Death of the Regent-1

Wolf 359

Ajax had drunk too much. The sobriety to realize that fact was gone but his body reminded him anyway with a queasiness in his stomach that required more and more concentration to control. To maintain his respect in the Regent’s eyes, Ajax had matched him cup for cup

The Regent had set his cup down and not picked it up. He was engaged with his wives as Ajax looked on. The five of them smiled at him, and cooed words that seemed to please their lord. He chuckled affectionately in low tones and allowed them to lift him to his feet. Once they guided him out the door, the revel was officially over.

Ronald had excused himself earlier and was undoubtedly back on theManchester Star, awaiting his return with the news that they could leave. Ajax got to his feet and turned for the hatch, only to find that he had a shadow. Nova had been kneeling beside him in silence. She put a delicate hand on his elbow and escorted him through the hatch, taking him right towards the hab sector instead of left for the hangar bay.

“What’s your name?” Ajax managed as he dragged himself along the wall. She turned to him and for the first time he noticed her brown eyes sparkle.

“Death,” She said softly. “Many men have tried to bargain with the Regent. Very few have succeeded, fewer still have gained his favor. Tell me what he sees in you.”

Ajax shook his head and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. Centauri Brandy was potent but the effects relatively short-lived. He took a deep breath and for a moment his thoughts clarified.

“He considers himself a businessman, I think he enjoys being a host,” Ajax said, his words slurring slightly as they came out. “And once he found out who I was, he was more willing to deal.”

“So who are you?” Nova said. “I watched you fight. You are no merchant.” She seemed puzzled when Ajax cackled. “What’s so funny?” She demanded.

“I’m a lucky piggy.” Ajax said.

“Was I part of your deal?” She said. Ajax leaned more heavily on her and wondered how much further he would have to walk.

“No,” Ajax said. The exercise was purging the Centauri Brandy from his system and his head was beginning to clear. Her accent was an addiction. “The Regent threw you in for free.”

“You are a pig.”

***

His alcohol buzz was gone, and after what seemed like an infinity, the tour Nova had given him of the quiet habitation complex ended when she stopped at a door. She punched a code in the keypad controlling the lock and the hatch slid open. The compartment was lit by several Chinese lanterns glowing softly red and from what he could see, it was filled with couches.

“Make yourself at home.” Nova said as she led him inside. “I must wash. I will not be long.”

She dropped her sweaty veils into a basket and moved towards shower room attached to the chamber. The door shut and soon Ajax could hear the sound of mist spraying from a showerhead. Unlike most other vacuum rocks, Midgard 3 had natural ice deposits.

There was a tri-color EuroCon flag on her wall and drab, blue-black spacer jumpsuits hanging in the open alcove that served as a closet. Ajax picked a sleeve of one and examined the patch on the shoulder. It had a diamond-star stitched in with “ECS-1976 Danube Duchess” beneath it.

“So that’s where the Regent found her.” Ajax muttered to himself and let the sleeve drop. The compartment was circular and there were shelves built into the walls, filled with all manners of things. Children’s toys, a small gargoyle statuette, and books. He scanned the titles that Nova had collected. The one that caught his eye was a language dictionary, the old-fashioned kind made of paper glued to a stiff, paper-board spine, for converting English-to-Franco/German-to-Mandarin. He slid it off of the shelf and cracked it open. Besides the words in print, there were English words written in the margins and translated into Franco-German.

Counter-intelligence, escape and evasion, K-9 team, “alarm goes off”, security system, air-landed assault, Rapier, what the fek? Ajax thought as he thumbed through the pages and scanned the words scribbled on them. Nova seemed intense but clueless, though only one type of person needed to know what those words meant. The Rapier’s a Combine air-defense missile. What does she need to know about any of this for? Who is this girl?

He slid the dictionary back onto the shelf and scanned the spines of the other books on the shelf. There was one bound in plain black that seemed out of place. It was heavy, even in the reduced gravity of Midgard 3, and when he got it off of the shelf he saw why.

“Krudge,” He muttered softly to himself and turned it over. It was a radio disguised as a book. “Why does she need this for?”

There was a code-disk slotted into the primary jack. He popped it off and was examining the settings on the underside when he heard a gasp. Nova was standing in the hatchway to the shower-room. She was wrapped in a towel and was looking at the transmitter and code-disk in his hands.

“What are you doing with that?” She said in a tone that carried anger and impatience. “Put it back before you break it.”

“So what do you need one of these for?” Ajax said and slid the Type-34 back onto the shelf. Nova took a breath but paused, as if she were not entirely sure what to say, or which prepared lie to use.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Nova said. “Now come over here. The Regent orders me to entertain you and I shall.”

Nova, with her hair damp and lithe features glistening with beads of water, did look pleasing. Ajax smirked as he walked forward. He took of his belt and rested it on the top of a flat storage bin. Free of the weight of the Blazer still snapped in the holster, his hips felt much looser. Nova settled back on the piles of large cushions that served as her nest and beckoned to him. Ajax settled next her and stretched out.

“When I saw you fight,” Nova said, unbuttoning his shirt, running her nails over his chest. “You were brilliant. I asked the Regent if I could have you.”

“I watched you dance,” Ajax said. The cushions smelled like her and her voice was wonderfully soothing. “You were incredible. I’ve never seen anyone like you, type one or type two.”

“Did you want ten minutes alone with me?” Nova said and caressed his face. “Is that what you wanted, Mister Ajax?”

“Yes,” Ajax said, his head swimming. He felt intoxicated again. “But I’m not so sure anymore.”

“Why?” Nova said. She was blunt.

“Tell me that you’re not a spy and I’ll forget why.” Ajax said. Nova regarded him silently, but a smirk had formed on her lips.

“We prefer to be called agents.” Nova said quietly after a time, as if someone had made a similar mistake before. The emotions her voice conveyed ranged from extreme to extreme and he then understood the small lizard tattoo she wore on her shoulder. She was a chameleon.

“It doesn’t matter,” Ajax said. “Tell me about me some more.”

“Bonventure,” She said and fingered the patch on his uniform. “Is that your ship?”

“No,” Ajax said. “It’s the company’s, I’m just the pilot.”

“So why have you brought it here?” Nova said and stroked his hair. She smiled, and for the first time he noticed that her bottom teeth were imperfect. “This is no place for a company man.”

“To make a deal with the Regent.” Ajax said.

“What type of deal?” Nova said and began kissing his chest. Ajax felt the Old Spacer’s Disease vanish and himself coming to attention.

“We’re making the spaceways safe for commerce again.” Ajax said and closed his eyes. If she didn’t hurry, in ten minutes he would be asleep. “No other reason.”

Ajax snapped his mouth shut and sat up, fixing Nova with an accusing stare. He took her hands off of him and got to his feet, kicking plush pillows out of the way as he buttoned his shirt and turned for the hatch.

“Where are you going?” Nova said as she tightened the towel around her body and followed him.

“Back to my ship.” Ajax said. “I think I’ve had enough of your hospitality.”

“Why?” She said, pouting in little girl fashion. The chameleon had changed yet again.

“Because for once the little voice in my head was right,” Ajax said. “So did your master send you to find out if I was telling the truth?”

“I don’t understand.” Nova said. “The Regent ordered me to entertain you, and I have been.”

Ajax grinned a fierce smile and shook his head.

“Is he the one you use that transmitter to communicate with?” Ajax said and pointed a finger towards the shelf where it rested. “Or is it for your contact on the SOLCorp station?”

“You’re crazy.” Nova said and folded her arms. “I think you should leave now.”

“I’m leaving,” Ajax said, reaching into his pocket and retrieving the code-disk. “But on our way here, we picked up some code transmitted from a type-thirty-four. I think this will help us decipher it, don’t you?”

Nova sank into a couch of crimson velvet bolted to the deck and wiped away tears, angry tears. They meandered along unguided paths from quicksilver pools gathering at the edges of her eyelids down to her jaw, where some collected and continued their exploration of her neck.

“You shit. I can’t believe this.”

She pulled a tissue from a nearby receptacle and swiped her chin, then her cheeks and her nose. Glaring at him, she crumpled the flimsy sheet and pitched it against his tunic-jacket while he glared back.

Ajax broke the lock he had on her eyes and stooped to collect the tissue ball where it landed. He looked left-and-right for a trash bin. With none evident, he tucked the ball into his pocket for later disposal.

“You need to believe it. So who are the rest of your people? Don’t bother lying to me, you wouldn’t be in such an exposed position without support. I want some answers.” Ajax snapped and leaned forward into her personal space.

Nova sat up rigid and turned away. Dark hair caught on her ear but concealed her face as she considered her options.

“I’m beginning to lose my patience. Why don’t I just take this out and show it to Patch and his boys.” Ajax said and shook the code-disk at her for emphasis. “We’ll see what he has to think about this little dilemma you’re in.” That appeared to seal it.

“Chuj. Kokot jeden pojebany.” She said something in a language he didn’t recognize but which dripped venom, then brushed the veil of dark hair aside with a sweep of her fingers. “Why don’t you just put a bullet in my head. I’ve worked on this operation for over a year and it gets blown in one day because some amateur jackass decides to become clever. Congratulations, jackass.”

“I’m sorry you don’t think I’m serious. If your cover is blown, it’s because you got careless. The radio breaks down even further and is even easier to hide, which tells me that you’ve been waiting six years for someone to find it on your shelf. Good for me.” Ajax said and offered her an indifferent shrug and carefully shuffled backwards toward the door. If Nova was an agent, she probably knew a dozen ways to kill with the towel she was wrapped up in.

“What do you mean I don’t think you’re serious? You’d better be serious. Do you have any idea what you’ve gotten yourself into?” Nova said, shook her head, and heaved a disgusted sigh.

“I’m not hearing any answers. Now you can talk to Patch, or you can talk to me,” Ajax said. “You know what I’m here for, this is business, and I think exposing a spy who sleeps on the cushions next to him would convince Regent to give me what I came for. Don’t you?”

“Go to hell.” Nova said as she went from seething to incensed and cast about for something with which to implement its release upon him.

Book, comb, scissors, laser. Two sets of eyes settled on the same weapon, the long-barreled Blazer snapped into the holster on his belt. It rested on valence and Nova got there first. Ajax pulled up short when he found the beam emitter shoved in his face.

“Jackass,” Nova laughed. “Now give me back my codes.”

He slowly raised his hands and backed away. The pistol tracked him across the compartment and stopped when he felt the bolts around the viewport seal dig into his back. There was no place left to go.

“I don’t think so.” Ajax said as he slipped the ROM cartridge into a trouser pocket. Nova stopped laughing.

“I’m serious. I swear I’ll kill you.” She growled.

“Oh, I’m sure you’re serious,” He said and crossed his arms behind his back. “I just hope you’re a good shot.”

“Don’t worry. I am.” Nova spit words from between clenched teeth.

“Stellar,” Ajax said as he leaned back against the viewport and made a bet with his own reflection. She had to be EuroCon Intelligence. “Because I’d hate for you to miss and vent the whole compartment. So what are you? E-Con Intelligence?”

“Zastita.” She said after a moment. There was pride in that dark name.

Ministvo Zastita. Ajax recalled. It was probably a lie, but he had heard the name from EuroCon troops during Procyon. The ministry of security for the Carpathian Republic.

Zastita was the agency that the EuroCon had called on when a security problem needed to be dealt with quickly. The accounts he’d heard of their thorough professionalism were quiet affairs, started and finished in less than five minutes, no complications. He thought he had her pegged.

“Then take your best shot. Let’s see if you’re a gambler. Ever tried Russian Roulette?” Ajax said, daring her to put her aptitude where her claims were and prove to both of them which ones were true. “Or does that make you Imperial Russian Security? I hear they make each of their agents spin the chamber before they graduate.”

Nova wavered as she remembered shouting her oath of service with her eyes squeezed shut and the heavy bore of a .44 caliber revolver against her temple. Her voice competed to out-match those of agent instructors circling around her, shouting back discouragement, feeding her cowardice, making the little voice that said being Zastita was not as important as her life ring even louder. The agency was built on the Imperial Russian model and her moment of truth came when she took a deep breath, shouted, “For the state and the people,” and squeezed the trigger.

When the hammer snapped down on an empty chamber she opened her eyes, blinked back tears of relief, and handed the pistol back to the Zastita director. The graduate next in line was not so lucky. The slam of a pistol shot jarred her as she stood at attention. The identity of the dead patriot on the floor beside her no longer mattered. All she knew was that fate had chosen her to be Zastita. She had felt invincible.

After graduation the serious weapons training started and all she remembered about the Blazer like the one in her hand was that it had an intense discharge. It was possible that the beam might core through him and still have enough energy left to burn through the plexi-glass viewport. She itched to erase the grin etched on his face, but the Blazer only had three settings; off, low, and high. The “low” setting was only effective at close range, so she kept the beam-emitter centered on his chest and advanced.

“You think that you’re so god-damned smart. You think that you’re so god-damned right. You are so wrong.” Nova said. “If you don’t give back my codes, you are still just as dead.”

“Well, now that you’re little secret is out, you’ll have to kill me anyway.” Ajax said as he shook his head.

“Like you said, business.” Nova snarled. Smart men deserved honest answers. Nova had come across more than one smart man, and for the most part they already knew the answers to the questions they asked, those men were either dead or with her. She stared him down as she racked her brain for a reason to his obstinence. His pistol was in her hand and if he had another weapon it remained hidden.

“People will ask questions if I don’t show up to close the deal with the Regent.” He said. His heartbeat quickened as he saw her cruel grin. Intuition told him he was about to get burned.

“No they won’t, not here, nobody cares here, especially not about you. When I space you, the Regent will deal with the next man in line, or just space you all and take your cargo with no deal. You’ve been lucky he hasn’t done that already.” She said, then stopped her advance when the hatch slid open and someone stepped through.

“Nova?” The man froze when he saw that Nova had company. His name was Ivan and he was drunk. Ajax could smell Centauri Brandy from where he stood.

Nova waved Ivan aside with the Blazer and swaggered to a situation in front of Ajax slightly further than just out of his reach.

“I can’t wait to see the look on your face when I put you out the airlock,” Nova hissed as she leveled the pistol. “Jackass.”

When she squeezed the trigger nothing happened.

“Check the battery charge. Green means good, red means bad.” Ajax said and held up a boxy power-cell that he had pulled from the pocket the codes had gone into.

Nova wavered, squeezed the trigger again, then inverted the pistol and checked the bottom of the grip for the power-cell. Her eyes widened when she saw the charge indicator blinking red/green. It still held a weak charge. She realized that she had taken her eyes off of him when she felt him coming.

When her head dropped to check the grip, Ajax moved. When he stepped toward Nova, he tossed the battery to Ivan, who was distracted enough by its arc for the mechanism of its launch to make a move. By the time he looked back, Ajax and Nova were intertwined on the floor.

Ajax tore the laser from her awkward grip while Ivan drew a compact sliver-gun from his belt and leveled an unsteady bead.

“Drop it! Just drop it!” Ajax yelled, flicking the fire selector of the Blazer to the “off” setting and pressing the beam emitter against her head. Ivan hesitated while Nova struggled against his grip, but he held her firmly. She had been in micro-g for too long and he could feel her strength fading, a good thing. The Regent would not appreciate the loss of his favorite concubine. “Unless you want to see what this does to her on the high setting, I’d drop that shredder and kick it over here.” Ajax said.

“He’s bluffing. Kill him.” Nova screeched and tried to bite his arm.

“I’m not bluffing. The only reason it didn’t fire was because I had the trigger-lock on. Now it’s off and if you don’t drop that shredder and kick it over here, I’ll fry her without another thought.” Ajax said calmly, but with finality. Ivan looked confused but held his ground.

“Ivan!” Nova wailed as she tightened her towel, took a breath, and resumed her struggle.

“Think about it. If you’ve been assigned to guard her, the Regent will blame you for her death, now drop it.” Ajax said firmly as he pulled Nova’s head back by the hair and pressed in the Blazer until the beam emitter pushed up ripples in her cheek. Ivan raised his arms, shredder still in hand, then stooped and laid it on the floor. He wobbled as he stood but delivered a sweeping kick that sent the weapon spinning across the deck to where Ajax wrapped up Nova. She sprang away as he released her.

A button under his thumb activated the power eject which dropped the battery in the Blazer. Ajax hastily dug out a fresh one and snapped it into place before Nova got her balance back.

“You made the right decision.” Ajax said as he checked the fire-selector, extended the pistol, and pulled the trigger. The beam emitter flashed like a lightning strike and Ivan crumpled with a groan, leaving the air in the compartment smelling faintly of Ozone. When his eyes cleared, Ajax heard Nova laughing.

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