Continued from 7. Winged Escape.
The story begins with 1. The Director.
“When the time comes, do exactly as I say,” Vhen had said.
Julin’s heart pounded. He had never felt so tense as he and Vhen stepped off the lift into Altolcz’s offices high on the upper floors of the building. He’d done a lot of stupid things in his life. Walking open-eyed into an Imperial trap had to be the stupidest.
A secretary looked up from her desk, smiled at Vhen, and went back to her work. Vhen smiled back.
“We’ll take the corridor to the left, then right.” Vhen’s voice buzzed in Julin’s ear. Side by side with him, looking right at him, he couldn’t see that Vhen had spoken. An invisible web of wires at Vhen’s throat sensed muscle movements and turned subvocalization into speech transmitted to the earpiece he had given Julin.
Julin had thought about Vhen’s words on the long ride up: “he will try to betray you the first time he meets you.”
“Only the first time?” Julin had meant it as a joke.
“Right. After that, you’ll never know a more loyal benefactor. Also, Director Ais will never suspect that he’s been double-crossed.”
Vhen hadn’t been sure exactly how Altolcz’s betrayal would play out. Once it did come, how would he know exactly what Julin should do?
When the time came, Julin reserved the right to do whatever the hell he thought was best. He would lead with his intuition, just like he always did.
Julin followed Vhen through a maze of hallways and common areas. The offices they passed were subtly opulent. Everything was well-made; nothing cheap or temporary. Tasteful art hung on the walls. Intriguing sculptures graced each intersection of hallway.
Vhen’s voice buzzed again. “Straight ahead, there’s an emergency stairway that leads up to the perch. My friend will be waiting for you there. Here’s the office.”
They turned to face a set of oaken double doors. A placard next to them read “Mr. Altolcz”.
“You ready?” Vhen asked aloud.
“Close enough,” said Julin.
Vhen knocked, waited a moment, then pulled open the right-hand door and ushered Julin into a large, sparsely decorated corner office. Daylight streamed in, illuminating a small conference table directly in front of him and a wraparound desk on his right. Beyond the desk another set of closed doors led into a neighboring office, perhaps a conference room.
A thin, slight man with mouse brown hair graying at the temples, an unremarkable man but for his perfectly-tailored powder blue suit, rose from the desk to greet them with warm handshakes. “Vhen, thank you for coming! Mister Terch, it is good to meet you at last.” His grip was firm, but the man’s hands were soft as butter. His wide eyes were dark blue pools that concealed hidden depths. Hidden dangers. Julin immediately feared that intense gaze.
“Thank you for having me on such short notice,” said Julin. He smiled as best he could and gestured at Vhen. “Mister Rani has been very kind.”
“Good, good,” purred Altolcz. “Please, sit down.” He gestured to the table.
Julin sat so as to face the doors. Vhen sat facing him. Altolcz remained standing but rested his hands on the back of the empty chair.
He gazed at Julin quietly as if appraising him. Julin felt like a piece of fine art being sized up by an experienced buyer. He shifted in his seat. He still wore the wing suit harness, making it awkward to sit comfortably.
Finally, Altolcz spoke. “Rani tells me that you are the son of Grand Admiral Terch, and that you have news of the fate of the Lost Fleet.”
Julin nodded. “He speaks the truth.”
Altolcz chuckled. “Yes, he’s my truth-teller.” He looked at Julin for what felt a long time. Julin met his gaze, unflinching, though he grew more and more nervous.
Finally he spoke again. “I do not keep many truth-tellers in my employ, I fear. Do you know what business I am Peer of?”
Julin swallowed. “Yes. Entertainment. Music and stories.”
“Dreams!” said Altolcz, his gaze burning into Julin. “The gates of ivory are mine. I have the key, and they open and shut at my pleasure.”
Julin simply nodded, unsure what to say.
Altolcz smiled then, sadly, and looked at Vhen Rani beside him. “The gates of horn are mostly closed to me, but for Vani’s efforts. He is my liaison to the country of true dreams.”
Vhen smiled and nodded, but said nothing.
Then Altolcz pinned Julin to his chair with a glance. “What manner of dreams do you carry, I wonder?” he said.
Julin bore up under the baleful gaze and said nothing. What had Vhen gotten him into? This man was mad.
Altolcz smiled at last. “I like you, Mister Terch. Do you have the information with you?”
Julin simulated a return smile. “It’s in a safe place.”
His front pocket was safe, wasn’t it?
Altolcz nodded. “Good. Keep it safe. And what do you seek in exchange? Riches? Power? Better clothes, perhaps?”
“Protection, revenge, and the return of my father’s good name.”
“Oh ho! Protection! You want protection, so you come to this purveyor of pap and bad dreams?”
“You are a Peer, are you not?”
A wolfish smile passed across Altolcz’s face. “I have been accused of it. Mine is a scurrilous trade. Now then, what do I gain by helping you? Do you offer anything besides an early grave, as you gave my friend Dallebasel?”
Julin scowled. “I won’t be held responsible for that fool’s death. He sought the Imperial throne but he was too impatient. You may use the information I provide to any purpose of yours, only so long as it brings about the downfall of Director Kolteo Ais and the clearing of my father’s name.”
Altolcz straightened and began pacing back and forth.
“Of course I see ways to make use of what you offer. But there is one problem that I perceive. It is not a small one.”
“And what is that?”
“Director Kolteo Ais, whose downfall you seek, waits in the next room to arrest you.” Altolcz stopped pacing and bent to push a button on the table. “Director? Please come in.”
The doors to the next room opened, and in sauntered Kolteo Ais, grinning like a cat. Two Enforcers emerged behind him. Julin’s blood rose. His vision clouded. His pulse pounded in his ears. What was he doing here?
Vhen’s voice buzzed in his ear. “Run.”
Julin bolted for the nearer doors and slammed through them just as a burst of gunfire rang out. He heard Altolcz’s berating voice fading behind him as he sprinted down the hall. He burst into the emergency stairwell and took the stairs two at a time, emerging onto the perch. A soft drizzle was falling from the darkening sky. He heard boots on the stairs behind.
He looked around wildly. There, a familiar sky-car waited, gull-wing door open. A hand waving. He sprinted across, the sky-car already lifting up on its suspensors and beginning to turn. He dove into the car as the door began to close. Bullets smashed into glass around him. The nameless man at the controls groaned and sagged forward. The sky-car lurched, bounced off the edge of the perch, and rolled into a steep dive.
Julin leapt for the other set of controls even as he dragged the man off of his own. He pulled hard at the yoke and drew the sky-car out of the dive and back onto level flight.
Vhen’s voice buzzed in his ear. “I think you’re safe for the moment. I can’t raise Pielo, and I know you can’t transmit, so I hope you can hear me. Have Pielo take you to your sister. She’s at a party tonight.” Vhen read off the address. “Go to your sister…” Vhen’s voice went garbled, then came back clear: “She’s your best hope now. I’ll find you later… be in touch…” more noise, then the buzzing stopped. He was out of range.
Julin looked over at Pielo, slumped in his seat. Thank God Vhen had given him an address. He switched the controls to automatic and gave a different address a few blocks away from his destination.
He dragged Pielo out of his seat and stretched him out on the floor. He was breathing raggedly. His pulse was weak. Julin pulled out a dagger and started cutting the man’s clothes away. There, he’d been shot in the lower abdomen. No exit wound. That was bad. He quickly fashioned a bandage from the man’s shirt and applied a firm pressure to the entry wound.
While he waited for the bleeding to slow, he wondered how his sister fitted into all of this. He’d wanted to see her since arriving, but it had been too dangerous, and he had no way of knowing where her loyalties would fall. But now Vhen had said to seek her out, and it seemed better than any ideas he might have himself. Besides, and he grinned at the thought, Kolteo would hate it.
After a minute, he fashioned a quick binding from the rest of the shirt and tied the bandage in place with the man’s wallet on top to keep pressure on the wound. It was crude, but it would get him to a hospital. He spread the man’s cloak over him, along with a lap robe he found under the seat, then he cut a cushion free of the back seat and used it to elevate the man’s feet.
“Thanks, Pielo,” he said quietly. “For all your help today. I hope you live.” Then he stepped carefully over the inert form and took his seat in the front again. The car was nearly at its destination. He switched back to manual controls and swooped down out of traffic toward the city street below.
He opened the driver’s door, and a gale of cold wind blew in. The pavement flew by a few feet below. He glanced back at Pielo, hoped he’d be alright. He slowed the car, flipped up the molly guard, jammed down the emergency button. “Get to the nearest hospital,” he commanded and dove out of the sky car onto the rushing pavement, rolling and tumbling to stop in a heap. He lifted his head to watch the sky car ascend with flashing lights. Then he picked himself up off the ground and began limping on toward the address Vhen had given him.
Continued in: 9. The Party
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