Vindemiatrix VI (Space Opera)

I was in my villa having a bite of viands when the call came. Snapping on the video screen, I saw the face of Victor, my vizier, looking more worried than usual. "Viceroy. Sorry to interrupt your victuals," he said, "but I have some vile news to impart."

I set down my glass of prime-vintage wine. Victor didn't interrupt my vichyssoise for no reason. If he did, the matter must be vital. "Go on."


My appetite disappeared. "Where?"

"Near Visalia. One of your villages," he added unnecessarily. I took my responsibilities seriously.

"What about our defenses?" I said. On the margin of civilized space as we were, we were vigilant, but apparently not vigilant enough.

"They bypassed them somehow. Somehow they scrambled all the sensor systems of our ships--radar, visual, inertial tracking, the works. They can't even use them well enough to navigate or land. They're virtually helpless."

"I presume you are mobilizing land forces?"

"As we speak. The Viscount is handling it."

"Good. Keep me apprised of future developments," I said, returning to my meal with what Victor and I both know was feigned composure. As soon as he signed off, I let loose with a stream of violent and vitriolic curses.

After my meal, the remainder of which I barely tasted, I threw on my vicuna coat and dashed to my flier. Vito, my pilot, had it already warmed up, and we took off with little delay. Visalia was across the planet from my villa, which was probably why they'd chosen it as a target. Most of the defenses were concentrated here.

The choice was disquietingly precise for another reason, though. Of all my villages, Visalia probably saw my visits the most often, mostly because of its vicar, and his beautiful daughter Viveca. I had been courting her for several months now, after having first seen a vignette of her, and while I had not yet broached the subject of marriage, she was quite dear to my heart. If the Vikings knew this, then with Visalia they would acquire a painful hold on my actions.

The video screen before me came to life--Victor again. "We have determined the cause of the trouble in our space defenses. Apparently the problem is a computer virus."

"Transmitted by the Vikings?" I said incredulously. I knew little of software, but what I did know suggested this to be difficult to impossible.

"No, Viceroy. It had apparently been lurking dormant in their code, and just triggered as the Vikings approached. They are working to eradicate it, but until we know when the virus was introduced, restoring from backups is risky."

"When is the latest it could have been introduced?"

"Viper had the most recent software upgrade, six months ago. If it was particularly virulent, it could have spread among the ships from there. I have other ships searching for the virus, since they may still be susceptible to the initial trigger."

"Thank you, Victor. Keep us posted, and we'll meet you at the rendezvous." I shut off the video screen and brooded. My earlier suspicions were vindicated, but I didn't feel any better. Six months of planning for a single target was beyond the average Viking expedition, though that was obviously what we were intended to think it was. It was looking more and more like a concerted strike at Viveca, and, through her, me. And I was beginning to suspect who might be behind it.

The rendezvous point was a few miles away from Visalia, in a small fort shielded from air and ground attack. The village was just visible over the horizon, as were the ships on the surrounding plain. "Do we have any information on the ships?" I asked Victor as I met him and the Viscount at the base of the flier.

"The initial scans indicated Viking configuration, but this now appears to have been a deliberate deception. We are currently trying other means of identification."

"See if any of the ships matches the specs of Virago," I said.

Victor raised an eyebrow, then nodded. "It would explain a lot."

Virago was the ship belonging to Vincent Vieuxtemps. We had been the best of friends, once, but a vicious disagreement occurring when we vied for the same woman drove us apart. I had long suspected him of arranging her death, but had never been able to prove it. Now, as Victor confirmed Virago's presence, he seemed to be back to strike at me again, vindictive as ever.

"A call is coming in," Victor said. "From Virago."

We went into the meeting room, and a visage came up on the large screen there. He was wearing a gaudy visor, and a costume done up in violet and viridian, but I still recognized him. "Hello, Vincent," I said.

"Ah, Virgil. You don't seem surprised to see me. But then, surely you know when you were appointed viceroy of this godforsaken mudball that I would someday have to come and pay you a visit. Congratulate you on your success."

"Attack one of my villages," I said venomously.

"Yes, well, I didn't want to put you out. I was fortunate enough to obtain lodgings with the local clergyman, and his lovely daughter. Quite the vixen, she is." Reaching offscreen, he pulled Viveca into our view.

"Virgil! Help me--" Her cries were cut off by Vincent's hand on her mouth.

"My, my. You seem to know each other, don't you?" he said with mock innocence. "And knowing you, she's still a virgin. Well, I'll have to do something about that. Let her know what a real, virile man can do for her. Just like Vivian, before she died."

"What do you want?" I said, controlling my temper.

"Me? Nothing. Just to enjoy your hospitality for a little while, and then perhaps take a few samples home with me. I realize that this may violate our guest-host relationship slightly, but then I'm afraid being a good guest was never one of my virtues. So I suppose it's not true that I want nothing. Just a little bit of vigilante justice, since nobody else will give me any. And some of your lovely vintage wine, since none of the vintneresses in my part of space quite measures up."

"What kind of justice is it to--" But the video had cut off. I made a few more vituperative remarks.

"Virago is taking off," Victor said, somewhat unnecessarily, as the vibrations shaking the floor could be little else.

"Have any of our ships defeated the virus yet?"

"No. Apparently the virus has been extant for several years at least, judging by how long ago the backups are contaminated. Perhaps as long as your tenure here."

He'd been planning this for a long time.

So where to start finding him? With today's space drives, there were easily a vigintillion different placed he could hide out. He could be sitting in a galaxy in Coma Berenices laughing at me.

But no. Vincent was too much the stereotypical villain to be content with such an easy victory. He had to want me to find him. That was the only thing that made sense. Not too soon, of course, or he would never be able to exact his vicarious revenge through Viveca--I shuddered to think of her as a victim of Vincent's lusts.

Victor was attempting to trace their most likely paths, but I knew that would be no good. There would be something Vincent had said, something that we knew from our shared past, that would resonate with his twisted viewpoint, that would give away his location.

I knew him too well, and unfortunately vice versa. I would have to pray that the vicissitudes of time had changed me more than they had him.

What had he said? I replayed his conversation in my mind. And then, suddenly, I had it.

Vintneress. Or, as we learned in the Latin classes we took together as children, Vindemiatrix. That was what he had always called my mother, whose family had made their fortune in wines. As he had known I would eventually remember.

I called Victor up on my vidscreen. "Epsilon Virginis. That's where he's hiding."

Vindemiatrix, as a type-G star, had been explored early, but its lack of viable planets, and barren neighbourhood, had left it largely abandoned, apart from intermittently-manned scientific outposts. It was not intrinsically a very interesting star, so they didn't keep a very vigorous vigil.

"Currently, the only manned outpost is on Vindemiatrix VII," Victor said. "If we assume that Vincent's hideout is intended to be as little visible as possible from that base, it would have to be on one of the moons of VI, here, which is expected to be nearly in opposition for the next decade."

The sixth planet was really a gray giant--generating more energy internally than it received from its primary. In fact, as we drew nearer, it became apparent that the normally frigid temperatures of the outer stellar system might thus be sufficiently ameliorated in Six's moon system.

Victor confirmed this. "Average surface temperature, twenty degrees Celsius. Furthermore, there seems to be substantial vegetable growth, apparently chlorophyll-based. Like a tropical jungle. Obviously the original survey missed this moon; it is uncharted in our records."

The perfect hideout, then. Especially if the local flora happened to have all the vitamins and nutrients they needed, saving them from having to import food, which could leave unwanted tracks. "How's the atmosphere?" I asked.

"Mostly breathable. Some high traces of vinyl chloride--probably not natural. The result of some manufacturing process, I would guess."

"Might help us locating his hideout," I suggested. "It can't be doing the plantlife a lot of good."

Victor nodded and set to work. After half an hour or so(which I did not endure with the most grace)he said, "There. Relatively bare of plantlife, but with no obvious causative factors. Vinyl chloride concentrations higher in vicinity, as well." He looked at me, silently querying how to proceed.

"He knows we're coming," I said. "He probably even knows we're here. He wants a face-to-face confrontation, but on his terms, and his turf. He won't hinder us." Unless he doesn't think we're at enough of a disadvantage for him yet, I didn't bother adding. I had spent most of the voyage trying to decide how I should deal with him if I got the chance. Vivisection was a leading candidate.

But the idea, I reminded myself, was to try to surprise him. I had changed, I told myself, since he had last known me. I had to think as I had used to, to find out what he would expect me to do--and then deal with it as I would now.

Soon I had a plan.

"What we need to do," I said, "is set up a diversion with Viper, and under cover of that launch a one-man probe towards their base." As Victor opened his mouth to debate, I said, "And I will need a volunteer to man the probe."

"I'll go," the Viscount said immediately. "I feel worse than useless up here. On the ground, I might be able to accomplish something."

"Good," I said. "They'll think you're me, and won't give you much trouble getting in, or finding Viveca. Getting out again will be the problem, but hopefully we can take care of that before then. But the less you know about that, the better."

He nodded and set off to prepare his personal arms before he entered the probe.

"Now. We'll need to engage one of his ships in combat. That shouldn't be a problem, since that fits in with his plans anyway. So let's get to work making a nuisance of ourselves."

We fired a few carefully-placed lasers near his ground installation. Not enough to cause any damage--I wasn't risking Viveca's life--but enough to stir up the hornet's nest. Sure enough, Virago lifted off from a concealed launchpad a few minutes later.

Viper and Virago had a brief skirmish above the moon before Viper pulled off. Virago, expecting this, did not follow.

I missed most of the battle myself, because I was busy making my way over to Virago with nothing more than a pressure suit and a jet- pack. Matching velocities, dodging laser fire and torpedos, and trying to avoid being seen occupied most of my time. But I managed it, and soon secreted myself on the hull near one of the newly- inflicted laser scars. When the techs came out to repair the damage, I infiltrated their ranks and soon slipped back on board.

I felt somewhat guilty about having deprived the Viscount of the nebulous aid I had promised him, but I needed to give Virago a chance to get back down to the moon's surface and drop me off, at least. Then I'd have to distract Vincent by myself.

His stronghold barely deserved the name--its only defensive advantage was its lack of direct visibility from above. Beneath the canopy of jungle, it had myriad weak points. I had taken to the trees shortly after sneaking away from Virago, and while the viscous atmosphere with its cloying sweet vinyl chloride smell made me feel like I was swimming through syrup, I made my way swiftly towards the center of the stronghold via the network of alien vines.

At the very center was a large garden, which I could see into easily from my high perch, and hear the strains of canned violin music. Vincent was there, and Viveca. Her normal vivacity was subdued into a numb silence, punctuated by brief bursts of tears. I knew that he had already violated her, making a mockery of my rescue. But I would at least have my vengeance.

"Don't worry, my dear," Vincent said. "He'll be here to rescue you in a few moments, if the reports from my guards are accurate. He won't last too much longer, of course. Or, rather, he will last longer, but he won't be much good to you after the first few hours. Neither will you, of course. I have had much better in my time. I'm afraid I'll have to put you into the Vice-Pit of something. Well, time to ready my little reception, I guess..."

Words cannot describe the visceral hatred I felt at that moment. I'm afraid I lost control of myself for a few minutes, but when my vision cleared I knelt on top of a bruised and battered Vincent, with a laser pistol held to his head and my other hand like a vise around his neck.

"Kill me," he hissed. "Do it! Claim your victory upon me, and know it will all turn to ashes in your mouth."

My finger tightened upon the trigger, and then loosened. Instead, I clubbed him on the side of the head with it, and he went limp beneath me.

Just then the Viscount burst from the bushes, to stop short at the scene before him. After a moment, he went to comfort Viveca. I stood over Vincent's unconscious body, once again picturing vivid torture scenes in my mind. Then I took out my commset and put in a call to Viper.

Since the guards had strictest orders not to enter the garden until Vincent called for them, we remained unmolested until Viper's crew descended to take over the stronghold from the lowlifes who inhabited it. Victor had already placed a call for more official support through the scientific outpost on Seven.

There is little more to tell. Vincent was brought before the High Court, and sentenced to death by viral injection. I still have the videotape of his final moments, writhing in agony in his isolation cell as the tailored virus worked at unraveling his insides, leaving his nerves for the very last.

I never could bear to look at Viveca again--vivid images of Vincent's violation of her were too painful for me to bear. She eventually became one of the Viscount's concubines, and he apparently had much joy of her.

I was also highly praised for the discovery of the moon of Vindemiatrix VI, which was christened Vivian after a woman long gone from life, but not from my memory. I am told a thriving colony now lives there.

[ d. page gave me the following words:

I decided to carry the theme a bit further.]

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The Den of Ubiquity/ Aaron V. Humphrey /