Read Freehold Online

Authors: William C. Dietz

Tags: #Science Fiction/Fantasy

Freehold (4 page)

BOOK: Freehold
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“The pleasure is mine,” Stell replied, holding her hand just a little longer than necessary. “My apologies for our appearance and late arrival.”

“And rightly so,” Senator Roop remarked, looking Stell up and down in a critical manner. “Punctuality is usually considered a military virtue.” Roop's face was handsome, in a hard, rigid sort of way, marred only by large pores, which gave his features the texture of weathered stone. Brittle blue eyes glared at Stell in open challenge.

Oliver Kasten cleared his throat, preempting Stell's reply. “Really, Austin. The Colonel is our guest. Please accept our apologies, Colonel Stell. I'm afraid Senator Roop's political party doesn't favor the idea of hiring you. He's here to make sure I don't do anything rash.” Roop scowled, making it clear he desired no forgiveness. But before he could say so, Olivia said, “You'll admit, Colonel, that for a politician Austin is refreshingly direct. I can't imagine why they keep electing someone so honest!”

Roop forced a smile, evidently thinking better of what he'd been about to say. “Olivia's correct, as usual, Colonel,” the Senator said, extending his hand, “I was out of line. I hope you'll forgive me.”

But as they shook hands Stell saw no apology in the other man's hard blue eyes, and knew he faced an enemy. “Of course, Senator,” Stell said easily. “A thick skin is another well-known military virtue.”

“And while we talk, this man stands here bleeding,” Olivia said, her voice tense and concerned. Turning, Stell saw she was right. Blood was seeping from a rip in Como's A-suit. While body armor would take a lot of punishment, it wasn't indestructible. Como had evidently been nicked by a high velocity slug and, in typical fashion, had ignored it.

The next few minutes were filled with a bustle of activity as Olivia retrieved a professional-looking med kit from her luggage, and proceeded to apply self-absorbing staples and a dressing to the gash in Como's right shoulder. As she worked, Stell told Kasten and Roop about the Zonie ambush, and their subsequent escape. When he'd finished, there was a moment of silence as the other two men absorbed what they'd heard. Stell took note of the meaningful look they exchanged just before Kasten spoke.

“I'm terribly sorry, Colonel. I can imagine what the loss of those men and women means to you. As you've probably guessed, there's a good chance the attack was directed at us as much as you. It seems there are those who don't want Freehold to obtain your help.” Kasten shot Roop an openly critical glance, which the Senator chose to ignore.

“I'm afraid Oliver and I disagree as to the cause of the attack, Colonel Stell,” Roop said smoothly. “Personally, I doubt there's a connection. There's no shortage of criminal types around here, as I'm sure you're aware. However, I certainly join him in extending sympathy regarding the loss of your people.”

Spoken like a true politician, Stell thought as he said, “Thank you, Senator. I appreciate that. Whatever the reason, there's nothing any of us can do now.” Except find the bastard who planned it, and kill him, Stell thought to himself.

Kasten nodded soberly and Roop said, “Quite right, Colonel. What's done is done. Accept it and move on. I've always admired that in military people. I wish my fellow politicians could understand it.” Roop aimed a meaningful look in Kasten's direction.

“That's enough business for now gentlemen,” Olivia said firmly as she sprayed the final dressing onto Como's shoulder. “I suggest we give the Colonel and his aide a chance to freshen up.”

Two hours later they had finished a wonderful meal of authentic Freehold cooking. The Kastens had brought all the necessary ingredients with them. Heavily spiced vegetable dishes played a major part, with only small portions of meat. Due to its climate, most of Freehold's food was grown in large hydroponics centers. Stell learned that eventually the settlers hoped to irrigate their deserts using water from the huge underground rivers that crisscrossed the planet. Then they would be able to grow a wider variety of crops, and import herd animals. Until then, however, lesser fare would have to do. Stell found the dinner quite satisfying and, when it was over, he settled back, cigar in hand, to enjoy some excellent Terran coffee.

Dinner conversation had centered around the merits of big game hunting on various planets, something Roop was an expert on; 18th-century literature, a passion of Kasten's second only to politics; and an extremely funny commentary by Olivia on the internal politics of the Emperor's court, which she had observed firsthand while visiting there with her father. Stell and Como had taken their turns as well. Stell told short, humorous anecdotes suggested by the conversation, and Como shared a long, absolutely hilarious tale about a leave fraught with misadventure, all culminating in an intoxicated performance as first zirth player in the Alberian World Symphony, and the difficulty he'd faced when called upon for a solo—and how one coaxes music from a ten-foot-long reptile that closely resembles a boa constrictor.

Since no one could top Como's story, they agreed to retire to the sitting room and discuss business. Once everyone was seated, with drinks in hand, Kasten pressed a button on a remote control unit and a section of faded red wall slid aside to reveal an old but serviceable holo tank. Turning to Stell, Kasten said, “Colonel, in order to understand why we're interested in your services, a little history might come in handy. With your permission I'd like to narrate a holo prepared by my staff. I think it'll make our situation clear.”

Stell nodded his assent as the room darkened and the holo tank swirled into life. The first thing he saw was the blackness of space. Then a pinprick of light appeared at the center of the blackness, gradually growing larger and larger as the camera approached it, until finally a large, moonless planet hung before him.

“That's home,” Kasten said simply. “Freehold. It was discovered and claimed about forty years ago by Intersystems Incorporated.”

Kasten didn't need to tell Stell about Intersystems Inc. Everyone was familiar with one of the biggest companies in the human empire. Intersystems, and two other equally large companies, were known as the Three Sisters. The name stemmed from the fact that they often seemed to function as a family, usually to their mutual benefit and someone else's loss. While Intersystems was huge, and involved all sorts of manufacturing and banking enterprises, it was well known that a large part of their income came from the incredibly expensive and risky business of finding, claiming, and selling planets.

“Here's some info on climate and so forth that you'll find interesting,” Kasten remarked as words and numbers appeared to overlay the planet. He laughed, and then added, “Believe me, Colonel, it's even worse than it looks!”

Stell scanned the data and found that Kasten wasn't kidding. It probably was worse than it looked ... and that was bad enough. Seventy percent of Freehold's surface was classified as “arid,” or “semi-arid,” which always sounds better than “desert.” Ten percent was devoted to polar ice caps. That left two narrow temperate zones to divide the polar regions from the broad section of arid land banding the middle of the planet. As if that weren't bad enough, the hot air rising from the huge deserts inevitably came into contact with the cold air generated at the poles, producing incredible winds. Propelled by the wind, the desert's almost limitless supply of sand quickly became billions of tiny projectiles, making travel on much of the planet's surface extremely difficult, and habitation close to impossible. Then, just to make sure no one got bored, the place had been blessed with an interesting array of animals and plant life, all of which was just as mean as the planet itself.

“I take it tourism doesn't play a major part in your economy,” Stell commented dryly.

Kasten laughed and Roop looked elaborately bored. Olivia smiled as she picked up the narration. “No, Colonel, there's no danger of that. However, there is a lengthy part of the year during which the temperate zones are actually quite pleasant. In fact, those who can afford to, have villas there.” The holo changed, showing a series of shots featuring lush vegetation, pleasant-looking villas, and small, fresh-water lakes. “Unfortunately,” Olivia continued, “our natural resources are located elsewhere.”

The pleasant scenery disappeared. It was replaced by a shot from some sort of atmospheric craft skimming just above the planet's surface at a high rate of speed. Below, a seemingly endless expanse of dry, wrinkled land sped by, broken only by occasional networks of canyons and ravines. These had obviously been cut by flowing water, so Stell assumed there was a rainy season. Then Kasten picked up the narration with an amused chuckle.

“As luck would have it, the Creator chose to put all our natural resources out here. It's mostly desert, occasionally interrupted by broken terrain, and never what you'd call ‘pleasant.’ Dry as hell most of the time, and then damned near underwater during the brief rainy season. That's when we get the flash floods and mudslides. We'd almost welcome those, if we could use that water for agriculture, but no such luck. Within hours, all the water seeps down through the topsoil or sand, dribbles down through the porous rock that underlies most of the surface, and joins one of the large underground rivers that crisscross the planet.”

The picture changed to show a wide shot of a huge crater. A large river surfaced on one side of the crater, flowed across, then dived underground again on the far side. “As you can see, the action of the underground rivers, combined with the wind, forms large craters. Most of our working settlements have been built at the bottom of such craters to take advantage of the water and get out of the wind.” As the camera slowly zoomed in, Stell saw the bottom of the crater was thickly covered with structures of various kinds, though domes seemed the most popular—probably because of their low wind resistance. The broad, uncluttered streets frequently met in square or circular plazas paved with colorful tiles, testifying to the settlers’ foresight and their determination to make what they had attractive.

Of course the river dominated the town. For the most part, both its banks had been left clear, allowing for high water during the rainy season, and an unimpeded view of the river from most of the settlement. Green grass and trees grew down to the edges of the river banks, interrupted by only a few functional-looking buildings with rounded corners and a squat, boxy look. People were everywhere—eating picnic lunches, or simply strolling along the many foot paths. Around them, children ran and played while the sun sparkled on the river. Stell was struck by what they had done with their hostile environment, and impressed by the planet's potential.

“That's the settlement of Sweet Hole,” Kasten said, his voice low and bitter. His huge fists opened and closed as if methodically crushing all life from an unseen enemy. “At least, that
the settlement of Sweet Hole.” The holo shifted to a different view, and in spite of the fires and the battle being fought in the streets, Stell immediately recognized it as the same settlement. There was total silence in the room as the holo played. Stell noticed the footage was jerky and random, having none of the flow and polish of the earlier pictures. But he quickly forgot that as his attention was drawn to the squat shape of the shuttle, the men running in and out of it, and the people who were fighting and dying all around. He felt sick as he watched an old man take two hits and still manage to stick his knife in a pirate throat. He saw children cut down by energy weapons, and men in armor jumping a barricade of bodies to surround a woman and her child. Then the holo went dark and it was over.

For a long moment, no one spoke. Finally, Kasten cleared his throat, his voice cracking slightly as he spoke, “And that, Colonel, is why we need you.”

Chapter Three

Corporal Flynn listened to the rattle of automatic-weapons fire, and the heavier crump of grenades, and wondered what to do. Everything had gone smoothly up till now. While the ride on the transcar passed without incident, she'd decided to get off two stops early just in case, and her caution had paid off. The moment they'd left the transcar she'd heard the sounds of battle. From the sound of it, HQ was under attack. She immediately tried to make radio contact, first with HQ, and then with Colonel Stell, but all the freqs were still jammed. She was on her own.

As they moved cautiously through deserted streets, the sounds of fighting gradually grew louder. When she figured they were within half a mile of base, she called a halt and scouted around until she found a small, burned-out duracrete building. The walls were thick enough to take some punishment; and there were enough windows to permit defensive fire. The open ground surrounding the building was covered with rubble and garbage, not enough to provide attackers with cover, but maybe just enough to slow them down. It wasn't perfect, but it would have to do. She watched as the wounded were placed inside and made comfortable. They were her responsibility. The brigade never left its wounded.

She remembered the pain in her leg where the round had ripped through her flesh—like a bad muscle cramp, only worse. They'd been packed into the chopper like sardines. The doors had been taken off to make it easier to load wounded. They were about to lift when Colonel Strom had staggered up to the chopper with a wounded soldier over his shoulder. She'd seen the pain etched in his features as he'd heaved the trooper into the crowded interior.

She'd heard the pilot as he leaned across his dead co-pilot's body and yelled over the urgent whine of the turbines: “Leave him, Colonel. He ain't gonna make it anyway, and I'm overloaded already.”

The pilot had suddenly found himself staring down the barrel of a huge slug gun. “Either we all go ... or we all stay ... which is it gonna be, son?” The pilot had looked up from the gun into eyes just as black, and turned wordlessly back to his controls. Then Colonel Strom had climbed aboard and pulled the wounded trooper further away from the door.

The engines had been wound up tight, screaming under the strain, as the ship had wobbled into the sky. She had watched the trickle of blood dripping out the door quickly become a spray, making thousands of tiny red dots against the side of the aircraft as it limped toward base.

BOOK: Freehold
11.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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