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The open-air mall was bustling with early afternoon shoppers walking to and fro. Many had specific errands to run. Others were simply window-shopping or enjoying the fine afternoon. The ebb and flow of foot traffic guaranteed anonymity and privacy without calling particular attention to oneself.
For one particular man who was busy appearing casual, that was exactly how he wanted it. Wong Chin's gait was a carefully calculated stroll; he had a couple of hours of leisure time at his disposal, so he didn't need to hurry. At the same time his mother's birthday was coming up soon, so this was a legitimate shopping trip for a gift. There was nothing to arouse anyone's suspicions.
Chin was dressed in the uniform of the kavalergardy, which got him some extra looks but not an excessive amount. It would have been more suspicious if he'd changed into civilian clothes for this errand. It would have looked as though he had something to hide--and since he did, that was an appearance best avoided.
He was approaching the gift shop where he intended to make his purchase, at the same time keeping a surreptitious eye on the time. He also kept careful track of the crowd around him, making sure no one was following him. At precisely the specified time Chin calmly lifted his wristcom up to his mouth, as though to make a personal memo. In a quiet, matter-of-fact voice he said, "Dispatch 226." In a single electronic blip, the message he'd carefully composed, encrypted and compressed was transmitted from his computer through a local relay to a topcomm repeater that carried the information to its destination many parsecs away.
With that accomplished, Chin felt a great wave of relief sweep over him--though he did not show it outwardly. The most crucial part of this excursion was done. For better or worse the information he knew would quickly be in trusted hands. Now he could concentrate on the more innocent task of choosing his mother's birthday gift. Being the methodical person he was, he'd already scouted out the shop where his purchase would take place.
His mother had always been fond of hand-crafted music boxes. A store here in this mall carried a wonderful assortment. Wong Chin spent a relaxed twenty minutes inspecting the wares before deciding on his purchase, a music box with a dancing bear on top. He had the shopkeeper wrap it up and, carrying it carefully, he returned to the knyaz's palace.
As he entered the private gate, before he could go to his quarters and drop off the package, he received a call on his wristcom. "Captain Chin, the knyaz would like to see you immediately. Report to his study at once."
Chin frowned. Anything out of the ordinary was suspicious, and posed a risk to his safety. "I have a package to drop off in my room, and then I'll--"
"He needs you at once. I doubt he'll mind if you bring the package with you."
"On my way, then," Chin said. His voice was crisp and correct, but inwardly he was worried. The knyaz had only seen him three times in the six months Chin had been working here, and had never singled him out for anything. Why this sudden urgency--and why today of all days? Still, he had no legitimate reason to balk at the orders, so he entered the main building and proceeded to the knyaz's second-floor study.
Captain Chin entered the study through its west door. The study was a large room with dark breckwood paneling on the east, west and north walls. Inset shelves on these walls held actual printed books with leather bindings in brown, black and oxblood. In addition to the west door there were two doors along the east wall and three along the long north wall. Chin didn't know where any of these doors led; he'd always used the west door on the few occasions when he'd come here.
The entire south wall was a picture window overlooking the knyaz's private zoo. This menagerie was one of the knyaz's obsessions, containing some of the most interesting creatures from the many worlds in his sector. He took great pride in the fact that it was considered among the top private collections in the entire Empire.
In front of the picture window was a heavy cherrywood desk carved with ornate scrollwork along the legs and geometric designs on the sides. The top was flat and inset with a large tridee tank, currently blank.
Behind the desk was a large padded green leather swivel chair with polished brass studs closely placed around the seams of the arms and back. The chair was turned with its back to him so its occupant could gaze out the window; all Chin could see was the high back and a portion of an arm lying casually on the right armrest. As the captain entered the room, though, the chair slowly swiveled around to face him.
Yevgheniy Kuznyetz, the knyaz of Scorpio sector, was in his fifties. His slender body had a toughness to it that belied his years, and the piercing look in his eyes flashed with keen intelligence. His gray hair was thinning but neatly combed, and a pencil-thin mustache adorned the upper lip of his tightly-pursed mouth. His face had some of the fine lines of age, but there were no smiles lines evident anywhere. He was dressed casually in a gray, green and red argyle sweater that made his torso look bulkier than it really was.
"Captain Chin reporting as ordered, sir," Chin said crisply. He did not salute; the knyaz may have been his boss, but he had no military rank.
"Carrying a package, I see." The voice was quiet, crisp, precise.
"I was told to come straight here, sir," Chin said apologetically. "I didn't have time to drop it off in my quarters first."
"No need to apologize. I understand perfectly."
"Thank you, sir."
Kuznyetz's eyes remained focused on the officer's face. "What is it, if I may ask?"
"A... a present for my mother, sir. Her birthday is next week."
"How admirable. I wish my own mother were around to receive presents, but she--" He ended that train of thought abruptly. "I'm curious. What does a captain of my kavalergardy buy his mother for a birthday present?"
"She has a collection of music boxes, sir. I found an interesting new one at a shop in town."
"Excellent. Does she happen to live onplanet?"
"No, sir, she's on Pintow. I'll have to ship it out either today or tomorrow if it's going to arrive in time."
"Nonsense. Leave it here. I'll make sure it goes out with my personal seal. I guarantee it'll arrive in plenty of time."
"That's very kind of you, sir." Chin was perplexed. The knyaz had never been this friendly to him before, had scarcely shown him any more than formal recognition. What was happening? Did he suspect something?
Kuznyetz did not respond, and silence descended on the room. Captain Chin did not feel it was his place to question his lord's motives for summoning him, so he stood silently at attention and waited. He was acutely aware that the knyaz's gaze never wavered from his face, but the older man's expression was unreadable.
It was nearly thirty seconds before Kuznyetz spoke again. "Actually, you can return the favor, captain. You've been recommended to me as a very reliable man, a man who can keep a secret."
"I like to think so, sir."
"Good. I have a mission that requires the utmost discretion, and I can't entrust it to anyone too close to me, if you get my meaning."
"I'm not sure I do, sir, but I'm not sure I need to, either."
"The perfect answer. I chose the right man." He reached into a drawer of his desk and pulled out a small object, which he slid along the top of the desk toward Chin. "This is a key. Pick it up and go through this door." He indicated the door closest to the window on the east side of the room. "Go down that corridor to a door numbered 278. The key will open that door. Go inside. A woman will meet you there. She will give you a large envelope, which you will then bring back here to me unopened."
"Is that all, sir?"
"Yes, for now. If you perform well, there may be other small but crucial assignments as well--with, I might add, corresponding bonuses."
Chin picked up the key. It was an electronic key, made of lightweight plastic. "Thank you sir. With your permission ...?"
Kuznyetz dismissed him with a wave of his hand. By the time Captain Chin had reached the indicated door, the knyaz already seemed occupied with another matter.
Chin found himself in a long corridor with doors on either side. The numbers started in the low 200s, so he had quite a distance to walk before he came to 278. The corridor made several turns, but didn't branch off anywhere, so there was no question of which way he needed to go.
At last he reached door 278. He placed the key against the lock and there was the faintest of clicks as it unlatched. The door slid silently open and he entered. The door slid shut again behind him.
The room was large and totally bare of furnishing. The walls, ceiling and floor were pure white except for a bright red rectangular touchplate high up on the opposite wall, right where it met the ceiling. Chin wondered vaguely what it was doing up there; it was certainly too high for anyone to reach conveniently.
There was no woman in the room at the moment, but Chin wasn't worried. Kuznyetz had said she would meet him here, not that she'd be waiting. The captain supposed it was his job to do the waiting. With no furniture to sit on, he stood casually and waited.
A large section of the wall opposite the door slid open, rapidly and silently. The sudden movement startled Captain Chin, but far more disturbing was what was revealed on the other side. Two enormous catlike creatures were walking up a ramp toward him. They walked on four legs, and their shoulders were as high as his head. They had sleek gray and yellow dappled fur, long white fangs and yellow eyes that glared at him with feral intensity.
Chin didn't know precisely what was going on, but he did know he didn't want to be in the same room with those creatures. He turned back to where he'd entered, but the door had seamlessly joined with the wall. He tried pressing the plastic key against where he thought the latch should be, but nothing happened. There was no escape in that direction.
The creatures were now fully in the large room with him, and the door slid quickly shut behind them. Chin realized far too late that he'd been set up. He was trapped in here with two vicious creatures and no defense against them.
The creature on his right was close enough to swipe at him with its left paw. He tried to dodge, but the blow came too swiftly; claws like bayonets ripped across his right arm, slashing his uniform sleeve and drawing blood from two large gashes. He choked back a scream and tried to spin away to his left, but that only brought him within range of the second beast. It actually seemed to be waiting for him; a vicious swipe of its right front paw was already in motion as he stepped into the blow. The nails ripped open his abdomen, and blood suddenly splashed across the walls of this previously immaculate room.
He could make no effort now to stifle the scream that escaped his throat. He couldn't think through the pain, he could only react--and that weakly. The force of the blow spun him completely around and he stumbled to his right knee. He struggled to regain his footing, but the wounds he'd already suffered made him far too slow. The giant paw of the creature on his right came down on his back, knocking him the rest of the way down and pinning him to the floor. Even if he hadn't already been severely weakened by his wounds, the powerfully muscled arm would have held him in place.
Chin's struggles were over within seconds as the efficient hunting team did its work with well-honed precision. The pain was intense as he died, but it did not last long, and soon his body lay lifeless and bloody on the stone floor. The creatures who'd killed him parceled him out and greedily devoured his flesh, even eating portions of his uniform to make sure no significant parts were wasted. The only parts they couldn't eat were his feet, shod in leather boots that were too hard to get the meat out of.
In barely half an hour the animals had finished their meal. One of them reared up on its haunches and swatted at the red touchplate near the ceiling. The wall through which they'd entered slid aside and, with nothing further to interest them here, the creatures returned down the ramp the way they'd come. The wall slid back into place behind them and a panel opened in the floor, exposing a large drain. High-pressure jets of water erupted from nozzles hidden in the walls, washing the final traces of the late Captain Wong Chin into the disposal system. Next came a cleansing disinfectant spray to remove all traces of blood and other impurities. Within minutes, Room 278 was pure and antiseptic once more.
Captain Chin may have been gone, but he was not forgotten. He was, indeed, the focal point of a discussion in the study between Kuznyetz and his prime councilor, Pavel Lubikov. "I'm sorry we weren't able to weed him out earlier," Lubikov said. "It seems he got off a message this afternoon before he returned."
The knyaz appeared largely unconcerned. "What did it say?"
"I don't know for certain; it's well encrypted and could take days to break. I'm sure it had no critical details--Chin had no access to the ultimate plan or its timetable. Maybe some names of our allies, numbers and disposition of some of our forces, other things we wouldn't want advertised but which won't stop the operations from taking place. I can confirm who the message was sent to."
"I know who the message was sent to," Kuznyetz said languidly. "That doesn't bother me. Nkosi has been de-fanged for years. He's just a frustrated old man moving the few straggling pawns he has left over the squares of a decaying chessboard. Even if we sent him a detailed blueprint, he has no authority to act. Let him frustrate himself even further. It'll just make our victory that much sweeter."
Lubikov's eyes wandered to Captain Chin's package, still sitting untouched on the corner of the desk. "Should I dispose of that for you, sir?" he asked.
"Certainly not. I promised to deliver it to the late captain's mother, and I shall keep my word. After all, she no longer has a son. The least she should have is a music box.
"And see that she gets a nice letter of condolence that her son died in the course of his duties," he added as an afterthought. "Mothers are very important, Pavel. They must be treated with the utmost respect."
* * *
It was unofficially called the Blue Room, logically enough, because it was a room and it was blue. Not just any blue; it was, in fact, a tribute to all blues. Starting from the baseboards of the eastern wall, which were the palest pastel, the shades progressed like a canopy arch, darkening imperceptibly as the colors gradually merged until they reached the darkest navy blue, almost indistinguishable from black, along the bottom of the western wall. Many of the room's prior occupants over the decades had proclaimed the effect quite restful and relaxing; its current occupant, however, was unmoved by any such soothing effects.
Nkosi Wettig, knyaz of Orion sector, was a large man by almost any standards, nearly two meters tall and massing about a hundred and twenty kilograms. Adding to this was his demeanor, a commanding presence that radiated intelligence and decisiveness, and an attitude that brooked no incompetence. The brown eyes above his broad, flat nose seemed to see not only everything within range, but all the implications of those things as well. The mahogany-colored skin of his face was unmarked with lines of worry despite his age--and despite the fact that he worried all the time. He was used to making other people develop worry lines.
His face was also unmarked by smile lines, because Nkosi Wettig seldom smiled. Given all that he knew and all that he saw, he found little to smile about.
The Blue Room had been designed by Wettig's great-grandfather, a man of far less spartan tastes. It served as Wettig's principal office when he was at home on his estate--not because of its soothing atmosphere, but because it was suitably large and centrally convenient to other rooms and resources. But even if the knyaz were normally inclined to a relaxed disposition, the information on the screens set in the desk before him would have jarred him out of that mood.
The left-hand screen displayed the decrypted message he'd received from Wong Chin. In fine detail it described the number, classes and disposition of the ships in Kuznyetz's private fleet. Though ostensibly the ships were all either merchant craft or local law enforcement vessels, all were heavily armed--and so numerous that the total firepower was nearly one-third that of the Imperial Navy itself. Though the militsia vessels should have been spread uniformly throughout Scorpio sector, and the merchant ships should have been traveling to many destinations around the Empire, the vast majority of these ships seemed to be maneuvering in and out of a small space that just happened to be the part of Kuznyetz's sector closest to Earth.
Chin's report also contained a list of names of people he'd confirmed had made alliances with Kuznyetz. Chin admitted the list was incomplete, but even so it was impressive: ten other knyazya, eighty-seven grafy, sixteen admirals, five members of the Sovyet Knyazey and dozens of other assorted boyare.
A very thorough report. Chin had been the best of Wettig's people to follow him into exile.
From his other sources, dwindling as they were, Wettig had traced a money trail leading from Kuznyetz to several dozen "separatist" movements on various planets, groups that were becoming increasingly more daring and increasingly more violent. Reports of their activities filled the news virtually every day now.
It didn't take someone with Wettig's extraordinary perception to supply a title for this portrait: treason. Treason in its purest form. Kuznyetz was planning an uprising, and soon.
Next to the screen with Chin's report was another that held a flattie video message from Kuznyetz himself. "Nkosi, I have some news that may disturb you. I had an officer in my kavalergardy, a Captain Wong Chin. He died today under highly suspicious circumstances. My investigators are looking into it, but since I believe you were one of his past employers I thought you might know him and care about what happened to him. Please accept my deepest sympathies." And there the message ended.
The nerve of that man! To kill a fine officer like Chin and then to brag about it like this. He thinks there's nothing I can do about it--and he may be right.
He stared ahead for a long moment of reflection. But maybe not.
After a moment his daughter's face appeared on the screen. "What did you want, Father?"
"Pack your bags for an offworld trip."
Hasina, used to her father's quirky orders, could only smile. "Anywhere in particular?"
"I'll have to check their schedule. There's a show I want you to see.
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