Continued from 30. Customs.
The story begins with 1. The Director.
Romik stood flatfooted, his heart racing, his skin tingling, his stomach cold. But it wouldn’t do to panic right now. Instead, he waited uneasily for the Major to close the distance. He desperately wished he’d kept his helmet on; one, so he wouldn’t be recognized; two, so he could warn Director Ais.
He knew the Major wasn’t in on the plan. He knew the Major had been coordinating the hunt for them. The hunt had proven decidedly incompetent so far. That wasn’t the Major he knew. Mus had to be pulling his punches. So far. But there’d been a kill team on the way to them the day before. Kill teams didn’t mess around.
Major Mus was smiling freely. There was no telling what pressure the Major might be under, or how their enemies might have him cornered. Romik couldn’t trust friendly words at this point. Not here.
Time to earn your keep, Chief Armsman, Romik told himself.
“Good morning, Major. I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“No, I suppose you didn’t.” The Major winked at him. “Have you by any chance seen the Director recently? I have a message for him.”
“I don’t know where he is,” said Romik, truthfully, and he hoped it stayed that way. The Director would be walking into a trap when he arrived.
“I don’t doubt it.” Mus looked over Romik’s shoulder at the Hox. “I suppose you’re wondering how I found you?”
“Altolccz’s hired hound needs better opsec. He used that sky car one too many times.”
Icy silence descended between them.
“Hey, Chief! Bird’s ready!” The specialist came round the shield plate. “Oh, Major!” He quickly bowed. “You the pilot?”
Major Mus’s brow quirked up as he returned the bow. “No, Specialist, but I expect he’ll be here soon.” He gave Romik a significant look. “Won’t he, Chief?”
“Let me check with him,” said Romik, as he raised the helmet up to his head.
“Leave the helmet off, Chief,” snapped the Major. A sidearm had appeared in his hand. The Major had a smooth draw.
The specialist gasped and took a step back. “What the—”
“Don’t you be going anywhere, Specialist,” Mus said, his eyes locked on Romik. “Chief, lower that helmet. Keep your hands where I can see them.”
Romik’s eyes flicked from Mus to the Enforcers at his back. They still stood at ease. They wouldn’t stay that way if he made any sudden moves, and it was too early to start anything.
He slowly lowered the helmet and held it with his off-hand. As he switched to a one-handed grip, he managed to slip a finger over the mic chin switch. Just beside it was the external mic gain.
“Major,” he said, “I don’t know why you’re interfering.”
“Because you’re still here. The Director said he was leaving, Romik. But he hasn’t left.”
“Leaving proved harder than he’d planned.”
“That’s too bad.”
Romik smiled wryly. “I’ve been thinking about that, Major.”
“Only way anybody could know to be ready to take down our sky car would be if you put them in place to do it.”
Mus’s smile didn’t abate. “That’s an interesting theory, Chief.”
“But they weren’t trying all that hard, not once they saw we were still kicking.”
“What I can’t figure out is, did you order them not to try hard? Or was that operator volition?”
“Keep figuring, Chief.”
“I will. In the meantime, you’ve got a choice too, and I’m wondering which one you’ll pick. That’ll help me in my figuring.”
Major Mus chuckled. “What do you think I should do?”
“Let us go.”
Major Mus laughed. “And then tell the Directors, what, that you asked, pretty please?”
Romik shrugged. “I don’t care what you tell them.”
“Iani has ears everywhere.”
A new voiced crackled over the external speakers on Romik’s helmet. “He’s not the only one. Stand down, Major.”
Mus looked down at the helmet, his eyes wide. “Ha! Director, it’s always a pleasure to hear your voice.”
The helmet buzzed, “Put your weapon on the ground. Same for your Enforcers there. Then all of you, go over by the wall, and sit cross-legged on your hands.”
The Major’s smile returned. “And if I don’t?”
“You won’t like the alternative.”
“One ounce of antimatter here in my hand. Lower your weapon and turn around.”
The specialist beside Romik swore loudly. Two figures stood at the far entrance to the hangar. One held up a glowing orb.
Kolteo smiled his grim smile as he watched Marrem turn slowly around. The man’s sidearm fell to the ground when he saw the little device that Kolteo held high over his head.
Kolteo held the transmitter up to his mouth. “I’ve rigged a dead man’s switch, Major, so don’t do anything foolish.”
Then he put the transmitter back in his pocket and motioned to Cottack. “Let’s go, Corporal. Easy on the throttle. Everybody’s going to be a little bit tense.”
Cottack chuckled. “I’m a little bit tense, sir. You didn’t tell him about the other two pounds of the stuff I’ve got here.” He tapped the briefcase that he was carrying.
“Better not to. It’s the same result either way if this goes wrong.”
“I guess so, sir. Big crater or bigger crater.”
“Something like that.” The way he figured it, even one ounce detonating in the facility would touch off every other evil weapon stored there. It would do more than leave a big crater; it was likely to crack Siben’s crust, flatten every building on the planet, and render the atmosphere unbreathable for centuries.
Nobody had to know that he was bluffing. Not even himself. He was bluffing, wasn’t he?
They crossed the hangar, past the line of hoxen, while Major Mus and his Enforcers piled up their weapons and took a seat by the hangar wall. Romik stood with his helmet on, his weapon still stowed, and his arms folded. A specialist stood rigid beside him, watching their approach with a horrified look on his face.
Kolteo addressed the man, who clearly needed something to do. “Specialist, you’re going to catch flies with your mouth like that. Stow these rifles on board, if you please.”
The man did a double-take, then his mouth closed like a trap. “Uh, aye, sir.” He bowed, took one more horrified look at the device in Kolteo’s hand, and vanished.
Kolteo looked at Cottack and Romik. “Get her fired up, and make ready to leave. I’ll be right there.”
He walked over to where Marrem sat. “Marrem.”
His former aide looked up at him with a sneer. “Director.”
Kolteo shook his head. “Why?”
Marrem lifted his chin a sliver. “Why not? You taught me everything you knew. And this was how you did it.”
Kolteo’s face flushed. “That was different.”
“I didn’t tell you everything, Marrem.” There was so much he’d never told him.
“Well, maybe you should have.”
Kolteo flinched and took an uneasy step back, as if he’d been struck. He looked Marrem in the eye, but had nothing to say.
Marrem smiled, a grim smile that Kolteo recognized as his own. “Director Iani asked me to send his regards, and farewell. But I think he expected those words to be passed on under different circumstances.”
Kolteo nodded. “Tell him I’m sorry I didn’t kill him myself when I had the chance.”
“I’m sure he’ll be touched. He’s certain to feel the same way about you.”
Behind Kolteo, Romik called out, “Director! We’re ready.”
Kolteo looked back. He hadn’t even noticed the whine of the *Hoxhan*’s engines starting up. He gave Romik the high sign.
Marrem called his attention back. “Don’t show yourself again after this. You’ve been far too careless. The next time you see me, you’ll regret it.”
“Won’t that be an interesting day, then?”
Marrem looked serious. “Take care of yourself, Kolteo.”
Kolteo smiled. Marrem in all his years of service had never used his given name. “I will. You too, Marrem. Watch out for Iani. He’s a snake.”
“Don’t worry. I’ve got a plan for him.”
“I’m sure you do.” He turned has back and walked back to the Hoxhan.
He climbed in and dogged the hatch. He peeked down the cross-brace tunnel. Romik and Cottack were getting nestled in their gunners’ couches. “Strap in, we’re leaving!” he yelled over the engine whine, which wasn’t much quieter inside.
He then turned and slithered forward down the tunnel to the cockpit. He got into his own harness. It was a shame they didn’t have proper flight suits, but that couldn’t be helped.
He hadn’t flown a Hoxhan in years, but not much had changed in the classic design. He brought the flight computer online and keyed the radio. “Tower, this is Hox One flight. You’ve probably heard about me already. I’m leaving, and nobody’s stopping me. Shortest path to orbital, my bearing, no escort.”
“Hox One, Tower. Proceed on flight plan. Orbital elements will rendezvous for debrief.”
“I bet they will,” he muttered to himself. “Copy that,” he said on the channel.
He keyed the internal comm system and left it on. “Looks like a smooth ride to orbit, but keep those guns hot. Expect trouble upstairs.”
Cottack laughed. “We’ll give them some trouble, don’t you worry, sir.”
Kolteo brought the Hoxhan up on its suspensors and goosed it gently forward on repulsors. He didn’t want to give Marrem and his men headaches.
Bay doors opened, and they passed out into the gray daylight. He took a bearing, lined up, and brought the engines smoothly to full acceleration. The roaring engines shook the fighter-bomber with a bone-jarring vibration. The Hox wasn’t a racer, but even with a full load and inertial dampers, it could push them back in their couches.
Quick as thinking, they broke through the clouds. The blue expanse of sky made him smile. The blue grew pale, then dark, and the vibrations lessened. Stars winked into view, and the sky grew black—a rich, velvety blackness, bathed in golden radiance that made every shadow sharp, every color vibrant.
The ride grew smooth, and the noise of the engines dulled, then ceased entirely. They were falling free now. His stomach gave an ominous twist, but he knew it would settle.
Kolteo heaved a deep sigh and laughed out loud. “Free-falling!” He’d hardly dared hope that this would work. He’d brought them up in an odd not-quite-polar orbit that would take time for any “orbital elements” up here to match.
He peered at the controls. “Now, where is that ship?” He flagged a particular frequency that he and Vhen had agreed upon for a beacon, and started the flight computer calculating a plan to bring them into the vector that they’d worked out.
“Acceleration,” he called. The engines fired up again, and gentle force pushed him, first one direction, then another, as the ship began executing the plan. They must leave orbit and rise above the plane of the ecliptic.
Kolteo knew it was all going too smoothly. He wasn’t surprised at all when his displays lit up with incoming vectors. Those orbital elements were on their way, accelerating to match vectors with the Hox. Looked like two flights of light fighters, and there would be more coming.
“Company coming!” called Cottack. The pips on the scanner were already turning red as Romik marked them “foe” on the IFF.
Kolteo smiled grimly. “Alright men, let’s serve them dinner.”
Continued in: 32. Militov…
Ced, Vhen, and the new crew of the Militov must rendezvous with Kolteo’s stolen craft. But can they get to him in time?
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