Authors: William C. Dietz
Tags: #Science Fiction/Fantasy
“They killed my mother two months ago,” Olivia said softly. “She was visiting one of the outlying settlements when it was hit. We miss her very much.” Stell saw sorrow in her eyes overlaid with concern for her father. He started to speak, to suggest a break, but Kasten held up a restraining hand.
“It's all right, Colonel. I apologize for imposing my personal troubles on you and Sergeant Major Como, but my wife and I were very close, and I'm afraid I haven't adjusted well. I was going to say that, while we've done our best, we're no match for the pirates. We have no military as such; it's not practical for a population as small as ours, and there has never been a need. In the past, our Civil Defense Force has dealt with the occasional pirate or Il Ronnian raid.”
“And quite well, too,” Roop added, gazing at the ceiling.
“Maybe at first,” Kasten acknowledged, “but not lately. Their weapons and training beat anything we've got. Plus, they have the element of surprise on their side.” He shrugged and smiled wanly. “We've missed one yearly payment and we're about to miss another. And that's why we're talking to you, Colonel.”
Stell knew Kasten was right. From what he'd heard, the pirates were well organized, well equipped and well trained. They had to be in order to survive. The ironic part was that originally the pirates had been soldiers, too—soldiers on the losing side of a long, bloody civil war. The war wound up destroying the confederation it sought to preserve; from its ashes had risen the present empire, the creation of one man, the first Emperor. Most had accepted his rule, tired of the endless civil war and eager for peace. But some had refused, and were sent to a lifeless prison planet known as the Rock.
The Rock had once been a mighty fortress built by the old confederation against an Il Ronnian attack that never came. It was converted to a prison simply by turning the orbiting weapons that guarded it away from the emptiness of space and toward the planet below. So when the scattered remnants of the rebel fleet gathered one last time in a glorious but hopeless attempt to free their imprisoned comrades, the attack met with unexpected success. The Rock's weapons were pointed in the wrong direction. The Imperial Marines guarding the planet paid dearly for their mistake, and were quickly slaughtered. The prisoners were free. But were they? Where could they go? The Rock was right between the human and Il Ronn empires. To flee in either direction meant death. Besides, there weren't enough ships to lift them all off. So once again the planet's weapons were turned toward space and the possibility of attack. Their prison had become their home.
However, as homes go, the Rock was far from hospitable. The confederation's military engineers had used hell bombs to turn the planet's surface into an endless plain of black glass. They'd known that without factories, homes, and a civilian population to worry about, a well-defended planet could stand off any fleet ever assembled. So they scrubbed the planet clean of all life and created the perfect fortress. Unable therefore to grow their own food, and without an industrial base, the newly freed prisoners were soon forced to raid other planets for their necessities. At first, they justified such raids as a fitting revenge on those who'd caved in to the Emperor. But as time passed, the high ideals of freedom and justice that originally guided them gave way to naked greed and hate. In this fashion, soldiers in a once-noble cause became nothing more than organized thieves and killers.
Stell wondered, “What's to prevent us from ending up the same way? We already kill for money.” Turning aside from the obvious answer, Stell chose to think about the military problem instead. “What about the Il Ronn?” he inquired. “What have they been doing during all this?”
Kasten looked thoughtful for a moment, and then replied, “Come to think of it, the Il Ronnian attacks have fallen off recently.”
Roop groaned. “Thanks a lot, Colonel, now he'll find something ominous in
Just what we needed.”
Stell laughed with the others, but made a mental note to obtain more information on Il Ronnian activities in that sector. He would have expected an increase in Il Ronnian attacks on Freehold, not a reduction. First, because of the pirate activity in the area, but also because of the generally increased contact between two growing empires. What had once been a thick cushion of frontier worlds serving to separate them had been gradually reduced as more and more planets were absorbed by both sides. Now that cushion was very thin and conflict was inevitable.
While man had encountered hundreds of intelligent races among the stars, only the Il Ronn posed a real threat. Not because they were more intelligent or advanced than other alien cultures, but because they alone shared man's relentless ambition, and were ruthless enough to pursue it.
The Il Ronn were an ancient race, having preceded man into space by thousands of years. Fortunately, theirs was a cautious and methodical culture in which important decisions were reached by consensus. As a result, their empire expanded in a slow, deliberate manner—each new acquisition first being carefully considered, and each gain being consolidated before another was attempted.
Meanwhile, the human empire grew in great, uncontrolled leaps. Periods of tremendous expansion resulted in advances that would take the Il Ronn hundreds, even thousands of years to accomplish. Unfortunately, many of the human gains were soon lost, either through internal bickering, competition, or just plain laziness. The result was two empires of roughly equal power. The Il Ronn continued a planned and inexorable expansion, while the human domain grew in fits and starts, driven more by the engines of greed and profit than by any unified plan ... or so it seemed to Stell and many others.
Kasten took a sip from his drink and addressed Stell, while pointedly ignoring Roop. “As I was saying, lately the pirates have come in force. And they haven't limited their efforts to the looting of produced wealth, either.” The politician searched the soldier's face for signs that he understood the significance of those words. “They're destroying the means of producing it, too. Power plants, factories, laboratories—you name it. If they can find it, they destroy it.” Kasten smiled wryly. “Or, as Olivia puts it, they're killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. Something they've never done before, and something that makes no sense. Unless, of course, there's a greater profit in destroying rather than raiding us. And that, Colonel Stell, is why I'm so certain the pirates are cooperating with Intersystems. Nothing else explains the facts.”
“So you think that Intersystems is paying the pirates to step up their attacks, thereby destroying your means of production and forcing you to miss your next payment,” Stell mused out loud.
“Exactly,” Kasten replied, leaning back in his chair with the satisfied expression of someone who has made his point. “If we miss the next payment, Intersystems gets Freehold back, they keep the payments we've made so far, and they can sell a developed planet for a higher price.”
It made sense, up to a point. While Stell suspected that Intersystems was quite capable of it, he couldn't escape the feeling that Kasten wasn't telling the whole truth. For one thing, Olivia looked distinctly uncomfortable, plus, Kasten's voice lacked conviction, and his eyes slid toward Roop as though seeking support. Stell was glad he'd requested an intelligence report on Freehold. Maybe that would give him some answers.
“Really, Oliver,” Roop said, shaking his head in pretended amazement. “I think that's pretty thin. It's possible, I suppose, but you know as well as I do that there's not one shred of evidence to prove it. The whole thing's preposterous.” Roop seemed to enjoy Kasten's obvious discomfort. Kasten frowned angrily, opened and closed his mouth as though tempted to speak, and then restrained himself through a major effort of will.
They were hiding something. Roop was lying, and for some reason Kasten was going along with it, albeit reluctantly. Why? Stell decided to keep his suspicions to himself and see where the conversation led.
His brow furrowed in apparent concern, Roop said, “The problem is that while we waste time and energy looking for nonexistent plots, the destruction goes on. I admit that what the pirates are doing seems stupid, but who says they're smart? I agree we should deal with the problem, but I think there's an alternative to importing a mercenary army.” Roop nodded apologetically in Stell's direction. “No offense, Colonel, but outfits like yours cost a lot of credits. Not only that, but even if you're successful, your presence on Freehold is almost certain to lead to more destruction and bloodshed. Instead, why not spend the money on a negotiated settlement with the pirates? Wait, Oliver, give me a chance; distasteful as it may be, it would probably be cheaper in the long run, and would certainly save lives.” Roop looked eagerly from one person to the next, seeking support.
Kasten snorted in disgust. “Negotiated settlement my ass! Protection money is more like it. And even if you're right, once we pay, where will it stop? How much will be enough? Damn it, man! Can't you see that we'll be slaves?”
Roop's lips formed a thin smile. “An interesting point, Oliver. But I'd say the greater danger lies in what you propose. Once Colonel Stell lands his personal army on Freehold, we'll live at his pleasure. If he desires slaves ... then that's what we'll be. Or maybe that's the idea, maybe you're tired of elections and want to be King instead of President—is that the problem, Oliver?”
“Father—” Olivia's voice was concerned as her father leaped to his feet, face flushed with blood, big hands shaking. Then a huge chunk of wall disappeared as the hotel took a direct hit from a shoulder-launched missile. As the noise of the explosion died away, the first of the Zonies swung in through the gaping hole, mouths twisted by incoherent battle cries, weapons spewing death.
Stell was out of his chair, moving toward Olivia and firing his handgun without conscious thought. One, two, three Zonies fell, gaping holes through their chests, cheap weapons rolling from nerveless fingers. He grabbed Olivia's wrist and jerked her out of the way as an energy beam cut her chair in half. To his left, Sergeant Major Como brained a Zonie with a chair and took his weapon. He used it to good effect, cutting a bloody swath through the oncoming mob. Meanwhile, Kasten brained a Zonie with a heavy ashtray and dropped another with a well-aimed punch. Stell shot two more, their bodies almost touching the muzzle of his weapon as it went off, the impact of the heavy slugs knocking them backward. Peripherally, Stell saw Roop go down, a slash of scarlet across the side of his head, a giant Zonie poised to strike another blow. Before he could move, Olivia scooped up a fallen energy pistol and fired. The beam cut off one leg at the knee. Unbalanced, the Zonie crashed to the floor like a fallen tree. He was crawling toward Roop when Stell finished him off.
Whirling back to face the Zonie attack, Stell saw them jerk and fall in a macabre death dance as Kasten's guards and his own troopers entered from the hall and opened up. Moments later, it was over. The room was silent except for the muffled sounds of fighting from outside, the groans of wounded Zonies, and the pinging of cooling weapons.
Staring out of his office window, Stell couldn't believe the destruction in the compound below; it stretched as far as the eye could see. In the far distance, fires started by the sewer gas still burned, columns of black smoke marking the locations of buildings that hadn't paid their premiums to the Zone's privately owned fire companies. Below, his medical personnel loaded truck after truck with wounded Zonies being transported to the Zone's two privately run hospitals. They would be cared for at brigade expense. It didn't make sense ... but they couldn't just leave them there, either. The experts said that, given time, most of them would recover. He sighed. Counting those killed in the ambush, the attack on headquarters, and the attack on the hotel, they'd lost twenty-three people. It was happening all over again. Twenty-three more cuts. Twenty-three more deaths for nothing. Arno had turned into a very expensive and unpleasant vacation.
Upon his return to HQ, he received a full report from Captain Wang. The young officer had done an outstanding job. He and Corporal—no, make that
Flynn. He would have her promotion entered in the muster today. But Wang hadn't been able to answer the question that bothered Stell most: Where the hell was Major Malik when the fecal matter hit the fan? As executive officer, Malik had been in command. Yet, when the Zonies attacked he was nowhere to be found, so Wang had assumed command. Stell didn't like Malik and never had. He'd joined the brigade a year before, hired by Strom because they were short of experienced officers. On paper, Malik had all the right credentials. He had graduated from the Academy in the top third of his class, chose the Marines over the Navy, distinguished himself in a number of actions, and rose to the rank of Captain in record time. His promotion to Major had come as a result of Strom's death, just like Stell's promotion to Colonel. But Stell had always wondered why a man with Malik's record, and probable future in the service, had resigned his commission to join a mercenary outfit. Unlike the rest of the brigade, he had chosen this life ... something Stell couldn't understand. In any case, he didn't like Malik and never had ... a feeling that was mutual. The man was arrogant, egotistical, lazy, stubborn, and sadistic to boot. In fact, it was partly these qualities in Malik that made Stell worry about what the brigade would eventually become. After all, the man was second in command—if Stell were killed he'd take command, and no doubt shape the brigade in his own image. The thought made Stell shudder. Now Malik was either AWOL or missing in action. Because Stell didn't like him, he forced himself to keep an open mind. But if he was AWOL, god help him.
Meanwhile, Sergeant Major Como had a section out looking for him. Like every officer above the rank of lieutenant, Malik had a tiny mini-beacon surgically implanted below his right shoulder blade. Powered by his body heat, the device would last forever. More than once, such beacons had guided medics to wounded officers, and on one occasion, had led a rescue team to Stell's position behind enemy lines. Now Malik's beacon would allow them to track him down. Initial readings put him ten miles away, in one of the worst parts of the Zone. There was no logical reason for Malik to be there, but Stell forced himself to reserve judgment.