A Call To Arms – Snippet 03

“A ship,” Llyn repeated. He was pretty sure the answer was yes, given the Supreme Chosen One’s hasty departure from Canaan four years ago. But he needed to be absolutely sure. “One that’s sufficiently fueled and stocked to travel to Telmach.”

“Of course we have a ship,” Ulobo said uncertainly, sending a frown toward his boss. “You’re not suggesting we leave now, are you?”

“Not at all,” Llyn said. “At least, not the we part.”

And as Ulobo’s frown deepened, Llyn reached up to his left, brushed aside the flap of his guard’s jacket, and yanked the Paxlane 405 from its holster.

The guard tried to stop him. He really did. He tried to step out of Llyn’s reach, tried to swing his hand down to grab Llyn’s wrist.

But he had no chance. The soporific that Llyn had released into the air through his steaming mug of tea had turned the man’s muscles into mush, his judgment and self-awareness into colorless fog, and his reflexes and entire nervous system into slow-flowing mud. Llyn evaded his fumbling hand with ease before firing off a point-blank shot into the man’s chest that ended any hope of resistance. With the report from the shot still echoing across the room, Llyn tracked the gun in a one-eighty-degree arc, taking out the guard to Khetha’s right, then the guard to his left, and finally the guard to Llyn’s right. All three men collapsed to the floor still fumbling uselessly at their holstered weapons.

Khetha was clawing his own tunic open, his expression that of an angry and desperate thundercloud, and Ulobo was cringing in helpless horror, when Llyn’s final two shots sent them to join their bodyguards in hell.

An instant later Llyn was out of his chair, leveling his gun at the door behind him. If the room wasn’t as soundproof as he’d assumed, Pinstripe and Blue Shirt could be charging in at any second to find out what all the shooting was about.

But the door remained closed. Either the room was soundproof, or else it wasn’t abnormal to hear the sounds of violence coming from inside. Keeping his eyes and gun on the door, Llyn backed around the table to Ulobo’s glassy-eyed corpse. He picked up the tablet, wiped the few stray drops of blood off onto the back of Ulobo’s jacket, and took a close look.

The ever-present danger with this kind of operation was that the soporific’s timetable might have made him jump the gun, that Ulobo might have been rattling off the warship stats from memory. But no. The Volsung Mercenaries file was still sitting there, wide open to the universe, with all the necessary contact names, uni-link numbers, addresses, passcodes, and even copies of the correspondence Khetha and Admiral Gensonne had exchanged across the void over the past couple of years.

And with that, Llyn had everything he needed to open his own negotiations with the Volsungs for Axelrod’s covert operation against Manticore. Best of all, by using Khetha’s contact information, any backtrack anyone might attempt in the future would dead-end here in this room on Casca. There would be no data track that could ever point to Axelrod.

Not that there was likely to ever be such an investigation. The winners wrote the history, after all, and Axelrod had made it a point to always be among the winners. In fact, Llyn had explicitly been informed by his controller that if he had to leave Khetha and his group alive, that would be acceptable. But Llyn’s policy was to always, always cover his tracks.

Speaking of which…

Crossing back to the bodies on his side of the table, he retrieved his uni-link. He’d set up the message template inside the Soleil Azur’s mail packet during the long voyage from Haven, tucked away in the will-call folder. But the final details couldn’t be entered until he knew where Khetha would set up their meeting. He checked his uni-link’s GPS reading — as he’d predicted, they were right in the center of Quechua City — then added the location to his message. After that, it was simply a matter of sending a quick and innocuous code word to the criminal gang he’d hired, which would send them to the message drop and set their part of the job in motion.

And even if they screwed up, it wouldn’t matter. None of them knew Llyn’s name or employer, or who it was they were going to be disposing of. They’d certainly never seen his real face. A few more hours, and there would be literally nothing that could ever be backtracked to Llyn, the Volsung Mercenaries, or Axelrod.

Making a copy of the Volsung file was the work of a minute. Finding the data on Khetha’s private ship, including its parking orbit, access codes, and start-up procedures, took another five. Next on the list was locating Khetha’s private shuttle, which turned out to be stashed away in a private hangar at the Quechua City spaceport on the southwest side of the city.

A shuttle that size typically required a minimum of two people at the controls. A spacecraft was more complex, with anywhere from a ten- to twenty-man crew necessary for safe operation. Llyn had only himself.

But he was confident he’d be able to handle both vessels without serious difficulty. A man like the Supreme Chosen One wouldn’t assume that a crew would be ready when he needed to make a quick exit. For that matter, he probably wouldn’t assume that even his closest advisors and guards would be ready.

And a man living on the edge — a man, more importantly, who would never allow his own skin to be dependent on anyone else — would make damn sure his escape vessels were sufficiently automated and pre-programmed that he could get out completely on his own.

Which led directly to the third tick on Llyn’s checklist: both the shuttle and courier ship were heavily automated, with both the engine and impeller systems as foolproof and failproof as it was possible to build them. In addition, the ship’s helm systems included a menu of pre-plotted courses to a dozen different systems.

Llyn had a fair amount of training in ship operations, including piloting, astrogation, and engineering. He had no doubt that he could handle this one.

And if he reached the courier and found it not quite as much of a one-man operation as he was expecting, that would be all right, too. Over the past week he’d also spend a few hours laying the groundwork for hiring a small crew who could get him to a system where he could touch base with another Axelrod operative and obtain alternative transport.

He spent another two minutes sifting through Ulobo’s tablet at random, letting luck and serendipity guide his search. Khetha had someone keeping tabs on events back on Canaan, he noted with interest, no doubt making a mental list of who he would execute first when the Volsungs returned him to power. An expensive hobby, given the cost of data transference across interstellar distance, but one he wasn’t at all surprised that the Supreme Chosen One had taken up.

Those men and women would be able to sleep better from now on. Not that they would ever know it.

And with that, his mental count-down reached zero. He probably had another ten or fifteen minutes before the criminals he’d summoned showed up, but he had no intention of cutting things that close. Especially not when the instructions were to deal with and eliminate all evidence at this location. The clean-up crew probably wouldn’t include any of the higher-ups he’d dealt with, and he would hate to try to convince a simple grunt squad that he was their employer.

At best, it would cost valuable time. At worst, it would mean more bodies for the survivors to dispose of. Turning off the tablet, he set it back on the table in front of its former owner. Then, crossing the room, he pushed open the door, shot Pinstripe and Blue Shirt before either could begin to register that they were being attacked, dropped his gun beside the bodies, and headed back up the tunnel.

It was still reasonably early, but Quechua City was finally starting to come alive. Llyn took a moment to orient himself — the customs complex over there, the downtown market over there, the Hamilton Hotel over there — and headed off down the street. He could grab a cab later, but it was always best to leave the scene of a crime on foot. Eyewitnesses were unreliable; cab records weren’t.

Besides, he had a little time still to kill. Most of the city’s air traffic hadn’t yet started, and there were few things more obvious and notable than a single vehicle flying through an otherwise empty sky. Another hour, and he could make his way to the airport and fire up Khetha’s shuttle.

Meanwhile, his early-morning activities had caused him to miss breakfast. Smiling to himself, he turned in the direction of Fourteenth and Castillon and headed off at a brisk walk. The pre-opening aromas from the coffee shop on that corner had been most promising.