by Timothy Zahn
An Original-Exclusive Short Story Set In The Manticore Ascendant—
A New Series Set In David Weber's Best-Selling Honorverse.
“On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand and cast a wishful eye
“To Canaan’s fair and happy land, where my possessions lie.”
“What was that?” Colonel Vachali asked from beside him. “Are you singing?”
Wolfe Guzarwan turned from his contemplation of the cityscape outside the car to frown at his subordinate. The old song had been running through his head ever since he and the others left their converted courier boat Fenris and headed down to the surface of the planet Canaan. Apparently, sometime in the half hour since they set off toward the palace in their rental car some of the melody or words in that song loop had leaked out into the open. “No, I’m not singing,” he lied.
“Well, you were muttering something,” Vachali said.
“I wasn’t muttering, either,” Guzarwan insisted.
“He’s right, you were,” Shora offered from the driver’s seat. “I heard it, too.”
“Me too,” Dhotrumi seconded brightly from beside Shora. “Like you always do when you think out loud.”
“I do not think out loud,” Guzarwan growled. This was starting to get out of hand, and it was high time he reminded them who exactly was boss here. “And you’re all—”
“Sure you do, Chief,” Dhotrumi said. “Just half an hour ago, on our way down from the ship—”
“And you’re all invited to shut up,” Guzarwan said, raising his voice to the level where even Dhotrumi would take the hint.
Silence descended abruptly on the car. “You were saying that Khetha must really be loaded,” Dhotrumi finished his sentence, his voice barely audible.
Guzarwan turned back to the window, making sure the others couldn’t see his small smile. Dhotrumi was an utter pain in the butt sometimes, and was marginally insubordinate the rest of the time. It was a rare day when one of his crew didn’t have to fight the urge to cave the kid’s face in.
They wouldn’t, of course, since Guzarwan had made it very clear what would happen if they did. Dhotrumi was a smart-mouth, but he also happened to be one of the best system hackers in the known galaxy.
And when your profession was to chase down, attack, board, and rob merchant ships, a good system hacker was worth every millibar of everyone else’s raised blood pressure.
Besides which, though Guzarwan would never admit this to the others—and he certainly wouldn’t admit it to Dhotrumi—the kid’s breezy cockiness reminded him a lot of himself at that age.
He gazed out the window, watching the neat rows of buildings passing by. Dhotrumi was right—Canaan’s capital city reeked of wealth and benevolence, an opulence that reflected directly back on the wealth and power of Khetha, the man they called the Supreme Chosen One.
What Dhotrumi had possibly failed to notice was that the surface opulence was just that: surface. Beneath it, as Guzarwan’s more experienced eyes could see, was the quiet fear, resentment, and hopelessness of the people who lived here.
It had been more obvious in the outer, less affluent parts of the city. But even here in the very hub of Khetha’s power Guzarwan could feel the tension. The Supreme Chosen One was sitting on a groundquake fault line, and if he didn’t do something fast he was going to be crushed between moving slabs of rock.
Though to be fair, the fault line was largely of Khetha’s own making. Rule by fear and intimidation worked well enough in the short run, but it was damn hard to keep going.
It was just as well that the man was loaded, as Dhotrumi had so quaintly put it. Whatever he wanted Guzarwan and his men for, they didn’t come cheap.
The first checkpoint was a quarter kilometer from the royal palace: just a handful of uniformed and lightly-armed men, but significant for its very distance from the Chosen One’s home. Clearly, Khetha wasn’t taking chances with the loyalty and affection of his subjects. The second checkpoint, at the rear gate of the palace grounds’ security fence, was far less subtle, its flanking bunkers and heavy weapons making it clear that no one was getting through without proper authorization. At both stops the data chip Khetha had sent Guzarwan got them past the guards without question and with only a cursory search.
Their rented car, of course, stayed outside the fence.
A liveried man was waiting when the door guards passed them into the building. He offered a brief, neutral greeting, then led them to a small but elaborately decorated conference room. Promising that the Chosen One would grace them with his presence shortly, the usher left.
An hour and a half later, the Chosen One finally did.
He came through the door like an act of God, his heavy-looking, full-length, massively embroidered robe flowing regally behind him. “Ah—here you are,” he said as Guzarwan rose hastily from his chair, gesturing the others to do the same. “Welcome to Canaan, gentlemen.” The Chosen One flashed each of them a probing look as he strode toward the carved chair at the head of the table, finishing his quick scan with Guzarwan. “You must be Wolfe Guzarwan. Please; be seated.”
“Thank you, Your Worship,” Guzarwan said, resuming his seat and again gesturing the others to do the same. Vachali, he knew, had little patience for ceremony, and hated showing deference to anyone, especially people who hadn’t earned that deference in combat. But Guzarwan had had experience with the rich and powerful, and he knew that such displays were simply part of the process. “You have a beautiful city, Your Worship.”
The Chosen One snorted. “Beauty is skin-deep. Treachery goes to the bone. And call me Khetha. We’re going to be business partners, after all. This Supreme Chosen One nonsense is for the rabble.”
“As you wish,” Guzarwan said. “Your invitation—”
He broke off as the door opened and a second, less pompously-dressed man strode in. “My apologies, Your Worship,” he huffed as he closed the door behind him. “Public Defender Roth was in rare form today.”
“Yes, he is all that, isn’t he?” Khetha said, gesturing the newcomer toward the table. “Rather a waste of effort, buying a few extra minutes for a man who’s going to be beheaded anyway. Gentlemen: Chancellor Ulobo, my chief of—” He broke off, eyeing Ulobo quizzically. “What exactly are you chief of, Ulobo?”
“Justice and Public Affairs, Your Worship,” Ulobo said. He smiled tightly. “And other, less official duties. These are the ones, Khetha?”
“They are,” Khetha confirmed. “Guzarwan, Vachali, Shora, and Dhotrumi. Guzarwan’s the leader, Vachali and Shora are the muscle, Dhotrumi is the brains.”
Guzarwan felt a flash of anger. What the hell—?
With an effort, he clamped down on the reaction. Khetha and Ulobo were watching him closely… “He means Dhotrumi is our system hacker,” he corrected. “In my organization, even our muscle comes equipped with brains.”
Khetha smiled broadly. “Well said,” he said. “Calm, patience, and the ability to roll diplomatically with the unexpected. Yes, you’ll do nicely.”
“I’m so glad,” Guzarwan said, with only the faintest hint of sarcasm. “Now that we’re all business partners, are you ready to tell us what this job is?”
“Certainly,” Khetha said. “Ulobo?”
“Thank you.” Ulobo turned to Guzarwan, steepling his fingers in front of him. “Approximately ten months from now, the Republic of Haven will be hosting a regional get-together and surplus warship sale in the Secour system. Among the ships they’re offering is a heavy cruiser, the Péridot.”
“Why is Haven selling off warships?” Guzarwan asked, frowning.
“They have their reasons,” Ulobo said. “None of which concern you. What concerns you is that you’re going to steal that cruiser for us.”
For a couple of heartbeats Guzarwan just stared at him. Then, he turned to look at Vachali. The colonel had the same sandbagged look that Guzarwan could feel trying to crawl onto his own face. “Interesting,” he said, looking back at Ulobo. “Any idea how we’re supposed to do that?”
“None whatsoever,” Ulobo said. “You’re the pirates. You’re the ones with the expertise.” He smiled. “And the ones with the brains, or so I hear. You’ll figure it out.”
“Of course we will,” Guzarwan assured him. “Assuming the price is right.”
“It will be,” Ulobo assured him.
“So; a heavy cruiser.” Guzarwan shifted his gaze to Khetha. “Why?”
Khetha shrugged. “We have neighbors,” he said. “Some of them don’t like us. I want to discourage them from expressing that dislike with action.”
“Fair enough,” Guzarwan said, as if he believed it.
Actually, he mostly did. There was little doubt that Canaan’s interstellar neighbors didn’t care for Khetha’s brutal rule, and there was every reason to believe some of them likely had an eye on possible regime change.
There was also little doubt that Khetha had a similar eye on those same neighbors’ valuable mineral resources. A modern military warship would go a long way toward persuading them to be generous with their pretty rocks.
Not to mention a cruiser’s usefulness in persuading Khetha’s home-grown dissidents to keep their heads down.
And of course, no one would be irresponsible enough to actually sell Khetha such a flying weapons platform. All things considered, Guzarwan could see how there was really no alternative except to steal one. Who better to hire for the job than a gang of pirates?
Still, overrunning a defenseless freighter and taking it down was one thing. Stealing a military ship would be massive orders of magnitude trickier.
Luckily for the Supreme Chosen One, Guzarwan liked challenges.
“I assume you already have everything you need?” Khetha asked.
“Most of it,” Guzarwan said. “However…” He looked at Vachali again. “You think we can disguise Fenris as a civilian craft well enough to pass as interested buyers?”
“I doubt it,” Vachali said. “Certainly not by any competent military crew. Its impellers and compensator are way too powerful.”
“Not to mention the boarding gear,” Shora added. “It’s disguised enough to pass from a distance, but a good suspicious close-up will nail it.” He grinned mirthlessly. “Not to mention the hull-mounted missile. Unless we left it behind.”
“Which we aren’t going to,” Guzarwan agreed. That was the same conclusion he’d already come to. “We’ll need one other thing: a freighter,” he told Khetha. “Nothing fancy, of course. I’m sure you can find something for quick sale at Eris or somewhere equally convenient.”
“Yes, I’m sure we could,” Khetha said. “Naturally, I anticipated that request.” He gestured to his chancellor. “Ulobo?”
“A Packrat III merchantman named Roaring Mouse is due in from Eris in ten days,” Ulobo said. “Its likely entry point and vector—well, I’m sure you can figure those out for yourselves.”
“There’s your freighter,” Khetha said. “Consider it a final test of your skills.”
Guzarwan smiled. Of course. Why go to the trouble and expense of buying something when you could have someone steal it instead? “Not a problem,” he assured Khetha as he gestured his men to their feet. “We’ll be back in a few days.”
“With the freighter?”
“With the freighter,” Guzarwan promised. “At which point, we’ll talk money. Lots of money.”
Packrat IIIs weren’t exactly the top of the freighter line. They were mid-sized, only about six hundred fifty meters long and about a million tons, with sluggish impellers and an unimpressive sensor suite.
Still, whoever owned and operated Roaring Mouse clearly took pride in his work. Less than two hours after Ulobo’s projected arrival time, and right on its projected vector, it came in from hyper.
“Got ’em,” Jalla announced from Fenris’s helm. “Fifty light-seconds out from the hyper limit. Wedge is up…settling into sixty-gee acceleration.”
Guzarwan nodded. Fifty light-seconds—fifteen million kilometers—was cutting it fairly close for a freighter. Roaring Mouse’s captain and crew must be pretty confident types. “We’ll give them two hours,” he told Jalla. “That’ll put them just inside the hyper limit and going way too fast to back out. You’ll be able to match with them if you light off our wedge then?”
“Easily,” Jalla assured him. “While we’re waiting, do you want me to get us any closer to their vector?”
Guzarwan studied the readouts. “A little,” he said. “No more than another thousand klicks, though. Just enough to be able to match whichever way they decide do jump.”
“Got it,” Jalla said, keying the thruster section of the board. “See you in two.”
Two hours later, Guzarwan was back on Fenris’s bridge.
He’d hoped his new outfit would get a nice double-take from Jalla. He wasn’t disappointed.
“Whoa,” the pilot said, looking Guzarwan up and down. “Very nice. Who’d you have to kill to get that?”
“You like it?” Guzarwan asked, wincing a little as he shifted his shoulders. The Canaanite Customs Service uniform might look impressive, but it was uncomfortable as hell. “It was a gift, actually, from our Supreme Chosen One.” He nodded toward Jalla’s helm board as he strapped into the captain’s station. “Just like that transponder code you’re about to fire up. You ready?”
“We’re ready,” Jalla confirmed.
“Light ’em up.”
Jalla keyed the board, and above and below Fenris the stress bands flared into existence as the impellers went from standby to full active. “Heading inward at one-forty gees,” Jalla added. “Roaring Mouse should match us at a zero-zero in approximately eighty-four minutes.”
“Good,” Guzarwan said. “Watch them closely—they may try to veer off or alter their acceleration.
“Thanks,” Jalla said dryly. “I would never have thought of that.”
“And you can watch the acceleration of your mouth while you’re at it,” Guzarwan warned, checking Roaring Mouse’s vector and distance. The freighter was close enough now that there would be only a few seconds’ delay in their communication. “Here goes.”
He keyed Fenris’s com laser. “Freighter Roaring Mouse, this is Captain Guzarwan of the Canaanite Customs Service. You’re ordered to strike your wedge and prepare for an inspection of your cargo.”
For nearly half a minute there was no response. Guzarwan waited patiently, giving the freighter time for the transponder check they were undoubtedly running.
Then, on the gravitic display, the freighter disappeared. “Wedge is struck,” Jalla announced with malicious satisfaction.
Guzarwan nodded, watching the tactical display. Assuming Roaring Mouse had a Packrat III’s standard capabilities, the freighter still had a small chance of escaping.
But that window was closing rapidly. Another two and a half minutes with its wedge down as it ran toward Fenris on a purely ballistic path and they would be as good as caught.
The com display came on, showing a round-faced man with a three-day stubble and close-cropped hair. “Canaanite Customs, this is Captain Mol of the Roaring Mouse,” he identified himself. “What seems to be the trouble?”
“You know perfectly well what the trouble is, Captain,” Guzarwan said, letting his voice go a couple of shades darker. “We have your contact, Master Hasbi Lubis, in custody. He’s told us all about the contraband drugs and weapons you’re bringing him.”
Mol’s eyes went wide. “The what?” he all but gasped. “Captain Guzarwan, I assure you we have nothing of the sort aboard.”
“You don’t know this Hasbi Lubis, then?”
“Yes, of course we know him,” Mol said. “He’s our buyer in Canaan City. But he’s a legitimate goods dealer, not a smuggler.”
“Really,” Guzarwan scoffed. “I have to tell you, Captain, that a highly detailed and well-documented Customs and Internal Security report says otherwise.” He raised his eyebrows. “Or are you suggesting that all the signatories to that document are lying?”
Mol’s throat worked. “Not at all, Captain,” he said hastily. “But I assure you, if Master Lubis is a smuggler we had no knowledge of it. As I said, we’re a legitimate shipper and goods carrier, licensed by the Solarian League.”
“Mmm,” Guzarwan said, peering closely at Mol’s image as if trying to evaluate the man’s truthfulness. “Let me ask a different question. Are you familiar with Tom Keneshaw, Alein Gorshkover, or Daisy Lemuel?”
“I don’t think so,” Mol said slowly. “The names aren’t familiar to me.”
“Would one of your crew know them?”
“I don’t know,” Mol said. “A moment, if you please, and I’ll ask them.”
The display went blank. “You just make up those names?” Jalla asked.
“Not at all,” Guzarwan told him. “They’re on Lubis’s list of shippers he deals with. Khetha was kind enough to have his confidential business records pulled.”
“I’ll bet Lubis was thrilled about that.”
“Far as I know, Lubis is blissfully unaware that any of this is going down,” Guzarwan said. “Khetha needs interstellar trade to keep his economy going. He can’t really afford to antagonize the people who handle those goods.”
The display came back on. “Captain Guzarwan? My purser, Carlo James, says he recalls Lubis mentioning someone named Keneshaw on our last trip. As he remembers it, the reference was to some of the other shippers Master Lubis deals with. Neither he nor anyone else here has ever heard of Gorshkover or Lemuel.”
“I see,” Guzarwan said. “Does Mr. James happen to know which world Keneshaw operates out of?”
“Let me ask him.” Once again the display went blank.
Guzarwan focused on the tactical. Almost there…
Mol came back. “I’m sorry, Captain,” he apologized. “James only heard the name in passing. No details. Did Master Lubis—I mean, are Keneshaw and the others under suspicion, too? If I may ask?”
Guzarwan snorted. “It looks to me like all of Lubis’s contacts are under suspicion,” he said sourly. “Which may mean nothing at all. The man probably threw out every name he had during his interrogation in hopes his questioners would ease up. I’ve seen it happen before.”
“Ah,” Mol said, his voice strained. Probably envisioning what one of the Supreme Chosen One’s interrogations looked like, and not liking what he saw. “So…what now, may I ask?”
“What now is exactly what I said at the beginning,” Guzarwan said firmly. “You’ll leave your wedge down, and we’ll maneuver to a zero-zero and send an inspection team aboard. Once they’ve checked your cargo, you’ll be permitted to continue to Canaan. Provided you’re clean, of course.”
“Of course,” Mol said, his voice gone suddenly mechanical. His eyes were turned to the side, his face tightening…
“Don’t bother, Captain,” Guzarwan said. “It won’t work.”
Abruptly, the display blanked—
“There they go,” Jalla said conversationally. “Wedge back up, yawing to starboard.”
Guzarwan smiled. So Roaring Mouse had finally gotten close enough for its sensors to mark Fenris as being considerably larger than any customs ship they’d ever encountered before in the Canaan system. Captain Mol had seen the numbers, jumped to the correct conclusion, and was now trying desperately to escape.
Only as Guzarwan had tried to tell him, he couldn’t. Roaring Mouse’s window had closed nearly half a minute ago, and there was no escape to be had. Sooner or later, no matter what Mol did, Fenris could chase him down.
Given the circumstances, Guzarwan preferred that it be sooner.
He keyed the com again. “Now, now, Captain, let’s not be foolish,” he chided. “You can’t escape us. Not now. All you can do is delay the inevitable.”
The com display remained dark. Guzarwan watched as Jalla skillfully moved Fenris onto its new intercept course, waiting for Mol to accept the truth.
A moment later, he did. The display came on again, revealing a Captain Mol who looked considerably older than the one who’d initiated this chase a few minutes ago. “Yes, I see,” he said grimly. “You’ve got us. Eventually. But I don’t have to make it easy for you.”
“You might not want to do that,” Guzarwan warned. “I’m a patient man, but patience has its limits.”
“Then let me offer you a deal,” Mol said. “We’re carrying a load of electronics and exotic foodstuffs. We can dump all of it, right here and now, and while you collect it we head back to the hyper limit. Free profit for you, without the delay of chasing us down or the risks of boarding, and we keep our ship and our lives.”
“Interesting offer,” Guzarwan said. “One small problem. We don’t want your cargo. Your ship is our prize.”
Mol blinked. “Our ship?”
“Indeed,” Guzarwan assured him. “So let me offer a counter-proposal. If you strike your wedge and let us board without resistance, I swear that I won’t kill any of you.”
Mol gave a snort. “You’ll forgive me if I don’t put much trust in a pirate’s word.”
“All right,” Guzarwan said. “You don’t like that promise? Here’s a different one. If you continue to resist I will take out your impellers. And if I have to do that, I guarantee that whichever of your crewmen are in the vicinity of the targeted nodes will die.”
“You’re bluffing,” Mol said. But his face was starting to take on the sheen of sweat. “You’ve already said you want my ship.”
“I didn’t say I needed it in pristine condition,” Guzarwan pointed out. “As to the bluffing part—” He gestured to Jalla.
And on the board, the autocannon and counter-missile targeting sensors flared to life.
“As you see, Captain,” Guzarwan added quietly, “the only real question is how much damage I’m willing to inflict on my new freighter. And on its former crew.”
For a long moment there was silence. Mol’s eyes again shifted to the side as he studied his own ship’s sensor readings. Guzarwan, for his part, kept his expression the calm confidence of a man holding all the cards.
After all, there was no way for Mol to know that Fenris didn’t have the actual weaponry that went with those targeting sensors.
Reluctantly, Mol’s eyes lifted again to the com display. “You give me your word that you won’t kill any of us?”
“I do,” Guzarwan said firmly. “In fact, I’m going to be much more generous even than that.”
“What do you mean?”
Guzarwan smiled. “Strike your wedge,” he said, “and I’ll meet you on your bridge to discuss it.”
“Remarkable,” Khetha said as he gazed at the stevedores unloading crates from the cargo shuttle onto the Canaan City port dock. “An entire ship, attacked and captured, and not a single one of my own sensor stations or patrol ships reported a thing.”
“We were a long ways out at the time,” Guzarwan reminded him. “We had control long before the ship’s transponder or other communications gear was within range. Besides, no one expected to see anything unusual.”
Just as no one was expecting to see the planet’s Supreme Chosen One walking the streets of the city without his robes, headpiece, or legions of armed guards. Looking sideways at the nondescript man strolling beside him, Guzarwan wondered how often Khetha went out incognito like this.
There were Sollie legends of pre-Diaspora leaders who’d made similar sorties, going out into the populace to hear what their people truly thought of them. Somehow, Guzarwan doubted that was Khetha’s intent here.
If it was, he certainly doubted the man liked what he heard.
“I’m especially amused by your temerity in actually continuing on with the cargo,” Khetha continued, gesturing toward the shuttle. “Weren’t you concerned that someone here might be familiar with the Roaring Mouse’s actual crew?”
“Roaring Mouse?” Guzarwan echoed, frowning in feigned confusion. “I’m afraid you’re misinformed. Our ship is the Wanderer, late of Beowulf. No idea what this Roaring Mouse thing is.”
“Of course,” Khetha said. “And as long as you’d captured the cargo anyway, why not collect a bit of extra profit?”
“Exactly,” Guzarwan said. “Speaking of profit, are we ready to make all this—well, not official, of course, but at least solid?”
“We are,” Khetha said. “My office awaits you.”
He led the way toward an enclosed van parked half a block away and across the street, a vehicle as plain and unremarkable as Khetha’s own current garb. As they walked, Guzarwan noticed that a dozen men around the area seemed to be moving with them, subtly enough to be missed by the casual observer, but more than obvious enough for someone with Guzarwan’s cutthroat background.
The Chosen One might pretend to himself that he was walking his streets like one of the ordinary people, but he wasn’t foolish enough to give up his bodyguards while he did it.
Guzarwan had assumed, given Khetha’s reference to his office, that they would be heading back to the palace. But he was wrong. Khetha opened the van’s side door and climbed inside, and as Guzarwan followed he saw that two men were already seated there: Chancellor Ulobo, and a young, hard-faced man with short-cropped hair and the arms and shoulders of a wrestler. “Here we are,” Khetha said, settling into one of the swivel seats facing the other two men. “Chancellor Ulobo has the latest information, your delivery instructions, and the first half of your payment.” He smiled tightly. “Interesting that you mentioned Beowulf earlier, because that’s the home of the bank where these credit chips have been drawn.”
“Thank you, Your Worship,” Guzarwan said, bowing his head to Khetha and then accepting the small, flat packet Ulobo handed him.
“And this is Major Lovak,” Khetha added, pointing to the wrestler. “He and two of his men will be accompanying you through the operation. To assist, and to make sure things go smoothly and according to plan.”
Guzarwan looked at Lovak’s hard face. “That’s really not necessary, Your Worship,” he said.
“Oh, it’s very necessary,” Khetha countered. “With the job and payoff several months in the future, I need to make sure you won’t…forget us, shall we say.”
“We won’t forget you, Your Worship,” Guzarwan said, allowing a bit of an edge into his voice.
Apparently too much of an edge. Lovak’s face didn’t change, but suddenly Guzarwan had the image of a jungle cat preparing to leap.
“Of course not,” Khetha said. “But it never hurts to have a little insurance. Besides, three more trained men might be of use to you.”
“My men are already trained,” Guzarwan said. “And they’re a very close-knit group. They don’t always work or play well with strangers.”
“Then they’d best learn,” Khetha said, an edge of his own in his voice. “Because they are going with you.” He cocked a head toward the door. “Good day, Master Pirate.”
It was a dismissal. “Good day,” Guzarwan replied. Levering himself out of his seat, he opened the door and stepped back out into the afternoon sunshine.
Lovak was right behind him. “My men are waiting at the dock,” he said. “I assume we’ll be heading directly to the ship?”
Guzarwan felt his lip twist. If he’d been hoping to get a jump on his new trio of watchdogs, that hope was now gone.
Lovak was definitely going to be trouble. It was a good thing that most of that trouble would be on someone else’s plate. “We are indeed,” he said. “Passenger shuttle’s this way. Collect your men, and let’s do this.”
The rest of Wanderer’s cargo had been dropped and the fees collected, and Guzarwan was floating on the bridge as Jalla took their new freighter out of orbit, when Lovak finally made his move.
Fortunately, it was more or less the move Guzarwan had been expecting.
“I’m afraid there’s been a slight change of plans,” the major said, hovering just inside the bridge hatch with his two equally hard-faced men flanking him. All three had guns in their hands; all three guns were pointed at Guzarwan. “Captain Guzarwan, you’ll accompany us to one of the shuttles, whereupon Sergeant Rostov will fly you back to the surface. Corporal Mirshenko and I will then continue on with your ship and crew.”
Guzarwan raised his eyebrows. “An odd change of plans,” he said. “May I ask why?”
“To be blunt, the Supreme Chosen One doesn’t trust you,” Lovak said. “He feels it would be helpful for him to have a hostage for your crew’s good behavior.”
“He still has half our fee.”
“He also wants you.”
“It really isn’t necessary,” Guzarwan insisted. “I’ve already promised to deliver Péridot. I always keep my business promises.”
“A statement for which we have only your word,” Lovak said.
“Actually, I have someone else who can corroborate that,” Guzarwan said. “Tell me, Major. What’s your assessment of the Supreme Chosen One’s future?”
“He will reign forever,” Lovak said without hesitation.
“You think so?” Guzarwan said. “Because he doesn’t. Or didn’t you know that he has a private ship stashed away in Canaan orbit?”
Lovak’s brow wrinkled, just slightly. “That’s a lie.”
Guzarwan shrugged. “Think whatever you want. You’ll see for yourself soon enough.”
Lovak’s eyes flicked to the displays over Guzarwan’s shoulder. “What do you mean?”
“I mean we’re on our way there,” Guzarwan said. “It’s a very clever hiding place, really. He’s stashed it at the L4 Lagrangian point of Canaan’s planetary-moon system, camouflaged to look like the usual collection of small rocks and dust that naturally gathers at such places. With its reactor down and systems quiet, as long as no one wanders too close it’ll sit there until the roof caves in on the Chosen One’s regime and he needs to get himself the hell out of here.”
“What makes you think—?” Lovak broke off. “How did you find it?” he asked instead.
“I looked for it, of course,” Guzarwan said. “The Chosen One’s style of government is designed to milk the system of as much money as possible before it collapses.” He looked at Jalla. “I’m guessing he’s got, what, a couple of T-years left?”
“If he’s lucky,” Jalla said. “Personally, I’d say a year and a half, tops. Maybe less.”
“So maybe only a year and a half,” Guzarwan said, turning back to Lovak and his soldiers. “Of course, the cruiser he’s hired us to steal will certainly extend that, maybe by as much as a decade or two. But that assumes he can hold out until we can deliver it.”
“Then you’d better move faster, hadn’t you?” one of the soldiers growled.
“Not possible,” Guzarwan told him. “Haven’s timetable for the sale is set, and there’s nothing we can do to change it. My point is that if the balloon goes up before we get the cruiser back here, his only hope is to grab a shuttle and get to his bolthole ship as fast as he can.” He cocked his head. “What do you think he’ll do if that ship isn’t there anymore?”
Lovak shifted his gun slightly. “You wouldn’t dare.”
“I?” Guzarwan asked mildly, placing his fingertips against his chest. “No, of course not. But there are others who might. Rather, who would. Specifically, the former crew of this very freighter.”
And with that, a genuine flash of surprise and dismay finally made it past Lovak’s wrought-iron face. “The crew—?” With a clear effort, he strangled off the question.
“We dropped them there before we started landing the cargo,” Guzarwan explained, answering it anyway. “The hatches were locked, of course, but we have a very good hacker who got them in. They’re the folks who’ll testify that I keep my promises, by the way. I promised not to kill them, and I didn’t.”
“And they’re in the ship now?” Lovak asked, apparently just to make sure.
“They’re in there now,” Guzarwan confirmed. “The other thing is that while our hacker got them inside, he didn’t give them the reactor and impeller activation codes. So I’m guessing it’ll take them another couple of days to get through those and be ready to fly.” He waved a hand. “Which shouldn’t be a problem. The emergency enviro’s good for at least another week, and once everything’s up and running they’ll have everything they need.”
“Of course, that couple of days is just a guess,” Jalla put in. “It could take them only a few more hours.”
“That’s possible,” Guzarwan agreed. “They’re very motivated.”
Lovak gestured Guzarwan toward the side. “Out of the way,” he ordered, his voice dark.
“Sorry, but we’ve already destroyed the com,” Guzarwan said. “As you presumably did with the ones in the shuttles? Of course you did. You don’t want the rest of my men knowing about this until Wanderer is a long ways out from Canaan and the Chosen One has me buried somewhere very deep and private.”
Lovak’s face had gone back to its default lack of expression. But from the tension in his gun hand Guzarwan could tell he’d hit the nail squarely on the head.
“So here are your choices,” Guzarwan continued. “You can stay with us as ordered, and let your boss’s escape ship fly the coop. Or we can drop you off at his ship, right now, and you can try to recapture it for him. I’m guessing if you go now, without any additional stalling, you’ll have a sixty percent chance of stopping them.”
“And if we just kill you instead?” Lovak snarled.
“I’d very much advise against that,” Guzarwan warned. “If you do, your boss loses his escape ship and his new heavy cruiser. Pretty much the worst scenario possible, which I’m sure he’ll explain in detail at your private trial.” He lifted a finger. “Speaking of which: I forgot to mention that if you chose option one—that’s the one where you stay with us—we’ll make sure the Chosen One knows you were the ones who stood by and let his ship get stolen. I doubt even the arrival of his new cruiser would distract him from taking his pound of flesh.”
Lovak’s eyes flicked again to the displays. “Fine,” he said. “Then we’ll just split up. Two of us will stay here, the other will go reclaim the Supreme Chosen One’s ship.”
“That could work,” Guzarwan agreed. “Only, no, it won’t. Did I forget to mention that the first thing that Roaring Mouse’s crew did was break into the armory?”
One of the soldiers muttered what was probably a curse under his breath. Lovak didn’t even seem to notice.
And it was time to bring it home. “Bottom line, Major: there’s no way for you to split up and make either mission work,” Guzarwan said. “One of you going to the other ship will die. One of you staying here—” he raised his eyebrows “—will also die.”
“You’re threatening us?” Lovak asked, his voice very soft.
Guzarwan snorted. “Of course we’re threatening you. Exactly as you and the Supreme Chosen One are threatening us. You really think I don’t know that his orders are for you to kill all of us once we have Péridot? You probably have a pre-laid course setting in your luggage that’ll limp you to some rendezvous point where he’ll have a crew waiting.”
Lovak’s lip twitched. “You insult the honor of the—”
“I recognize the man is a butcher,” Guzarwan cut him off. “But that’s not your concern. I’ve said I’ll bring his precious ship back to him, and I’ve demonstrated that I keep my promises. Your only concern is whether you’ll save his other ship for him, or whether you’ll face his fury when it flies off. Whether you, personally, will face that fury.”
For a long moment no one spoke. Lovak shifted his gun in his hand again, but there were none of the subtle hints in his eyes or throat that he was preparing to use it. Finally, he took a deep breath. “You have a shuttle for us,” he said. It wasn’t a question.
“Shora and his team are waiting just outside the bridge,” Guzarwan said. “They’ll take you there. Oh, and if you were hoping to head back to Canaan and either give the alarm or grab a bigger team, don’t bother. We haven’t left you nearly enough fuel for that.”
“Very well.” Lovak’s eyes narrowed. “As for you, Captain Guzarwan: bear in mind that if you fail to bring back the ship as you promised, I will hunt you down. And I will find you.”
“Understood,” Guzarwan said, putting a double measure of sincerity in his voice. “Tell your Chosen One not to worry. I’ll bring Péridot to Canaan as I promised, and I will personally hand him the access codes.”
Lovak eyed him another moment. Then, he nodded back toward the hatch. The soldier closest to the control gave it a tap, sending the panel sliding into the wall. With his gun and eyes still on Guzarwan, Lovak grabbed a handhold and pulled himself through the opening. Without a word, and with their guns also trained on Guzarwan the whole way, his two soldiers followed.
Taking a deep breath, Guzarwan turned back to the board and punched the duplicate hatch control, sliding the panel closed again. “That went well,” he commented.
“You’re sure they’ve really given up?” Jalla asked, a bit doubtfully.
“I’m sure,” Guzarwan soothed him. “Their strongest position was right here on the bridge. No point in abandoning it unless they were giving up.”
“The Supreme Chosen One will be pissed.”
“Not as much as he’d be if they let his escape route grow wings,” Guzarwan said. “Once he has time to think it through, I’m sure he’ll get over it.”
“Though possibly not before three more public beheadings.”
“Hopefully, he’s got the brains not to waste competent and trusted men,” Guzarwan said. “I doubt he’s got very many of those.”
“Well, if they’re not competent Khetha will be saved the trouble of a decision,” Jalla said. “At twenty to three odds…you really think the crew has a forty-percent chance?”
“Haven’t the foggiest,” Guzarwan said candidly. “I just made up a number and threw it out. Don’t really care one way or the other.”
“I figured that.” Jalla gestured in the direction of Khetha’s hidden ship. “Got to hand it to you, though. You only told the crew you wouldn’t kill them.”
“It’s like everything else in life,” Guzarwan said philosophically. “The truth is usually buried under the details.”
“Right.” Jalla eyed him quizzically. “Speaking of details. If we actually manage to pull this off, are you really going to just turn Péridot over to him?”
“Of course,” Guzarwan said, putting some hurt in his voice. “I made the man a promise, remember?”
He smiled at Wanderer’s displays. A heavy cruiser. A genuine, armed military ship. What could he do with a vessel like that?
“Of course,” he added, “I didn’t say I’d give it to him right away.”
Copyright © 2014 Timothy Zahn