Deathstalker Rebellion (2 page)

Golgotha, Opening Gambit

Why me?
thought Owen Deathstalker as he headed for the toilet yet again. He knew he wouldn’t really need to do anything once he got there, but his bladder wasn’t listening to reason. Not for the first time, it had ideas of its own. He was always like this when the pressure was on, and he had too much time to think. The afternoon before he’d made his first major speech at the Imperial Historians’ Convention, he’d spent so long in their toilets that they actually sent someone in to ask if he was all right.

Owen sniffed, stepped inside the starship’s single toilet, and pulled the door shut behind him. It wasn’t much; just a small steel cubicle with a gleaming steel bowl. Owen unzipped and aimed carefully. He didn’t want the others to think he was incredibly nervous. It was the waiting that got to him. He was hardly nervous at all during a fight. Usually, because he was too busy trying to keep himself from being killed to have time to worry. But beforehand, his imagination always insisted on picturing all the ways things could go horribly wrong in a hurry. And his current mission of heading for Golgotha, the most closely guarded planet in the Empire, in a golden ship built by inhuman beings who were once officially known as the Enemies of Humanity, had never struck him as being that sane an idea in the first place.

Even if it had been his idea.

But it had to be said the Hadenman ship was the best choice open to the nascent rebellion. His own ship, the marvelous
, had been one of the fastest in the Empire, but he’d had to leave it where it crashed, deep in the deadly jungles of Shandrakor. And his ancestor Giles’s vessel, the Last Standing, had been ruled out very early on. A huge stone castle with a built-in stardrive was many things, but inconspicuous wasn’t one of them. The sleek golden ships of the Hadenmen, however, were everything the rebels needed,
and more. Incredibly fast, powerfully armed, and so tightly cloaked there wasn’t a sensor display in the Empire sensitive enough to pick them up. In theory, anyway. The Hadenmen had been out of things for a while.

The one thing the starship hadn’t had was a toilet. Apparently, augmented men didn’t need such things. Owen hadn’t inquired further. He didn’t think he really wanted to know. When Owen had discovered he and Hazel d’Ark had been volunteered to represent the rebellion on this mission, he had argued long and loudly against the decision. And when he lost, as he’d always known he would, even before he opened his mouth, he had stated flatly that he wasn’t going anywhere with the Hadenmen until they installed a toilet. The Hadenman craft might be incredibly fast and powerful, but it was still a long trip to Golgotha, and Owen knew only too well what his nerves were going to be like.

So they’d added this cramped little cubicle especially for him and his nerves. There was no washbasin, rug around the base, or even a seat to lift. There was no toilet paper, either, but Owen had already decided very firmly that he wasn’t going to think about that eventuality. He looked at his reflection in the steel wall before him; a man in his mid twenties, tall and rangy with dark hair and darker eyes. Not exactly soft, but not the kind of person you’d be scared of meeting in a back alley, either. Owen sighed deeply, finished what he was doing, zipped up again, and left the toilet with as much dignity as he could muster.

Minimalist though it was, he preferred the look of the toilet to the interior of the Hadenman ship. Its layout had not been designed with human comforts in mind, like sense or logic, and some of its aspects were positively disturbing. Owen concentrated on getting back to Hazel, who was sitting cross-legged on the deck between two enigmatic protrusions of Hadenman machinery. She was busy dismantling and cleaning her new projectile weapon, and she spared Owen only a scornful glance as he approached. Hazel d’Ark was never bothered by nerves. Give her something destructive to play with, and she was happy as a pig in muck. Owen sank down beside her, being very careful not to touch anything.

There were no seats or rest stations anywhere in the ship. Instead unfamiliar inhuman technology filled the interior from stem to stern, with Hadenmen plugged into it here and
there as needed. The augmented men were part of the ship, or it was part of them, and they ran it with their thoughts. Owen and Hazel fitted in where they could, and tried not to look too directly at the incomprehensible machinery. It made their eyes hurt. Lights came and went, of painful brightness and unfamiliar hues, and the angles of the larger shapes were disturbing, as though trying to lead the human eye somewhere it couldn’t or wouldn’t follow. Owen settled himself as comfortably as he could on the unyielding steel deck, and hugged his knees to his chest. The ship intimidated the hell out of him, and he didn’t care who knew it. He looked at Hazel, who was completely absorbed in what she was doing.

A tall, lithely muscular woman in her early twenties, Hazel always looked as though she was about to explode into action at any moment. Green eyes peered challengingly out at the world from under a mane of long ratty red hair, and her rare smiles came and went so quickly they were often missed.

As usual, she’d loaded herself down with weapons. Her disrupter hung in its usual place on her right hip, in its well-worn leather holster. Standard energy pistol, powerful enough to blast through steel plate as long as the gun’s energy crystal was fully charged. And provided you didn’t mind waiting the two minutes it took for the crystal to recharge between shots. Her sword hung on her left hip, the chased metal scabbard stretched out across the deck. Standard sword, heavy enough to do real damage, without being so long it became unwieldy. Scattered across the desk before her were the component parts of her projectile weapon. Actually, there looked to be enough parts to make several weapons. Owen had no idea the things were so damn complicated.

He had ambivalent feelings about the antiquated projectile weapons his ancestor Giles had provided from the Last Standing’s armory. They weren’t nearly as powerful or as accurate as energy weapons, but when they were pumping out several hundred bullets a minute on full auto, they didn’t really need to be. There was none of that waiting for two minutes between each shot nonsense with them, either. Hazel had all but fallen in love with the new (or more strictly speaking old) type of weapons, and sang their praises at every opportunity. She’d taken to carrying several of the guns and enough ammunition to bulge every pocket she had.
Owen remained unconvinced, as yet. He carried a projectile weapon of his own as well as his disrupter, but he thought he’d wait and see how the gun performed in a continuous firefight before he made up his mind. Personally, he thought Hazel liked her new toys so much only because they had lots of separate pieces she could play with.

And finally, when push came to shove, he still believed in cold steel as the answer to most problems. A sword had no parts to go wrong, never ran out of ammo, and didn’t need to recharge for two minutes between use.

“You keep squeezing it dry like that, you’re going to flatten it,” Hazel said casually. “Never known anyone spend so much time in a toilet. Check your guns again. It’s very comforting.”

“No it isn’t,” said Owen. “There isn’t a single comforting thing anywhere in this unnatural ship, and that very definitely includes you.”

“You never cease to amaze me, aristo. I’ve seen you fight appalling odds and go charging into situations I wouldn’t tackle for all the credits in Golgotha’s Treasury. You come from one of the greatest warrior Families in the Empire, but every time we have to wait around for a bit, you get jumpier than a nun at a dating agency.”

“I am not a warrior,” said Owen determinedly, not looking at her. “I am an historian who is temporarily—and under extreme duress—being forced to act as a soldier of the rebellion. Personally, I can’t wait for the rebellion to be over so I can go back to being a minor scholar again, of no importance to anyone but myself and with no pressures apart from the occasional symposium. I still don’t see why I was volunteered for this mission.”

“Because it was your idea in the first place,” said Hazel. “Serves you right for being a smart-ass. If anyone shouldn’t be here, it’s me. I’m still not convinced any of this is going to work.”

“Then, what are you doing here?”

“Someone’s got to watch your back. Besides, I was getting bored just sitting around back there. A complete lack of human comforts, far too much talking, and no action of any kind. I need to be doing something, or I get cranky.”

“I had noticed,” Owen said dryly. “Trust me; the plan will work. It’s been discussed from every angle and subjected to intense analysis. Even the Hadenmen liked it. This mission
is just what we need to start the rebellion with a bang. Something to make the whole Empire sit up and take notice.”

“Oh, sure. They can all tune in their holos and watch us getting our ass kicked in living color. Probably repeat it at prime time, with extra slow motion for the gooey bits.”

“I thought I was the nervous one?”

“You are. I’m just practical.”

“So am I. That’s why this plan is the best way to announce the rebellion’s presence. We can’t hope to win a head-on fight. They’ve got far more men and guns and ships than we have. So instead, we launch a lightning attack and hit them where it really hurts. In their pockets. With the Hadenmen’s help, we’ll slip right past Golgotha’s defenses unobserved, sneak our way into the main Income Tax and Tithe Headquarters, perform our little act of economic sabotage, and be gone before anyone even knows we were there. It’s really very elegant when you think about it. We transfer a whole bunch of credits to our preprepared rebel accounts, and then erase and scramble everything else.

“Thus, we not only kick the Empire and Church where it really hurts, and give a major boost to rebel funds, but we also make a lot of friends among the general populace when they realize the Empire won’t be able to tax them again until they’ve got all the records sorted out and reestablished. Which could take years. Hazel, could you at least try and look interested in what I’m telling you? You managed to avoid most of the strategy sessions, but you need to understand what we’re going to be doing down there.”

“No I don’t. Just point me in the right direction and turn me loose. If it even looks like an Imperial Guard, it’s dead meat. I was good in a fight before we went through the Maze, but I’m hell on wheels now. I’ve got all kinds of abilities I never had before, and I can’t wait to try them out.”

Owen sighed quietly. “We’re not just fighters anymore, Hazel. Like it or not, we’ve become important figures in the rebellion. If we can pull this off, we’ll become heroes, even legends. People will look to us for inspiration on how to strike back against the Empire, and they’ll join the rebellion in droves. The underground on Golgotha are committing a lot of their people and resources to help us in this, just because they believe in us. By surviving everything the Empire
sent after us, we’ve become the hope of everyone who ever dreamed of being free.”

“If we’re their only hope, they’re in big trouble.”

“Maybe,” said Owen. “But whatever the truth of the matter, we have responsibilities now. If we do pull this off, it’ll be a sign that this rebellion has a realistic chance of succeeding. The people might believe in us, but the cold facts are that rebellions are extremely expensive to mount. Star-ships and rebel bases don’t come cheap. Remember how Jack Random had to deal and concede and make questionable promises to questionable people, to get funding for his wars? And he was the legendary professional rebel. He had to compromise; with the credit we’ll be lifting, we won’t have to.”

“All right,” said Hazel. “Assuming, for the sake of argument, that we do bring this off without being killed in horrible ways, what then? Turn pirate, and pick off Empire ships between planets? Last I heard, the Empire was handing out some really nasty deaths for piracy.”

“Didn’t stop you being one.”

“I’m not exactly noted for my career choices. So what’s the plan, Deathstalker? I can tell you’re just bursting to tell me.”

“That’s because it’s such a good plan. As you’d know if you’d attended the strategy sessions like you were supposed to.”

“Nag, nag, nag. Get on with it.”

“We start small, picking our fights carefully, and build success on success until we’re a viable force within the Empire. Then we call on the people to rise up against Lionstone. They’ve never dared in the past. Quite rightly, they fear reprisals. They also value their comforts too much. They think they have too much to lose. Unless their noses are rubbed in it, they don’t like to think about where those comforts come from, and who suffers to produce them. Our task is to change the way people think, the way they see the Empire. First we educate them, then we encourage them to rise up, and then we help liberate them. Classic strategy. If the Empire really understood the lessons to be learned from studying history, they’d ban it.”

“You’re really getting into this, aren’t you, Deathstalker? You’ve come a long way from the amateur scholar who just wanted the world to leave him alone.”

Owen smiled briefly. “The world insisted on being heard. I can’t go back to being what I was, much as I might like to. I’ve seen too much, done too much. But don’t ever see me as some kind of warrior or hero. I might have to play the part for the rebellion, but it’s not me. I’ll fight when I have to, and that’s it. And when it’s all over, and the fighting’s done, I’ll be only too happy to climb back up into my ivory tower and kick the ladder away. I’ve spent most of my life trying to be the scholar I wanted to be rather than the warrior my Family expected. Circumstances may compel me to act the hero, but circumstances change, and the moment I’m no longer needed, I’ll become an historian again so fast it’ll make your head spin. People watching will suffer from whiplash.”

Hazel sniffed, fitting her gun back together with calm, practiced fingers. “It’s fighters, not dreamers, who make things change.”

“I know what you want,” said Owen, just a little testily. “You think all of us who went through the Maze should use our special abilities to cut a bloody path straight through the Empire to Golgotha, so that you could strut right into the Imperial Palace and take on the Empress head to head. Well, you can forget that. The moment we step out into the open, Lionstone will step on us, hard, even if it takes half her fleet to do it. We’re not gods or superhumans. We’ve been given a few extra abilities, that’s all. Very useful abilities, but only if used in the right ways at the right times.”

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