Having been ordered to keep confidential the details of the company’s impending reassignment, my employer was at some disadvantage in preventing rumors from spreading. While he could put a stop to specific misconceptions and errors of fact, only announcing specific details of the mission could have prevented some of the speculations and outright fabrications that began to spread among the legionnaires of Omega Company.
And, of course, certain questions were bound to pop up, no matter how much accurate information the troops had been given.
“Sergeant Brandy, may I ask a question?”
Brandy looked wearily up from her clipboard. When Omega Company had gotten its first batch of new recruits back on Lorelei, she had been assigned to run them through basic training. Despite her initial misgivings, they’d turned into a pretty good group-good enough that she’d decided to keep working with them, even after they’d reached the point where they could take regular duty assignments. It gave her a sense of day-to-day accomplishment, despite the unique frustrations that were sometimes part and parcel of working with this group.
This particular pattern of events had become almost a ritual. Sometime during the morning formation, Mahatma would ask a question, usually some innocent query that, upon closer examination, opened up a devastating reappraisal of the Legion way of life, exactly the kind of thing basic training was supposed to make recruits forget about. But there was no stopping Mahatma, and Phule had made it clear that simply stomping the impertinent questioner into the ground (as Brandy sometimes felt like doing) was incompatible with his philosophy of command. Brandy sighed. “What do you want now, Mahatma?” she asked wearily.
“I want to ask a question, Sergeant,” Mahatma said earnestly-or was there a hint of humor behind that surface? She’d never been able to prove it, but she had a strong suspicion that Mahatma enjoyed pulling her leg, although it was always so subtle that she never detected it until it was too late to call him on it. She also wondered if she’d ever get used to Mahatma’s ability to take each and every statement absolutely literally and find meanings in it nobody else had ever suspected of being there. She wondered if he did it all the time or just to sergeants.
“Yeah, you told me you had a question,” said Brandy. After an uncomfortably long silence, which anybody else would have taken as an opportunity to ask the question, she sighed inwardly and said, “Go ahead and ask it, Mahatma.”
“Thank you Sergeant,” said the smiling legionnaire. “What I wanted to know was, why are we being transferred out? Does it mean we’ve done a bad job here?”
“No, it means we’ve done a good job,” said Brandy. “Landoor is prosperous and looks like it’s going to remain peaceful, so they don’t need us anymore.”
Mahatma smiled and nodded. That meant Big Trouble, in Brandy’s experience. Sure enough, the little legionnaire followed up by asking, “Then shouldn’t they reward us by keeping us here so we can enjoy the peace and prosperity?”
“That’s not how the Legion works, Mahatma,” said Brandy. “We’re in the business of taking care of trouble, so we go where there’s trouble brewing. That’s our job, and we’re pretty damn good at it.” She hoped this answer would give the rest of the squad a feeling of pride in their job, deflecting the subversive implications she suspected-no, knew-Mahatma would somehow make out of whatever she said.
Mahatma looked up at her over his round glasses. “What happens if we do our job poorly, Sergeant Brandy?” he said beatifically.
She answered him solemnly-there was no other way to answer this kind of question-“We could get in a lot of trouble, Mahatma.”
“So if we do our job well, we are sent to a place where there is trouble, and if we do it poorly, trouble comes to us,” said Mahatma sweetly. “Please, Sarge, how does this system encourage virtuous conduct and constructive effort?”
As usual after Mahatma had asked one of his follow-up questions, Brandy could hear the other trainees muttering among themselves as they tried to puzzle out what their comrade was getting at. “Quiet!” she barked. She didn’t particularly mind their talking, but the order would distract the squad from thinking about Mahatma’s question while she came up with an answer.
She was sure she’d be able to come up with one…
“I don’t want to leave Landoor with this scandal hanging over us, but I don’t know how to refute it, either,” said Phule, pacing from one side of his office to the other. Beeker, Rev, and Rembrandt sat along the couch, their heads swiveling like spectators at a tennis match.
Beeker raised a hand and said, “Sir, if I may make a suggestion: Why don’t you simply repay the complainant the amount he was robbed plus the damages to his restaurant? If you added on a bit more to demonstrate good will, I have no doubt that he’d drop the complaint.”
“That would make him go away,” said Phule. “And I do mean to see that he doesn’t suffer financially, whatever else happens in this case. But giving him money to go away wouldn’t clear my people’s reputation. People on Landoor would always be able to say that we just bought our way out of trouble. If one of my people has robbed Mr. Takamine, I want him to own up to it and pay an appropriate penalty.”
This response was greeted with shocked silence. At one time, buying his way out would have been Phule’s natural response to trouble. Now, that didn’t seem to be enough. Rev finally spoke. “I reckon it’s pretty clear that the culprit in this case is a follower of the King, though I doubt anybody who’d do that is still a true believer. And I don’t think he’s one of my own flock, Captain. Like I said, there are lots of members of the Church of the King on Landoor. Could’a been any one of ’em. A black jumpsuit don’t necessarily mean Legion. It ain’t that uncommon a garment among the faithful.”
“That’s true,” said Phule, standing still for a moment to look the chaplain in the eye. “But we can’t hide behind that, because Mr. Takamine believes it’s one of us. We’ve got to prove he’s wrong about that, and we’ve got to do that before we leave the planet. I’m open to ideas. Anybody have one?”
Rev spoke again. “I can get a record of the King’s followers on this planet who’ve had their faces remade. That’ll be a start, I reckon.”
“Yes, that’s a start,” said Phule, pacing again. “But how do we sort out which one it was? If we can eliminate our people, fine-but it has to be beyond question. I don’t want anybody claiming that I cooked the evidence. Better yet, we have to identify the actual culprit, whoever it is.”
“I’ve checked our duty rosters for the time involved,” said Rembrandt. “If all our people were where they were supposed to be-which isn’t necessarily so, knowing this outfit-we can eliminate six of our people right away. We’re checking to verify that they were actually on duty.”
“That’s over half,” said Phule. “That’s good, but it leaves five unaccounted for. Any way to establish their whereabouts at the time?”
“We’re working on it,” said Rembrandt. “The problem is, not everybody who saw one of the suspects can say for sure which one it was. When they all have the same face, it complicates things. Which brings us back to where we started.”
“Out of curiosity, am I in the clear or not?” asked Rev, with the slight smirk that seemed to be an unavoidable result of the face-remodeling process.
“For robbing the citizen, yes,” said Rembrandt, turning a cool stare toward the chaplain. “You aren’t the type who’d do that. Besides, the restaurant owner said you were too fat to be the one who did it. For getting us into this fix to begin with…”
“Now, it’s a little late for that, Rembrandt,” said Phule wearily. “We can’t very well make Rev change the tenets of his faith, even if they’re inconvenient for the rest of us.”
“Let me point out one more thing, Lieutenant,” said Rev. “Just because somebody’s thrown in with the King, it don’t make ’em perfect. If one of the band goes off key, it’s as much my duty as anybody else’s to find ’em and bring ’em back in tune. If I find the culprit, I’m gonna turn him in-and I think I’ve got an inside track on findin’ him, too.”
“What would that be?” said Beeker. “If you have some way to identify individual members of your faith that the rest of us don’t know, perhaps it would be useful to share it in circumstances like these.”
“Oh, I don’t have nothin’ like that,” said Rev. “Just access to records, which I promise to share with y’all. And I hope some of ’em will be more willin’ to talk to one of their own, if we can narrow the suspects down to two or three.”
“Anything of that kind you can do will be a help,” said Phule. His nervous energy at last expended, he sat on the edge of his desk and said, “I guess that’ll have to do for now. Rembrandt, Rev, if either of you learn anything, report it to me right away. And if the local police tell me something that might help, I’ll pass it along. I want to get this solved before we lift off for our next assignment-and we don’t have much time. So make it a priority, all right?”
“Yes, Captain,” said Rembrandt. Rev added his assent, and the meeting broke up.
But Beeker said, “Well, sir, I suspect you’re going to end up repaying the citizen for what he was robbed, after all.”
“I think I’m going to do that, anyway,” said Phule. “Even if we do find the guilty party he’s not likely to be able to make restitution. So why shouldn’t I? But we’ve got the company’s good name to uphold, too. That’s why I want to prove that none of our people did it-or if they did, to show that we don’t just sweep our bad eggs under the rug.”
“I agree with your sentiments if not your metaphor, sir,” said Beeker. “I just hope you’re able to live up to them.”
“So do I, Beeker,” said Phule. “So do I.” He sat musing for a moment, then looked up and said, “You know, I think we’re overlooking a resource that might help us. What do you think about this…?”
Beeker listened, skeptical at first, but after hearing Phule’s idea, he nodded. “It’s not an entirely bad idea, sir. I’ll see to it at once.”
“He’s coming.” Ernie’s voice in Lola’s earpiece was quiet, but she sensed its urgency, nonetheless. They’d already blown one attempt at snatching Phule and somehow managed to remain free to try again. They couldn’t assume that they could get away with a second failure. No matter how oblivious the captain was, he was eventually going to notice that somebody was trying to kidnap him and take steps to prevent further attempts. If the current trap didn’t catch him, they might not get another chance.
Lola took a deep breath and tried to center herself. She had to play her part to perfection, or the scheme had no chance of succeeding. She was confident that she could do what she had to. What worried her was, she could hit all her marks one-two-three, just like that, and Ernie could still fumble the game away. Or Phule could get lucky, and none of their careful preparation would make any difference. Phule seemed to get lucky a lot-more than his share, if she was any judge.
She held her breath until she heard the steady rhythm of footsteps approaching down the corridor, then let it out slowly. As the footsteps reached a position just opposite her hiding place, she burst out with a wild shriek. “Help! Oh, please-help me!” Sobbing, she fell to the ground right in front of the passerby, her eyes closed and her limbs as limp as she could make them.
“What’s the matter, miss?” said an unfamiliar voice.
Her eyes popped open. Standing over her, a look of concern on his face and a large tray balanced on his right hand, was a room service waiter.
“Nothing’s wrong,” she snapped, and began to rise to her feet, gathering her carefully ripped dress close around her.
“But, miss, you asked for help,” the waiter said, a confused look on his face.
“Oh, shut up,” she said and flounced away. The waiter stared after her for a moment, then shrugged and went about his business.
A few minutes later, Captain Jester strolled past, without incident. But a short distance away, beyond the range of his hearing, Lola was explaining to Ernie, in very graphic and detailed terms, exactly how important precise timing was to this plan and just how badly he’d missed his cue. A spectator would have had no doubt, at this point, which of the pair was most in need of rescue. Perhaps, fortunately for Ernie, there were no spectators.
By taking on the task of convincing the Yakuza’s leadership that he represented a superfamily, Sushi had in effect elected himself an officer. By this, I mean that he had taken on a level of decision making responsibility well above that of an ordinary legionnaire. Like the officers, he could no longer afford to “goof off” when there was no immediate task in front of him. There was always something that needed doing, something that couldn’t wait. And there was always somebody asking him to do one more thing he hadn’t planned on.
Sushi leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. He’d been staring at the computer screen ever since he’d come off duty, and it felt as if the images on the screen were beginning to burn themselves into his retinas. The tension in the back of his shoulders was another sure sign that he’d been working too hard-or, more precisely, worrying too hard. He wasn’t used to this. The fact that he’d brought it on himself didn’t make it any better.
It had been at least an hour-no, nearly two hours, he realized when he checked the time display-since Do-Wop had tried to get him to go down to the bar for a round or two with the guys. He’d told his buddy he’d be right along, “As soon as I get this one detail cleaned up.” He was still nowhere near finished. It was tempting just to let things slide and go down for a drink. The only thing that kept him from doing exactly that was the realization that he was playing a life-and-death game, and that it was his own life on the line if he screwed up. That was enough to keep anybody’s nose to the grindstone. He hadn’t bargained for this. But there wasn’t any going back, either.
A rap on the door jolted into the present. He walked over and said, “Who’s there?” There’d been a time when he would just have opened it. Now he thought twice about that kind of thing.
“It is I, Beeker,” came the familiar voice from the other side. Sushi opened the door, and Phule’s butler entered.
“Have a seat,” said Sushi, indicating the hotel suite’s couch and matching easy chairs. “What’s the occasion?”
“The captain is concerned about a situation involving a member of Reverend Ayres’s sect,” said the butler. “The difficulty is that many members have had their faces altered, so as to resemble their master. This entails obvious difficulties in telling one from another.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” said Sushi, lowering himself into a chair opposite the butler. “A couple of guys I know had the operation done, and now I can’t recognize ’em until they start talking. What do you want me to do about it?”
“The police have surveillance camera coverage of an incident in which they believe one of our people is the guilty party,” said Beeker, steepling his fingers. “The camera clearly shows a member of the Church of the King robbing and damaging a local restaurant and beating the owner. The Rev. Ayres points out that a large number of civilians also belong to his sect and suggests that one of them could be the responsible party.”
“Makes sense to me,” said Sushi. “But what do you think I can do about it?”
“The captain has asked to review the surveillance footage,” said Beeker. “It occurs to us that minute computer analysis of the voice and movements of the criminal could provide as good an identification as the face.”
“Sure, if you had similar footage of all the possible suspects to compare it to,” said Sushi. “You already mentioned the main objection: There are a lot of those King’s Men out there. Unless we have all of them on tape, there’s no way we can pinpoint which one is the robber.”
“We can do one thing fairly quickly,” said Beeker. “You’re our most accomplished computer user. The captain wishes you to compare the surveillance footage to archival footage of our company. There are several holovid disks available, including the entire company at some point or another. Eliminating the possibility that it is one of ours would be of use.”
“What if the opposite happens?” asked Sushi, frowning. “What if the robber is one of our guys?”
“That leaves us no choice,” said the butler with a long face. “You must turn him in, and the captain will see to it that he pays the appropriate penalty for his crime. There is no other course of action compatible with the honor of the Legion, as he puts the question. However, I doubt it will come to that event. More likely, the culprit’s identity will be revealed in the operation’s second phase.”
“Second phase?” Sushi leaned forward in his chair, his chin on the fingers of his right hand. “OK, I’ll bite. What’s the second phase?”
Beeker said, “You are, for all practical purposes, the head of a large quasi-criminal organization. This position gives you access to a large body of information, should you ask for it.”
“Yeah, I guess I am the head of the Yakuza,” said Sushi. “And sure, they have plenty of information. But what makes you think they have the information the captain needs? There are a lot of petty crooks on this planet, and most of them aren’t Japanese.”
“No, but the owner of the restaurant is,” said Beeker. “He is undoubtedly paying your organization for protection. In return, they should be making an effort to find the man who robbed him.”
“Japanese? What’s the name of the place?” asked Sushi.
“The restaurant is the New Osaka Grill on Hastings Street. A Mr. Takamine is the owner.”
“Yeah, I’ve eaten in there. Good food, even if it is a bit expensive,” said Sushi. “But how does this involve me? If the Yakuza can’t find the guy that robbed the place without me…”
“You are the head of that organization,” said Beeker. “It necessarily involves you, if someone under their protection is robbed without justice being done. Surveillance information from other businesses under their protection is likely to show the culprit: If he ate in one Japanese restaurant, he probably ate in more than one. You are in a position to obtain and analyze the information, and this will undoubtedly reveal the culprit.”
“It’ll take a lot of work,” said Sushi. “Just getting in all those vids, let alone setting up a program to analyze them…”
“I suggest you make it a priority,” said Beeker. “It works to your benefit on two fronts. First, to show that the superfamily you have invented can, in fact, deliver benefits to a local family. And second, you convince the captain that the time you spend on this project does, after all, benefit his company.”
“OK, I see what you mean,” said Sushi. “I guess I’d better get on it.” He sighed. So much for his hopes of joining the gang in the bar tonight-or any time soon.
“You will in time see the rewards for this hard work,” said Beeker, standing up.
“I guess I will,” said Sushi. “But a nice cold beer was looking good, too.”
Beeker raised an eyebrow. “I can assure you, young man, that the beer in the bar will be just as cold when you have finished this task as it is now, and the satisfaction of a job well done will greatly enhance its flavor.”
“Oh, I know that,” said Sushi. “I just wish I didn’t have to be so damned mature all of a sudden.”
Beeker gave just the hint of a smile. “Maturity may not be the most attractive way of life, but speaking only for myself, I am just as happy to be able to take part in it. Perhaps, upon reflection, you will feel the same. Good day, young man.”
This time it was going to work. This time it had better work, Lola told herself. All things considered, she and Ernie had been lucky to get away with two failed attempts to kidnap the captain. Their luck couldn’t hold out much longer. If it didn’t work this time, she was going to call it off and deal with the consequences. As long as her bosses didn’t decide to lock her and Ernie in the same room, she figured she could deal with anything less annoying.
“He’s coming,” said the voice in her ear.
“Are you sure?” she hissed.
“Yeah, I’m sure, babe. Ball’s in your court.” Ernie sounded calm, assured. That didn’t fool her. Ernie had been just as sure of himself the last time, when she’d prostrated herself in front of the wrong target, a room service waiter. She hoped the befuddled waiter hadn’t reported the incident-or, if he had, that it had been written off as a drunken prank by a customer. If the captain was alerted to the possibility of trouble, the odds of success dramatically dropped. And they were already low enough, as far as Lola was concerned.
After the previous debacle, she had decided that the best way to prevent any warning from reaching the captain was to set the ambush for first thing in the morning, as the captain was on his way to his office. With any luck, he would still be groggy from sleep-or so Lola hoped. There had to be some advantage to getting up at the crack of dawn.
She peered between the fronds of the potted plant as she heard the footsteps nearing. Yes, here came the captain. Lola leapt out into the corridor to sprawl in front of the (hopefully) unsuspecting Legion officer. “Captain! Help me!” she whimpered. She was starting to get good at this act, she realized. Maybe if this caper didn’t come off, she could get a job in the Casino’s entertainment division, in the chorus behind Dee Dee Watkins.
“What’s the matter, miss?” asked Captain Jester, bending over, a concerned look on his face.
Yes! thought Lola, doing her best to keep from smiling. At last, things were working on schedule. “That horrible man’s been following me again,” she said, doing her best to appear pathetic and intense at the same time.
“He has?” The captain peered around in all directions. “Where is he?”
“He ran back that way,” she said, pointing down the cross corridor. It lay on the way to the casino’s health club, a facility rarely visited by customers, although the legionnaires made good use of it. This early in the morning, the corridor would be deserted-a perfect spot for their ambush.
“Show me,” said the captain, and again she had to bite her lip to keep from breaking out into a grin.
“Yes, but please stay close to me,” she said, allowing him to help her to her feet. “I don’t want him finding me alone.”
“Don’t worry,” said the captain. “You’ll be all right. He’s probably run away by now, but we’ll catch him if he hasn’t.” He began walking quietly-almost supernaturally quietly, and very confidently-down the corridor. It occurred to Lola that he was most likely highly trained at one or more martial arts. It was a good thing their plan didn’t require them to engage the captain in unarmed combat. She allowed herself to shudder at the notion-it would add a touch of verisimilitude to her “maiden in distress” act.
The captain stopped and looked down at her. “Don’t be afraid now, ma’am,” he said, misinterpreting the shudder exactly as she’d hoped he would. “The Legion’s in charge here, and we’re not going to let anything happen to you.”
“Oh, thank you,” she said, doing her best to make it sound sincere. “I’ll just stay right behind you, if you don’t mind.”
“That’s probably best,” he said, and he turned to peer down the corridor again. Lola tensed; somewhere not far away, Ernie should be waiting, ready to play his part in their little charade. The captain edged forward, quietly; he was being careful. Would Ernie be able to bring it off?
The captain stopped and peered down a side corridor leading to an emergency exit. He nodded, took a step forward, and then…
Lola let out a piercing shriek. “Over there!” she cried, and as the captain turned to look, Ernie struck.
They’d chosen their weapon to incapacitate their victim as quickly as possible without undue risk of injury, particularly to themselves. The Zenobian stun ray wasn’t in the civilian arsenal yet, but the goo gun was a good second best. Firing a huge gob of incredibly sticky material, it enveloped its victim in a viscous mass of goo and trapped him as surely as a fly on flypaper. Police departments throughout the settled worlds used it for riot control. It wasn’t foolproof; inexperienced users sometimes got themselves stuck in the goo when they tried to secure their victim or got a sound thrashing from an incompletely immobilized victim.
But Ernie had practiced. As soon as the goo had enveloped Phule, he flipped a lever on the gun and fired a burst of a clear liquid, setting the goo so that someone attempting to grasp the victim could do so without getting caught.
“Hey, what are you doing?” said the captain-but too late. A moment later, Lola whipped out a gag and threw it over the captain’s mouth, while Ernie darted down the hall a few paces and grabbed a laundry cart just outside the gym. They tipped their victim into it, threw a layer of dirty towels over him, and quickly wheeled him into a service elevator and away.