Chapter P 1 2 3 4

False Colors

Copyright 1999
ISBN: 0671-57784-0
Publication January 1999
ORDER

by Wiliam R. Forstchen
& Andrew Keith

•  Chapter 3


"Of all the weapons of the Warrior, it is the mind that elevates mere fighting to glorious Victory."

from the First Codex
6:34:14

Wardroom, FRLS Themistocles
Deep Space, Terra System
0447 hours (CST), 2670.278

There was something about being aboard a ship underway that made Jason Bondarevsky feel alive again.

Three days had passed since Admiral Richards had arrived at Moonbase Tycho. Now his mission to Terra was done, and the Landreich cruiser was shaping a course for home. For Bondarevsky’s new home, out on the frontier.

Like all vessels throughout human space, the ship operated on the same Terran Standard Time (CST), derived from Greenwich time on Earth, that was in use at Tycho, but Bondarevsky had been used to a different schedule from his stay in Odessa these past few months, and the shift in time zones had left his body clock out of step. So despite the hour—right in the middle of the Second Dog Watch, what some of Bondarevsky’s flight school comrades had referred to in days gone by as "zero-dark-thirty"—he was wide awake and restless. The lighting had been reduced to simulate night, and there was little activity on board except in the bridge and engineering sections, where the duty watches kept an eye on the vessel’s progress toward the jump point where Themistocles would make the interstellar transit to Barnard’s Star, the first leg of the long journey ahead. Bondarevsky had finally given up trying to sleep and had come to the officer’s wardroom for a cup of coffee.

Although he was alone in the middle of the ship’s night, he could feel the throb of power through the deckplates, the tiny fluctuations of the ship’s inertial dampers as the helmsman corrected the acceleration curve. Even traveling as a passenger aboard someone else’s ship beat spending his time planetbound. That much, at least, he could enjoy. He only wished he could switch off his brain for a while instead of worrying about the future.

Admiral Richards had returned from his meeting with Confederation representatives in a grim mood. They had been as unhelpful as ever, demanding that the Landreich rein in the "hotheads" they accused of stirring up trouble on the frontier. That had been roughly what Richards and Tolwyn had expected, of course, but that didn’t make it any easier to accept. The Landreich was effectively on its own. War was only a matter of time, given the Kilrathi ambitions in that part of space and the dogged character of President Max Kruger.

And Jason Bondarevsky was heading right into that war.

He still had no idea what Kruger and Richards had planned for him, though it was plainly a combat role rather than some staff job. Richards was as close-mouthed as always, and Tolwyn was no better. Not that Bondarevsky spent much time in Tolwyn’s company. There was a chasm between them that started with the Behemoth debacle but went wider and deeper than that. Geoff Tolwyn had changed since the old days, and not for the better. He was even more secretive than Richards, and there was a determination in his manner that worried Bondarevsky. He was like a gambler who had lost everything but lingered at the table hoping that one last role of the dice would change his luck, plotting and planning ways to stay in the game without regard for the potential pitfalls or consequences.

So Bondarevsky didn’t have an outlet to vent his hopes and fears. He might have used Sparks as a sounding board, but long habit made it impossible for him to discuss the affairs of admirals with a lieutenant who had risen from the ranks. You didn’t voice your doubts about flag officers with juniors.

Instead he’d turned inward. He spent most of his time immersed in research, trying to catch up on developments along the frontier since his last posting there. Things had changed quite a bit since he’d been part of the Free Corps that had been secretly loaned by Terra to Max Kruger’s Navy to help secure the Landreich in the days preceding the Battle of Earth. Whatever his upcoming combat post might prove to be, he would have to know the situation in detail.

He studied the porta-comp on the table in front of him, ignoring the panoramic view of deep space spread out in the window that dominated one end of the wardroom. The holographic map displayed above the computer showed the sector of space known as the Landreich . . . the next battlefield, it seemed, in the ongoing struggle between two interstellar powers.

Landreich had started as a single colony world located at the extreme limit of human-settled space, nearly twelve hundred light-years from Terra. The frontier out there was far from the direct line between Terra and Kilrah, and fighting in the region had always been in the nature of a sideshow by comparison with the major fleet actions of the war. Raids back and forth across the ill-defined borders had been the norm through much of the war, and neither side put their best men or ships into that part of space. It was regarded as a backwater region, of no great strategic importance.

During the opening moves of the war, the Kilrathi had launched a campaign in the sector, but the Confederation high command had recognized it for a diversionary effort and refused to reinforce the tiny squadron stationed at Landreich. Max Kruger, a reject from the Academy and smuggler who had flown a recon team into Kilrathi territory and discovered the impending move towards war, had helped to organize the defense of the system. He had crash-landed on a Kilrathi base planet and had driven them to distraction with his commando raids on their base. Finally stealing a Kilrathi frigate, he had made it back home and was hailed as a hero. His next action was typical of the Landreich, an action which catapulted him to the presidency of the system while at the same time earning him a court-martial and condemnation as a mutineer.

The Confederation had sent out a heavy cruiser with orders to act as the flagship for a Home Guard fleet of ships pressed into service from the Landreich’s small local militia. The Confed commander, not used to the freewheeling ways of the frontier, had rubbed Kruger and others the wrong way with his spit-and-polish ideas of discipline. Their response had been simple, straightforward, and entirely predictable: they had seized the cruiser, kicked the officers and anyone who didn’t want to go along with them off, and then set off on a raid deep into Kilrathi territory with their newfound firepower. It had taken three years, but finally Kruger had destroyed the Cat base that had coordinated Imperial activity in the sector.

When the Terran government ordered his arrest and removal from Landreich, it had sparked a bloodless coup that had resulted in the expulsion of the Confederation’s governor and his staff, a declaration of independence, and the election of the hero of the hour to the post of President and Commander-in-Chief of the Free Republic of Landreich.

Other frontier worlds had followed suit as it became clear that Terra had no interest in protecting the remote frontier region. By the time Bondarevsky had served there, the Free Republic extended across a volume of ten parsecs, holding eight major colony worlds and a number of outposts and settlements. It was known as "the Landreich" to distinguish it from the planet where everything had started, but Max Kruger was still the President. That had been an awkward situation indeed, to have the chief executive of a sovereign republic listed as a wanted fugitive from the Confederation. For the most part Terra ignored the break-away republic, and Kruger in turn followed a policy of looking out for the Landreich and otherwise staying clear of the war.

But when the Kilrathi had proposed a truce with the Confederation, Admirals Richards and Tolwyn had detected indications that the Empire was plotting something. The Kilrathi had set up a chain of bases through the "unimportant" Landreich sector, intending them as staging points for their all-out assault on Terra. Acting in secret at the orders of the Confederation President and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the two admirals had transferred a battle group from the Confederation Navy to the Landreich, the "Free Corps" of "volunteers" pledged to support the human colonists threatened by the Kilrathi incursions. Jason Bondarevsky had commanded the escort carrier Tarawa in that campaign. During their operations around the Landreich the Terrans had discovered the true nature of the Kilrathi plan, and Bondarevsky had pressured Kruger into dropping his stance of ignoring the Confederation and leading his fleet to intervene at Terra at the height of the fighting there.

That had made Kruger a hero, for a time, and there was no more talk of his past misdeeds. But after the Battle of Earth things had lapsed back into their old patterns. The Free Corps had been withdrawn from the Landreich’s service, and Kruger had gone back to more or less ignoring anything that didn’t threaten his own borders. A handful of Confederation ships were posted to the sector again and a Confederation diplomatic presence was established, but Kruger was too canny and far too stubborn to allow himself to be swallowed up by Terra once more.

Since those days the Landreich had expanded some more, according to Bondarevsky’s map. There were fourteen colony worlds owing allegiance to Kruger, and the frontier was nearly twenty parsecs across now. The Landreich had become a genuine power in the region, albeit a minor one. The problem was, the old Imperial province that bordered it, Ukar dai Ragark’s sectors, had better than twice the planets, population, and ships. Even the Landreich’s accelerated naval expansion program would be hard-pressed to field an effective defense if the Kilrathi came across the frontier in force.

"Ah, burnin’ the midnight oil, I see." The bantering voice of Aengus Harper disturbed his contemplation of the computer map, and Bondarevsky looked up to meet the young officer’s mocking eyes. "’Tis late hours you’re keeping, sir . . . or early ones."

"It seemed a good time to get some study time in," Bondarevsky said. "What’s your excuse, Mr. Harper?"

The lieutenant spread his hands and grinned. "I always try to rise a mite before my watch, to get an hour or two in on the flight simulator before the wardroom gets busy." He indicated the simulator compartment at the far end of the wardroom. Half game, half training tool, flight simulators were popular diversions aboard ships in deep space, where boredom hung heavy on long voyages between the stars.

"Every morning?" Bondarevsky asked. "That’s a hell of a lot of sim time, isn’t it?"

"True enough," Harper said. His expression turned wistful. "The truth of it is, sir, I want to keep in top form, in case an opportunity should arise for a transfer to a fighter wing."

"You’ve had flight wing training?" Bondarevsky studied the younger man closely. He gestured to a chair, and Harper sat down across the table from him. "How did you end up a shuttle jockey? If you don’t mind my asking."

"A sad tale, that," Harper replied. "I fear my scores in flight school were only just borderline. Not the technical side of it. I could fly rings around my classmates. Word of honor on it. But . . . ’tis sad but true that the Devil puts temptation in the way of mortal man, and some of us just lack the rectitude to resist as we should. They say I set a record for the number of demerits earned by one officer in any class, and as a result my standing was knocked down. This was before we had many openings for pilots, before we started acquiring escort carriers from the Confed boyos. So I missed out when the first round of flight wing berths was being filled, and drew shuttle duty instead. And bad luck has been keeping me away from the action ever since. I put in for transfers, but by the time this old tub gets to port all the new vacancies have gone to new pilots, and I stay where I am."

"That’s a damned shame, Lieutenant," Bondarevsky said. His sympathy was genuine. There was nothing a born pilot hated more than to hold back on the sidelines and watch others do the job he knew he could do better. Bondarevsky had gone through the same thing a few times. "I’d offer to help, but I don’t have the faintest idea of what kind of assignment I’ll be drawing myself, so my promise might not be any good to you."

Harper gave him a grin. "Well, sir, I can’t hold you to anything . . . but it’s eager I’d be if you could find a chance to get me a fighter of my own."

"Just so you don’t go running up demerits in an outfit I’m in charge of," he told the lieutenant sternly. "I know that fun and games are supposed to be the natural perks of any fighter jock, but not when it might put a unit of mine in danger. You follow me?"

"Ah, sir, that was when I was still a lad," Harper said with an even broader grin. "I’ve learned to be more . . . selective in seeking out my entertainment, since I’ve reached my maturity and all."

"Yeah, right," Bondarevsky said. "You’re a wise old man now, eh, Harper?" He paused. "Look, Lieutenant, if it doesn’t throw you too far off your sim schedule, let me buy you a cup of coffee. I’m trying to get a handle on conditions in the Landreich, and I’d like some input from someone who knows it. Could you do that for me?"

"With pleasure, sir," Harper said. "But I should warn you that I haven’t seen or heard all that much. A shuttle pilot doesn’t exactly move in the rarefied atmosphere of admirals and commodores, you know. And all I really know is Tara, and maybe a little about some of the stations I’ve been on since I signed up."

"Even that much would be a hell of a lot more than I’ve got now," Bondarevsky told him. "I haven’t been in the Landreich since the Free Corps campaign, and a lot can change in four years. And even when I was there, I didn’t have much of a chance to get a feel for the Free Republic."

The younger officer helped himself to a cup of the hot, bitter coffee from the vending machine near the table, then returned to his chair. He regarded Bondarevsky with an uncharacteristic solemn expression. "What can I be telling you, then, sir?"

"Tell me a little bit about yourself, first, Mr. Harper," Bondarevsky said. "Give me a junior officer’s view of the situation in the Landreich."

Harper shrugged. "Not much to say, sir, really. I told you already that I was born on Tara. We were one of the first colonies to join Landreich in the succession movement, back when the confees decided we weren’t worth the effort to guard. I joined up after my father was killed, when a Cat raider blew his freighter out of space. Lied about my age, too, I’m afraid. At sixteen you can’t see yourself waiting two years for anything, and I wanted the chance to give those Cats back a little of what they’d give us."

"How far back was that?"

"Ten years it’s been, sir. I had just graduated from flight school when Himself took the fleet to Terra in ’66."

"Himself?"

"The President, you know. Old Max. I wanted to be a part of that run so bad I could taste it, but I was flying shuttles between Landreich and Hellhole."

"You should be glad you missed it. A lot of good people died out there."

"Ah, but many a deserving young officer came home with a promotion, too, I’m thinking," Harper returned. "At any rate, it’s mostly been quiet since, except for that raid the Cats mounted late last year. A carrier battle group actually got as far as Landreich itself, but the fleet chased them off again."

"That must have been right near the end of the war," Bondarevsky commented.

"I suppose it was, sir." Harper shrugged again. "Fact is, we don’t really figure the war is over. If anything, things are worse now than when Kilrah was still around and old Thrakhath was calling the shots. He thought the same way the confees did about our stretch of space, I guess. The Imperial province facing us was a dumping ground for rejects and castoffs, ships and Cats alike. The leaders were usually nobles who were out of favor with the Imperial Government but too important to deny a posting. The ships were mostly third-line, and the crews were either still getting their spacelegs, or recovering from a hard stint in the main Theater of Operations, or sometimes they were oldsters past their prime but still serving in the Navy."

"That’s probably the only thing that kept your people alive," Bondarevsky said. "No insult intended, Harper, but if this had ever become a primary target area, I doubt if the Free Republic’s Navy could have stood against some of the stuff the Cats were throwing at us."

"True enough, sir, true enough," Harper said. "When they launched that raid last year, they built their squadron around one of their supercarriers. Damned big, she was, I tell you true."

"But you beat her off?" Bondarevsky couldn’t keep a note of incredulity out of his voice.

"It took everything we had, but we did it," Harper said. "The Cats lost a couple of ships, and when they found us waiting over Landreich they contented themselves with a long-range orbital bombardment and then headed for the jump point. Our intell boffins said they were supposed to teach us a lesson in return for our helping the confees at Earth, but I don’t think their hearts were really in it. ’Twas a damn-fool idea anyway, supercarrier or not. Even if they’d done what they set out to do, what would it have accomplished anyway? They might have chopped up Landreich pretty bad, just like they did Terra before the relief fleet arrived, but the rest of the Republic would still have been there . . . and it wouldn’t have made much difference to the course of the war elsewhere."

"Is the carrier still there?" Bondarevsky asked. "If the Cats still have a supercarrier in these parts and they decide to make a serious attempt against the Republic, that one supercarrier would be a more serious threat than most of the rest of their fleet, especially if they’ve been relying on junk Thrakhath didn’t want for the primary theater."

"As to that, who knows?" Harper’s shrug was eloquent. "We had a message that a couple of confees caught up with the big bastard somewhere out in the Disputed Zone, but they never came back. On the other hand, word is the raiding squadron never went home either, if the intelligence reports that’ve leaked from on high are anything to be trusted. I guess both sides ended up as debs, more’s the pity for your confee boyos."

"Well, at least the Cats aren’t waving a supercarrier in our faces," Bondarevsky said. "That’s something."

"Aye, it is, but I’m thinking it might not be enough this time, sir. Not by a long shot. We’re used to standing on our own two feet out here, but I’ll confess to you, sir, that I wish Admiral Richards was bringing back word that Terra was willing to back us." He mustered a grin, but Bondarevsky could see that Harper was forcing the cheerful expression. "Fact is, we’ve never been completely on our own, even when the confees put us at the bottom of the list of strategic targets. We always figured we’d get help if we truly needed it—your Free Corps, or something like it—and that made facing the Cats a mite less frightening. Now, though . . . we really are on our own this time out, and I’m wondering if it’s any of us at all who’ll be seeing home again after it’s done with."

Unbidden, an image of the wrecked bridge of the Coventry flashed through Bondarevsky’s mind, with the dead sprawled across their consoles and vacuum tearing away the air with an audible shriek. But he thrust it away. "Some won’t make it, Harper," he said quietly. "But if we can stop the Cats, even the ones who don’t come back will have counted for something."

Presidential Palace, Newburg
Landreich, Landreich System
1624 hours (CST), 2670.292

The Presidential Palace was said to be the largest residence on Landreich, and Bondarevsky was prepared to believe it. On his last tour along the frontier he’d never actually been here. In those days Kruger had led his people from the front, setting up a presidential command post at the Landreich base on Hellhole when he wasn’t playing squadron commander from the bridge of a warship. It was a lot easier picturing the hard-bitten Kruger going into action than it was to envision him in the palatial surroundings that greeted Richards, Tolwyn, and Bondarevsky on their arrival. Themistocles had barely made orbit when word came for the three to see Kruger in person. Lieutenant Harper’s shuttle had carried them straight into the Palace Compound, and from there they’d been conducted inside, passed from one staffer to another until they had finally been led to the reception chamber outside Kruger’s office.

"A moment, please, gentlemen. The President is in a meeting, but he’ll be able to see you shortly."

Bondarevsky nodded courteously to the slender, elderly man who had been introduced as Kruger’s Chief of Protocol, a soft-spoken and gentlemanly sort who seemed completely out of place anywhere within twenty light-years of Max Kruger. Admiral Tolwyn didn’t respond to the man at all, seemingly wrapped up in his own thoughts. Richards gave the aide a cheerful smile. "Don’t worry about it, Karl," he said. "Knowing how Max feels about meetings, I’d be willing to bet we won’t have long to wait."

As if to confirm the admiral’s statement, there came the clear sound of raised voices through the massive double doors that led from the reception area to Kruger’s private office. After a moment, the doors were flung open. Max Kruger himself stood to the left side, gesticulating wildly as he spoke in a loud and thoroughly unpresidential tone of voice.

"Freebooters and pirates, my ass! How many more Cat attacks will we have to put up with before you bastards back in Confed get it through your thick heads that these raids don’t have a damned thing to do with pirates! I’ve had it, Williams! If you confees don’t know how to deal with Cats, I sure as hell do, and be damned to the Treaty and everything else! We won’t stand still for any more raiding!"

A second man, portly and dressed in the formal suit that was virtually a uniform of the Confederation Foreign Service, walked ponderously out of the office, turning to face Kruger from the middle of the reception area.

"You can rant and rave all you want to, Mr. President," he said calmly, his voice surprisingly thin and high-pitched for such a big man. "But the facts are as I have presented them. The Confederation cannot allow human worlds, even your so-called Independent Republic, to act against the provisions of Ko-Bar Yagar. To the Kilrathi, a human violating the treaty is a human violating the treaty. They will blame Terra for your indiscretions out here on the frontier. If you continue to lash out at the Empire because of your inability to deal with homegrown troublemakers, you risk destroying everything we fought thirty-five years to achieve. Before we allow that to happen, we will take action ourselves. If you don’t want to find yourselves facing a Confederation battle group with a marine expeditionary force prepared for combat, I would suggest you moderate both your tone and your actions. Your declaration of independence was accepted twenty years ago because we had too many other commitments to waste time and resources dragging your Colonial rabble back into the fold, but things are different now, and if that’s what it takes to protect the peace with the Empire that is exactly what we will do. Good day, Mr. President . . . and please think over what I’ve said. For your own good. And the good of your people."

Kruger’s assistant looked from the President to the diplomat with an expression of uncertainty, but when Kruger didn’t respond he stepped forward. "If you’ll follow me, Mr. Williams, I will show you to the door."

As they left, Kruger couldn’t resist a parting shot. "Lard-assed file-shuffling confee bastards think they can push around Max Kruger, do they? I was fighting the Cats out here on the frontier back when the whole gang of console commandos was still going to some la-di-dah university learning how to claim a spending increase was actually a cut so the voters would give them the chance to play god." The President’s words were muttered, but just loud enough for Williams to catch them. Bondarevsky saw him falter, his chubby face flushing red, but the man kept control of himself and followed his guide through the outer doors.

When Williams was gone, Kruger looked around as if seeing his new visitors for the first time.

"Still the master of tact and diplomacy, eh, Max?" Richards said with a lazy smile. He turned to Tolwyn and Bondarevsky. "Clark Williams is the local liaison to the Confederation Peace Commission. Ever since he came out here he’s pretty much run roughshod over Ambassador Phelps, who’s getting near enough to retirement age to prefer not to mess around with the airlock controls. Unfortunately, I’m afraid Max here just can’t find common ground when he gets together with Mr. Williams."

"Make light of it if you want, Vance," Kruger growled. "But that fat bastard isn’t going to keep me from defending the Landreich. We’ll fight the Cats and the confees too, if we have to." He paused. "But this isn’t the way to greet old friends, is it? Come on in to the office."

He led the way through the inner doors. Inside, Bondarevsky had to hide a grin as he got a look at the way the office was furnished. The computer and communications gear was functional and efficient, but the desk was piled high with a clutter of papers, and the chairs and couches had a comfortable but thoroughly battered look. Plainly Kruger favored surroundings that fit his rough-and-tumble image.

"So . . . the famous Admiral Tolwyn. It’s been, what? Almost five years now, right?" Kruger shook hands with the admiral. "Since we last met."

"Right after the Battle of Earth, Mr. President," Tolwyn answered gravely.

"And Mr. Bondarevsky." Kruger took his hand, frowning for a moment as he realized it was artificial. "The voice of my conscience made flesh, or so it seemed back in those days. A lot’s . . . changed since then, eh, boy?"

"You could say that, sir," Bondarevsky replied stiffly. "But some things are still the same. You’ve still got Cat problems, and it looks like we’re still here to help you with them."

Kruger cracked a smile. "Same old Bear," he commented. "Grab seats, people. Anybody want a beer?"

That almost made Bondarevsky smile. The President of the Landreich was a true man of the people, with common tastes and a tough, practical outlook on life. Bondarevsky could still remember storming in to his office on Hellhole one day after a tough mission, furious at the sacrifices his people had been forced to make in the name of protecting the Free Republic. Richards had urged Kruger to decorate Bondarevsky, and the President had casually given him the highest award the Landreich could bestow, plus a promotion, then tossed him a beer. It had been plain enough that Kruger had regarded the beer as the more tangible reward.

Richards accepted a can from the President’s small, battered office refrigerator, but Tolwyn and Bondarevsky declined. All four men settled into seats before Kruger resumed the conversation.

"I read over the report you sent by hypercast, Vance," he said. "Anything you couldn’t say there?"

"Not a damn thing, Max," Richards said. "The crap you’ve been getting from Williams comes straight from the top. The Confederation’s just plain ignoring our complaints, and it looks like we’re being thrown to the Cats. If we fight back, they might decide to come and stomp on us themselves, just like the man said."

"No, there’s not really much chance of that," Kruger said. "Here’s the way I’ve got it figured. Melek’s trying to hold the Empire together while they figure out who should be the next Emperor. If he protested our fighting with Ragark, it might goad the confees into keeping us from fighting. But Melek and Ragark hate each others’ guts. I’d say Melek would rather we stopped Ragark for him here so he didn’t have to face off with him later for control of the Imperial heartland. No, the confees will let Ragark have us . . . and as far as everybody’s concerned, the odds are all in his favor right now. Check?"

"Check," Richards said. "That’s the way it would probably play out . . . unless we come up with something big. What about it, Max? Have we come up with something big?"

"The biggest . . . I hope. We’ve got a damned good lead, Vance. All that we have to do is see if it’s feasible."

Tolwyn stirred beside Bondarevsky. "Would someone mind putting the visiting team in the picture here?" he demanded. "Or are you two going to talk in riddles all day?"

Richards grinned. "Sorry, Geoff. We’ve hardly dared say anything straight out about this even in private. Have either of you heard of the Karga?"

"It was one of the ships that raided Landreich late last year, wasn’t it?" Bondarevsky responded, remembering his talk with Harper. "A Kilrathi supercarrier. I understood it was driven off by the FRLN, and presumed destroyed in battle with a pair of pursuing Confederation cruisers." He couldn’t help but put a slight emphasis on the word Confederation, just to remind Kruger that he owed Terra something despite all his present problems with the Confederation government.

"Still a man for doing homework, I see," Kruger said. "That’s right, Mr. Bondarevsky. Karga was probably the best ship in the Cat fleet operating along this front . . . certainly the biggest and the most modern. Not one of those monsters Thrakhath deployed against Earth, but almost as big and probably as mean. The admiral assigned as battle group commander was a cousin of Thrakhath’s. But they threw her at us with precious little support and a battle plan a kid could have predicted. Nobody was entirely sure what happened to the carrier and her last surviving escort. We were afraid for a while that she’d managed to destroy the two confee pursuit ships and escape back to Baka Kar, but Vance’s intelligence net couldn’t discover anything about her, and one of our informers claimed to have picked up a fragment of a message that said she was getting ready to self-destruct."

"She must’ve been hurting pretty bad," Tolwyn said. "Not even the most fanatic Kilrathi captain orders a self-destruct unless he’s well and truly in the bag."

"Right," Richards said. "Well, the way we figured it, that was the last we’d seen of the Karga, and good riddance. The battle fleet the Cats have mustered out there has carriers and escort carriers enough to knock us out of action by themselves. If they had a supercarrier on top of everything else I’d just go ahead and start learning to speak Cat, because we wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance on Hellhole to fight Karga and all those other ships together."

"That’s what we thought," Kruger said, "until last month."

"We got the news from a frontier scout looking for salvage out on the border," Richards said. "We’ve been scrounging for anything we can find, and paying top dollar. This gal—her name’s Springweather or some such—was checking out the Vaku system when she registered one goddamned big source of magnetic readings . . . and an automated beacon."

"Karga?" Tolwyn asked.

"We’re pretty sure of it," Kruger responded. "The beacon was on a Kilrathi distress channel, but the coding was garbled by radiation. It was coming from orbit over a brown dwarf, so you can figure the kind of havoc that was screwing up the comm channels. The scout didn’t get close enough to eyeball it in case the Cats were active, but she got all the readings she could through that junk and brought ’em straight back here. And our people have been going over them in detail ever since."

"You’ve had a report?" Richards asked.

Kruger nodded. "Mass about right for the Karga. Power signature low, but some of the harmonics match readings we got in the fights we had with her before she disappeared. Orbit is highly elliptical, and likely to decay before too long. No life signs, but we can’t be sure if that’s accurate with all the rads. And you have to figure that if the ship’s intact at least some of her crew could have survived. Somebody had to light off that distress call."

"Unless her screens went down after a power failure," Bondarevsky mused. "Radiation would’ve killed everybody aboard in a few days or weeks if the screens were down—hell, they’d’ve run up lethal dosages in a few minutes, but it wouldn’t have been a fast death."

"That’s what we’ve been thinking, too," Richards said. "Think about it! That supercarrier’s just floating out there in space. If she can be put back into commission . . ."

"A damned tall order, Vance," Tolwyn said. "You don’t know how badly damaged she is . . . and working with alien engineering’s bound to give us no end of problems."

"But if it was possible," Bondarevsky said softly, "we could sure as hell use a supercarrier when the bad guys come calling."

"If we can put her back in service . . . and before Ragark rolls over us or the Confederation changes policies again and decides we’re a threat to the peace," Richards said. "Geoff’s right, it is a tall order. But it’s something we have to try. And you gentlemen are going to be involved . . . under the leadership of your humble servant, of course."

"What do you have in mind?" Tolwyn asked.

"We’ve been getting pretty good at salvage ops, Geoff. Have a whole team that can work miracles. We’re going to take a battle group out to the Vaku system and take a look at that wreck. If there are any Cats still out there, we’ll take them down. Then we’ll put the salvage team aboard and see what we can do. Assuming we can reactivate her, I’ll command Karga’s battle group as senior admiral. You’ll be skippering her, Geoff. It’s a step down from leading a fleet, but we need talented ship-captains a hell of a lot more than we need senior flag officers. Interested?"

Tolwyn leaned forward and gave a nod, more animated than Bondarevsky had seen him in a long time. "Just point me to the bridge," he said. "If that thing’ll fly, I’ll take her anywhere you want to go!"

Richards chuckled. "Easy does it, Geoff. If this doesn’t pan out, you’re likely to end up commanding some outpost . . . Hellhole, maybe. And we still don’t know if we’ve really got any hope of making it work."

"And me, Admiral?" Bondarevsky asked.

"You’ll have to take a cut in grade too, Jason," Richards told him. "But I think it’s a job you’ll be able to sink your teeth into. Wing Commander, with an acting rank of captain and all the pilots we can scrape together to fly off that oversized tub."

"Odds are she won’t be carrying much that’ll fly, sir," he pointed out. "If she went down fighting, her squadrons would have been deployed."

"We’ll shuttle in fighters if we have to," Kruger said. "We’re sending you out in our one large carrier, the Independence. Once you’ve decided what you need, the carrier will bring in additional birds to fill out your complement just as fast as we can get them mobilized."

Bondarevsky nodded slowly, his mind already racing ahead to grapple with the problems he knew would face them on the salvage mission. But while he was by no means confident of success on the venture, given everything that might go wrong, he realized that this was just the kind of challenge he’d been looking for. Win or lose, he’d put his best into it.

"That’s the plan in a nutshell, gentlemen," Richards concluded. "Karga’s just waiting for us out there. She’s named for a Cat folk hero. His story reads something like David and Goliath, except Goliath’s the good guy and David gets beat to a bloody pulp. But in honor of it, we’ve designated this as Project Goliath. May it be successful!"

"Hear, hear," Kruger said, clinking his beer can against the admiral’s. "The battle group’s almost assembled, so you’ll be leaving in a day or two. Start thinking of anything you think we’ll need . . . or anyone, for that matter. Goliath has top priority. And God help us all if you fail out there."


Copyright 1999 by William R. Forstchen & Andrew Keith
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Baen Books 02/02/03