Death of the Regent-2

“Well, well, sometimes even jackasses get lucky. Do you think that this makes you special?” Nova said as she picked herself up. “Do you want a prize?”

“The truth would be nice. What’s your real name, Major” Ajax said as he slowly got to his feet. “Nova sounds like the Regent’s pet name for you.”

“You get nothing. You know too little already.” She said mockingly.

“I’ll just have to work on assumptions then.” He said and sucked at the furrows in his arms where she had clawed him.

“And what are those, jackass?” She asked flippantly. Ajax was impressed. Even in defeat, she was defiant.

“I’m assuming that these codes will allow me to decrypt the transmissions of yours that we intercepted and I’ll be able to find my own answers. I’ll be sure to thank the Regent for his hospitality.” Ajax said and squeezed the trigger again. He watched the shocked, puzzled look on her face crumble as the energy burst from the Blazer delivered it effect. When she stopped twitching he popped the power-cell and checked the charge.

The damn thing is nearly expended again. He thought and angrily shoved the power-cell back in. “No wonder these things are so cheap.” He said to his reflection, then snapped the battery back into place and collected his pistol belt off, then returned the pistol to its holster. The pair would be out for ten minutes at most.

When Ajax wrapped his arms around Ivan’s chest and lifted, the man vomited, a foul stream of stomach acid and Centaurian Brandy that dribbled out of his mouth, down his chest, and onto the cuffs of Ajax’s tunic-jacket.

“Son-of-a-bitch!” Ajax slowly cursed as he got Ivan into the seat and looked for something to wipe up the mess with. Perfect. He thought as he separated Nova from her towel and used it to wipe up the mess. He found the shredder where it came to rest and replaced it on Ivan’s belt.

When he put her to bed he took a moment to admire her beauty, wondered what she might have been like, then he buried her in overstuffed pillows and threw the towel into a large basket. Ajax stopped at her mirror and lifted a scarf that had caught his eye. He folded it into a square and put it to his nose, then he closed his eyes and took a gentle whiff. The smell of musky powder and her body brought a smile to his lips. He took it instead of her life.

No wonder the Regent lets her get away with murder. He put the scarf in his pocket beside the code-disk, returned the radio to its place on the shelf, and visually swept the room one last time. If anyone were to come in, he hoped it would look like Ivan passed out in the chair while Nova slept on her cushions. He turned out the lights and went out the door.

***

“What happened to you?” Ronnie asked when the hatch slid open and Ajax floated through. “I smell vomit. Was the Centaurian Brandy a bit strong?”

“No, it was fine.” Ajax said and examined the stain on his sleeve.

“Too much for her then?”

“Don’t get me started on her.”

Ronnie pushed his glasses up and smiled. “Really?” He said. “Has Mister Clean met his match?”

“I know why she’s called Nova.” Ajax said and slipped his arms out of his jacket. The blood on his sleeve from her scratches raised an eyebrow. “She’s explosive.”

Ronnie pulled an automatic wrench from his toolbox and applied it to bolts securing the casing of the #8 surge buffer. While the Bonventure was docked, he threw in with the host crew of the Manchester Star and helped with the problems at the top of their list.

“Most servants are,” He said and slipped his boots through the foot-straps attached to the deck. “And if they aren’t, they’re not much good, are they?”

“I said don’t get me started,” Ajax said and pulled the code-disk out of his pocket.

“What’s this?” Devolte said and caught the thrown chip.

“Maybe nothing,” Ajax said and floated toward his cabin. “Run it anyway. Maybe it’s the key to some answers we’ve been looking for.”

***

UM-3/Avalon

“Sir, where’s the third platoon area?”

The billet officer also sat radio watch. The LT took off her headset and rubbed her eyes. She was younger than Kray but looked worn.

“C sector, Kray. I don’t want to hear any sniveling, either.”

“Wasn’t there a sighting down there tonight?” He said. Taylor gave him a hard look once before turning back to her comm-station. She still had another four hours on duty.

“At least it’s dry.”

“No sewage but slimy things with tentacles instead.” Kray said and squeezed his helmet back onto his head. “Got it, sir. Let’s go boys.”

At that point, Kray would have curled up in a week-old pool of human waste next to a rotting corpse if it meant he could get some sleep, but he was at least 80% certain that it did would come to that.

“Why do we gotta have slimy things with tentacles here?” Kray muttered to himself. C sector was a series of tunnels nearly a mile from the command center, underneath what used to be an industrial park.

Soldiers, grouped by squads, filled the long tunnels. Kray and his men stepped over or around the sleeping, huddled forms. There were some civilians around, trying to eke out some semblance of life amid the ruins. They did what they could to help the effort, scavenging for food or material and scouting out places where the soldiers, with their heavy combat loads, could not go. They dragged away wounded troopers after a fight, sometimes picking up fallen weapons and filling in holes during critical moments untrained as they were. Civilian doctors and nurses manned the aid stations and field hospitals, but mostly the non-combatants stayed underground and tried as best they could to get by.

The groups began to thin out the further away form the command HQ they got. Eventually, Kray found an unused tunnel branching off the main line, going back thirty yards before ending at a ferrocrete plug. The main line went on for another hundred yards before two automated sentry guns, one of them a flame-thrower, marked the beginning of no-man’s-land.

“All right, we’re home,” Kray said. The sound of rucksacks hitting the ground simultaneously was drowned out by the sighs of weary men. Kray unsnapped his sleep-pack and laid it out, using his rucksack as a pillow. He hung his small, halogen lantern on one of the loops drilled into the ceiling by the engineers and unbuckled his boots. “Ahh, Jesus that feels good.”

The load bearing webbing and the rest of the combat gear came off next. Thus unencumbered, Kray dug a meal packet out and settled in for breakfast. It was beef teriyaki, scalloped potatoes, and a small bar of chocolate from a case of civilian camping rations that Rumor Control had found in the remains of a discount store. It was dried to the point of removing all moisture from the mouth and took a whole canteen of water to wash down, but it was better than the standard issue ration bars or the mystery dishes prepared by the army cooks. Noone made jokes about the food tasting like Duggar meat anymore. It probably was. Meal done, Kray crawled into his sleep-pack and tried to relax. Something was nagging at him as he drifted to sleep.

Reaching to his side, he felt the familiar and comforting form of his M-32 assault rifle, but that was not it. Beside it was a weapon even more important. The flamer pistol that no soldier was to be in the sewers without. Harley, he was happy to see, was on the other end. He passed the incinerator down until he saw it in Harley’s hands, then he allowed himself to pass fitfully into slumber.

***

Wolf 359

Tanker rendezvous: H-15 hours

“The Regent has considered your proposal, Utbird.” Patch said solemnly as the Regent looked on behind him. “You have negotiated in good faith and now we agree to your bargain.”

“Speaking for my employers, we are most grateful.” Ajax said and swept the crowd, Nova was not there, nor was Ivan. Something was up, he could feel it. Because of his slip, the Regent knew that he was being set up, Ajax was sure of it. Everything seemed too perfect.

“You have your orders and your destination!” Patch bellowed at the assembled corsairs. “Go forth and prove your honor!”

The command acted as a catalyst and the control compartment became chaotic. The crews of the pirate ships hard-docked to the collars around the planetoid raced for their vessels. Patch brought up a shipping display and they watched as the pirate ships were readied and uncoupled.

“The first ship to make jump gets first share of any takings.” Patch confided as Ajax watched the first one, the corsair Death’s-Head, break away. Death’s-Head had carried the RAM-shuttles to assault Manchester Star. The crew of that one seemed particularly sharp, for vacuum-trash.

So much the better that they be the first ones to reach Tau Ceti. Ajax thought as he watched the others power their drives and make for their irregular, “pirate” jump-points, still in the deep outer system but away from the more frequently patrolled areas where they might be spotted. There might be several ships waiting to jump and rule #1 in the unwritten mercantile code was that pirates get attacked upon identification by every ship in the area.

“Your people handle their craft very well.” Ajax said as the last one reported being underway. The Regent nodded as Patch stepped away.

“They must,” The Regent said. “For they know that they are the hunted. Only the most cunning survive to become the hunters.”

“And what most one survive to become Regent?” Ajax said and folded his arms. He had only a few hours left before the Manchester Star embarked for rendezvous with the tanker.

“Doubt.” The Regent said. Ajax nodded. Being a SkyFall pilot during the Octavian Crisis, insecurity about his talents and the ruggedness of his F/A-300 had been as mortal an enemy as the Octavian air-defense systems. “Did my Nova entertain you? Is she not a magnificent creature?”

Ajax shifted and pasted a smile on his lips. He had thought over and over about how he would respond, something dodgy seemed the best.

“Truly,” Ajax said and clasped his hands behind him so that the Regent would not see them shake. “The Regent must enjoy difficult women.”

The Regent grinned, then he giggled, then he erupted in belly-shaking laughter. Patch and the rest of his henchmen joined in until the whole compartment echoed with mirth. It died down when the Regent stopped laughing and wiped his eyes.

“A lesson for you,” The Regent said, face flushed. “They are not so difficult once they have been properly humbled.”

“Indeed,” Ajax said, agreeing though the Regent’s methods were not his own. “But once that you take their fire, would you agree that something more is lost, in spirit?”

“Do not concern yourself, Utbird,” The Regent said. “They are only women, useful for warming beds and when there is no brandy to be consumed.”

“The Regent has great wisdom,” Ajax said. “But I must take my leave. There is a tanker waiting to fuel us and it will not wait for long.”

“Then go,” The Regent said. “And do not doubt that we will have your prize to deliver to you.”

Without another word, Ajax left, feeling their eyes on his back until he went though the hatch. Over the past three days, the pirates had become accustomed to seeing him and his performance during the blood-feud had earned him at least their indifference. He became aware that he had an escort at approximately the same time he heard a voice.

“Why didn’t you turn me in?” Nova whispered. Ajax stopped to face her. She was dressed plainly in baggy clothes of dull colors, looking nothing at all like the woman he remembered from only hours before, a hood over her head.

“The Regent had already agreed to our bargain.” Ajax said and folded his arms. “Besides, whoever sent you here must’ve had a reason. I needed to do business with the Regent, nothing else. Your purpose here is your business.”

“The codes,” Nova said and twisted her head left and right to scan for watchers. “I must have my codes back to communicate with my controllers.”

“Take it.” Ajax said and rummaged in his pocket until he found the small chip. She accepted it and, in a flash, had it stored in one of the folds in her clothing.

Ajax was jolted by the body of another pirate trying to push past him, one who stopped long enough to glare at him and then at Nova, who ducked her head and pocketed the disk

“There’s another reason I came here,” Ajax continued. “I’m looking for a man named Argent. Have you met anyone by that name?”

“Why do you seek this man?” Nova said and immediately Ajax knew he’d asked the right question.

“He has information we need,” Ajax said. “His contract with his company is up. We were sent to collect him. This deal with the Regent, all this, is only for one reason. To find Argent and remove him.”

“Argent is not here,” Nova said and guided him out of the path that the Regent’s pirates used to move in and out of the shuttle bay. “I was with him on Octavia but he sent me here. He knew that you would come for him. I am to take his place. I have secrets he entrusted to me.”

“Like what?” Ajax said.

“The cure for Serenity poisoning.” Nova said.

Ajax shook his head. “There’s no such thing.”

***

UM-4/ Avalon

The first sounds of trouble came two hours later. Kray, and every other man in the squad, woke abruptly to the clashing sound of automatic weapons fire and shell casings clattering off the hard, sewer walls. Had the men been sleeping in the main tunnel, the noise would have been deafening. As it was, simply clapping hands over heads kept the noise to an ear-ringing minimum. Kray pulled on his boots and watched as Harley took action. Silence reigned after something toppled the sentry gun in the main line. Harley leaned into the tunnel to have a look at the commotion.

“Smleck!” He said and fumbled desperately to light the pilot on the flamer pistol. With a snap, a small spark lit the gas jet primer and Harley let fly with a thirty-foot tongue of flame. Kray had buckled his boots and grabbed his M-32 when Harley let loose. A near ultra-sonic scream pierced the dark sewer and something, ignited by the flamer, retreated back down the main tunnel taking the dim light of its flaming body with it.

Upon further investigation, Kray found the flame-throwing sentry gun smashed and leaking. The other was knocked over and covered with a trail of slime. When asked what he saw, Harley could only shake.

“It was big.” Harley said and unable to sleep, he volunteered to stand watch for another shift, then another. By the time exhaustion overwhelmed him, Harley, Kray and all the other men were having the same disturbing though: somehow the slimy things with tentacles had gotten smart.

***

Wolf 359

Tanker Rendezvous: H-10 hours

Ajax watched the Midgard colony recede until it disappeared against the blackness of the starfield. The Manchester Star moved at only a fraction of the relativistic velocity her engines were capable of imparting, but the colony was deep in the system and little of the light from the primary star reflected from the surface. Another hour and the freighter would be clear of the asteroid field around the planetoid. The hatch hummed open behind him.

“Saying goodbye to our business partners?” Ronnie said as he came through and braced himself against the micro-gravity provided by the engine thrust. “I’d’ve thought you’d be happy to put that place behind you, considering you had the most to lose. My report will reflect your stellar performance.”

“Then I’ll expect a raise after my next evaluation.” Ajax said and scanned the stars for clues to the dread he felt, ever since Nova had stopped him in the corridor, but he was relieved as well. Midgard 3 had become a black well of despair that he was escaping, a place that might have lurked beneath the 110-level of the DeepCore.

“Don’t worry about that,” Ronnie said. “Once we reach Avalon and make our reports, you’ll have your raise and most likely a posting to wherever you like. The company rewards performers, you know.”

“Yeah,” Ajax said and searched his own face for answers. “What about the ones who do their jobs day-after-day, working around the scum of heaven and earth? They never get any kind of award or promotion, their bosses don’t even talk to them, yet they keep the faith that one day they’re gonna get the call. What about them?”

“What’s that?” Ronnie said. “You’re not coming down with space-madness are you? We have some pills in the infirmary if you need them.”

“It’s not that.” Ajax said. “I guess I’m just tired.”

“You ought to be,” Ronnie said. “I’m surprised that you’ve made it this long.”

Ajax nodded and picked Orion out of the starfield, his favorite constellation, it was inverted, but something was not right. There was an extra star beneath the belt, where the Midgard colony would have been if it were visible. The pinpoint of light expanded and grew brighter as each millisecond past. The beam of an energy weapon flashed by the freighter like neon taffy stretched past and then snapped away.

“What in blazes was that?” Devolte said, shocked that the beam was intense enough to bathe his body in an orange glow.

“Midgard Three has surface defenses,” Ajax said quietly. He had gotten to know the ones on Octavia very well. “And we’re still in range of them.”

“Well, what do you think they want?” Devolte said, confusion wrinkling his forehead and chin. Ajax withheld his answer as the “attention all-hands” tone played from the speakers hidden throughout the ship.

“Ajax Ajax, please report to main control. Ajax Ajax, please report to main control.”

Ajax looked Devolte hard in the eyes as the zero-G alarm sounded and he floated away from the deck. The engines had been stopped.

“We’re receiving a message from Midgard Three,” Captain Glower said as Ajax floated through the hatch into the control deck. The cannon shot had delivered another kind, one that said stop and listen. “It was transmitted on a regular UHF signal so it’s a little weak. It’s the Regent, he wants to talk to you.”

“Did he say what he wanted?” Ajax said and tried to shake out the ominous itch working its way up his spine. Glower shook his head. “Let’s hope he just wanted to say bon voyage.”

“He could’ve done that without firing a shot alongside.” Glower muttered to himself and motioned for the radioman to put the signal through. Ajax took several deep breaths and positioned himself before a vid-com to face the Regent once more. The screen fuzzed and the Regent appeared.

“We got a signal lock, sir,” The radioman called back from his station. “Go ahead.”

“I am here, Regent,” Ajax said. “I understand that you have a message for me?”

“Yes, Utbird,” The Regent said slowly, his voice even and inscrutable. “There are a few minor details left unresolved. I must ask that you return to us again.”

“I assure you that my employers will find our agreement valid and fulfill their terms of the contract.” Ajax said, hoping that the signal degradation from transmission to reception would hide his shaking voice.

“I must insist.” The Regent said in a grave voice. The jocularity of the previous night was gone. He had known all along that the deal was a sham, Ajax was sure, and had waited until the last possible moment to call him on it, letting him feel relief that he had escaped before snapping closed the jaws of despair.

“I must confer with my superiors a moment, Regent,” Ajax said, feeling the blood drain from his face and into his sinuses, a severe headache was coming on rapidly. The radioman hit the “mute” button on the vid-com before the Regent could respond.

Ajax looked around the bridge at the faces he saw staring back at him. All of them had been eavesdropping and a few of them looked scared.

“Captain?” Ajax said when he found got to Glower, seated in his command chair. He needed the man’s guidance, wanted alternatives, any alternative. The gruff old sailor folded his arms and looked away, took a deep breath, and looked back. There was understanding in his eyes. Glower knew what would happen if Ajax went back to Midgard 3.

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