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Authors: Sherwood Smith,Dave Trowbridge

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BOOK: The Phoenix in Flight
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This was the one action he could take he felt was sure to succeed.
His old tutor, one of the few people in the Thousand Suns who might know what
to do with the Heart of Kronos, could not, would not, be part of any
conspiracy. Once dispatched into the untraceable intricacy of the automated
ParcelNet system, the artifact would arrive well after whatever was to happen
had happened, and as the old man was long retired from court to his old
university, on a planet well outside the Tetrad Centrum, the Heart would be
safe from whatever convulsions might follow the fulfillment or frustration of
Dol’jhar’s plans.

Cheruld hissed with vexation as his fingers lost their grip
and the chip dropped into the litter of papers and chips on his desk. Blinking
sweat from his clouding vision, he retrieved the chip and pressed it into the
top of the ParcelNet box, and the memory plastic swallowed it up. He pushed
himself unsteadily to his feet and crossed the room to the monneplat. It took
both of his trembling hands to get the package deposited within it.

The hatch closed, and Cheruld shuffled back to his desk. He
blinked stupidly at the blurred shape of the complex glyph on the console
screen that represented the hardest work of his life as a noderunner, and the
end of his life as Aegios at Qoholeth.

He tabbed
ACCEPT
and the glyph spun into a blur and
disappeared. Within minutes, every trace of his activities since would be
purged from the system, and there would be no way to undo his work.

He staggered as the remains of the drug shredded his
equilibrium. He fumbled for his valise, and leaned against the door to his
suite, sweat dripping down the sides of his face as he took a last look around,
at the elegance and quiet wealth he would probably never enjoy again. Then he
thumbed the door open and forced himself through.

o0o

“Taking a little vacation, Aegios?”

Cheruld turned abruptly away from the viewport and the
planet below, shock flashing through him, leaving him cold and a little sick.
He hadn’t registered for the shuttle under his real name or title, and he
didn’t know these two men.

He glanced up and down the corridor, but there was no one
else around. They had chosen their time well. One of them raised his hand and
pointed a dull black tube at his face.

There was a soft click, and Martin Cheruld had just enough
time to comprehend that he hadn’t been killed before the jet of gas turned his
mind off.

FOUR
DOL’JHAR

Another storm was building, the worst yet as winter yielded
to what passed for spring on Dol’jhar, yanking savagely at the tower of Hroth
D’Ocha. The motion churned Barrodagh’s stomach into an acid froth that burned
the back of his throat. As the culmination of his lord’s paliach loomed ever
closer, so the pressure on him grew, oppressing him by the constant sense that
he had overlooked something.

His fingers clenched on the flimsies he was poring over as
his console chimed for attention.

“Speak,” he said, letting none of his impatience into his
voice.

“Tellimag reporting, Rifter fleet liaison department.
Tillimar byn-Amal reports a change of command on the
Skullwind
and
requests the command ciphers for Fleet 10.” The other Bori’s voice lightened.
“There’s an interesting visual, if you like.”

“Put it on.”

Barrodagh’s console windowed up a tableau that surprised a
snort of laughter from him. The scene was the bridge of the
Skullwind,
the
Rifter destroyer posted as the flagship of Fleet Ten, now in position for its
part in the coming attack. The bulky figure of Tillimar byn-Amal filled the
screen, frozen by the circuitry as he held aloft the clumsily hacked-off head
of his father, Amal byn-Serafiny, its face frozen in a rictus of pain and
surprise.

Barrodagh laughed again as he noticed that the corpse’s nose
had been bitten off. The lurid emotionalism of their Rifter allies was a source
of endless amusement to one accustomed to the cool, almost passionless savagery
of Dol’jhar. He lingered on the picture, trying to decide which was uglier: the
corpse’s disfigured face or the scaly, red-cracked visage of the parricide,
distorted with both triumph and a loathsome skin condition.

“Give him the ciphers,” he said.

Barrodagh leaned back in his chair as his subordinate signed
off, leaving the frozen image on-screen.
I definitely backed the right
chuqath
in that fight.
He grinned again: byn-Amal’s disease made him the very
image of the scaly
chuqaths
, the savage scavengers whose battles in the
pits of the work-dorms were a favorite amusement of Dol’jharian laborers.

Now Barrodagh would activate the sleeper on the
Skullwind
to make sure he received regular and accurate reports on the true state of
affairs on board, just as he had from byn-Amal while his father was in command.

He stretched, his stomach easing in spite of the swaying of
the tower; he felt secure in the knowledge that no Rifter was a match for one
who had survived twenty years of upper-level infighting in the bureaucracy of
Dol’jhar. Rifters prized themselves on their independence, but those now allied
with Dol’jhar had discovered how vulnerable a ship dependent on the Urian
hyperrelay for power was to Barrodagh’s displeasure. It had taken only one
application of the savage Dol’jharian technology of pain to an erring member of
the Rift Sodality, combined with the certainty of discovery the episode had
demonstrated, to convince all of them to behave during the long wait between
the refit of their ships with the Urian technology and the promised orgy of
looting that would follow the attack. Byn-Amal’s request was just one more
confirmation of Barrodagh’s total control of the situation.

The console chimed again. The sense of security made
Barrodagh feel expansive as he leaned forward and tabbed it to accept a vid
connection.

His good mood vanished when Morrighon’s lumpy face filled
the screen.

“Senz-lo Barrodagh, Morrighon reporting.” Barrodagh almost
winced. He was beginning to regret having excused Morrighon from reports in
person, since he apparently had little sense of the relative importance of the
tasks assigned him. The pain of traversing the high-gee corridors might have
deterred much of this foolishness.

“I’m trying to complete the processing of Thuriol’s queue
that you assigned me.” Morrighon paused, probably hoping for an
acknowledgement, but Barrodagh said nothing. Knowing Morrighon’s obsessive
attention to detail, Barrodagh had told him to organize Thuriol’s message
archives. Lacking a security level high enough to read them, all he could do
was organize them by date and the code name of the recipient—the perfect job
for Morrighon. Others would analyze the resulting mass of data to winnow out
whatever else Thuriol might have been up to.

The whine in Morrighon’s voice intensified. “I am distressed
to have to report that once again my duties have been interfered with by those
who consider such activities an amusing use of their time.”

What is it now?
The ingenuity that lower-level
Catennach in applied to tormenting those even lower in the hierarchy never
ceased to amaze Barrodagh.
If they spent half as much effort on advancing
themselves as they do calculating just how far they can go in sabotaging each
other without risking reprimand themselves...

Yes, but that would leave them free to attempt sabotaging
him
.
Which was why he didn’t interfere.

He nodded slightly, encouraging Morrighon. He could, of
course, just cut him off, but he’d long ago learned that rudeness was a weapon
to be reserved for worthy opponents, and furthermore, that even the slightest
courtesy to the lowliest was a powerful tool for eliciting useful information
about the high-level Catennach who
could
sabotage him.

“This time, someone tampered with Thuriol’s archives in an
attempt to compromise my work.” Morrighon’s mouth creased in prim triumph. “But
they were careless, and I found what purported to be a system acknowledgement
of a message, but one of which there is no record, and which furthermore would
have been sent after his transfiguration, which is obviously impossible.”

Barrodagh nodded again automatically, his mind spinning off
on another track as Morrighon whined on about other slights and pranks he’d
endured in Barrodagh’s service, and then the sense of what the factotum had
said detonated in his brain.

An unrecorded message sent after Thuriol’s death.

Either that was underlings playing their games... but that
was unlikely, not after Thuriol had been subjected to the mindripper. Bori
tended to avoid even mention of someone’s name after they’d suffered so
terrifying an end, lest they somehow be implicated.

Or...

Gods and demons, Thuriol had rigged a revenge worm!

Barrodagh’s stomach lurched and the back of his throat
burned as his motion-sickness returned full force. It took every bit of control
developed over decades of deadly bureaucratic infighting to prevent Barrodagh
from screaming an interruption at Morrighon as the other man nattered on,
oblivious to the implications of what he had uncovered. Instead, he raised a
hand, his fingers stiff. Morrighon instantly fell silent.

Barrodagh consciously lowered his hand, and forced a smile,
speaking in a mild tone. “You are quite right, Morrighon. These pranks have
gone too far, and I will have them looked into. Please forward the compromised
data to me so that we can get to the bottom of this.”

It was unnecessary to add the word “immediately,” as
Morrighon could be trusted to... yes, Barrodagh’s console was already blinking
with incoming data.

“Your efficiency is commendable,” Barrodagh continued. “I
will have your Vox Populi account credited with a bonus.”

Morrighon’s image vanished. Barrodagh tabbed up the relayed
data, sick with certainty. The acknowledgement of the revenge worm’s message
had come straight from...

Cheruld.
Aegios of the Qoholeth Anachronics Hub, from
which Panarchic courier ships, the fastest means of communication in the
Thousand Suns, were regularly dispatched to major Panarchic centers.
Arthelion,
Narbon, Talgarth, Lao Tse...
Worse, the man to whom the Heart of Kronos had
been sent.

Barrodagh stabbed at his console, requesting a secure
connection to the hyperwave-equipped vessel stationed at Qoholeth, through
which Thuriol’s messages been transmitted to Cheruld. While he waited, his mind
spun in wild surmise. The revenge message, whatever it had been, had been
acknowledged two weeks previously, but Barrodagh would have heard immediately
had there been any interruption in message traffic through Cheruld. Morrighon had
said “system acknowledgement,” an automated process. Could Cheruld somehow have
overlooked the message? Its content would likely have been quite oblique, to
protect Thuriol in the event the worm was discovered before it was triggered.
Could Cheruld have misunderstood it?

You’re grasping at Minea’s tattered hem
, he told
himself. He had to be prepared for the worst, or he would be swept away by
events.

The console windowed up the face of the Catennach comm
officer on the
Altar of Dol
.

“Senz-lo Barrodagh,” the woman said as memory supplied her
name:
Dulathor
.

“I require an immediate status report on Martin Cheruld.”

Dulathor nodded officiously. “He was observed trying to
board an out-system shuttle.”

Hope died and terror clawed its way up inside Barrodagh.
He
did get the message! What has he been doing for the past two weeks?
At
least the Heart of Kronos was still safe in the ParcelNet.

Dulathor’s lack of surprise meant that she assumed he’d
found out about Cheruld’s defection by other means. He would not disabuse her
of the notion—the reputation for omniscience he’d long cultivated was a strong
disincentive to betrayal. But he needed to know more.

“I assume you have followed your standing orders?” He let
nothing of his urgency into his voice.

“Yes, senz-lo Barrodagh.” Her voice took on the flat cadence
of a report. “We observed him covertly, moving in only when he tried to leave.
We apprehended him and activated the backup message routing. I was just
preparing a message to inform you that we have him safely on-board, and have
tested him for serum allergies. He is safe for veritonin, with an estimated
tolerance of one hour.”

“That is well. I will personally interrogate him via
hyperwave.” He fixed Dulathor with a minatory stare. “There is to be no observation
or recording of the interrogation; this touches the will of the Avatar.” The
Qoholeth team knew nothing of Cheruld’s operations and he had no intention of
letting them find out.

The woman’s face tightened, and her eyes flickered at the
mention of the word ‘Avatar.’ “It shall be as you command. We will have him
ready within fifteen minutes.”

o0o

Never had one-quarter hour passed more slowly for Barrodagh.
But the next hour, until the veritonin killed Cheruld, passed all too
quickly—had he learned all he could? Had he overlooked a question, failed to
probe an implication? The hours afterward, while he strove to understand and
contain the disaster that had overtaken him, had seemed to pass even faster.

Barrodagh rose from his desk and walked shakily to the door,
moving as slowly as though he were already outside in the high-gee corridor.

Long habit halted him within the half-circle inlaid in the
carpet. He braced himself with his hands on either side of the doorframe. He
barely noticed the familiar sense of upward acceleration as full Dol’jharian
gravity gripped him. He now weighed thirty percent more than normal, and a fall
would almost certainly mean broken bones, if not worse.

BOOK: The Phoenix in Flight
5.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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