Authors: William C. Dietz
Tags: #Science Fiction/Fantasy
At that moment Wilson Nars returned with a jovial laugh. “Well, enough military gossip. It's time to do some business!”
“Nice meeting you,” Jones said to Stell and Mueller. “Thank you for your hospitality, Administrator Nars. I'll look forward to seeing you the next time I'm in this sector.” They all said good-bye, and as the naval officer turned to go, he gave Stell a look that clearly said, “Watch yourself.”
Stell nodded and smiled in return. He and Mueller took seats opposite Nars, who picked up a platter heaped with some sort of pastry, popped one in his mouth, and chewed with obvious enjoyment. “Would you care for one? They're really quite good,” he said, offering the platter to both guests. Stell refused, while Mueller accepted—whether out of politeness or actual hunger, he couldn't tell.
“So,” Nars began, patting his lips carefully with a linen napkin, “you have some thermium to sell. Wonderful stuff, thermium. I'd like to buy it. Assuming, of course, that you are asking a reasonable price. If not, then we've gotten along without it for a long time, and can continue to do so. It all depends on you.”
Mueller nibbled thoughtfully on a pastry. “Of course. A fair price is important to us as well. And it should reflect not only the added quality that thermium will bring to your existing products, but the various new products made possible by it as well. All of which makes price a matter of secondary concern.”
Having established their initial bargaining positions, both men settled down to the serious business of give and take, a process they both clearly enjoyed. Sure that Mueller had things well in hand, Stell allowed his attention to wander. Eventually, his eyes drifted to his own reflection in a large mirror. He smiled at the image there, thinking how out of place he looked in his armor, wishing the whole thing were over.
And on the other side of the two-way mirror Lady Almanda Kance-Jones smiled as Stell's eyes unknowingly met hers, and she blew him a kiss.
Stell squinted into the white glare of the powerful robolights. They looked like giant insects. Each had four legs to a side, and a long cylindrical body from which a powerful beam of light sprang. They were in constant motion to make sure the light was always directed where it would do the most good. If sentients hadn't been involved in unloading, Stell supposed that the robots could have gotten along without any light, relying instead on their various sensors. Not that it mattered one way or the other, he thought tiredly. For three days they'd slaved to unload the thermium, and now they were almost finished. In spite of robotic help, it had taken an incredible amount of work. But now it was over. Robots had just unloaded the last of the metal cubes. Each contained one hundred pounds of the powder-like thermium. The cubes were stacked on power pallets, which were hooked together to form a train. Each hovered just off the duracrete, its motor and fan obtaining power from the robocrawler at the head of the train, via the umbilical that hooked them all together. Now the robocrawler jerked into motion; the long train of power pallets floating behind it jerked in sympathy, and then moved off obediently. The cubes that were piled on them gleamed in the artificial light for a moment, then disappeared into the darkness.
With a roar of sound, the now-empty cargo shuttle lifted and headed for the spaceport some distance to the west. Since the brigade's shuttles weren't equipped to move large amounts of cargo, they'd been forced to use Fabrican craft—for a hefty fee, of course.
“Wilson Nars is here, General,” Mueller's voice crackled over his headset, slightly distorted by the huge power grid located nearby.
“I'm on my way,” Stell replied, and headed toward the shadowy shape of the large ground vehicle parked a few hundred feet away. As usual, he found himself practically bounding along under Fabrica's lighter gravity. With the business of unloading completed, the robolights had moved off to other assignments, taking their light with them and leaving the area in relative darkness. A faint pinkness on the far horizon promised another glorious sunrise. Due to all the particulates in the atmosphere, Fabrica's sunrises were absolutely spectacular. Typically, the sun rose in an explosion of pink and red, reaching out to bathe the tortured landscape with a soft, mystical light. It was as if the planet had found a way to transmute its own ugliness into unbelievable beauty.
As he walked toward the ground vehicle, Stell noticed that it was similar to the one that had taken them to meet Nars that first day. In it, the Planetary Administrator would hand over full payment for the thermium. After the long ride to the main spaceport, where their own shuttle would pick them up, they'd load the cash and lift—and a few days later, Intersystems Incorporated would receive Freehold's annual payment. Mueller had insisted on cash, rather than a credit transfer, fearing some kind of underhanded move by the huge company. Stell understood his reasoning. Computer operators could be bribed, records could be altered, and credits could vanish into thin air. Still, he didn't like it. Cash could be hijacked, and must therefore be guarded. Plus, it was a long way from Fabrica to Intersystems Sector Headquarters, a small planet with the romantic name of XTR 346. It was better known to company pilots as The Bitch, since landing on it involved weaving through a maze of orbiting weapons platforms.
For some reason, he kept thinking of Commander Jones and his implied warning. He and Mueller had discussed the naval officer's comments more than once, but it hadn't done them much good. By the time they'd completed their negotiations with Wilson Nars, the naval officer had taken his ship out of orbit and departed. And, in spite of their constant vigilance, they'd been unable to discover any sort of funny business on the part of Wilson Nars or his staff. Still, Stell would feel better when they had the cash and were safely off-planet.
The vehicle's lock hissed open at his approach. He and the two bodyguards, upon whom Sergeant Stickley had insisted, stepped inside and waited for the pumps to clear the poisonous Fabrican atmosphere. Moments later the inner hatch slid open, and they entered the vehicle, unsealing their armor as they went. Wilson Nars was waiting, wearing the largest atmosphere suit Stell had ever seen.
“Good to see you again, General. Comptroller Mueller and I were just celebrating the successful completion of our little transaction. Would you care to join us?” Nars indicated a folding table on which a chilled bottle of wine and some hors d'oeuvres had been set out.
“Thank you,” Stell replied. “Don't mind if I do.”
“You're just in time for the formalities,” Mueller grinned. “Then it's up, up and away.”
“I'll drink to that,” Stell said, sipping his wine. “No offense, Administrator Nars, but the sooner the better.”
“And none taken,” the fat man replied. Nars removed a fancy-looking vocorder from a pouch at his waist, and placed it on the table. Mueller produced a less-expensive model and did likewise. Each would provide its owner with a legal record of the proceedings, verifiable by standard voiceprint analysis. Nars spoke first. “Activate. This is Wilson Nars, duly authorized administrator of the planet Fabrica. A standard purchase and sale agreement follows, consistent with all applicable Imperial laws.” There was much more by both parties, with Nars acknowledging receipt of so much thermium, Mueller confirming acceptance of so many credits in return, with mention of various amounts deducted for Imperial taxes, shuttle fees, and so forth.
Stell listened with only half an ear. His mind told him that everything was okay, but his gut said otherwise. Though without something concrete to go on, there wasn't a thing he could do about it.
“Well, that about wraps it up, gentlemen,” Nars said, sliding the last of the appetizers onto his tongue and making it disappear. “As you know, your money is in this box,” he indicated the large metal trunk near his feet, “and you'll notice that it still bears the Freeholdian seal placed on it by Comptroller Mueller when the cash was loaded into it. So, with your permission, I shall bid you a fond adieu, and go in search of dinner. I imagine you're quite eager to be on your way.”
Stell and Mueller made polite noises as the huge man waddled to the lock. Just before he sealed his helmet, Nars said, “Well, it's been a pleasure, gentlemen. I wish you luck, but remember—my responsibility ends now. There are those who would steal your money and it's up to you to make sure they don't.” With that, he sealed his helmet, waved, and disappeared into the lock.
Stell and Mueller looked at each other. A chill ran down Stell's spine. There was little doubt that Nars knew that something was going to happen, and was making his own position clear for the legal record. Once again, he thought of Commander Jones and what he'd said about Nars. He heard the outer hatch cycle open as Nars departed. Suddenly, he wished they were aboard their own shuttle and lifting. But they weren't—and wouldn't be until the vehicle they were in took them to the spaceport. In the meantime, all they could do was prepare for the worst, and hope for the best. He turned to Stickley and said, “Let's seal up and be ready for anything.”
“Excellent advice, General ... but a bit late.” Stell whirled to find himself confronting Lady Almanda Kance-Jones. She was still incredibly beautiful. At her side was a six-and-a-half-foot-tall Autoguard. Both had just emerged from the women's restroom at the rear of the vehicle. It must have been damned crowded in there.
Stickley swore softly to himself. By chance, there weren't any female troopers with them, and he hadn't thought to check the women's can. And as a result, they were up against an Autoguard. It had a ball turret for a head, energy weapons for arms, and was first cousin to Smith, the Auto Trooper who'd saved them during the Zonie ambush. All of which meant there wasn't a damned thing they could do but agree to whatever she wanted. They wouldn't stand a chance against the Autoguard.
Lady Kance-Jones smiled a perfect smile. “Relax, General, there isn't a thing you can do, and I hope you're going to be sensible. Otherwise, some of our little metal friends would have to spend all night trying to get you off the upholstery. Now, if you and your men will just stay right where you are, my assistant here will relieve you of that nasty old trunk, and we'll be on our way.”
The Autoguard moved forward and picked up the two-hundred-pound box as though it were an overnight bag. Stell noted that its right arm was still free. “So,” he said grimly, “Intersystems finally comes out in the open.”
Kance-Jones looked surprised. “Out in the open? Oh, I see. Well, for the moment, I guess that's true.” She took on a conspiratorial look, red lips pouting, looking this way and that. “But I'm afraid it's going to be our little secret. And, since you'll be dead in a few hours, I guess it'll stay that way.”
“Dead?” Mueller said, looking a little green.
“Yes, I'm afraid so,” she said producing a blaster which she aimed at them as the Autoguard lumbered toward the lock. “The General would no doubt cause all sorts of trouble if he were alive. But he'll be a good deal more cooperative dead. As will you.” She affected a look of profound sadness. “An unfortunate train of events. The valiant General Stell's vehicle breaks down ... and adding to his difficulties, the radio won't work. Wearing atmosphere suits, he and his men go out looking for help. Unfortunately, the nearest sentient beings are at the spaceport, more than a hundred miles away. And, having already spent a full day in their suits, air for only a few hours remains, so eventually they all suffocate on the surface of Fabrica. Or here in this vehicle, if you prefer,” she said cheerfully. “It hardly matters to me. In any case, they will find you dead and the money missing.”
“Just for the sake of my curiosity,” Stell asked, “what's Nars getting out of this?”
Lady Kance-Jones smiled her cold smile. “A bonus ... and probably a hefty raise the next time his contract comes up. You'd have to ask his boss.”
Stell felt a cold spot growing in the pit of his stomach as he asked the next question. “And who does his boss work for?” She laughed. “Why, Intersystems Incorporated of course.
Who else? They own part of Fabrica, you know.” Seeing the look on Stell's face, she shook her head in mock sympathy.
Mueller groaned as she stepped into the lock. As the hatch began to close, she yelled, “Oh, by the way, I took the liberty of informing your ships you'd be delayed until tomorrow. So long!” The hatch closed on her last words.
“Shit! Did you see that?” Stickley asked. “She wasn't wearing a suit!”
Suddenly, to his embarrassment, Stell realized that Stickley was right. Kance-Jones had just stepped out into a poisonous atmosphere without any kind of a suit, and he hadn't even noticed. He rushed over to look out the window. It was daylight outside now, and there she was, as if expecting him, standing there and waving good-bye. She gave one last wave, said something to the Autoguard, and then followed it over to a parked air car. Moments later it lifted on repellors, blasted up into the sky, and was gone.
“What the hell's going on?” Mueller asked glancing from Stickley to Stell.
Stell sighed. “Two robots just ripped us off ... that's what's going on.”
robots?” Mueller said thoughtfully. Then, sudden understanding flooded his face. “You mean, she ... I mean
was ... I mean
a robot? And that's why she can go out there without a suit?”
Stell nodded. Mueller thought about it for a moment. Like Stell, he had first seen her the day she'd addressed Freehold's Senate. Ever since, she'd played a central role in certain fantasies he'd devised to pass life's more boring moments. Somehow it just wouldn't be the same with a robot. Or would it? He laughed.
And a moment later Stell found himself doing likewise, along with the six troopers.
One by one they stopped laughing, as each thought about their situation and wondered if there was any way out of it. There's got to be a way, Stell told himself, and wished he could believe it. In any case, they wouldn't give up without a fight. “Okay, men, let's check it out,” Stell said. “Sergeant Stickley ... check and see if this vehicle's really out of action. Corporal Gomez, check the radio. The rest of you go over your gear. We might want to take a stroll outside.” The troopers grinned nervously as they checked their suits and weapons.