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´╗┐Title: Ambush - A Terran Empire vignette
Author: Wilson, Ann
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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AMBUSH

A Terran Empire vignette

by Ann Wilson



Copyright (C) 1992 by Ann Wilson



Palace Complex, 2578 CE

It wouldn't be easy ferreting out the identity of the field agent who'd
saved his bio-father's life twelve years ago.  It wasn't supposed to be
easy--ideally, it would be impossible--and Nevan was sure he owed his
own life, perhaps several times over, to the Imperial safeguards he was
trying to break. More, he understood why those safeguards wouldn't be
relaxed even to allow an ex-agent to search out a still-active one--but
he had what he considered two excellent reasons to do exactly that.

The first was that his bio-father had died, and had wanted Nevan to
give the anonymous agent his personal weapons: two forearm throwing
knives, a belt knife, and a needler.  The one he had sworn fealty to
had agreed that his father's wish made it a matter of honor that he
try, and had given him permission--but on condition that he use only
his own training and skills, taking no advantage of the fact that he
was sworn to one of the most powerful people in the Empire.  Nevan was
certain in his own mind that if he failed, she would see that the agent
got the weapons intended for him, but his thakur's overt reason for
agreeing was that it would make a good test of IntelDiv's security.  If
he were arrested, she would have him released and commend the people
who had done it; if he got through, she would have security procedures
tightened.  Neither paid serious attention to the fact that if he were
caught under certain circumstances she would have no chance to protect
him; he would be shot on sight.

Nevan thought that perfectly reasonable.  He was a Sandeman warrior,
after all, and his thakur was an Irschchan; risks were a normal part of
life for both of them, to be accepted and even savored for the spice
they added.

He had done all he could here, in the Records Section; he lowered his
mind-shield and reached out.  *Thakur?*

Her answer was prompt, and he smiled to himself, enjoying the cool
clarity of her mind-touch.  *What results, thakur-na?* she asked.

*About what we expected.  Kelly told me the agent was Logistics Officer
at a base on Piper's World during the Traiti counter-attacks there, but
he never told me which base, and the description he gave fits five of
them.  I was able to eliminate two of those because the Logistics
Officers were female--but that still leaves three.  I'm going to have
to go under cover to find the right one.*

He "heard" the amused purr that was the Irschchan version of a laugh.
*A return to the field work you enjoy so must be a terrible sacrifice,
my Nevan.*

Nevan let his thoughts lapse into High War Speech, chuckling.  *Nay,
Thakur, as thou knowest well--save that it does mean I must conceal thy
mark, lest it identify me and make thy object in this attempt no true
test.*

*Aye, but it should not be for long.*

*And I knew when I swore that I might have to do it,* Nevan agreed.
*Until my success or failure, then.*

Three days later he was far from Terra, the violet-flower tattoo on his
cheek concealed by synthiskin, in a small Kanchatka-class courier ship.
That was a definite luxury for a private individual, though not
unreasonable for a Sandeman warrior who'd done well securing private
employment and wanted more--who was, in short, a very good, very
expensive hired killer.  There weren't many, granted; killing for its
own sake wasn't highly regarded on Sandeman, especially if anything
more honorable was available, but there were enough to make his cover
plausible.

This, he had decided, was going to be fun.

      *      *      *      *      *

A couple of days later, he was less sure.  He'd come away from the
Palace Complex with as much solid data as he'd ever had starting a
mission, and with as much enthusiasm, but he'd begun feeling less than
comfortable about this one.  Part of it was because he was pursuing
someone he would probably like to have as a friend; the unknown agent
didn't deserve to be hunted, though Nevan had to reluctantly concede
that it was probably the best way to accomplish his thakur's mission.
The other part was that he couldn't seem to decide whether or not he
really wanted to catch his target.  He wanted to make sure the weapons
were delivered, yes, and since his chosen lady wanted a good test of
IntelDiv's security, he had to want it too--but he wasn't happy about
what those desires implied: It was almost inevitable that he'd have to
use some of a field agent's less savory skills.  He'd used them before,
often enough, and without qualms--against the Empire's enemies.  He had
never used them against people who had done nothing to deserve such
treatment, and he didn't really want to.

He didn't have any choice, though.  He would do whatever proved to be
necessary to accomplish his objectives.

      *      *      *      *      *

Three weeks, five planetfalls, and almost 1500 light-years of routine
checking later, Nevan discovered his quarry's name: Kiyoshi Owajima.
So far he'd had to resort to nothing more drastic than reading and
casual conversation, but learning he was after Owajima left him both
disgusted at the gods' whimsical ordering of things and positive that
things would be getting unpleasant rather shortly.  He'd never met
Owajima, though he'd wanted to, and when Nevan had left IntelDiv on
swearing fealty to Ranger Losinj, Owajima had taken over the top field
agent rating.  Owajima was no Sandeman, but IntelDiv rumor had him
close; he was supposed to have been a Kai-school ninja before joining
the Corps, and his exploits since hadn't done anything to contradict
the rumor.  Nevan scowled at that; he hated having to depend on rumor.
Doing that tended to get agents killed--but unless you worked in the
classified section of Personnel Records or knew the agent personally,
rumor was all you'd have on one.  And in Owajima's case, as in Nevan's
own, there wasn't even much rumor.

      *      *      *      *      *

Kiyoshi Owajima concealed a scowl when he finished decoding his
informant's message and read it.  He had a pursuer, it seemed--a
Sandeman warrior named Vance DarLowrie, and the informant was convinced
DarLowrie was one of the rare, expensive, and fearsome Sandeman
free-lance assassins.  That conviction was strengthened by the fact that
DarLowrie had his own ship, the Last Resort, and it was registered to
him personally rather than to Clan Lowrie.  The Sandeman would neither
confirm nor deny that occupation, of course, but the simple fact that
he was attempting to trace an IntelDiv field agent lent still further
credence to the informant's conclusion.

Owajima would have liked more information, but it seemed prudent to act
on the informant's suspicions.  The Sandeman had filed a flight plan
for Olathe, where Owajima had spent some time and built up a
respectable net; that seemed most promising.  It was unfortunate,
Owajima thought, that he was unable to investigate DarLowrie himself;
that would have to wait until he was finished with the final touches on
his present case, a matter of a day or two.

Still, he could begin making preparations.  He would be entitled to a
leave after this mission, and he had planned to take it at home on
Nippon-Ni; that was now an even better idea.  His contacts on his home
world made his networks elsewhere, good as they were, seem like
children's clubs--and it should not be difficult at all to permit
DarLowrie to "discover" those intentions.  It would undoubtedly be
unpleasant for the one he discovered them from, since it was unlikely
DarLowrie would believe information he obtained too easily.

That, however, was not a serious problem; a number of his Olathe
network owed him enough that he could call on them even for such a
service.  It would take DarLowrie perhaps a week to reach Olathe,
another week and a half to get to Nippon-Ni; that would give Owajima
time to make adequate preparations, then visit with his family for
several days.  He smiled to himself, transmitted the necessary
messages, and returned his attention to his immediate mission.

      *      *      *      *      *

Nevan entered the Lucky Bull, a medium-priced bar near the Olathe City
spaceport, and ordered a glass of chocolate milk before finding a table
near the rear of the main room.  In the early days after Annexation,
he'd heard, bars had carried alcoholic beverages almost exclusively,
and Sandemans were made fun of for drinking only the non-alcoholic
variety, but by the time he'd started frequenting bars as an excellent
source of information, the sweet high-energy beverages Sandemans
preferred were as normal as alcohol.

If he had Owajima figured correctly, someone at one of his last two or
three stops should have been in his target's network, and contacted
him.  Even if, as Nevan thought probable, Owajima was working on the
Bracei case, he'd make time to have a presumed assassin investigated.
That was why Nevan had made no secret of his last destinations,
following his flight plans precisely as he'd filed them.  That, and the
fact that a Sandeman hired killer shouldn't display the subtleties and
precautions that would mark him as having had Imperial training of any
sort, particularly a field agent's training; the two simply didn't go
together.

A tall man in Marine service dress with captain's bars approached
Nevan's table, carrying a drink.  "Mind if I join you, warrior?" he
asked.

"If you wish, Captain."

The other sat, looking him over; Nevan returned the scrutiny, waiting.

"I'm Kim Johansen, of SecuDiv," the Marine said at last.  "You're Vance
DarLowrie, just in on the Last Resort?"

Nevan nodded.  "I am, Captain Johansen.  What of it?"

"If you're what rumor calls you and your ship's name implies, I'd
advise you to lay low.  The Baron here takes a dim view of assassins."

"Most people do, except those who have need of one.  I thank you for
your concern, though; I will be careful."

"Good."  Johansen sipped at his drink, frowned.  "A warrior of your
clan saved my life during the war.  I feel a certain obligation to
repay that debt, even if I don't particularly approve of your
occupation myself."

"There's no proof I'm what you guess."

"The fact you don't deny it will be enough for most."  Johansen showed
brief distaste, swallowed the rest of his drink, and rose.  "I can't
wish you luck, since that'd mean wishing someone else dead.  But I can
wish it for your clan, and I do."

Nevan rose to bow.  "I will pass your wishes, and word of your
repayment, to the Lowrie.  Go in peace, Captain Johansen--and please
accept my wishes for your well-being.  Whatever you think of me or my
profession--" most Imperials were as dubious of field agents as they
were of assassins--"I want only the best for the Empire and its
officers."

"Sandemans don't lie, so I accept that," Johansen said.  Then,
grudgingly, "Thank you, warrior."  With that he left, abruptly.

Nevan allowed himself a small smile, then went to get more chocolate
milk. Not too promising so far, but he hadn't been here long, either.

Perhaps half an hour after he returned to his table, another man
approached, this one in an expensive suit.  "Vance DarLowrie?"

"Yes."  Nevan recognized the type; a businesser who'd made enemies and
wanted either protection or one of them eliminated.  "I am not
available at the moment."

"You have other employment?"

"That's none of your concern."

The businesser sat.  "It is if your target is Kiyoshi Owajima, as I've
heard.  I have reason to want him . . . out of the picture."

"Oh?"  Nevan remained noncommittal, but allowed himself to show a trace
of interest.  "I understand he's an Imperial officer--a dangerous
target. Killing him would earn the death penalty or life
imprisonment--death, if done simply for pay.  That's a foolish risk,
when there are any number of almost riskless targets around."

"I can tell you where he's going when he finishes his current mission."

"Interesting, if true," Nevan acknowledged.

"It's true," the businesser said.

Reading his face and body language, Nevan agreed.  The man knew, was
eager to say--and would report to Owajima as soon as he could.  Nevan
made himself look skeptical, which wasn't hard; this was obviously a
setup.  "Even if he were my target, which I do not say, I would want
more than your unsupported word.  Will you submit to truth drugs, or
shall I use Sandeman methods?"

"Torture, you mean."  The businesser grimaced.  "In my position, I
don't dare submit to truth drugs.  And I've no desire to use my pain to
convince you I'm telling the truth."

Nevan shrugged.  "Those are the alternatives."  He didn't particularly
like torture himself, and especially disliked using it on one of a
field agent's network.  But an enemy would have no hesitation, and
until he caught up with Owajima--or was caught himself--he was acting
in that capacity. "If you are convinced Owajima is my target, and you
wish to assist me in finding him, you will choose one.  Otherwise, you
will depart."

The businesser looked angry, but Nevan could see he'd expected
something of the sort.  "The torture, then.  When and where?"

"My ship, now."  Nevan stood.  "Come along."

      *      *      *      *      *

Nevan scowled down at the unconscious businesser.  He'd restricted his
open questioning to Owajima's plans and next location--his homeworld,
not surprisingly--but he'd done some questioning covertly as well,
making comments about Owajima and reading the answers from his
subject's face and body language.  The man had confirmed an opinion
Nevan had formed early: given the opportunity, he and Owajima could
easily become friends.

This man, for instance.  He'd owed Owajima a debt, true, but it had
been loyalty rather than obligation that had led him to help the way he
had. Assuming he was successful in this mission, Nevan thought, he'd
have to see the businesser got some sort of compensation.  Though the
man had definitely been in serious pain, Nevan had inflicted no real
damage beyond bruises; when the man woke, he'd be able to function
normally.

Nevan was tempted to clean the man up, put him to bed, and dose him
with rapid-heal--but that wasn't how one with his cover occupation
would act. Instead, he got an injector of energine and triggered it
into the businesser's carotid artery.  Seconds later, the man's eyes
opened and he groaned.  "Are you done yet?"

"Yes.  You may get dressed and leave.  I would advise you to waste no
time; liftoff is in ten minutes."

"I'll be gone."  The man struggled to his feet and into the small
'fresher, where Nevan had had him leave his clothing; less than two
minutes later he was leaving the ship.

Nevan had his flight plan ready by then.  He transmitted it to the
spaceport controller, got clearance, and was lifting off at the
specified time.  Not long afterward, he was far enough from the planet
to make the transition to hyperspace, and did so.

      *      *      *      *      *

Owajima smiled as he read his agent's decoded message.  DarLowrie had
acted precisely as could be expected from a Sandeman assassin, it
seemed, though Owajima was pleased his agent reported nothing more
serious than bruises.  He frowned, though, when he reached the last
paragraph.

"Personal impressions:  I can't pinpoint it, but something about him
reminds me of you.  The feeling you give me of being looked into more
than at, maybe.  It's not the typical Sandeman arrogance that makes you
feel like you're not worth the bother of looking at--it's more like
being under a microscope.  I'm sorry to be so vague, but as I said,
there wasn't anything definite I can point to."

A feeling of being looked into rather than at.  Owajima frowned more
deeply.  That bore an uncomfortable resemblance to a particularly
observant person's reaction to someone who was reading @'s face and
body language. That was not a common skill, particularly among
Sandemans--though he had to admit it would be as useful a skill for an
assassin as it was for a field agent.

In which case, it was possible DarLowrie had obtained more information
than Owajima had intended--including that the information had been set
up for him to find.  And where had DarLowrie learned such a skill?  Not
on any of the Sandeman worlds, which weren't given to such subtleties.
The only places Owajima knew, in fact, that taught more than the most
basic such reading were the Kai school here, and the Imperial field
agent school on Terra.  No Sandeman had ever studied here, and he was
aware of only one who had successfully completed field agent training--his
predecessor as top agent, Nevan DarLeras, now sworn to the Crown
Princess by the totally-binding Sandeman personal-fealty oath.

That left a graduate of one of those two schools as DarLowrie's
teacher. An ex-field agent was by far the more likely, if only because
there were many more of them, and few Kai-school ninjas left Nippon-Ni.
Take that as a working hypothesis, then.  In that case, was it likely
the agent had taught DarLowrie only face and body reading?

It would be safest, Owajima thought, to operate on the worst-case
assumption that DarLowrie had learned most, if not all, of an agent's
skills. He would need them, if he had any intention of assassinating
Owajima on his home territory and then escaping.

Should he simply eliminate DarLowrie, or would it be better to capture
and question him?  The second, Owajima decided almost immediately.
That would be more difficult, but it might be a good idea to discover
the agent reckless enough to teach such skills to anyone able to pay--and
discourage . . .

He was going to do it himself.  He could and would ask for help from
his former colleagues, the Shogun's secret police--but attempted murder
of an Imperial officer was an Imperial crime; they didn't have
jurisdiction.  He could call in assistance, but that was something
field agents were, as an occupational characteristic, disinclined to do
unless there was no other way to get the job done--which, at this
point, was not the case.

      *      *      *      *      *

Nevan spent the first two days of his flight to Nippon-Ni studying
everything the Last Resort's ship-comp had available about that planet.
It sounded interesting, and he decided he'd like to visit sometime when
he could do so openly; it had been settled by Japanese who wanted to
return to the days of the Samurai, without giving up modern
conveniences or an industrial base. They even called their Baron the
"Shogun", on-planet.

But it also looked like a dangerous place to operate.  The Shogun's
secret police force was made up of the Kai-school ninjas Owajima was
rumored to have been, and it seemed possible he'd been one of them
before joining the Corps. If so, he'd undoubtedly use them for
backup--which meant going in, Nevan thought, would be like sticking his
head in a balik's den.  A female balik's, with newborn cubs.  One alerted
field agent would be bad enough; a police force of agent-equivalents
. . . the smart thing would be to call it off, go back to Terra, set up
a new identity, and start over.  He did know who his quarry was, now; he
wouldn't be starting from scratch.

He was reluctant to do that, though.  He'd done nothing even the most
fanatical secret police could legally arrest him for; it seemed a shame
to abandon his mission when he was so close to accomplishing it.  Being
arrested without cause would be justification for mind-calling his
thakur, and he was sure she'd intervene; Owajima had to be the only
agent with an entire planetary police force to call on for backup,
which made him an unrepresentative opponent.  Besides, Nevan admitted,
he relished the challenge.  He hadn't had the opportunity to really use
his abilities in longer than he cared to think about.

      *      *      *      *      *

Owajima answered his phone, to see the chief of spaceport security.
"Yes, Captain?"

"The Last Resort just called for landing, Colonel.  Do you want us to
detain DarLewies?"

"No, thank you.  Permit him to land and do as he wishes, but keep him
under close surveillance.  Discreetly, of course."

The security chief smiled.  "Of course, Colonel.  We will keep you
informed at all times.  Will you need any further assistance?"

"I do not believe so, but if I should, I will ask."

      *      *      *      *      *

Nevan had to land at the New Tokyo civilian spaceport, but he was
likeliest to be able to get current information about Owajima at the
nearby Imperial Navy base, so he rented a car and drove the twenty
kilometers north. He'd been on so many worlds that he didn't find
Nippon-Ni particularly remarkable, though he was pleased that the
temperature was high enough he didn't need a jacket.  And the smell of
chocolate chip cookies or a close local equivalent coming from a shop
he passed was tempting enough to make his mouth water, but he kept
going; Nevan DarLeras' fondness for those was well enough known in the
wrong circles that he didn't dare indulge it when he was under cover.

Things were definitely not going his way, he decided as he neared the
base.  Traffic was too heavy for a normal workday, and he found out why
when he got close to the main gate: a banner over the road welcomed
visitors to the annual Base Open House.  Nevan addressed a caustic,
"Why me?" to the gods he only half-believed in, but it might look
suspicious if he turned and left; instead, he kept going with traffic,
which took him to a parking area that would need major help to look
like a lawn again after being used this way.

There wasn't anything useful he could accomplish during an open house,
with all the base offices closed, so he decided he might as well bow to
the inevitable and try to enjoy himself.  Such events did have their
good points; the various units' hospitality stands tried to outdo each
other, so the quality and variety of food and drink available was truly
impressive.  He should be able to find treats he liked almost as well
as chocolate chip cookies, but ones that wouldn't blow his cover.  He
walked toward the exhibit-covered landing field, glad that he'd kept
his identity as a Sandeman warrior; as crowded as the area was, he was
given plenty of room to move.  He was impressed despite himself by the
exhibits, too.  Whoever was in charge of this open house had managed to
get a heavy destroyer for a static display--and while those were
nowhere near as big as the kilometer-diameter battle cruisers, which
were far too big to land, they were quite big enough to have the
visitors making awed comments.

Curious, Nevan walked around the ship until he found its ID--and then
he sent another caustic comment to one of the newest gods.  *Dammit,
Kelly, if you want me to deliver your blades to Owajima, how about some
cooperation instead of all these problems?*

The destroyer was the IHD Warleader Riordan, a ship from the Fiftieth
Fleet, which meant it was crewed primarily by Sandemans.  That was bad
enough, but a good percentage on this particular ship were from Clan
Leras, so even the ones not directly related to him would know him on
sight.  And they weren't IntelDiv; they wouldn't know not to recognize
him.  He turned and began walking away, hoping against hope that the
crew was still all aboard ship.  He'd been lucky enough not to get
caught in such a situation during his active career; maybe that luck
would hold long enough for him to get out of this one.

"Nevan!"

The happy voice from behind him made it all too clear his luck had
changed.  He turned and bowed respectfully to the approaching
warriors'-woman in Imperial Marine service black.  "Good day, Lady
Morna.  You're looking well."

She looked at him with affectionate appraisal, and shook her head
ruefully.  "I can't say the same for you, I'm afraid.  How long have
you been on the meds?"

"Almost a month," Nevan admitted.  He might have been able to get away
with lying to another w'woman, but the lady Morna could tell--whether
by looking or by some form of Talent--almost to the day how long a
warrior had been using anti-need medications.  And she didn't approve
of them being used any longer than was absolutely necessary.

"I thought so.  Are you going to be around long enough for me to give
you a natural release?"

Nevan was tempted, but he shook his head.  He'd have to leave as soon
as he could; now that his cover was blown, he had no choice but to give
up this try and start over.  "I'm afraid I have to get back to Terra."

Morna nodded, glancing at the synthiskin-covered cheek.  "Of course; I
didn't realize.  But when you do, promise me that you'll find a w'woman
or warrior and get a decent natural release."

"I will, lady," Nevan replied, grateful for her understanding.  "Or a
Traiti; some of the Palace Guard have given me good combat releases."

"That will do."  Morna smiled at him.  "At least you haven't gone six
months on the meds, the way you had when I first met you!  But can you
stay a little while?  Our autochef bakes good cookies.  Including
chocolate chip."

Nevan chuckled, deciding that an hour or so shouldn't really make any
difference.  "I'd like that; thanks."

      *      *      *      *      *

The receiver in Owajima's ear chimed softly; he turned on his throat
mike--not the surgically implanted comm unit many ranking Imperials
were given, but the external type used as far back as pre-atomic
times--and answered. "Owajima here."

"DarLowrie went to the open house, Colonel--and one of those on the
destroyer static display recognized him.  His name is Nevan, and he has
accepted an invitation to visit the ship."

"Nevan!" Owajima exclaimed.  "What clan, do you know?"

"It was not said, but the largest clan group aboard is from Leras."

"Ah."  Owajima was silent for several seconds, absorbing that.  "Is
there a tattoo on his right cheek?"

"There is not."

"Interesting--thank you.  I will need some assistance after all, it
appears; I would like to get into his ship with as few traces as
possible."

"An entry specialist will be with you in ten minutes.  Is there
anything else?"

"Not at the moment.  Owajima out."  So his pursuer's true name was
Nevan, Owajima thought, troubled.  And the ship's largest contingent
was from Leras. Knowing both Sandemans and the unconditional nature of
the personal fealty oath, he found it hard to believe his pursuer's
identity.  What had gone wrong, to turn a Sandeman warrior from
thakur-na to renegade assassin?

Or . . . had anything?  If Nevan had either deserted or harmed his
chosen lady, it would have been all over the news channels, and there
had been nothing.  The likelihood, then, was that he was on a mission
for her--a mission that somehow concerned him.

Owajima smiled slowly at that.  Very well, he would take all possible
precautions, though he no longer believed they would be necessary.
Nevan DarLeras had a powerful and trained Talent, something "Vance
DarLowrie" had shown no traces of--so he was not using either that or
Ranger Losinj's position to simplify his mission.  An exercise of some
sort, then--security, in all probability.  If true, it could be proven
easily, Owajima thought, and he would have the pleasure of meeting his
predecessor.

      *      *      *      *      *

Nevan enjoyed both the cookies and the talk, though he kept an eye on
the time and didn't let himself relax too much.  Owajima was alerted
now, and field agents tended to have a rather violent reaction to
someone stalking them for unknown purposes.  Nevan couldn't blame them;
he'd reacted the same way when one of his net had warned him someone
was on his trail.  About the best such a pursuer could expect,
unless @ was able to ambush the agent first, was that the agent wanted
information enough to use a non-lethal form of attack or defense--until
@ learned enough to satisfy @'s curiosity, at least.

But Nevan was able to put the hazards of his mission in the back of his
mind while he caught up on news from home.  His first son, with the
lady Dallas, was doing well in his warrior training, though both he and
his half-brother--Nevan's with the lady Morna, who looked more than a
little smug, telling him--were giving Sean and Ellen fits trying to
keep up.  Nevan couldn't help laughing; Sean and Ellen had fostered
him, too, and he remembered how good they were--and how frustrated Sean
got--with a child-warrior's hyperactivity.  Other news was almost as
interesting to him, if less personal: the warrior Leslie had broken his
leg in war games with the Combat Division Marines stationed at Shangri-La
Base, and the clan had been asked to train more assault-lander
pilots.

The hour was all too short, but Nevan didn't let himself stretch his
visit beyond that point.  He left the destroyer after a final promise
to Morna that he would get off the meds as soon as he could, then made
his way through even thicker crowds to his rented car.

He spent the drive back to his ship going over his options.  Things
didn't look quite as unpromising as they had earlier, even though it
still seemed that he would have to go back to Terra for a fresh start.
This time, he reminded himself, at least the start wouldn't be from
zero; he had a name and a reputation to work with, and a few days to
dig out some background would give him more data.

He had resigned himself to starting over by the time he got back to the
spaceport.  Not even the sight of half a decade secret police making no
secret of their surveillance of his ship disturbed him; he grinned at
them as he palmed open the outer hatch of his ship, giving Owajima
points for letting the locals handle the presumed assassin.  He'd just
have to take more precautions the next time around--  Oh, gods, the
inner hatch was ajar, and he hadn't left it that way!

He barely had time to spot a stunner muzzle in the opening and start
reaching for his needler before his ambusher fired and he slumped to
the airlock deck.

      *      *      *      *      *

Owajima was a little surprised at the ease of his success, though there
was no way even one as skilled as DarLeras was reputed to be could have
detected any sign of his entry.  He went to the outer lock and signaled
his success to the watchers, then carried the Sandeman to his cabin and
secured him to the bunk.  Then he went into the 'fresher, found
synthiskin release in the medikit, and used it on the Sandeman's face,
smiling as it peeled free to reveal the tattoo so familiar from news
shows.  That was conclusive enough for Owajima; if, contrary to all
other evidence, DarLeras had gone renegade, he would have removed the
tattoo rather than simply covering it.

      *      *      *      *      *

When Nevan woke, he was spread-eagled, tied to his bunk with a
grim-faced Oriental man holding a gun on him.  That should have been
frightening, but Nevan couldn't help grinning; the feel of air on his
cheek instead of synthiskin agreed with the tiny indications he could
read from his captor. Owajima was disciplined, beautifully so, but not
well enough to hide everything.  "I'm honored to meet you, Colonel
Owajima.  Either I'm losing my edge, or you're about to take over the
top-ever rating; I should've seen some sign of your entry on the outer
lock."

"If you had, it would be I who was losing my edge.  However, I will
take that as a compliment from one who still holds that ranking.  Drop
your mind-shield."

"What?  Ohhh."  Nevan did so, surprised for an instant though he knew
he shouldn't be.  Since his chosen lady had discovered psionic Talent
in humans nine years ago, it had been found that strong Talent was
generally linked to strong abilities in one or more other fields.  That
wasn't a direct correlation, since there were multi-field geniuses with
none at all, and people with no conventional talents and powerful
Talent--but well over ninety percent of the time, conventional and
psionic abilities went together. Owajima wouldn't be the top-rated
field agent without exceptional ability--of both types.

*Also, unlike most Sandemans,* came Owajima's amused thought, *I was
eager for Talent training.  We both know it is impossible to lie,
mind-to-mind, so: you are still thakur-na to Ranger Losinj and on a
mission for her?*

*I am, though the mission is partly for her, partly for myself,* Nevan
confirmed.  *Stay linked while I report; she'll want to commend you
personally.*  He sensed Owajima's agreement, and reached for his chosen
lady. *Thakur?*

*Here, thakur-na,* was the immediate response--then Nevan shared her
amusement as she 'felt' his bonds.  *You are satisfied with security,
then.*

*It's tight,* Nevan confirmed.  *And I'm really impressed by Major
Owajima's skill.  He got past my ship defenses without leaving a trace.
It was a beautiful ambush.*

*It is he I sense linked with you?*

*Yes, Thakur.*

Nevan felt her attention center on the other.  *I am pleased to make
your acquaintance, Major,* she sent.  *I apologize for any difficulties
you experienced as a result of Nevan's pursuit; his purpose, at my
request, was to test the security protecting field agents, including
his target's self-protection.  As you heard, he is satisfied.  So am I,
and since you proved able to stop him, I will place a commendation in
your records.*

*Thank you, sir.*  Owajima smiled.  *It is good to know our protections
are adequate against one of the warrior Nevan's ability; any other,
then, could penetrate them only by chance.*

*True.*  Corina projected amusement.  *Are you on assignment?*

*No, sir.  I have just finished a post-mission leave, and have been
ordered to Terra for a tour with OSI.*

*You won't like it,* Nevan predicted.  *Assignments think they're doing
us a favor when they give us a planetside tour--a rest break, I heard
one call it--but those always bored me.*

*If it gets too bad, Major,* the Ranger sent sympathetically, *see me,
and I will have you given a field assignment.  It is the least I can do
after setting Nevan on your trail.*

*I will, sir, and thank you.*

*Before I break contact, thakur-na, is there anything further you
need?*

*Not really, Thakur--if you don't have anything else for me, I'll offer
Major Owajima a ride back to Terra.*

*That will be fine.  Enjoy the trip--I must endure this reception for
Duke Shirley.  Until your return, thakur-na.*

*Until then, Thakur.*  The contact ended, and Nevan grinned up at his
captor.  "Satisfied, Major?"

"Perfectly, warrior.  And I will accept your offer of a ride."  Owajima
holstered his gun, then undid Nevan's bonds.  "I have wished to meet
you for some time; I regret only the circumstances."

Nevan sat up, rubbing his wrists.  "Same here, maybe more so.  I was
after you in particular because my bio-father left you his personal
weapons when he died last month."

"Oh?  Knowing Sandemans, I assume there was a reason."

"Uh-huh.  He was the one you gave need-release to on Piper's World."

"Ah."  Owajima smiled.  "I should not have broken cover to do so, but I
had seen one warrior die that way when we were prisoners of the Traiti,
and I could not let another go through such agony unaided."

"That's what he told me, not long after I finished my agent's training.
Do you need to get anything before we go?"

"No.  Had you been the enemy I originally thought, by now you would
have been dead and your ship confiscated for my trip, to be turned in
to the Navy at the Antarctica base.  My things are already aboard."

Nevan chuckled.  "Good thinking.  Unnecessary, since this baby already
belongs to the Navy, but I like the plan."  He led the way to his
ship's control room, got clearance for takeoff, and set course for
Terra.  Then he escorted his guest to the ship's small lounge.  "I've
followed your career for a long time, Major," he said, getting coffee
for each of them.  "It's been brilliant--at times incredible.  Like
getting into this ship without leaving traces."

Owajima smiled.  "I left traces, warrior.  Not many, and not
significant to one without the training we share, but enough that you
would have observed them.  My particular Talent specialty, however, is
singularly appropriate for one in this field."  His smile grew.  "I
can, when I desire, make myself and my handiwork unnoticeable.  It
takes a particularly strong mind-shield to block that ability even
partially; you saw nothing because I wished you not to."

Nevan nodded, returning the smile.  "That makes me feel better.  I got
blown when I visited the base--didn't know about the open house, and
ran into some clan-mates.  I was afraid I'd let that distract me--but
if you were using Talent, that wasn't my problem.  Mind showing me how
it works?"

"Not at all, though since you are already aware of me, the effect will
not be complete."

If that was incomplete, Nevan thought seconds later, Kiyoshi Owajima
must be capable of practically turning invisible.  He knew the other
was there, could see him perfectly well--but it was almost impossible
to pay any attention to him.  "Nice!  I could've used that quite a few
times."

Owajima became noticeable again.  "It is less effective against a
number of people, particularly when--as you did--they know I am
present.  But against few, or those who have not already seen me when I
begin using it, you are quite correct; it is most effective."

"Too bad you can't teach it to all the agents."  But that, Nevan knew,
wasn't possible; while mind-screen, or the stronger mind-shield, and
telepathy were common to everyone with Talent, the specialized aspects
varied widely from person to person.  "Would you like to see your
inheritance?"

"Very much.  The needler and blades in the clothing storage?"

Nevan chuckled.  "That's them.  Do you want to get them, or shall I?"

"There is no further need to invade your privacy, warrior."

"Nevan is fine--I'll go get them, then."  He did so, grinning to
himself.  He'd been favorably impressed by the reports of Owajima's
accomplishments; he was even more favorably impressed by the man
himself.  Not too many standard humans could take out a Sandeman
warrior, even using Talent!

Returning to the lounge, he gave Owajima the box holding the weapons.
"Here you are, Major.  Use them in good health."

"I shall, whenever my cover does not prohibit the use of Sandeman
weapons. And call me Kiyoshi, please."  Owajima smiled.  "I think this
will be an enjoyable trip, and that by its end we will be friends."

"I think so, too.  Do you have a family?"

"I am married, but we do not yet have children.  You?"

"Two sons, both warriors--one with the lady Dallas, one with the lady
Morna.  My foster-parents are fostering both of them, as well.  I've
got a holo, if you'd like to see."

"Very much."  Owajima accepted the small folder, settling in for an
enjoyable discussion.



END





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