Continued from 20. Shelter.
The story begins with 1. The Director.
“I’m really beginning to hate these tunnels.” Julin ducked another pipe. The section they were walking was older and had a lower ceiling, just high enough for Kolteo or Romik to walk comfortably without stooping, but Julin had to bend a bit just to fit. All three had to duck the bundles of pipes that came every ten yards or so.
Their clothes were still damp as well, for Dorgio had had little that fit any of them. Romik had borrowed a too-small old shirt to wear over his military tunic. There was nothing to be done about the black tights he’d worn under his armor. Kolteo had borrowed an oversized winter coat to replace his uniform jacket. Dorgio’s sleeves were too short for both of them, so they rolled them up. Julin still wore his original civilian garb. All in all, they looked like a trio of dirty vagrants.
They were hungry too. Dorgio had no food on hand, as he did little cooking of his own.
Kolteo sighed. They all had plenty to complain about, but Julin’s grumbling had become a steady drip. He’d take Romik’s quiet companionship any day. The armsman simply plodded along, saying nothing.
Though, to be honest with himself, Kolteo was growing tired of tunnels as well. In his original plan, they would have been in his personal yacht by now, cruising through the stars in complete freedom, away from Siben.
In his original plan, they weren’t acting out his old childhood nightmares. He’d been eight. The memories threatened to overwhelm him: his own brush with death in his parents’ sky-car, their lifeless bloodied faces, and his subsequent, bewildered escape, staggering through the streets of Siben until he was picked up by a pair of Enforcers.
He shook his head, pushed away the memories, and sighed again. He checked the numbers at the next intersection. “Another mile and I think we can catch that slideway Dorgio told us about,” he said.
Julin, walking just ahead, ducked another pipe. “You think this will work?”
They were headed off at nearly a right angle from their original course. The slideway would take them back within a mile or two of the crash site and then far past it to the location of the bank Kolteo planned to visit and a nearby shopping district where they would pick up new clothes for everybody.
Crucially, the location would not give a helpful vector pointing anywhere near their true hiding place.
“Yes,” said Kolteo. “I think it’ll work.”
It had better work.
Immediately, Sari needed medicine. They all needed clothing that would blend in. They needed to pay Dorgio for his trouble (and his silence).
Looking further down range, they needed to book passage off of Siben. From someone who wouldn’t ask questions. Kolteo’s original plan had been to take his own pleasure yacht, then trade it for something more anonymous. So much for those plans. He doubted if they could get into orbit with that ship now, if they could even get off the ground.
To enable everything else though, they needed money.
Like most of the upper caste of the Empire, Kolteo operated a network of shell companies and foundations to manage his wealth and escape the punitive Imperial taxes on the rich. Much of his efforts yesterday had been focused on surreptitiously redirecting his significant assets into personal accounts under false identities that he had long maintained.
The question remained: had he been surreptitious enough? He was no financial wizard himself: he relied on the knowledge of several competing financial advisors that he kept on retainer, as well as a small army of accountants and lawyers.
In military matters, Director Kolteo Ais had been sovereign commander-in-chief over all the Empire, faithful steward until the triumphant return of the Emperor, of course, but effectively sovereign over his functional slice of the Empire.
In economic matters, however, Imperial Citizen Kolteo Ais was simply a very rich subject to the economic sovereign, Director Amady Iani.
Kolteo had never paid much attention to the Empiriit or the teachings of Holy Fundament, but he knew that an economy did not work like a military. He did not understand the nature of Iani’s Directorship, what the man did or how he did it. Iani might have been a raging fool in many ways, but Kolteo had a narrow respect for him in that the economy seemed to work, and the Empire continued to have the means to maintain its dominance and pay its bills, even if they were required to suffer troublemakers like Pracclen.
So, solely in the matter of money, he feared Iani’s power and influence, and he had long been very careful in who he hired to manage his affairs and how he moved his assets around. Until today.
Today, he’d done something he rarely did: he’d panicked.
Taking Sari and Julin into custody had shaken him. He’d known without a doubt that he’d crossed a line. Defeated himself. No matter what he did after that, he knew that somehow it would end with his downfall.
Purposing to leave that very day, he had taken direct control of his accounts and moved assets around, thinking to add extra cushion to his fall. Looking back on it now, he feared that he’d fouled up years of careful planning. If Iani could connect those accounts to him somehow, he would seize Kolteo’s assets as quick as blinking.
His only hope was that Iani wouldn’t think to investigate yet. But what if he had? Were they walking into a trap?
They were getting close to the slideway now. He still had an inside man: Marrem. He couldn’t make too much use of him going forward—he didn’t want to endanger his old friend. But he could make a quick voice call on a public terminal. That’s what he would do.
As they trudged down the tunnel, ducking bundles of pipe, Kolteo began to notice a steady, rumbling vibration that grew stronger the further on they went.
“We’re looking for an access door,” said Julin, raising his voice above the hum.
A bit further on, the sound and vibration became deafening. “Sounds like it’s right above us,” shouted Kolteo.
Julin pointed at a blue door tucked into an alcove. “It is!”
The door was locked, one of the few locked doors down here. Kolteo pulled a keyring out of his pocket, a set of standard-issue Enforcer keys. He pressed the ring up to the metal panel above the door handle. The lock clicked. He turned the handle and the door swung out.
Through the door, it was even louder.
Stairs led up to another blue door which opened onto a hallway. They passed between monstrous thrumming machines. The noise here felt like a physical weight pressing against their eardrums. The hallway went on and on, finally curving away out of sight.
Kolteo waved them forward, and they trudged on down the hallway, each man alone with his thoughts inside a towering wall of unrelenting sound. Kolteo wondered how anyone could work down here.
Finally they found another stairwell door, and to general relief the stairs went up. At the top of the stairs, a heavy, insulated door opened into a short hallway. When it shut again, the noise of all the machinery died to a dull and distant thrum.
Each man yawned. Kolteo’s ears popped.
“My ears are ringing,” said Julin. Romik nodded in agreement.
Kolteo eyed the door at the end of the hallway. It too was heavily insulated. “The slideway is out there,” he predicted. “There may be Enforcers. Let’s try and act like we belong.”
Julin spoke up. “We’ll want the slideway on the right.”
Kolteo looked at him. “You sure about that?”
Julin tapped the side of his head. “I’ve spent a lot more time in these tunnels than you have.”
Kolteo shrugged. “On the right.”
“You two ever used a slideway?”
Romik grunted assent. Kolteo shook his head. He’d always used the sky cars since coming to Siben years ago.
Julin grinned at Kolteo. “That’s right, privileged. Well, try and act like you have. Walk on at an angle. We have a ways to go, so we’ll be heading for the express band. Just follow me, and walk forward at an angle to change bands.”
Kolteo drew himself up and nodded.
Julin looked at both of them appraisingly. “You two are going to have to learn to slouch a bit, too. Anybody could see you’re military.” He grabbed Romik by the shoulders. “This isn’t an inspection. Pull your shoulders in a little bit and look down at the floor.”
Romik looked stiff and uncomfortable. Kolteo couldn’t help but chuckle until Julin did the same to him.
Julin stepped back and shook his head, clicking his tongue. “We’ll work on it.”
“Let’s just go,” said Kolteo.
They followed Julin through the door and emerged into a wide gallery of concrete and tile. Ahead, a wide stairway led up to the street level. A stiff breeze buffeted them, and they could still hear the distant thrum of the immense engines that labored below.
Two Enforcers stood off to the side, watching commuters ascending and descending the stairwell. They hadn’t noticed the newcomers. Julin cocked his head right, and Kolteo and Romik followed him.
Kolteo’s eyes widened. A few paces on, Julin stepped down onto a red moving walkway. Romik followed, and Kolteo did his best to imitate them, wobbling only a little. Beyond the red walkway, more bands of color ran parallel for fifty yards. On the far side, a wide blue band carried a blur of what looked like seats and people.
Julin kept walking, and Romik and Kolteo followed. Each new colored band moved faster. Each was just wide enough for a couple of paces walking at an angle. Even with his slight limp, Julin passed from strip to strip as though he’d done it every day of his life.
Kolteo, tired as he was, stumbled several times.
As the bands got faster, they got wider. The breeze seemed to die down too. Soon they were on the final band, the blue express. There were few people at this hour. The small company sat down gratefully on an empty bench next to a kiosk with a large screen that showed where they were. A male voice recording announced each upcoming station in a non-stop litany:
“Dowle; Gionvier; Holly; Yatons; Wabi; Grinna; Natefatein; Bida; Mikkot…”
Julin grinned lopsidedly. “Don’t get too comfortable. That guy’ll put you to sleep pretty quick.”
“Cardogeste; Ogass; Ikuythe; Turga…”
“There goes the river. We’re listening for ‘Dithizda’.”
“How long?” asked Kolteo.
“Fifteen minutes, I figure. Long enough to make a call.”
Kolteo frowned. “Call?”
Julin nodded. “I want some backup plans. Assuming you have a plan, beyond ‘Get money’.”
“Of course I have a plan.” He did, of sorts.
“Care to share it with the rest of us?”
“We hire a smuggler to get us off-planet.”
Julin laughed out loud. “That’s your plan?”
Kolteo shrugged off a flash of anger. “I still have to work out some details. What’s your plan?”
Julin beamed. “Contact my crazy rich patron’s hatchet man and have him bring us a car stuffed full of cash.”
“Would this be the patron that I killed, or the one who betrayed you?”
Julin paused. “The second one. Altolcz. But to be fair, he made sure that I knew he was going to betray me ahead of time. To throw you off the scent.”
Kolteo smirked. “That worked out well.”
Both men eyed each other quietly. The voice droned on, “Amburus; Tozzo; Matharucch; Roctindova; Ali; Welles…”
Finally, Kolteo spoke. “Hold off on calling your man. I want to talk to mine first.”
Julin shrugged. “Sure. Fine.” He looked away.
Kolteo rolled his eyes and stood. There was a public terminal just forward of their bench. He looked back at Romik. “Get me when it’s time to get off this thing.”
Kolteo went to the terminal and punched in Marrem’s number from memory.
Finally, his trusted aide’s face appeared on the screen. Marrem smiled. “Director, it’s good to see you’re alright—I’ve been worried about you. Where are you?”
Continued in: 22. The Bank…
In order to escape Siben, Kolteo needs money… but can he get to it before his pursuers?
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