Chapter 21 – Hostile Negotiations
Mathias searched the entire chamber, high and low, for another exit. There was none. Not even a natural passageway through the cave system. “Who builds a secret underground room with only one way out?” he muttered angrily.
“Easier to hide,” Aleksander pointed out.
“Easier to guard,” Tino added.
“You’re not helping,” Mathias snapped. He was still upset about the chamber being empty. The others knew it was best to let him just work through it; wait until he was calm again before trying to come up with a plan. It was taking longer than usual, though. Searching for a second exit and being similarly denied any reward for his efforts did nothing to improve the captain’s mood, but he was slowly becoming more reasonable. He had stopped swinging the axe around so carelessly, and now that his secondary search was over Mathias sat down on a broken stalagmite to fume silently.
“Gotta figure out what to do ‘bout the police,” Berwald began cautiously, testing the waters of Mathias’ temper.
“Go out with guns blazing,” Mathias grumbled.
“I’d rather survive this,” Eiríkur replied.
“We have to try and negotiate,” Aleksander said.
“That’s all you ever want to do,” Mathias said. “No fun.”
“Sorry I don’t enjoy getting shot at,” Aleksander droned sarcastically.
Mathias gave up and sighed deeply, “Fine, have it your way. No one ever listens to me anyway.”
Aleksander shared a look with Berwald. Their captain’s anger had turned to depression, a much more uncommon emotion for Mathias and one they were not so used to dealing with. Berwald did not speak much, and certainly matters of the heart were not his strongest suit when it came to talking, but he had known Mathias longer than any of the others, and knew better what made him tick.
“Mathias,” Berwald began slowly, choosing his words carefully. “We’re not empty handed.”
Mathias looked over at him with an expression of pure incredulity. “Oh, sorry, I forgot about your new fuck toy,” he grumbled, and ignored Tino’s offended shout of protest.
“No,” Berwald replied stiffly, equally offended but fighting to keep his temper in check. “Got plenty of stuff to sell.”
“Like what?” Mathias snapped.
“The keys,” Berwald said, “And the coordinates t’ this planet. Sure someone else’ll be stupid enough t’ come here.” That made Mathias pause. It was true they were the only ones who knew how to get here. Berwald took the moment of silence as a chance to continue. “Might also get that police ship; sell it for plans and parts.” That would be much easier to sell, but much harder to get their hands on.
“It’s not the fame and fortune we hoped for,” Aleksander broke in, “But it’s still more than we started with; enough for us to live pretty posh for a while.”
Mathias was thinking. Berwald could practically see the gears turning in his head. He was weighing their options, figuring out whether the potential gain was worth the effort. “So our plan is back to guns blazing?” he asked.
“No,” Aleksander said. “We still need to negotiate.”
“Even the police aren’t stupid enough to negotiate away their ship,” Mathias pointed out.
“We don’t need them to,” Aleksander replied, “We only need to negotiate our way out of this building. Then we can fight them on equal footing.”
The group took a short moment to gather their senses in the stone chamber. Mathias hunched over, sitting on large stone with his head in his hands and claimed fatigue, but anyone could tell he was deep in thought. About what, none of them were certain. Tino could not sit still and shifted from foot to foot, fidgeting with his guns while Berwald hovered nearby. Finally, Mathias stood up again, hopping to his feet and declaring “Right, let’s go!” as though they weren’t potentially going to their deaths. None of the others were easily swayed by this performance, but followed as he strode out of the cavern.
Mathias lead the way confidently, the others trailing behind through the passageways with varying degrees of apprehension. If Mathias felt the same he did a good job of hiding it.
At last they ascended back to the surface and stepped back out into the dim lighting of the external structure of the temple. By the outer door Ivan was lounging on a bench, his female officer stood nearby, rigid and on alert. She stood up even straighter when she saw the outlaws returning, quickly alerting her commander to their presence.
“Well well,” Ivan smiled as he sat up and then rose to his feet. “Back so soon? Where’s my prize?” His eyes ran over the five men before him and when he did not see any difference in them the smile left his face.
“There’s nothing there,” Aleksander informed him.
“What do you mean?” Ivan’s frown deepened.
“Are you deaf?” Mathias replied, “He said there’s nothing there. No treasure. The place is empty.”
Ivan chuckled softly and gestured toward the woman at his side. She raised a pistol and pointed it toward the outlaws. “Nice try,” Ivan said, “Now tell the truth.” Tino raised his own rifle to his shoulder in retaliation, but he was not certain his reflexes could match the woman’s.
“That is the truth,” Aleksander protested, “I swear.”
“Do you really expect me to take the word of a pirate?” Ivan asked.
“Tino,” Mathias said sharply. That was all the invitation that the gunman needed. He pulled the trigger, the gun fired, and a bullet went zipping past Ivan’s ear so close that it ruffled his hair before it embedded into the wall beyond.
“You missed,” Ivan observed.
“I don’t miss,” Tino informed him. “I’m sure you’re well aware of that. The next one goes in your skull.”
Ivan’s brow furrowed for a moment, but that was the only sign that he was affected by this threat at all. “Natalia,” he said, and the woman at his side suddenly tensed, more alert and ready to react in an instant. “The next time that Tino tries to shoot me, kill the young one.”
All eyes turned immediately to Eiríkur, who froze on the spot in terror. Aleksander grabbed his brother and immediately pulled Eiríkur behind himself protectively. “He’s just a kid,” he protested immediately.
“That is not my problem,” Ivan said flatly. “You should have thought about that before you recruited him to the life of an outlaw. That is not very responsible of you.”
Aleksander seethed silently and grit his teeth to keep from saying anything. Nothing he could say would make the situation any better, but he was furious. He had done his damnedest to do what was best for his little brother, to take care of him and to keep him safe. No pampered military officer was going to belittle everything that he had done and everything that he had sacrificed in order to make Eiríkur happy. “Calm down, Aleks,” Mathias said softly, laying a hand on the pilot’s shoulder. “Tino, stand down.”
Tino was reluctant to do so, however, and he looked back at Mathias for confirmation. A curt nod was all he got, and Tino slowly lowered the rifle from his shoulder.
“Good,” Ivan hummed with satisfaction. “Now perhaps we can talk like civilized people.”
“We tried that already,” Mathias bit out. “You didn’t seem very keen on the idea.”
“I generally prefer to have the upper hand,” Ivan informed them. “Now, you claim that you found nothing within the vaults bellow this building. I find this difficult to believe.”
“You’d better learn, then,” Mathias said, “Because there’s nothing there. And killing us isn’t going to change that.”
“Why don’t you go look for yourself?” Tino suggested.
“And risk being trapped in there by you? Unlikely,” Ivan scoffed.
“What do we have to do to make you believe us?” Aleksander asked, still standing protectively in front of his brother.
“There is nothing you can do,” Ivan said, “I simply do not believe you, and it is unlikely that I ever will. The odds of there being nothing on this planet, which has remained untouched since its people went extinct, are extremely slim.”
“So are we just going to stand here until we all die of old age?” Mathias asked, rolling his eyes. “This is so stupid. There is nothing in the damn vaults. Whatever happened to the people here, they cleared out all their stuff beforehand.”
“It must be here somewhere,” Ivan reasoned. “And none of you are leaving until I have it.”
“What do you expect us to do? Search the whole planet?” Mathias asked in disbelief.
“If that is what it takes,” Ivan replied.
“That’s ridiculous!” Tino protested, “You can’t do that to us!”
“Can’t I?” Ivan asked. “You are all under arrest at current. I see no reason why this planet is any different from a prison colony.”
“We haven’t been tried,” Tino argued, “You can’t keep us detained without a trail. It’s against the law.”
“I don’t believe the law applies to this part of the galaxy,” Ivan said thoughtfully. “The government has not established jurisdiction over this quadrant.”
“Then you can’t arrest us, either,” Aleksander protested.
“On the contrary,” Ivan smiled. “I can do whatever I want.”
“But we certainly don’t have to go along quietly,” Mathias replied.
“I never expected as much. But I know you do not want a fight, and neither do I. I always hoped we could sort things out peacefully, like civilized people,” Ivan informed them. “Which is why I have given you the chance to hand over the technology you have found.”
“We told you we didn’t find anything,” Mathias protested with annoyance.
“I am not surprised you don’t wish to hand it over. But by now I am sure you’re aware of how outmatched you are,” Ivan said, “It would be foolish to attempt a fight. However, I understand your hesitance to hand over what you have found. So, I will give you time to think it over.”
“You’re going to let us leave?” Tino asked skeptically, but hopefully.
“No, of course not. We are going to stay here until you are ready to hand over any and all technology or artifacts that you located beneath this building,” Ivan stated. “You may take as long as you need to consider your options, but know that if you attempt to leave, I will kill you.” With that said, Ivan sat back down on the bench he had been occupying before and folded his hands in his lap. “Go ahead, talk amongst yourselves. Decide what you will do. Give me what I want, or die?”
The pirates did not consider either of those an acceptable, or even possible, option. But of course, they needed the time to make a new plan, seeing how negotiation had failed rather spectacularly, and Mathias was quick to take advantage of any stall tactic, even one offered by their enemy. He quickly drew his crew to the side of the room and sat them down amidst the ruins to consider their options and decide which was least likely to get them all killed.
“Looks like we have ourselves an old fashioned standoff,” Mathias muttered. “How do we fix it?”
“He’s never going to believe the vaults are empty,” Tino said, “Ivan’s used to getting what he wants and he doesn’t like to be told he’s wrong.”
“So he’s delusional,” Aleksander concluded.
“Yes,” Tino confirmed.
“Do you know the woman?” Mathias asked.
“No,” Tino said regretfully. “But if she’s anything like him she’ll follow any orders she’s given whether they’re right or not.”
“Fantastic,” Mathias sighed.
“Think we should try to fight ‘em?” Berwald asked. Usually he was happy to let the others hash out the plan and sit by quietly, but this situation was looking dire.
“I don’t know,” Tino admitted, “If I knew more about that woman I could probably come up with something. I don’t know if I can shoot both of them before they shoot us.”
“How big is the risk, do you think?” Aleksander asked.
“Too big, maybe,” Tino said thoughtfully. “She’s a sniper, I can tell from her uniform. It’s unlikely she’ll miss if she fires on us.”
“So it’s possible one of us will die if we try to fight our way out,” Mathias concluded. “Can we wait them out? How long before he gets tired of just sitting here?”
“Ivan’s impatient,” Tino said. “Or he was when I knew him. Now I’m not so sure. He’s been following us for months now just outside of sensor range. That takes patience. He’s also got at least two other crew members back at the ship. Minimum crew is four for a patrol ship like that one. Captain, First Mate, Pilot, and Tactical Officer. So these two have backup if they need it. We don’t.”
“So our options are risk our lives, or wait around until he gets bored,” Mathias said thoughtfully. “At which point he might just kill us anyway. I think the only reason he hasn’t yet is because he wants to take us back as some sort of trophy.”
“Probably,” Tino agreed.
Mathias fell silent in thought, trying to think of a way they could get out of this. He looked back at their enemies. Ivan was sitting pretty on one of the benches by the outer door. The woman was not far from his side and she was staring at them. For an instant her eyes met Mathias’, but he looked away quickly, feeling suddenly like hiding. Then an idea struck him. ‘Tino,” he said lowly, “Do you think these benches could be enough to block her guns?”
Tino frowned and looked down at the bench he was sitting on. He knocked on it curiously and bent over to see how thick it was. The wood was old and brittle; his own bullets would shatter it. But pulse guns did not have as much penetrative force. They were designed specifically for use in space, where a shot gone wild had the potential to cause a hull breach and kill everyone in the vicinity. “I think so,” he said tentatively. “But only one or two shots.”
“One shot is all we need,” Mathias was beginning to smile again.
“Why? What are you planning?” Tino asked curiously.
“We hide,” Berwald answered for him, having just figured it out for himself. For a group who did all their fighting in the vast openness of space the idea of hiding had never occurred to them.
“Exactly,” Mathias confirmed. “Use the benches as cover while you take them out.”
Tino’s eyes went wide. “That could work.”
It was all Mathias could do to keep from showing how excited he was to have a viable plan. “Let’s do it then. Act casual, don’t want them to get suspicious,” he said, and slid from his seat down onto the floor. A moment later Tino got up and went to join Berwald by the wall, attempting to use the larger man to hide his hands as he took out his pistols. As casually as possible, Mathias tilted the bench he had been sitting on onto its side. As he did so he chanced a glance toward the woman. She looked more alert than before, but she was not pointing any weapons at them, so Mathias thought they were safe for now.
Over the next few minutes the crew built themselves a loosely arranged barricade. “Whenever you’re ready, Tino,” Mathias said when everything was in place. “Everyone keep your heads down.”
Tino climbed over Berwald’s legs to get into position while the others took cover as best they could. By now the police had figured out that something was going on, but they could not figure out what. Tino still hoped to catch them off guard. “Ready?” Tino asked, his voice barely above a whisper. When he received nods from the rest of them, and there really was not much they could do except duck and cover, Tino readied his guns and peeked over the top of the bench. Ivan had risen to his feet, watching them suspiciously. Tino was not surprised, as subtle as they tried to be, it was hard to deny that they were being suspicious. Suddenly hiding behind a bunch of upturned benches was not normal behavior. He only hoped that Ivan had not caught onto them yet.
He really did not want to kill either of them, but he knew that it might come to that. A bullet in each of the woman’s shoulders would put her out of commission, and Ivan, well Tino was tempted to shoot him in the head, but decided on the chest instead. He would survive that if he got medical attention soon enough. Tino ducked back bellow the bench for a moment and took a deep breath to calm and steady himself, then he was up in a flash, both guns pointed at the woman – the bigger threat here by far – and he pulled both triggers simultaneously. She raised her guns the moment she saw his, but did not have enough time to react before the bullets both struck home, one in her shoulder, the other in her upper arm. She fired her weapons, but the shots went wide as she went stumbling back. One struck the wall behind them and the other the bench that Eiríkur was hiding behind, the wood cracked and splintered in the sudden heat of the energy burst, splitting the bench in half and rendering it useless. Ivan had his gun out and was aiming it, Tino aimed both of his toward the police captain. They fired at the exact same moment. Ivan stumbled backward and then crumpled to the floor. Behind him Tino heard a sudden cry of pain, a thud, and then a scream.