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Authors: David Drake,W. C. Dietz

Cluster Command: Crisis of Empire II

BOOK: Cluster Command: Crisis of Empire II
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W.C. DIETZ

CLUSTER COMMAND

DAVID DRAKE

Crisis of Empire II

CLUSTER COMMAND: CRISIS OF EMPIRE II

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.

Copyright © 1989 by David Drake and W.C. Dietz

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.

A Baen Books Original

Baen Publishing Enterprises

260 Fifth Avenue

New York, N.Y. 10001

First printing, May 1989

Second printing, November 1989

ISBN: 0-671-69817-6

Cover art by Paul Alexander

Printed in the United States of America

Distributed by

SIMON & SCHUSTER

1230 Avenue of the Americas

New York, N.Y. 10020

To absent friends.

Chapter 1

Merikur flinched as the glass bead whapped by his ear. He ducked around a corner. Damn! Since when were APEs equipped with repulsors? Well, it couldn’t be helped. Merikur tightened his grip on his own pistol. There were at least five of the damned things, maybe more. The light was poor and the APEs had a maze of passageways and corridors through which to make their approach.

Leathery skin scraped against the bulkhead behind him. Merikur whirled, bringing his pistol up in the approved two-handed grip.

This one was big even for an APE. Seven feet tall and more than three hundred pounds. Tiny red eyes glared from under a prominent supraorbital ridge, and high cheekbones framed a scaly face. A row of three nictitating nostrils marched down the center of its face rippling open and closed in endless sequence. It opened its wide thin-lipped mouth and screamed, “Die human!”

Merikur squeezed his trigger, turning the scream into a death gurgle as a stream of glass microbeads buzz-sawed the APE. An energy pulse converted each bead’s aluminum skirt into plasma as it accelerated up the repulsor’s bore. The beads snapped out at hypersonic velocity and exploded as they hit. Huge holes appeared in the APE. It fell face downward and hit the ground with a meaty thump and a navy-issue repulsion pistol skittered from its dead fingers and slid across the ground.

Merikur dived for the loose pistol and rolled away as glass beads chewed their way across the pavement to where he’d been.

Shit! They were behind him!

Still on his back he blindly sprayed the shadows, aiming low. Two APEs fell as the superheated rounds blew their legs out from under them. Down but not out, they kept on firing, spattering Merikur’s face with bits of pavement and bulkhead.

He dropped one of his pistols and popped out a mini-bomb from his chest dispenser. Squeeze twice and throw! Close eyes against the flash.

When he opened them it was to see three hundred pounds of APE hurtling straight at him from the overhang. He rolled to the right and heard the APE grunt as it hit beside him, knobby knees bending to absorb the shock. Splayed toes kept it upright as muscular arms brought its huge broadsword up and back.

Merikur fired point blank, blowing the APE in half. Coils of blue-black guts spilled over his legs. Then the entire body toppled forward and fell across him. He tried to push it away. It wouldn’t move.

The body started to jerk spasmodically as another APE fired into it with a repulsor. The surviving APE was using its weapon to cut through the body to Merikur.

He shoved his pistol between the warm slickness of the APE’s digestive organs until it couldn’t go any further and squeezed the trigger. Individually the glass beads had very little penetrating power but the stream of them blasted their way out through the creature’s lower back and sprayed the corridor with death. Outside an APE staggered, screamed, and died.

Merikur used the APE’s bodily fluids to slide out from under. He stood, eyes roaming the surrounding shadows, waiting for the next attack. A white hot ball of pain exploded between his shoulder blades. He felt his face hit the pavement.

Damn. A sniper.

###

As Merikur got slowly to his feet the lights faded up.

With that the APEs began reuniting themselves even as they were shuffling off towards their maintenance bay, while a host of vagrant gobbets inch-wormed in the same direction. They would never make it, but they had to try.

Behind the maintenance bots came Warrant Officer Nister, a wizened little man, with the crossed daggers of a Weapons Master decorating his shoulder tabs. He had a swagger stick tucked under one arm and a clipboard in the other hand.

Nister wore his uniform cap tipped back on his head, but he was otherwise regulation all the way.

His crisp uniform crackled as he moved. He’d already served a hitch in the Marine Corps on the day Merikur was born, and what he didn’t know about personal combat could be written on the head of a pin. He had bright little eyes, an oversized nose, and a mouth which had gotten him into trouble more than once. “Messy, Commander Merikur. Very messy.”

Merikur smiled. “Messy? Since when did you people start scoring on neatness?”

Nister smiled in return. “Well, we don’t actually score it, but messy kills take more time, and that can cost you. Like this one, for example.”

He toed the body of the last All Purpose Enemy (APE) Merikur had killed. “Once you got trapped underneath him, you did the only thing you could, and blasted your way out. Nice bit of work that, you picked up a lot of points for keeping a cool head, and a few more for dexterity.”

His smile went hard. “But you also got dead. You gave a sniper enough time to get into position on a nearby roof. You stood up and he nailed you. Simple as that.”

Merikur shrugged. “I can’t argue with your assessment, Warrant. But damned if I know what I’d do differently next time.”

“Well Sir, practice makes perfect, and if you don’t mind my saying so Sir, you deck officers don’t run the course as often as you should. Now let’s add these up.” Nister’s practiced fingers tapped away at the keys on his clipboard as the warrant gave grunts of disparagement or chuckles of approval. “Well Sir, things could’ve been worse.”

Merikur smiled tolerantly. “So what’s my score?”

“Eighty-six out of a possible hundred, Sir. You picked up a lot of points for the way you dealt with the unexpected. We kinda slipped you the big one when we gave some of the APEs repulsion weapons instead of swords, and then you really racked ’em up when you grabbed that loose handgun. Course you cost yourself a lot of points when you let ‘em gang up on you and were forced to use the mini-bomb. God help anyone else who happened to be in the area.”

He shrugged. “Still, eighty-six is pretty good for a deck officer.”

“A dead deck officer,” Merikur replied lightly.

“Commander Merikur?” called a weapons tech who’d stuck her head in through a side door.

“Over here,” Merikur answered, wondering who was looking for him.

“A message from base HQ, Sir. You’re supposed to report to the Naval Appointments Board at 1500 hours.”

“I’ll be damned.” Merikur glanced at his wristwatch. He’d been bugging them for weeks without success, but as soon as he decided to requalify on the personal weapons course . . .

It was almost 1400. He looked down at his filthy camos. If he really hauled ass he could take a shower and break out a Class A uniform with about ten minutes to spare. Ten minutes would get him from Bachelor Officer’s Quarters to HQ with about thirty seconds left over. He waved at Nister and headed for his quarters.

###

Grand Admiral Oriana leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, and stared at the bas relief of Athena springing from the head of Zeus which decorated his ceiling.

He was a handsome man, slim, and long limbed. He wore his kinky black hair short and flat on top in the style currently favored by naval officers. He had glossy black skin, high cheekbones, and an expressive mouth which at the moment was formed into a hard thin line.

He’d made his choice, but was Commander Anson Merikur the right man for the job? The board thought so, but all they did was make recommendations.

The record said Merikur was a solid, dependable officer who’d made each rank as he qualified for consideration. Nothing flashy, nothing brilliant, just a good, competent officer.

In short, just the sort of person Oriana and his superiors wanted.

There was one out-of-the-ordinary notation from when Merikur was a junior lieutenant. He’d deserted his post off Alexis II to chase a pirate raider. The sort of thing that ended your career if it went wrong.

But kids will be kids, and Merikur
did
nail the bastards. There’s an unwritten law in the navy which says you
can
disobey orders and get away with it,
if
you’re right, and
if
you’re real lucky. Fortunately for him, Merikur had been both.

The raider had a hold full of hijacked weapons, and more importantly for him, a vice admiral’s daughter. She’d been captured in a raid and held for ransom. As a result the young lieutenant received a public wrist slapping and the private thanks of some very powerful people.

There’d been no further incidents of that kind, and that was just as well; it wouldn’t be a good idea to assign an unreliable glory hound to Senator Anthony Hildebrant Windsor. The senator was unreliable enough. Anyone who believed all that “alien equality” crap was a few planets short of a full system. In Oriana’s view the senator was a serious threat to Harmony Cluster—and the Pact itself.

A soft chime sounded. Oriana stabbed a button in the armrest of his chair. “Yes?”

“The board is seated. Commander Merikur is present, Sir.”

“Thank you, Perkins. I’ll be right there.”

###

Merikur tried to relax. He’d been through it before, but each Appointment Board was a roll of the dice. Sometimes you got something good . . . and more often than not you didn’t.

“Admiral Oriana will be here in a moment, Commander Merikur. Can I assist you with any administrative matters? Some coffee or tea perhaps?” asked the alien steward. He was a Dreed, tall willowy humanoids with a talent for languages and an instinctual understanding of administrative procedure. They had become widely prevalent within the Pact’s sagging bureaucracy.

Merikur smiled politely. “And you are?” Merikur wasn’t especially soft on aliens, but he tried to remember their names. Sometimes it paid off in information.

“Humans call me Snyder, Sir. It’s as close as they can come to the actual sound of my name.” The alien’s heavy lips curved upwards in a smile, and his liquid eyes glistened.

“Thank you Snyder. A cup of coffee would be nice.” As the alien scurried away, robes dragging on the floor behind him, Merikur took the opportunity to look around.

Light streamed in through high, arched windows to splash walls and floor. The chambers were large and richly furnished as befit a sector headquarters. Merikur sat on a chair with intricately carved legs. Facing him was a dais supporting a semicircular table. It was carved from a wood so dark it was almost black. Behind the table sat six senior officers, whispering to one another, and sometimes laughing.

Most likely comparing Nolo scores or some other equally important matter. A seventh chair stood empty.

There was only one observer in the small sections of comfortable seats to the right and left. She was beautiful and doubtless well aware of it, but by no means self-consciously sexy. Rather, she wore her looks like a set of clothes, useful but not essential. She was thirty-five or forty. He saw no rank of insignia on her naval uniform. But he sensed the aura of power around her. It was visible in her relaxed posture, her sardonic smile, and the slight nod as their eyes met.

Who was she? She had to be here because of him. Merikur stirred uneasily.

“Here you are, Sir. Cream or sugar?”

“No thank you Snyder, black is fine.” Bowing slightly, the Dreed backed away and disappeared into the service corridors which surrounded the chambers. Merikur took a sip and looked up as a chime sounded.

“All rise,” announced another Dreed, this one attired in Admiral Oriana’s livery. Shoes shuffled and papers rustled as everyone stood and turned towards the center of the room. A door opened and Admiral Oriana entered the chambers. A few quick steps and he was at the table, nodding to the other officers, and taking his chair.

“Please be seated.”

Oriana watched Merikur. Were there flaws there? Weaknesses hidden from the computers but visible to the naked eye? Merikur’s hair was prematurely white without even a trace of darker color; he wore it short and flat on top.

In contrast to his hair, Merikur’s face was darkly tanned. Not surprising since he’d just completed a tour of duty on Calvin, a desert planet in the Omega Cluster.

He’d seated himself with a certain quickness and grace. Not a born desk jockey, then. Good. He’d have damned little time for sitting at desks in the Harmony Cluster.

“Admiral?” prompted Perkins, his Dreed assistant.

Oriana waved a negligent hand. “Let the record show this session of the Naval Appointments Board is hereby called to order and all that other stuff.”

BOOK: Cluster Command: Crisis of Empire II
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