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 4


"Brave comrades are the Warrior’s most cherished gift."

from the Fifth Codex
2:17:38

Shuttle Independence Alpha
Orbiting Landreich, Landreich System
1447 hours (CST), 2670.298

"We’re ready to begin final approach now, sir. Would you like to be tryin’ your hand at the trap?"

Bondarevsky turned to look at Aengus Harper across the narrow confines of the shuttle cockpit. "It’s been a while since I flew a shuttle, Lieutenant," he said. "And onto an unfamiliar carrier deck . . ." Despite his words he was sorely tempted. Taking the stick on a spacecraft, even a slow-moving, antiquated shuttle, would be a taste of everything Bondarevsky had lost in the last few months and years. But he was out of practice, and it wouldn’t do at all for the newly appointed Wing Commander of the Goliath Project to crack up the first time he tried to make a landing . . . and on someone else’s ship at that!

"Maybe ’tis not so unfamiliar at that, sir," Harper told him. "If you’ll be lookin’ at your monitor . . ."

Bondarevsky glanced down at the display in the center of his console. The shuttle was taking them up to the Independence, the pride of the Landreich fleet. Admirals Richards and Tolwyn, together with a small Cadre of staffers, were riding in back, but Harper had extended the invitation to Bondarevsky to join him in the cockpit for the flight. It was the young lieutenant’s way of thanking him for wangling him a spot on his personal staff, with the promise of an assignment to the Goliath Project Flight Wing if and when such an organization materialized. With the priority status President Kruger had granted the operation, it had been easy to arrange Harper’s transfer from Themistocles.

For an instant he didn’t see anything special on his monitor, but then Bondarevsky did a double-take. He knew the ship that was framed in that screen, knew every line and curve the way a man might know his lover. Even the regular pulse of the ID beacon was familiar. Every one had its own special character, and Jason Bondarevsky had learned this one by heart in years gone by.

"Tarawa," he said softly. It wasn’t just an escort carrier of the same class . . . it was Tarawa herself.

"Aye, sir, that it is," Harper said with a grin. "We picked the old girl up for a song when the confees started scrapping the fleet. She wasn’t in very good shape, I’m afraid . . . but Old Max turned his salvage crew loose on her, and now she’s ready for action."

Bondarevsky didn’t respond. He was studying the magnified image on his monitor, thinking about all this old ship had come to mean to him.

He’d served as Wing Commander on her maiden voyage, and back then he’d been critical of the old girl. Terra’s desperate need for carriers at a crucial stage of the war had prompted some unknown naval procurement officer to make the decision to take nine transports under construction and convert them in mid-stream into escort carriers, and the compromise design had been less than efficient in a lot of ways. But he’d come to love the makeshift carrier. On that first tour he’d loved and lost Svetlana . . . carried out the deep-penetration raid on Kilrah . . . seen the captain and bridge crew killed when a Kilrathi missile took out her bridge, leaving Bondarevsky to take command and lead the battered carrier out of enemy territory.

 

Tarawa had still been his for the Landreich expedition and at the Battle of Earth, too. It had been hard to give her up afterwards, when he took command of DesRon-67 and hoisted his broad pendant aboard the Coventry, harder still when he’d learned Tarawa had been crippled in a clash with the Kilrathi just a few weeks later. Bondarevsky had assumed she’d been scrapped . . . but here she was, after all these years, with a new name and new colors, but the same old Tarawa despite it all.

"She’s a tricky approach," he said, trying to keep the excitement out of his voice. "The entrance to the flight deck is narrow . . ."

"The shuttle is yours, sir," Harper said, a twinkle in his eye. "Seeing as you’re the old hand at this, and all." He released the joystick, and Bondarevsky tightened his grip around his own stick automatically.

"The shuttle is mine," he acknowledged. A thrill surged through him. It had been a long time since he’d had his own craft to handle and the flight deck of the old Tarawa inviting him to come home.

"Independence Alpha to Independence Landing Control." Bondarevsky spoke crisply into his flight suit radio mike, and the years fell away. "Ready for final approach now. Vectors are matched and I have you on my navscreen."

 

"Roger, Alpha," the voice of the landing signals officer crackled in his ears. "You are go for final approach. Change vector and start your run when you’re ready. Watch for traffic. Two Rapiers, outbound, one supply shuttle in holding orbit. Confirm please."

Bondarevsky checked his radar scope. "Roger that, Independence. I have all three on my scope. Commencing final approach maneuver . . . now."

Bondarevsky nudged the throttle and kicked in the steering jets to settle the shuttle into the groove that would bring her over the approach deck at the escort carrier’s bow. He allowed himself a momentary frown as he was forced to overcorrect; a shuttle was a lot less responsive than a fighter, and he was out of practice in making a trap on a carrier deck with any bird at all.

The carrier was visible through the viewscreen now without computer enhancement, swelling as the shuttle swept towards her on a precisely calculated course. Bondarevsky could pick out her forward armament bristling around the approach deck, a quad-barreled neutron gun flanked by mass drivers and anti-torpedo batteries. But he didn’t linger on the sight. There was too much to do to bring a small craft in on the deck of a carrier in space, and it took all of a pilot’s attention to do it.

In the old days of atmospheric flight, aircraft carrier landings had been considered the most difficult operations a pilot could attempt, but now that carriers were used in deep space those old atmospheric fliers were commonly held to have had it easy. Despite advances in computers and electronics, it still took the inborn skill of a talented pilot to get exactly the right feel for handling a bird. And a zero-g approach under power was a hell of a lot harder to manage than an old-style aircraft carrier trap, with tiny differences in inertia or thrust adding up to giant-sized headaches for the pilot and the flight control crew alike.

 

"One degree starboard," the LSO told him calmly. "Reduce your angle of attack . . . good. Very nice, Alpha. Reverse thrusters . . . steady . . . Call the ball."

Bondarevsky studied the looming approach deck until he made out the shape of the Ehrenberger Optical Approach Signal above the entry port. It helped a pilot establish his final vector by giving him a set of lights to line up on. With a practiced eye he gauged his course. "Alpha, shuttle, ball, forty-three point seven percent," he said, identifying his craft’s designation and type, the fact that he had the optical signal in sight, and the shuttle’s power reserves, all by the book.

 

"Roger ball," came the imperturbable reply.

The shuttle was moving very slowly now as it closed toward the carrier. This was the trickiest part of a carrier landing. If the pilot didn’t have a perfect line on the port, he’d plow straight into a bulkhead and destroy his bird . . . and a fair chunk of the carrier, too. Too much thrust was bad even if the alignment was perfect, because once through the opening you ran out of maneuvering room quickly inside. But too little speed had its own difficulties.

That, as Bondarevsky had often remarked to non-pilots in countless late-night drinking sessions, was why the flyboys got the big bucks and most of the glory.

He steered through the narrow opening of the carrier’s entry port, remembering how he’d once regularly cursed the naval architect who had designed it. Passing through the energy airlock, the shuttle was abruptly in atmosphere, but Bondarevsky had anticipated the change in the boat’s handling characteristics and caught her deftly. The transition through the barrier had killed most of his remaining forward momentum, and Bondarevsky eased her forward to make a smooth touchdown right in the center of the landing deck.

"Shuttle Alpha, on the deck," he announced. "Powering down main engines."

 

"Nice job, Alpha," the LSO said. "You’re getting a ‘Pass’ on this one."

Beside him, Harper chuckled. Squadron pilots aboard a carrier were graded on each approach they made by the LSO, and the results posted in the ready rooms. It was a form of competition designed to keep everybody sharp. "Passed" was the highest rating given out. Plainly the LSO didn’t know that he had just graded a visiting Wing Commander.

"Thanks, Control," Bondarevsky responded. He saw the same humor in the situation that Harper did, but he couldn’t help but feel a little smug at making the grade. After all, it really had been a lot of time since he’d handled a shuttle docking . . . and a long time since he’d negotiated the tricky approach down to Tarawa’s deck. "Independence Alpha securing from flight stations. VIP party preparing to disembark."

He shut down the cockpit controls and glanced over at Harper. "Well, Lieutenant? I hope my performance was satisfactory . . . for an old man."

"Aye, sir, more than satisfactory," Harper said with a grin. "I’ll fly alongside you any day, and that’s a fact."

They unstrapped and left through the rear hatch that led into the passenger compartment, where the two admirals were just standing up while they continued a technical conversation about the design philosophy of Kilrathi warships. Other officers, staff members and a few techies—Sparks among them—held back, waiting for Richards and Tolwyn to exit the shuttle. The age-old rule of the high seas still held: senior officers were last to board a small craft, and first out.

Harper cracked the hatch. "They’re ready for you, sirs," he said.

Richards led the way through the shuttle’s hatch, followed closely by Tolwyn and Bondarevsky. The flight deck looked just the same as it had the last time Bondarevsky had been aboard, with bustling technicians hard at work on a number of planes close by, and a fresh team swarming toward the new arrival with an assortment of hardware to get the shuttle moved out of the way and into the maintenance cycle as quickly as possible.

They paused at the top of the door ramp. Right in front of them the organized chaos of flight operations swirled around a side party of Landreich marines in full dress uniforms. A bosun’s whistle shrilled in greeting, and Richards started down the ramp.

The officer who advanced to meet him was dressed in a uniform several grades fancier than any Bondarevsky had seen in Landreich’s navy, better than the one Richards had worn for his meetings with Confed VIPs at Tycho. There were gleaming captain’s bars on his collar and plenty of gold braid just about everywhere else, and a patch on each shoulder carried the name Independence.

"Welcome aboard, gentlemen," he said. His accent tended toward the faint drawl of the Landreich aristocracy, and he seemed rather young for the responsibility of commanding a carrier. On the other hand, Bondarevsky himself had still been in his twenties when he took over command of Tarawa. It was just strange seeing another young officer taking the job. "My name’s Galbraith. Captain John Calhoun Galbraith, at your service. Welcome aboard the Independence."

The name rang a bell. He’d heard of Galbraith when he’d served in the Landreich before. The man’s father was one of the wealthiest industrialists on Landreich, a robber baron who owned just about everything that was worth owning. His influence had ensured a smooth rise through the navy for his son, who’d commanded a destroyer when Bondarevsky had last heard of him. Galbraith was said to be competent enough as an administrator, and he’d never marred his combat record with a lost fight, but he was generally regarded as too soft and lazy to make a good combat skipper.

And now he was in command of the old Tarawa. What a comedown for a grand old lady . . . handed over to the man because Kruger needed the Galbraith family’s continued goodwill to keep the Landreich on its feet.

"My senior officers," Galbraith went on with a casual wave at the cluster of faces behind him. "My XO, Commander Roth. My Chief Engineer, Commander Watanabe." He paused, looking at Admiral Tolwyn. "And you, at least, Admiral, should know my Wing Commander."

Bondarevsky suppressed a surprised exclamation as the last-indicated figure stepped forward.

"Kevin, my boy, it’s good to see you," Admiral Tolwyn greeted his nephew in a tone that was pleased, but by no means surprised. So he had expected to meet Kevin Tolwyn out here in the Landreich. He might, Bondarevsky reflected ruefully, have mentioned something about it.

"Likewise, sir," the younger man replied. He looked much as Bondarevsky remembered him, short and stocky like his uncle, but with a baby face that belied his years of service as an officer in the Confederation Navy. He’d been one of the heroes of the Battle of Earth, but after he’d been declared Missing in Action in the final clash with Thrakhath’s fleet and only recovered by the sheerest of chances the admiral had persuaded him to give up his flight status and become part of his Behemoth project staff.

Now he was here in the Landreich, wearing the insignia of a full commander and serving as the head of the flight wing assigned to the Independence, FW-105, the Liberators. Yet another old friend, Bondarevsky reflected, mustered for this new clash with the Kilrathi out here on mankind’s most distant frontier.

Kevin Tolwyn caught Bondarevsky’s eye and gave his familiar grin. "Glad to see you, too, Bear," he said. "And on the old Tarawa, too. Old home week, no less."

"Yeah, I’ll say. I brought Sparks along, too."

"Hey, really? Doomsday’s one of my squadron commanders. And there’s a couple of others from the old days on board."

Bondarevsky didn’t let his reaction show on his face. It seemed Richards and Tolwyn had been doing quite a bit of recruiting over the past few months. The situation was starting to remind him of that first Landreich campaign. Just what were they letting themselves in for this time around?

He didn’t have a chance to reply, though. Galbraith, looking impatient, spoke up before Kevin Tolwyn had even finished speaking. "We’re almost ready to break orbit," he said. "And the Presidential shuttle is due any minute, so that he can see us off properly. I hope you gentlemen won’t mind if we cut the greetings back a little so that we can get the flight deck ready for the President’s arrival. We have a great deal to finish."

"Of course, Captain," Richards responded casually. "If you’ll just detail someone to show us to our quarters, we’ll get out of the way until it’s time to listen to Old Max and his words of wisdom."

"With your permission, Captain, I’d be glad to see our guests to their quarters," Kevin offered.

Galbraith frowned. "Job’s a bit below your station, isn’t it, Commander?" He assayed a brief smile. "Well, I suppose it won’t hurt morale any." The captain waved a negligent hand. "You gentlemen let me know if I can be of any assistance."

Before any of them could reply, he had turned away to address his Exec, leaving the three new arrivals to Kevin Tolwyn.

"One of my men will see to the rest of the passengers," Kevin said. "I’ll show you to the quarters we’ve set aside for you. I’m afraid they’re not exactly up to standard flag rank issue."

"Give me a bunk and a computer terminal and I’ll be happy as a Cat in a sandbox," Richards said. The elder Tolwyn grunted agreement.

The quarters were part of a refurbished section of the carrier. In Bondarevsky’s day they had housed storerooms for munitions spares, but those stores were evidently in a new section two decks below the flight deck, allowing this expansion of available berths. "Old Max ordered the changes himself," the younger Tolwyn explained as he showed the first cabin to his uncle and the others. "Word is he expected to use the boat as his own personal flagship, and wanted the bunk space for his staff. But that all fell through, leaving us with extra VIP quarters no one expected to use until we got this new assignment."

Once the two admirals had been shown their berths, Kevin led Bondarevsky to another cabin close by. "All yours, Bear," he said with a smile, entering the keycode to open the door. "I know it’s not the captain’s suite, where you belong, but hopefully it’ll do for the time being."

"It’s fine, Kevin," Bondarevsky said. He tossed his bag on the bunk and did a double-take as something moved against the space-black blanket. "Well, hello, who’s this?"

Tolwyn reached down and picked up a bundle of black fur. "The official Independence reception committee. Jason, meet Thrakhath. He’s one of our ship’s cats."

The black cat opened a pair of startling green eyes and studied Bondarevsky suspiciously. After a moment the cat started to purr loudly, obviously glad of the attention Tolwyn was giving his neck and ears.

Bondarevsky chuckled. "Thrakhath, huh? Does he know he’s royalty?"

"Absolutely," Tolwyn replied, returning the cat to the bed. "He finds his way into just about every corner of the ship, usually through the ventilation system . . . though some of us think he can walk through walls when he wants to. But he’s staked out this deck as his personal territory. If you don’t want him slipping in here and bothering you, we’ll install a screen he can’t get through."

"Nonsense," Bondarevsky replied. "I can use the company." He paused, then looked Tolwyn in the eye. "It was a bit of a surprise finding you out here, you know. Your uncle didn’t mention anything about it."

"He didn’t?" Kevin frowned, then shrugged. "Well, you know how he’s been lately. Won’t let his right hand know what the left one’s doing for fear it’ll break under interrogation. Fact is, I’ve been here since just after the end of the war—stayed just long enough to see the court-martial verdict, then shipped out to sign on with Old Max and his gang of cutthroats."

"At the admiral’s suggestion?"

"Yeah." Tolwyn frowned again. "I don’t know what it is that’s had him so worried, but he seemed to think it was a good idea for me to get out of Earthspace for a while. And Wing Commander on a Landreich carrier sure as hell beats being a major on the staff back home."

"How much do you know about the mission?"

"We’re supposed to salvage a Kilrathi derelict that could be protected by hostiles," Tolwyn responded. "Should be an easy enough job." He paused, his innocent, open features reddening. "Look, Bear, you rank me six ways from Sunday even in the Landreich’s Navy. I could step down as Wing Commander if you wanted to do something more than twiddle your thumbs on the flight out . . ."

"Forget it, Lone Wolf. You’ve earned the spot."

"It’s just a damned shame they couldn’t give you Tarawa. Independence. Whatever. Or at least her fighter wing. It’s just . . . wrong for you to be a passenger aboard the old girl."

"Don’t you worry about it," Bondarevsky told him. "Just seeing her again is enough for me. And if we end up trying to put that Kilrathi monstrosity back in business, I’ll be glad enough of the vacation time." He hesitated. "But . . . look, Kevin, thanks for making the offer. It means a lot."

"I owe you big-time, Bear," Tolwyn told him. "When I signed on with you before the Kilrah raid I was a spoiled brat who didn’t have any idea what to do with his life. You made me into a proper officer, and a pilot, and a man I don’t mind seeing in the mirror every morning when I shave, and I won’t forget that."

 

"Presidential Shuttle on final approach." The blare of the public address system kept Bondarevsky from having to respond to the younger officer’s words. "Welcoming party, lay down to the flight deck."

"I suppose that includes VIPs," Bondarevsky commented.

"Well, it certainly includes Wing Commanders," Kevin said. "Question is, will our beloved Captain Gall-Bladder claim you and our two admirals as ‘his’ VIPs? He’s very acquisitive, is our CO. A veritable interstellar pack-rat."

"You don’t sound too happy with him," Bondarevsky commented as they started down the corridor together.

"Still a marvel of deduction, eh, Bear?" Tolwyn cracked a smile. "Let’s just say that I’d like it if the skipper of this boat measured up to the standards of an earlier captain I might name. And I’m damned tired of being ‘his’ Wing Commander. In theory we’re supposed to be equals under the Battle Group CO, but he makes me feel like I’m one of his daddy’s lackeys."

"Since he’s here and not in the Flag Officer’s suite, I take it Admiral Richards isn’t commanding the Battle Group."

"No. Old Max decided to make the derelict the hub for a separate squadron if and when she goes operational, and Admiral Richards’ll be in charge of that. Admiral Campanelli’s in charge of the Independence battle group, but he doesn’t show himself much. The man’s the senior flag officer on the fleet list, over seventy but still refusing retirement. And because he’s the biggest war hero next to Old Max that the Landreich’s got, nobody even thinks about easing him aside to let a younger man take over. He’s a pretty good man even yet, but he’s been sick off and on ever since I signed aboard, and lets Galbraith do most of the work running the battle group." Tolwyn grinned. "Might almost be better if Old Max did take to space again."

"Don’t bet on it," Bondarevsky told him. "Your admiral might be old and sick, but Kruger’s just plain crazy. I still remember the stunt he pulled to get us into the Battle of Earth on time. Hit the last jump point at full speed. Half the fleet overshot the target jump point, and a couple of ships ended up with their bows twenty light-years from their sterns."

"It got you to Earth on time," Tolwyn pointed out.

"Yeah . . . but the man’s still crazy. Doesn’t care about the odds, or the possibilities. Just charges in with guns blazing, and be damned to anybody who gets in his way."

"Sounds to me like you approve of him, underneath it all," Tolwyn told him as they reached the lift that would take them up to the flight deck.

Emerging back onto the open area, they joined the two admirals at the fringe of the captain’s welcoming party and watched the Presidential shuttle slipping gently through the force field to settle on the deck close by. Bondarevsky noted that the shuttle bore the name San Jacinto, after Kruger’s old ship that he’d used to launch his mutiny and his subsequent career. He wondered what Richards thought of it. Vance Richards had been the young commander of Kruger’s squadron when Old Max had committed his act of defiance. He sometimes claimed it was Kruger’s act that had blotted his service record and earned him a transfer to Intelligence.

The shuttle door opened, and once again the bosun’s whistle greeted the arrival of the VIP visitor. This time it was accompanied by a recorded band playing something stately and elegant, presumably some Baroque fanfare that was part of the normal greeting for Landreich’s President.

Knowing how Kruger felt about ceremony of all kinds, Bondarevsky couldn’t help but wonder what the Presidential reaction would be. Galbraith certainly knew that Old Max wasn’t the kind to waste a lot of time on all the formal aspects of his office. Did he put on this display because he was helplessly wedded to the rigmarole? Or was he trying to remind Kruger that there were elements in the Landreich who regarded the presidency as something more than just a job?

Kruger stepped out of the shuttle hatch, looking around with a pugnacious but somehow wistful gleam in his eye. Young Tolwyn’s comments about his intention of using the escort carrier as his own personal flagship struck a chord with other pieces of scuttlebutt Bondarevsky had heard over the last few days. Old Max wanted to lead this mission himself in the worst possible way, and he was bitter at having been thwarted in his plans.

Back in the crisis preceding the Battle of Earth Kruger had taken direct command of the Landreich fleet from the bridge of the destroyer Blitzkrieg. He’d also maintained a command post on Hellhole before the Kilrathi had bombed the settlement there. His flamboyant leadership style was best suited to leading from the front—preferably the forward element of the most advanced scout units of the fleet vanguard—and Kruger had played his role to the hilt.

But since that time, from what Bondarevsky had heard, Old Max was finding it harder to carry out his duties from the deck of a fighting ship. The worlds of the Landreich were a cantankerous bunch, peopled by stubborn, independent-minded folk who took a lot of governing. Having an absentee president tended to unsettle things in the capitol. That hadn’t made much difference back when Kilrathi forces were running roughshod through Landreich space, but now that things were more settled Kruger’s political advisors had turned up the pressure to keep him chained to his desk at the palace.

And this mission, as important as it was likely to be, was also sure to be a long and largely boring one. Surveying and salvaging a derelict ship was not the kind of life-or-death mission Kruger could point to as needing his personal touch, not when there were political problems to deal with at home.

Even so, it had taken Richards reminding Kruger that he was the only one who could keep Clark Williams and the rest of the Confederation embassy under control while the crisis continued to unfold to convince Old Max of the need to stay at his post like a good soldier instead of running around in deep space where he longed to be.

So that wistful look was genuine. Bondarevsky felt sorry for the man, whatever his personal eccentricities. Kruger was very much a man of action, finding it hard to come to grips with the idea that not all leadership involved the direct approach he favored. But facts were facts. As Bondarevsky had commented to Richards after one of Kruger’s angry tirades on the subject, "He says the president of a frontier republic doesn’t have to worry about protocol or formalities or little things like running the country. But if that’s the case you’d be reading history books about Thomas Jefferson taking personal command of the Intrepid the day Decatur went into Tripoli harbor to burn the Philadelphia. The man still has the mind of a destroyer skipper trapped in the body of a head of state."

Kruger was still at the top of the ramp. He touched something at the side of his neck, the control, Bondarevsky realized, for a headset microphone and amplifier system. The President’s words boomed out in the hollow space of the flight deck.

"Citizen-spacers of the Free Republic Navy! I’ve come up from planetside to see you off in person because Independence and the squadron traveling with her have a task of potentially vital importance to carry out. On you, the brave men and women of the Landreich armed forces, on you, I say, rests the future of our small league of planets out here on the frontier. For years we’ve been under the threat of attack by the Cats, but our situation today, when a peace treaty supposedly protects mankind, is even more grim than it was in the bad old days before Secession. You may think that a salvage mission cannot be as important as a combat operation, but if you recover the vessel you are setting out to salvage and put it back into operation, it could very well turn the tide in our favor now and for years to come."

Kruger paused, then went on in a lower tone. "I know a lot of you think I exaggerate a mite from time to time, but this time out I’m telling it to you straight. The actions you take during this mission could determine the very future of the Landreich, maybe of all human worlds. And I know of no better body of people to entrust that responsibility to than the spacers and marines of the Free Republic Navy.

"Good luck to you all, and Godspeed."

Terran Confederation Embassy Compound, Newburg
Landreich, Landreich System
1934 hours (CST)

"I wish to God I knew what that maniac Kruger was up to," Clark Williams said, taking a sip from his coffee cup and pausing for a moment to savor the Jamaica Blue Mountain blend he imported every month from far-off Terra. "You can bet it’s something big, I’ll tell you that much. With Geoff Tolwyn involved . . ."

"That isn’t really such a surprise, now, is it, Commissioner?" Lorenzo Mancini leaned forward in his seat, looking intense. "After all, he’s had contacts out here since he and Richards pulled that stunt back before the Battle of Earth, and it wasn’t as if he had much of a future back home. Not after that Behemoth fiasco."

"No, this is something more than just Max Kruger lending a helping hand to some poor slob he thinks deserves a break," Williams said. He put the cup down with exaggerated care, every movement precise. "Kruger doesn’t figure he owes anything to anybody. Just the opposite. He’d still like to have the Confederation government jump through hoops to thank him for ‘rescuing’ us at Terra."

His chair creaked a little as Williams leaned back, and he frowned. Commissioner Clark Williams was a man who loved order, efficiency, and smooth sailing. His office, the best in the Terran Embassy Compound, was furnished with the finest things he’d been able to bring in from Earth, and everything was neat and orderly. Nothing like Kruger’s den in the Presidential Palace, he thought.

Mancini shrugged. "The man has a point, Commissioner," he said. "The Cats had broken through our last defensive line when Bondarevsky and the rest of Kruger’s people showed up and forced them to break off."

"He’s a criminal, an outlaw, and the most dangerous man in the sector."

"Precisely why the Landreich makes such a perfect staging ground for our little project," Mancini countered. He was a small man, easily overlooked, but he held the rank of Colonel in the Confederation Security Bureau, Terra’s elite espionage and intelligence service. He had other connections, too, that rendered him even more powerful, and Williams was inclined to avoid arguing with him.

"I suppose you’re right," he admitted. "But with Tolwyn and Bondarevsky involved with Kruger again, I’m afraid our operation could run into trouble. Don’t count Tolwyn out just because of what went on last year. The man’s a tactical genius, and he very definitely does not agree with our position. The combination could spell trouble."

"You’re certain Kruger has something special in mind?" Mancini was frowning. He was new to the Landreich station, and hadn’t had much of a chance to get his information network working yet. Williams had heard that he was almost obsessive about not relying on any sources he didn’t know personally.

"He flew up to the new escort carrier this afternoon to see the crew off in person," Williams told him. "Richards, Tolwyn, and Bondarevsky are all on board as VIP passengers. Rumor has it that the battle group normally assigned to the carrier has been augmented by a number of additional ships and several thousand personnel . . . a sizable commitment, you’ll agree, for a struggling little republic like the Landreich. I say it’s some mission Kruger has taken a personal interest in, and if that’s the case, it could be something big."

"But you don’t know what." That was a statement, flat and brusque, not a question.

"Our best guess is that Kruger wants to stir up trouble inside of Hralgkrak Province," Williams said. "On Nahaddar, for instance. The Nahad have been growing restive the last few years, and Kruger could see possibilities in stirring up a rebellion there. Richards with his intelligence background, Bondarevsky to organize an aerospace defense, Tolwyn as the resident strategic brain . . . if it’s true what I’ve heard, that they’re taking a troop transport and a factory ship with them, it would all add up. Start a rebellion on Ragark’s flank, train, equip, and support local fighting forces, and throw Landreich forces in at a crucial moment in a typical Max Kruger banzai charge, and you’ve got the ingredients for a disaster out here. The last thing Terra needs is to see Kruger become an interstellar hero all over again. That’s not what the plan envisioned."

"Then we need to take corrective steps," Mancini said calmly. "But first we need to find out if your guess is anywhere close to the truth. Don’t we have any sources who could give us an inside look at what Kruger’s up to?"

"Nothing inside his administration," Williams responded. "You know how loyal the rank and file are to their beloved hero. He’s losing ground with the politicians on the Council, but as far as I can tell that only makes him less likely to share his plans with them. Hmmm . . ." He paused, trying to remember something he’d heard about the mission Kruger had dispatched. "One thing. There’s a civilian ship involved somehow with the battle group. A tramp frontier scout out of New Plains or some such place. The crew would have had a few days worth of shore leave, and you can bet they wouldn’t obey any orders to keep their plans a secret. Somebody will have talked . . ."

"Hard to trace," Mancini said. "You’ll be sorting through idle gossip and useless rumors for months looking for anything significant."

"Not necessarily," Williams replied. "These frontier scouts operate on the fringe of the law at the best of times. Most of them have connections with our good friend Mr. Banfeld and his Guild. I think if there’s anything worth knowing, Banfeld’s already found it out. All we have to do is make sure we offer the proper . . . inducements to win his cooperation."

"Then I suggest you get started, Commissioner," Mancini said. "If we’re going to stop Tolwyn and his friends from complicating things out here, we have to discover what he’s up to, and where, so that we can take steps to correct the matter quickly."

Williams smiled coldly. "I’ll get on it. But I still think you should consider my other suggestion."

"Assassinating Kruger?" Mancini shook his head. "Too risky. The Cats don’t operate that way, so you can’t throw suspicion on them. And you risk setting him up as a martyr, both here and back home. Do that and you’ll set us back even more than a Landreich victory against Ragark would. No, we keep our hands off Kruger for the time being. We harass him diplomatically, and stir up as much political trouble as we can, and take action to keep his underlings from putting one over on Ragark. But we leave Max Kruger alone. Let the Cats deal with him, when they bomb that pretty little palace of his into debris."


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