Odds and <Loose> Ends.

80 - 1122.

Corina had written her last issue of Democracia before setting out to the duel, and it will be published, making some people's life even less happy. Randi Kyle, in charge of the Foundation to which Corina bequeathed 50 megacredits, will see to it that the publication does continue as a forum for Corina's ideals. And maybe some of Randi's...

Mercer Black is an extremely unhappy man. He's screwed, and he knows it. His sister may be a ticking time bomb. Or not. But he can't kill her, because she's the only person he cares for. He can't kill Blaelok, because he may have the key. He can't kill Corina, because she's vanished. He can't kill Dirk, because he's too popular, and the Pikhans would probably find out. And he's been splattered all over the papers. The Director is breaking things in his office again. Not good.

Viktor has thoughtfully volunteered Ghaer Raller as a good source of information, a "troubleshooter", to Collingwood, who asks "Raller? Is he by any chance related to Trey Raller?" Well actually, Trey is Ghaer's uncle. "Say no more!" Collingwood knows Trey, so Ghaer is definitely some one he will be contacting.

The Agamemnon's Captain Jellicoe is somewhat surprised to find out that his prisoner is charged with piracy. As all naval officers, he has a soft spot in his heart for pirates. They have enough ships in port, so Viktor can attend the trial. Naturally, legal counsel will be provided to Katya. Viktor is concerned that her lawyer is a naval officer, and the navy has already decided Katya is guilty. Actually, the real problem is that she is a pirate!

Viktor is permitted to speak with Katya alone. She looks at him and says "So, you must be my brother, who has been dead these past 30 years. And where were you when I was recaptured and sold back into that which you were escaping?" Guilt trips galore. Katya, who was eight years old at that time, was recaptured by the slavers during Viktor's escape, and was very severely injured. She was sold as a slave, to a pirate several years later, and spent her life up to this point with pirates, even after gaining her freedom. It's that last bit that bothers Viktor. But what does he expect her to have done? By that point she was already wanted any how, so what would it have mattered? Accusations go back and force, but neither one of them will apologize for the lives they've led. They really are strangers, but she is family, and while Viktor can't do anything to fix the current situation, but he will go with her to court. Viktor perhaps will have to come to grips with the knowledge that the pirates he's been hunting down and killing were other people's sisters and brothers, sons and daughters?

Katya will only be charged with one of the crimes for which she was arrested, but it's the big one - piracy. They have tapes of Katya's victims, and a great deal of incriminating evidence. Katya has been advised to answer the court's questions, which she does, since what the hell does she have to lose at this point? She brings up the mess with Leighton's people and the pirates, and the "black op", including naming names (of everyone who was there: Ghaer, Mikie, Joe Lee), and that does cause some muttering and whispering but she is told to stick to answering the questions. Some of the captains gathered there do appear to be concerned, and an orderly is sent out to do something. Before sentencing, Viktor asks to make a statement on Katya's behalf, explaining how she got to where she was, and accept a certain amount of responsibility, since if he had been aware that she was alive, he might have been able to do something to prevent the current state of affairs. Viktor will spent Katya's last few minutes with her, but the captains return in only five minutes with their verdict: "guilty of the crime of piracy, and it is the verdict of this court that she be executed in the ancient and customary manner of the service. <long pause for dramatic effect> However, the court has seen fit to commute this sentence to imprisonment on the Imperial prison world of Torment for the rest of your natural life, in return for your cooperation." Some people might not view this as a "better" sentence. And the prisoner is removed. One of the naval officers who Viktor does not know comes over to speak with him. "It's the best that could be done for her. She'll probably be sent to the mines; not a good life, or a long one, but she seems like a survivor." Viktor's response is "Up to now." The prisoner will be transported to Torment as soon as is possible.

An army officer, accompanied by several sergeants, delivers something to Ghaer: the new Imperial governor has invited Ghaer to "attend upon him". Ghaer feels this is an improvement over having guys from Regina Security just show up and say "Let's go fuzzy." Although this could be inconvenient if it becomes a habit. Ghaer will go with them, and off they go to the Ducal palace, where moving in is obviously still going on. There are stonemasons working on areas Ghaer knows have secret passageways, and several bomb techs standing around smoking near what appear to be some very old explosive devices.

Ghaer is taken in by the officer and his companions, all walking in step with each other, unconsciously. Into the library, where Collingwood is sitting behind the large desk, in his perfect uniform, looking at Ghaer with pursed lips, and raises an eyebrow. "Ghaer Raller." "Yes." "Thank you captain, you may go." They leave reluctantly, and Collingwood asks Ghaer to "sit down, have a cigar, some coffee?" A nice amiable chat about Ghaer's family ("You don't resemble your family much." "Sometimes life changes you."), Ghaer's service, and other things goes on. He tells Ghaer that he's been "recommended to me as some one who would be good to have on your side if there's trouble." They talk for almost an hour before Collingwood's secretary reminds him of an appointment.

Ghaer leaves for home. Part way there, a van screeches to a halt right beside him, in a classic snatch maneuver. Because of all the innocent (?) bystanders, Ghaer doesn't try to escape into the crowd, he goes into the van and right for the driver. Mikie is heading home with two armfuls of groceries when he is almost mowed down by a van. Groceries go flying, and as the van goes by he sees the driver, with Ghaer evidently attacking his head. Ghaer attempts to smash the driver's face into the window, when one of the men yells for some one to "stop him", and a vice-like grip closes on his arm, breaking it. He still tries to pull the driver's arm off the wheel, or turn the wheel, but the driver's arm is rock solid. Unnaturally so. Oh oh. Ghaer takes a sniff, and some of these guys smell like machines, not like people. Then they use some sort of taser on Ghaer, who falls over, drooling. One of the humans tells Ghaer that "Some one wants to see you, Raller", and then they efficiently tie him up, and hood him.

The van damned near runs over Dragon, who is in the crosswalk. She stops and just looks up at the really stern looking driver who just honks the horn at Dragon. She doesn't move, so the guys in the van start getting pissed off and yell at her to move. They don't know her very well, so they don't realize this just pisses Dragon off. Unkind words are exchanged, including "I'm in the fucking crosswalk asshole, I have the right of way!" One of the humans exits, and when he raises his arm, she can see a large knife up his sleeve, so she goes for his wrecking bar, and swings on him. He takes her down rather neatly, ending up with his elbow on her throat, and her bar arm trapped, so she rakes his face with her golf shoes. This gets the guy off her and she hits the front windshield with the bar, and then takes off. The really, really big guy gets out of the van, and hits the lamppost one handed, knocking it forward like a flyswatter, and hitting Dragon, knocking her down. Several men are out of the van, and there's some yelling about not having time for this, and they have some sort of accent that Dragon doesn't recognize. Nicolai, who has come out from the Bread and Bean to see what the fuss was about sees the lamppost maneuver and assumes it's an AP, so he's got his surf gun out and is observing.

Mikie has by this time finally arrived at the van he was chasing. He goes to the passenger side and uses a suit knife to cut off the stem of the tire, which deflates. Then he opens the back door, which is not locked, and is greeted by a gun in his face courtesy of a rather humorless looking individual seated in the back. Fortunately, the firearm was being transported in a very safe manner, without a round chambered, so nothing happens when the trigger is pulled while Mikie is deflecting the man's arm up. This is in the process of being rectified when Mikie dives into the van towards the guy. Nicolai sees this, and is closing on the van decides to run up to the driver rather than use his surf gun at a distance, killing a lot of bystanders, and pretty much everyone in or around the van. Nicolai feels that Mikie is kind of like a friend, or pet or something, so he's trying to help. Besides, if something happens to Mikie, who'll make Nicolai sandwiches at 3 o'clock in the morning?

Dragon fires into the side window, but she's not sure if it hit anything. The man with the cleated face exits the vehicle, again, to go after Dragon, using the vehicle as cover. Mikie is hit by a second man in the back of the van, and is knocked to the ground, then two people who really know what they're doing kick him into unconsciousness. Ow. Nicolai is going to shoot the driver, but all Dragon sees is another big guy with a really big gun, and figures he's one of the bad guys, so she takes off around the front of the van. So Nicolai sees the bad guy pop around with his surf gun (surf gun + large man = CRI?), and dives off to the side, rolling, to try to miss Dragon, who has slid towards him with her spikes up. At this point, all hell breaks loose, with surf guns going off, people firing through the side of the van out, other individuals in the area shooting. It's a big mess.

It gets really bad when the driver, who is a robot, grabs the barrel of the surf gun, crushing it. The 'bot's arm is shredded when the weapon is fired, but Nicolai is injured as well, by flying robot and surf gun shrapnel. The van speeds off, in a lopsided way, tossing smoke grenades out the back. Dragon, who sought cover under the van, has to evade the van as it attempts an escape with one flat tire. She manages to not be badly hurt, just sort of treadmarked a bit. Dragon sees the guy running to catch the van, and fires into the smoke after him, not seeing anything because of the smoke. Nicolai tags the van with a tracker, but the van goes around the corner, screeches to a halt, and then the bad guys unass the area, stealing another car, and leaving the van with the occupants in the back. When Nicolai and Dragon get there, they see a dead body on the street, wearing an expensive suit and driving gloves, so evidently he's the one whose car they stole.

Nicolai recognizes the big fluffy vaguely tiger-striped tail of the other occupant of the van, so he unhoods Ghaer. He then picks up Ghaer, and Mikie, and gets them out of the van, and off the street. The police have shown up, and an ambulance is summoned. Dragon points out to the police that the car belonging to "that dead guy over there" was stolen by the men responsible, so they might want to look for it. Ghaer has woken up enough to tell the police that the really big guy Dragon was describing, maybe an AP, was actually a robot, and then he has to explain to them that no, it was not an "obvious" robot, but one of the really expensive Gendyne-esque ones. Oh great - some kind of killer robot running amok on Up Port. Just what the cops need. Dragon offers to share the blood sample off her cleats, and makes sure she gets a receipt when they want her shoes.

Mikie is taken to Regina Trauma, and Nicolai, Dragon, and Ghaer are questioned by the police. So Nicolai, Dragon, and Ghaer get to hang out together. Ghaer knows Dragon, although he hasn't seen her for quite a while, and she doesn't recognize him now that he's all fluffy, and all. Names are exchanged, tattoos are shown off, etc. Dragon stares at Ghaer, and goes "You're all lumpy!!" "Argh!" Since they need medical attention too, they are taken to the Trauma Center as well.

Everyone is healed, and it's even less expensive now! Ghaer is not sure why those people grabbed him, but the only ones who use robots like that would be the Solomani (at least that's the general consensus). Nicolai asks if Ghaer has pissed off any Solomani recently, and the only living person Ghaer can think of is Veronica Lu, but he's not sure why she made the comment on Rhylanor about "having to take care" of him that Ghaer overheard; he's only been in Solomani space once, and he thinks it might be because of Trey, or some other relative. Ooh, so it's one of those family things!

Nicolai asks Ghaer when he was in Solomani space, and it was some time ago, and only very, very briefly. It involved "the people responsible" for his new haircut, and some gates, but Ghaer doesn't think anything that happened in those few minutes is the cause of the attack.

As a side note, Armand Solati is murdered on Rhylanor, poisoned by some one using a needler (rather efficiently) as he is picking up his children at school. When the security cameras are run back, some one in a blue SternMetal Horizons corporate jacket is seen near Solati (it's one of the jackets available only to the corporate executives). Could this possibly be related to Corina's death? Jacques Solati did try to kill her, and Stern had gone off after her death....

Samantha will not be returning to Rhylanor any time soon (for the next year or so), and will be on Cogri for some time, until the heat dies down. At Behrel's expense, that is. Fortunately, she varies her methods, and has never poisoned anyone on Cogri or Regina, and hasn't used poison any where for quite some time.

Three bodies were found in the park on Regina. No one is sure who they were, because their heads were crushed. Flat. Hmm. Nicolai and Ghaer are released from the hospital, so they are going to go shake a weasel. Dragon uses the computer in her room to look up info on the local Solomani, like Blaelok, LaBland, etc. Nicolai, oddly enough, spots a Weseli first, and points him out to Ghaer. Ghaer tells him that is not a weasel you want to shake - "That's detective Weasel!" Oh. They go off to find another weasel, and are followed by several police officers; hey, that was not a regular little street brawl.

LaBland comes running up to Nicolai, telling him he has to help him! Some one is "after" LaBland. Nicolai asks why LaBland thinks some one is after him, and he tells him "the human head I found in my bed." Okay, that sounds about right. Nicolai asks if he knows who the head belonged to, and LaBland says it was "a paramour. A close friend." LaBland has money, and he's willing to pay Nicolai anything. And LaBland is absolutely not going back to the consulate, since it's obviously not safe. Nicolai suggests it was because LaBland "filed inaccurate reports", and that maybe it's Lu, which sends LaBland off - it can't be her, she'd "never come to this dirt ball planet", but if it is her, maybe Nicolai could "explain things to her". Nicolai tells LaBland that he'd "like a copy of that file everyone says they have on me". That's a problem, as the file has disappeared, and LaBland signed it out. He figured it would be something Nicolai would want, but now it's missing. LaBland then tells Nicolai that some one is going after "everyone who has strayed from the true path", which includes Nicolai.

Ghaer decides maybe it's Black doing all this, just because he's so unhappy, so he calls him, and tells him that there's "a distraught individual from a long way away who is in need of help, and may currently be 'approachable'", but Ghaer's not sure how long he'll last, as he has "pros after him". Nicolai advises LaBland to take the "run away" advice more seriously, and Ghaer tells them some one may be able to help.

Mikie calls Theresa, who looks at the caller id and sees he's calling from Regina Trauma. Again. She comes over from work, looking very nice. She sighs, tells him "It's a good thing I love you." Mikie tells her they are going to keep him overnight, which is a disappointment. She then shows Mikie what she just bought, and raises the front of her dress to show off her garter belt holster. Good girl! Theresa has been taking lessons at MilTech, from Kelly, and it turns out she's quite good. She shows Mikie her new gun, a MilTech Lady Snub, with one round of tranq (that part of the cylinder marked with red nail polish) and four rounds of HEAP. Theresa goes on about everything she's learned, making it obvious she's now much more knowledgeable about firearms than Mikie. And she's sure Mikie must have ended up in the hospital due to involvement with Ghaer, Nicolai, and/or Blaelok. Okay, so she's right.

Theresa then asks "Speaking of Ghaer, what's up with him and Khirrll?" "What do you mean?" It seems she's been daydreaming at work, and Theresa has spotted her writing Ghaer's name over and over, on a piece of paper. This surprises Mikie, so he's going to have to speak to Ghaer about that. Theresa isn't sure about Ghaer, what with him being involved with Khirrll and Krin, but as far as Mikie knows, Ghaer and Krin are not involved in that way. Oh really?

Ghaer and Nicolai are taking LaBland, who's not sure about this, to the big grey building with no windows. A reporter shows up to ask LaBland some questions, and take a few pictures. The guy seems legit, and asks some questions, and Ghaer attracts a group of small children, who are calling him "Tinklie Winklie" (a new kid's show about Barlows has just started). The reporter is going to take one last picture of LaBland and his "associate", Nicolai, and the flash is really noisy when it charges up. Nicolai intervenes, and gets a laser blast through the foot for his trouble. This causes LaBland to throw up; he's so sensitive. The reporter runs off, slipping his coat off as he slips through the crowd and escapes. Then Nicolai notices the coat is blinking. Blinking? Nicolai dashes over, and tosses the coat into a nearby empty car, which then blows up. Nicolai hears a Solomani voice behind him asking if "everything's all right?" It's a Solomani voice. Blaelok. And he's not shiny, or happy. LaBland turns white, and starts begging for mercy, since it wasn't his fault, it was all "her idea", etc., etc.

Ghaer and Nicolai ask Blaelok if he's behind the business with the reporter, but Blaelok tells them he wasn't, and he wouldn't bother with that little fish. And besides, he knows that "Mikie has a certain special fondness for Mr. LaBland." Blaelok doesn't know who LaBland has ticked off, but yes, from Ghaer's description, it is possible that they people could have been Solomani. Perhaps they were going after Ghaer because he was an "inferior being, and therefore the weak link". How flattering. Blaelok decides to see if LaBland knows anything useful, so he picks him up by his collar, lifting him up so his feet are not quite touching the ground. Mr. LaBland faints. Right after he wets himself. Sigh. Blaelok decides that LaBland would be more useful running loose and attracting bigger fish, so he drops him over the slidewalk railing and they leave him there. Ghaer asks if perhaps LaBland wouldn't be more useful elsewhere? Blaelok says "I can think of a dozen places. The reactor core comes to mind, actually." Blaelok does take great pleasure in pointing out to Ghaer the shop display with the little Ghaer dolls in the window. Ghaer is planning on getting a hair cut. Short.

Ghaer calls Black, one of the minions answers, but Black can be heard yelling in the background. Ghaer tells him the "package has spoiled." Black: "Well, he better get unspoiled, but quick! I may be having a bad day, but other people can have a worse one. You find him, and you bring him to me. Otherwise, you better be checking the papers for ships off planet. " Click. Oh dear. And apparently Blaelok had already arranged for LaBland to be picked up, so Ghaer is kind of in trouble here.

Ghaer and Nicolai decide to carry on their original mission, and find a weasel. They locate one, but he takes one look at Ghaer, and gets the "you're too much trouble for me to be seen near right now", and tries to take off, but Blaelok plays cutting horse, and prevents the Weseli from leaving. It seems that some really big guys had been asking about a big fluffy Vargr - or "Tinklie Winklie", that is. Big guys, move like Nicolai. Not good. And a really, really big guy. That would be the robot, Raul.

Theresa has gone home. Ghaer and Nicolai come back to the Trauma Center to get Nicolai tended to, and Christi takes care of him. A bit more vigorously than is necessary, perhaps. Just to make a point. He'll be kept overnight, in a room with Mr. Belkins, who is having "intestinal problems". How lovely.

Ghaer calls Theresa to check on her, and wakes her up, as she has gone to be early. Ghaer apologizes, but he needed to ask if she'd speak with Khirrll at work tomorrow, and let her know that he would be away for a few days, and would get in touch when he got back. Theresa will do this, but she wants Ghaer to "leave Michael alone so he can get some rest." Ghaer then actually does go home, as he wouldn't want any one hurt if the bad guys had to go hunting for him. But the night passes without incident.

81 - 1122.

Next morning, Mikie is released and runs into Theresa, who's on her way out to work. She kisses him good-bye, and tells him a box came for him. ??? Mikie finds a steamer trunk sized box in the room, addressed to him. No clue why, or from whom.

Nicolai is released, and goes home to Christi's place. He finds a woman stretched out on his bed. And it is not Christi. "Nicolai Volkov?" "Yes, and you are?" "Some one who is going to make your life very interesting." She is extremely attractive, and is one of those women who could be anywhere from twenty-five to forty-five, and there's just something about her.... Yes, it's Veronica Lu (she loves the way Nicolai says her name). She wants to have a conversation with Nicolai, and things get a bit tense when she tries to have the robot Raul "help" Nicolai go with her, and the two CRI, who are also in the room (there's some testosterone issues here too, evidently - the newer, younger, tougher CRI vs. the obsolete, over the hill old model), but things do get more civil, although part of Nicolai is interested in Veronica for other reasons, especially when she gets really close.

Nicolai wants it kept on a friendly, but professional level. And it appears that Veronica wants to make nice with Nicolai; for now. He is invited to visit her at the Consulate tomorrow. She and her people leave, but her scent lingers... Fortunately, Nicolai has air freshener. Just in case, he burns something in the kitchen, to go with the air freshener, in case Christi gets curious about the new 'scent'.

Mikie opens the cedar "hope" chest, with the big gift ribbon on it, to find Mr. LaBland, in his underwear. He's trussed up, with duct tape over his mouth, and he looks really scared, but he's not dead, thank God. Blaelok probably expects Mikie to kill him, or something. Mikie takes the panicked Solomani out of the box, cuts his ropes, and tells him to get the fuck out. LaBland tries to get Mikie to help him, but Mikie gives him a coat, and uses a come along hold to get him out into the hallway. He tries banging on the door, so Mikie calls Regina Security, who come and pick up LaBland from the regular security guys (the apartment is on level 2, after all). Mikie is looking out the window when "Trunk Boy" (nice to see he's still around) tosses LaBland into the trunk of a car, and drives off with him.

82 - 1122.

Before the news hits, Nicolai calls Ghaer, to tell him "She's here." Just so he knows ahead of time. And then Nicolai arranges to have tea with Mr. Blaelok, who suggests a private room in the Tea House, as they have a better tea selection than the Bread and Bean. That's fine, especially since it's mostly another "she's here" message, and Nicolai wants a copy of "his file". Blaelok thought he would, so he hands him a disk. And no, it hasn't been added to the 'archives' yet, just indexed. It's a fairly straight forward SolSec type of report, describing Nicolai as: "Not too bright, but with a certain animal cunning. Likes to shoot things." It has a very complex psych profile that uses all sorts of acronyms and codes, so it makes no bloody sense to Nicolai. As was to be expected, it also has every single detail of his life, both before, and after coming to Regina, and yes, he's obviously "strayed from the true path". These SolSec types keep track of every single little detail. Not too surprising, but Nicolai did want to know what it said.

Nicolai also tells Blaelok that Veronica thinks he's still scrubbed, but that won't last long. And yes, she has a robot. Blaelok asks if it's "Raul, or George?" Raul. Blaelok wonders where George is, since he's "the dangerous one". That is not comforting. Nicolai wants to know "is there anything that can counteract the pheromones?" Blaelok suggests the traditional remedy: salt peter. Ha ha. There is something, but it would basically just shut down Nicolai's sex drive; Blaelok will see about getting some. Nicolai will then decide if he really wants to use it.

Veronica Lu arrives officially, touring the "outer postings". And she will have to give her regards to the new governor. She is so charming, and always knows the right thing to say. And the camera loves her.

Ghaer goes to Curl Up and Dye, and gets his fur dyed all one dark color. In the right light, you can still see his stripes, much like the spots on a black panther (leopard, really), but it is much more subdued. He walks out, feeling better, until a small child points at him and says "Look mommy, it's Puff Puff!" Aaaaahhhh! On the other hand, maybe "Puff Puff" is preferable to "Tinklie Winklie"?