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Authors: Aaron Allston

The League of Spies

BOOK: The League of Spies
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THE LEAGUE OF SPIES

Aaron Allston

BONADAN BOOKS

THE LEAGUE OF SPIES

by

Aaron Aalston

“I’m here to make your day a lucky one” Joram said.

The head he addressed had sharp, intelligent features surrounded by a neatly trimmed black beard and mustache. The man who owned it had the door to his quarters open only a few centimeters so Joram couldn’t seethe rest of his body.

The man said nothing. He glanced over Joram’s shoulder to the land- speeder lane beyond, a city thoroughfare that was crowded with fast-moving speeders and slower delivery flats.

Joram repeated, “I’m here to make your day...”

The door slid fully open, revealing the man to be of Joram’s above- average height. He was as broad in the shoulder as Joram but more muscular. He wore close-fitting black garments that were completely out of style on this color-mad, comfort-conscious world. He seized the collar of Joram’s tunic and yanked.

Joram couldn’t help but lean forward, but caught himself on the doorjamb with one hand. “...a lucky one,” he concluded.

“Get in here.”

“Countersign.”

“I’m your mission commander, and I say get in here instantly”

Joram grinned. “My blaster in your gut says I stay here until I hear the correct countersign.”

The man looked down. A holdout blaster, small enough to be dwarfed by Joram’s right hand, was indeed pressed into his stomach.

“I am very proficient in the combat arts and I knew that was there,” the man said. “I could have taken it from you at any time.”

“Countersign.” Joram held his smile. A red dot danced around on the chest and neck of the man he faced, but the fellow couldn’t see it. If he tried to seize the blaster, he would die.

The man sighed. “You don’t need luck when you’re as well-placed as I am”

“Correct.” Joram returned the blaster to the holster against the base of his spine.

“Now get in here.”

“And my partner?”

“Partner?”

The one in the alley across the landspeeder lane. The one with the laser rifle pointed at you; eye.”

The man glared over Joram’s shoulder. “Oh, him. I was wondering if you meant a second partner. Sure, have him over.”

Joram crooked two fingers over his shoulder and beckoned.

Moments later, Mapper dodged traffic to cross the landspeeder lane and join them. He was a well-built man with dark hair, beard, and mustache that made his features seem brooding; he wore the lightweight, flowing garments common to this world of Tarhassan and carried an elongated case with the words “Pebdy Plumbing Supplies” stenciled on the side. The owner of the dwelling turned to lead Joram and Mapper inside.

The main living chamber was decorated in an even more mismatched and garish fashion than the spaceport had been. The room’s gold-brown tikkiwood paneling clashed with the overstuffed red-and-white-striped furniture that reminded Joram. of overweight tourists at a beach resort. Two people were already there, a man and a woman arrayed upon and, in the woman’s case, almost swallowed by the billowy furniture.

“All right, we’re all here,” their host said. “Let’s get back to it. Our objective-”

“Maybe introductions first?” Joram said.

The man stood still for several moments, saying nothing, but his lips moved. It took Joram a moment to realize that he was counting to ten.

“All right, all right,” the man said. “I’m Cherek Tuhm.” He cocked his head, looking at Joram as though waiting for a response.

Joram offered his hand.

“Joram Kithe. And this is my partner, Mapper Gann.”

Mapper gave the others a curt nod; he didn’t speak. He seldom did, except to Joram. Mapper wasn’t comfortable in most social situations. Only Joram and his superiors knew that Mapper was a clone trooper, one of the thousands of warriors bred to fight the Republic’s wars. Mapper had belonged to a unit of enhanced clones, men with mote personal initiative than most of their cohorts.

Injured in the mission where he’d met Joram, he’d been unable to rejoin his unit for several weeks, so his supervisors had assigned him to Joram as bodyguard and partner-in part so that Joram could continue evaluating the virtues of clone troopers. Now operating with a new name, Mapper was unused to living outside the regimented and homogenized society of his peers. At least he did a fair job of concealing his unease.

Cherek ignored Joram’s hand. He gestured to the woman.”Timan Hanther.”

She was of less-than-average height and slender, middle-aged, with aristocratic features and intelligent hazel eyes. She wore expensive jade- green garments in the local style, plus a turban to match. She offered Joram and Mapper a brief smile and a nod.

Obviously wearying of the social niceties that were keeping him from his briefing, Cherek gestured dismissively at the last person present.

“And Livintius Sazet. Can I stop wasting time now? I’m only the mission commander.”

Livintius was humanoid but not human. Also middle-aged, the Falleen wore his graying black hair long in a ponytail. His skin had a greenish tinge to it, and his eyes, though human in configuration, had a reptilian aloofness to them. His features were broad, his forehead high. He wore local garments in blues that contrasted well with his skin tone. He gave Joram and Mapper a little smile.

“You are correct, Cherek. You are only the mission commander. Now we’ll vote to see whether or not you may proceed.”

“That’s not funny.” Cherek flopped into one of the overstuffed chairs. As he sank into it, it settled with a noise like an asthmatic bantha letting out a long breath. “You two, sit.”

Joram did. Mapper set his rifle case against a bare section of wall and stood there.

Cherek shook his head a long moment, his manner that of a parent who has finally despaired of his children ever accomplishing anything in life, then leaned forward, making his chair wheeze again.

“Here’s the situation,” he said. “As you know, this world of Tarhassan has recently declared itself for the Separatists, a surprise to the Republic.”

Joram frowned. “Why didn’t the Republic Intelligence team here warn us about their defection?” Every world within the Republic had an Intelligence team, even if that team consisted of a pair of agents who spent most of their time watching broadcast entertainments.

“Aha!” Cherek said. His expression suggested that his children might not be irredeemable after all. The Intelligence team here disappeared six days before the government announced for the Separatists. Our goal is to find him.”

“Him?” Tinian looked offended. “The entire team here was just a him?”

Cherek nodded. “His name is Edbit Teeks. His partner retired a few months ago, and, things being so settled and tame here. Intelligence didn’t get around to worrying about a replacement for several weeks. It was during those weeks that the Clone Wars began. At that point, allocation of resources became problematic.”

“So,” Joram asked, “what do we know about this Teeks’ disappearance?”

Livintius shook his head. “No, no, no. That’s not next.”

“Not next?” Joram repeated.

“On the agenda.” At Joram’s blank stare, Livintius continued, “I’ve drawn up a formal agenda for this meeting. Here.” He reached behind his seat, causing the furniture to whuff and sigh, then leaned forward to hand Joram a printout.

Joram glanced over it. It began:

Republic Intelligence Meeting

Tarhassan, Quarters of Cherek Tuhm

1. Gathering of Operatives

a. Cherek Tuhm

b. Tinian Hanther

c. Livintius Sazet

d. Joram Kithe

2. Pre briefing Synopsis

a. Where We Are

b. Why We’re Here (Mission Objectives)

3. Getting to Know You

4. Formal Briefing

a. Objective Summary

b. Resources

c. Break for Snacks (Optional)

d. Presentation of Pre-Gathered Information

Joram read on and on. The agenda, printed in small text, filled the page.

“I apologize,” Livintius said, “for not including the name of your partner on the agenda. I didn’t know he’d be coming. You can be certain that the updated version will include it.”

Joram cleared his throat. “I don’t mean to criticize...”

“Don’t feel at all bad about it, young man,” Livintius said. “I’m always striving to Improve my work. Take your best shot. The worst that can happen is that my next agenda will be even better.”

“Yes. Well, I have no objection to the agenda as such. But let’s say that you were nabbed by our counterparts in PlanSec, Tarhassan Planetary Security, shortly after you printed this. They’d know the rest of our names and where we were meeting. They’d be able to grab us up, too.”

Livintius sat back, his brow furrowed, thinking hard. “I’ll be... You’re entirely cor reel. That would have been disastrous. Let’s bring this up again when we get to ‘New Business.’”

“You’re, um, new to Intelligence, aren’t you?”

Livintius brightened. “Which brings us right into Item Three, Getting to Know You. Yes, I am.

As are we all.”

Joram looked at the others. “How’s that again?”

Tinian smiled. “Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but our Intelligence careers, and the creation of this temporary unit, are all results of your success on Pengalan. Yes, we know who you are and what you’ve done, Joram.”

What Joram had done - was accompany a military expedition to the world of Pengalan. That campaign to win the world back from the Separatists had failed, and Joram had been stranded there with a squadron of clone troopers. Joram, then an accountant from the Ministry of Finance, had worked with the troopers, and their combined skills had allowed a number of them to get off that world alive. “So, in running away successfully, I...”

“No, not that.” She shook her head, and her voice took on a condescending tone. “Your success demonstrated the degree to which an operative from Finance could contribute to Intelligence operations. Immediately after your report was evaluated, a subcommittee of the Republic Senate recommended that Intelligence begin a pilot program to evaluate the suitability of experts from other government divisions.”

Joram felt his heart sink. “So not one of you was in Intelligence prior to my mission on Pengalan.”

“That’s right,” Cherek said. “Though the intensive training we’ve received, our personal competence, and pure intellect more than makes up for any deficits of experience.”

“More than make up,” Livintius said. “Subject-verb agreement, Cherek.”

“Yes, yes.”

Joram decided that it might undermine the group’s confidence if he were to cradle his head in his hands. Sobbing would probably make the situation even worse.

“So,” he managed to choke out, “where are you all from, originally?”

“Ministry of Licenses and Permits,” Cherek said. “But I’ve been training in hand-to-hand combat all my life. I’ve been the Ministry of Licenses and Permits hand-to-hand com bat champion for eight consecutive years.”

“I’m from the Department of Health,” Tinian said, pride in her voice. “Flora. I specialize in grains.”

“I’ve held positions in both the Ministry of Public Information and the Ministry of Education,”

Livintius said. “In truth, I’ve spent my entire adult life in the hallowed halls of education, and let me tell you, transferring to Intelligence was just the opportunity I needed to couple practical experience with the cool perspective of academia.”

“Your background we know,” Tinian said. “And your partner?”

“Mapper’s an ex-trooper,” Joram said. “He’s been on the front lines,”

Cherek turned a cold look on Mapper. Joram supposed the man felt threatened by the presence of someone with actual, rather than tournament, combat experience. Mapper ignored him.

“Well,” Cherek said, “I think we’ve accomplished Getting to Know You. Next?”

Livintius beamed. “Item Four, Formal Briefing. Sub-Item A, Objective Summary.”

Cherek took over. “We know that Edbit Teeks was reported missing by his lover, Zazana Renkel, a local woman; her statement indicated that she saw him being grabbed off the lane in front of her quarters. A little research into her background reveals that she’s a member of PlanSec. And since the Book says that an Intelligence operative should not get emotionally involved with locals, we can presume that Teeks believed he was working her without her knowledge when she was, in fact, aware of his true role and working him. Obviously, she arranged for his arrest.”

Joram frowned. “If she had him grabbed, why file a report about his disappearance and leave a trail back to herself?”

“Aha!” Cherek said. “To establish her innocence in the face of further inquiry, of course. And she obviously fooled you. But not me. Now - where was I?”

“Arranged for his arrest,” Tinian said. “Do keep up, Cherek.”

“Right, right. So our task is to grab her and force her to tell us where he is. Once she’s done that, we’ll find it easier to reacquire him.”

Livintius nodded sagely. “Rescue missions are much more efficacious when one knows where the object is being held.”

Joram listened with half his attention. The other half struggled with the sense of doom that had descended on him, and with questions: Was it simple incompetence or some sort of secret effort to undermine the Republic’s Intelligence community that had led to the establishment of this team?

And what crime had he, Joram, committed to be attached to it?

“No more new business?” Cherek asked.

The others all shook their heads, even Mapper. The trooper was finally in one of the chairs. He looked as though he were contemplating the heat-entropy death of the galaxy.

Joram was numb. His butt was numb from hours of sitting. His mind was numb from hours of adherence to parliamentary procedure.

Cherek heaved a happy sigh. “Final item, then. Setting up a time and place for our next meeting.

I recommend reconvening here, immediately after we’ve grabbed Zazana Renkel.”

“When will that be?” asked Livintius.

“We can’t be sure,” Cherek said. ‘The operation to grab her is pretty simple, but there are time-related variables.”

Livintius’ mouth turned down. “These minutes, which constitute a portion of our official report, would be better if we could indicate a precise time.”

Cherek considered. “You’re right. How about midnight, local time, or immediately after we return from grabbing the Renkel woman, whichever is later?”

Livintius brightened again. “That’ll work.”

“Before we vote on that,” Tinian said, “how about we set it for after we’ve interrogated the Renkel woman? That way, we’ll have set up the inclusion of her responses into the next set of minutes.”

“Ooh,” Livintius said. “Good idea.”

“Let’s make this march,” Cherek said. “Incorporating Tinian’s revision, all in favor?”

“Wait,” Tinian said, “no one seconded.”

Livintius raised his hand. “I second.”

“All in favor?” Cherek repeated.

There were five ayes.

“Move to adjourn,” Cherek said.

“Second,” Tinian said.

“All in favor?”

There were five ayes.

“Before we go,” Cherek said, “everyone get into whatever you use for stealth-dress, hit the fresher, and visit the snack table again.” He heaved himself upright, his chair sighing in relief, and headed toward one of the other rooms in the apartment Tinian moved off toward another room, and Livintius materialized beside the snack table.

Joram looked at Mapper. “Kill me.”

“You kill me first.”

“I’m senior, and I want you to kill me.”

“Cherek’s the mission commander. Let’s both kill him.”

“I second. All in favor?”

There were two ayes.

Joram decided that Tarhassan was a pretty world by night as well as by day. As he and his team cruised the skyways of the city of Nehass, he could see a horizon-to-horizon vista of lights and buildings. The Tarhassans were obviously fond of colorful illuminations: One neighborhood would have pole- suspended streetlights in green, another in orange-yellow; the business district had many buildings that rose to altitudes of sixty or eighty stories, their curved architectural elements and beveled coiners subtly lit in blue.

In the dark, however, he couldn’t see all the civic activities he’d glimpsed on his initial trip to Cherek’s quarters-the construction of hardened gunnery bunkers, the drilling of infantry, the setup of watch-stations on tall buildings, all part of the planets preparations for war.

In fact, he could enjoy only a portion of the night view, stuck as he was in the rear seat of the closed-top airspeeder. Cherek insisted on controlling the vehicle, and Livintius had shrieked

“Gunnery seat!” as soon as they approached the vehicle. Consequently, Livintius had some sort of right to sit in the front passenger seat, so Joram and Mapper were stuck in the back with Tinian.

Crammed in the back was more like it. The airspeeder was a compact model with powerful engines, but it had a passenger compartment ideally suited for two adults in front and shopping bags in back.

Joram said, “Where does this Renkel woman go?”

“Eh?” Cherek said.

“There’s really not much room for a hostage back here. How big is the cargo compartment?”

“No cargo compartment,” Cherek said. “We rented this one for speed.”

“And style,” Livintius added. “Intelligence agents should have style.”

“Besides,” Cherek said, “she’s not a hostage. She’s a prisoner of war.”

“So where does the prisoner go?”

Cherek and Livintius looked atone another. “Across your laps?’1 Cherek said.

“I don’t think so,” Joram said.

“I’m the mission leader, and I say...”

“We’ll vote on it, as usual. But there’re three of us in the back, and we’re the ones who’ll have her across our laps, so I predict we’ll all vote against.” Joram got an immediate nod from Mapper, and, after a moment of consideration, a matching nod from Tinian. “See?”

Cherek sighed, vexed. “All right. We’ll put Tinian up here between me and Livintius. Then you can have the hostage...”

“Prisoner of war,” Livintius corrected.

“...prisoner of war between you. That way everyone’s equally uncomfortable. Ah, here we are.”

Cherek pushed the controls forward and sent the airspeeder into a power dive. Joram grabbed at the restraining straps. They held him in place but somehow let his stomach drift alarmingly within his body. The ground got bigger fast, its landspeeders starting as distant toys but growing in seconds to fast-moving traffic.

Joram looked over at Mapper; the trooper was holding on to his own straps with one hand and the seat back in front of him with the other, and Tinian was desperately holding on to him.

Then the world tilted again, and the landspeeders they were diving toward became landspeeders rushing straight at them. Joram felt the airspeeder shudder as its hull scraped the ground. They were skidding, turning the world beyond the windscreen into a whirl of lights that wobbled and shook.

Finally they were still.

“Good job,” Livintius said. “Not far from a parking slot.” The aging academic seemed calm, although his skin had become reddish. It now began to fade back to its normal hue.

They were on a landspeeder lane, parked at an incorrect angle a meter from the raised walkway on one side. On the other side was a residential building. Although a midget by Coruscant standards, it rose high enough to loom over surrounding residences, twenty stories at least, and had a marquee sign on the front that read “Liezder Towers.” A moment later the words faded and were replaced by “Coruscant Living at Tarhassan Rates.”

“I’m going to throw up,” Tinian said.

“Wait until we get back to my quarters,” Cherek suggested. “Now, we have to-what’s the sub-agenda, Livintius?”

“Item One, enter the building without being seen. Two, eliminate anyone who sees us. Does that mean we get to kill them?”

“If absolutely necessary.”

Livintius offered a sigh of satisfaction. “Three, determine which quarters belong to Zazana Renkel. Four, proceed to that set of quarters. Five, enter those quarters. Six, determine whether Renkel is there. And now we branch. If she’s there...”

“That’s enough for now,” Cherek said. “Let’s start on the operational details. Entering without being detected.”

“There she is,” said Mapper.

“We could pretend to be comlink repairers,” Tinian said. “We’ll need to acquire service uniforms. We’d enter the lobby and tell the security personnel that Renkel has reported a comlink outage.”

“So he calls heron his comlink, and she denies it,” Livintius said.

Cherek shook his head. “Back it up a step. Before that, we kill the power to the building so the comlink outage is plausible.”

Tinian considered. “Then we’d need to be power-grid repairers, wouldn’t we?”

“There she is,” Mapper said again. He was pointing through the air- speeder’s transparisteel windscreen. A woman, tall, lean, and dark-haired, dressed in a dark blue uniform with orange trim, was thirty meters from the front of the building and approaching it at a rapid walk.

“Yes, yes,” Cherek said, “Livintius, when she goes in, you can strike Item Six and the ‘she’s not home yet’ branch. Now, how do we get to the building’s power controls?”

“But we can grab her now,” Joram said.

“What, and spoil the plan?”

Joram growled to himself, a credible imitation of a holodrama rancor. “Mapper, go get her, standard talk and pop.”

“Thank you,” Mapper said. The relief in his voice suggested he’d been given a reprieve from a death sentence. He hit the button beside him, and the airspeeder door slid up and out of the way.

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