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The city of Imperialus, on the planet Corin
The city of Imperialus had been constructed within the embrace of an ancient crater, where it was at least partially protected from the winds that scoured the area each fall. But the "blow," as the locals referred to it, was still months away, and the temperature was beginning to climb as Trey Omo and his team of street toughs entered the section of the metropolis called Port City.
A thousand years earlier, back before Imperialus had become the capital of the sprawling Uman Empire, Port City had been the only settlement on Corin. And not much of one at that. But those days were gone, and the slum around the bustling spaceport was populated by people who were too poor to escape the endless noise associated with the facility. They lived in poorly maintained five-to-ten-story buildings, many of which were hundreds of years old and built on the rubble of structures that dated back to the first Imperial epoch. There had been repeated efforts to spruce the area up, but thanks to the forces of greed, corruption, and institutionalized incompetence, Port City always reverted to form within a matter of years.
That meant the citizens of District Five, as it was officially known, were tough, cynical, and eternally wary of strangers. So when Omo and his assassins entered the slum, word of their arrival spread like ripples on a pond, and it wasn't long before the local power structure went on the defensive. Criminal gangs pulled their members in off the streets, merchants doubled their security, and it was as if the entire population was holding its breath, waiting to see what would happen next.
That was fine with Omo, who didn't want to do battle with the locals but was perfectly willing to do so if that was necessary. His job was to set up an ambush, wait for Isulu Usurlus to land the following day, and kill him before the Legate and his official motorcade could clear Port City.
It was a routine operation insofar as Omo was concerned. A straightforward political assassination not unlike half a dozen others he had participated in over the years. His team consisted of thirty people, who had been divided into three ten-man squads, two of which were commanded by trusted noncoms, with the third being led by Omo himself.
The first task of the day was to finalize the way the ambush would be organized, and having scouted the area a few days earlier, Omo had a pretty good idea of where he wanted to place his men. But in order to fine-tune his plan, it was necessary to inspect each location to make sure his first impression was correct, then take control of it. That might require some muscle, however, which was why half of Omo's squad accompanied him as the beat-up delivery van arrived in front of a ratty apartment building and pulled over to the curb. "Check your weapons," Omo said gruffly. "But keep them out of sight. We don't want trouble if we can avoid it."
Once his men were ready, Omo opened the passenger-side door, got out, and led the toughs across the broken sidewalk and into what had once been known as the Grand Imperialus Hotel. However, as Omo and his team crossed the lobby, there was nothing "grand" about a space in which the poorest of the poor could rent a three-foot-by-seven-foot section of dirty floor for fifty centimes per night. A pathetic accommodation to be sure, but one that was superior to sleeping on the streets, where all manner of predators roamed the darkness.
It was never a good idea to stare, not in Port City, so the scraggly-looking specimens who were standing, sitting, or lying around the lobby were careful to look elsewhere as the toughs made their way back to a bank of elevators and took control of the only one that worked. It carried them to the second floor, where Omo led his men down a graffiti-decorated hall toward the east side of the building.
At the end of the passageway, the group was forced to turn left. The air around them was thick with the cloying odors of cooking, backed-up toilets, and the sickly sweet scent of incense. The mixture caught at the back of Omo's throat and reminded him of the public "stack" in which he'd spent his early years.
And there was no escaping the incessant babble produced by dozens of competing vid sets, a child wailing somewhere nearby, and a shouting match between a man and woman. All punctuated by the occasional bleat of a distant siren, the gentle rumble generated by a shuttle as it passed over the building, and the constant slamming of doors.
Having arrived at what he judged to be the correct spot, Omo came to a stop. Then, after gesturing for his men to take up positions to either side of a door, he rapped on the much-abused wood and waited for a response.
There was a thirty-second pause during which scuffling sounds were heardand Omo sensed that someone was peering at him via the door's peephole. The assassin smiled stiffly, held a gold Imperial up so that the person within could see it, and waited to see which emotion would win: greed or fear.
Omo wasn't surprised when a series of clicks were heard, and the door opened just far enough for a man to peek out. He had thin wispy hair, deep-set eyes, and hollow cheeks. "Yeah?" he inquired cautiously. "What do you want?"
"I want your room," Omo answered simply. "I'll give you two Imperials for it. But you have to clear out now and never come back."
Two Imperials was a lot of money in Port City, and Omo could see the eagerness in the other man's eyes. "Three Imperials," he responded cagily. "Give me three Imperials, and the room is yours. We need time to pack though."
"Okay," Omo replied reasonably. "Three Imperials it is. Plus ten minutes to pack. Then, if you aren't out of there, my men and I will throw you out."
The man was frightened but determined and ran his tongue over dry lips. "I want the money in advance."
"Here's a third of it," Omo replied as he held his hand out. "You'll get the rest in ten minutes. Start packing."
The gold piece disappeared so fast Omo could barely detect the movement of the other man's handand the door was about to close when he placed a boot in the gap. "Oh, no you don't," Omo cautioned. "Leave it open."
The man withdrew, and the door swung open, giving Omo a clear view of what had originally been a hotel room with attached bath. Now it was home to a family of five, including the man, a rail-thin woman, who was feverishly stuffing belongings into pieces of mismatched luggage, and three children, who were busy getting in the way.
Makeshift bunk beds took up one wall, a mattress occupied part of the floor, and a vid set was perched on top of a cage containing three chickens. But beyond the squalor, three vertical windows could be seeneach of which was worth at least one Imperial to Omo.
A full fifteen minutes passed before the man, his emaciated wife, and their brood of grubby children collected the rest of their money and left the room, each carrying as much as he or she could. Once the family was gone, Omo went over to the filthy windows and looked out through the one that was open. It offered an unobstructed view of the narrow street that the Legate's motorcade would be forced to negotiate on the way to the Government Zone. "It's perfect," Omo said, without turning his head. "Honis and Dybel will stay here to guard the room. I'll send a rocket launcher and two men over within the hour. Are there any questions?"
"Yes," one of the men said. "Can you send some beer, too?"
That got some chuckles from the others and a grin from Omo as he turned to face them. "No," he said firmly. "But if the mission is a success, I will buy the beer tomorrow night. And there will be women, too…; But you must remain sober until then. Understood?"
Omo wore his hair military short, had a face that looked as if it had been carved from weathered stone, and a slash for a mouth. There were men strong enough to oppose himbut none was present in the room. The mercenaries nodded soberly. They liked Omo and respected him.
Then, as if in response to an earthquake, the entire building shook, and a near-deafening roar was heard as a spaceship took off less than a mile away and began to claw its way up through Corin's gravity well. Those who lived in Port City barely noticed.
Aboard the passenger ship Far Star
The Far Star was half a mile long and could carry five hundred thousand tons of cargo plus two thousand passengers and crew, along with everything required to keep them happy during long, boring weeks spent in hyperspace. Time during which they were free to enjoy the amenities available in their beautifully appointed cabins, participate in activities organized by the vessel's cruise director, or shop in the onboard arcade.
All of that was more than adequate for most people, the single exception being Xeno Corps Officer Jak Cato, who was playing cards in the locker room located adjacent to the engineering spaces on Deck 4. He hated the social posturing, petty backstabbing, and boring conversations that passed for fun on the upper decks and preferred to spend his time below.
Of course there was another reason to venture down into the bowels of the Far Star as well, and that was the opportunity to play cards with the vessel's crew, all of whom had proven themselves to be delightfully ignorant regarding the police officer's special talent. That wasn't too surprising given Cato's failure to mention that he was a member of the Xeno Corps, or "the freak show," as its detractors referred to the organization.
Because had the other three people seated at the table known that Cato could effectively "read" their emotions, they would have not only been outraged, but demanded that he return the 546 Imperials he had won from them and their shipmates during the last four days. It was money Cato was going to need once the Far Star put down on Corin.
The game they were playing was called Roller, which involved rolling dice to determine how many cards were dealt from a deck of sixty-three, then using them to assemble a winning hand. It was a complicated process that demanded a good memory, keen judgment, and a certain amount of luck.
However, thanks to Cato's ability to "sense" excitement, fear, anger, and a host of other emotions, he had been able to take more rounds than he lost while being careful to let the others win enough games to keep them coming back. Now, as the middle-aged engineering officer seated across from him assembled a new hand, he could "feel" her sense of jubilation. Should he fold? And avoid a loss? Or let her win?
Such were Cato's thoughts when a hand came to rest on his shoulder. The voice was female and very familiar. "It's five o'clock, Masterand time to get ready."
Cato frowned. "Okay," he said irritably. "Wait outside…; I'll be there in a moment."
CeCe Alamy colored slightly, took a full step back, and quickly withdrew.
Meanwhile, the engineer projected a sense of concern but was careful to keep her face blank. Cato knew she was afraid he would leave before the next round of betting began, and the pot grew substantially larger. And he might have let her have the win had the voyage been one or two days longer. But, since the Far Star was going to put down the next day, there was no reason to suffer the loss.
Cato produced a smile, put his cards facedown on the table, and scraped a double handful of coins off the table. "Sorry about thatbut duty calls. My boss is hosting a fancy dinner tonight and expects me to be there. Thank you for your hospitality and keeping this rust bucket running. I think I speak for all of the passengers when I say well done!"
That produced a round of chuckles as Cato took his winnings and withdrew. Alamy was waiting in the corridor beyond. Her hair was piled up on the back of her head the way the wealthy girls on the upper decks wore theirs and held in place by the silver pin Cato had given her back on Dantha. She had large luminous eyes, a straight nose, and full lips. The dress she wore was simple but elegant, having been sewn by Alamy herself. Cato was not only annoyed by the interruption but dreading the evening ahead as he paused to tuck his winnings away. "Who are you anyway?" he demanded irritably. "My mother? Or my slave?"
The words were intended as a joke, but as blood rushed to Alamy's face, Cato regretted them and rushed to make amends. "I'm sorry, CeCethat was a stupid thing to say."
But it was too late as Cato "felt" the full extent of Alamy's shame as she looked down at her feet. "I'm your slave, Masterand I apologize for giving offense."
"No," Cato replied emphatically, "you aren't my slave, not really. We'll get that straightened out later on. And stop calling me ‘Master.'"
Except that Alamy was supposed to call him "Master," having been purchased for twelve hundred Imperials on Dantha, in the wake of Governor Nalomy's death. It was his intention to free her, however, just as soon as they found a place to live on Corin and he found time to deal with all of the paperwork. "I'm a total and unforgivable jerk," Cato said sincerely as he reached out to take her hand. "Come on…; Let's go up to our cabin, where I promise to dress up like a Hiberian Zerk monkey so Legate Usurlus can show me off."
Though not enough to neutralize the way she felt, the mental image was enough to make Alamy smile, and Cato was quick to take advantage of the opening by walking side by side with her as if she were free, and insisting that she pass through doors first. The result was that by the time they entered the Class III cabin the government was paying for, they were on speaking terms again.
True to her very efficient ways, Alamy had already assembled the basic elements of Cato's dress uniform and laid them out on the bed they shared. The arrangement wasn't a necessary aspect of the master-slave relationship but wasn't all that unusual either, especially where wealthy individuals were concerned.
The next forty-five minutes were spent showering, shaving, and dressing. Cato's uniform consisted of a helmet, which he would be forced to hold in the crook of his left arm while standing, sculpted body armor, and a knee-length kilt. The subtle plaid was supposed to remind observers that the Xeno Corps was technically part of the 3rd Legion although that organization wasn't all that proud of the group and would have been happy to hand if off to some other outfit had there been any takers. A pair of high-gloss combat boots completed the outfit.
That was the basic kit. But Alamy, who had been born free but raised in a slum, was stickler for all of the little things that had to do with rank and status. So she made sure that the flashes that denoted Cato's rank as a Centurion were equally spaced on his shoulders, the brightly polished medals that had previously been stored at the very bottom of his footlocker were perfectly aligned on his chest, and the length of gold braid that looped under his left arm was properly secured.
The braid marked Cato's status as an aide to a senior officer, in this case Legate Usurlus, who, though of sufficient rank to command a Legion, hadn't done so for many years. As Usurlus liked to put it, "I fight battles in the Senate and its surrounds, which though quieter are just as dangerous."
The comment referred to the fact that Usurlus was related to Emperor Emor and had long been one of his troubleshooters. The latest assignment had been on the planet Dantha, where it had been necessary to remove a corrupt Procurator from office and reestablish the rule of law. A task that brought the patrician and the policeman together and had everything to do with Cato's presence on the ship.
"There," Alamy said, as she took two steps back. "You look very handsome." And it was true, in her opinion at least, because Cato had a nice, if somewhat battered, face. Plus, his body, with which she was intimately familiar, was tall and strong. So much so that he frequently drew admiring glances from other women, many of whom were free and therefore more eligible than she was. Still, Cato had been true to her so far as Alamy knew, and that would have to do.
"I wish you could come," Cato said, as his eyes met hers. "Then you'd know how painful these dinners are."
"I do know," Alamy responded tartly. "I was one of Governor Nalomy's servants, remember? Now mind your manners. No swearing, no belching, and don't stab things with your knife. It isn't polite."
"Okay," Cato agreed good-naturedly. "But only if you kiss me."
Alamy raised a quizzical eyebrow. "You could order me to kiss you."
"True," Cato allowed, "but there would be a price to pay."
"There certainly would be," Alamy agreed as she stepped into the circle of his arms.
Cato "felt" the strength of her affection for him as her lips gave under his, knew he should free her, and wondered why he hadn't. Corin, he thought to himself, I'll do it on Corin. Then, helmet in the crook of his arm, it was time to leave.
The two-bedroom suite was the finest accommodation the Far Star had to offer. The servants had withdrawn by that time, leaving their master to inspect himself in the large bathroom mirror. Legate Isulu Usurlus was vain, he knew that, and felt no guilt regarding the matter. The man who looked back at him had carefully tousled blond hair, gray eyes, and an aquiline nose. Tiny lines had begun to marshal their forces around the corners of his eyes, however, and stood ready to bracket his mouth. He saw them as enemies that, having been allowed to establish a beachhead while he was on Dantha, would have to be defeated on Corin. A process he looked forward to after months of privation on a backwater planet.
Usurlus was dressed in a white toga, a pleated kilt, and a pair of gold-colored sandals. The only sign of his rank were the silver and gold bracelets on his left wrist, the family crest on the pin that held the toga in place, and the way he carried himself. Which was to say with the confidence of a man who was completely sure of his place in Imperial society.
Having satisfied himself that he was presentable, Usurlus left the suite and stepped out into the corridor, where his chief bodyguard was waiting for him. Dom Livius was a big man with a prominent brow, a fist-flattened nose, and a pugnacious jaw. Like his predecessor, who had been murdered on Dantha, he was an ex-legionnaire and a dangerous man. Usurlus smiled at him. "Livius! What are you doing here? We're on a spaceship. Take the evening off."
"Thank you, sire," Livius responded doggedly, "but if it's all the same to you, I'll come along. It's true that we're on a ship, but so are two thousand other people, and I have no reason to trust them."
"All right," Usurlus conceded, as the two men made their way down the corridor. "Suit yourself…; But the main danger will come from Rufus Glabas, who claims to support Emperor Emor while secretly consorting with the Hacia combine. Then there's Porica Lakaris, who hopes I will marry her brainless daughter, and Catullus Skallos. A man who, if my information is correct, has feelers out to the Vords in case the despicable creatures conqueror the Empire. Fortunately, none of them are likely to attack me with anything more pointed than words."
"If you say so, sire," Livius responded cynically. "But I'll be there just in case."
"As will Centurion Cato," Usurlus observed. "Assuming Alamy has been able to round the rascal up and make him presentable. Between the two of you, I will feel quite safe."