SALVAGE OF EMPIRE

12. The Diner

Continued from .
The story begins with 1. The Director.

Sari sized up the situation. The two Enforcers weren’t controlling access to the diner, just keeping watch. A couple left the diner, their talk hushed by the sight of the black armor. After a glance, the Enforcers ignored them, and the couple hurried away down the street.

Inside that door were her brother and, most likely, her husband. The unfathomable menace was almost upon her, and she would finally shine a light on it. Steeling herself, she straightened up, dropping her arms to her sides despite the cold. With all the confidence she did not feel, she strode up to the door, smiled at the enforcers, who smiled back, and went in.

The diner was blessedly warm inside, clean, and well-kept. A popular place with the lunch crowd, too. Neat booths of green vinyl lined the outer walls and an inner half-wall. Beyond the half-wall was a bar-top counter and stools. Few were empty, and the place hummed with conversation and the clacking of utensils on plastic plates. Sari finally caught sight of Julin and yes, Kolteo, sitting across from each other at a booth by the window. Neither noticed her.

She made for the kitchen and back rooms beyond the counter. She spotted an apron, and went to put it on. The name tag read, “Tinslereli.” A loose plan began to form in her mind. Just then, a waitress saw her and exclaimed in relief, “Oh good, they found someone. Listen, can you cover the front for me for five minutes?”

“Yes,” said Sari. “Can you show me where the coffee is?”

The waitress showed her, then bustled off. Sari took the pot and went back to the front. She began to fill coffees, smiling at patrons, making her way slowly toward the booth where Julin and Kolteo sat.

They were arguing quietly. She could see that Julin was putting on an air of easy calm, but he was too tense. There was fear in his eyes. Kolteo was clearly angry; she could see that vein popping on his forehead from here.

She worked her way, table by table, toward them. She noticed that Kolteo’s coat was hung on a hook at the end of the booth. Julin wore his.

Finally, Sari reached their table. “Coffee?” Secure in her disguise as she was, and each of them intent on the other as they were, they barely acknowledged her. She filled Julin’s coffee cup, then went to fill Kolteo’s. Half-way full, her arm wavered, and hot coffee spilled onto the table and into Kolteo’s lap.

“Ah, stupid!” cried her husband, trying to stand but unable because of the booth. He scrambled for napkins to stem the flood.

“How clumsy of me!” said Sari, setting the pot down. She quickly dug her free hand into Kolteo’s jacket where it hung. Sure enough, there was the stunner that he always kept in the inner pocket!

Julin stared at her incredulously. Kolteo fussed with the napkins, dabbing at his pants, until after a moment he looked up into the muzzle of his own stunner. “Who…?” he began, and then he recognized her. “Sari!” He took in her disguise and laughed despite himself. “Why are you made up like that?”

Sari held the stunner steadily, a cold rage settling upon her. “I have been spied upon, questioned, and followed, nearly since you left the apartment this morning. Last night, you called Julin the most dangerous man in the Empire. You called my brother that, Kolteo. I want an explanation, and I want it now.”

Julin sat back lazily, his lopsided grin leering with malice. “Yes, Kolteo. Do tell her.”

Kolteo’s face turned ashen as he looked up into her eyes. “I was trying to protect you, Sari. If what’s on that recorder gets out, we’ll be ruined.”

“Tell her why you’ll be ruined,” said Julin in his quietest, most dangerous voice.

“Because,” began Kolteo. Something caught in his throat. He looked away, swallowed, then looked again into her eyes. “Because I arranged for the fleet to be lost. With the Emperor, and your father. Your father suspected, I think, but if he did, he went along with it.”

“That’s not in the record, for what it’s worth,” interjected Julin, his eyes on Kolteo, intense.

Sari’s hand began to tremble, and she took a deep breath, steadying herself.

Kolteo pressed on. “You remember those days, Sari. The emperor was mad with power. We all feared for our lives, and that weapon he had built would have been the terror of the galaxy, with enough power to reduce an entire world to slag.” He looked down. “The maiden voyage, with the emperor himself aboard… it was too good an opportunity.”

“And,” said Sari, softly, “if the truth got out, you would be disgraced.”

“If they didn’t hang me for treason,” said Kolteo, still looking down. “And not just me; hundreds, maybe thousands of those now in power would be implicated.” He looked up at her. “It would mean civil war. And whether I lived or died, your name, wife or widow, would be blackened too. My own fate I can accept, but not yours!”

Julin smiled ruefully and looked at Sari. “He doesn’t understand.”

Sari nodded, her lip trembling. Now she couldn’t keep her hands from quivering. Shakily, she said, “Kolteo, my name was already blackened before you married me. My father was the incompetent admiral who lost his fleet and his emperor. People still remember that.” She swallowed. “I still remember that.”

Julin leaned forward, looking intently at Kolteo. “God help me, it’s not too late, you know. You can run. Out on the Rim, they won’t care if your name is blackened, or charred, or still on fire, so long as you can work. Give it up. Let my father’s name be cleared, and start over somewhere else.”

Kolteo chuckled halfheartedly. His eyes stared off into the distance. “You make it sound so easy.”

Julin laughed, short, sharp, tense. “Oh, no, not easy. But you could live with yourself.”

Sari sniffed, holding back tears. “And I could live with you, Kolteo.”

Kolteo looked at her. “You still want that, after all? After what I’ve done? I’ve not been a good husband, Sari.”

Sari began to lower the stunner. “Mistakes can be corrected.”

Just then, Julin sat up, looking past her with wide eyes. Kolteo’s face grew stern. A commotion behind her made her stiffen. Before she could turn to see, strong arms grabbed her from behind; a black-gauntleted hand forced her arm to point the stunner at the ceiling. Someone screamed.

Sari struggled, but could do nothing. “Kolteo!”

The arms pulled her back a step, two, while Kolteo slid out of the booth, stood and surveyed the scene, every inch the stern Director. The room had gone completely still, except for Sari’s struggles. He gently lowered her arm and loosened the stunner from her grip. “I’ll take this, my love,” he said.

She held his gaze with wide eyes. What would he do?

Kolteo surveyed the scene. He looked long at Julin. He looked long at her. He had never looked at her like that, with such cold eyes, calculating. Her heart shrank within her. She felt cold and small.

Then, calmly, he turned and fired the stunner. Julin collapsed in the booth, arms twitching. She gasped.

He looked back at her, then at the Enforcer behind her. “Let her go,” he ordered.

Strong arms released her. She stumbled forward, almost into Kolteo’s arms, but recovered and backed away from him. Revulsion rose in her at the thought of his touch.

Kolteo addressed the Enforcers. “Thank you, gentlemen. Take this man to my personal holding cell and see that he gets medical attention. I will meet you back at Central Command.” He paused, thinking, then added, “Also, please apologize to the manager for the commotion.”

The Enforcers bowed, then moved toward the booth to carry out their orders. People were sitting back down, but the buzz of conversation was quiet and muted.

Kolteo turned toward Sari. “I’ll take you home.”

She backed away slowly, legs planted wide, shaking her head. “You’ll have to arrest me with him,” she said, swallowing back tears. Her whole body felt tense. Her hands quivered and her breath shook her.

He spread his hands, placating. “Sari, let’s not make this more difficult than it already is.” He took a step toward her.

She slapped him as hard as she could. He drew back, hand to his face. His cheekbone showed a sliver of red where she had broken skin.

“Never touch me,” she said. She turned her back on him.

The diner had gone dead still. Eyes stared all around at them.

She heard Kolteo sigh behind her. Then, “Arrest her too. Keep them together. See that she gets anything she needs.”

He stepped past her and walked toward the door. She felt a heavy touch at her shoulder, saw the black gauntlet there. “Ma’m,” said the Enforcer. She shrugged the hand away. Watched Kolteo leave. She felt sick. The room was too warm. At the door, he turned and looked at her. Then walked out.

The hand was heavy on her shoulder again. Insistent. Her heart sank. “I’ll go,” she said. She turned and looked. One of the Enforcers was bent over with Julin slung across his back in a fireman’s carry. “Please be careful with him. He’s my brother.”

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