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Chapter One

Brandon Grant had no idea how many people he’d killed.

For that matter, he couldn’t recall how many planets he’d killed people on. It wasn’t the sort of thought that crossed his mind. Besides, he’d have needed a pretty sizable folder just to store the data, assuming he’d ever been stupid enough to write it down in the first place.

Still, this was about as far from home as he’d ever operated, and he wondered—vaguely—why these particular kills were so important. And why this one had to look like a common mugging gone wrong. The other one had been much more straightforward, and she’d been a far more prominent target to begin with, but the employer’s local agent hadn’t quibbled about the obvious ambush his second team had arranged for her. It was true that she was rather more visible than Grant’s current target, since she worked in uniform and operated openly out of Gendarmerie HQ here in Pine Mountain, whereas the man he was about to kill didn’t. If things worked right, any investigators would buy the announcement from the McIntosh Popular Front claiming responsibility for the first hit, although the MPF was going to be astounded to hear about it. So why not let the same “murderous terrorists” deal with this guy, as well? Maybe they just didn’t want two obvious assassinations taking off people who had a close professional link? But that struck him as pretty silly. If they died so close together—within less than two hours of each other, for God’s sake!—it was still going to ring alarm bells for anyone inclined to be suspicious in the first case. Or maybe this guy’s cover was so deep that no one else would know he was connected to the Gendarmerie at all, far less to his uniformed associate?

He shrugged mentally at the thought. He was accustomed to making targeted murder look like something else whenever needed, and his employer’s reasons for wanting someone dead were none of his business. If this was the way the people paying the freight wanted it, this was how he’d do it, but it would have been so much simpler to simply walk up behind the target, shoot him in the back of the head, and keep right on walking. It was amazing how easy that was, even with all the modern surveillance and security systems in play, if one simply thought ahead a bit and kept his nerve. But, no. This one couldn’t be an obvious hit, for whatever reason. A scrap of an ancient poem wandered through his mind, and he snorted in amusement. It truly wasn’t his “to wonder why.” In point of fact, his employer paid him extraordinarily well not to wonder, but simply “to do or die.”

Of course, in Grant’s case, he did the doing and someone else did the dying.

He kept his eyes on his uni-link display’s current pornographic feature, smiling faintly as he recalled the distasteful looks that feature had drawn from the handful of passersby who’d happened to glance at it. He didn’t really blame them; it was as energetic—and loud—as it was in bad taste. That was why he’d chosen it and disabled the privacy function to make sure it could be seen and heard by anyone unfortunate enough to enter his orbit. Anyone dressed like him, leaning against a wall and watching that sort of “entertainment” might be many things, but he certainly wasn’t one of the best paid assassins of the explored galaxy.

He did glance up—once—to check the positions of his team, although he was confident they were where they were supposed to be. He’d brought two of them—Markus Bochart and Franz Gillespie—from Old Earth when his employer deployed them to the Madras Sector. They’d worked with him several times before, and he knew he could count on their expertise. The other two were local recruits, but they’d worked out well so far. In fact, he rather regretted the fact that he’d have to eliminate them as one last housekeeping chore before he left the sector. Good help could be hard to find, yet he was unlikely to be operating out this way again anytime soon, and his employer, who liked loose ends even less than he did, had been very specific about that.

All four of them were in position, dressed—like him—in cheap, gaudy clothes in the orange, black, and green colors of the Tremont Towers Dragons, one of Pine Mountain’s less fastidious street gangs. That was a minor risk, since the Dragons were less than popular with the local authorities for a host of good reasons, and it was always possible the five of them would draw the attention of the Pine Mountain Police. That was unlikely as long as they simply floated the street, however. Here in the sector capital officers had more important things to do than move along loiterers—even members of the TTD—unless those loiterers made a nuisance of themselves. Besides, it would actually help if some cop had made note of their presence and recalled it later. It would help steer any inquiries in the proper direction, and he hid a smile as he considered how energetically the Dragons were likely to find themselves interrogated if their target was truly important enough to justify all this elaborate deniability rigmarole.

A soft chime sounded in his earbug.

He kept his eyes on the uni-link for another ten seconds, then keyed it off, and shoved himself away from the wall he’d been so assiduously propping up for the last hour or so. He stretched, made deliberate—and obvious—eye contact with his henchmen, and then ambled away up the sidewalk. He smiled as Bochart pried himself away from the light standard he’d been holding up and paused to make a mock grab at a passing pedestrian’s shoulder bag, then laughed mockingly as she snatched it protectively away. It was a nice touch, one that the local surveillance cameras must have caught but obviously not a serious attempted robbery which might have prompted an immediate response. When the chip was examined later, though, it would show that the “Dragons” had been in a mood to make trouble before they encountered the unfortunate victim of the mugging-to-be.

Ahead of him, the soon-to-be-dead-man came around the corner and started down the block, and Grant’s predator eyes narrowed ever so slightly.

The most extraordinary thing about the man coming towards them was how outstandingly ordinary he looked. Medium height, medium build, medium complexion, medium brown hair…there was absolutely nothing about him to catch someone’s attention or attract anyone’s notice or cause even the most suspicious to file him away in memory. Indeed, he was even more ordinary looking than he’d seemed in the imagery Grant had studied when the assignment landed in his inbox. People didn’t get that ordinary without working at it—hard—as Brandon Grant knew better than most, and he’d warned his assistants against automatically accepting the inoffensive harmlessness the other man projected so skillfully.

* * *

Damien Harahap was an unhappy man.

Partly that was because he disliked failure, no matter who might have employed him at the moment, and failures didn’t come much more spectacular than the ones he’d enjoyed on the planets of Montana and Kornati. He didn’t know—and might never know—exactly how the wheels had come off, but the news out of the Talbott Sector made it abundantly clear they had. Something had certainly inspired a Manticoran captain to take a scratch-built squadron to Monica and trash the entire system, despite the distinct possibility that his actions would provoke a shooting incident with the Solarian League Navy. Right off the top of his head, Harahap couldn’t think of many reasons for a sane human being to do anything of the sort. In fact, the one that came most readily to mind was the discovery that somebody had been providing the Monica System Navy with first-line Solarian warships at the same time somebody else had been fueling and feeding terrorist movements designed to destabilize local governments which were in the process of seeking admission to the Star Kingdom of Manticore in places like Montana and Split. Only a complete idiot would have assumed there was no connection between those two happenstances, and there were very few complete idiots in the Royal Manticoran Navy. The RMN wasn’t exactly noted for timidity, either, and Harahap could understand how a Manticoran officer might feel a tad…irked by something like that.

The problem it posed for him was whether or not the Manties would be able to track his handiwork back to the Solarian League Gendarmerie. Not that the Gendarmerie had had anything to do with it…officially. Unfortunately, Dennis Harahap was a captain in the Gendarmerie, and Manticore might find it a bit difficult to believe he’d been operating independently. Especially since he hadn’t been, however carefully Ulrike Eichbauer had stressed the fact that he was being given “leave time” in order to assist his current private enterprise employers on his own centicredit.

Which was another reason for his current unhappiness. Major Eichbauer understood plausible deniability as well as the next covert operator, but she was the one who’d sent him the coded request to meet her at Urrezko Koilara. He’d half expected the summons, knowing Eichbauer. She wasn’t the sort to leave one of her people twisting in the wind, but she was also unlikely to call him in for any sort of official meeting until she knew whether or not his recent activities were going to splatter all over the Gendarmerie. Urrezko Koilara was a small, out-of-the way restaurant specializing in Old Earth’s Iberian cuisine. It wasn’t going to be found on any gourmand’s guide to the galaxy, but the food was on the high side of decent and its owner had been one of Eichbauer’s best confidential informants before her promotion to major took her off the streets and into an office job. Which made it an ideal place for a quiet, off-the-books meet.

But Eichbauer hadn’t been there. Worse, the owner hadn’t even glanced in Harahap’s direction when he arrived. Either no one had told her Eichbauer intended to meet one of her people in her restaurant, or else someone had paid her to pretend no one had. Given the faint frown of baffled memory the woman had bestowed upon him when he asked to speak to the manager and complimented her on the quality of the food, Harahap was inclined towards the former explanation. If the supposed meeting had been some sort of set up, she would have greeted him with bland innocence, not with the expression of someone trying to remember where she’d seen him before. He was accustomed to not being remembered, since it was one of his primary stocks in trade, but some trace of memory had obviously been working in there, and there wouldn’t have been if she’d been briefed in preparation for some kind of operation.

So what had happened to Eichbauer? She knew how to get in touch with him to cancel the meet, and she hadn’t. But he was positive the original message had come from her; among other things, no one else knew the code phrase, since he’d selected it randomly himself better than three T-years ago. It was remotely possible she’d decided he needed to be tidied up before any more fecal matter hit the rotary air impeller, but there were a dozen other ways she could have gone about that. Besides, if she’d wanted him removed from the equation, there would have been someone waiting for him at the restaurant. On the other hand, it was hard to imagine what could have prevented a Gendarmerie major—and Brigadier Francisca Yucel’s chief intelligence officer, at that!—from keeping an appointment she’d made.

It was all very worrisome, although no one could have guessed that from his carefree expression as he enjoyed the early afternoon sunlight. There had to be an explanation. The problem was that it could very well be an explanation for which he didn’t much care, and those sorts of explanations could be…messy.

* * *

Brandon Grant’s two local employees sauntered past the oncoming target without, Grant noted approvingly, giving him so much as a glance. They were behind him, now, and Markus Bochart opened the gambit by stepping into the target’s path with exactly the right ganger swagger. His left hand rose, three middle fingers bladed together for a contemptuous thrust to the target’s sternum, while his right hand slid inside his own unsealed jacket.

It was so satisfying when everything went according to plan, Grant thought. In another three seconds…

“Hey, null jet! Let’s see your wal—”

* * *

Although he might be a Gendarmerie captain, Harahap’s assignments had always kept him well clear of the Madras Sector’s capital planet. His weren’t the sort of talents which would have found their best and highest use on a planet like Meyers or in a city like Pine Mountain, and anonymity was one of his most important stocks in trade. That was one of the reasons Eichbauer had been careful to keep him buried in the boonies and as far out of any potential public spotlights as possible.

As a result, he was less familiar with the capital’s gangs than he might have been somewhere else, but he recognized ganger colors when he saw them. Nothing had screamed overt warning to him, but the ingrained situational awareness born of thirty years of fieldwork had kept an eye on the quintet sauntering arrogantly toward him. He’d noticed peripherally when the first two stepped past him, and he knew exactly where they were. It was the trio still coming towards him that held his attention, however. There was something just a little off about them, something he couldn’t have quite put a finger on if anyone had asked him to describe it.

Under other circumstances, he would have donned his nervous-mouse citizen’s mask and stepped back timidly when the arrogant tough jabbed him in the chest. He would even have brought out the extra wallet he carried specifically to hand over to demanding police officers and surrendered it with proper, cringing terror. But the other hand—the one sliding inside the loose jacket—rang all sorts of alarms.

“Hey, null jet!” the ganger snarled scornfully. “Let’s see your wal—”

* * *

Brandon Grant’s eyes widened as the target’s right arm flashed out with serpent quickness. It darted inside Bochart’s left arm, slammed into the inside of his forearm, and swept the entire arm out and to the side. Then it snaked around and its hand locked on the inside of Bochart’s elbow. A sudden twist, and Bochart grimaced in anguish, his knees trying to buckle with the sudden, totally unexpected pain as the steely fingers drilling into his elbow found exactly the nerve points they’d sought.

But Markus Bochart was a professional. The pain didn’t keep his right hand from finding the haft of the vibro blade scabbarded under his jacket. The plan hadn’t called for it to come out so quickly—not until the belligerent ganger’s temper had exploded when his victim proved insufficiently pliant. He didn’t much care about plans at the moment, though. The speed and brutal efficiency of his victim’s response told him that despite Grant’s admonition, their target’s unprepossessing appearance had lulled him into a grievous misjudgment.

His hand came out of his jacket…and he discovered just how grievous that misjudgment had truly been.

* * *

Despite his inner alarm system, Harahap hadn’t really expected a lethal weapon out of a ganger. Not that quickly. But there were certain advantages to spending thirty odd T-years in unsavory places doing unsavory things. He spun on the ball of his right foot, turning his back to the other without releasing his elbow lock. His spine rammed against the considerably taller man’s chest, pinning his right hand against his torso and inside his jacket, and his own right arm shot up with piledriver force. The heel of his hand slammed into Bochart’s jaw, shattering it and snapping his head back viciously.

That sledgehammer hand continued its upward thrust, and Harahap’s forearm snaked around the back of Bochart’s neck. His arm locked, his spine bent, and the heel of his right foot smashed into his would-be killer’s right kneecap as he jerked forward and down.

* * *

Grant’s surprise became shocked disbelief. Bochart’s nascent scream as his kneecap splintered ended before it was well begun in the sharp, clear crack of a breaking neck and his body flew forward over the target’s back. The vibro blade fell from his nerveless hand as he hit the sidewalk, whining as its blade sank effortlessly into the obsidian-tough ceramacrete before the auto cutoff killed it, and the man who was supposed to be already dying spun into Franz Gillespie like an outstandingly ordinary cyclone.

Gillespie saw him coming and his own vibro blade cleared his jacket with a lethal, ugly whine. That was as far as it got, though, before Harahap was upon him. One hand, far stronger than it looked, locked on the wrist of his knife hand. The other hand darted up, wrapped its fingers in his hair, and yanked his face down to meet a rising kneecap. Bone crunched, blood splattered, and Harahap pivoted, turning in place and yanking the half-blind, three quarters-stunned Gillespie past him.

The killer from Old Terra stumbled forward, directly into the nearer of the two locals, and both of them went down in a tangle of flailing limbs.

The second local gaped in astonishment as the neatly planned ambush disintegrated. He was still gaping when Harahap swept into him and a bladed hand crushed his larynx like a mallet. He reeled backward, hands clutching at his ruined windpipe, and Harahap twisted back towards his fallen partner.

Gillespie had risen to one knee, one hand clutching his demolished, broken face, trying to clear the blood from his eyes, while his other hand swept the ceramacrete, searching for his dropped vibro blade. The other local rolled to his feet with commendable quickness…only to meet the heel of Harahap’s shoe before he was fully upright. It crashed into his solar plexus, doubling him up, sending him back to his knees, and the gendarme captain brought the point of his elbow down on the nape of his neck like an ax.

* * *

It took Brandon Grant almost point-six seconds to reach his decision.

Fuck the plan!

His hand came out of his own jacket—and not with another ganger’s vibro blade—as the second Meyerite went down with a sodden thud. The pulser snapped up. It found its target, and his finger started to squeeze.

* * *

Harahap spun from the bloody-faced “ganger” still trying to find his feet as a burst of pulser darts shrieked past him. That hissing, hypervelocity scream was the sort of sound no one in his line of work was ever likely to mistake for anything else, and his eyes widened as the fifth and final ganger’s chest exploded in a vapor cloud of blood and shredded tissue.

The corpse was still falling and Harahap’s brain was still trying to catch up with his trained instincts when the same pulser fired again. This time it was only a single dart, not a burst, and Franz Gillespie went down again.

“I think you’d better come with me, Captain Harahap,” a voice said far too calmly, and Harahap looked up from the five sprawled corpses.

“Pine Mountain’s finest will be along shortly,” the fair-haired, gray-eyed man he’d never seen before in his life pointed out as he slid his weapon back into the concealment of his tailored tunic, “and I imagine they’ll have all sorts of questions you’d really rather not answer. I know I’d rather not, anyway. So…”

He half-bowed from the waist, flourishing one hand elegantly in an “after you” gesture, and pointed up the street.

* * *

“So perhaps you’d like to explain what the hell that was all about?” Harahap asked just a bit acidly fifteen minutes later.

The private air car his unknown rescuer had tucked away in an underground parking garage five minutes’ walk from the aborted ambush’s site sped swiftly through the Meyers sky. Under other circumstances, he might have been concerned about a police pursuit, but some strange malady had overtaken the security cameras covering the entire floor on which the air car had been parked. Somehow he hadn’t been as surprised as perhaps he should have been to see the blinking “disabled” lights.

At the moment, he sat in the front passenger seat, one hand inside his own tunic with its fingers curled around the comfort of a pulser butt. Not that he wasn’t grateful for his rescue, of course.

“That, I’m very much afraid, Captain,” the pilot said calmly, never looking away from his HUD, although he had to be aware of the weapon fifty centimeters from his ribcage, “was an attempt to tidy up loose ends. I’m sure you’re aware of how the process works.”

“And just what might make me a ‘loose end’?”

“Your recent Talbott activities. You know—the ones in places like Montana, Kornati, Mainwaring. Those activities.”

“Suppose I told you I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about?”

“Well, in that case, I imagine I’d have to conclude that at least one of us was an idiot. Or that he believed the other one was an idiot, anyway.” He smiled, turning to look at Harahap for the first time, and shook his head. “Since I know neither of us fit that description, I’m sure you don’t think I happened along by sheer coincidence.”

“No, I don’t,” Harahap conceded. “On the other hand, I’m still waiting to find out why you did happen along.”

“Ms. Anisimovna asked me to keep an eye on you,” the pilot said, and despite himself, Harahap’s nostrils flared.

“And why might Ms. Anisimovna have asked you to do that?” he asked after a moment.

“Because you needed looking after?” the other suggested with a broader smile, and—despite himself—Harahap felt himself smile back.

“Under the circumstances, I’ll give you that one,” he said. “But I’d still like to know what the hell is going on before you land this air car somewhere I might not like. So while I’m suitably grateful and all, maybe you’d better explain things in a little more depth.”

“If you like,” the other agreed. He locked the autopilot stud, putting the air car on its current flight plan, and slid his chair back from the console so he could turn it to face Harahap fully.

“First, my name is Rufino Chernyshev.” He saw the look in Harahap’s eyes and chuckled. “No, really it is! It’s not the one on my pilot’s license, of course, but since I’m inclined to hope we’ll wind up on the same team, I don’t really mind sharing it with you.”

Harahap nodded affably, although he could think of another reason Chernyshev might be willing to share his real name. After all, he’d have a hard time passing it along to anyone else if he ended up dead.

“The really, really short version of ‘what the hell is going on,’ is that the operation for which Major Eichbauer was kind enough to lend you to Ms. Anisimovna and her associates has misfired pretty spectacularly. It’s likely the fallout’s going to get a lot worse before it gets any better, and at least some of those associates of hers are worried about getting their fingers burned. One of them decided to cut any strings that might lead back to his involvement. Ms. Anisimovna was afraid he might do that, which is why she asked me to look after you. Unfortunately,” Chernyshev’s expression tightened for a moment, “I wasn’t able to get to Major Eichbauer in time.”

“Ulrike’s dead?” Harahap’s voice was flat, almost disinterested, and his eyes showed no emotion at all, which anyone who knew him well would have recognized as a very bad sign.

“I’m afraid so.” Chernyshev shook his head. “I took out the team that killed her, but I got there a second or two too late. She was still alive, but she was going quickly and she knew it. She’d been on her way to your meeting, and the last thing she ever did was to tell me where that meeting was.” He met Harahap’s gaze levelly. “That’s the only reason I was able to get to you in time, Captain. Friends like that are worth having.”

“Yes, they are,” Harahap agreed. “And that’s why you’re going to tell me who ordered these hits.”

“You’re a resourceful man, Captain, but I doubt even you could get to him, especially if he knows you’re still alive. On the other hand, I represent an organization which almost certainly can get to him…when the time is right.”

“And this organization of yours sent you to rescue me out of pure altruism, I suppose?”

“Hardly!” Chernyshev snorted. “No, it sent me to rescue you because you’re a very valuable asset. You demonstrated that in Talbott, and the people I work for were impressed by your talents. I expect they’d like you to continue to work for them.”

“But you’re not sure about that.”

“Things have moved rather more swiftly than anyone expected when they handed me this assignment, Captain. I’m going to have to park you in a safe house until my instructions get updated.”

“What if I don’t want to be parked?” Harahap drew the pulser from his tunic and twitched its muzzle like a pointer. “I am a captain in the Gendarmerie, after all. Now that I know someone’s put a hit out on me, I’m sure I can manage to come in out of the cold in one piece.”

“Assuming your superiors aren’t as interested in cutting those threads as the person who sent those killers after you. Think about it. Major Eichbauer and you could have led the trail of breadcrumbs right back to Brigadier Yucel if someone made it worth your time, and there’s likely to be plenty of official disfavor to go around when Old Chicago starts untangling what’s happened out here. Do you really want to take a chance that Yucel wouldn’t see the upside of your permanent disappearance?”

“Point,” Harahap said after a moment. “On the other hand, Ms. Anisimovna could see the same thing.”

“She could,” Chernyshev agreed. “But our organization still wants what it wanted before, and we’re pretty sure what happened in Talbott wasn’t your fault. So why should Ms. Anisimovna throw away such a sharp, useful tool? Especially”—he smiled a bit thinly—“when the tool in question has nowhere else to go?”

Harahap bared his teeth in what was nominally a smile, but Chernyshev had a point. In fact, he had a very good point. Still…

“All right,” he said after thirty seconds, setting the pulser’s safety and sliding it back into the shoulder holster under his tunic. “All right, you’ve made your point, and you’re probably right. So take me to this safe house of yours. But first, tell me this. Who did order the hit? I may not be able to get to him now, but I’m a very inventive fellow. With enough time, I can get to anyone.”

“I believe you could, Captain Harahap,” Chernyshev agreed, head cocked to one side, his expression almost quizzical. “At the moment, all I can tell you is who I suspect was behind it. It might have been any one of several people, and it’s going to take a while to confirm exactly which one it is. I’ll be very surprised if it turns out to be someone else, though.”

“So will I,” Harahap said honestly. He recognized another consummate professional when he saw one.

“Well, bearing that caveat in mind, I’m reasonably certain it was Volkhart Kalokainos.” Chernyshev shrugged. “Kalokainos Shipping’s been just a little too openly involved in trying to break the Manties’ kneecaps for a long, long time now, and he’s invested just a bit too deeply in some operations which could cause him considerable embarrassment if they were brought to the League’s official attention. They could also cause the League—or the people who run it, anyway—considerable embarrassment, and Kolokoltsov and the others would throw him to the wolves in a heartbeat to prevent that. Besides, Kalokainos has more than enough enemies among the other transstellars. They’d make it worth Kolokoltsov’s while to hammer him on any pretext that offered.”

“And Jessyk and Manpower don’t have any enemies, I suppose?”

“Of course they do, but they aren’t Solly-based, either. The League doesn’t really have a hammer to bring down on them—not legally, anyway. The only people they have to worry about at the moment live in star nations that begin with the letter ‘M,’ Captain.”

“I imagine they do,” Harahap acknowledged after a moment and sat back in his seat. “All right, Mr. Chernyshev. Take me to this safe house of yours.”

“Already on our way, Captain.” Chernyshev smiled broadly. “And, please, call me Rufino. I suspect we’ll be working closely with one another.”

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