Read Freehold Online

Authors: William C. Dietz

Tags: #Science Fiction/Fantasy

Freehold (20 page)

BOOK: Freehold
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The truck bucked violently as they hit a gully, and the fan skirts dragged for a moment before they lurched up and out of it. Olivia ignored his rationalizations, forced herself to suppress her anger, and asked, “Where are you taking me, and why?”

“To a place I know,” Roop replied vaguely, as he swerved to miss a large boulder. “We're almost there, as a matter of fact. I used to do a lot of hunting around here.” Suddenly he broke into laughter. It had a wild, uncontrolled quality. “That's funny,” he said, “because now they're hunting me!” He reached over and turned up the volume on the truck's com-set.

Olivia listened for a moment, and quickly realized there was a massive search underway. Someone was reporting to Stell: “I'm sorry, General, but the satellite network's too torn up to be of much help. I haven't found anything yet, but I'll keep trying.”

“Good. I appreciate your help, Com Tech Chu. Call me immediately if you turn anything up. Stell out.” The sound of his voice made her feel warm inside. She remembered him wading through the rising water, trying to reach her, just before everything went black. So they were looking for her. Her eyes narrowed as Roop turned the volume down. Maybe she could help.

“That's right,” Roop said. “They're looking under every grain of sand.” He sneered in the mirror. “I wonder how much of that's for me ... and how much is for the General's girlfriend. Hey, now that your father's dead, maybe the General can take over—or was that the plan all along?”

Red rage clouded her vision for a moment, but she dug her nails into her palms, and the pain helped her maintain control. Carefully, she forced her mind away from Roop. There had to be something she could do. She systematically took inventory of her surroundings. The hover truck was apparently one that Roop had used to smuggle the Il Ronn into the Senate parking garage. It had bench seats along both sides of the rear compartment, and a bundle of gear was tied down in the center of the floor. It was covered with a tarp. Timing her moves carefully, she waited until a particularly difficult stretch of terrain commanded all of Roop's attention, and then ran a hand under the edge of the plastic covering, until her fingers encountered something round and metallic. She pulled at it and it gave. Inch by inch she pulled it toward her, gradually running her fingers over it, trying to identify it by touch alone. Finally she glanced down, and then back up before Roop had time to notice. What she had was a two-foot length of tent pole. One end was sharpened for driving into the ground, and the other had a socket, into which the next section of pole could be inserted. As a weapon it wasn't much, but Olivia decided it was definitely better than nothing.

The truck began to slow as Roop turned it onto a narrow overgrown track, and they moved slowly along it toward a dun-colored pre-fab dome. It squatted on a ledge, halfway up the side of a narrow ravine. The dome would be damn hard to see from a hundred feet up, and just about impossible from orbit. Olivia hid the section of tent pole in the right leg of her jump suit, with the full length of the cool metal resting against her lower leg. Then, as the truck jerked to a stop, she stuck the pointed end into her boot.

The truck's fans whined into silence as Roop got out, walked to the rear of the truck, and opened the tailgate. He held a small needle gun in his hand. “All right,” he said, “move it. I've got places to go and people to see.”

There wasn't room to stand upright inside the truck, so she walked toward him crouched over, praying he wouldn't notice the tent pole. But she needn't have bothered, because he paid her very little attention. He kept glancing around nervously, as though expecting someone to jump out from behind the nearest rock. As far as Olivia could see, there was no reason for his fear. As she climbed out of the truck she considered faking a fall, during which she could pull out the tent pole, and then ram it through his heart as he bent over to help her. But he backed out of range before she could put her plan into effect.

“Into the dome,” Roop ordered, motioning with the gun.

As they walked toward the dome, Olivia said, “This is silly, Austin. I don't blame you for what happened. I don't agree with you, but you're obviously sincere, and there's no reason we can't continue to be friends. In fact, why not let me go? You're in the clear now.”

Roop laughed mockingly. “Get serious, Olivia. I know you better than that. First of all, you'll kill me if you get the chance, and second, I need you in case lover-boy shows up with his toy soldiers. No, you're staying right here until nightfall. That's when a small speedster will land nearby to pick me up.” He smiled crookedly. “Fortunately I didn't put all my eggs in this basket. I've still got a few safely stashed elsewhere. So save your breath. You and I aren't parting company yet.”

She shrugged. “It was worth a try.”

When they reached the dome, he provided a combination for her to punch into the door lock. The door slid open, releasing a blast of hot air. As they entered, the lights automatically came on and an air conditioner whirred into life. Like most remote structures on Freehold, the dome was solar powered, relying on high-capacity storage cells for use at night or during cloudy days. “Sit down over there,” Roop ordered, pointing to a small conversation area on the other side of the dome. As she crossed the large, open room, she noticed that trophies of all sorts adorned the walls and animal skins covered the floor. Roop evidently used the dome as a sort of hunting lodge. Which means weapons, she thought, her eyes searching the walls. But she didn't see any. She took a seat under the massive head of a Sandie. The beasts were native to Freehold, and had a vague resemblance to the boars of Earth, although Sandies were a good deal larger. This one's lips were pulled back in an eternal snarl, animosity gleaming from its three tiny red eyes, while a pair of razor-sharp tusks curved up and out, serving Roop as a hat rack. A couple of battered old desert hats were in residence.

Meanwhile, Roop was acting strange. His eyes darted this way and that, searching the room. Olivia's heart jumped as she saw movement behind Roop. The shadows stirred as an Il Ronn stepped out from behind a partition. “Are you looking for me, Senator?” the Il Ronn asked calmly.

Roop whirled around, bringing up the needle gun, only to find himself staring into the business end of an Il Ronnian blast rifle. He paled and allowed his arm to drop. “A wise decision, Senator, though it will delay your death only momentarily. But before you die, I would like confirmation of what your presence here tells me. I take it the mission failed?”

Wordlessly, Roop nodded, sweat bathing his face.

“I thought as much,” the Il Ronnian said sadly. “Too bad. Feeg was a good officer. I strongly suspect the Council's plan would have worked if the mercenaries hadn't come. You allowed that,” he added mildly.

Roop's whole body had started to shake. “I don't ... don't know who you are, but I assure you, I ... I did everything Feeg asked. Please, I beg of you, spare me.”

“Disgusting, isn't he?” the Il Ronn said, addressing Olivia for the first time. “I'm sorry you must die with him. He'll make poor company on your journey.” Without waiting for a reply, he began to circle Roop as he talked, much as Feeg had that night in the desert. “It may interest you to know, human, that I am a member of the Il Ronnian Observer Corps. You wondered if someone would be waiting, didn't you? Well, now your question is answered. We have known of your pathetic escape plan all along. You are not the only human traitor in our employ. But enough of that. My job is to observe and learn. In that fashion we avoid making the same mistake twice. Unfortunately, I'm the one who must return to inform the Council of One Thousand of what transpired here. They will take little pleasure from my report.” The Il Ronnian stopped, his eyes boring into Roop. “However, the one small detail which will bring a smile to their lips will be my description of your death.” With terrible slowness, he brought the blast rifle up from chest level, so that Roop was looking directly into it. Something nameless flickered in Roop's eyes as he saw the inevitable, and then it was gone, as the energy weapon removed his head and blew a hole through the wall behind him. A shaft of sunlight sprang through the hole, spotlighting Roop's body where it lay on the floor. The alien looked down without remorse. It was then that Olivia stood on her tiptoes and brought the tent stake down with all her force—her two-handed grip driving it deeply into the juncture where head met neck. To her surprise, it met very little resistance. The observer jerked, arched his back, and made a choking sound as his finger locked down the trigger on his blast rifle, boring a hole through the floor and into the rock below. Then he tottered and fell, joining Roop in the pool of sunlight on the floor.

Her first reaction was amazement at her own success. She'd crept up behind the alien, assuming she'd be discovered but determined to try. He had evidently dismissed her as a potential threat. Come to think of it, she'd never heard of Il Ronnian females going into combat. Perhaps that explained it. Anyway, it had worked. She looked at the two bodies, expecting a flood of remorse. It didn't come. All she felt was satisfaction. She turned and left the dome without looking back. Climbing in the truck, she used its com-set to call for help. Within seconds she was talking to an excited com tech. She left the set in the transmit mode, as instructed, and sat down in the shade of the truck, waiting for them to home in on her beam. Then the tears came. She cried for her mother, her father, and finally for herself. And that's where Stell found her an hour later.

Chapter Sixteen

Two weeks had passed since the battle in the Senate. Now they were ready—or as ready as we'll ever be, Stell thought grimly. In spite of the previous attacks, and a host of normal problems like the onset of the rainy season, they'd managed to refine enough thermium to bring their payments up to date—and still have a little bit left over. If they could get it to Fabrica. It wouldn't be easy. To do it they'd have to transport the refined thermium across light-years of hostile space, sell it, and then get the proceeds safely to Intersystems. In their way would be pirates, the Il Ronn, and a host of potential natural disasters. Stell sighed as he looked down into the plot tank that rested on the wardroom table. He was tired, and so was everyone else, and it was starting to show. He'd just had a run-in with Captain Boyko. She didn't approve of the formation he'd suggested for the convoy, and she hadn't hesitated to let him know how she felt. “You may outrank me,
General,
but by god don't you ever forget I was taking this ship into action when you were still in the Academy; and what's more—since when are you an expert on naval tactics?” With that, she had stormed out of the wardroom and headed for the bridge, where naval officers still ruled, and ground pounders weren't allowed.

Once again Stell's eyes roamed over the twinkling lights in the plot tank, looking for flaws. He knew she was right; from the standpoint of traditional naval tactics, certain formations had worked in certain situations time after time. Their present situation was a textbook example. Conventional tactics would suggest that those ships carrying the cargo be grouped together in a globular formation, spaced in such a manner that their heavy defensive screens would interlock to present the strongest possible defense. Meanwhile, the escort vessels would provide them with further cover as needed. It had worked many times. But that was the problem with traditional tactics. The enemy expected them. So Stell had come up with something else ... and incurred Boyko's wrath. As he stared into the tank, it still looked good. Plus, it felt good in his gut, and like Strom had always said, “More than half of winning wars is just pure luck.” Satisfied with the formation, he leaned back in his chair and turned his thoughts to their destination.

Fabrica was a heavily industrialized world lying just inside the empire's borders. As a place to live, it had little to recommend it. The natural flora and fauna of the planet were long gone, victims of the toxic waste poured out by the heavy industry that covered the planet. No one cared, since no one regarded it as home. Most of Fabrica's factories and plants were run by robotics; whatever sentient labor was required came from contract workers, who were rotated on and off the planet. Six months on and then six months off. It was listed as a hazardous-duty assignment, but good pay, free travel, plus carefully sealed and shielded living quarters made up for that. So Fabrica churned out heavy metals, chemicals, radioactive isotopes, and anything else the empire clamored for but didn't want polluting its inner planets. Such a place could use thermium, for it could replace less efficient heat resistant materials in hundreds of applications. And if it turned out that thermium, combined with other substances, produced lethal toxic wastes, then so what? The whole planet was disposable. Someday, when Fabrica's natural resources were exhausted, or it was no longer convenient to the empire's trade routes, it would be abandoned, a lifeless monument to man-the-tool-user.

In any case, Fabrica was their best market, eager to get thermium. And unlike Techno, which only wanted small quantities, Fabrica was willing to take all it could get. The only problem was getting there. With the aid of Intersystems, and the huge conglomerate's knowledge of markets, the pirates would have no trouble in guessing their destination. And once you know where someone's going, it's easy to intercept them.

As the first warning buzzer went off, he rose, walked over and touched the old oak bar for luck, before heading for the observation area just aft of the bridge. In a few minutes the small fleet would leave orbit and head out into space. When well clear of Freehold, they would make a hyperspace jump. Once in hyperspace they'd be safe, unless someone managed to match their exact entry values, and the chances of that were damned slim. But, he thought to himself as he settled into his acceleration couch, coming out of hyperspace will be something else. He'd be very surprised, indeed, if there wasn't someone there to welcome them.

The second buzzer sounded, and precisely sixty seconds later the heavy hand of the ship's acceleration pushed him down into the couch. Their tiny fleet was underway. Somewhere far below, Olivia would be looking up, or perhaps even watching them as blips on a screen moving steadily away from Freehold, and yes, from home. Then she would turn her attention back to the endless administrative details with which she was helping the former Senator, now President Bram. Knowing how much she had helped her father, and figuring she could use a distraction, Bram had asked for her assistance. Stell smiled to himself. Bram had better keep an eye on her or she'd end up running the place! Besides the brains, she's got the guts too, he thought, remembering the scene within Roop's hunting lodge. Olivia was quite a lady. Gradually, his tired muscles began to relax, and by the time the ship made its leap into hyperspace, he was deep asleep.

BOOK: Freehold
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