal! No, girls keep diaries, don’t they? Well, consider it done, Frosty!”
I briefly wondered what Thrasher had done to get transported. Then I decided that I didn’t want to know. I went back to the main cabin, and touched base until it was -3 minutes to EEM. Then I addressed the (understandably) tetchy new women and the even tenser 4 men. “Okay, listen up! For strategic reasons, I’ve been playing it very close to my vest. But you’ve all come through in the clinch, so you deserve to hear what the plan is. Yes, we’re taking this shuttle down to Cybele. Now as to exactly HOW we’re go to do that,” I pointed the screen in the front of the cabin, and cued Kaz’s technician. The screen filled with a shot of the 457 taken from the pickup of one of the approaching shuttles. No, I don’t know how she got that shot, and I ain’t asking. Then, just as that gawd-awful annoying countdown hit 00 Minutes and 01 Seconds, there was a shudder you could feel that affected the entire ship. The at 00 Minutes and 00 Seconds precisely, the exterior sheath panels of the ship- ALL of them- popped off in a blizzard of sheet metal, and the knobby sewage pressurization pods popped off as well. Then modules were expelled from the ship, every band, all at the same time.
"This is the ship’s emergency evasion maneuver, taken to its most extreme,” I explained. “Normally, this maneuver would fire off one module at a time, as to affect our trajectory. But we don’t have TIME for that, and we need those shuttles good and confused. So we’ve adjusted the mechanism so that EVERY module, even the sewage tanks, everything but the ship’s spine, which includes the fusion drive and the ramjet scoop will be ejected with as much force as possible.”
And then, as if on cue, there was a dropping sensation on turbo-charge. We rationally knew that we were being propelled at the lading system’ maximum capacity, but it was impossible to completely ignore that ‘We’re FAAALLLiiinggg….!'reflex.
Once we, well not so much stopped falling as settled into Zero G, and the ones who’d thrown up had cleaned up and the others calmed down, I continued, “Our pilot has agreed to steer the lifeboat with the bogus module panels up, so the shuttles and whatever Cybele orbital control sends up won’t try to contact us. We’re going to hook up with several modules that we know are loaded with… strategic… cargoes, so we won’t wind up dirtside with empty hands. We and the rest of the 457’s jetsam are on a trajectory that will get us to Cybele in… a couple of weeks, give or take.
"The shuttles won’t be able to just stop or turn around to intercept us or the other modules. They literally have just enough fuel to get to what’s left of the 457, specifically to the docking bays, where fuel, air, water and food supplies are still waiting for them. By the time that they refuel and stock, we’ll be too far away for them to catch up. Not that they’d be that good at it; they’re shuttles, not interceptors. Whether Orbital Control has interceptors… we’ll all find out at the same time.
"We will land in a hail of several hundred modules, with cargoes ranging from top-of-the-line luxury goods to raw sewage. We will make sure that the modules land on whatever Cybele uses for dry land instead of the ocean-sized puddles of mud by potting the modules with this lifeboat’s anti-meteor gun. Each module has an integral force bubble generator, so neither the shot nor the drop will do them any harm. As for us, this lifeboat is rated for 150, so we have more than enough space, air and water, and while the food won’t be haut cuisine, it’ll be head and shoulders above what we’ve been eating for the last week.
"Now, we have aboard a jury-rigged fusion device, or hydrogen bomb, if you need to have that spelled out for you. NO, we’re not gonna use that device to extort a city or anything terroristic like that. I’m gonna get enough crap for what we did to the 457. Rather, we will shoot the bomb at the area we choose to land on, so that it detonates high in Cybele’s atmosphere. That will be too high to harm anyone on the surface, and Cybele Air Control will order any flights out of the area on general principles. The fusion device is not very powerful, but it will kick up a HELL of an EMP. Enough to confuse Orbital Control as to what landed where.” I gave Kaz a nod, which she returned with her usual glacial calm.
"Once we have an idea of the geographical layout of Cybele, we will pick a location where we can land without having to deal with the local authorities, and use the fact that modules of Volunteers- and we’re ALL volunteers, just ask us!- are dropping everywhere to insert ourselves into the local populace ON OUR TERMS.
"People, we’ve scored a major victory against the power elite on Cybele, and a good solid hit against the corporate machine. First, we’ve escaped the de facto slavery they had planned for us. It’s not going to be easy, but we can take control of our own fates from here. Second, we just took a sledge hammer to their system, with goods and materiel they were counting on being taken out of their control. Third, those modules are going to land on Cybele, and every Rank-and-Filer with any kind of initiative is going to be running out into the muck to grab one, just in case it has something valuable in it. And who thinks that having gone off the reservation and snagging all those goodies, those Filers are going to be good little boys and turn them in for the pittance rewards the Management will offer? So the Free Thinkers and Risk Takers will be rewarded, which will encourage free thinking and risk taking. The materiel will go into the Black Market, which will overload the balance of power in the markets on Cybele. People, it is going to be CHAOS when we get to… wherever. That can only be in our favor, in both the short and long term. Fourth, all those high-tech materials and materiel won’t be going to the refineries on Yukon or the other gas giants. That will cause even more chaos, on the corporate level. And fifth, the 457 is NOT going back to Earth. We’ll never see it, but that is going to play merry hob with Tartarus’ and the other Consortium members’ bottom lines. Which may not do US any good, but we all have people back home that will make as much advantage of that as they can.
"And while I would love to be able to take credit for that, the real reason I chose that gambit was that it was the ONLY thing that I could think of that couldn’t be what the people who orchestrated all of us being here in the first place WANTED us to do.
"And that’s where I stop telling you my plans. Why? Because once we hit dirt, there are going to be THREE KINDS of us. The first kind will say, ‘Skuh-REW this dissidence crap! I’m becoming a plumber, like my mother wanted me to!’ If you want to beg off and go and become a civilian… I can’t blame you. Go, have a good life, you’ve earned it. But I can’t tell you my plans. If you’ve gotten this far, you understand why.
"The second kind will say ‘I’m not taking orders from you anymore. I’ve got my OWN plans’. Again, go right ahead, God bless you, and maybe we can do business together sometime. But I can’t tell you my plans for obvious reasons, and I won’t ask you yours. This may cause some problems along the line, but that’s life in the Underground.
"The third kind will decide to hook up with me. I think we’ve built up a little trust in the past week, but I won’t kick if you decide to walk. For those who decide to sign on with me, you know my reputation, you know I treat my people right. BUT, should you decide to crack foxy, maybe cut a deal with the local authorities…” I jerked a thumb in Cutlass’ direction, “Ask her what happened to Stiletto. And why.
"And here’s the kicker: once you’ve made that decision, that’s IT. No take-backs, no changing your minds, no switching sides. Because, when I do tell my people my plans, that’s IT. I cannot afford to have my plans leaked to the Authorities, or worse, some of the shitwads they dumped into the 457.
"But that’s a while off, and you don’t have to make up your minds yet. In the meantime, the organizational structure we’ve been using will stay in force, for the simple reason that it works and everyone knows who they’re working with. The Executive Cell will make the decisions with a simple majority. And YES, if the other three all vote against me, I’ll lump it. As for the women from my father’s organization, you’ll answer directly to me. As for you three guys, you’ll answer directly to Roman.
"Aaanndddthat’s it. Find yourself a bunk and get settled. The pilot should start the rotation for artificial gravity soon. Since this is an Officer’s lifeboat, there’s a full computer library, complete with College Course material, three TIS booths and its own MMO. I’m afraid that it’s Dry Shower only, as we have limited water. We have a bunch of clothing from the Vols who didn’t make it, so you can sift through that for clothing, if you’re getting tired of coveralls. Turpin, you’re in charge of keeping order in the line for the showers, Villa, you’re in charge of the clothing, and Lightfoot, you’re in charge of getting the kitchen up to speed. Kaz, if you need something to do, sleaze into Orbital Control’s mainframe. Compile a planetary profile, so we know what we’re heading into. Geography, political layout, local demographics- ah, what am I doing, telling you your business? Go do it!”
"I was rather wondering,” Kaz said smugly.
"As for me? Me, I’ve been going all-out for a week. I’m heading to my bunk and get some SLEEP!”
And, being a woman of my word, I did just that. But there’s always something. A few hours later (I’m guessing), there was a buzzing at my door. I checked the camera (gotta love ossifer standards), and Swe-er, Serafina was waiting for me with the air of a woman on a mission. I looked at the clock. Well, she’s given me three hours, so I might as well be just as considerate. I opened the door and said, “Well, Hello, Seraphina!”
Seraphina gave me an amused look and glanced downward. Following her eyes, it registered that I was dressed in only my skivvies. And being in only your underwear is very different for women, than it is for men. I reflexively covered myself and found my coveralls on the floor. Once I was presentable, I asked, “So, what do you want, Fina?”
That look of bemusement never leaving her face, Fina said, “I’ve come to talk to you about Roman.”
Roman? She knew about me and Roman? Well, Kaz and Gwen knew about us, but I didn’t think that we were that blatant about it. Still, if she’s La Strega’s kid, and Roman was using her as his intelligence analyst, it’s no surprise that she picked that up. Was she that jealous? No, she’s not keeping a lid on jealous rage she’s-
-oh fuck, she’s been boffing Roman TOO?
"You?” I squeaked, “And him?”
She nodded, with that amused smirk still on her face, even as I was burning with adolescent humiliation. “And for the record, NO, Roman didn’t seduce me. It was… rather like our first time, proximity, surprise and hormones in equal parts.”
"Well, the fact that he has a Seventy-year old’s discipline and technique wrapped up in a Seventeen-year-old demigod’s body helps,” I pointed out.
She nodded. “Okay, embarrassing… going on humiliating…” I admitted. “So? Why are you here? Warning me away from your man? Are you claiming me for your own? What?” And I was confused. She didn’t seem to want a big nasty public scene, but she’s Italian. Italians love big nasty public scenes. What is Opera, but big nasty public scenes set to music?
With a wanton smirk, she ran a finger down the collar of my décolletage. “No, I was thinking of poor Roman. He’s rather the Boy who can’t say ‘No’. If we don’t take him in hand, those bitches out there will eat him alive. But I’m willing to share.”
"Share? Are you saying that you’re willing to share him with me? Or you’re willing to share me with him?”
"Actually, I was thinking ‘share myself with both of you’,” she said, “but in truth, ‘share him with you’ is more the gist of the matter. We share him between us, and no one else. Maybe a third, he does have a 17-year-old’s endurance-”
"Of course not! Her personality aside-”
Then there was a ring at my unit’s telephone. And I hadn’t shared that, so- “Yes, Kaz?”
[Come to the main cabin, there’s something you need to see]
I had a wary suspicion of Kaz’s sense of humor. After all, it’s only been 3 hours. Fina followed me out of my cabin and to the main cabin. Up on the main screen was a crisp, clear image. And what to my wondering eyes should appear, but the brilliant blues, jade greens, dark grays, rusty browns, arid tans, wispy whites and pearly outline-
-of a living world.
To be continued in Masque of Power: Cybele