Authors: Chris Bunch
“A man who can’t hang on to what he has doesn’t deserve it,” Wolfe said.
“I’ll agree with those sentiments. Ruthlessness is an imperative in my organization — and, I truly believe, in any other thriving organism. However, some feel that you’ve gone a bit far, a bit fast.”
“I didn’t see much of anything in my way,” Wolfe said.
“At the level you began at, that probably is true. Even Aurus had begun to slacken off lately. However, that doesn’t mean you can make that assumption about anyone and everyone.”
“Such as you.”
“Such as me. I may be old, but I’m still a far bigger shark than you, sonny. Don’t ever forget that an old tough is merely a tough that’s gotten old.”
“I try not to underestimate my opponents,” Wolfe said. “Or to judge everyone as an opponent without reason.”
Walsh waited a moment, then nodded. “You aren’t stupid,” he said. “Take a look at the walls, and tell me what you see.”
Wolfe obeyed, walking slowly through the drawing room, examining a holo here, an old-fashioned photograph or framed tab story there. He lingered at one, which showed Walsh, not many years younger than he was now, at the podium at a banquet. Smiling faces, men, women, looked up at him, hands caught in the moment of applause. Wolfe noted the unknown symbol on the podium, moved on.
Walsh waited patiently until Wolfe returned to his seat, drinking Armagnac. “Well?”
“Like you said, I’m not stupid,” Wolfe said. “I got two impressions from all those plaudits. First, and least important, is that you’ve had a helluva long run here on Rogan’s World, and it doesn’t look like there’s many who don’t owe you.”
Walsh nodded once.
“But that wasn’t, I think, what you wanted me to get,” Wolfe continued. “I’d guess it was a suggestion that all things come to him who waits, and seeing pictures of Edmund Walsh over the years might make me think about developing patience. Or else.”
“No,” Walsh said, nodding, “you aren’t stupid.”
Wolfe waited for something else, but Walsh seemed content to remain silent. He drained his snifter. “So what do you want me to do?” he asked.
“Just what you’re doing,” Walsh said. “Gambling is one of the areas I’ve never been happy with. A little too unorganized for my tastes. I need a good man in place. You’ve got two clubs now — and you can have whatever of Aurus’ goodies you fancy. But no more fancy grabs, eh? Nothing that makes headlines. You’ll get more, in good time. And it won’t be a long time, either. But don’t get greedy for a while. Stick around, and you, too, can end up with people throwing banquets for you as an elder philanthropist with a colorful past. Even giving you government titles that don’t pay shit, but get you a lot of respect. Get antsy now, though, and …”
Walsh didn’t finish.
Wolfe stood. “Thank you for the wisdom, Advisor Walsh.”
His voice was nearly devoid of irony.
• • •
“I don’t like it at all,” Wolfe repeated. “That was Aubyn in the picture, sitting beside Walsh. So we’re close. But if Aubyn — or Walsh — had been interested in making any kind of a deal, he would’ve said something, instead of playing ‘tomorrow’s another day.’ He knows good and well gangsters don’t listen to promises. So the only reason I could figure for the meeting is Aubyn wanted to take a look at me. She got it, and now she’s trying to figure out her next move. Think about it, Athelstan! She’s thinking about tactics, and we’re picking our noses and looking at pictures on a wall! That means she’s ahead of us.”
Onscreen, both Athelstan and Kur started to speak, stopped. Kur inclined her head in deference.
“Thank you,” Athelstan said. “First, I’ll voice my obvious suspicion — that you’re trying some subterfuge to derail our plan.”
“Why should I?”
“Perhaps,” Athelstan said, “because you’ve sensed the ur-Lumina, feel that you can seize it on your own at a later time, and realize once we have possession it’s absolutely lost to you.”
“Utterly illogical,” Wolfe said. “You’ve no reason to think that except your own suspicions. Or paranoia.”
Athelstan’s lips pursed, then he recovered. “Admitted. I withhold the canard for the moment.”
“Another possibility,” Kur put in. “You’re frightened.”
“Hell yes I’m frightened,” Wolfe said. “This Aubyn has had the biggest goddamned brass lantern as a toy for five years, rubbed it all she wanted, and has a whole goddamned battalion of genies lined up for all I know. She’s clever, she’s mad, and she’s a sociopath. I’m ground zero for her while you sit up there in your spaceship thinking lofty thoughts.”
“Be careful,” Kur warned.
“Why? You’ll kill me? What do you think Aubyn wants? To get in my pants?” Wolfe turned to the other three in the room — Kristin, Max, and Lucian. “What do you think? Are we just running scared?”
Max made no reply.
“Insufficient data for me to make a judgment,” Lucian said.
“Negative,” Kristin said. “Wolfe’s analyses have been correct thus far.”
“Joshua Wolfe,” Kur put in, “calm down. You’ve run agents, you know how easy it is for one to panic when he’s one step short of his target. Haven’t you ever had to order anybody to hold fast?”
“I have,” Wolfe said grimly. “Three times, no more. I lost my ferret twice, barely made the hit the third time. Then I started paying attention to the man on the ground.”
“This is not a democracy,” Athelstan said firmly. “There is generally but one logical way, and since I’ve been chosen to speak for the Chitet, I have decided we should stay the course. We are getting close to our target. To withdraw now would be to abandon all our accomplishments.”
Wolfe stared at the screen. “I’ve won a lot of money from people like you,” he said quietly. “People who think what they’ve thrown in the pot gives them some kind of rights on the showdown.”
“You’re not assessing the situation with proper logic,” Athelstan said. “Continue the mission.”
• • •
Walsh waited while the woman with hooded eyes paced back and forth, thinking.
“No,” she decided, “there’s nothing more to be gained by waiting and observing. Proceed as we discussed.”
• • •
“I don’t feel like making love tonight,” Kristin announced.
“Nor I,” Joshua agreed, leaning across her and turning off the light. “I wish that your fearless leaders had heard the old Earth-Chinese proverb that of the thirty-four possible responses to a problem, running away is best.”
“Master Speaker Athelstan knows what is right.”
“Yeah,” Joshua agreed. “For Master Speaker Athelstan. Never mind. Go to sleep. It’s liable to get noisy pretty quick.”
Joshua lay back, trying to quiet the jangle. After a time, he felt Kristin relax into sleep. Then he took tension, fear, anger from his toes, moved it upward, pushing it as a broom sweeps water, up his body, through his arms, through his chest and into his brain. He found a color for these things, deep blue, coiled the tensions, the fears into a ball, forced it out of his body, and made it float precisely three inches above his head, between his eyes. He ordered his mind to obey him, that all would be doomed if that blue ball sank into his body once more.
Joshua was almost asleep when he
something. Far out, across the city — although when he reached for it, nothing was there.
Then it returned, brooding, dark.
Wolfe slid out of bed, dressed in dark shirt, pants, and a pair of zip boots. He returned to the bed, and lay on his back.
• • •
The door to the bedroom crashed open, and Wolfe was crouched in a defense stance as Kristin half shrieked and sat up.
Lucian was in the doorway, gun in his hand, eyes wide. “They killed him!” he cried. “They’ve killed him!”
Suddenly he burst into racking sobs, and the gun fell onto the carpet.
Wolfe heard the blare of the vid in the room outside and ran into the living room.
Onscreen was dark space, lit by the flaring ruin of a starship. For an instant Wolfe was thrown back years, to other screens and other ship-deaths.
Then the smooth commentator’s voice registered:
“ … still unknown registry and origin, although sources within Planetary Guard advise the ship had been in a geosynchronous orbit over Prendergast for at least two months.
“I repeat the flash: An unknown starship, orbiting just off Rogan’s World exploded minutes ago. Initial reports suggest the ship was attacked by unknown assailants. We have no word as to the ship’s name or registry, nor any information about passengers or crew.
“We have a news crew en route, and another on its way to Planetary Guard headquarters. These images are coming to you courtesy of the Guard, from one of the naysats offworld.
“Please stand by for further details.”
The screen blanked, but Max continued staring at it.
“Master Speaker Athelstan,” he said in a whisper. “The bitch got him. She killed him.” He exploded onto his feet, shouting. “Goddammit, she killed him! She killed Kur … all of them!”
Kristin, naked, was in the bedroom door. Her face was blank in shock and horror.
“Come on,” Wolfe shouted. “She hit first! We’re next!” He ran back into the bedroom, scooping up Lucian’s gun on the way. Lucian was crouched on the floor, head in his hands, sobbing, repeating over and over: “It’s ended … The dream is gone … It’s ended …”
“Come on, man! Or die with your frigging dream!”
Lucian didn’t move.
Wolfe hurried into the gun-guards’ quarters and found them as shattered as Lucian. He found the team’s cash-box, smashed it open, and shoved wads of credits into his pockets.
“What are you doing?” Max demanded. His gun was wavering, but still aimed at Wolfe.
“We’re getting out of here,” Wolfe said. “Or else we’ll be as dead as Athelstan.”
“No,” Max decided. “No, we can’t leave. No, we can’t — ”
Wolfe was on him, gun crossblocked out of the way as it went off, blasting a three-inch-wide hole in a painting of a shepherd and his flock and the wall behind it. Joshua struck Max once on the forehead with the heel of his hand and let him fall.
One of the gun-guards had his pistol half drawn, and Wolfe kicked him back against the wall. He had Lucian’s gun in his hand, and the other guards froze.
“Get your things and get out,” he ordered. “Move! We’ll try for our ship at the yard!” He didn’t wait for a reply, but darted into the main room.
Kristin had found a pair of blue pants and a red pullover; she sat on the floor of the bedroom, sorting through boots very methodically and slowly.
Wolfe yanked her to her feet. “Out! Now!”
Kristin started to protest, nodded dumbly.
“Come on, Lucian!”
“Lost … All lost …”
Wolfe could spare no more time. He grabbed Kristin’s hand and pulled her out of the suite toward the private lift.
The glass-fronted lift’s door slid closed, and Wolfe punched 2.
“Where’s your gun?”
Kristin’s hand felt her waistband, then she shook her head.
“Good,” Wolfe said sarcastically. “One gun against — Jesus God!”
Two tactical strike ships with the insignia of the Planetary Guard broke through the cloud cover and dropped down toward the hotel. They banked, then hovered about one hundred feet above the hotel’s roof. Flame spat from one, then the second. Wolfe slammed the lift’s emergency buttons. It obediently stopped, and the door slid open.
Wolfe pitched Kristin out onto thick pile carpet as the missiles smashed into the hotel, and exploded.
The tower rocked under the impact, and alarms howled.
Kristin was crying, whimpering. Wolfe lifted her face, slapped her hard, twice. “Come on, soldier! Or die right here!”
Kristin shook her head violently, then her eyes came back to normal. “Where … What …”
“Find the emergency exit. There’s got to be one somewhere.”
There was, at the end of the long corridor. Doors were opening, and bewildered men and women were stumbling out. Wolfe pushed through them, found the stairs, clattered down their long, cement-gray steps, hearing siren screams clamoring everywhere.
A man with a gun stood at the door leading into the lobby. Wolfe shot him without asking questions, took his gun, and they went on down, into the underground parking structure.
There was no one in the attendant’s booth, and Wolfe went to a wooden cabinet, yanked it open, and found a rack with ignition keys dangling from it.
“Good. Organized,” he muttered. He scanned the gravlifters parked nearby. “A-27 — here it is.” He pulled a set of keys from a numbered hook, pulled Kristin toward a nearly new sleek luxury lifter. He pointed the ignition sensor at the vehicle, and the door slid up.
“Inside,” he ordered, and Kristin managed to fumble her way into a seat.
Wolfe slid in, pushed the sensor into the ignition slot, let the drive whine to life. He lifted the craft and steered it up the ramps, toward the exit.
A bright red heavy gravlifter was just grounding, blocking the exit, red and blue lights flashing. Firemen wearing exposure suits piled out, heavy-laden.
Wolfe slid the drive-pot to full thrust, brought the stick up, and sent the lifter careening across the wide sidewalk onto the boulevard. A fireman saw him and barely dove out of the way.
There were other firecraft grounding on the boulevard, and he saw someone waving. Someone aimed a gun, fired, and the bolt went somewhere Wolfe couldn’t see.
At full power, he sent the lifter down the street, made one turn, another, then banked the craft up into the darkness and smoke as the hotel gouted fire like a torch.
Wolfe held his breath and sliced through the bomb strap. Nothing happened. He pulled it away, feeling it tear at his skin like a bandage long in place. He let the bomb thump to the lifter’s floor.
Kristin watched dully, making no attempt to stop him.
He started to say something, rethought his words. “You’ll get over it,” he said gently. “Everybody’s Christ gets killed sooner or later.”
“You don’t understand,” Kristin said. “It wasn’t just Athelstan — it was a whole dynasty that woman murdered. Kur — Athelstan’s aides — his best logicians — Aubyn may have destroyed us.”