He hadn’t told her and wondered if he ever would. He was everything she claimed to despise, a naive aristo with more ancestors than sense. He liked to think she respected him as a fighter, but beyond that he had no idea how she felt about him. Besides, he was a Deathstalker. He had a duty to marry someone of his own station. Except … he wasn’t an aristocrat anymore. Lionstone had publicly declared him an outlaw and stripped him of every rank and privilege. Which meant he was free to do as he liked. And Hazel was brave and true, with a great smile and eyes to die for. Pity about her hair … She was smart and quick, and determined not to take any shit from anyone, least of all him.
He loved her, in a way that made him realize he’d never really loved anybody else. Cathy had been his lover for several years, but she was his mistress, which was really just another kind of servant. She’d been an Empire spy, and had tried to kill him when he was outlawed. He’d killed her without hesitating. There’d never been much love in his Family, particularly from his father, who was always busy somewhere else, so he’d learned to live without love. And then Hazel burst into his life, and everything changed. Sometimes he couldn’t look at her without catching his breath, and his heart quickened when she spoke to him. Her infrequent smiles could put him in a good mood that lasted for hours.
To be honest, he could have done without love. It complicated their relationship and distracted him from more important things. But, he didn’t seem to have any choice in the matter. He loved her, despite all her many faults, or even perhaps because of them. Even if he could never tell her. At best she’d laugh at him or tell him to go to hell. At worst, she might be kind and understanding as she said no, and he didn’t think he could stand that. He knew nothing of love or
lovers, but even he knew hope was better than disillusionment.
An alarm sounded quietly through his comm implant, and he saw Hazel’s head snap up as she heard it, too. She put her sword away and climbed aboard her gravity sled, ready for business as always. Owen slipped the computer discs into an inside pocket, zipped it shut, and powered up his sled. A view from the ship’s sensors appeared before his eyes, patched in through his implant, showing the main landing pads stretched out below. There were ships everywhere, of all shapes and sizes, growing steadily larger as the Hadenman ship descended at speed. There wasn’t room anywhere for the Hadenman ship to set down, but that was all right. It wasn’t intending to land. Owen grinned. The plans called for the Hadenman ship to drop the cloaking about now. Then things should get really interesting.
They were almost on top of the starport control tower when the cloaking device shut off. People stopped believing their sensors, took one look at the huge sleek golden craft hovering right above them, and launched straight into a mass panic. There was a lot of screaming and shouting, and a great deal of running around and around in circles. Owen didn’t blame them. The last time Golgotha had seen a Hadenman ship this close, they’d come in force as the Enemies of Humanity, to wipe out the homeworld’s defenses. They’d come uncomfortably close, too, according to some suppressed records that Owen had happened across while looking for something else.
The visual feed cut off, and Owen smiled across at Hazel, who grinned back. In that much chaos and confusion, no one was going to notice two small gravity sleds. Owen gripped the controls of his sled firmly. Only a few more moments and he wouldn’t have time to feel nervous anymore. He hoped Hazel was feeling as confident as she looked. It would be nice if one of them was. The alarm sounded briefly in his ear again, and the great cargo bay doors cracked open below them. The temperature in the hold dropped sharply, and Owen could see bright sunlight through the widening crack. He raised his sled slightly so that it was hovering just above the floor. Hazel lifted hers, too, and moved in close beside him. The cargo bay doors opened wider, and now they could see the landing pads below. It looked a long way down. Owen took a deep breath and directed his sled down
and through the opening doors. Hazel followed close behind. Together they dropped out of the belly of the great golden ship, and plummeted down toward the landing field.
The bay doors slammed shut behind them, and the Hadenman ship shot away, already pursued by half a dozen Imperial attack ships, firing everything they’d got. The golden ship’s force shields flared briefly here and there, but never even looked like going down. No one noticed two tiny figures heading silently for the ground, too small for the heavy-duty port sensors, too fast for the naked eye. The plan was very simple. The Hadenman ship would hang around, drawing attention to itself, while Hazel and Owen got on with their mission. It would take some time for the starport to come up with anything big enough to worry the golden ship. By that time the mission should be over, and the ship would return to pick Owen and Hazel up again. They would then depart at great speed, drop back into hyperspace, and be gone before the Empire could get its act together.
A very simple plan. Owen believed in simple plans. The more complicated a plan was, the more chances there were of something going wrong. He wasn’t worried about anything happening to the Hadenman ship. The strength of Hadenman force shields was legendary, and the ship itself was bulging with all kinds of weapons, some of which Owen didn’t even recognize. He’d made the augmented men promise to use their weapons sparingly and only in self-defense. It wouldn’t do to start the rebellion with a bloody Hadenman massacre. It would give entirely the wrong impression, and first impressions were important. The augmented men had nodded very politely and said yes and no and of course in all the right places. Owen had crossed his fingers and hoped for the best.
The sled’s force shield snapped on automatically as he dropped like a stone, protecting him from the rushing wind. Speed was all that mattered for the moment, to get out of the starport and disappear into the crowded city before either he or Hazel could be spotted. The pastel towers of the city loomed up before him, and he slowed a little so he could duck and dodge around them. The force shield snapped off, to conserve power. The wind whistled past Owen, cold and bracing, blowing tears from his eyes. He narrowed his gaze and concentrated on the map he’d memorized earlier. It wasn’t that far, but the route was tricky, particularly if you
weren’t intending to follow the established traffic paths. Owen flashed past a floating red light and tucked in close beside a tower to avoid an oncoming tour bus. He had a brief glimpse of openmouthed faces from windows on both sides, and then he was through and in the clear again. He grinned and activated his comm unit on the shielded channel.
“Still with me, Hazel?”
“Damn right I am. You’ll have to do better than that to shake me.”
“I thought you said you hadn’t had much practice on a gravity sled before?”
“I haven’t. Half the time I feel like I’m riding a crashing elevator. But I can follow anywhere you lead, Deathstalker.”
“Wouldn’t doubt it for a minute, Hazel. We’re almost there, so stand ready to guard my back. Remember, they stripped these sleds down to basics for extra speed, which means we have only minimum shields. One good hit from a disrupter, and they’ll go down faster than a backstreet whore. So I’m counting on you not to let anyone hit us. On the other hand, please also remember we’re supposed to be the good guys here, so try not to kill anyone except the Imperial Guards. It’s important we make the right impression here.”
“Details, details,” Hazel said airily. “You concentrate on your map and leave the fighting to me. That’s how we work best.”
Owen felt a strong answer to that rising up in him, but he forced it down. He was going to learn to be polite and charming to Hazel if it killed him. He pressed on through the city, whipping back and forth between the towers and fighting the sudden updrafts. The city was only just waking up, still wrapped in early-morning light. The sky was a bloody red, painting the pastel towers with crimsoned shadows. There was hardly any air traffic yet, but that would change in a hurry once the sun was up and the business day began. The plan called for Owen and Hazel to get into the Tax and Tithe HQ, do the dirty, and get the hell out while the skies were still comparatively uncrowded. Owen piled on the speed, and the force shield snapped on again, giving his tearing eyes and numbed face a break. He and Hazel were on their own till they could land and make contact with the
underground, and right now he felt very alone and extremely vulnerable.
He could feel Hazel crowding close behind him. He didn’t look back to make sure. He didn’t need to. All of those who’d passed through the Madness Maze were linked to each other now, in some deep fundamental way that none of them understood yet, but none of them doubted. It was a kind of low-level esp, an unquestioning certainty as to where the others were at any given moment. They couldn’t read each other’s thoughts, for which Owen for one was very grateful, but as Hazel had already proved, whatever gifts or talents one possessed, the others now had, too, as though they’d always had them. Owen could feel Hazel’s presence at his back. It felt reassuring. He whipped around a tower, so close he could have reached out and trailed his fingertips across the windows flashing past, and then, right before him, dead bang where it was supposed to be, was the Tax and Tithe Headquarters, in Tower Chojiro. Owen grinned fiercely and opened his secure comm channel again.
“Almost there, so brace yourself. And, Hazel, don’t use the boost unless you have to. There are things about it you don’t know. It’s … unwise to use it too often.”
“Nag, nag. You always were a bit of an old woman, Deathstalker.”
Owen decided he wasn’t going to answer that one, either, and made himself concentrate on Tower Chojiro as it loomed up before him. He cut his power and slowed steadily, but kept the force shield up. The sled’s built-in cloaking device was supposed to be keeping him invisible, as far as the tower’s sensors were concerned, but he didn’t feel like taking chances now he’d got this close to the objective. Tower Chojiro was the tallest and ugliest of the immediate towers, a gleaming monument of glass and steel, the Clan colors and signals clearly marked. It was also undoubtably bristling with hidden weapons and other nasty surprises. The Hadenmen had assured Owen on more than one occasion that his and Hazel’s sleds had been carefully adjusted so that they would slip past the tower’s defenses unmolested. But of necessity, there had been no way to test this in advance.
Owen shrugged mentally. It was a bit late to be worried now. Either it would work, or he and Hazel would end up spread across the tower’s energy fields like flies on a windscreen, and the rebellion would have to start somewhere
else. Oddly, Owen discovered that he didn’t feel particularly nervous. The Hadenmen had assured him their devices would work, and he had no reason to distrust them. Not over that, anyway. Everything else, maybe. He took a firm hold on the controls, braced himself, and headed the sled straight for the top floor of the tower. The windows came flying toward him at incredible speed. Owen just had time to realize he must have passed safely through the tower’s force shields before the sled slammed through the toughened steelglass window, as though it wasn’t there.
The gravity sled screeched to a halt some twenty feet past the shattered window, and its force shield snapped off. Owen released his death grip from the controls and stepped down, just a little shakily. He looked quickly about him but the top floor of Tower Chojiro was deserted, just as it was supposed to be. There was a little furniture scattered here and there on the thick carpeting, all of it designed within an inch of its life, and just the occasional small painting on the walls. Originals, of course. Clan Chojiro were famed for their minimalist approach. Owen hoped it applied to their interior security systems as well, but he rather doubted it. His and Hazel’s entrance had to have set off all kinds of alarms, and since the interior weaponry hadn’t finished them off any more than the exterior force shields, the odds were that a large number of heavily armed men were currently on their way up to find out why. Of course, they’d have to start at the bottom and work their way up floor by floor, to make sure everything was secure. Which should take them some time. More than enough for him to deal with the computers and leave. Theoretically. He drew his disrupter and activated the force shield on his wrist. The oblong of glowing force formed instantly on his arm, its familiar low hum distinctly comforting. Hazel moved in beside him, a gun in each hand.
“Tax and Tithe is four floors down, right? Elevator or stairs?”
“Stairs, of course. The elevators can be overridden by the tower’s central computers. Didn’t you attend any of the briefings?”
“I leave all the heavy thinking to you, stud. Just find me something I can shoot at, and I’ll be happy.”
Owen decided there was nothing to be gained in answering that, and led the way out of the empty room and on to the stairwell. It was well posted and exactly where it was
supposed to be, which cheered Owen up a bit. At least the intelligence reports seemed to be accurate. The stairwell was narrow, brightly lit, and looked as though it had last been whitewashed sometime in the previous century. After all, who used stairs anymore, except in emergencies? It was all deathly quiet, apart from the racket Owen and Hazel made clattering down the bare steel steps. No doubt the tower defenses were sounding all kinds of alarms, but that would be on the tower’s private security channel, and Owen didn’t have the time to search out which particular channel they were using that day. No doubt security changed it regularly. He would have. Hazel checked the lock at the bottom of the stairs, a simple combination mechanism, and sniffed disparagingly.
“This wouldn’t stop a ten-year-old on Mistworld. I’ll have it open in a few minutes.”
“No,” said Owen. “Let me try.” He bent over the lock, studied it carefully, and then entered a short series of numbers. The lock clicked open. Owen straightened up and smiled at Hazel. “You got the boost from me; I got breaking and entering from you. Somewhat improved by the Maze’s changes. Wonder what else we’ve got that we don’t know about?”