The Reluctant Assassin
Stephen Crane Davidson
I put the deadly capsule into a pocket in my jacket. A moment later, I reached down and smoothed the material. The bump where the capsule had been had disappeared, dissolved into the fabric and with it went my life.
My commitment had become complete. The recorder in my brain would have picked up what I had done. When my dead body was returned, someone would read the transcription and know my guilt, a Mercadian genetically bred for non-violence had become an assassin.
A half-hour later I sat on board a high speed chaser strapping into the acceleration chair. The yellow lift light flared around the ceiling of the room. Courier's quarters are all much the same. A holo field is provided in case there is need to practice the message. However, the first time the Terra-Four Director read the message I now carried, I had it complete, able to repeat it exactly, down to pitch and the man's own facial expressions. The message protested Estver's destruction of a populated planetoid, the same bloody massacre that motivated my current behavior.
That I now went forward as an assassin surely demonstrated the limits to genetic attempts at man-made predestination. Or did it? If I had the chance to save many lives by killing one man, than was I not acting in keeping with my genetic heritage as a neutral messenger? Or was that sophistry. My hands curled up into fists.
The chaser accelerated rapidly forcing me deep into the cushions of the chair. We broke free of the planetoid's gravity moments later and in minutes proceeded through the wrenching shift to FTL flight.
I have traveled thousands of messages in my life. But now, each change in speed or gravity, the feel of the chair, the white walls of the room -- none seemed right. Off, just as I must be. Was it that I had been allowed to marry? I clenched my jaw tight. Would I see my love again?
My eyes burned with the hurt. Trying to fight down this wave of emotion, I concentrated my awareness on my breathing. How long I stayed in this part-catatonic state, I do not know. In what seemed moments later, blue lights flared across the ceiling, startling me aware.
Hurriedly, I unbuckled the straps that tied me into the seat and pulled the scroll from my pocket. Digging in the pocket, I found the now reconstituted nanocapsule.
In moments, the chaser would leave FTL. My opportunity narrowed by the second. I opened the scroll and held the capsule in my hand. The blue strobes intensified.
The feel of my mate's body against me, the look of joy on my children's faces as they played in safety -- all this flooded through my awareness only to be replaced with the horrifying memory of the planetoid New Lune exploding in flames against the black void of space, destroyed by Estver.
I scattered the white powder contents of the capsule onto the scroll and watched the tiny granules disappear into the paper -- nano-machines. The capsule itself turned into moisture that I wiped on the seat.
Rolling the scroll up, I placed it in my pocket and belted in for de-acceleration just as the jolt of return to real time sang its vibration through the ship, and just as I remembered the sheet of paper containing my instructions. I panicked. Feverishly, I searched my pockets. What had I done with it? It was not in my pockets. Mercury save me, I had left it on the trancar, and now I remembered the paper, a tiny fragment of white against the blood dark upholstery.
It lay on the seat in the train, right next to the torn envelope. If someone had found it, my death now waited on the other side of the cabin door.
The chaser landed at an air-strip after a rough descent caused by the planet's thick atmosphere. Hardly breathing and flattened against the back of the chair my hands clenching the arms, I watched the door to my room slide open to reveal a squad of grim-faced soldiers.
Not a gun was raised and soon I rode in the center of a trancar flanked on each side by guards. They sat close. The air felt hot against my face. The guards stank of sweat. We hurtled past a land of tall, spindly rock buttes and pale pink sand. Before my eyes could adjust, the train sped into a tunnel again, leaving the cabin lights only for illumination.
By now, the guards ignored me and chatted to themselves in standard. Beating in my mind like the wings of the fabled bat remained the knowledge that I would soon betray my vows and perhaps create a war or I might save the lives of millions by eliminating a blood-handed dictator. My contacts had told me there was little I could do to determine which fate occurred and this grated on me. I could not abide that. They also told me there were many divisions in Estver's forces. Could I play on that?
I looked to the guard on my left and being from a military type organization myself, I asked a common question. "What company are you from?"
He looked at me with a wary, traveling gaze. "Five of the Home Guard."
"A large organization, then?"
"Larger and better than any other," the man said.
"An elite group," I said.
"The best. We could take on the Palace Guard any day and maybe we will --"
"What are you talking about?" interrupted another soldier who wore a slightly different uniform and sat several seats in front of us. He turned around and stared at me.
"Just telling him that I belong to Fotor," the soldier beside me said with a note of belligerence to his voice though his face had reddened.
"You belong to Estver, swine. There's been enough insolence from the Home Guard. Keep your mouth shut."
The man next to me stiffened, but did not reply. I stored the information up for further consideration. Divisions existed in Estver's ranks. Could I play on it further? Nothing came to mind, and I forced myself to another train of thought. Could the death of one man truly affect the course of history?
Orange light bathed the inside of the car, and the tran swept by platforms filled with humankind. We stopped and then debarked at a smaller such platform. Outside waited an autofly, and after some discussion, I was ordered in it by a new set of guards. The old set left angrily.
After a short ride, the vehicle abruptly slowed, pressing me into the restraining web. A moment later this process was repeated again and we came to a stop. The guards jumped out and taking me by the arms, hauled me from my seat. I did not resist. Outside the vehicle, I brushed the slight wrinkles from my uniform, felt the crease in my collar and then looked around. We stood in a cavernous underground chamber. To the left were a series of reinforced doors. The guards led me to the first in the series, and it opened with a faint hissing.
We quick marched down a long metal sheathed hallway. I guessed from the diamond-smooth sheen of the metal that it would be penetration proof -- formidable defenses -- then, Estver probably feared attack from all directions. The air felt cool against my face. I felt hot. Death awaited. A double door slid open before us and after entering a small chamber, we stopped. The apparent leader, a man dressed in black with green chevrons on his shoulders turned to address me while the other men left through a side door.
"This is a scanning room. You will stand in the center and not move," he ordered, turned to leave and then stopped. "You have spoken with Fotor's men?"
"Yes," I said and hoping to encourage their distrust of each other, I looked away as if I hid something.
"What was said?"
"The man was proud of his service to his ... commander."
"And who was that?"
I paused as if thinking. "The Home Guard commander, Fotor" I finally said.
"Nothing else was said?"
Again I averted my eyes and then shrugged my shoulders. On the inside I shook. Had I played it too hard, too soft? Long have I known that like a butterflies flutter, one tiny event can lead to chaos.
The man gave me a long appraising look. "I heard more was said than that."
"He said his unit could "take" some other unit but that was all. Just a comment in passing," I said trying to seem as if I belittled the comment while actually I wanted the opposite.
"I believe they plan treason," the man said, smiled a flat smile and then departed. Apparently my response had been what he wanted to hear. His reply sounded good to me. The door closed. I was alone and my heart pumped even faster racing with fear. Would the scroll pass the scanner unnoticed? I had to force myself to walk to the center of the room and stand. The lights faded. The blood pulsed in my ears. There came the sound of a low hum. I tensed, expecting next to see the flash of a laser and to feel the sudden last second of the explosion of my flesh.
Light filled the room. I blinked. The lead soldier paced inside. His smile had not disappeared. "Come," he said. "Estver will see you. Don't say anything of Fotor." His smile broadened, his teeth showing. "I have filed a report, the last one needed. None is above Estver."
A lift ride that clogged my ears later, we walked halls of a polished black wood grain and thick burgundy carpet while I wondered just what was "the last one needed" meant.
With my few words, had I succeeded in continuing strife, a strife that might cover my own actions? I dared not even hope. If nothing else it might lead to a small distraction. That could be enough. We came to a halt before a fifteen foot pentagonal portal. With an oily gasping sound, the leaves of the portal spiraled back into the wall and floor.
We marched inside. The massive room felt cool with the bright smell of water and the tinkling sound of a fountain in the background. Huge, holo projections of classical old-earth art work played in front of dark, fused-rock walls. In the middle of the room and in back of the fountain sat a raised dais with a throne.
On these pretentious sticks of dated furniture resided a small man with thick black hair that had the ungainly massed look of poorly done, low-tech regrowth.
My guard beside me, we hastened to the throne. As we walked, I noted armed men standing between the holo projections. A glance at the vaulted roof revealed a series of long multi-barrels with laser aiming beams, tracking my movements. The control for it no doubt resided with Estver. It would kill a company of men in less than a second.
Rounding the fountain, I could see Estver's face clearly. High cheek bones covered by pale skin, black eyes half-circled by dark, full eyebrows and a mouth whose lips formed a flat, straight line with slight scornful downturns at each end, the face did not communicate any shred of friendliness. I concentrated on my work, stifling the rage that churned inside me when I looked at the butcher.
In front of the dais, ragged grey tape, dull against the red streaked marble floor, shaped a square with a circle in the middle of it, a mockery of the normal embossed silver Mercadian symbol. Ignoring the insult, I went to the square and placed my feet to touch the inside of the taped circle.
As if he had been consumed by thought previously and just noticed my entrance, Estver, or so I guessed the man to be, turned his head to grace me with his glance.
"Are you Estver?" I asked."
The man laughed, a short chuckle. "Yes, who else?"
"I, Mercadian, am commissioned to deliver to you a message ... from the Director of the Board of Terra-four," I said using the traditional two word and pause pacing.
"Yes. Tell it and be quick."
I pulled out the scroll. Taking a deep breath to steady my breathing, I began. "As Director of the Board of Terra Four, I deplore .... " and I continued, exactly communicating the facial expression, the tone, the nuance, every measure of the message of the Terra Four Director.
When I finished, I began a step forward to hand the scroll to Estver and stopped cold at the sound of a dozen weapons drawn.
"I must deliver the scroll," I said, heart pounding against my chest.
"Hand it to him." Estver pointed to a guard.
I froze. Estver had to touch the scroll to activate the mechanism that would grow the explosive. I had to make him take it.
"A Mercadian delivers the message from one hand to another," I said, reciting page 55 of the Mercadian manual.
Estver glared at me.
"It is protocol, Excellency," I said holding down the bile that rose in my stomach at my own words.
He reached down.
A knot raced up my throat. Did he reach to fire the ceiling mounted weapons.
Nothing happened. I handed him the scroll. The dictator took the paper, unrolled it and then dropped it without ceremony on the table-leaf attached to the arm of his throne.
"Mercadian?" he said. "Do you hate me that much?"
"A Mercadian is of no planet," I said and held my expression blank. What did he know?
"Look at this planet as you leave, Mercadian. It was once poor, a planet of starvation. Before I came, the people literally starved. Now, all are fed and the trans run on time." He glared at me as if to dare a rejoinder.
I held my expression blank and wondered when the scroll would do whatever it would do. "Is it your wish to reply to the message?" I said and hoped that he would not.
Estver rubbed his jaw. "You would take my reply?"
"I take any paid message."
He smiled, one side of his face not carrying out the expression as well as the other. "Yes, I will. You have a blank scroll?"
A hard weight pushed down on my shoulders. If there had been a chance for me to live it faded now. "No, I must go to a net access, obtain a new scroll and then return."
The room silenced, and then without apparent reason, Estver turned his head and put his hand to his ear. I guessed he listened to an implant. His mouth formed the name, Fotor, and he scowled. A moment later, he returned his attention to me. "Not worth my time. Will you take a spoken only message?"
"Yes," I said fighting to control my voice.
Estver drew himself up to his full sitting height. "Tell the Director of this Board that he will grant me the terms I have requested or die in flames. That is it," the man said and repeated his twisted smile.
It felt a smile of death to me. I repeated the message to him including the smile.
Satisfied with his words and my repetition, Estver nodded his dismissal. "Leave."
Outside the portal, I realized that inside my uniform, I swam in sweat. Good the material does not stain. I checked the crease in my collar.
The pounding in my ears lessened to a mere beat during the trip to the port. We exited from the train and travelled through corridors that wound through the lower levels of the building -- not the same route we went before.
I had decided to ask where we were going when the guards stopped. A door opened beside me. They shoved me into a dark room. The door slid closed behind me. The lights came up suddenly as I stumbled forward.
"Stop where you are." The voice rang out from the other side of the room.
My eyes adjusting, I saw a tall, clean shaven man sitting in a chair, a laser pistol in his hand. I raised my hands. The man lowered the gun.
"No I don't have any fear of you, Mercadian. Not like that -- not that you are any less bloody handed than I -- just not as direct. Is it really different, Mercadian?"
"What are you talking about?" I said and backed up against the door. My breath came in hard gulps.
The man held up a small slip of paper and a torn envelope. My stomach hardened to a knot.
The man smiled. "No, I'm not going to kill you. I just want to know when it will happen."
"I don't know what you're talking about," I said.
"Come Mercadian, it is too late for that. You were seen reading this. It mentions a capsule, a document. It is not a question of if, though it puzzles me why you would leave this damning evidence behind."
He rubbed at his chin. I did not reply.
"Could it be those famous Mercadian genes had their effect -- a part of you wanting to be caught while the other part is no better than any other power hungry, violent man?"
"What is it you want?" I repeated.
"I told you, and by the way, I am Fotor, you may have heard my name. I want the same thing you want -- for Estver to die, soon. And I can help. If you tell me what I want to know, I will let you go -- free. I will keep the evidence of course, but the man who observed you on the train has had a mishap. None will know of your violent tendencies but me. Now," he said and leaned back in the chair, "if you do not help me, I will take you back to Estver and show him this slip of paper. You and the Mercadians will have been incriminated. Estver will live and perhaps feel indebted enough to me that he rids me of my enemies who plot even now to ruin me. Either way, I win. It is up to you. Tell me -- what, when."
The notion of having the Mercadians destroyed without Estver dying was too much. "An explosion, soon," I said.
"I was to leave immediately."
"That is good, Mercadian. I will speak to you again but for now, you may leave. I have much to do."
With that Fotor stood and went out a door that opened in the back of the room. The door behind me opened and the guards grabbed my arms and began towing me down the hallway.
We soon boarded the chaser. My body felt leaden with doom. I had succeeded, yet my own life was compromised. Fotor would try to use me, of that I could be assured.
It took too long to return to FTL, yet I did not care. Finally, the strumming of the ship and that odd sense of shifting strobed through my body and marked return to FTL. I unbuckled the harnesses and slumped into the chair. No use being uncomfortable waiting for your own death, and I would have to take my own life. I could not continue to compromise the Mercadians by being used by Fotor. After all I'd been through, death now had far less terror for me. I just hoped that Estver died.
The Captain's image appeared on the holo field. "Mercadian?"
"Yes, my Captain?"
"We made it off the planet just in time. Civil war has broken out, and the major cities are in flames. The area where we suspect Estver to have been has exploded and is now nothing but a deep crater. One of his lieutenants, Fotor, has been accused of the assassination -- "
"Who?" I asked and sat up in my chair.
"Fotor," the Captain answered. "Fotor was the general of the home force and was himself killed. His body vaporized in the first flare-ups with the palace guard. He apparently had just been placed under house arrest when the explosion occurred. Estver's other lieutenants are jockeying for position with missiles and troops. The planet burns. Ships are racing in from all directions. Consequently, the normal out-places around the planet are clogged with in-coming.
I barely thanked the Captain before I literally sank into the acceleration chair. The scroll had worked. Given the blood thirsty nature of the jackals that surrounded Estver, their first thought had been each other. I remembered the look on the Palace Guard Officer's face when he asked me about Fotor's man. Perhaps, my conversation with that man, a tiny moment unsuspected in the course of history had helped seal Fotor's and Estver's fate.
With Fotor dead, so would my secret be. The envelope and directions by themselves could not be traced to me even if they had not been vaporized along with Fotor.
I deplored the loss of citizen life on the planet. I worried that the next leader could be worse than Estver.
My mind, my spirit soared with the chaser, riding the cosmic ghosts of asteroids. I thought of my wife.
This story taken directly from the transcripts of Mercadian 1024's neural incident recorder and interviews with 1024 before his death as found in Volume One of "The Beginnings of the Fourth Galactic Pax." Mercadian 1024 is commonly given credit for founding the Mercadian guard, the military force that helped bring that peace. In his last interview, he is quoted as saying: "Who better to fight than those who've been bred to avoid it?" The end
The author lives near Atlanta, Georgia with his wife and children. Stephen Crane Davidson is his real name, and the one that his mother used to call him when he'd been obstreperous.
He has previously published short fiction in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine, Transversions and in Millenium Science Fiction. Another story will be available in the Marion Zimmer Bradley's trust anthology Sword and Sorceress 19 soon.
An excerpt from his novel, Far From The Warring Lands, a swords and sorcery novel previously published by Virtuabooks.com is now available at Writer's Hood. Ordering info will be located at Writer's Hood when the book becomes available in the Spring from another publisher.