Carlos listened to the last whisper of air as the door slid shut. He leant back against the cold plastic of the wall and waited for the last echoes of tinnitus to fade into silence. Peace, perfect peace.
Outside in the main body of the hotel's Casino, the raucous screams of winners and losers rang high above the heavy baseline of a bad-metal band. Beyond that, in the street, a student crowd demonstrated against the latest allocation of taxes to yet another armament programme. A sound- proofed suite was worth every credit of the surcharge.
He had peeled off his weather suit and was testing the shower controls when an amber light blinked warning on the Hole-console. He swore violently, throwing a towel at the monitor. "Dim, damn you." The hole screen faded to black, not in time to avoid his relaying his naked butt to whoever was watching on the other end, but probably in time to avoid sending any details of his face. He made a mental note to find whoever had broken hotel security and see to it that they never worked for anyone else again.
The com fitted into life.
"Smith: Ayoleth Hilt-Inn. I will speak with you now." The voice was coldly mechanical.
It might have been an artefact of the sound system.
"Is that a fact?" asked Carlos, quietly, of the empty air.
"My limousine is outside," said the voice "My driver will be with you directly."
He was. The com faded into silence at about the time the door cracked out of its hinges.
The "driver' might have been human although if he was, his genetic structure had been seriously re- arranged. If he was an android, he was built to kill without the need for weapons. The door was, doubtless, repairable. It made the point.
"What kept you?" Carlos smiled a greeting, dragged his weather-suit back on and stepped through the gap, back into the din of the hotel hallway.
They drove in silence through the linear streets of Ayolex City, taking a route that avoided the demonstration but brought them, nonetheless, to the doorway of the Ayoleth Hilt-inn in Central Square..
The doorman was grown from the same clone code as the driver but with a better taste in uniforms. "Mr Smith is expecting you," he said, ushering Carlos through the antique glass swing doors. "The elevator is straight ahead on the left."
The foyer and atrium of the hotel gleamed with gilt and green veined marble imported from Earth itself. The deep blue carpet was shot through with golden H's. Everything reeked of ostentatious luxury. A place to be seen and, later, to talk about having been seen. An exclusive style-school where the nouveau riche could learn the etiquette of infinite credit. Except that it was empty. In a city of unspeakable noise, and permanent seething activity, the Central Hilt-inn was an oasis of silence. Devoid of human life or android presence. The doorman stood outside and watched him without expression.
The elevator ran up the outside of the tower, in deference to Earth and their originators.
Ayoleth City lay glittering beneath his feet, a fistful of jewels thrown at random onto a bed of blue- black velvet.
At the top, the doors slid open and he stepped into the penthouse. The designers had abandoned the overdone pomp of the foyer and had exerted genuine taste. Taste and phenomenal amounts of credit. Carlos did some minor mental arithmetic and came to a number with more zeros to the left of the decimal point than was either decent or reasonable. The thought passed as a tall, slender man rose from a couch and walked towards him.
"Captain Sanchez," he said. His voice had the same cold, mechanical quality as it had on the corn-console.
"Commander Sanchez." Neither attempted to shake hands.
"Quite." A lounger slid into place opposite the wall-length windows and their illusory view.
"You will sit."
Carlos sat, waiting.
"You like my place?" My place . Very subtle.
"It's very quiet."
"I have personal objections to uninvited company.
"Wise. You have personal objections also to being referred to by name?" The Hilt-inn was not owned by a man named Smith. It never had been.
"You would care to guess at who I am?"
"You own this place and you have enough muscle to have it cleared for you. That makes you CEO of the Sirius Corporation. Last time I read a bulletin board, they referred to you as Monat the Android. I imagine it's as real as Smith.
"Indeed. And no doubt the price they were offering for my demise was high." The high brews twitched. "You didn't take it?"
"I don't take suicide missions," said Carlos. "I need a challenge, not a coffin."
They sat for a moment in silence as if both indulged in this kind of conversation on a daily basis.
"And if the price was right, would you take the ultimate challenge? On my terms?"
"I would consider it. If the price was right."
"No questions asked."
"You're the best. You can do it. And you have the right record, will that do?"
"Perfectly, thank you."
"Good. They said you were straightforward." The android produced a produced a small glossy black plaque. Numbers flashed red on its surface. They were the numbers of Carlos' account at the Lucerne TrustBank in Ayolex City. "Your thumbprint will initiate an instant transfer. Name your price."
Not once, through it all, did Carlos see him smile.
During the journey to Anlaol Carlos had a lot of time to consider Smith's plan, pick it apart looking for holes through which the ultimate challenge might become a swift route to suicide. By the time he called the docking port on the Macmillan Depot Orbiter to ask for docking clearance he had only found three and two could be dealt with. The third was open to chance. But then that was the challenge.
"Macmillan from incomer. This is Lieutenant Commander Carlos Ramirez Sanchez of the Federal Navy aboard 'The Rosa Luxembourg' requesting docking co-ordinates."
"Message received, 'Luxembourg'. Will answer when ready.
Carlos slid his ship down towards the Imperial depot waiting for the docking computers to verify his identity. This piece was flawless. Whatever else he was or might have been, his record in the Fed. Navy was pristine. He had taken care to keep it that way. He had also taken care never to take on a mission directly threatening to the Empire while under Federal employ. It gave him diplomatic credibility when he needed it. Like now.
The com crackled. "Purpose of your proposed visit, Lieutenant Commander Sanchez?"
Carlos raised a clenched fists in a small sign of victory. He kept his voice steady. "Diplomatic Escort duty, Macmillan. Previously confirmed via Eta Cassiopoea. Additional craft to cover departure of Federal Naval Attache and Federal Ambassador Keegan at termination of the Anlaol Summit.. Orders to rendezvous with Imperial Escort Craft. Please verify current position and status."
"'The Pride of Aymifa' leads the Imperial Diplomatic Escort. Docked under Imperial flag in western wing. Federal docking stations allocated to eastern sector."
"Thank you. Permission to dock?.
Flaw one negotiated. Carlos chalked one up to Smith/Monat's informants. Imperial paranoia prompted changes in the Escort ships at random and regular intervals. Without the 'Pride' in dock, life would have been difficult to the point of impossibility.
The Pride was his old Imperial ship. A long, long time ago, in his misspent youth, he had been Navigation officer on the ship. Then his commission expired and he chose to explore the greener pastures on the Federal side of the hill. Later still, he found the real freedom of Space and took orders from no-one. Unless the price was right.
He slid the ship into dock and waited for the tedium of the official search. Excise Guards were swarming over the 'The Rosa Luxembourg' before the hanger doors had shut. Dream-Ware headed their current list as 'Prime Corruptor of Imperial Thoughts'. Two of Carlos' near associates had been nailed for possession in the past month and the 'Personal Use Only' label made no apparent difference. Both languished in Imperial gaols with legal bills rising and no chance of getting out this side of the next millennium. It was one of the risks of docking in anywhere controlled by the Empire. Even in mediocre systems, cadres of dedicated Imperial Guards occupied every spare space, just desperate prove their worth as loyal servants of His Excellency. On a Central Imperial world, particularly one designated by the High protectorate as the latest "Summit Location', the fanaticism had to be seen to be believed. Besides, on the whole, Imperial Guards are not fond of Federal pilots. The ones searching the 'Rosa' made it perfectly plain that only the threat of a major diplomatic incident kept their itching laser fingers under control. Carlos smiled at them peaceably, watching while they took his ship apart and thought about money. And plans. And motives.
They stopped, eventually, because there are limits to how much damage can be done, even in the name of an Excise search. They had found nothing because there was nothing to find. It did nothing to improve their sense of humour.
"We're watching you, Sanchez," said the Group Commander as he handed Carlos his clearance papers. "We're watching you."
"Of course you are," said Carlos, gently. That's the whole point.
"You used a what to get over here?" Benazi demanded.
"A bicycle. Simple, foolproof ancient technology, and I get some exercise at the same time"
Carlos smiled genially at the Imperial officer, in his white on white uniform with gold frogging, buttons and epaulettes. Benazi had been a minor sub-lieutenant in Carlos' time on the Pride. Now he was an Acting Watch Commander - a very sad comment on the state of the Empire and its paths of promotion.
"Is this a joke?" asked Benzal.
"Of course not. Security is paramount. Diplomacy's a risky business. Our respective leaders are about to endure the ghastly experience of a week in a twelve star hotel and the best in paid hospitality that Imperial credit can buy. They want to know that they'll live to go home to their voting public, or in your case, their adoring, non-voting public. No point in being a diplomat if you don't get the public adulation for achieving a continuing peace. It gives them that lovely warm feeling that gets them re-elected time after time. Our job is to see to it that they can endure the rigours of diplomacy with a quiet mind. So, I am authorised to offer you a guided four of the "Rosa', show you everything your Excise Guards missed. In turn I get to request a look around the "Pride'. That way we can say that security has been seen to be sensed." He patted the officer on the arm. "Shit rolls downhill, brother, we just have to shovel it out as best we can. Don't let it get to you. At least this way I get to visit my old mates without it being on the wrong end of a military laser."
Benazi nodded reluctant agreement. "Yeah. Right. There aren't many left here from your time, though." he said.
"Hell," said Carlos, "That's sad." He struck flaw two off the list, "Why not take me round anyway?"
The tour of the 'Pride' was deeply uninspiring. The ship was shabbier, the paint a lot more chipped than it had been. Commodore Priam wouldn't have tolerated such laxity, but Commodore Priam had got God in a big way in his old age and retired to van Maanen's Star. Commodore Fixx, it seemed, wasn't of the old school. Where Priam would have had a man scourged for allowing his weapons to look anything other than they had just been unpacked from the factory, Fixx didn't seem to care so long as they worked when he wanted to kill whatever it was that got in his way. Benazi had his doubts about Fixx, that much was obvious from the tone of his voice, but he stopped short of outright disapproval, ludicrous use of the airlock for disposal of the recalcitrant was a useful an encouragement to good discipline.
In the wardroom, Benazi poured him a gin. "How did you get the posting as Imperial Escort?" asked Carlos, offhandedly.
"The Commodore has friends at court," replied Benazi, as though that was an answer.
Anyone who didn't have friends at court didn't get to be a Commodore and certainly not with command of a ship like 'The Pride of Aymifa'. The Pride had enough speed and weaponry to single handedly win a war against a fairly substantial system. Any Emperor who couldn't rely on the bone deep loyalty of the commander of such a ship couldn't sleep easy at nights.
"So he's a diplomat?"
"More or less. Not that he's a bad Commander. I wouldn't say that." the Imperial officer looked pointedly at a com speaker in the corner. "I wouldn't say that at all."
Carlos looked up at the com and back to his companion. He let one eyelid droop, knowingly.
"But he's got himself a diplomatic posting?"
"Of course. That's why we're here."
"And he's gone to the Opening Banquet?"
"Sure. Anyone who's anyone's gone to that," said Benazi, the one who was plainly nothing and nobody and happy with it.
"Must be good to work for the best in the Galaxy." said Carlos, smiling over the top of his gin.
Benazi's gaze was condescending. "This isn't the best in the Galaxy, Sanchez. Only the Emperor has the best in the Galaxy. Duval's Duval can out fly anything there is or ever has been."
"Sure. But she's in Achenar."
There was a slightly breathless pause. Benazi looked smug. Carlos looked shocked, then growing awareness spread slowly over his features. "You mean she's here?" he asked.
The Imperial officer nodded,. "It's High Security, but you'll know tomorrow. His Excellency wishes to take part in this round of negotiations. He feel that his Presence will enable the problem of the Disputed Zone to be more readily resolved."
"I'm sure it will." Carlos nodded, deep in thought. "Are you saying Duval's Duval is here? In dock? On Macmillan? How come it's not been broadcast all over the Galaxy?"
Benazi's stare was, by now, openly pitying. "Because this is Imperial territory," he said. "We believe in loyalty to our leaders here. If the Emperor decrees that his visit here shall be in secret, then it remains a secret. No-one would go against His word."
No-one who wanted either a quiet life or a fast death, anyway. Carlos remembered a vid he'd been shown in his days as a Naval pilot. The key player had been accused of treason. It was a sobering sight. There are ways of living that have remarkably little appeal. Carlos shuddered. Benazi smiled, gratified. "You should have stayed, you know," he said. "Life is so much simpler when the rules are clear. I don't know how you can stand it, living in places where the leaders have to pander to the whim of their voters and the rule-book bends every time an election is due.
Carlos smiled, ruefully and shook his head "If I'd thought there would ever have been a chance of serving alongside Duval's Duval, I'd never have gone," he said.
Benazi saw a convert sitting before him. He leaned forward, laying a hand on his fellow officer's shoulder. "it's not to late," he said. "You could always come back."
"To serve alongside the best ship in the Galaxy?"
"I'd have to believe she was really that good."
"Oh you'll believe, man. You'll believe." Benazi threw down the last dregs of his gin and rose to hi, full height. "Follow me." He thumbed the intercom. "Mr Makhtoum, I'm going off ship for a while. You've got the con."
"Yes sir," the sub-officers voice rang hollowly. Carlos shook his head. The Pride could fly from one side of the Galaxy to the other, had enough weaponry to vaporise a planet, and still the communications system sounded like two tin cans joined together with string. Some things never change.
Carlos and Benazi marched up to the docking level. A full platoon of Imperial Guards stood to attention and saluted in perfect symmetry as the passed. Benazi acknowledged and returned the gesture. Carlos nodded, once.
'Duval's Duval' lay at dock, shimmering and white in the fine haze of the suspension system, a diamond amongst coal, a sleek, sharp, carnivore amongst the clodden reptiles of the other ships.
Beside her, even the "Rosa' looked small, shoddy and very, very slow. For a moment, the beauty of her struck a genuine chord. Momentarily, Carlos allowed himself to imagine his hand on the controls as she powered up and moved out. The thought went as quickly as it came. He had enough trouble sleeping most nights without knowing that half the humans in the Galaxy wanted his job while the other half just wanted him dead.
They stood together at the entryway, each absorbed in his own thoughts. Carlos brought himself back to the present and his challenge. The only part of the plan that carried had any real risk. He flicked a fiche of plastic from his breast pocket and moved idly to the lock door.
"You're not really still using code cards for entry? That's positively antediluvian." He shook his head in mocking wonder. His card fitted neatly in the palm of his hand. "Do you suppose this thing still works?" he asked, and swiped his card down through the slot in a single, unthinking motion.
Benazi smiled a condescending smile as nothing happened. "The codes are changed hourly, Sanchez. That'll get you nowhere." The smile faded, "But if you try it again, I'll have you executed for attempted defilement of Imperial property.
Carlos stepped back. "Sorry, Francois. It's the gin. I wasn't thinking. He looked scared. He was scared. Very. In all of Smith/Monat's plan, this was the key and the only factor over which Carlos had absolutely no control. The card could have been anything from a blank piece of plastic to a detonator with a zero time-delay. In idle moments aboard the 'Rosa', he'd seen himself vaporised where he stood as the card swiped down through the reader. In the end, he had taken it on trust because there was no other rational thing to do. And androids are not supposed to lie. Even now, they have to tell the truth, it just gets increasingly difficult thinking of the right questions to ask.
According to the plan, Carlos' work was finished. A logic bomb coded into the card's memory was loading as he stood there into the Duval's main computer. He had to trust that Smith's software engineers knew what they were doing and that it could do what it was supposed to do without detection. It was designed to take over engine control shortly after 'Duval's Duval' left dock and run the engines up through their critical loads and out the other side until they went 'Bang When a Mark III military drive went over the edge the resulting explosion was a good excuse to be on the other side of the Galaxy at the time. 'Duval's Duval' had four Mark Ills and Smith had sworn that, even if the Imperials located the software, there was no way to get round the coding he'd just loaded into the ship's computers. As soon as His Excellency, the Warrior of Peace the Eternal Dove of War, Emperor Hengist Duval got aboard his ship and they set course for Capitol, he was a dead man.
The pair took a last, lingering look at the ship and then turned to go. Carlos felt a hand on his arm.
"What would you say to a look round?"
"The "Duval'. How would you like a look inside her?" Banazi was looking smug.
Like a hole in the head. Like several holes in the head. The last thing in the Galaxy he wanted was to board that ship. All he wanted to do was get back aboard his Rosa and head for the hills, except he couldn't do that, either. His spurious tour as escort duty meant that he'd have to stay in dock until the Ambassadors chose to leave. Until then the best option was to get back to his cabin with the security of his own bunk and a long, cold drink.
"Why?" he asked, more to buy time than to find an answer, "I thought that was impossible?" "Nothing is impossible if you know the right people.
Benazi went over to the waiting Guards and picked up a comset. He spoke into it for a few moments, then came back over to Carlos, beaming like the Cheshire Cat.
"What's the point of having friends if you don't use 'em? We're in."
Benazi's 'friend' turned out to be a Watch Officer as unprepossessing as Benazi himself. If he'd had a real future he'd have been at the Banquet himself.
"So this is the famous Carlos Sanchez is it? Pleased to greetcha. Shift Lieutenant Wycherly, Imperial Guard." A hand clasped his, wetly.
"Delighted, I'm sure.
The notion that he was famous was worrying. He had worked very hard at being blandly anonymous. He followed the two Imperial Officers as they took him on a truncated tour of the Galaxy's most expensive yacht. Smith/Monat would have hated the gilded ostentation. Carlos Yould have hated it if he had had the energy to spare. He smiled vacantly at intervals and followed Benazi and Wycherley as the latter led them down below decks, away from the Imperial Quarters.
"Sorry, Sanchez. Only blue bloods and invited guests up there. You'll have to make do with he Crew quarters. Still, better than anything you've ever seen. Right?"
"Mmm. Quite." Carlos nodded his agreement and counted the seconds until he could leave he ship.
They had just finished looking at the crew quarters, which were, indeed, considerably more comfortable than anything Carlos had known while serving under either Flag, and were making their way to the secondary dock when red lights in the bulkheads began to blink and an urgent klaxon sounded.
"Hell's Teeth." Wycherley stopped dead in his tracks and stared at his watch. "He's not due back on board for another halt hour."
"Who?" asked Benazi, redundantly.
"The Emperor, stupid." Wycherley ushered them at a run back towards the crew quarters before stopping and shoving Benazi back in the direction of the dock.
"You can walk off," Wycherley told Benazi. "lust act as though you belong here. The Guards are Anlaol, they don't know every officer aboard."
"Right. Sure." The officer set off under his own steam and vanished around a corner, leaving Carlos with Wycherley. A door opened into a small but well-appointed cabin.
"It'll take me five minutes to hand over to the new watch. Five minutes. Then I'll be back and get you off here.
As Wycherley guided him into the cabin Carlos was struck by the fact that the officer seemed galvanised, competent, no longer bumbling and clumsy as he had when Benazi was around. Before he had time to investigate the idea further he felt Wycherley's hand on his shoulder and a needle-sharp lab struck the back of his neck. "Maybe a bit longer than that." said Wycherley as Carlos collapsed to the floor and then: "Mr Smith sends his best regards."
Carlos came to with the distant thunder of four Mark III engines singing through the structure of the yacht like a plucked guitar string. He used the cabin console to lever himself to his feet and waited until the walls and ceiling re-arranged themselves into something approaching their normal order. He felt a shudder run through the ship as it undocked and began to manoeuvre towards free space. He tried the door. Locked.
Given time he could have worked his way round any lock in the Galaxy. With a weapon he could simply have burned it out. He had neither, and neither would have helped. He felt the main drives kick in and the sudden pressure on his face and hands which told him whoever was steering the ship wasn't wasting any time with gentle manoeuvres in system. The pedal hit the metal, and he was in for the ride of his life. The last ride of his life. The Emperor might be on board. Or then again, he might not. There was no way of knowing.
The ultimate challenge.
A well-muscled aide carried a comset tearsheet into the penthouse suite of the Ayoleth Hilt-inn. He laid it on a desk in front of the room's only occupant.
"Report from Wycherley," he said. "'Duval's Duval' departed Macmillan Orbiter without the Emperor aboard. There are unconfirmed reports of a large ship self-destructing just outside the Anloal system. Our best estimate is that this was the Imperial yacht."
The figure nodded, once without reading the sheet.
"Sanchez' bank plaque?" it said.
The aide proffered the plaque.
He figure leant forward and spoke to the featureless black surface. "Owner. Lucerne Trust- Bank. Confirm voice recognition."
Red lights flickered on screen resolving into a single word.
"Confirm closure of account name Carlos Ramirez Sanchez."
"Open account "Dream-ware Primer' Privileged access. Cleared Bank staff only."
"Confirm transfer of all funds from closed to opened account'
"Sirius Over-Management ends. Close link."
The lights flickered to nothing and the plaque was returned to the waiting aide.
"Communications from the Empire?" asked the figure.
"High Legislate met yesterday to confirm removal of Dream-Ware ban. Sirius Corporation application for franchise has been cleared. We have permission to install Sirius Dream-Ware on all Imperial stations."
As the aide left, the android allowed itself the faintest flicker of a smile.