from the Fifth Codex
VIP Lounge, Moonbase Tycho
Jason Bondarevsky studied Admiral Tolwyn as they all took seats around the table and punched in their drink orders on the small keypads in front of them. Over the years Bondarevsky had come to regard Tolwyn as one of his most powerful navy patrons, a man willing to recommend him for promotions and important assignments and generally helping along his career. Ever since his attack on Kilrah and the mission Tolwyn had staged against orders to pull him out Jason felt as if his very life was owed to the Admiral and it was debt he would never forget. Hed always looked up to the man, even when one or another of the admirals schemes was putting him squarely in the line of fire somewhere out on the Kilrathi frontier. But, like most of the rest of the Confederation, hed been stunned to find Tolwyn masterminding the Behemoth project. And when it was all over, the collapse of the plan and the high cost Bondarevsky had personally paid had certainly colored his opinion of the man whod been so important to him for so many years.
"So, Vance," Tolwyn was saying, "how was the trip in?"
"The usual," Richards told him with a grimace. "When I retired from Intelligence I was used to quarters you could stand up in. Ever since I got out to that benighted frontier all I ever get to travel on is destroyers or cruisers, and theyve got just about enough room to think about swinging a pet cat . . . but only if you want to risk banging your head when you think it."
Bondarevsky joined in the laugh, but he could still remember how good it felt to have a ship, any ship, around him. Hed loved the little Coventry, fast, responsive, and maneuverable despite the minor inconveniences of her small size.
"I watched your approach on the monitors," Tolwyn said. "Cruiser?"
Richards nodded. "LCA. Shes the ex-TCS Andromache. Now the Themistocles, if you please. Old Max has discovered the fine art of historical pretensions. Cruisers get named after famous military men who ended up in exile." He smiled. "The Republic picked the ship up for a song and refitted her from bow to stern. Crash job . . . Krugers got a team of specialists ready to turn around anything we can buy, salvage, or cobble together in a few weeks, and hes pushing everybody hard to build up the fleet ASAP."
"So he still figures itll come to a fight, then." Tolwyn made it a statement rather than a question. There was a brief lull in the conversation as a waitress brought their drinks. Richards didnt answer Tolwyn until she had gone back to the bar.
"No question about it, Geoff. Things are even worse than when I talked to you last time. The whole damned mess looks like its coming to a head out there in the next few months, and we need you more than ever."
Tolwyn gave a grim nod. "I figured as much. I may be out of the mainstream these days, but I still have my sources. And the facts are there, no matter how hard the government is working to ignore them."
"So youre ready to come aboard, then? No more excuses?" Richards gave Tolwyn a sour look. "You know we could have used you three months ago."
"Back then I still thought I had a career, Vance. I thought the court-martial would clear me completely and let me get back to work."
"You were cleared, Admiral," Bondarevsky said quietly.
Tolwyn gave him a bleak look. "Oh, the verdict was Not Guilty, son, but that isnt the same as being cleared. Not by a long shot. You should know that if anyone does."
He thought back to the aftermath of the Gettysburg mutiny and gave a reluctant nod. Back then it had been Bondarevsky on trial, and even after the court pronounced hed done the right thing his career might have fallen apart then and there. But Tolwyn had come to his rescue then.
Perhaps he owed the same kind of support to the admiral now, no matter how bad things had looked the day Behemoth went to debris.
Tolwyn was still talking. "Hell, Im surprised they acquitted me, now that I look back on it. I had the weapon that could have won the war, and I just plain blew it. If it hadnt been for Paladin and his Temblor Bomband our old friend Blairthe Cats would be squashing the last resistance down on Earth right about now. And Im too damned old to go down fighting in a guerrilla resistance. We were lucky we stopped the furry bastards when and where we did . . . and Im sorry to say I didnt have much to do with carrying it off. Id . . . kind of wanted to be in on the kill." The admiral looked toward the big window that overlooked the floor of Tycho, an unfathomable expression in his eyes.
"There were some other things we were developing," he said softly, "other things that at times Im not really sure of, but they would never have been ready in time."
"Such as?" Richards asked casually.
Tolwyn looked up, smiled and shook his head. "On hold now, so of no consequence unless they might be needed later on."
That made Bondarevsky frown again. It seemed so out of character for Geoff Tolwyn, one of the most decent men hed ever met, to be involved in a project that would have led to mass genocide. Behemoth, a massive weapons platform designed to destroy an entire planet, would have killed countless noncombatants on Kilrah if it had been unleashed. The Temblor Bomb had done the same thing in the end, but that had been the brainchild of General James "Paladin" Taggart of Special Operations, an outfit that fought under the unofficial motto "Any Path to Victory." Tolwyn had always seemed more like a gentlemanly officer of the old school, willing to do what had to be done to win, but always trying to stay on the right side of the line that marked the difference between civilized warfare and mere slaughter.
"Well, Geoff, youre past all that now," Richards said softly. "Youve got a new start to look forward to out in the Landreich."
"I thought I saw in the news, sir, that you didnt take retirement," Bondarevsky ventured, feeling unsure of himself. It was awkward trying to make small talk with Admiral Tolwyn. The man had been his mentor and patron for years . . . but hed also committed some terrible blunders lately, and it was hard to know which of his two sides he was talking to now. "Did you change your mind?"
Tolwyn shook his head. "Not exactly. Im officially still on the Admirals List, but its been made very clear that Im not likely to see so much as a Supply Depot command for the foreseeable future. Im on an extended leave, as it were . . . very extended. And free to take up other positions, so long as Im available if our lords and masters should suddenly decide Id be useful. I feel like a fighting Admiral after Napoleon was defeated, beached on half-pay."
"Dont you figure thats just what theyll do, if they hear youre heading out to Landreich?" Richards demanded. "Youve made a lot of enemies over the years, Geoff, and you could be handing them the perfect opportunity to land you in some real trouble."
Tolwyn shook his head. "Not bloody likely," he said. "First off, Ive accumulated enough leave that I can take my time coming back even if I do get orders to report. But the fact is, even the ones whore out for my blood will be just as happy to see the back of me." He gave a quiet sigh. "Im just not that important any more, Vance. I spent all my clout on Behemoth, and then I blew it."
"Then you should make the break final and resign, Geoff," Richards told him. "Come out to the Landreich and get a brand new start in life."
"You know me, Vance," Tolwyn said. His broad, weathered face had the stubborn expression Bondarevsky had seen a dozen times in the middle of a battle, the look of a man determined to see it through his way or not at all. "I like to keep my options open. Right now theres nothing to tie me to the Confederation. Im as effectively retired as I would be if Id sent my papers in. But some day things could be different . . ." and his voice trailed off.
"So youre telling me youre still not really committing to the FRLN, is that it?" Richards voice held a note of irritation. "Kruger isnt going to be happy, Geoff. He doesnt like people with divided loyalties."
"Well, he doesnt have to like me," Tolwyn said. "But thats the only way I come aboard, Vance. If you guys really want me, those are the terms. I wont run out on you when you need me . . . but I have to be able to keep my options open. Im still loyal to the Confederation. Someday there might be something I can do to make up for what happened with Behemoth, and I aim to be able to be there for it."
Richards shrugged. "If thats the way you want it, Geoff," he said. "I just wish I understood what it is you think is going to change around here."
Tolwyn gave him a tight-lipped smile. "Youre the intelligence man, Vance. You find out, and Ill tell you if youve got it right."
Bondarevsky looked from Richards to Tolwyn, sensing the strong undercurrent of unspoken thoughts and emotions. He agreed with Richards . . . he wished he knew what it was that Tolwyn was holding back. After the Behemoth disaster, he was worried about Tolwyns possible performance. His management of that last campaign had been a poor job compared to the operations Bondarevsky had seen him involved in previously. If hed lost his edge, would he be able to get it back? And how did his secret plans for the future enter into it all?
As if aware of the younger mans scrutiny, Tolwyn turned to meet his gaze with ice-blue eyes. "Youre quiet, Mr. Bondarevsky," he remarked. "How much do you know about the situation out in the Landreich?"
"Not much, sir," he said. "Ive learned to take the news reports with enough salt to fill up a hangar deck, but aside from a few dark hints from Admiral Richards I cant say I really know whats going on out there . . . or how were supposed to be a part of it all."
"Youre smart to ignore TNC, at least," Richards commented. "Did you catch that report by Barbara Miles last night?"
"The pirate raid story?" Tolwyn asked.
"Yeah." When Bondarevsky shook his head Richards leaned forward in his chair with an intense frown creasing his forehead. "According to the news channels, there was an attack on Ilios last week. Heavy casualties in the district of Dardania, property destroyed, several industrial centers put out of operation for weeks, maybe months. All very deplorable." His frown deepened. "And its true, too . . . except that what they described as a pirate raid was actually an attack by Kilrathi operating out of the Hralgkrak Province. We have proof, damn it, and weve shown it to the Confederation ambassador and sent details to the Joint Chiefs and the Office of Confederation Security and the goddamned Confederation Peace Commission. But theyve passed the word to TNC news to play up this pirate angle, and the Kilrathi dont get into the reports at all."
"You told me once that youve had some real pirate problems, too," Tolwyn said. He shifted in his chair. "I suppose theres just enough truth in their stories so that they can justify their position. And theyll tell you its no good rocking the boat with the Kilrathi, or some such. Right? Theyve staked everything on the Treaty. If anyone outside the government got the idea that the whole Treaty was virtually a dead letter, the President wouldnt stand a chance. I doubt hed get the luxury of impeachment proceedings."
"Maybe so," said Richards. "But Ilios was the most recent colony to join the Landreich. And its one of our leading industrial worlds. Damn it, Geoff, things are getting serious out there. Except for a couple of raids back and forth, the Cats never saw any reason to press the attack against us. Our stretch of the frontier was too far away to be important to the main course of the war. But now that the Confederations knocked out Kilrah, independent clans all through Cat space are striking out on their ownand their side of the frontier is as fresh and untouched as ours. Which means they have the strength to be a real threat, and they see the Landreich as easy pickings without the Confederation to back our play."
"So some Cat clan chief is playing at empire-building," Bondarevsky said. "And hes chosen the Landreich to be his first big conquest."
"Exactly," Richards said. "Were pretty sure the Haka Clan is behind the troubles weve been having. Ukar dai Ragark, the Governor of Hralgkrak, was no friend to Thrakhath and the Emperor when they were alive. He owed his particular position at the edge of nowhere to the fact that he was openly critical of the way Thrakhath conducted the Battle of Earth. Now that theyre dead hes been turning up the propaganda to claim that the Empire only lost in the end because of incompetence and cowardice in the Imperial Palace."
" We were stabbed in the back, " Bondarevsky said.
"Whats that?" Tolwyn asked.
"Just a line out of the history books," he answered. He glanced over at Richards. "After World War I . . . the argument Hitler used to rally Germany behind his call for a new government that would restore the countrys greatness."
"Thats just about the line Ragark is taking," Richards said. "And pretty damn successfully, too, according to the reports weve been seeing. Ragark has a fair-sized battle fleet, plenty of ships that didnt see much combat action during the war. Fortunately theyre mostly about the same as what we have in the Landreich, older ships that werent good enough for Thrakhaths command. But theyre enough to give Ragark some muscle, and hes set himself up as the warlord who can give the Kilrathi something to replace what they lost with Kilrah, a new spirit of victory. Its even taking on religious overtones . . . Kilrah perished because the Emperor lost touch with the old ways, the Word of the Codices, all that. Its powerful stuff . . . and with neither an Emperor nor a homeworld, a lot of Kilrathi are eating it up."
Bondarevsky looked down at the tabletop for a long moment. "Something doesnt make sense, though," he said. "Why should the government shift the blame to human pirates? I mean, all our dealings have been with Melek, havent they? He formed the caretaker government after Kilrah was destroyed and negotiated the treaty afterwards. Why cant the Confederation take action against this Ragark as a renegade Kilrathi?"
"Who knows what goes through the minds of those bastards?" Richards said with a shrug. "Could be theyre afraid the great unwashed masses cant tell a good Cat from a bad Cat. Lord knows the propaganda effort for the past few decades has certainly been devoted to peddling the message that the only good Cat is a dead one. Hell, our one genuine Cat hero turned out to be a traitor in the end."
Bondarevsky saw a spasm of emotion pass over Tolwyns face. Ralgha nar Hhalles, the Kilrathi pilot who had joined the Confederation years ago, had been the spy who betrayed the secrets of the Behemoth to the enemy. And Tolwyn had trusted the renegade completely . . .
"I think it goes deeper than that," Tolwyn said quietly. "I think there are elements in the Confederation who would be quite pleased to see a Kilrathi warlord absorb the Landreich."
Richards gave him a look. "Now, Geoff, you know Im no fan of the government. But, come on! You dont really think theyre setting us up deliberately?"
"Well . . . maybe not," Tolwyn said, but he had that stubborn look again. "But you have to admit that the way things are going theres not much chance of Confederation intervention out in your stretch of space. And Ive seen the same intelligence estimates you have, Vance. Ragarks forces can gobble up the Landreich for breakfast once he gets moving. The only thing thats likely to save your hides right now is the Cats lack of cohesion without the Imperial system directing things. So whether its deliberate or not, Id say youve got plenty to worry about."
"Weve got plenty to worry about," Richards corrected him. "Were in this thing together . . . unless youre backing out after all."
"Im with you, Vance," Tolwyn snapped. "Ive got just as many good reasons for wanting to help the Landreich as you do. Maybe one or two more."
There was an awkward moment of silence as the two strong-willed admirals regarded one another thoughtfully. Bondarevsky took the opportunity to change the subject.
"Couldnt you take your evidence straight to the people, Admiral?" he asked Richards. "Let them know about the Kilrathi involvement? Surely the Confederation government doesnt control every news channel."
"Maybe not all of them, but all the ones that matter, son," Richards told him gruffly. "And at any rate, the propaganda efforts being stepped up against us, lately, too. Were agitators, troublemakers, a threat to the success of the Treaty. When we complain about Kilrathi violations, were simply trying to stir up trouble on the border. If we take any kind of aggressive action ourselves were deliberately provoking an interstellar incident. So any evidence we presented would be discredited as a fabrication before the report was off the air."
"Then whats Kruger planning?" Tolwyn asked.
"What youd expect from Old Max," Richards told him with a grin. "Hes going to take the bull by the horns. Fight the Cats with everything hes got, carry the war across the frontier into Ragarks territory if he has to . . . anything he needs to do to keep them off-balance until the Landreich can deal with them. And Confederation protests be damned."
"But if this Ragarks naval force is so much better than what the Landreich has, how can Kruger hope to fight and win?" Bondarevsky fixed a questioning stare on Richards. "Even Krugers not crazy enough to buck the odds if the outcomes certain defeat."
"Well, hes building up the Navy as fast as he can. Weve been buying up every warship we can get our hands on as fast as the Confed decommissions them. Weve got an experienced team of salvage experts working on each ship as it comes in. And were recruiting officers who can make a difference . . . in case you hadnt noticed."
"It isnt much, sir," Bondarevsky said, frowning.
"Old Max has some other schemes in hand, son," Richards told him. "Believe me, were going to hand out some surprises. Youll find out more once we get to Landreich. Maxd skin me alive if I let out any of his little secrets, especially here. You know what he thinks of the Confederation."
"Kruger always plays things close to his chest," Tolwyn said. "But whatever he has in mind, it isnt likely to be easy . . . or safe. You know, dont you, Jason, that this campaigns going to be dicey. Maybe more dangerous than anything youve been in before . . . and you were in a couple of the worst fights the Confederation faced. I hope, when everythings said and done, that you wont hold anything against me."
"Against you, sir?" For a moment, Bondarevsky thought Tolwyn was referring to the Behemoth battle and the wounds hed suffered aboard Coventry, but Richards quickly set him right.
"Didnt you know, son?" he asked with a raised eyebrow. "It was Geoff here who first brought your name up as a possible recruit. Max and I both liked the idea, of course, but we wouldnt have even known you were available if he hadnt suggested you be brought aboard." He raised his glass. "So . . . heres to comrades in arms."
"May we all gather together again when the fightings done," Tolwyn added, touching his own glass to Richards.
As Jason Bondarevsky silently joined in the toast he wondered just how much chance there might be of Tolwyns wish coming true. Facing a powerful new enemy on Mankinds most distant frontier, outnumbered and without Confederation backing, this time it didnt look like there was much hope of coming out alive.
But at least he could go out fighting, doing something positive instead of wasting away, one more retired hero in a society that didnt want his kind reminding them of the dangers theyd so recently faced.
Bondarevsky found himself looking forward to a chanceany chanceto see action once more.
Warriors Hall, Brajakh Kar
"The last one is here, Lord Haka."
Ukar dai Ragark lak Haka turned from his contemplation of the scene outside the window to return his young aides arm-to-chest salute. "Very good, Nerrag. I will be there shortly. See to the refreshments."
"Yes, my Lord." Nerrag jaq Rhang saluted again and hastened to the door. As the young officer left him alone, Ragark permitted himself a brief baring of his fangs. How they all feared him!
He turned back to look out the window again, savoring the thought of eight-eights of the fleets senior officers kept waiting for his arrival in the chamber below. In the days of Thrakhath and his idiot grandfather the Haka hrai had been in disfavor, and Ragark had been forced to lead by compromise, conciliation, and petty chaffering with other leaders whose status might be lower but whose favor in the eyes of the Imperial Court made them too powerful to ignore or overawe. Now the Emperor and his heir were dead, and Ukar dai Ragark ruled his province of the Empire with unbreakable talons.
Power at last. After too many eights of years the Haka Clan had the power it deserved . . . Ragark had the power he deserved. With the Imperial Family gone, the clans would start the age-old scramble for control all over again, and this time the Haka would be poised to win the Imperial Throne itself.
To think that there were religious-minded fools who believed the loss of Kilrah meant the end of the Kilrathi as a people! The Kilrathi had traveled the stars when the dirty apes of Terra had lived in wattle-and-daub houses and fought with blunt-edged weapons. They were the rightful inheritors, not of a single world but of the entire Empire, and if orange Kilrah was gone, they could make any world the new hub of a glorious imperial state. This one, now . . . he had viewed Baka Kar as a place of exile when Thrakhath had "awarded" him the governorship of Hralgkrak, but it would make a suitable capitol for the Haka Dynasty.
The view through the window showed him a world not unlike Kilrah. The vegetation was a deep purple, rather than the red-brown of Home, but the jungles that surrounded Brajakh Karthe Fortress of the Darkwere just as lush and full of game. The planet was an old colony, with everything needed to be self-sufficient . . . and it was the center of a province of eight-eights of other worlds all replete with the resources to fuel his lunge to destiny.
Thrakhath had treated him lightly, once. Now Thrakhath was beyond his vengeance. But when Ukar dai Ragark took his rightful place at the head of the reborn Empire, he would make sure that Thrakhath and all of Thrakhaths clan were erased from the annals of the Kilrathi people. Only Ragark and his heirs would remain.
He turned at last from the window and walked slowly toward the door, careful to hide the limp hed suffered since childhood. Not that anyone was likely to remark on it, not like they had when it had prevented him from becoming a warrior. No one dared call attention to his shortcomings now. But Ragark was too proud to betray weakness. He had schooled himself to hide the physical handicap, as he had learned the arts of government and of war to carve himself a place despite the scorn of his peers.
The lift took him down a level, from the meditation chamber to the Hall of Warriors where his fleet captains waited nervously. When he entered the room they stood in unison, saluting and raising the battle-call of the Haka. That made the blood surge through Ragarks veins. By the War God, he could lead these warriors to victory!
A table stood at the front of the Hall, under a large monitor screen. Ragark settled his small but stocky frame into the lone chair and watched as the others sat. These were the officers who controlled his warfleet. Some had slighted him in the past; they would pay when he no longer needed them. Some had been his willing allies or servants from the very start. They would enjoy the fruits of victory with him. Many others were nonentities, like so many of the military and political officers consigned to this backwater province during Thrakhaths day. Their fate would depend upon their performance in the days and months ahead. Ragark didnt intend to let any officer long survive the kind of mistakes that had cost Thrakhath victory time and time again during the war with the Terrans.
But one and all were needed now, and with their aid the name of Haka would be feared once more.
"Today we will begin to put in motion our new campaign against the apes," Ragark began with a show of teeth. "The probing actions we have already conducted along the frontier with this Landreich have given us the intelligence we need to consider a campaign in strength against them. It will not be as Thrakhath would have had it, quick and ill-conceived. We will carry out our conquest step by step, taking care that our position remains secure throughout. But in the end, we will have the ape worlds for our own."
"And their Confederation?" That was Akhjer nar Val, the captain of the provinces flagship Dubav. "We know they can make new Temblor Bombs. Do we not run the risk of losing more worlds to them?"
He favored nar Val with a long and penetrating look. Dubavs captain had an impressive battle record; hed commanded a carrier at the Battle of Earth, and had received an Award of Valor for a single-ship action with a human escort carrier the next year. Ragark needed him, at least for the moment, to add some seasoning to a battle fleet roster that had few enough genuine combat veterans. But while nar Val was deemed apolitical, he had a conservative streak in his character that made him one of the cautious ones, one of the officers who looked on lost Kilrah with fear and despair. That could be a problem some day.
"The Terran Confederation is satisfied with the peace the traitor Melek has signed with them." That brought a few angry mutters from the assembled officers. Melek had been no more than Thrakhaths chief lackey, yet after Kilrahs destruction he had arrogantly assumed the power to negotiate with the enemy, as if a low-born servant of the Imperial House could presume to the Throne itself. Melek called himself "Chancellor" these days, and pretended to have control of the Empire, but Ragark wasnt the only clan leader or senior officer to ignore the upstarts claims. "They want nothing more than to disband their military forces and go back to the decadence they enjoyed before they encountered us. This Landreich that stands in our way is an offshoot, a breakaway association of colonies with so little loyalty that they refused the guidance of their own mother planet and formed their own government in defiance of the Confederation . . . and the cowards of Terra let that defiance stand. There is no reason for the Confederation to take an interest in what we do out here. At least, not until it is too late."
Ragark paused before going on. "In any event, we will soon be acquiring a powerful new accession of strength which will once and for all put us in a position to dominate the apes. I have recently had the final confirmation. Jhorrad is coming here to offer his claws and fangs to our service."
A muttering sprang up around the room as Ragarks words sank in. Dawx Jhorrad had become something of a legend in the Empire in a few eights-of-days. Already a hero of the Battle of Earth, with two capital ship kills to his credit in that one engagement, it was the story of his odyssey after the destruction of Kilrah that sparked the imaginations of the Kilrathi people. Jhorrad had refused to bow down to Melek when the Chancellor claimed caretaker authority and began negotiations. Instead hed taken his ship out of orbit and set out into self-imposed exile, fighting off attacks by Melek and various jealous warlords at every turn. It had taken some judicious bargaining for Ragark to convince him to come here to Baka Kar, but it would certainly be worth it.
Dawx Jhorrad . . . and his ship. What a ship he was! Ragark allowed himself a moments baring of fangs. With Jhorrads mighty Vorghath, there would be nothing to stop Ukar dai Ragark from subduing the Terran apes and the fragmenting empire alike.
He stood up and leaned on the table, his eyes wandering across the assembly. "Victory against the apes of this Landreich will prove that the Terrans are not some kind of gods or demons, despite what they did to the Homeworld. The other clans will see that we can lead them to victory, and they will join our cause. Melek will fall by the wayside, and the Empire, reborn, will again bestride the stars!"
"Haka and Victory!" someone shouted. Others took up the chant, until Ragark raised his arms to call for silence.
"Victory it will be, my lords. But first we must plan our campaign. The apes must feel our fangs poised at their throats. Only then will the Kilrathi retake our appointed place."
He sat down again and activated the monitor to show them the plans for their first move, but Ragark had trouble concealing the joy that burned inside.
The long days of frustration and exile were over. The day of the Haka was at hand.