Cross the Stars by David Drake



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CHAPTER ONE


A hologram of a tank, bow-on as it plowed through a brushfire, filled most of the wall behind President Hammer's desk. Either by chance or through Hammer's deliberation, the tank was Two Star—Danny Pritchard's unit twenty years before, when he had been a sergeant in the Slammers and not Hammer's chosen successor.

"Hey, snake," the President called cheerfully when he saw it was Pritchard who had entered the office unannounced.

Hammer tilted away the desk display which he had been studying. He had not let age and the presidency blunt all the edges of his appearance. If Hammer's hair was its natural gray now, then it was still naturally his own. His shoulders and wrists would have done credit to a larger, younger man. There was a paunch below desk height that had not been there five years before, however. No practical amount of exercise could wholly replace the field work of the lifetime previous. "Had a chance to glance over the proposal from Dominica?"

"Glance, yes," Danny said, perching himself on the arm of an easy chair instead of the seat. The fabric responded to his weight, squirming in an attempt to mold itself to his contours. Pritchard preferred a solid bench, so he gave as little purchase as possible to the luxury with which Hammer disarmed visitors. "I like the idea of having somebody else pay for part of our army, sure . . . and, well, train it while things are quiet here on Friesland. But I think Dominica's too far if we—needed the guns back in a hurry."

Danny popped the rolled notes he held against his knee. It was a sign of the nervousness which he otherwise controlled. "Thing is, Alois," he continued to the older man, "that isn't what was on my mind right at the moment." He smiled. "Even though it should have been."

Hammer snorted. He spun his desk display toward his Adjutant and heir presumptive. "Teitjens sent this over as background before he briefs me on the slump in heavy equipment export projections. I'd sooner listen to you, on the assumption that I'll at least understand your problem when you've finished."

"Yeah, well," the younger man agreed. "The problem's easy."

He slid down into the cup of the chair after all. The office walls were a slowly-moving fog-blue, almost a gray. Pritchard slitted his eyelids. The hologram behind the President could have been a real tank on a skyswept plain. "We got a homeworld query on one of our veterans. Do you remember Captain Don Slade?"

Hammer nodded calmly over his clasped hands. "Mad Dog Slade? Sure, I remember him. He was the one man I really wanted who insisted on retiring when he heard his father'd died. Home to Tethys, wasn't it? The Omicron Eridani Tethys, I mean. I offered him a duchy here on Friesland, too, Danny."

"Via, he was a duke back home, Colonel," Pritchard said to the blurred man and to the tank. "He was the next thing to a king there if he'd wanted to be." The Adjutant opened his eyes again and sat as erect as the cushions would permit him. "We were—well, he did me a favor. We were friends, Don and me. Tell the truth, he didn't much like to be called Mad Dog."

"Well," Hammer said with a laugh, "if he'll come back, I'll call him Duke Donald or any curst thing he chooses. Not because he's a friend of yours, Danny—though that too—but because you can't have too many people like Slade on your side." The President did not precisely frown, but his face lost most of its laughter. "Among other reasons, because if they're on your side, they aren't on the other guy's."

"I think Don had had about enough of sides when he left here," Pritchard said. He looked up at the ceiling and remembered his big, black-haired friend in the spaceport at their last meeting. "He said he was ready to spend the rest of his life fishing like his grandfather."

"Fishing?" Hammer repeated in angry amazement. "He was going to go from one of my tank companies to fishing?"

It was his Adjutant's turn to laugh. Danny gestured with his notecards and said, "Well, fishing on Tethys isn't that different from the sort of jobs we gave M Company, Alois. There's a lot of water there, and the things that grow in it are pretty much to scale, from what Don told me . . . .

"But the thing is," Pritchard added, sobering, "Don didn't get there. We got a query from—" he checked the uppermost card from habit rather than from present need— "Marilee Slade, asking if Don were still on our establishment."

"Not in two years," Hammer said with a frown. "Mother? Or Via! Not his wife, is she? Don didn't take home leave in, well, at least the ten years since I promoted him to ensign."

"Seems to be his sister-in-law," the younger man said. Hammer had already swung the display back around. The President's fingers were calling up Slade's personnel file and planetary data on Omicron Eridani II—one of a trio of worlds named Tethys by their original settlers. "Brother's widow, I'd guess, from the way the query was worded," Pritchard continued. "Never talked much to Don about why he'd joined the Slammers, but I sort of gathered this lady had something to do with it. Also he was the younger son, that sort of hereditary nonsense." The Adjutant's eyes met those of the childless President. There was iron in the grin of each man.

Hammer grunted approval at whatever he saw on his display. "Council of Forty runs the place," he muttered. "Hereditary oligarchy. You know, I like the look of some of these average metal prices. Might be worth our while to ask for quotes, especially on the manganese. Either they sweat their workers like I wouldn't dare, or they've got a curst slick operation."

He gestured over the desk with an upraised palm. "But I don't suppose you thought you needed me to clear a trace on Don Slade, did you? Shoot."

"He left here on a tramp full of hard-cases. He was in a hurry and he wouldn't listen to reason," Pritchard said to the ceiling. "Golf-Alpha-Charlie Five Niner. I located a survivor on Desmo and got the story. Fellow'd gotten to Desmo on an Alayan ship. Don had been aboard the Alayan, too, but he'd gotten off at a place called Terzia. Produces medicinals. Place got one or two tramp freighters a month, so it shouldn't have been a bad place to trans-ship."

Pritchard shrugged himself out of the chair again and began to pace the large, austere office. "No question of coercion," he continued. "The survivor says Don tried to talk them all into working their butts off in the jungle or some such thing. Don was free to go, just like the others he was with—and they all lifted off."

Compared to Hammer, the brown-haired Adjutant was tall. He slapped the notes on his left palm. "What the problem turned out to be is that Terzia's refused landing rights to every ship that's approached it since the Alayans lifted off. It could be chance; but chance or not, the result's the same. For over a year, Don's been caged there as sure as if he was behind bars . . . and he may be that, too, for anything we know otherwise."

Hammer was playing with the controls of his display again. "Terzia's got real-time commo," the President said in the mild voice that he used when his brain was busy with something besides the words he was speaking.

"Yeah, and that's funny," said Pritchard. "I got the impression that the place was virtually pre-industrial. Exports some high-purity natural medicinals, but nothing in quantity. No quantity that there'd be a Stadtler Communications System, unless the economic pyramid comes to a pretty sharp point."

The President nodded. "One projection system, one Transit launch, one of a lot of things. One Don Slade right now, though that wasn't going to show up on a Commercial Movements Summary, was it?" Hammer's fingers tapped the surface of the display gently. "Though that may be a flaw in the compiler's outlook, not Terzia's."

Hammer got up from his chair also. He ambled past the hologram. Beyond that wall of his office were the grounds of the Presidential Palace, lushly beautiful and maintained for no purpose but the President's enjoyment. Hammer did not object to the gardens, but it was at his orders that the crystalline window giving onto them had been replaced by the hologram. He saw the palace grounds only through the windows of his armored limousine as an incident of travel. "Right now, it's the projection system that matters," he said aloud. "You'll have Margritte handle it?"

Danny nodded at the reference to his wife. "We've got a few other people supposed to be trained on the Stadtler rig," he said. He rubbed his lower back and ribs absently with both hands. "Sometimes it works for them, sometimes it doesn't. With Margritte, it works, and I hope to blazes there's somebody on Terzia that good too . . . ."

Danny Pritchard had made a point of wearing civilian garments ever since the day of Hammer's inauguration. His present suit was as soft and smooth as the creamy shimmer of its color . . . and it was acutely uncomfortable on a body that suddenly felt the need for battle-dress again. "Alois," the Adjutant continued, "that leaves a couple questions."

"Margritte has a blank check," Hammer said. "If they won't listen to reason about Slade until she threatens that we'll land a Field Force regiment, she can do that."

"Terzia's a full seventy Transit minutes away from us," Pritchard said flatly. "They may think they're far enough away to be safe, so they don't have to listen to us."

Hammer turned. He was no longer the paunchy ruler of a complex industrial world. He was a commander whose troops had stormed Hell a score of times before and might do it again.

"If they won't listen to us, they'll listen to our guns, won't they?" Hammer said. His voice was as hard and sincere as the bow of the tank behind him. "Slade broke up a Guards Regiment with one tank company and a battalion of half-trained militia. If the Guards had taken the port behind us, Danny, you and I wouldn't be standing here, would we? Though our skulls might still be on poles out front."

Pritchard shrugged like a dragonfly beginning to pull free of its cocoon of soft, cream fabric. "I'd roughed out some contingency plans," he said as he turned to the door. "I'll work on specific movement orders while Margritte tries to get a connection with Terzia."

"Tell them," Hammer called to his Adjutant's back, "that I don't know if we can release Don Slade alive by force. But I'll promise to burn their planet for his funeral pyre if we can't."

For some moments after the door closed, Hammer continued to stand where he was: silhouetted against the bow of the tank.


CHAPTER TWO


The Citadel was a spike in relief against the mottled turquoise sky. There was no bulky starship on the landing platform beside the tower.

Don Slade swore very mildly, his voice as leaden as his heart. He stepped aside to let the work gang pass him as the trail dipped back into the jungle.

This was the one vantage point on the trail's length. Slade had cradled the short barrel of his powergun in the crook of his left arm as he marched ahead of the column. Now he held the weapon vertical for safety. The butt was against his hip, and the muzzle touched at eyebrow height the tree against which the tanker leaned wearily.

Bedyle, the foreman, stopped beside his superior. "Problems, sir?" the lightly-built humanoid asked in Spaceways English. The language differed radically from the version of English Slade had learned to speak as a boy on Tethys, but it—Spanglish—provided a medium of trade throughout the human universe . . . and beyond that universe, as on Terzia. Though it was sometimes difficult for Slade to remember that he and the Terzia herself were the only two humans on the planet.

"No problem, Bedyle," Slade said. "Nothing new, at any rate. There's just no ship. Still."

Slade's black hair was cropped short on his head and jaw for comfort. Hair coiled like strands of honeysuckle over his bare chest and splashed down his limbs to the backs of his hands and feet. From a distance, he had a bestial appearance which the calm of his expression belied. Slade was taller by forty centimeters than the tallest of the work gang; taller and stronger besides than most of the humans whom he had met in a life of knocking about the universe.

"You know, Bedyle . . ." the big man said. His eyes were on the distant spire, but his mind was much farther away. "You'd think after nine days in the copper-pod jungle, that place would look good. But . . . if there was a Palamede slave-ship docked there, I'd ship out in its hold before I'd take another step through the gate of the Citadel."

"Your life is so very bad, then?" the foreman asked softly.

The workers were filing past, chanting something melodious and without meaning. Slade had been unable in a year to learn a word of the native language. The Terzia swore that when her ancestors had landed on the planet, the autochthones already spoke Spanglish. There was no reason to believe that she was lying . . . or that she was telling the truth, for that matter. Slade had no way to judge the Terzia's statements.

The locals, males and females alike, carried fifty-kilo burdens of copper-pods without signs that their frail-looking bodies were being strained. They were nude. Only in the greenish cast underlying their brown skins, and in the lack of external genitals in the males, were they demonstrably inhuman.

Slade had personal experience of the human characteristics of some of the females.

"Bad?" Don Slade said, echoing the foreman. The sounds of lesser animals seeped from the jungle and merged with the voices of the work gang. "Via, no, Bedyle. Life isn't bad. I've got every luxury I could dream of, and the most beautiful woman I've ever met. I've got a job I'm needed at—" he nodded toward the workers he supervised and protected—"and it keeps me on my toes besides. I don't even get bored, what with all the different habitats we crop. I'd have to say my life is perfect."

The man paused. He turned to scan as much of his surroundings as he could see through the broad-leafed, ten-meter plants that made up the basic vegetation of this spot. A train of colorful, multi-legged creatures chased itself around one fleshy stem. The joints of the beasts' exoskeletons clattered softly.

"The only problem is," Slade went on, "its not the life I want to live. And there's not a curst thing anybody can do about that until another ship sets down."

The sucking sound of a tree being pushed up from beneath was overlaid by the scream of the worker caught in the first pair of pincers.

Slade pumped the fore-end to charge his weapon as he pivoted the butt to his shoulder. The monster's emerging head was toward the back of the file. It curved from the ground, dripping loam from its compound eyes and from the agate-melded segments of its broad carapace. A workman, streaming blood where the knife-edged pincers entered his body, was being transferred to the maw that gaped sideways to receive him. Slade had no time to pick his shot there, however. The real danger lay at the other end of the carnivore's rising body.

Along ten meters of the trail, pairs of pincer-tipped legs slashed out of the soil like sprouts in time-lapse. Three other workmen had been caught and were being swung toward the head end for ingestion. The survivors of the file screamed and leaped into the jungle. Their burdens tumbled in the air behind them.

At the further end, toward the Citadel, waved the tail and the slim, meter-long cone of the creature's sting. Slade fired at the base of it.

The carnivore lay ambushed on its back beneath the trail. As the pincers struck upward, the tail arched toward its prey. Large prey would be dispatched by a sting, while numbers of smaller victims—like the file of laborers—would be immobilized by sprayed venom even if they had escaped the first thrust of pincers. Now the impact of the bolt caused the tail to spasm. It drove a stream of chartreuse venom from the sting a moment before it would have been properly aimed at the work gang.

Slade was turning toward the monster's head again even as the jet of poison splattered onto the foliage above. The ground beside the man was cracked and heaving. A jointed leg as thick as his wrist lashed toward him, pincers clicking. The carnivore was squirming to turn its body upright.

Slade fired, stepped sideways, and fired twice more in rapid succession. A drop of poison struck his right shoulder and splashed upward across his neck, ear, and biceps.

The first three bolts from the powergun had shattered the creature's armor. The sting hung askew, one of the foremost pair of legs had been blown from its socket, and the cyan flash of the third round had cratered the curve of the head shield. The bolts liberated their energy instantaneously, however. Despite the amount of surface damage the powergun did, no single shot could penetrate to the vitals of this huge, loosely-organized carnivore. Slade's fourth round was aimed at the ulcer left by the third. The bolt struck in a gout of vaporizing internal tissue as the poisoned gunman screamed and dropped his weapon.

Skin was already sloughing where the venom drop had struck. Over the areas of secondary contact the skin was turning gray and black. Slade slapped his chest injector plate with his left hand because his right arm and side had gone numb. Leaf mold steamed beneath the hot iridium barrel of the gun he had dropped. The injector dumped stimulant and anti-allergenic directly into Slade's anterior vena cava. Under its impact and that of the venom, he staggered. He fumbled a medicated compress out of the kit at his belt and scrubbed at the damaged area. The fire in Slade's blood damped down as the compress debrided, then covered, the swatches where the skin was dead.

Although Slade had not lost consciousness, his conscious mind was surprised to find that he was kneeling beside his gun. His torso felt as if it swelled and relaxed with every beat of his heart. There had been enough breeze to carry one droplet of the unaimed venom to him. It had almost been enough to be fatal.

The creature was dying with the noisy lethality of a runaway truck. It hammered its surroundings. The middle part of its body was still within the trench in which it had lain hidden, while both ends lashed the vegetation above. Across the trail and the heaving exoskeleton from Slade, a stunned laborer tried to drag himself further into the jungle. A pincered leg gouged the earth beside him. Slade cursed and tried to leap to the injured worker's aid.

Slade had forgotten the amount of damage done to his own system by the drugs and counter-drugs that roiled within him.

Instead of clearing the monster as he had intended, the man landed on the blotchy carapace. His feet slid out from under him. The carnivore was trying to arch its center segments from the trench. Its weight pinned Slade's shins to the soft loam. The laborer scuttled safely behind the bole of a tree. The leg whose wild thrashings had endangered the native now recoiled toward the man. The creature's optic nerves and central ganglion had been destroyed, but its autonomic nervous system was making a successful attempt to heave the great body erect reflexively.

The powergun would have been useless even if Slade still held it. The carnivore was dead, but only time or a nuclear weapon would keep its corpse from being dangerous. Slade grabbed the limb as it swung for him. His biceps swelled as they directed the pincers down onto the dirt a hand's breadth short of his chest. They dug into the soil like the recoil spades of projectile artillery. That gave the leg purchase against the massive thrust it exerted a moment later.

The creature squirmed wholly clear of the trench. Its meter-thick body carried Slade up with it as its weight released him. There were tiny chitinous projections where the carapace armor joined that of the belly. They flayed the big man's calves through the tough, loose trousers that had covered them.

Slade threw himself out of the way. He was limited to the strength of his upper body because his legs were still numb. The creature was squirming off mindlessly into the jungle like a giant centipede. One of the legs of a rear segment still impaled a laborer. The corpse's drag kept that limb out of synchrony with the fluttering fore-and-aft motion of the others. The body segment itself twitched out of the line the remainder of the creature was trying to take.

In the dirt behind the carnivore dangled its sting. The plates that should have held and directed the weapon were shattered. Chartreuse venom still dripped and left a dark trail on the ground. In the wake of the creature's clattering exit, the jungle came alive with the moans of injured laborers.

Slade staggered to the fallen bundle that held the main medical supplies. When he had an opportunity, he would do something about the bloody agony of his own calves. They would wait—would have to wait—for Slade to treat the laborers who were already going into shock from trauma or poisoning.

The Citadel was temporarily only a memory behind a curtain of sweat and adrenalin.




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