Authors: Colin Alexander
Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Adventure, #Space Opera
“Unidentified ship, this is Calldlamm space defense. You will register your IFF at our signal.” In other words, who the hell are you? They were transmitting video and audio. The screen windowed to show a young Srihani wearing Fleet gray and the Carrillacki shoulder patch. I had last seen that insignia at Thjonarodni. It made me uneasy.
A bar below the screen began to flash green as we picked up their signal. I had Andrave transmit the recognition code that Dremmon had supplied. The defense officer clearly expected that signal. He told us to maintain our course and await further communication. Then his image winked out. Seconds later, the image of another officer appeared.
“Freebooter Francis Drake,” he said, “this is Calldlamm Command. I have instruction from Planetary Governor Aalaza for you to enter a parking orbit around Calldlamm. Vectors will follow. Once in orbit, you will permit contact between space defense computers and your fire control station.”
That meant any move we made with our weapons would be instantaneously transmitted to their space defense control. A reasonable precaution from their perspective, perhaps, but not from mine.
“Refuse him, Andrave,” I ordered.
“Calldlamm Command, this is Francis Drake. We acknowledge your instructions and will not comply.”
The Srihani’s visage darkened. “Freebooter, I am Calldlamm Force Command. If you do not comply, I will have to assume you are hostile.”
“Comm to my station,” I told Andrave. “Calldlamm Command, this is Captain Danny a Troy. We came to deal, as your boss knows. I suggest you ask him about it. We will not comply, but there also won’t be any shooting.”
“I know why you are here,” he growled back. “Do you think I hail all ships? How do I know there will be no shooting on your part?”
“You have my word.”
“Aargh!” He spat. “Very well, I have the authority to permit you to assume that orbit without other conditions. Be advised though, we will open fire on suspicion unless computer communication is established.”
“Acknowledged.” Once the comm was off, I wondered aloud that he was awfully nervous considering we would be under his guns. “Makes you wonder if he thinks the force he has might have trouble with us.”
“It makes me think,” Ruoni said, “that he is accustomed to having a little more support. Which makes me wonder where it went.”
“All excellent questions, for which we have no answers. I hope we don’t need them. Farad, bring us into the orbit they give us.”
Once we made orbit we were contacted again. This time it was Mister Big, Aalaza himself. He had a thin, pinched face and flat, black eyes. His shoulder-length hair was red, with green highlights. Aalaza wasn’t interested in small talk. He wanted to settle on a price, right then. Aalaza was also not accustomed to haggling over booty, but this wasn’t a deal he would trust to anyone else. From the commission Dremmon wanted, I had a fair idea of the cynta’s value. From the figure Aalaza quoted me, I assumed that Dremmon had given him an approximate price, because it was awfully close to my estimate. Once he gave that figure, he showed no inclination to move from it. Since there wasn’t a great difference in our prices, I agreed to accept his. It was much easier than going back and forcing Dremmon to disgorge his commission. Then came the hard part, figuring out how to make the exchange.
I wanted hard currency that could be authenticated by our computers. I expected Aalaza to hold out for a computer transfer, but he didn’t. That was interesting in itself. If Aalaza was used to hard currency deals, Calldlamm must have dealt with the Outer Empire before. Aalaza, naturally, wasn’t interested in giving us control of anything until he had physical possession of the cynta.
Finally, we agreed to orbit the cynta in one of Franny’s small lifeboats. Aalaza would launch a similar boat with the currency. The authenticity of the contents would be verified on both boats by computer, and control of the boats would be swapped simultaneously. Only with the transfer completely under computer control could both sides be satisfied. For the purposes of the transfer, I permitted their ground control to interface with our computer, but blocked out the engineering and fire control sections.
Then we popped the lifeboat free and waited. It sat in space under our guns while we watched a boat boost from Calldlamm’s main spaceport. When it made orbit, it launched an identical lifeboat. There was a brief pause, followed by a chime.
“Authentication complete,” Cardoni said. “They’ve sent what we want.”
Before he had finished speaking, Farad announced that he had control of the Calldlamm boat. The transfer of control accomplished, our boat began to accelerate away, under the control of one of the subdestroyers. The transaction was complete without either of the principals coming within twenty thousand miles of the other. Then Aalaza was back on the comm.
“Captain Danny, our scan of your lifeboat shows the cynta in the amount agreed upon. I trust our cash payment was equally satisfactory.” I agreed that it was. Aalaza was looking more relaxed than he had on the previous transmission. “That is good,” he went on, “you demonstrate a great deal of competence in these operations. There are many opportunities with Carrillacki for ships and crews of your proven abilities.”
“Is there something you’re offering?” I asked in return.
“Yes!” he said, and I could see the eagerness on his face. “I am offering you a contract with Carrillacki. Surely you know that Carrillacki power is rising in the empire now. We need tested ships as we expand our areas of control. In return, you will gain booty and the favor of the winning faction. Will you discuss it?”
“We can discuss it, but I’m not promising anything.”
“No promise is asked. Be my guests for two days at the capitol and let me try to convince you. Yourself and a bodyguard of your choosing.”
Go down to the planet? I distrusted Carrillacki, which made me look for a trap, but I didn’t see one. No matter what might happen to me on the surface, Aalaza would be unable to take back his payment. He had to know freebooters well enough to realize that they wouldn’t ransom a captain with such a prize, so he had no incentive for kidnapping. The sort of association he was offering had ample historical precedent going back to the days when the kvenningari fought primarily by proxy. It could be lucrative. A brief discussion on the bridge turned up no dissent, so I agreed.
We decided on a force of twenty-five to go down to the surface. Of those, twenty would guard the landing boat and five would accompany me. More troopers wouldn’t improve my safety and might give the impression that we were looking for a fight. Ruoni had wanted to head the bodyguard, but Jaenna vetoed the idea.
“Those are my troops,” she said. “I am going to lead them. Besides, Ruoni, you can command this ship if there is trouble; I cannot. You have to stay.”
Personally, I would have preferred that Jaenna stay on the ship. However, I could neither argue with her logic nor humiliate her by overruling her. It would be Jaenna, myself, Angel and four others from her force who would visit Aalaza, the Imperial governor of Calldlamm.
We rode down comfortably in one of the landing boats. All of us were wearing handblasters, but I think it was more from habit than from any sense that they might be useful. Jaenna, I noticed, was wearing the wrist rocket she had shown me. It was inconspicuous when worn with her cloak, but I couldn’t imagine what she intended to do with it.
The principal spaceport for Calldlamm was located on a plain adjacent to the capital city. Unlike the spaceports I had seen in the Outer Empire, this one was heavily used. I counted four other boats on the field as we came down, either taking on or unloading cargo. Since there were no other starships in the system at the time, I assumed they were involved with factories and mines located elsewhere in Calldlamm system. A larger ship, possibly a scout with interstellar capability, lay partially disassembled in a launch cradle. The area of the spaceport was encircled by a massive wall made of a smooth, black material. Undoubtedly, it served to screen the hustle and bustle of the field from the city, but it also looked as if it had been built with a siege in mind.
We were met by a Srihani driving a ground-effect vehicle. We zipped along, about a foot off the ground, toward the wall. That towering wall made me think of another wall, the one I had approached a long time ago with Angel in South Dakota. This time, however, it was no VR projection hiding a tunnel. The driver stopped by the wall and pressed his palm against a plate. A section of the wall, a good twenty feet long and ten high, sank into the ground. We drove through. That wall was a four feet thick, enough to make me think that Aalaza was not cherished by the inhabitants of Calldlamm.
But my first view of the city temporarily banished those thoughts from my mind. Kordon, the capital city of Calldlamm, was dryly listed in the database as a seat of government with a population of ten million. The reality was something else. Kordon was what I thought a city of the Galactic Empire ought to be. The plain on which the spaceport sat ended at a row of foothills that rose about half a mile from the gate. The buildings near the port were low, allowing a view of the city beyond. The city had spread over five hills and flowed onto the plain around the spaceport. From these roots grew buildings of glass and a smooth white material that shimmered iridescent when the sun struck it. The buildings were low around the bases of the hills, rising in height as they went up the hillsides, and culminated in soaring towers along the hilltops. Behind the towers stood the snowcapped peaks of Calldlamm’s Jitorna range, pure white against the navy of Calldlamm’s evening sky. Kordon was beautiful.
“Impressive, isn’t it?” It was a moment before I realized that the driver had spoken. I nodded.
He laughed. “That’s the usual reaction. Kordon is one of the empire’s most beautiful cities and this view of it is famous.”
We stared a few minutes longer, then he drove us off toward the government compound. The streets of Kordon were almost empty, as befitted the hour. They were clean, far cleaner than cities on Earth, and the well-kept appearance seemed to extend down the side streets. We drove through a valley between two of the city’s hills, the buildings along the heights forming even higher canyon walls of light and shifting colors. Then we began to climb. Once past the first row of hills, I could see that Kordon spread in that direction as well, with low buildings set among sculptured gardens. The government center sat on a high terrace amid the suburbs overlooking the city. It was a large complex of buildings, partly visible past a low black wall like the one at the spaceport. The upper stories of the compound had been permitted to rise above the wall so as not to shut its occupants entirely away from the view. The hillside up which the road snaked tumbled away sharply from the terrace. Kordon spread out below, jewels glowing against the night sky and the darkened plain.
A guard of three was waiting for us inside the gate. They wore the Fleet gray with the Carrillacki insignia. Most of their uniforms were concealed, however, by their half armor. The armor and the blasters they wore were a jarring note against the serenity of the city behind us.
“Captain Danny a Troy?” asked the lead guard. When I stepped forward, he continued, “The governor is expecting you at the Main House. If you follow this walk, you will find it at the center of the compound. You will have to check your weapons at the guardpost there.”
One of the guards joined us for the walk to a large cubical building surrounded by shrubs and trees. We saw only a ground-level entrance and there were no windows below the third floor. The guard waited until we had all entered.
Inside was a brightly lit vestibule. At the far end was the checkpoint, manned by two guards behind a barrier that blocked the hall save for a narrow doorway. The interior walls and the ceiling of the hall flowed seamlessly into each other and the floor, but there was clear evidence of a fitting at the edges of the barrier, as though it had been added later. The guards there were outfitted the same as their compatriots outside. We surrendered our weapons, seven blasters and Jaenna’s wrist rocket. The weapons went into a locker in exchange for a magnetic key card. Another Srihani greeted us on the other side of the barrier.
“Good evening, Captain. I am Syranna a Tylor and I have the honor to be an aide to Governor Aalaza. I’ll show you to your quarters, then take you to the governor. He is holding the evening meal for your arrival.”
“Lead on then,” I said. “Hungry governors make poor company.” Syranna did not laugh.
Syranna was a civilian, through and through. His tunic was cinched at the waist with a wide sash of red metallic fabric. Skintight gold lame pants and black slippers completed his attire. He was slight and probably no older than Jaenna, with a complexion to match his snow-white hair. There was no need to make conversation; Syranna talked nonstop. He told us of the grandeur of the city, wanted to know what we thought of it and then didn’t give us a chance to say a word before embarking on his own life story. He was the eldest son of one of Calldlamm’s old patrician families, whose importance on the planet antedated Carrillacki control. As in other places, the identity of the supreme power on the planet made little difference to the local leaders, who served one or another with equal ease. By becoming an aide to a high official even before the end of his schooling, Syranna was following the traditional path to a respectable government position. It was his great good fortune to have secured an appointment to Aalaza himself, thus guaranteeing him an edge in the future climb through the bureaucracy.
For Aalaza he had only effusive praise. To hear Syranna tell it, Aalaza was a great ruler, hard perhaps, but only in keeping with the times. Syranna referred several times to the honor of the government and the governor. Two generations of his family had emphasized honor as being of paramount importance in commanding the loyalty of those who served them. It was all fairly typical hero worship. What surprised me was that he had heard of Franny’s exploits and fairly gushed about being in our company. I kept expecting him to ask for an autograph.